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Dec 18 2012

edX 6.00x – the MOOC that failed to scale

I haven’t written very much recently about 6.00x, because other than the lectures posted for weeks 10 and 11 (which were excellent as usual) there’s been no measurable progress to report.

At the time of the second midterm exam the course team announced that it was going to drop one of the problem sets for this presentation, with the final two problem sets (9 and 10) due to be released on 12th December and 19th December respectively.

However, it’s now 18th December and no finger exercises for weeks 10 and 11 have been issued and nor is there any sign of problem set 9. Worse, there’s been no official communication from the course team about the absence of exercises and problem sets, with the last course-wide message posted covering the breakdown of scores from the second midterm exam. There have been a couple of staff responses published in answer to predominantly  polite and constructive questions posted on the course forum, with one reply from a staff member saying that the reason for the lack of announcements was due to the difficulty of posting such information on the edX platform! Further information provided in another answer suggested that despite the rapid increase in numbers of people working on edX as a whole, there was only one person working on publishing the problem sets for 6.00x and getting the automated graders to work.

This state of affairs is a massive and negative contrast to my experience of 6.002x run earlier on this year. Lecture materials and labs were consistently published around 2 weeks ahead of the schedule, allowing the type of learner that online courses are aimed at to plan ahead around family and work commitments. I can’t remember there being any significant problems or outages with the problem graders on 6.002x either.

Perhaps the reason for the current issues with 6.00x is that the concept of edX is simply failing to scale. By that, I don’t mean that the computing platform they’re using is unable to scale – quite the opposite, with around 7,700 students having tackled at least one question on the midterm 2 exam. Rather, this experience appears to suggest that the idea itself is not capable of scaling under the auspices of a single organisation trying to run multiple courses simultaneously, all of which were originally designed for traditional (rather than online) methods of delivery. It’s also been apparent that the presence of the originator of MITx and edX, Anant Agarwal, which was so obvious during the first run of 6.002x, has had no equivalent on 6.00x. From my perspective as a student it feels that the team behind 6.00x has struggled to deliver a smooth learning experience because the effort required in course conversion and leadership had been somewhat underestimated.

It’s all very frustrating as what has been a very interesting course has been soured by these issues. edX, despite all of the goodwill surrounding it has failed (so far) to deliver 6.00x to a standard that would persuade me to try another course from them in the near future – free or otherwise.

3 comments

1 ping

  1. Nathan

    I agree with you Tim. I started during the third week, managed to catch up on the course work, and loved it until right around the second midterm. The problem set due dates had changed twice at that point and I ended up missing a problem set that I thought was due several days later. In an online learning environment, I really think that the course materials (lectures & readings – not necessarily homework/exams) should either all be available at the beginning of the course or they should be released a week or two in advance. Like many others, I work 50+ hours per week and I need to be allocated enough time to study and complete homework assignments in my leisure time. Some weeks I will have enough time to bang our 2-3 weeks worth of study, some weeks I won’t have enough time to do one. The scheduling issues have lead me to drop my studies with edX for now. I’ll be sticking with coursera and books until edX has matured a bit more.

  2. Liam

    These are some valid criticisms, but I consider it more a teething issue than a root problem. There is no reason why next year’s 6.00x can’t be delivered using much of the same material – and by staff with some experience of meeting the platform’s requirements.

    Further to this, there have been clear, real-time developments during the course. For example, Professor Terman’s second round of lectures were of a higher standard than his first ones. He has drawn from student feedback (and been praised for it). There is much more to come from this model, even if it remains a relative niche (if tens of thousands of students comprise a niche!).

    1. tim

      Hi Liam,

      Thanks for your comments. I think my main concern is around the long term sustainability of the MOOC ‘business model’. What you say about the development of 6.00x during this run of the course is true and I’m sure the next presentation will be a lot smoother. However, it costs time and money to develop these courses in the first place, as well as more money when they require updating. I think what the experience so far on 6.00x demonstrates is that it will take much more time and money to get it right than the course team had originally allowed for.

      Methods of presentation and assessment (formative and summative) that work in an online learning enviornment are not the same as those which work in a classroom setting. For example, the materials and presentation methods used by the Open University reflect these challenges as they were designed from the ground up for the online learner. In my view, these differences will mean that to be truly successful, edX courses will need to diverge further from the classroom taught course in the future, requiring yet more resources to sustain them. My biggest concern for the future scalability of the edX MOOC is therefore the absence of a self-sustaining funding model (beyond the seedcorn funding provided by the edX sponsoring institutions).

      I’d be really happy to be proved wrong, of course. Everyone likes “free”, but as with the dot com boom a decade or more ago, I fear that there will be far more casualties than successes.

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