There’s been plenty of buzz lately about the ways in which online video is poised “disrupt” education – whether it’s via the growing video library of Khan Academy  or through the video-based lectures and lessons offered by the flurry of new MOOCs (namely those offered by Coursera , Udacity , and edX ).
But the news out of MIT  today – one of the founding members of the edX initiative – offers a very different sort of video education. And these videos make a very different argument too from the MOOCs and the Khan Academies of the world; it’s an argument that highlights several things that the hype about video-based instruction seems to ignore.
- The value of a campus-based university experience.
- The importance of hands-on learning, particularly when it comes to STEM education.
MIT is unveiling the trailer today for a new reality TV series (of sorts) – ChemLab Boot Camp  – that follows 14 freshmen through its 5.301 Introductory Lab Techniques course. The four-week-long class is offered in January as part of the Chemistry major. The stakes with 5.301 are high – students who pass the class are guaranteed a job in a research lab at the university.
As such, the new show could be seen as an infomercial for the MIT campus experience. And as the project was underwritten by the Dow Chemical Company, it’s certainly good promotional material for that company and, more generally, the MIT chemistry major. But the reality TV show is also a commercial of sorts for hands-on learning and for the joys and frustrations of working in a research lab.
And that’s an important message for prospective scientists to hear – whether they’re in high school or college. Indeed, late last year, The New York Times examined some of the reasons why we’re seeing so few students graduate with degrees in STEM fields. While part of the argument was “it’s just so darn hard ,” the article also highlighted the emphasis on lectures and dearth of opportunities for hands-on experimentation. (I wrote a follow-up post here .)
It’s also worth noting that this video series comes out of the MIT OpenCourseWare  office and is connected to that program’s larger outreach efforts with high school students. Its Highlights for High School  initiative organizes over 70 introductory level courses from the university’s OCW site as well as other resources, to help high school students prepare for the AP exam.
“We hope to show the human side of our field and to inspire young people to want to become the next generation of chemists,” says MIT Professor John Essigmann. And inspiration and humanness – particularly when depicted through the experiences of freshman students – are pretty compelling here. “Do you make mistakes?” asks one freshman in frustration as her experiment on Day 3 or so goes awry. And the video then offers anecdotes about failures from the course’s TAs, from other students who’ve successfully completed 5.301 and now work in labs around campus, and from professors themselves. “Of course you have failures,” says one. “But then you have to move on.” And the narrative of this particular episode confirms this, as the freshman says at the end, “This is so encouraging. If she can learn, then I can learn. And some day I’ll be just as good as she is.”
The show officially starts September, but watch the video below for a sneak peek.