This Mongolian Teenager Aced a MOOC. Now He Wants to Widen Their Impact.

May 04, 2016

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Free online courses changed the life of one super-smart Mongolian teenager. His name is Battushig Myanganbayar, and four years ago, while he was still a high-school student in Ulan Bator, he took a massive open online course from MIT. It was one of the first they had ever offered, about circuits and electronics, and he was one of about a hundred and forty thousand people to take it. He not only passed, he was one of about three hundred who got a perfect score. He was only 15 years old.

He was hailed in The New York Times and other media outlets as a boy wonder, and soon he got accepted to the real MIT campus. It was a feel-good story that matched the hopeful narrative about MOOCs at the time. These free courses were touted as a way to bring top education to underserved communities around the world. The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman soon wrote that "Nothing has more potential to unlock a billion more brains to solve the world’s biggest problems." This was the peak of the MOOC hype.

Today, Mr. Myanganbayar remains a fan of MOOCs, but he also has a critique of this knowledge giveaway, and he questions how much good it’s really doing for people in the developing world.

After taking a MOOC, "What do you do?" he asks. "If you’re just learning for the sake of the learning, the knowledge alone is useless without the opportunity to build, or show, or to use it."

While at MIT, he has continued to take free online courses on the side, especially those on data science to help him with research projects that he’s worked on here. Like many students that I’ve met at MIT, he’s focused on trying to solve real-world problems with his student research — he helped build an electronic glove for the blind, for instance — and that’s his main problem with how colleges have handled MOOCS.

The courses aren’t really an end, after all, they’re a means to an end. Why don’t colleges do more to help connect students to resources, he asks, to apply their knowledge?

I sat down with Mr. Myanganbayar recently at MIT, at a lounge in Building 10, at the heart of campus. He is now a junior majoring in computer science and electrical engineering, and though he misses his family back in Mongolia, he says this college experience has lived up to all of his hopes about it.

Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.

Q. Do you think your work as a MOOC student made you more hungry to experience all the unique aspects of a campus that you can’t get by sitting at home at a computer?

A. I always try to go to office hours that professors do because it’s one of the disadvantages of the MOOC. You learn about things, but your questions, it’s really hard to get a good answer. You can post it in the forum in an online course, but having a chance to meet with the professor is an amazing thing.

After coming to MIT, the biggest thing I learned was, as one person, no matter how good you are, you can do nothing. You need a team or you need a group of people in order to really build the complex and amazing thing. Just by yourself, sitting in your room and reading a book, nothing will happen. No matter how good you are, unless you are Albert Einstein or unless you’re a theoretical mathematician then something might happen, but for engineers you need a team. I think that’s one of the biggest lessons that I learned at MIT.

Q. What do you think is missing for MOOC students, as far as support?

A. After spending three years at MIT, I learned about the power of building, and that power is not existing in the developing countries. I think at the peak of the MOOC, everyone was excited about the opportunity to learn more. That’s an amazing thing. It’s the same as, you’re provided the free book, and you can just read it a lot of times. You can just read a really interesting book, and you can read the next interesting book, and you can read the next interesting book.

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In those books, no one teaches you how to solve problems in your community, and that itself will discourage underprivileged people from taking a MOOC. The reason is that they’d be like, "Oh, it’s useless. I read a lot of books, but in order to apply the knowledge I don’t know how, and what’s the point of reading more books now?" For the underprivileged people, the learning more is almost like a punishment because it reminds you more about the resource restrictions.

He suggests that colleges or other institutions should build maker spaces in Mongolia or other developing countries, to help students put their knowledge into practice. I wondered how the folks at MIT would respond to that critique, so I recently asked MIT’s president, Rafael Reif, and he essentially agreed with Mr. Myanganbayar’s concerns, and he says that was something he had thought of in the beginning. To address that concern, he says that MIT’s created an entrepreneurship MOOC and his hope is that students can learn to make up their own job. What MIT can do, he told me is, "Help the people who are learning with us learn how to think differently."

Q. Mr. Myanganbayar, you’ve had suggestions for how to improve MOOCs in the past. What do you think of how the major MOOC providers are developing as they try to find ways to make money to support themselves?

A. In order to have more people, some of the courses are decreasing the difficulty of the content itself, and I think that’s a really bad thing. It really boils down to the difficulty and the complexity of the problems, and how challenging the courses are.

Q. That’s what can make a difference for the people who learn it?

A. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It teaches you the potentials of solving a problem, but just for the sake of having more people, if you make it easier, then there’s no point for online education. I’m really concerned about that trend. Right now on the Coursera the courses are getting shorter and shorter. The shorter time means less dedication — less focus. Less focus means less attention or the desire to build more things.

Q. Do you think you will keep taking MOOCs after you graduate?

A. A lot of people think that the more advanced a degree you have, the less you need to learn more, but I think that’s the opposite because if you know more, then there’s a lot more things to explore. The knowledge builds up. If you know how to add two things, then you learn how to multiply two things. If you know how to multiply two things, then you can talk about how to divide two things, because it’s the inverse of the multiplication, so by learning more advanced things, now I’m able to take better science classes, quantum computer classes, and linear algebra classes with no problem. Before in Mongolia, I was just able to take basic intro to electrical-engineering classes, and the quantum computing was just my dream. Right now, I can just take it, and be able to grasp the material, and be able to do something useful with it.

Q. Do you plan to go back to Mongolia after your studies?

A. Not like that, because Mongolia doesn’t have enough infrastructure to use my knowledge as efficiently as the United States. What I’m thinking is, I’m encouraging the other students to learn more about Mongolia and to think more about Mongolian problems, such that we can design something to contribute back to my society.

Online education has clearly changed this student’s life, but he knows he’s an outlier. His story has given him a platform, though, and he remains active in things like a Facebook group for MOOC takers in Mongolia. Earlier this year, he even gave a short talk at the World Bank, at a forum about the group’s Open Learning Campus project. He says he even got to sit down privately with the head of the World Bank to share his concerns. This MOOC student has plenty to teach about how to use tech to meaningfully expand education.

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