The Path to Being a Scientist Doesn’t Have to Be So Narrow

A radical new college model could change the rigged obstacle course of the world’s education system, expanding opportunity for millions of students

Anant Agarwal
edX founder Anant Agarwal creates a tablet-based lecture. Courtesy of EdX

When Anant Agarwal was a young man, he entered the most competitive college admissions tournament in the world. Every year, nearly half a million students compete for only 10,000 spots in the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology. Agarwal was one of the victorious few, and earned a bachelor’s degree from IIT Madras. From there he climbed further up the mountain of science achievement, earning a PhD from Stanford and eventually becoming the director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT. It was the pinnacle of his profession and a model for how scientists have traditionally been selected and trained.

Then, last year, he walked away from it all and became president of a new organization, edX, that could upend many of that model’s assumptions. EdX is a nonprofit coalition of universities, led by Harvard and MIT, that is developing high-quality online courses in science, math, law, humanities and much more–and then giving them away, for free, to anyone in the world with an Internet connection and a desire to learn.  

The classes offered by edX are known, colloquially, as MOOCS, or massive open online courses. Other MOOC providers include the Silicon Valley startup Coursera, which has enrolled 3.6 million students over the last year in courses created by a range of elite universities, and Udacity, founded by Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award Winner Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford professor and artificial intelligence pioneer who also leads the Google team designing self-driving cars.

Their classes are also free and becoming widely adopted. This radical democratization of learning could have far-reaching effects on science education, increasing the number of talented, hard-working people who fill crucial roles in science, technology, engineering and math.

Becoming a scientist takes talent and hard work. This is true regardless of how science education is organized. But the current process in America and elsewhere represents a less extreme version of the gantlet that Anant Agarwal traversed from India to MIT—a series of unforgiving hurdles that escalate in height the farther a student travels. Trip over any one of them and the odds of finishing the race become long.

Many American students are all but knocked out of the race toward a graduate science degree before their 13th birthday. To get on the advanced math track in high school, you need to complete algebra in the eighth grade. This is standard practice in affluent communities but rare to nonexistent in many low-income schools. Then students must advance through calculus—another subject more available to the privileged—by their senior year of high school. Then they must navigate the complex college admissions process and come up with an increasingly large amount of money to pay tuition. Then they have to slog through huge, impersonal freshman lecture courses that are designed to weed students out. Only then can the few students who remain advance toward science careers.

Agarwal illustrated this process for me recently as we sat in the edX offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He took off his glasses and folded the arms upward so the ends met in a point, forming a triangle with the vertex pointing toward the ceiling. The current system is a funnel, he said. We let only a tiny number of students through a very narrow aperture, represented by the vertex. Then we open up a world of opportunity to them, represented by the widening space in the triangle as the sides extend down toward the base.

Edx, he said, is “flipping the funnel.” With that, he turned his glasses triangle upside down, so the vertex was pointing toward the floor and the wide base was on top. The metaphorical point of access had increased in width a thousand-fold. Anyone in the world who can find a computer and an Internet connection can now take MIT-level science courses that are designed with the same level of sophistication and rigor as the classes taught to students on campus. Those who pass the courses get a certificate from MITx, the university’s edX subsidiary, attesting to their achievement. As students complete sequences of courses in given subject areas, much like a college major, MITx will issues certificates attesting to that, too.

The first MITx class, Circuits and Electronics, was designed by Agarwal himself. Of the many thousands of students who enrolled, only a handful got a perfect score on the final exam. One of them was a 15-year old resident of Ulan Bator, Mongolia,  named Battushig Myanganbayar. A science enthusiast, Battushig hadn’t been headed toward the small end of the funnel, because there aren’t any IITs or MITs in Mongolia. In March, he was accepted by both MIT and the University of California at Berkeley, at age 16.

Two miles up the road from MIT in Cambridge, Harvard is building its own courses under the Harvardx brand. Robert Lue, a molecular and cellular biologist, is leading Harvard faculty to create new educational resources for the world. Not surprisingly, he thinks of higher education as an organism. “Our environment is changing,” Lue says, “and we need to evolve.” 

As edX, Coursera, Udacity and others build libraries of thousands of free courses in the next few years, stories like Battushig’s will multiply. There is a vast and growing global middle class of aspirant learners who lack access to traditional paths to science education. Rather than restrict the flow of potential scientists to channels that are narrowed and distorted by inequalities of wealth and class, many more of the world’s Battushigs will have a fair chance of demonstrating their potential and achievement.

In other words, students will realize the benefits of science education in a way that is far more scientific than ever before. There are still challenges to overcome, particularly in giving students using non-traditional online learning models full credit for their achievements. Existing colleges and universities enjoy a privileged position in the educational hierarchy and some may not be eager to open their doors so widely. Evolution, after all, is hardly a painless process.

But in the long run, technology will help deliver world-class learning opportunities to many more students than receive them today. The insights and innovations that flow to all of humanity from science will grow accordingly. 

Kevin Carey directs the education policy program for the New America Foundation and writes frequently about higher education.

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