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A look inside edX's learning laboratory (essay)

“The fruit ripens slowly,” the Guru Nisargadatta Maharaj once observed, “but it drops suddenly.”

In a similar fashion, MOOCs (or massive open online courses) seem to have arrived almost out of nowhere, in quick succession – first Udacity in February of last year, followed by Coursera in April, then edX in May. Remarkable as it may seem, MOOCs as we know them today have been with us only for as long as it has taken the Earth to make one orbit around the sun.

“I like to call the last year ‘the decade of online learning,’ ” joked Anant Agarwal, president of edX, during my recent visit to the offices of his bustling startup in the Kendall Square area of Cambridge, Mass.

As accelerated as the progression of MOOCs has been from curious acronym to household name, and as much as it may seem that MOOCs themselves have fallen from the sky, in truth MOOCs have been ripening for some time.

Consider the free “courses” delivered through iTunes U for the last several years, or TED Talks, and Khan Academy, not to mention some of the early progenitors of MOOCs themselves, including Dave Cormier, credited with coining the phrase in 2008, as well as George Siemens, Stephen Downes, Alec Couros, David Wiley, and others.

Recall Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, the “open educational resources” movement, and MIT’s OpenCourseware, launched all the way back in 2002. And let’s not forget Fathom.com, an initiative out of Columbia University launched at the turn of the millennium, or even the early days of America Online and Compuserve, both of which offered educational content through their services as early as the 1990s.

MOOCs, then, are not as new as they seem – though the world today appears to be more ready for them than it was in decades past. Indeed, it isn’t hard to see how forces as diverse as Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation” from the late 1990s, the expansion of online enrollments over the last decade, the reformist intentions of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education from 2005-2006, the great recession of 2007-2009, or the completion agenda supported by the Lumina and Gates Foundations over the last few years have all contributed to a public thirst for what look like very high-quality educational offerings at very low – or even zero – cost.

“I also call the last year,” Agarwal added, “ ‘the decade of innovation.’ ”

And like many innovations before them, MOOCs have been received with the usual contradictory apocalyptic fervor – where some believers foresee the arrival an educational golden age and others see the eventual destruction of our institutions, our faculty, and the intangible value of face-to-face learning.

Writing in The American Interest this month, for example, Nathan Harden claimed that “ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students." He went on to argue that as a result of the MOOC movement, “the changes ahead will ultimately bring about the most beneficial, most efficient and most equitable access to education that the world has ever seen."

At the other end of the apocalyptic continuum, Gregory Ferenstein, writing for TechCrunch last month, foresaw a future in which MOOCs wreaked a terrible devastation on the land, as “part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment.”

The real significance of MOOCs lies, however, not in their being a harbinger of our educational salvation or demolition. Nor does their real significance lie principally in their potential to increase access or reduce costs – at least not for Agarwal and edX.

“We are about two things,” Agarwal told me. “We are about dramatically increasing quality and impacting campus learning. We are being very deliberate. This is not a numbers game – this is not a game at all. This is a quality quest.”

Funded with $60 million in seed capital from MIT and Harvard, edX can make a claim to being the first MOOC platform to market, inasmuch as its predecessor, MITx, was launched in December 2011. Until this week,  the edX consortium featured five independent member institutions (MIT, Harvard, the University of California at Berkeley, Georgetown University, and Wellesley College) and one state university system comprising 15 colleges and universities (the University of Texas System). Thursday, it added six more, including several outside the United States.

In less than a year, edX’s 25 courses have enrolled close to 700,000 people. “That’s more than the combined alumni of MIT and Harvard over their combined 500-year history,” Agarwal observed with a mixture of pride, enthusiasm and amazement. What really pleases him, though, is something else.

Rolling his chair across the office, Agarwal waves me over to his monitor and shows me the virtual laboratories edX has been developing for its courses. We start with his own course on Circuits and Electronics (6.002x in the edX course catalog).

“Many MOOCs are just about analyzing problems,” he said. “We give you a blank sheet of paper and say, ‘Go build, design, create, construct something.’ ” With drag-and-drop alacrity, Agarwal moves the components of a circuit into place on a piece of digital graph paper and clicks a button to test its performance. “Computers do the grading,” he said, “in real time.”

“The media focus on numbers, they focus on cost,” Agarwal sighed. “But they should focus on something else – quality. And they should focus on efficiency. What is efficiency? It’s a ratio of quality and cost.”

Agarwal knows that MOOCs have their doubters, and he believes that they can only be persuaded with proof. He cites the case of San Jose State University, which licensed his own course on circuits and ran it as an adjunct to the school’s own classroom-based instruction. The results, Agarwal claims, were impressive. “The fail rate dropped from 40 percent to 9 percent,” he told me. “That’s a quality improvement.” And the costs to San Jose State were minimal. That’s efficiency. Agarwal says San Jose will be sharing more details about their experience with edX in the near future.

With the avidity of the prototypical startup entrepreneur, Agarwal talked excitedly about the potential for MOOCs to improve pedagogy. “We have our xConsortium,” he said. “All of the schools in our consortium have access to all the data in the platform in an anonymized format. This is what I call ‘the particle accelerator of learning’ – big data in learning in real-time.” In a sense, then, edX’s quality quest, as Agarwal calls it, is seeking out the educational equivalent of the Higgs Boson, as well the other fundamental elements of learning, in order to better understand what kind of learning objects, what kind of real-time remediation, and what kind of learning materials – whether analysis or laboratory or other – produce the best results from one learning context to the next.

I ask Agarwal what distinguishes edX from its fellow MOOC platforms. “We have a fundamentally different mission,” he replied. “We’re nonprofit. We’re open source. Our technology is for everyone. And we have a commitment to campus learning.”

Earlier this month, the American Council on Education completed an evaluation of five courses on the Coursera platform, developed respectively by Duke University, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Pennsylvania. Intriguingly, all five courses were approved for credit through the ACE credit transfer program. But just in case the future of MOOCs was beginning to make sense to you, consider this – all three of these institutions have made it clear that they, at least, will not be awarding credits for the courses, irrespective of the fact that they developed the courses themselves.

MOOCs are puzzling.

Will they last? It’s not, I suspect, a question that would bother Agarwal very much one way or the other. “For us,” he said, “it’s not about MOOCs. We are trying to reimagine our own campus. The lecture wasn’t working. Quality has been static for decades, but costs are going up. There’s a trillion dollars in student debt. We are trying reimagine campus education from the ground up – with new ways of learning that are more enriching, more engaging, more efficient, and that produce better outcomes.”

How do you like them apples?

Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University, and author of the Peripheral Vision column.


 
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U. of Oxford Turns Off Google Docs

The University of Oxford announced Monday that it is temporarily blocking access to Google Docs, citing a series of "phishing" attacks in which people have used Google Docs to collect e-mail addresses linked to the university's network. A statement from Oxford said: "We appreciate and apologize for the disruption this caused for our users. Nevertheless, we must always think in terms of the overall risk to the university as a whole, and we certainly cannot rule out taking such action again in future, although our thresholds for doing so may be somewhat higher. We are meanwhile investigating several possible technical measures for reducing the risks to the university with less impact on legitimate network usage, and will be reviewing our emergency communications procedures. We will also be pressuring Google that they need to be far more responsive, if not proactive, regarding abuse of their services for criminal activities."

 

British MOOC Provider Expands; Prime Minister Promotes It in India

Another sign of the competition among MOOCs (massive online open courses) for the global student population: The all-British MOOC provider on Monday announced an expansion and British Prime Minister David Cameron promoted the offerings during a trip to India. Cameron said that the expansion of Futurelearn (as the MOOC provider is called) "will mean that Indian students can access some of the best teaching and learning online from their home in Mumbai or Delhi." And a statement from Simon Nelson, CEO of Futurelearn, noted the international competition. "Until now, this market has been dominated by companies based in the U.S., but with 18 U.K. partners, we are determined to provide the smartest and most engaging online learning experiences and revolutionize conventional models of education."

The new members of Futurelearn are the British Library, Queen's University Belfast and the Universities of Bath, Leicester, Nottingham and Reading.

A call for new college songs in the era of MOOCs

Gimme an M!       M!
Gimme an O!       O!
Gimme another O!     O!
Gimme a C!                 C!
What have we got?  MOOC!


Cornell

Far above Cayuga’s waters with its waves of blue,
Stand our noble M-O-O-Cs, glorious to view.
Massive Open Online Courses, loud their praises tell.
Hail O dig’tal Alma Mater, now called e-Cornell.

On Wisconsin

On, Wisconsin! On, Wisconsin!
Fight on for our MOOCs.
They make teachers into rock stars.
Who needs Yale or Duke? (rah rah rah)

We take classes in our jammies
Any time of day.
Oh, how we love to learn
The online way.

Notre Dame

Cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame.
And for the MOOCs that bring us our fame.
Send a volley cheer on high
’Cause our instruction comes from the sky.

Though the attachments be great or small,
Our CPUs can handle them all.
Open access sets us free
To seek out an e-degree.

Gaudeamus Igitur

Gaudeamus igitur.
Don’t need classrooms, that’s for sure.
Libraries are so passé --
Remnants of another day.

We’re creating new tradition.
Ours is wireless erudition.
We eschew all printed words.
Rest in pace Gutenberg.

 

Edward (Ted) Fiske, former education editor of The New York Times, is author of The Fiske Guide to Colleges. Post your ideas for other college songs for the MOOC era here as comments or e-mail them here.

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Tips for college leaders to make online programs work

While many of us spent 2012 writing, reading and debating about whether massive open online courses (MOOCs) will forever change American higher education, Richard Linder was quietly and methodically becoming what historians will no doubt cite as America’s first true MOOCer. For the past four years, the 21-year-old , who left his home at age 16, was cobbling together enough MOOC-like online courses to earn an associate degree for under $3,000 -- with not one of the MOOC-like courses being taught by an accredited college.

The truth is that MOOCs are just a small and largely undefined “pebble” within online education; yet this pebble has caused a ripple that has turned many campuses on their heads and nearly cost a president her own. That president, like many college presidents today, faces what could be called “The No Wake Syndrome,” whereby key institutional stakeholders demand leadership and action on a host of mission-critical issues, yet are not willing to accept the wake caused by change, albeit small, that will ensue as a result of the action.

E-learning is one such issue; one such wake.

Having helped build one of the most successful online degree programs in higher education, it is worth sharing a few thoughts and suggestions with other like-minded institutional leaders seeking to find their way in the online world, including how best to prepare their stakeholders for the wake that will undoubtedly follow.

Over the years, dozens of college presidents have asked how Drexel University built such strong and scalable online programs. The answer is simple: it’s having the will and knowing the way.

The Will

It all starts with an open and honest discussion. We’ve learned from history that when a ship is taking on water, it does little good for the captain to simply order the band to play louder; hope is not a strategy.

Future economic and political circumstances will fundamentally change the role of a college president from one of building more buildings and growing their endowment, to one as lead advocate for the fundamental transformation of the institution’s core academic product and, in doing so, taking the hit from the “wake” of change that will undoubtedly come fast and hard from defenders of the status quo (see illustration).

Suggesting, for example, that your institution may someday offer or give credit for a $15 MOOC course, when your institution’s financial model is based on much-needed tuition revenue from large enrollment, introductory courses (e.g., Psychology 101) is both fiscally suicidal and morally disingenuous. Just ask the folks at Moody’s who recently issued a negative outlook for the entire higher education sector, stating their concern for the “ potentially destabilizing trends like the rise of massive open online courses."

The fundamental question that must first be addressed (and consciously built around) is: “Why are we doing e-learning?”  Is it to increase tuition revenue?  Decrease costs? Create greater access? Allow greater flexibility for our students? Experiment with new pedagogical approaches to teaching and learning, so as to better educate a different generation of students? All of the above?

Without a clear and unwavering “will,” it makes little sense for a college president to discuss the “way,” because ultimately the senior no-wake proponents on campus will delay and/or sabotage any meaningful e-learning strategy.

The Way

Once the will is established, it’s time to communicate the “why” to key stakeholders from the top to the bottom of the organization, including board members, faculty, deans, students and alumni. All must understand the risks and benefits involved in advancing an e-learning strategy. By the same token, all must understand the risks of NOT advancing one.

The key to succeeding is to incentivize faculty and senior staff. Those colleagues who help should be compensated through the sharing of tuition revenue generated from online courses and/or financial support for scholarly activities, such as paid attendance at professional conferences, new lab equipment, etc.

These same individuals must be engaged in defining and ensuring the highest level of quality of the online student experience, to include course development standards, teaching expectations, proper advisement and support services. The focus, above all else, must be on student-faculty engagement, both in and outside of the course.

Related and essential to a successful and scalable online program is a measurable retention strategy. While retention figures for online students are hard to come by, it’s generally agreed that much more attention and greater accountability is needed in this area. A baseline for retention must be established (certainly no lower then the baseline for on-campus students) and a retention “dashboard” created to enable the provost to monitor all online programs.

Here we all could take a few best practices from for-profit colleges, who learned long ago that it is cheaper to retain an existing student then it is to recruit a new one; not to mention their ethical obligation and the fact some risk losing their national accreditation for failing to maintain high retention rates.

For those institutions just jumping into the e-learning sector, it requires the thoughtful use of both internal and external resources, including independent marketing research. Much like diving into an unknown swimming pool, unless you know where the deep and shallow ends are located, you risk either drowning or breaking your neck. Here the careful use of third-party vendors and consultants to properly assess your institution’s market niche is typically a good expense.

Final Thought

George Orwell once wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.”

The struggle for today's college presidents is having the courage to navigate their stakeholders away from the no-wake syndrome and toward a more personalized, technologically advanced and affordable online degree program.

Let’s hope that that Mr. Linder’s actions will serve as good reason for the struggle, as nothing less than the future of our profession, and our nation, is at stake.

Author/s: 
Kenneth E. Hartman
Author's email: 
kenhartman@kenhartman.com

Kenneth E. Hartman is a senior fellow at Edventures and the former president of Drexel eLearning at Drexel University.

Higher Pass Rates for Computer-Based GED

The pass rate for students who took the new, computer-based version of the GED last year was 88 percent, outpacing the 71 percent pass rate of those who who took the paper-based version, the GED Testing Service said. They also spent 1.5 hours less taking the test, which is a high-school degree equivalency exam. The service plans to launch a fully computer-based, redesigned version of the exam next year.

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Why the Online Ed MOOC Didn't Work

When word spread this weekend that a massive open online course about online education had to be suspended due to technology problems that left many students angry, officials from Coursera and the Georgia Institute of Technology were not available for comment. In interviews Monday, however, officials of both Coursera and Georgia Tech confirmed that the major issue concerned the ability of the 41,000 students to discuss topics in small groups, and that the technology for that feature indeed was not working. The officials also said that they were confident that fixes would be made in a short time period, and that the course would then continue.

Richard A. DeMillo, director of Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities, said that officials were "not seeing any insurmountable problems" with the technology. There wasn't enough time to test the features for group discussions, he said. Asked if such testing should have taken place, DeMillo said that it was important to put the issue in perspective. "In a bricks and mortar course, it would have taken months to identify and make changes." DeMillo said it was important to let instructors experiment. "If we tell people to just do safe things, we'll stifle innovation," he said.

Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, said that the experiment using Google Docs for small group discussions "didn't work well enough," but was "really innovative." He said Coursera is continuing to work on quality control mechanisms that can be used before course launches. But he added that "I'm proud we let instructors experiment with different formats."

DeMillo added that he believed that the small group discussion feature, when it works, will be useful in many MOOCs.

 

Desire2Learn experiences major service stoppage

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1 in 4 of the colleges that use the company's LMS lost service last week, some for as long as 72 hours. Will its reputation suffer?

Don't panic amid predictions of higher ed's demise (essay)

At 30 years old, I definitely consider myself part of the Facebook generation. Zuckerberg’s brainchild hit the ‘net when I was a senior in college, and by then I was already well acquainted with e-mail, chat rooms, text-messaging, and all the multifarious precursors to today’s social media. I text, I post, I chat, I even snapchat: in these respects, I’m an utterly unremarkable member of my society.

But I also happen to be a college professor and a molder of young minds. And, far from indulging the technology-driven spirit of the times, I make my students work as students have always worked.  They read Seneca, Pascal, Tolstoy, and Schopenhauer. They are obliged to turn in papers by hand; they must come to office hours to speak with me about their grades; they are even, and this is most anachronistic of all, required to attend class.  Physical presence is key to every aspect of their learning experience, be it my hovering, breathing presence in the classroom or the office, the cohort of 30 or so warm bodies that shows up for lecture twice a week, or the more abstract form of embodiment conveyed by the weight of a book.

To believe certain commentators, however, this embodied notion of learning is on its way out in American higher education. Writing for The American Interest’s January/February 2013 edition, the recent Yale graduate Nathan Harden offers the following ominous prognostications about the future of university instruction in our digital age:

In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.

On Harden’s account, one of the principal reasons for this portended transformation, which is already being partially implemented by such institutions as Harvard and MIT, is that the cost of college is increasingly out of proportion with its perceived economic benefit.  As the American job market has become more competitive, the cost of a degree has increased, and only the most naïve of students still believe that a college education is a universally redeemable ticket to middle-class prosperity.  The weighing up of costs and benefits involved in earning a college degree will lead inevitably to a re-evaluation of the current higher education model.  Luxury residence halls, face-to-face interaction between professors and students, ivied brick walls -- these will all be things of the past once the much-heralded education bubble finally bursts.  What will replace them are massively populated, inexpensive online courses and lectures, prerecorded by the very best lecturers and administered by those hordes of professors and other academics not quite sexy or charismatic enough to warrant virtual celebrity.

To anyone who thinks Harden’s predictions are a little too ambitious (not to mention deeply disturbing, at least for college professors who don’t fancy the idea of working in a grading factory), don’t worry -- they most likely are. What Harden forgets -- and indeed, what just about everyone prophesying the eclipse of face-to-face interaction in a virtual world forgets -- is that human beings are, above all else, bodies, and that to lead full, happy, and meaningful lives, we need other bodies. Let’s consider the following examples of how technologies of virtualization have failed to triumph over our species’ thirst for physical presence.

1. The Giant Head.  Some older readers may recall a famous article in Reader’s Digest from the late 1950s featuring an illustration of a massive human head connected to miniscule arms and legs.  What was the thesis of that article? The tech junkies of the time believed that in the future technology would become so advanced that human beings would no longer need to use their bodies, leading to a swelling of the brain and a shriveling of our appendages.  Many also foretold a time when food supplements would replace food. Wouldn’t it be great, they asked, if instead of spending hours preparing and eating meals, we could nourish ourselves in just a few seconds?  No one at the time seemed to consider that human beings might not want to do any of this — that we might enjoy using our bodies, eating, and the like.  In the half-century since these predictions were made, restaurants have proliferated, and heads haven’t grown one bit.

2.  Live Theater.  When I was a kid, there were hardly any live theaters in my hometown of Bakersfield, Calif. Now there are about ten. Many people used to believe that movies had sounded the death knell for live theater, but today the latter enjoys just as much, if not more, prestige than it did 100 years ago. I recently had the good fortune to see Kevin Spacey’s production of Richard III. I’ll remember his performance for the rest of my life — it had never occurred to me that acting could be so visceral, so violent, so physical.  How many of us can say the same thing about movies? Again, those who foretold the demise of live theater never reckoned that people might just plain like seeing living bodies move around and speak on the stage, and that no amount of special effects could compensate for the lack of real flesh and blood.

3. The myth of social media. This myth holds that virtual, online or technologically mediated interactions are in the process of replacing face-to-face interactions.  Most people never take the time to think about what the world would be like if this were really the case. I live in a small college town, and I can assure anyone interested in such things that student interactions on Friday and Saturday nights are plenty physical —sometimes I can hear them from across the lake!  Social media does little more than provide a way of sharing information that enhances the intimacy of eventual physical contact.  Anyone who doesn’t know this doesn’t understand the technology.        

Of course, people like Harden will point to other sectors of the economy where technological innovation has erased thousands of jobs.  People don’t need information from stockbrokers or travel agents to make decent decisions about travel or investment anymore, so why should a living, breathing professor be necessary to convey the sort of information one gets out of a college education?  If that information can be distributed more cheaply thanks to virtualization, why should students be expected to bear the extra expense of classroom education?

The answer to this question is so elementary that the objection supporting it is almost hard to take seriously.  The truth is that education is not simply the conveying of information.  In fact, it is probably only marginally that.  How many people remember most of what they learned in college?  Only very few, I would guess.  The benefit of a classroom education is that it keeps students under a certain amount of mental pressure, forces them to think on the spot, and obliges them to explain themselves to other people who are physically present.  Information is afoot in these interactions, but so are wisdom, passion, empathy, and a whole host of other viscera that only an embodied teacher or student can properly convey. 

How effective, for instance, do we imagine an online church experience would be compared to the real thing? Is it reasonable to think that a virtual tour of the cathedral at Chartres would be as spiritually moving as being there?  We should also consider that many students might simply enjoy the physical classroom and their interaction with peers and professors -- or at least they might recognize that they learn better under these conditions.  The costs of classroom education may be soaring out of proportion at present, but this is not a verdict on the education itself.

So let’s ask -- what developments are behind these grim augurs of the collapse of America’s higher education model? Some of it undoubtedly has to do with politics. Many commentators on the right (and perhaps Harden is one of them) would likely cheer the dismantlement of a system whose values are often perceived as far left of center. If taking education online can put “tenured radicals” out of work, then why not welcome it? At the same time, however, just as many moderate and left-leaning thinkers have joined the chorus of those predicting the failure of higher education (for instance, see Thomas Friedman’s recent writings in The New York Times), and it would be simplistic to chalk this latest round of doom-peddling up to politics. 

The real culprit, I suggest, is what, for lack of a better term, we might call Appleism. Innocent in principle but nefarious in practice, the doctrine of Appleism holds that increases in technological capability are synonymous with increases in human happiness. Anything that can be put on a screen is better than what can be seen with the naked eye. The passage of electrons through a cathode tube is equivalent to passage from a lower to a higher state of being. Proponents of Appleism hold out technology as an intrinsic good; they are the sorts of folks who compulsively buy the latest Apple product, simply on principle

We can point to fiscal insolvency all we want, but one has difficulty believing that Harden’s and others’ vision of a fully or almost-fully online education is not also the product of society’s limitless fascination with virtualization. Proponents of the current craze ought to think carefully about the human costs of technology before enthusiastically proclaiming the end of a system that could leave hundreds of thousands of people without work, students cheated out of a quality education, and that would further contribute to the creation of a world where virtualization is always and everywhere, without qualification or questioning, heralded as an unequivocal good.

Louis Betty is an assistant professor of French at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

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More Details on MIT Review of Aaron Swartz Case

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor leading its inquiry into whether it inappropriately handled the federal prosecution of Aaron Swartz has provided some details on the investigation. In an open letter published in The Tech, MIT's student newspaper, Hal Abelson pledged a full and open inquiry, and said that the issues were extremely important. "This matter is urgently serious for MIT," Abelson wrote. "The world respects us not only for our scholarship and our science, but because we are an institution whose actions are and always have been guided by the highest ideals and the most thoughtful judgment. Our commitment to those ideals is now coming into question. At last Saturday’s memorial, Aaron’s partner Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman described his mental state: 'He faced indifference from MIT, an institution that could have protected him with a single public statement and refused to do so, in defiance of all of its own most cherished principles.'"

Abelson also announced the creation of a website on which MIT students and faculty members can suggest questions that the review should consider. The site can be viewed by people without MIT affiliations, but they may not contribute.

 

 

 

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