The edX Platform: A Critical Examination as Viewed Through the Lens of the 7 Principles
By Mark A. Bates
Guest Post: Mark A. Bates | 07.25.2015
This article presents the results of a critical examination of the edX platform in respect to its ability to facilitate online best practices for professional education and graduate studies (Bates, 2015). To that end, existing and planned functionality will be assessed against the recommendations of Chickering and Ehrmann’s Implementing the 7 Principles: Technology as Lever (1996).
In May 2013, MIT and Harvard launched EdX, a non-profit open source learning platform (openedX.org) and web portal (edX.org) offering Massive Online Open Courses (xMOOCs) similar to its for-profit competitors; Udacity and Coursera (for-profit) (EdX, 2015b) (MIT News Office, 2012). xMOOCs are characterized as online education courses that are usually, often do not require any prerequisites, are typically housed within a learning management system, have a very large number of students, are open to learners globally and accessible online twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. xMOOCs typically are structured to guide students through content using a combination of video lectures, quizzes, readings and social interaction via discussion forums, as well as, utilize automated or self and peer-graded evaluations (Welsh & Dragusin, 2013; Claros, Garmendia, Echeverria, & Cobos, 2014; Liyanagunawardena, Adams, & Williams, 2013).
Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, EdX continues to be governed by MIT and Harvard with the aim to “become a learning resource for learners and learning worldwide” by staying committed to its goals: “Expand access to education for everyone, Enhance teaching and learning on campus and online, [and] Advance teaching and learning through research.” (EdX, 2015a). In addition, EdX conducts research on how students learn, online teaching methods and impact of educational technology use both in the traditional brick and mortar classroom and online.
Today, EdX offer online courses from 36 universities, NGOs, foundations, businesses and organizations which work collaboratively and comprise the consortium. EdX’s remains in start-up mode, and apart from the initial funding of 30 million contributed by each Harvard and MIT revenue is generated through various affiliate partner models (Kolowich, 2013).
Management and administration of EdX falls to three groups including the Leadership Team, headed from the beginning by Chief Executive Officer Anant Agarwal who, amongst various achievements, has great experience with computer technology as a professor at MIT and entrepreneur. In addition to a Leadership Team, EdX is also supported by a Board of Directors comprised mainly of representatives of MIT and Harvard (EdX, 2015d). More diversity is seen within the final group, the University Advisory Board, which has broader global institutional representation across North America, Europe and Australia (EdX, 2015c).
Certain tools are available to assist organizations to better keep pedagogy in the forefront when selecting technology such as Chickering and Ehrmann’s (1996) 7 Principles. These principles are a means to ensure technology is being used in the most cost effective and appropriate ways to advance learning outcomes or tasks such as; 1. Encourages contact between students and faculty, 2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, 3. Uses active learning techniques, 4. Gives prompt feedback, 5. Emphasises time on task, 6. Communicates high expectation, and 7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning. By utilizing this type of tool, a methodical and replicable process can be applied to compare different platform technologies in a way that goes beyond a simple comparison of features and tools.
The initial research involved a three stage review of: 1) available online documentation as provided publically by edX on edx.org and open.edx.org, 2) including several edX courses (edx, 2015u; edX, 2015v; edX, 2015q) and Charter Members (Berkeley University of California, 2015; Cornell University, 2015; Harvard University, 2015) , 3) and various public websites as a result of keyword searches using Google. After the review was completed and affordances noted, the article was then structured as follows with each principle, along with a brief overview, is presented and how the affordances of the EdX platform either are or have the potential to promote that principle.. However, given that there were overlaps between some of the features and principles, attempts have been made to make note of these occurrences and then a best fit was completed to conform to the paper’s overall structure.
One of the affordances of EdX is its ability to be used creatively, which makes its evaluation difficult as it is beyond this article’s scope to present all variations. In addition, only a small sample of courses were reviewed for this article and, as such, the results of this examination cannot be viewed as indicative of all edX courses. Some courses will do a more effective job than others of utilizing the affordances available via the edX platform. Also given the limited scope of this investigation, only those features that can directly be related and support the 7 Principles have been described. Some of the affordances presented are obvious in nature while others run in the background as part of the overall design and might not even be visible to the instructor. Unless otherwise noted, the affordances noted are existing and currently active on the edX platform. Therefore the findings and observations presented are general in nature and are a starting point for further investigation.
Overview of principle. Contact between students and faculty is a key factor for increased learner motivation and involvement within a course. This interaction can be strengthened through the affordances provided by an online environment. The nature of contact can take several forms including the sharing of useful resources, discussion leading to joint problem solving and shared learning. In online environments such as MOOCs, various aspects of the instructor’s role in the communication process can be undertaken by a student or peers as a means to counter constraints.
Affordances found within EdX which promote principle. Courses created for EdX, can support good practice encouraging contacts between students and faculty by:
Overview of principle. As with encouraging contact between students and the instructor, the development of reciprocity and cooperation among students is important as it deepens the learner’s understanding with the sharing of thoughts and feeling as they respond to others. Courses should be designed that provide students with access to communication tools that facilitate activities that promote interaction, collaboration, discussion and group problem solving. In an online environment, geographic location is not as limited with the use of collaborative tools such as texting, email, chat and social media.
Affordances within EdX which promote principle. Courses created for EdX, can support good practice developing reciprocity and cooperation among students by:
Overview of principle. With proper and thoughtful selection, technology can have positive effects for the learning community and support other best practices such as encourage active learning (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996) and appeal to greater learning styles (Tonsing-Meyer, 2013; McGee & Reis, 2012). Active learning occurs when students are provided opportunities to talk about their learning, write in a reflective manner, relate learning to past experiences and do so in a way that is relevant so that they can apply it to their daily lives. To encourage active learning, an instructor must make available tools and resources that promote learning by doing, offer time-delayed exchange as well as real time conversation to take place between learning community members.
Affordances within EdX which promote principle. Courses created for EdX, can support good practice use active learning techniques by:
Overview of principle. The amount and type of feedback required by students is seen as a continuum. Initially, students need help assessing knowledge and competency, later they require frequent opportunities to perform learned tasks and get feedback and finally, they need the opportunity to reflect on what they still need to know and how best to get there. There are many types of technologies that support feedback such as email, simulations, video recordings of learner performance, editing and commenting tools like those found in Google Docs and MS Word, and portfolios.
Affordances within EdX which promote principle. Courses created for EdX, can support good practice for prompt feedback for students such as:
Overview of Principle. For graduate students and those accessing professional education, time management is an important consideration when taking a course as it plays a primary role in achieving an acceptable form of work-life balance. Students can become more efficient in the management of their time with access to various types of technologies and support through teaching strategies.
Affordances within EdX which promote principle. Courses created for EdX, can support good practice emphasizing time on task.
Overview of principle. Chickering and Ehrman (1996) indicate that “expecting [all] students to perform well becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy” but the expectations must be made explicit and clear to students. Learners can only hit targets which can be seen. Technology can be used in a variety of ways to communicate expectations from providing details on how student work will be evaluated, provision of product and performance exemplars, to publishing student work online.
Affordances within EdX which promote principle. Courses created for EdX, can support good practice communicating high expectations. EdX uses agreements between itself and the potential student as a means of communicating and seeking compliance regarding high expectations. From the beginning, and at the base level, these documents attempt to weed out any students who question the responsibilities expected of them or edX. In short, they are told if they don’t understand or agree to follow what is stated then they are not to use the site.
There are 3 key documents that communicate high expectations:
Overview of principle. Students should be given opportunity to use their preferred learning style in completion of assignments and accessing of content but also be challenged to develop others with the goal of being better rounded as a learner. Technology should not only allow for customization of the types of assignments students complete but allow for self-paced movement through the course and means to form social groups with similar goals, motivations and skills.
Affordances within EdX which promote principle. Courses within edX, can support good practice respecting diverse talents and ways of learning.
Constraints tend to fall into those found and facing all MOOC providers such as ensuring equity, access and mobility to all students. Given this is an examination of the edX platform and not a single course produced by it, there were few constraints of note after completing the examination focusing on affordances.
Overall, the edX platform fares well in respect to its ability to facilitate online best practices for professional education and graduate studies (Bates, 2015) when its existing and planned functionality was assessed against the recommendations of the 7 Principles (Chickering & Ehrmann, 1996).
EdX is a tool, and like any, can be used skillfully be some and poorly by others. That said, edX does provide a solid list of features and resources that, when used according to best practice, advance the seven principles and have positive impact on student learning. However, for a course developed on edX, it needs to be a collaborative process where all stakeholders uphold professional standards for learning. This requires participating schools and partners to develop and put forward courses that utilizes all the available affordances, students participating in a manner that correlates with the level of education being sought, and the platform provider continuing to produce a product that is aligned with professional and pedagogical excellence.
Mark A. Bates is a life long Maritimer who grew up in Nova Scotia and now resides in Quispamsis, New Brunswick. He is an educator with ten years experience, mainly at the elementary level, teaching in Saint John with the Anglophone South School District.