Information, Technology & Consulting

On Joining edX

Dartmouth announced today that it has joined edX, the nonprofit online learning platform founded by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Here, Director of Academic Computing Alan Cattier shares his thoughts on the decision.

There is always an attendant excitement when a new technology announcement is made. Today’s news of Dartmouth electing to join the edX consortium is one of these moments, but I’d like to take the occasion to focus on it as a pedagogical moment as opposed to a technological one.

The first question one might ask is, Why make the distinction knowing that the two are irretrievably linked together? And the reason is to remind ourselves that everything about technology influences the moment. That is, the software that provides the environment for teaching online, the data collection that allows us to better understand the experience of the learner, the tools that allow students to collaborate with each other over great distances; all of these are an always-evolving codebase as Dartmouth begins with the edX consortium. In a technological life cycle, I think we’re at a very early moment in the evolution of these tools, and as such, our interaction with them is all about learning—learning ourselves, through experimentation—what these technologies might provide in the learning environments of the future.

And if it is everything about technology influencing the moment, it is always teachers and students that make the moment. That seems a critical distinction to make because it ties the choice to experiment online to the long tradition of innovating in pursuit of excellence in the classroom—something that Dartmouth has always held as its mission. In this sense, online is a variation on classroom design and discussion boards, a permutation of the seminar table, in pedagogical approaches that emerge from the technologies that teachers choose for their learning environment.

But make no mistake about it: this moment is pedagogically unique. First, it is Dartmouth’s opportunity to experiment within a pedagogical approach that grows from and is built for the global intranet. Before efforts like edX and Coursera, we simply didn’t have the tools (or the connected learners) to imagine a potential classroom this large or a community of learners this diverse, all engaged in the pursuit of a common course. That is surely an exciting pedagogical development, especially for institutions such as Dartmouth that want to have students and faculty ask questions that are truly world-changing. The second reason is that as much as online environments look like their pedagogical power is in distributing content, it is not. Their true innovation is in offering a network of systems for forming ad hoc communities of learners, who might be looking at local questions just as easily as the global ones. Whether it is a community of students, alumni, neighbors, or visitors, they all can be potentially welcome if they are interested to enter this new shapeshifting digital classroom. The world, as they say, is outside the door.

Further Reading: Q&A with Cattier and Josh Kim, director of digital learning programs.

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