This fall, Georgetown University and CNDLS were honored to co-host the annual edX Global Forum, held November 8-10 on Georgetown’s campus and at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, DC. CNDLS partnered with edX to organize a successful and well-attended event, bringing together over 360 edX partner members from around the world to discuss online learning and collaboratively explore emerging trends in online education.
A Unique Opportunity
As the co-hosting university for this year’s forum, Georgetown partnered with edX to organize and plan the event. CNDLS in particular played a major role in logistical facilitation and support, seeking to partner with organizations that highlighted the innovative educational and technological landscape of Washington, DC. For the forum’s welcome reception on Sunday, CNDLS partnered with the National Academy of Sciences, a nonprofit society of scholars chartered by Congress in 1863 and charged with advising the US on science and technology. The welcome reception provided member organizations with the chance to network and hear from edX CEO Anant Agarwal and CNDLS Executive Director Eddie Maloney. On the second night, CNDLS and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) co-hosted a dinner event at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Guests were welcomed with remarks from Sharmini Coorey, Director of the IMF Institute for Capacity Development, then treated to an original arrangement by the Juilliard Jazz Artist Diploma Ensemble, highlighting the interdisciplinary nature of edX and its partner organizations.
During the conference portion of the event, Georgetown’s own Provost Robert Groves presented the welcoming address. He began by countering common skepticisms and fears surrounding MOOCs and other alternate methods of teaching. Provost Groves asserted that, rather than threatening the traditional role of a university campus, technology-based learning initiatives have enhanced learning for students both on and off campus. Particularly for Georgetown, their emergence into the mainstream has provided a positive opportunity to awaken creativity and interrupt stagnant systems of learning delivery. To demonstrate this, Provost Groves highlighted the ITEL and Global Futures initiatives, both of which are recent products of Georgetown’s partnership with edX. The culmination of 15 years of the careful study and practice of advanced pedagogical design, these initiatives have increased the incentive for faculty to adopt technology throughout university curricula. Affirming that Georgetown remains committed to MOOCs as an avenue to enhance learning for all, Provost Groves closed by proposing the audience consider the next challenge of online course development – the role data plays in improving innovative education methods – a call later echoed in discussions throughout the conference.
US Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Megan Smith followed Provost Groves as the forum’s keynote speaker. Appointed by President Obama in 2014, Smith focuses on the role of technological innovation in all parts of life in the US, including education, employment, health, and security. She spoke of her passion for capacity building and how innovative pedagogical techniques, like MOOCs and flipped classrooms, enable greater rates of participation both inside and outside of the classroom. As a strong advocate for emergent technologies, Smith shared her excitement for technology-led learning initiatives and their ability to impact access to quality educational resources.
Over the course of the Forum, attendees engaged with university leadership, faculty, and students, as well as corporate partners, on the present – and future – of online learning. A theme that surfaced among both presenters and panelists was the role MOOCs play in developing stronger relationships between student and faculty, and the important role these relationships play in both students’ overall experience in a MOOC and their academic success. Faculty are observing an increasingly higher level of engagement from students participating in MOOCs, flipped classrooms, and other innovative pedagogical techniques, and courses taught simultaneously online and on campus serve as an avenue for better dialogue and partnership between students, faculty, and third party organizations. This hybrid approach to teaching adds greater depth to a student’s experience and brings to light opportunities for research that otherwise may not have been discovered.
Echoing Provost Groves’ opening remarks, many presenters also touched on what they perceive to be a critical focus area in learning innovation: the collection and use of data to measure and improve MOOCs. Of particular note was a “lightening talk” presented by Daniel Seaton, a learning sciences researcher at Harvard University, during which he stated that course data is dismantling the idea of a typical MOOC student. Many assume the typical HarvardX student is a college educated white male, 26 years or older, but, as Seaton shared, this student profile only represents one-in-three users. In addition, 2.6% of MOOC users are from nations on the UN’s least developed countries list, a seemingly insignificant statistic that, in fact, represents over 20,000 students. Female students and high school learners also represent core audience segments.
This trend is far from being unique to Harvard. Because there is no typical student, Georgetown conducts surveys during every GeorgetownX MOOC aimed at uncovering student motivations, identities, and connections to the university. These surveys also shed light on course design and organization, course instruction, and peer interaction – in short, the range of factors contributing to student learning. Combined with edX user data, this feedback enables the university to better understand the successes of each MOOC, areas for improvement, and elements that might require more in-depth investigation and research, such as student engagement or course completion rates. A recent example of this is research into cognitive presence – the degree to which students are able to construct meaning from sustained communication – which used discussion forum posts from GeorgetownX MOOC participants to gain insight into its impact on course performance. Capturing and studying this type of data can have broad implications for both online and in-person learning, offering a better understanding of how technology facilitates effective teaching, how we should scale educational innovations, and – perhaps most importantly – how to best shape learning environments for anyone who wants to learn.