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.

Battushig Myanganbayar at MIT
Battushig Myanganbayar at MIT

Courtesy of Jeffrey R. Young

This article is part of Future Tense, which is a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Wednesday, April 30, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., on technology and the future of higher education. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Over the past year, a boy genius from Mongolia has been schooling MIT on how to improve the elite institution’s free online courses.

When he was just 15, the Mongolian wunderkind Battushig Myanganbayar earned a perfect score in MIT’s first massive open online course, or MOOC. Designers of the course touted him as a poster boy for the power of free courses to spread high-quality education to the farthest reaches of the globe, and the New York Times hailed his story. But leaders of edX, the consortium started by MIT and Harvard University to develop free online courses, also did something else: They offered the star student a job, hoping he could make their MOOCs work better for other high schoolers.

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As it turns out, edX needed the help. Despite the hope that courses from name-brand universities would draw students from high schools and less-selective colleges, some 70 percent of people taking edX courses already hold a college degree. MOOCs today are primarily serving the education haves, not disadvantaged learners.

“That certainly surprised me,” said Anant Agarwal, the CEO of edX and the instructor of the course Myanganbayar aced. “I expected more people who were in college [and high school],” he added. “We’re looking to change a few things to increase that number.” (Other MOOC providers have seen similar demographic trends, he notes.)

Bringing Myanganbayar in as an employee, though, raised tricky visa issues. But his high school principal in Mongolia, himself an MIT grad, suggested a hack: apply to MIT as a student, then work on MOOCs as a student job.

And that’s exactly what Myanganbayar did. Today, at age 17, he is finishing up his freshman year at MIT, where he has shared his critique of existing MOOCs.

Agarwal remembers a meeting where Myanganbayar gave a presentation to his staff as part of a series of meetings with MOOC students. “More than half of edX was in the room listening to him, glued to his every word,” he said. Their biggest question: How did Myanganbayar master the material in the MOOC, based on a sophomore-level MIT course on circuits and electronics, without having taken the prerequisites that cover concepts such as differential equations? There was nothing dumbed-down about the circuits course, known in MIT’s cryptic course catalog as 6.002x, but Myanganbayar was one of only 340 to ace it out of about 150,000 registered students.

The edX staff learned that Myanganbayar spent about a quarter of the time he invested in the class scouring the Web for supplementary material, essentially using free websites to teach himself the high-level math he needed.

“We certainly took that lesson from him and others to heart,” said Agarwal. “We began to create tutorials for some key concepts that students might not know.”

It turns out the lesson fit a pattern. Though edX aimed to reach the world, its initial courses were designed for the people professors at MIT and Ivy-caliber partners know best—the ultraqualified students they’re accustomed to teaching in their hallowed halls.

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