BU Joins Leading Online Course Platform edX

05.21.2013 By Rich Barlow (from BU Today)

Boston University BU, Azer Bestavros, Founding Director of the BU Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering, edX, MOOCs massive open online courses, online education, Harvard-and-MIT-led online learning platform
Azer Bestavros, who co-chairs BU’s council exploring technology and education, says the online platform edX is a perfect fit for the University. Photo by Vernon Doucette

BU has joined edX, the Harvard-and-MIT-led online learning platform that shares the University’s commitment to using technology’s benefits for students on campus as well as off. The partnership will give BU professors more flexibility in designing their courses and discerning which educational methods work best with students.

Membership obligates BU to offer five MOOCs (massive open online courses) via edX, says Jean Morrison, University provost. MOOCs typically enable people around the world to take a university class for free, sans credit. But BU and edX also espouse blended, or hybrid, courses: for-credit classes that mingle face-to-face instruction with online work, says Elizabeth Loizeaux, associate provost for undergraduate affairs and cochair of the University’s Council on Educational Technology and Learning Innovation (CETLI).

Dan O’Connell, edX spokesperson, says hybrid courses allow professors to shift time normally spent on lectures to one-on-one or small-group teaching, to field trips, or to additional lectures delving more deeply into topics. O’Connell says early results from a pilot project edX is running in California show decreased failure rates in a hybrid course, compared to the traditional classroom version.

“The hybrid model provides the best of both worlds,” says Loizeaux, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of English. “It promotes the face-to-face nature of…classroom interactions,” both students-to-teacher and between students. It simultaneously offers students “the flexibility to access content online at their own pace,” she says, while allowing faculty to use technology for “presenting information and assessing learning outcomes in ways that are not possible in a traditional classroom setting.”

BU President Robert A. Brown says he is delighted that the University is joining the edX consortium. “I am pleased to help pioneer the development of digital learning environments,” says Brown. “And I’m excited about the opportunity to use these enhanced learning tools for our residential students, and to invent new hybrid educational platforms as the next step in our ongoing significant commitment to online learning, especially for our students in graduate professional programs.”

EdX will also extend BU’s significant global reach, both by making BU professors and courses accessible to a global audience, and by increasing global connections for BU students. For example, study abroad might be enhanced by online minicourses before, during, and after the main course; online modules or courses could connect BU students with other students around the world; and online courses might even enable students whose schedules currently keep them at home to study abroad.

EdX’s ability to help professors evaluate how well students are learning course material was a big factor in BU’s choosing it over other platforms, Loizeaux says. The edX platform is designed to capture data on how students learn, she says, a capability that put it head and shoulders above other platforms BU considered, because it will aid professors in understanding which pedagogical approaches best advance student learning.

What kind of data? “We are talking about ‘big data’ from hundreds of thousands of learners,” O’Connell says. (According to edX, 700,000 students currently use its platform.) “EdX collects every click, and also, along with collaborating universities, conducts surveys throughout each course.”

The data dig deep into the digital weeds, he says. For example, says Azer Bestavros, CETLI cochair and a CAS professor of computer science, “Course evaluators can see how often a student rewinds to review parts of lectures—possibly indicating that clarifications are necessary—and also factors affecting students’ completion of courses. Such data goes beyond that available from courses offered by BU and taken by BU students.” Bestavros notes that for any hybrid courses the University develops on edX, “we will have full control regarding what we measure and how we analyze it, and…that data will not be shared with other institutions.” Only aggregated data from all edX members is shared, he says.

As a nonprofit in a field filled with for-profit competitors, edX “aligns with CETLI’s sense of values and what we believe to be BU’s best interest,” says Bestavros, who is also director of the Hariri Institute for Computing and Computational Science & Engineering.

The first hybrid courses on edX likely will be available “within the next couple of years,” Loizeaux says, while the MOOCs will be available in one year. EdX will complement, not replace, BU’s Blackboard e-learning system.

With more than 200 universities worldwide hoping for admission to edX—and with several elite institutions already in—“we are extraordinarily excited to be joining edX,” Morrison says. “It gives us the opportunity to collaborate with the consortium members on using their experience to better understand online learning.…We can learn from each other and develop best practices around higher education.”

Along with BU, edX welcomes several other institutions, including Cornell University, Davidson College, Berklee College of Music, Université catholique de Louvain (Belgium), Munich’s Technical University, the University of Washington, China’s Tsinghua University, Peking University,  Japan’s Kyoto University, the University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong University of Science & Technology, Seoul National University, Karolinska Institutet (Sweden), and the University of Queensland (Australia).

They join the founders plus the University of California, Berkeley, Rice University, the University of Texas, Wellesley College, Georgetown University, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Switzerland), Australian National University, Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands), and Canada’s McGill University and the University of Toronto.

“EdX is thrilled to welcome Boston University,” O’Connell says. Calling the University “a world-class institution with top faculty and courses,” he says the partnership will benefit both: edX will help BU “incorporate sophisticated online course work into its on-campus curriculum,” while BU “will help us extend our range” of courses reflecting “the diversity of the people on our platform.”

President Robert A. Brown created CETLI to examine developments in online education and recommend a plan for extending BU’s current technology use to enhance instruction for tuition-paying residential students. It also is to recommend ways to reach new audiences off campus who wanted to sample the University’s offerings. As part of its work, CETLI sponsored a symposium and forums this spring to discuss the issues it was considering. Through the CETLI Seed Grant program, it will also make grants to faculty to develop innovative approaches over the next year.