Yes, online learning doesn’t suck.

Consider my mind blown. I’ve found at least one online course that doesn’t suck, and it has made me re-think the whole online learning equation.

I’m currently a participant in Dan Ariely’s Coursera Course, “A Beginner’s guide to Irrationality.” The videos are top-notch; the readings challenging; the discussion fora active; there is a significant writing component, and the whole experience has opened my eyes to the potential of Massive Online Courses and some clear issues with college today.

Issues with College Today

College today could be characterized primarily as a container (holding pen) for 18-24 year-olds. Of course, this is a cynical simplification, but that age group represents the focus of most large universities. And even in the best light, we are training and preparing those ages for the great wide-world outside of college.

Two problems: First, more people are complaining that college could be a waste of time. (Certainly some of the recent reports suggest college is not doing a great job of setting graduates up for success). Worse, because of the magic of the normal distribution (and teaching to the lowest common denominator), students often find themselves in multiple classes that are too easy or too hard, or downright irrelevant to their future (or they just don’t see the relevance). As the number of such classes increase, students become disenfranchised with the whole process, and they go from being excited about learning to doing the minimum necessary to pass. Thus, instead of creating lifelong learners, we are creating students who learn just enough to pass and actively avoid all future learning.

The second issue with college today is that we need learning throughout life. There is no practical reason that the college experience should stop at 24, yet that is how college is designed, none but an 18- to 24-year-old could possibly complete the coursework for a degree in a reasonable amount of time. Anytime, anywhere, on-demand learning is increasingly becoming important, and there is a vast untapped population of learners who can’t devote 4+ years to learning something, but who could find four hours a week for six weeks to develop their skills in a single topic.

Learning doesn’t stop at college, it just becomes far more personalized and on-demand. People who have full time jobs get trained: they go to seminars and conferences, they read self-help books and they, increasingly, take MOOCs. What a shame that the university doesn’t play more of a role in this process. As a center of learning, universities should be taking a more active part in the education of all. (And they shouldn’t be so worried about DRM either, but that’s another story, linked to the value of the freemuim model.)

This partially explains the success of MOOCs since they can enroll people that have a life. The target population for a MOOC is anyone that might have an interest in a topic (and just that topic).

Another major advantage of MOOCs is that they have a mastery versus a performance mindset. With a performance mindset (held by most Colleges), some students will be good, some bad, and the job of college is to separate those students. GPA becomes the final arbiter of talent and potential in a domain. A mastery mindset, in contrast, is what most training outside of college is about: There is a topic you must learn, and you don’t move on until you learn it. In this framework, retaking different versions of the same quiz becomes an important part of the pedagogy. In Coursera for example, you take a quiz and get a C, but it doesn’t stop there. “Sorry, a C isn’t good enough. You clearly don’t understand the material at a level that is needed. So study harder, and take another quiz, and another.” All that matters is that in the end, you know this stuff cold. (BTW quiz questions are different each time, and usually involve applied examples)

What a powerful principle: Anyone can learn. A mastery mindset acknowledges that this can happen at a different pace for everyone, but ANYONE CAN LEARN.

What would happen if college professors adopted this perspective. I call this the “President’s daughter effect.” Imagine your university was privileged enough to matriculate the president’s daughter. Would you be satisfied when she bombed her first test? Wouldn’t it be all hands on deck? Wouldn’t you make sure she got extra tutors, maybe a peer mentor or two, or even some remedial training? This happens for students on sports teams to some extent. But why shouldn’t we do the same for students who don’t play for BigTen teams or those who can’t ask the leader of the free world for a goodnight kiss?

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Argument for Online Education

The resistance to online education is a bit like the purists’ resistance to recorded music: Sure, live is “better” on many levels, but the advent of recording allows us to reach larger and more diverse audience. Is it as good as a “live” performance? Maybe not, but I can still listen to the Beetles even though they won’t be making any more live performances. And believe it or not, I believe that an intelligent use of prerecorded material can take us that much closer to the one-on-one question-and-answer sessions so valued by our most promising students.

Let me put it this way: Do we pay professors to lecture or to educate? Are we really respecting professors’ knowledge or time by insisting that they keep repeating the same basic lectures, again and again, to larger and larger groups of students? When I started at Purdue, I taught Developmental Psychology to a single section of 75 students. This coming semester, that same section will have more than 200 students, with many more students on the waitlist. More damningly, a number of psych majors can’t find any psych course to take. While we can (and do) restrict upper level courses to majors only, this is not an option for introductory courses. Put simply, the 100 and 200 level courses in psychology are in great demand–so much so, that right now, the demand far outstrips the supply. To solve this, we can either teach more sections, teach larger sections, or try something a tiny bit different. My proposal is simple and modest: By offering online sections of our existing courses (taught by the same professors, with the same basic materials and requirements, and, ideally, concurrent with the usual live sections) we can relieve some of the outside pressures on our major, and get back to smaller class sizes. We might also discover, as I have, that online courses offer some distinct advantages to traditional courses that help push education more in the direction of sophisticated one-on-one interaction and customized education.

Isn’t the hallmark of good education the back and forth dialog? Ever since Socrates, a premium has been placed on the importance of interaction. Indeed, the most common criticism of distance education in the past has been that it lacks this interactive component. But let’s be honest here: exactly how much interaction does the typical student get whilst sitting in the back of a lecture filled to the gills with more than 200 fellow classmates? Even if there is some conversation, all too often, it involves a poorly thought-out question or some brown-noser showing off. I have found that the online environment allows for a much greater level of interaction than the traditional classroom. Also, online discussion (and polling) allows a MUCH better picture of student understanding. Instead of hearing from the few, the brave, the brown-nosers; a teacher can get quickly get a sense of what the students are grasping and what concepts they don’t. Best of all, because this process is asynchronous, the teacher can dig up more, and better, examples to help the students.

In every class, there is content that changes with the addition of the latest research and an often large chunk of content that stays the same. Recording allows us to capture our expertise on this second type of content and bottle it for the masses, thereby freeing up time to make the up-to-date portions even more current and spend more time actually interacting with students, and isn’t that a better use of everyone’s time? Let me close with one warning: I know that ONLINE Education is not for everyone. Even with all the benefits, as the course number moves up, I believe it is more important for interactions that are not prerecorded. Likewise, for some students (especially minorities and disadvantaged populations) some online sections may well be a bad idea. But having the online option frees up the live sections for those who need it, and those who want flexibility or just want a taste can get it, too. Let’s not forget there is a class of students for whom online courses are the ONLY option. Again, this isn’t about replacing the traditional sections, but supplementing them.

(Originally posted Feb 15, 2011 on Posterous)