Lectures & Meetings

Prof Sanjay Sarma’s talk on MITx and edX

Prof Sanjay Sarma, Director of Digital Learning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), gave a talk on Massive Open Online Courses(MOOCs), at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIMA) on July 4, 2013. The full profile of Prof Sarma can be found on the following MIT page.

Prof Anil K Gupta introduced Prof Sarma and talked about his original contributions to the development of RFID technology. He has also led the Tata Innovation program for Indian students in frugal design. Prof Sarma has truly revolutionised  the democratization of knowledge through MITx program which has now tied up with Harvard to launch EdX program.

Beginning with the introduction of  MITx and edX, Sanjay  highlighted that  not much has changed in the pedagogy over the years. Though academia began in the east about 2000 yrs back, the formal western education started in Bologna, Italy 1088. In these thousand odd years, the pedagogy has largely remained unchanged. Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has, nevertheless, completely transformed all other sectors.  ICT, simply, hasn’t been disruptive enough in the academia.

The new world has seen the following high technology based interventions:

Cloud  Mobile internet

Digitized products

Mass customization

Delightful design



Unbundled services


Big Ideas

Sarma cited the example of Google and Wiki. If they thought smaller, they would have probably failed.

World of innovations and  Internet of things have changed the way we imagine life today. But in education, blackboards, printed text books, digital content etc., have been only few innovations


How edX came into being?

Prof Sarma, mentioned  that in 2010/11, MIT was contemplating simulation a professor – a robot professor! They thought that the students have limited attention span.  They have to be engaged. In lectures they do not engaged enough. These robot professors would deliver the lectures at the student’s own time. The class however, would be used to do something experiential, something that greatly adds value onto a monologic lecture. He pointed out that there is enough evidence that videos work well in pedagogy. The ideal attention span of a student is 10-15 minutes. The challenge lies in how to compress the class to 15 mins- how to get the right screenplay for this long anthology!

An online class at Edx  involves

1.      Social Networks   

As a part of this initiative, forums were designed for the instructor to interact with students. However, students started answering each other’s questions. Some students gave the wrong answers but someone soon corrected them. The forum lay bare the progression of thought and hence, elucidated concepts more than an actual answer from a Professor would.

2. Automatic  Grading and 

3. Simulations

Accurate simulations and grading enable a large number of students’ queries  to be processed.

The Impact

What was initially done in the class was now a prerequisite in classroom education. Hence the discussion in the classroom was elevated a notch higher. And for the have-nots- for those couldn’t be in a classroom – the online material itself was of much greater quality than they could get elsewhere.

EdX has flipped the classrooms. Discussion that used to happen in the classroom, now came onto the blog and the discussion in the classrooms now was greatly enhanced as the professor now got a much greater bandwidth than a regular lecture could give him.

Some fascinating things emerged out of this approach. Prof Sarma gave an example of how graphic equalizers became a great way of teaching signal processing. He conceded that his initial suspicion was that the online method was a compromise. However, experience over many areas proved it to be a much better alternative.

The New Pedagogy

Automatic grading is a step towards moving the role of Professor beyond  typical grading system. The role of a professor is much beyond grading easily programmable class work. MIT had also launched a Meta-MOOC for training teachers.

This whole initiative took 15 months, in which time 1 million students from 192 countries were educated.


Prof Sarma conceded that the average age of active students is about 31 years. On comparisons with IGNOU, Sarma conceded that IGNOU has been a great success story. However, edX is trying to cater to a much younger age group. Though MOOCs have ended up serving an age group closer to that of IGNOU they are going after the  younger age group in a more concerted way.

Prof Sarma also recommended the following links:

Mitch Resnick and lifelong kindergarten 

NPtel Prof V Balakrishnan of IIT Madras


Prof  Sanjay Sarma can be reached at: sesarma[at]mit[dot]edu

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