Online Ed

A slew of articles have been posted the past few weeks about the "revolution" in online education ventures like Coursera and Edx, but also more widely in universities around the world.  The technology has allowed two main things to happen. Firstly individual instructors are flipping their classes. This is a technique where course content like lectures and other materials are recorded and posted online. Class time is then devoted to seminar discussion and problem solving. Secondly, there are new MOOCs or massive open online courses offered for free where literally hundreds of thousands of students take an advanced mathematics course based on a Princeton professor's course materials which have been revamped into a snazzy online delivery system. As you can imagine, there are all kinds of concerns about the future of higher education in these new modes. Will they make some universities and/or academic staff obsolete? Will student experience of university life be obliterated?

I thought I'd just post a few of these articles here in one go as well as provide a few comments. 

In brief, although I think the modes are likely to change, the actual time and effort it takes to learn will not. Students and staff alike will have more options to transfer knowledge, but the transfer itself is bound by our humanity. "As the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder likes to joke, “With the possible exception of prostitution . . . teaching is the only profession that has had no productivity advance in the 2,400 years since Socrates.”

  1. The time it takes to develop and teach with online education technologies does not significantly decrease for most people. In many cases it increases and takes more time to maintain and produce video lectures, upload them, develop quizzes for them, and maintain the materials year on year.
  2. One size does not fit all here. Yes, an advanced algebra class could be built and run again and again for millions of students. However, upper level quantum mechanics will likely need updating as the research progresses. So too, in the humanities our research is constantly contributing to knowledge and updating even first year courses on religion would be necessary to stay up to date.
  3. Even with the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), the initial investment of putting the material online and then managing it is, itself, a massive venture. Some have received hundreds of thousands of dollar grants just to develop MOOCs on things like creative writing. Although extensive testing works in some instances, the humanities also still require essays, which, in turn requires human time and work to mark them adequately. Even with new artificial intelligence essay marking software, which is going to be released for free by MIT, a human being must mark 100 essays to "train" it to mark the rest. So too, many skeptics remain dubious about computer essay marking's effectiveness and the ease with which it can be duped. 
  4. Some of these articles worry about how the university experience is going to change after this online revolution takes hold. I think many are correct in arguing that universities will not be able to continue to sell lecture theatre style courses without providing some significant added value. Why would a student sit through a general first year introduction to religion course when the materials are already online for free somewhere else? It seems to me we will be required to spend more time in smaller seminars with more personal engagement to help students better understand, interpret and engage what they are downloading.
  5. In the end, the extra time staff put into online materials can enhance the time put into class with students. What's happening is that rather than seeing the class time as the place to gather information, and the out of class time where students discuss and organise it, the reverse is being practiced. What students most need are the practical skills and the habits of the mind that universities are ideally suited to nurture, e.g. curiosity, thoroughness, and cognitive empathy. Class time should focus on teaching those skills and use them to engage with our specific discipline areas.
  6. After all is said and done, I think academic staff will be as vital as ever to these new modes of teaching. It's not the end of the university but a new beginning. Financial pressures have been making courses larger and larger. We should be able to use these technologies to get back to more engagement with students face to face. As broadband becomes ubiquitous, smartphones get smarter, and all of this technologies becomes cheaper and more reliable, we should be able to harness their potential to get back to engaging students as has been done for thousands of years.
  7. I think there is a barrier that many will have overcome as they learn how to use and develop these technologies. However, they are getting easier and easier to use. A lot of attention has been placed upon MOOCs, but just as important is the advances in usability for a range of online tools.
  8. I think there will be lower level courses that are MOOCed (yes, it's now a verb). However, this should free many academics' time to be focused on more advanced teaching and research at upper levels.  I don't see why this won't be possible to coordinate if managed properly so that academic staff make the transition equitably.
  9. However, this is not to avoid the obvious. A shake up is coming in higher education and there will likely be fall out for those who either can't embrace the new modes or refuse to. This is not just a matter for those lecturing in these courses. Equitable transition depends on managers who understand the actual costs and develop new workload models required to fund and support these new systems. In any case, even if all university professors flipped their classes tomorrow and made half of them MOOCs, it would still require an enormous amount of work to manage and maintain. So too, the time it takes students to learn more or less remains the same. In other words, I'm not sure recent advances indicate the beginning of the end, so much as the end of a new beginning for higher education.
timothywstanley@me.com