Education Opinion

The Village of the Boy Genius of Ulan Bator

By Justin Reich — September 15, 2013 3 min read
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Today’s New York Times has a piece from Laura Pappano, “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator,” about a Mongolian high school student who takes the first MITx course, 6.002x Circuits, gets a perfect score, and gets admitted to MIT. The story deserves additional context, because the title is somewhat misleading.

Highlighting the “boy genius” element of the story throws readers down a false trail (and to be fair to the author, editors usually choose titles). I have no doubt that Battushig Myanganbayar is a very bright and very hardworking young man—if he were to apply to be in either of my education courses next year, I’d be delighted to have him. But this isn’t a story about an individual, it’s a story of the MIT alumni network and a community of people working together to raise the quality of education in Mongolia. Myanganbayar takes the 6.002x Circuits course because his school principal, Mongolia’s first MIT grad, offers it. A PhD student from Stanford flies out to Mongolia to help run labs for ten weeks (in what must have been one of the more extreme efforts at dissertation procrastination). The story could have been called “The Boy Genius of Ulan Bator and His Very Well-Educated Mentors,” but less catchy, no?

Myanganbayar isn’t sitting alone in a Mongolian apartment taking Circuits by himself. Rather, he’s in what folks aound HarvardX have started referring to as “satellite” classes. These are classes—some sanctioned, others independent—that use edX course materials as a curricular backbone for a learning experience among a small, defined, often face-to-face cohort of students. Last year, a former Harvard Law Student organized a satellite of the CopyrightX course in Jamaica. This year, the CopyrightX is explicitly encouraging folks to create satellites, offering a little technological help to get organized, and encouraging satellites to keep in touch. I’ve heard other course teams express an interest in these kinds of models.

In these satellite models, the MOOC is not necessarily a course in and of itself, but more of a talking textbook, with autograded worksheets available in some of the science courses (CopyrightX had no autograded assignments). Many parts of the core infrastructure of these satellites—a local teacher, a space to meet, a time and structure to gather, the various curricular incentives of grades, transcripts, and diplomas— are all of those pieces of educational systems that seem so devilishly difficult to scale, improve, and transform. One way to pitch the story of the boy genius of Ulan Bator is that Mongolia can improve it’s educational system by using edX courses in it’s school system. Another way to pitch the story is that Mongolia can improve it’s educational system by hiring principals who are MIT graduates, and have them all fly their PhD graduate friends out to the country for a few months to help out. One way to pitch the story is that MOOCs will allow MIT to find the best students around the world; another way to pitch the story is that having MIT graduates in school systems around the world will allow MIT to find the best students in the world.

This story of the central role of local teachers and mentors connects as well to Sebastian Thrun’s recent claims that he and his colleagues at Udacity are close to discovering the “magic formula” for remedial math education, a formula that George Siemens describes as “a series of interventions that most masters education students would cite in literature that dates back many years, even decades.” Thrun’s non-magic formula was having students take an entirely online math course. The key to the new magic formula, is close interactions with other human beings, teachers and mentors. Thrun said, “We changed the equation and put people on the ground.” Or, one might say, he reverted the equation, and put people back on the ground, where they’ve been for a long time.

If turns out that it takes a village to raise a MOOC student (excepting those MOOC students who are already graduates of higher education), then we may find that scaling villages is more difficult than scaling the distribution of talking textbooks.

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