What MIT Learned From a Mongolian Teenager Who Aced a Tricky Online Class

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April 23 2014 12:21 PM

The Student Becomes the Teacher

What MIT learned from a Mongolian teenager who aced a MOOC.

(Continued from Page 1)

Myanganbayar isn’t your typical online student, as I learned when I sat down with him in his dormitory common room earlier this year. He avoids activities that he considers wastes of time. “I don’t like to read literature books because they seem useless,” he says, explaining why he has avoided Harry Potter and other distractions. Wearing shorts and an “I [heart] MIT” T-shirt, he said that he took the MIT MOOC not because it was from a famous college, but because the intro video for it promised that it would teach him to understand how iPhones work. He was fascinated.

He also had some old-fashioned help. His principal had invited Tony Kim, a graduate of Stanford University, to lead daily help sessions at Myanganbayar’s high school to supplement the online course. So essentially, Myanganbayar’s MOOC had a really good teaching assistant—not a perk offered to the other 149,990-some people in the class

Myanganbayar breezed through the MOOC without doing any of the readings. He skipped them in part because he was too busy, but also because the material was in English, and he describes his language skills then as “terrible.” And to save time, he says he watched two video lectures at the same time, simultaneously reading the subtitles on one of them while listening to the audio from the other. He admits that “sounds pretty strange,” which is tough to contest, though many other MOOC students admit to watching lectures at double-speed.

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He also did something else that few MOOC students take on: He produced his own lecture videos, in Mongolian, to help his classmates. “I developed my own technique to do mini-lectures by myself,” he explains. He propped his iPhone on a bookshelf and used its camera to film overhead video of his pen on the page as he completed homework problems and explained his work aloud.

Myanganbayar’s personal interest in online teaching led him to apply for a job as a research assistant to help develop MOOCs at MIT, working with the Scheller Teacher Education Program on three courses it is building for release through edX. He reported to work at the program’s offices in the MIT Media Lab, in the Lego-looking building designed by I.M. Pei. One of his missions was to produce a report on what he thought worked and didn’t work in current MOOCs, after investigating various MOOC platforms, including competitors Udacity and Coursera.

“He had plenty of suggestions,” says Ilana Schoenfeld, an education content manager at the program. One point he stressed was the need for better ways for students to teach one another, like he did with his homemade lecture videos, and discuss course content. “He was very into the community piece of it,” she added.

Sanjay Sarma, who leads MIT's MOOC efforts, does not know Myanganbayar, but he says that one thing the institute has learned from the experiences of online students is the need for “modularity”—the ability to take courses in manageable pieces. “Many students drop a MOOC not because of a lack of grit, but because of the logistics of life,” he said. “If you’re a 27-year-old student and your kid falls sick, you’re likely to drop out of the course. It’s clear that modularity will help there.” MIT recently tried a few half-semester courses through edX and plans to offer more. “We’re considering a one-week class,” he added.

Myanganbayar is a true believer that MOOCs can improve access to college, but he is clearly enjoying his time as an in-person student. He has joined a few student groups, and he likes that people casually discuss math in the dining hall. But he is much farther from home than he ever expected to be before taking the electronics course online. “The hard part about being a college student,” he said, “is you miss your family.”

Jeffrey R. Young is the technology editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the e-book Beyond the MOOC Hype: A Guide to Higher Education's High-Tech Disruption.

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