UC Berkeley joins edX: Q&A avec EECS junior Brittany Cheng

edX, a Harvard/MIT/Berkeley online learning collaborative initiative


UC Berkeley recently joined Harvard and MIT in their non-profit online learning collaborative, edX.  PhD students and undergrads from Berkeley have been working on developing the open source software for this online course platform along with the folks from edX.  Berkeley will offer two classes on edX this coming fall: Artificial Intelligence and Software as a Service.

This summer, Brittany Cheng, a UC Berkeley junior studying Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is working as a UI designer at edX. She is especially interested in the intersection of design, computer science, and education. berkeleyByte recently had the opportunity to get her perspective about working in online education, edX, and the differences between Berkeley and Cambridge, MA.

bB: How did you become involved in this project?
BC: I had worked as a user interface (UI) designer for two startups in the education space during my freshman summer and most of sophomore year, so I had become relatively familiar with much of the work that is going on in the online education world. In late February, I had just parted ways from a startup and was looking for opportunities in Berkeley when an e-mail arrived that seemed like exactly what I was looking for: Professors Pieter Abbeel and Dawn Song from UC Berkeley were leading an effort to design and build an open source online course platform, had a development team already working on the implementation, and were looking for a UI designer to help with the frontend and design of the platform. I responded to the e-mail, found some friends from Berkeley Innovation (a human-centered design organization that I co-lead) who were also interested in the project, and together we helped with some UI design consulting throughout the rest of the semester.

When the semester ended, I began to work full time on the project with a development team led by EECS graduate student Arjun Singh. We had been keeping tabs on various other massive open online course projects that were going on at other universities, such as edX, and a few administrative officials had also been interested in our project as a potential part of the overall vision for online education at Berkeley. After several weeks of discussion, it was decided that edX, the non-profit joint venture of Harvard and MIT, was most aligned with the online education goals of UC Berkeley, and our team was flown over to Cambridge to join the development team at edX.

bB: What is your role and what is a typical day of work like?  What do you work on?
BC: I am a user interface designer, so I work primarily with the UC Berkeley development team to design and build the online experience for students and professors using edX. A typical day of work involves drinking lots of tea (the edX office has a coffee and hot water machine) while thinking through and creating a student experience for a specific part of the site. For example, what does the student’s social experience look like, since the class is entirely online? How can the student get help if he or she needs it while solving a homework problem? I start out by sketching ideas and creating basic mockups of screens in Balsamiq, a low-fidelity prototyping tool. Then, after talking through and testing the user experience with some coworkers and friends, I create a few high-fidelity mockups in Photoshop, before diving into the front-end code, namely HTML and an extension of CSS. I work closely with the developers to ensure that the functionality as well as the visual design contributes to an optimal student experience.

bB: What is edX currently working on?
BC: Currently, we are working very hard on several different fronts. First, we’re working on a few improved features to the student learning management system, or what the student sees and interacts with during the online course. This encompasses things like courseware, online assignments and textbooks, as well as online discussion. We’re also working on the content management system, which is what the professors and teaching assistants of the courses generally interact with in order to put course content online, with the hopes of providing all the options they need without overly complicating the user experience. Finally, we’re developing content, such as online assignments, simulations, and tutorials, for the seven classes we will be offering online this fall, in order to optimize these classes for an online learning experience.

bB: What are some of the short-term goals of edX?  Long-term goals?
BC: The short-term goals of edX are to put university-level courses online so that anyone, anywhere can experience a Harvard, MIT, or Berkeley course, optimized for the online student experience, through an open-source, non-profit platform. We’re launching seven courses this fall but would really like to launch many more in the long run, especially humanities courses, which pose unique challenges to the current technologies involved in online education. Long term, edX would like to research how students learn, both online and off, and innovate on technology as a part of enhancing the student experience, both on-campus and worldwide.

bB: What do you think are some of the benefits of edX?  Disadvantages?
BC: An obvious benefit is that it brings university courses online so that anyone, anywhere can take a course from a well-known university. There’s a high emphasis on quality of the course content, which is all being optimized for the online platform. Another benefit is that it is an open source and non-profit project, so edX doesn’t seek to gain from the project, but rather to contribute to the wealth of educational resources online. A current disadvantage is that there are some pedagogical as well as logistical challenges of putting a course online. I think that the loss of face-to-face interaction, for example, poses a challenge for the interactions between students and professors. In addition, I don’t really know how massive open online courses will affect the reputations of smaller state schools and if they will pose any kind of pressure on their curricula and professors.

bB: How will this affect Berkeley students?
BC: Berkeley students will benefit from the university’s focus on online education, which is becoming more important as educators seek to take advantage of technologies in new ways. A large part of the edX mission is to improve the on-campus learning experience through technology. Here are some examples of possible on-campus student experiences: Instructors may experiment with “flipped classroom” techniques, asking students to watch lectures at home, at their own pace, so that they can have more face-to-face interaction with students in the classroom. Other professors might develop online games, simulations, and assignments to enhance the current curriculum. Still others may ask students to participate in online discussions and video chats, broadening their interactions with each other as well as students all over the world. On-campus Berkeley students have a very important place in the online education conversation, and their feedback and input about how to best improve their experiences on-campus will be vital as we move forward in this project.

bB: What are some of the differences between working in Cambridge with MIT and Harvard and working in Berkeley?
BC: The major differences are in the working environment and atmosphere. In Berkeley, we worked in Professor Abbeel’s robotics lab, so the people surrounding us were mostly robotics researchers (and robots), and worked what I like to call “EECS researcher hours,” which is basically whenever they feel like it / all the time. Some researchers came in at 2 PM and left at 10, others worked the typical 9 to 5, and still others seemed to live in the lab. Professor Abbeel was also really obsessed with exercising, so the Robot Learning Lab got an e-mail every week with a workout schedule for the lab, featuring times scheduled for basketball, RSF classes, and soccer. I was definitely a lot more active while working in Berkeley.

At the edX office in Cambridge, the vast majority of employees work 9 to 5, while the Berkeley development team continues to work “EECS researcher hours.” The edX team had to get used to looking for someone on the Berkeley team in the morning only to be told, “He’ll be here around 2 PM.” The Berkeley lab was generally a lot more casual in atmosphere than the edX office, although edX still maintains a startup-like vibe, especially with the coffee machine, snacks, and free lunch a couple days a week. There’s also a conference room made out of cardboard boxes in the edX office, which tends to impress our visitors.

bB: What are some of the current trends in online education?
BC: Much of the online education world is inspired by Sal Khan’s videos on Khan Academy, and video-teaching and learning is definitely trending in research and development, especially regarding the idea of a “flipped classroom” (lectures at home, projects and problems in class with the teacher). MOOCs (massive open online courses), such as the courses on edX and Coursera/Udacity/others, are also trending in the online education world. Everyone is trying to figure out how best to adapt courses to the online platform, while still maintaining the advantages of on-campus education. This is proving to be a hard, but interesting, problem to solve. Other trends include various “learn to code” websites (Codecademy, LearnStreet) which feature interactive coding lessons. Online test preparation (Magoosh, Knewton) is also an interesting field, as well as open source or online textbooks (Boundless, inkling).

bB: Where do you see the future of online education? How do you think this will affect students?
BC: This is a really big question that I’m not entirely sure I’m able to answer. But I definitely think that the next few years will consist of a lot of experimentation in the online education field, especially in the realms of student discussion, interaction, and educational social networks. I also expect that the mobile platform will play a huge role in education, as it already is in many other aspects of our lives. I expect that the nature of course material that we take for granted—lectures, assignments, textbooks—will evolve with the education space in ways that reach further than the typical college classroom. As online education moves forward, students will benefit not only from the technology but also from increased opportunities for interaction with students from different countries and backgrounds, providing unique global perspectives in learning, discussion, and debate.

Charles River
The Charles River

bB: Best part of Boston/Cambridge thus far?
BC: Meeting creative, brilliant students from MIT and learning about the various quirks and culture of the university. Also, running along the Charles River and enjoying the awesome views of Boston.

For more information about edX, visit edx.org.

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