A Few Thoughts Provoked by an Article on Online Learning

I was a little surprised to see the tone of this article on Online Education, especially the title.

Commodified, one-size-fits-all education is indeed a solution to many problems, including crushingly high tuition, college selectivity, state budget problems and the mania for credentialing. Unfortunately, it is not a solution to the major problem facing America today: teaching people how to think for themselves.

This article is worth a read because it raises a few questions about the effectiveness of online learning. I have mixed feeling about online learning both as a student and a teacher.  Here are some obvious differences between online and class room (face-to-face) based training.

  • Online courses are scalable. Classroom based courses are not. While a Coursera or Udacity course can train hundreds of thousands of students (across the world) , a class room cannot handle even a fraction of those.
  • Because of the very nature and size of these online classes, it is difficult to provide a good interaction model in online training. Online training is not interactive in the same sense of classroom based lectures. In a classroom if you ask a question, the teacher can try to give you an answer in a different way or with a different example. That is difficult to do with online lectures. (It is, however, possible to take questions through chat rooms and email and have a bank of teaching assistants answer them).
  • Online training is self-paced. Some students can learn faster and others can learn slower. In a face-to-face classroom this would be difficult to handle. You need to carry the students with you. The pace may be too fast for some students and slow for others.

So what are our choices? Let us assume that we do need to educate a large number of people. There seem to be currently over 50 million teachers around the world over a billion students – according to Wolfram Alpha.

So how can we solve this problem?  There may some approaches that may work. I am not an educator or work for government. So my thoughts may be just based on some common sense reasoning.

1. Blended learning may solve part of the problem.

2. Students as teachers may solve another part of the problem

3. Peer based learning may work to some extent expanding the pool of teachers and altering the teacher/student ratio.

4. Students from higher classes teaching students from lower classes may work (for example high school students teaching middle or elementary school students). We are experimenting with a model where some of the college students can teach school students on week ends. While a limited approach, in its current mode, with a few changes it can be made more effective.

5. Self-learning may be one of the most scalable models. In this model, you teach students fairly early how to learn on their own and then shift the role of a teacher to a guide. This may not work with very young students but will certainly work with older students.

In the end, we may need to modify how we educate – the model, the duration and the content. I spent about 5 years in an engineering college learning over 30-40 subjects. I used none of them in my life. That was a one size fits all education.  The only thing that experience did for me was that I learned how to learn.

I am sure several educators are thinking about the problem from different view points. It will be interesting to find innovations in this space around the world.

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3 thoughts on “A Few Thoughts Provoked by an Article on Online Learning

  1. I think the real problem is slightly different and I would guess a small part of the answer lies in quick feedback loops in online systems.

    Let me explain:
    Everyone has a different way of learning. Some folks in my class had this (rather annoying) ability to immediately grasp what was being taught. I on the other hand had to often re-read and perhaps even consult the textbook before understanding what was going on.

    Now, in the world of offline learning, since the feedback loop happens only once or twice a quarter or semester a higher % of students get a chance to “level up”. In the online case however, If presented with a quiz immediately after a lecture, I would have without doubt failed the class.

    Now, this leads me to my second point about transparency and the lack of will to stomach it. In the online case, you have reams of data that will immediately tell you that the drop off is high and your courses aren’t working very well. I mean, I would hypothesize that given any course at any quality and level of clarity, there exists a greater number of folks who will signup making your metrics dashboard look red everywhere. This will happen UNLESS you filter at signup itself (most universities do this, don’t they -> admission process).

    In the offline case, you get to see these numbers in aggregate and only ever so often and so the absolute number of failures are lower (folks like me would have leveled-up by then) whereas in the online case, your metrics turn red immediately. What happens then (both offline and online) is watering down of the “thought” material into a set of quizzes, sure shot questions, question banks and past exam sample papers as institutions figure out that it is the only way to prevent a grade-blood-bath.

    This is what I’ve seen happening in life and our own online courses and I don’t have a definite answer on how to improve it. One more data point would be the recent teacher eligibility test in India where a ridiculous # managed to pass (single digit %). Immediately, there have been proposals for increased time-limit, watering down of questions and “more coaching” so more teachers pass!!!

    The first time, you always get the true picture. By the fifth time, the grade-blood-bath prevention system would have kicked into effect and we will see that happening in the above case as well and the groundwork has already begun!!

  2. Great observations. It is a also a great discussion topic. Here are a few biases I have built up over a period of time:

    1. In early stages of education, teachers mattered a lot. They not only taught us but also motivated us. In fact, I can clearly see a pattern where the interest in subjects had a direct correlation with good teachers.

    2. Once we got to the college level, we figured out that good teachers were the exception. A high percentage of teachers I saw in electronics and communication courses (which I took) had a very surface level knowledge and did not have a deep understanding of the subject matter. In other branches of engineering like Civil, Mechanical, Electrical as well as in Sciences the depth was far greater. I still don’t know why this was so. What does that matter? Students can sense this. Some of us even tested this level of knowledge by asking questions. In the case of those subjects, we either cut classes or did something else and learned mostly from books.

    3. Once we started learning a few things from books, we realized that we don’t really need teachers. That was quite a bit liberating. In fact, I consider that as one of the best parts of my Engineering education.

    4. The learning was more accelerated when we went to work. In fact, most of the work given to me was not done before by any one else so it set me on the path of discovery (search). We figured out a way to finish the work but there was this nagging feeling that there were better ways.

    5. Online learning is another matter. I don’t like quizzes and assessments interrupting the flow. I think there should be an option to turn it off. The great thing about online course is that you are certainly learning from an expert. When you can’t deliver a lecture but need to write the material to be interesting, you do find innovative ways of presenting information. You cut all the fluff, don’t waste students time and try to give them the most effective way to do something. Designing such courses is certainly a challenge.

    6. I have a model in mind that is based on problem based learning. Give student a problem and see how they try to solve it. If they cannot, you can tell them a list of things to know to solve the problem point them to the material and let them ask questions. This will work only in certain fields. Most of your time (as a teacher/course designer) goes into structuring your course as a series of such problems that grow in complexity and depend on the knowledge being built during this process.

    On a more philosophical level, I think we need lot of experimentation and innovation in learning. Teaching people how to teach and teaching learners how to learn may be some starting points. I also like peer based learning since peers have the same problems as you but they figured it out ahead of you. They are closer to your level than a trained teacher in a particular subject area.

    This is a topic close to my heart (has always been). I am still trying to figure out why I like some subjects more than others and why I learn certain things faster than other things.

  3. Regarding point #2. It is a direct consequence of low pay in higher education systems. In the case of schools, most teachers are women (also I presume the majority to also be married) and so they are just an additional bread winner and can subsist on low(er) pay. Also, the fact that work hours end at 4PM also open up avenues for supplemental income – coaching class etc. In the case of higher education, these become difficult but the salary unfortunately is not too different leading to the brightest never opting to take up the profession.

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