It was a high school math teacher who managed to wake up in Anant Agarwal (Mangalore, India, 1959) the hunger to learn. Two words define this professor, who teaches electrical engineering and computer science at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): innovative and enterprising. These two facets are combined in his role as founder and head of edX, a platform of courses on-line -The so-called MOOC, massive, open and free-that MIT and Harvard University jointly launched in 2012. The premise? Bringing the knowledge of the great universities of the world to any student who was in possession of a computer and a large dose of curiosity, regardless of their age, their origin or their educational level.
Since then, almost 18 million students have gone through edX virtual classrooms, offering 2,000 courses from 130 institutions around the world (including three Spanish universities) in practically all branches of knowledge: science, humanities, languages, economy … Six years after the MOOC broke into the educational landscape, Agarwal takes stock of the pending challenges of a model, in its free origins, that moves towards a new scenario: that of offering master's degrees and even university degrees taught totally on-line, while aspiring to also enter conventional and face-to-face education. For the moment, edX has already begun to offer micromassers and professional certification courses, designed to develop the skills that the labor market demands the most. The professor, who last week was in Madrid to participate in the conference Learning with MOOCs, held at the UNED, draws a triangle between learning, technology and work to draw what, in his opinion, will be the future of education.
Question. In his talks, he often points out that even though we live immersed in a digital transformation, that revolution has not yet reached education. Ensures that we continue teaching and learning in the same way that decades ago. What do you blame?
Answer. The change always begins slowly, until it reaches a point of inflection in which it becomes drastic. In education we have not yet reached that point, there have not been significant significant improvements in several centuries, although technology has advanced dramatically in the last 30 or 40 years. Take the MOOC as an example. They appeared on the scene for the first time in 2011 as a way to transform education through technology. Suddenly, we could take education on a global scale, but also significantly increase the quality of teaching and the level of interaction of each student. However, MOOCs have not spread as much in higher education. Digital education is still scratching the surface, even in the most innovative universities in the world. I launch a challenge to the educational community: that in 2022, 20% of the classes offered on campuses can be totally followed on-line.
P. Why is the change in education so slow? Is this the case at all training levels?
R. The change is always complicated at first. However, it is true that in higher education and professional training the teaching on-line It is growing rapidly. In edX, for example, we launched the first micromaster three years ago and today we have more than 50. At the university and graduate levels, learning on-line it is close to that turning point, but in primary and secondary education there is still time to get there.
P. How do you see the future of education in 10 or 20 years?
R. One of the most important trends will be continuous or lifelong learning. Currently, you go to college for four years, then you get a job and you stop studying. But the future of employment is changing completely. In 2030, half of the jobs that exist today will have disappeared and we will have to change to new jobs. We will therefore have to improve our skills. That is going to be a very important concept. Lifelong learning and improving skills are, in my opinion, the future of employment and, therefore, the future of education. A very important focus of work for us in edX is to create the kind of courses that people need to improve their skills … something that if you are working, it is very difficult to do through a complete degree, which requires you to go to university one or two years
P. Do companies really value the titles and training that is acquired through a MOOC course?
R. Yes, of course, more and more. At Microsoft there are 20,000 employees doing MOOC courses. And recently I gave a talk on Visa, in India, and there were some 300 or 400 people in the audience, all of them young employees. I asked them: how many of you have made a MOOC? Almost all raised their hands. In these companies, everyone is doing this type of course. And it is something that companies also value when hiring.
P. A common criticism of MOOCs are high dropout rates. According to a study by edX itself, only 5.5% of students who start a course get certified. Is it a model failure?
R. That is to observe only the symptom. When a student goes to college, he has to pay before he starts. There is also an admission process, you usually leave home and move to a campus elsewhere and once you are there, if you have started studying you do not like it, you can not go home after one or two months because we call that a failure. But MOOCs are much more flexible. You can follow them at your own pace, learn practically for free, drop them when you want, start another or start several … The reason why many students do not complete MOOCs is precisely because of that flexibility. But if you look at the students who start the courses with the aim of obtaining a certification, the percentage of passes is between 60% and 80%.
P. What are the main challenges of education on-line?
R. Students on campus already ask for more classes on-line, combined with face-to-face education. But this type of teaching has not grown so much because the universities are still concerned about the change. They wonder what it will mean, if the education will have the same quality, if there will be the same level of interaction with the students … There are several universities with which I have contact in which I know that those responsible are very satisfied because they are able to offer one , two or even three courses totally on-line to his students. But it is the teachers who voluntarily have to create those courses. And the teachers are busy doing research or teaching. That is the challenge.
P. Insists on the usefulness of MOOCs as a valuable tool also for traditional education. And some Spanish universities, for example, are using them within their face-to-face classes to innovate in content and methodology.
R. MOOCs are a first step: teachers create courses and offer them on-line to students from all over the world. The second step is for teachers to use them in a model blended, in which they use the MOOC to help themselves in the classroom. At MIT, for example, 99% of students access content on-line through edX as part of their class work. In this way, in some universities, learning on-line It has become an important part of education. I would like the centers to go one step further and offer some courses entirely on-line to their face-to-face students. That way they would reach a new level of flexibility.
P. What space is left for face-to-face education? Should it still be relevant? Especially taking into account the current context, in which the labor market increasingly demands certain personal skills (communication, group work …) that usually take place in face-to-face contact.
R. The question on the table is whether education on-line it will replace classroom teaching. I think we should learn the lessons of the sector retail, which has taken the omnichannel route. Amazon, for example, the store on-line The largest in the world, has bought Whole Foods, a chain whose strength is in its physical stores. At the same time, Walmart goes digital. The sector retail Adopts omnichannel because consumers seek that experience, both on-line as physics. Similarly, education will follow the same path. The on-line It brings a high degree of flexibility, especially to those who are working … and at the same time, the face-to-face experience is also important. I think the model blended It is the future of education.