Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead (Chronicle)

Are Courses Outdated? MIT Considers Offering ‘Modules’ Instead (Chronicle)

August 5, 2014 by 

People now buy songs, not albums. They read articles, not newspapers. So why not mix and match learning “modules” rather than lock into 12-week university courses?

That question is a major theme of a 213-page report released on Monday by a committee at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology exploring how the 153-year-old engineering powerhouse should innovate to adapt to new technologies and new student expectations.

“The very notion of a ‘class’ may be outdated,” the report argues. That line appears in the context of online courses, but one of the report’s authors, Sanjay Sarma, who leads MIT’s experiments with massive open online courses, said in an email interview that the sentiment could apply to in-person settings as well.

Students want to pick and choose.
The end-of-the-class-as-we-know-it claim is based in part on an analysis of students who took free online courses offered through edX, the online-learning nonprofit organization that MIT and Harvard each invested $30-million to kick-start. The committee found that, of more than 800,000 people who registered for free courses, only about 5 percent finished. Skeptics of MOOCs point to such low completion rates as a problem with the format.

But the professors on the MIT committee that drafted the report argue that the numbers show that larger percentages explored significant parts of courses, which may be all they wanted or needed. “This in many ways mirrors the preferences of students on campus,” they wrote. “In a survey of students, approximately 40 percent of respondents report that they have taken MIT classes that they feel would benefit from modularization.”

The report imagines a world in which students can take online courses they assemble themselves from parts they find online. “Much like a playlist on iTunes, a student could pick and choose the elements of a calculus or a biology course offered across the edX platform to meet his or her needs,” it says.

Among the benefits noted in the report:

  • Students could retake any module they have trouble with before moving to the next concept in a sequence.

  • A modular approach would make it easier for professors to teach a course together, since faculty members could tackle a section rather than a whole course.

  • Updating a module when new information emerges is easier than redesigning an entire course.

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