C&B Notes

From Mongolia to M.I.T.

The story of Battushig Myanganbayar, a 17-year-old Mongolian, highlights how Massive Open Online Courses provide widespread, global access to previously unavailable educational opportunities (the wireless infrastructure that enable all of this is increasingly important, as well).  Interestingly, the approach used to supplement this MOOC with lab activities brought new ideas on how to address one of the biggest perceived weaknesses of online education: a lack of interactive, hands-on learning.

Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager.  He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT).  His projects are what make him happy.  “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said.  “It is like playing with toys.”   He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube.  The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities.  Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university.

How does a student from a country in which a third of the population is nomadic, living in round white felt tents called gers on the vast steppe, ace an M.I.T. course even though nothing like this is typically taught in Mongolian schools?  The answer has to do with Battushig’s extraordinary abilities, of course, but also with the ambitions of his high-school principal.  Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, the principal of the Sant School, was the first Mongolian to graduate from M.I.T., in 2009, and he has tried since then to bring science and technology labs to his students.  “My vision,” he told me, “is to have more skilled engineers to develop Mongolia.  To do that, everything has to start from the beginning.”  In the past decade, Mongolia, which had limited landlines, invested heavily in its information technology infrastructure and now has an extensive 3G network.  Most homes in Ulan Bator have Internet connections, and almost everyone, including nomads, has at least one cellphone.  Even on the steppe, with only sheep in sight, you can get a signal.

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Zurgaanjin had students watch the Circuits and Electronics MOOC lectures at home, just like thousands around the world, but he wanted to supplement them with real-world labs.  Tony Kim, a college friend working on his Ph.D. in electrical engineering at Stanford, agreed to visit Mongolia for 10 weeks and guide students through the labs using real equipment.  Kim brought three suitcases of electronics supplies, immediately making his classroom one of the best-equipped labs in the entire country.  Because the class was not approved by the ministry of education, students had to take it in addition to their regular courses.  Battushig persuaded his parents to upgrade the Internet speed at their home from 1 megabit per second to 3 (the average in the United States is 8.6) to make it easier to watch the lectures…

In the past year and a half, more than 100 schools, including Harvard, Caltech and the University of Texas, have invested millions of dollars in MOOCs.  Many in higher education believe that these courses can make a quality education more affordable and accessible to far more students and eventually provide additional revenue streams for the universities that offer them.  Critics, though, argue that MOOCs threaten the economic survival of nonelite colleges and are an inadequate replacement for the teaching and support of live professors.  Anant Agarwal, a professor of Circuits and Electronics and the president of edX, a MOOC platform started last year by M.I.T. and Harvard, said that seeing Kim and Zurgaanjin combine his online lectures with in-person teaching spurred edX to help organize 20 such “blended” classes.  “It was extraordinarily creative,” he said.  “It changed the way I think.”