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The Learning Bit
September 2, 2012 1:38 AM   Subscribe

Recent developments in online learning have increasingly democratized the exchange of information in higher education: the launch of University of the People, a tuition-free online university; Khan Academy's acquisition of SmartHistory and its growing emphasis on humanities and liberal arts; the University of Reddit's crowd-sourced lessons being taught in real-world classrooms; Skillshare creating a community marketplace for teachers and students; Lore opening its doors to learners from all walks of life;  major institutes in India putting every class lecture on YouTube in English; LectureFox collating together free university lectures from across the web. Of course not everyone is happy with the way things are going.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (67 comments total) 196 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks. I had no idea about those two online schools.
posted by Malice at 1:58 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Speaking personally, I can take Daphne Koller's Probabilistic Graphical Methods course either: I'll take the video course, even though I know that meeting Dr Koller for weekly seminars would be a much better experience. Lucky Stanford students.

Also lucky me, in front of my computer at night.
posted by kandinski at 2:17 AM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here is a long list of learning sites compiled on reddit

Here are some more intellectually stimulating websites.
posted by Knigel at 2:44 AM on September 2, 2012 [16 favorites]


"Like Socrates" - as though Athenian society promised education for anyone but the utterly rich and privileged. And as though today's society provided gainful employment for hewers of wood and carriers of water.

The objection in the NYT article comes from a very privileged position, indeed.
posted by Michael Roberts at 2:45 AM on September 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


Its great that online learning is being streamlined and democratized, but are any of these places offering degrees? Cuz it seems like that's what employers are looking for.
posted by dave78981 at 2:59 AM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


U. of the People offers to Associates degrees, and two Bachelors of Science degrees (in Computer Science and in Business Administration). It is not accredited, but they are working on it.
posted by Houstonian at 3:13 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


I thought the op-ed article (last link) was interesting. The writer compares the very best of classroom instruction with the average of online learning. About classroom instruction, he says things like this: "Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background."

He contends that online learning cannot provide that type of improvisation, and says about a filmed Yale course that " there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject."

I think he makes a good point that the average online learning still has a ways to go in figuring out how to make learning more engaging and responsive, but it is still a relatively young field. Relative to classroom instruction, which has been going on since forever and is more times than not also nothing you couldn't get from a good book on the subject.

People are hungry for knowledge. Maybe you want a degree, or just to know how to write a few lines of code, or maybe you want to know how to make a necklace or change your car's oil. Colleges used to fill that need with formal classes and continuing education courses, but who can afford them now? Maybe if all the classes were like a symphony, it would be worth trying to pay for it, but I sat through many expensive classes that were not inspired or engaging, but instead were about reading a book and then making sure I read the book. I also had classes that were amazing, but it was a crap-shoot as to which one I'd get.

I think they author would be better served by trying to solve the problem of creating his jazz composition with online content, rather than bemoaning change.
posted by Houstonian at 3:32 AM on September 2, 2012 [11 favorites]


Cuz it seems like that's what employers are looking for.

Dumb employers look for degrees. Smart employers look for experience.

(Not that degrees are bad. Just that you should think twice about jumping through expensive extra hoops to impress someone you wouldn't want to work for.)
posted by DU at 3:50 AM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


After nearly 30 years of not formally practicing, I'm wanting to get back into doing family/adolescent counseling. I have the degrees, I have the appropriate license, I have approval for insurance reimnbursement, I have a peer who will allow me to work out of his clinic, but I do NOT have that edge of freshly honed skills and new knowledge of the field that I had when I first came out of college.

As I looked at going back to school for a year or two to get up to speed, the cost, at my age, wasn't going to provide a great ROI, I'm just not going to work long enough to make it worthwhile. And the idea of crafting my schedule around arbitrary course times at a University 35 miles away (nope, not going to live in the dorm, thanks!) didn't appeal to me!

This is a case where online courses make sense. I had already started doing some research, and just the other evening was considering an askme to tap into the community's knowledge of courses available...so, thanks for the post!
posted by HuronBob at 3:52 AM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Smart employers look for experience.

Smart employers also look for every excuse they can find to pay you less. So do most dumb employers, come to think of it.
posted by XMLicious at 3:56 AM on September 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


The problem is quickly becoming too much free online info.

What we need now is a way to figure out what online courses are best given what it is you're interested in learning how to do.
He contends that online learning cannot provide that type of improvisation, and says about a filmed Yale course that " there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject."

I think he makes a good point that the average online learning still has a ways to go in figuring out how to make learning more engaging and responsive, but it is still a relatively young field. Relative to classroom instruction, which has been going on since forever and is more times than not also nothing you couldn't get from a good book on the subject.
Well, it's true that you can learn a lot of this stuff just by reading books in the first place. A couple of years ago I tried learning something with MIT's OpenCoursewear. Even though the material was free, you still had to buy the text book.

But, once I got the textbook, it had everything I needed right there, so there wasn't really any reason to bother with the course material. You just have to read the book

So what is the value of a large lecture/video of a large lecture? Small groups with a TA or even just a group of students is helpful because if you're confused you can ask a question. The TA should know or someone in the group might know.

But the big difference in taking a class is that you actually get tracked and get feedback as to whether or not you're actually learning the stuff. You might buy a book on a subject, read a chapter or two, then set it on the shelf and forget about it for years.

If you have deadlines and especially if you have tests to make sure you're learning the material, then that probably provides a helpful framework to move you along.

So anyway if you think of school as "information + motivation" then while books can provide information, you also need a source of motivation.

(and if you think of grades as a kind of "gamification" already, it's easy to see how you could extend that in an online setting to make courses even more compelling)

Oh, and of course there's also the issue of certification. It would be interesting to see if in the future some kind of score or grade from a free online learning place might be useful on your resume.
posted by delmoi at 4:30 AM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Dumb employers look for degrees. Smart employers look for experience.

(Not that degrees are bad. Just that you should think twice about jumping through expensive extra hoops to impress someone you wouldn't want to work for.)
What percentage of employers are "smart" though? You might really luck out and get an awesome job somewhere, but that's not going to happen with everyone.

And if a company has a reputation as an awesome place to work (like google) then they're going to get a ton of applicants and will need a filtering system.
posted by delmoi at 4:32 AM on September 2, 2012


You don't always have to choose just one or the other. I have my students watch online course material that I have personally selected to augment classroom instruction. Also, older instructors may be unaware that youth culture is video friendly the way it was comic book friendly when I was young, though my teachers foolishly discouraged reading them.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:41 AM on September 2, 2012


Online courses make sense for many adults, especially if they're looking for factual knowledge or procedural skills and in some cases transformational learning, if they already have the study skills and mindset of independent learners. Online courses make sense for kids in some circumstances, too, in many cases and if they have someone guiding them. But I am troubled by the impoverished view of "learning" that pervades our idea of education these days. It seems as if we have bought whole-heartedly into the idea that learning is just about pouring memorizable facts and relevant skills into someone. School done right, is about building relationships and networks, about developing habits of mind and engaging with others. And like many other worthwhile things, it often requires a sacrifice of time in order to get the full effect. Anything that promises us a full education in spare time without real interaction is selling us snake oil.

My other problem is related. The world of education has always eagerly embraced the shiniest new technology, but what we do with it is all too often the same thing (or less). A lot of the on-line stuff I see is intellectually barren or it is designed under the unwarranted assumption that lecture or drill constitute instruction. Lesson design, to be successful, works best with a wide variety of modalities, the engagement of different levels of intellectual skill, and someone working with you who cares whether or not you get it. And it requires the knowledge that just putting something online and using shiny stuff does not mean the learning will be transformational. I can't tell you how many "webinars" I've taken that were merely lectures with PowerPoint and a little chat on the side.

In my own classroom I use a wide variety of tools. My quizzes, for instance, are online, my website has the whole curriculum, my students share their documents with me electronically, and right now the kids are finishing up their entries on the summer reading blog before I ever meet them. But they are tools, not a substitute for physical presence. That face-to-face visual & auditory social interaction is how human beings are designed, and learning can much deeper (and works for more kids) when it's done that way.

Caveat: Online learning can be better if the alternative is (a) nothing at all or (b) bad education.
posted by Peach at 4:47 AM on September 2, 2012 [12 favorites]


Many of the MIT courses displayed are about a decade old, or at least date to the last year of the Bush administration. So you're not getting up-to-the-minute or even fairly recent info in fields where things do change a bit over an entire decade or even over five years or so, especially as regards fields that more directly concern social, economic and political change, or have some practical or technical slant (urban planning or management, say).
posted by raysmj at 4:47 AM on September 2, 2012


The writer compares the very best of classroom instruction with the average of online learning. About classroom instruction, he says things like this: "Every memorable class is a bit like a jazz composition. There is the basic melody that you work with. It is defined by the syllabus. But there is also a considerable measure of improvisation against that disciplining background."

A lot of criticism of online education have a whiff of "let them eat seminars" about them. Are you going to get the same kind of experience, the literally formative experience of discussing ideas with small groups of fellow students and dedicated professors from any kind of online education? Of course not, but many 21st c American college students are not really having that experience now.

Williams, Amherst, and Middlebury have nothing to fear from this kind of competition but most college students don't attend that kind of college nor do they want to. Low - mid ranked state universities on the other hand have more to fear.
posted by atrazine at 5:05 AM on September 2, 2012 [13 favorites]


So what is the value of a large lecture/video of a large lecture?

I find it much easier to learn from a video. I've been learning programming for decades, and screencasts, conference presentations and lecture videos have transformed the speed at which I'm able to pick up programming concepts and practices. YMMV etc.
posted by sleepcrime at 5:17 AM on September 2, 2012


Low - mid ranked state universities on the other hand have more to fear.

I've taught at low-to-mid-ranked public universities where class sizes rarely got above 40-50 students for basic Intro to American Govt., with most coming in around 30 students. I was just reading, however, about an Intro to Congress course at Harvard with 279 students, where 100 or so have been suspected of cheating on a take-home exam. Ranking of the university has far less to do with things than you evidently assume. It has nothing to do with it, really.
posted by raysmj at 5:54 AM on September 2, 2012 [10 favorites]


That Harvard course in question is taught by a non-tenured assistant professor, by the way, not a superstar.
posted by raysmj at 5:55 AM on September 2, 2012


A lot of employers nowadays require that you apply to jobs through their online systems, or else upload your rezume directly to a system. Those systems search for specific keywords (often poorly), to determine whether the person doing the hiring ever even sees your resume. In addition, most employers don't do the hiring themselves.

So if you're a person with little experiential knowledge of what a job entails or you are a computer program, you'll be operating with a checklist- typically not one that's especially open to interpretation.

A degree in a given field is much easier to include on that checklist than a vague concept about what kind of experience will qualify a person. In my city, any advertised job probably gets an average of minimum 500 applications; so I think a smart employer might set up such a system and look for a degree. As we become more standardized, technical and populated and competitive, quantifiable will win out over qualifiable more and more, and a person's subjective or potential skill will become less important in the initial stages of the hiring process.

That said, the opportunity to access information for free is awesome and if free education can become accredited it would be a huge step forward for social justice and against elitism. The format needs some work, but problems like group discussion could easily be managed by meeting up with other people to study the content.
posted by windykites at 6:02 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


The objection in the NYT article comes from a very privileged position, indeed.

I agree, as someone who has benefited from an extremely elite education. Compared to what I had in both undergraduate and graduate school, including tiny classes, intimate contact with professors, extensive reading of primary and foundational texts, and ample funding and support for independent research, these online offerings look rather paltry to say the least. But for someone who will never had the opportunity to access higher education at all, these courses are leaps and bounds better than what was available even ten years ago.

Low - mid ranked state universities on the other hand have more to fear.

At least based on what I can see, the local Directional State Universities are going to do just fine, because a lot of what they provide is education tied to the regional job market, and having a degree from one of them counts for more than does a degree from a distant elite school. As mentioned immediately above, class sizes are much smaller than at the flagship schools, too.

The real threat, I hope, is to those for-profit schools that take advantage of poor students' access to debt. If a substantial fraction of those students switch to free or almost-free online options, then some real good will have been done.
posted by Forktine at 6:09 AM on September 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


NYT article does come from a privileged position; the objections to that seem to come from a stance that says the rest of us do not get those privileges and should make do with lower standards for learning because that's the way things are. How about instead saying we all deserve better learning experiences than only online courses late at night?
posted by Peach at 6:23 AM on September 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


I love how people seem to think that a "real" university education involves sitting in tiny, 10 person seminar classes constantly interacting with a professor who knows who to push you, specifically, to learn as much as possible.

Well look, not everybody is a classics major at Harvard. I've had classes as large as 500 people and as small as 10 but in pretty much all cases, the amount of interaction between instructor and student was negligible. As long as somebody is there to answer questions and grade homework, I might as well have done my enter degree via video recordings. In fact, several of my classes were taught via video recordings and I don't think it made a lick of difference.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 6:35 AM on September 2, 2012 [6 favorites]


The whole idea that "smart employers" will increasingly look for meaningful experience rather than some worthless sheepskin sounds very intelligent and meritocratic, but how does an 18-year-old get experience? All the examples I'm aware of involve knowing the right people, being a natural entrepreneur/self-promoter (founding your own startup as a teenager) or some incredibly serendipitous confluence of circumstances (you're working at the local fast-food place when you hit upon a novel idea to improve their computer ordering system. Getting the fast-food job in the first place was probably as competitive as Harvard in terms of how many people were rejected.)

The system of "work hard/get a degree" actually worked for wide swathes of the population. A really smart middle-class kid probably can't attend Andover or New Trier or any of the other top high schools, but he stands a good chance of going to the state flagship or a top private university with a generous financial aid budget, where he'll become friends with the students from the top high schools and compete with them on something resembling an equal footing.

If distance learning were so great, we'd also have distance employment. No more places like Wall Street or Silicon Valley where the top talent is concentrated together and can learn from each other; instead, we'd all be watching videos and working in isolation. But that's not going to happen in any area that we actually care about. I was reading about a conference on distance learning recently involving some of the top leaders in the field -- yes, of course they all flew out to the same location.

If we're going to replace the current educational system, which is also a research and job training system to some extent, with something else, telling students to cobble together an education from online videos and picking up some kind of undefined "experience" along the way probably shouldn't be it.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 6:37 AM on September 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


Ugh, I hate how video-based most of these are. That's not exactly learning at my own pace.
posted by adamdschneider at 6:53 AM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have the fancy elite education that makes me way over privileged on this subject, at a liberal arts college where no class was ever over 20 and there were no lectures or tests (and tuition was as ridiculously high as you think). I went to both public and private major research universities for grad school. I did not envy the undergrads at either school.

I teach at an open-access four year "directional" university. Our maximum class size is 30, 24 for majors classes. This semester, I have a non-majors intro class with 28, a majors intro class with 22, and an upper level majors class with 10. Our tuition+fees maxes out at ~$2000 per semester, which for the vast majority of our students is covered entirely by state and/or federal aid with no loans. It is possible to complete a degree with us taking courses only at night and on Saturday. If you went to an Ivy League school or a big flagship school, there are some things you missed out on about how a lot of other folks go to college.

I do not fear the elimination of my fancy liberal arts college. I don't actually fear the elimination of my job, either. I know that we provide an education far superior to what you can get from only watching videos or reading books, and we have the college completion and job and grad/professional school placement stats to support that. My only fear is state governments who buy the hype.
posted by hydropsyche at 7:03 AM on September 2, 2012 [5 favorites]


The objection in the NYT article comes from a very privileged position, indeed.

I did my undergrad at the Canadian-equivalent of a directional-state university. We have larger class sizes in Canada, but also TONS of personal contact with our professors and instructors, of you want it. Most of mine had their whole office hour free.

Yes, if I lived in a remote area, my choice might be one between online learning or none. But there are also better ways to offer online or distance learning than to just isolate a student Colleges in rural BC already had sattilite branches the size of a store front 15 years ago - they did online learning, but they also had classroom learning with an instructor and (most importantly) classroom contact with the other students (about 10-15 in my uncle's small town).
posted by jb at 7:29 AM on September 2, 2012


I'm frustrated both by the implication that public universities, elite or not, all have massive classes (which people have challenged, but only for a subset of public universities), but also by the implication that a large lecture course is necessarily bad. No, you just teach it differently. Maybe it's objectively harder to teach a lecture course well, but that doesn't instantly mean students were fools for going there instead of somewhere capping class sizes.

What is relevant to this discussion, though, is that when you videotape a lecture, you're reduced to only some person stood in front of a board (or worse, to my mind, the powerpoint slides with voiceover) and you're likely going to lose a lot of what that person did to help make the course good. In some subjects, I suspect this isn't much of an issue. Almost everyone gives math lectures the same way and other than that being there helps some people (me) concentrate, watching it later probably doesn't lose much. Who knows if we teach math in the optimal way, but until we change the trend, it videos pretty well. If it's a class where the instructor can run a discussion in a 500 person lecture (yes, I've seen it), that's probably not going to work so well on video.
posted by hoyland at 7:30 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you want to see the future of education, read Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age; where the PDA/tablet/human-integrated information system is the defacto teacher/mentor/muse of your average human, replete with optimally gamified edu/tainment systems teaching you Newtonian physics as you leap about a low-grav 4th-dimensional simulated space chasing after golden coins and avoiding turtle-chomps. Hell, that was practically my education, anyway.
posted by jet_manifesto at 7:34 AM on September 2, 2012


I have used online video lectures extensively since I graduated from college. I switched up my major late in the game so I use them to fill in gaps. I find it very difficult to learn a new subject by reading a book, but the lecture format clicks for me. So without these online lectures I probably never would learn about these subjects. I use knowledge from them all the time in my job. I wouldn't want them to replace an in-person college education but I'm sure glad they exist.
posted by scose at 7:38 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


The Siege of Academe: "For years, Silicon Valley has failed to breach the walls of higher education with disruptive technology. But the tide of battle is changing. A report from the front lines."
posted by kliuless at 7:45 AM on September 2, 2012


From the U.Reddit intro to Social Anthropology course syllabus :
"So Freud, in recent years, has been abandoned by most psychologists, being left on the side of the road. Anthropologists saw Freud sitting there, and picked him up, taking all his texts with them"

Um!?!?!?!?!?!


To be fair, the Arab Spring course on U. Reddit seems pretty good, though the instructor may be being a bit naive in trying to control the spread of his uploaded class PDFs
posted by Bwithh at 8:02 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seems quite orthogonal to how employers use non-STEM undergrad degrees: as a second order means to assess IQ, organization, persistance, and potential social network, all of which receive data points from the conventional admissions, extracurricular, grading and graduation processes, but which can take nothing from online things.
posted by MattD at 8:07 AM on September 2, 2012


Anyone who claims to have a science degree obtained from online education has a fake degree*.

They are not prepared and not trained to do science. You can't learn driving by watching a video and having a chat, and you can't learn a practical subject like science with online teaching by watching a screen.

Online science degree=fake degree.**

I consider practical, lab-based, real science, where techniques are taught, hypotheses tested in person and connections between theory and practice made to be irreducable to online format. ***.

Yes, I know, a lot of science labs in large universities are also 'assembly line', but if done properly, this is something where real universities offering real degrees simply can't be outcompeted, if they put the effort in to making labs meaningful. I spent the summer doing just that to a lab sequence: I intend to make it one of my life's missions to do it to the curricula in my institution. If you are faculty, this is where your efforts can really make a difference and save some aspect of The University.

If you want the future of education, it's offering things that watching a video/having an internet chat cannot replace.****


* Maybe if you claim you are a theoretician.

** I'm repeating this, because I want the meme to hold. I mean it: lots of administrators would love to replace faculty with poorly-paid adjuncts delivering rote courses to hundreds of students via a video. This process will destroy the universit......and also destroy science education.

*** Notwisthstanding the expense of the equipment, it will never be cheap to offer real lab-based education because of the panopoly of safety, environmental and health legislation to do with working with chemicals, biologics and high-energy equipment

**** Now, another debate is how many Trained Scientists vs degree-holders-who-know-some-science should there be. That's another debate, but I would point to my argument I made before:

Quoted from here

The one thing I would like to see in science education, is for kids (not college age, waaaay before then) to actually learn the scientific method. Solid principles like...

- A hypothesis is useless if it can't be tested
- How will I know if the experiment worked?
- Correlation is different from causation

Such principles are woefully lacking in all branches of science education, and quite scarily they are often lacking in the teachers themselves (e.g., the number of shcools that teach creationism vs. evolution, which breaks all 3 of the above principles). Here's an old link about 65% of students in a science fair falsifying their data...http://t.co/Lo9NHJ9T

Forget about training more chemists/biologists/astrophysicists. If the kids leaving high school to pursue liberal arts courses don't get what science is, they'll grow up to be the same folks who vote down NIH budget increases, vaccuum up homeopathic cures, and whine because there's no "cure" for cancer yet (hint - there likely never will be).

Deal with the shocking lack of undersanding of what "science" actually IS in the minds of the general public, and the impact will be far greater than a thicker pipe full of new soon-to-be-jobless STEM graduates.

posted by lalochezia at 8:10 AM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Speaking as someone who just wants to know more stuff and couldn't give less of a shit about what pieces of paper some asshole at a desk thinks I should have, this is all incredibly exciting.
posted by cmoj at 8:26 AM on September 2, 2012 [21 favorites]


The phrasing leading to the final link is misleading. Mark Edmundson is bemoaning what his school, University of Virginia, is trying to do to jump on the Online Learning bandwagon, and how it fits into his class structures as a English/literature professor.

Shakespeare is a different sort of topic than sciences and maths. Literature has nuances that certain students and classes might already understand, while others need the background, as Edmundson noted. As hydropsyche pointed out, small liberal arts classes and colleges are not threatened from online courses. Heck, traditional universities are not going to go away, either. You can create online "classrooms" where students and teachers converse, but there is no online equivalent for hands-on labwork.

I was talking to a math professor from a University of California school. His love is topology, but he has to teach some more basic courses, too. He said that he has some 800-student classes, where he's lecturing in front of students he will never know, and can see YouTube videos replacing that course.

Book learning is fine, if 1) that works for you, and 2) you can get the books you want or need. Online learning is great alternatives to expensive text books and large hall lectures. You can rewind a presentation, pause to take notes or look up related information, or watch half of a lecture now and the other half later.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:55 AM on September 2, 2012


filthy light thief: "Shakespeare is a different sort of topic than sciences and maths. Literature has nuances that certain students and classes might already understand, while others need the background, as Edmundson noted."

Yes, unlike math, where nobody understands anything? What he describes, gauging the student's understanding, and supplementing their weak points is very similar to how the Khan Academy math series works. Except it works on the individual level, rather than the median student in a classroom of 30 or 300. There are certainly challenges, primarily in written assessment, to applying this model to teaching Shakespeare, but I get the impression it would be far more improvizational, more personalized, than the lecture hall model Edmundson assumes is already perfect.

Not that your average Blackboard or Moodle install does anything like this, sadly.
posted by pwnguin at 9:12 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


It drives me crazy that whenever the topic of "technology doing something traditionally done by people" comes up, everyone gets polarized. I think there is a middle ground here.

I've taught in the classroom for 25 years and couldn't imagine learning only by video courses offered online. To me the experience of a classroom (granted mine is high school) where different people with different points of views are shared is a much more fulfilling experience - and where the teachable moment occurs - I might teach the same "lesson" 12 times in a week, but every single time is different depending on the reactions my students have and what direction they want to take the lesson.

I have also had many students where if they could be left alone to learn online at their own pace, it would be a better learning experience for them - they don't want discussion, they just want to learn what they need to know to pass some stupid state test and then move on.

I think the key is finding out what fits best for people and which is the best instructional delivery for each person or topic being covered; if you are basing a degree on learning a topic and then regurgitating that information to pass tests, then online works fine. Or if you are working full time and have zero time to attend college, or if the courses you want to take aren't offered at a local college - again, online is great - I'm all for people learning whatever they want to learn. It is a pain in the ass to drive an hour to a campus to sit through a lecture where there is no interaction and you just could have stayed home, saved your commute time and gas money and watched a video of the lecture, I totally get it.

But, if you're learning something like an ethics or philosophy course or classroom management where interaction with others is kind of necessary to understand the topics, you're going to get more from a classroom taught class where sharing and discussion are encouraged.

Neither way is right or wrong, every person has to decide what works best for them and so giving people options is the best way to go. Choice is good. Education is entering the age of individualized instruction and I don't think it will be long until every student has an IEP (not just the special education ones).
posted by NoraCharles at 9:17 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


Reminded of Zappa's line: "If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library." Now more than ever.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:24 AM on September 2, 2012 [7 favorites]


To me the experience of a classroom (granted mine is high school) where different people with different points of views are shared is a much more fulfilling experience - and where the teachable moment occurs - I might teach the same "lesson" 12 times in a week, but every single time is different depending on the reactions my students have and what direction they want to take the lesson.

This! It isn't always the interaction with the teacher... but a good teacher brings out discussion amongst the class that enriches the exprience.

This can be done online, but educators who are uncomfortable with the technology will need training and support to make it work.

I'm in an online-delivery grad program and my own experience was that the discussion among my peers didn't really reach the academic-debate level until after our first annual two week in person session. That is one case, and different instructors, comfort with grad school level discussion or comfort with the online environment among the students might have all changed that.
posted by chapps at 9:28 AM on September 2, 2012


If distance learning were so great, we'd also have distance employment.

The very areas where distance learning excels (computer science) are those where there is the most telecommuting.

I work from home as a programmer, and I also have taken a couple of Stanford's online classes. Why not just read a textbook? Because the explanations are better in the online classes, and because there are assignments right there that will be automatically checked for correctness.
Also, I can watch a video while I chop vegetables or do other time-consuming but low-thought cooking tasks.
posted by novalis_dt at 9:55 AM on September 2, 2012


Yet more public intellectuals bite the dust.

So long, I'll miss you.

We'll all miss you.
posted by jamjam at 10:10 AM on September 2, 2012


I think the key is finding out what fits best for people and which is the best instructional delivery for each person or topic being covered; if you are basing a degree on learning a topic and then regurgitating that information to pass tests, then online works fine. Or if you are working full time and have zero time to attend college, or if the courses you want to take aren't offered at a local college - again, online is great - I'm all for people learning whatever they want to learn. It is a pain in the ass to drive an hour to a campus to sit through a lecture where there is no interaction and you just could have stayed home, saved your commute time and gas money and watched a video of the lecture, I totally get it.

I've been to University at two different times. Wouldn't want to change my experience there at all. I relished the interaction I had with both teachers and students. I was a talker and questioner. Doing that is more difficult in an online in environment but not impossible.

At this stage of my life I don't really need another piece of paper that says that I know something. I've got that filed away in my desk. Since it was filed I've never taken it out, nor in any of my jobs have I had to use it or will likely need it in the future.

I haven't stopped needing to learn though both in a personal and professional capacity. The growth in online courses over the past few years has been fabulous and something I've been taking advantage of, mostly the free ones and few paid ones. I have no interest, time or money to warrant going back to a physical institution. Online education opportunities have allowed me to basically create my own continuing education program and it's great. I miss in classroom discussions and the learning that can come from them but it's loss isn't great enough to need it at this point.

I'm the type of person that online education works perfectly for.
posted by Jalliah at 10:50 AM on September 2, 2012


You know, I think the real thing to lose from online education is motivation.

I'll take Dr. Koller for example. I've been to some of her lectures, and some of her speeches and interviews and stuff about online education. She Believes with a capital B. Judging by the amount that she works and gets done, she's one of the superwomen that Anne-Marie Slaughter said that we couldn't all be, in that one article. Yeah, she's comparable to Hillary Clinton in badassery. How many women at Stanford CS got the clue that you can become a great programmer and CS person and a women from her? By my informal sense of things, there's at least some. A tremendously inspiring person.

If Daphne Koller teaches a class of 200,000 instead of 200, that inspiration becomes one of celebrity, because that is what she becomes, a celebrity. The chances of you being inspired by her increase, because more people know about her. However, the amount of inspiration that each person gets decreases as each person's connection to her decreases, so the MOOC people inherently get less inspiration, even though it's the same brilliant person. The same problem is already there in the faceless, anonymising online class.

It seems that the true goal for an education, if you want creative people, is inspiration and motivation. I'm getting pretty far to matching the CS kids who started coding when they were 5, by working till I get ulcers, and I think anyone from the street without too much mental baggage can. The only real question is how you get people to work like the begeesus.

It seems like that the more anonymous a mode of learning gets, the less possible this is. But we have a fair mode of completely anonymous learning already: books. Therefore, online learning seems to be like a good subject for the work of learning, but not as good an object-setter and source of motivation. That's actually a big problem, motivation, and we can easily measure up the ways in which we lack motivation at all levels of society by the fact that we can get a lot of shit done that we haven't. I mean, we haven't been back to the moon. We don't have hoverboards yet. Manned interplanetary space travel is still science fiction.

Czikszentmihalyi wrote in his Creativity that most succesful creative (by his definition, which is recognized novel improvement in a field) people did not think much of their educations, especially in high school, but recognized instead individuals who specifically stoked their motivations and drove them to get to the tops of their fields. It's pretty obvious that we need that sort of creativity for, eg, making your space elevator, but our lives will call for more creativity even for the average person, because it gets easier to deal with change if you know how to make change. I suspect that nobody who's written a nontrivial app for a smartphone thinks of them as magic, just as anybody who's welded steel doesn't think of steel as magic anymore.
posted by curuinor at 10:59 AM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


Just posting that the dialogue in this youtube video:

http://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-history/art-history-1700-1800-age-of-enlightenment/v/jacques-louis-david--death-of-socrates--1787

Is eerily similar to dialogue in one of my favorite podcasts, Out There Radio:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7p6hDyh8SMo

That said I'm really excited about online education! All it needs is some legitimacy and some signalling mechanism.

And yes, U.S. professors, your business model is a bubble (look at education costs), so fair warning that it's only a matter of time!

I've always thought it would be interesting if for-profit colleges were instead organized something lie a law firm - with high-value professors becoming partners, and bringing in additional partner-track professors as the firm grows. Basically, cutting out the middle men of college administrators and admission-pumping extracurriculars. Obviously the most important thing would be creating and maintaining a legitimate brand, but that's essentially all that the administrators of "non-profit" colleges are worried about nowadays anyways.

This is also really exciting because I definitely saw a lot of my classmates in high school going to non-elite colleges because of lack of funds. Now that we've abandoned public universities as a society, maybe we can make this up by making education so cheap that money no longer separates the knowing from the know-nots.
posted by The Ted at 11:16 AM on September 2, 2012


Anyone who claims to have a science degree obtained from online education has a fake degree*


I mostly agree with this. I do think it depends on what a person is planning to do with the degree. A researcher in a lab uses different set of science based skills then say a science writer, an administrator or project manager. I took several science and lab classes in Uni as part of a general degree. Since then I've explored several options in doing a more comprehensive science degree. I don't need it for an applied science job or profession but it would be helpful in some of the work I do.

In Canada we a have a couple of online, accredited institutions that offer science degrees. Most of the course work is online. However in order to complete the degree you have to attend practical lab work sessions. The difference between a regular Uni where it happens every week is that that these are intensive week long (or more) supervised sessions as well in home lab work with personal equipment.

I think depending on what a person want to do with their degree such an option works fine with most of the theoretical part offered through online delivery. Most of the science courses (not labs) I did take in house were just lectures and beyond questions there was very little in class discussion anyways.
posted by Jalliah at 11:17 AM on September 2, 2012


It also, by happy coincidence, keeps students in the blissful isolation of their homes and away from the undesirable political ideas that tend to congregate on college campuses. No wonder it's being pushed so hard by certain interests.
posted by junco at 11:22 AM on September 2, 2012


And yes, U.S. professors, your business model is a bubble (look at education costs), so fair warning that it's only a matter of time!

Why just US professors? Yes education is expensive in the US, but it's creeping that way elsewhere around the Western world - look at the UK, for example. And there are very few governments that wouldn't love a chance to cut back funding for education.

I'd be more excited by this democratisation of knowledge if I didn't have the sinking feeling that this will become the flag that people who want to strip funding from education entirely will rally around, instead of it freeing up money to be used elsewhere in education, like providing ancillary services that all students need. It actually takes a great deal of time, training and money to run a good online course; of course, if you think that a 'good online course' = videoing famous professors and putting those videos online, then that's not the case.)

There is the other issue that beyond a certain level of course you really need access to research materials and that costs even if you're getting it online. That is going to cost someone somewhere money.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:47 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


If Daphne Koller teaches a class of 200,000 instead of 200, that inspiration becomes one of celebrity, because that is what she becomes, a celebrity. The chances of you being inspired by her increase, because more people know about her. However, the amount of inspiration that each person gets decreases as each person's connection to her decreases, so the MOOC people inherently get less inspiration, even though it's the same brilliant person. The same problem is already there in the faceless, anonymising online class.

It seems that the true goal for an education, if you want creative people, is inspiration and motivation. I'm getting pretty far to matching the CS kids who started coding when they were 5, by working till I get ulcers, and I think anyone from the street without too much mental baggage can. The only real question is how you get people to work like the begeesus.

It seems like that the more anonymous a mode of learning gets, the less possible this is. But we have a fair mode of completely anonymous learning already: books. Therefore, online learning seems to be like a good subject for the work of learning, but not as good an object-setter and source of motivation. That's actually a big problem, motivation, and we can easily measure up the ways in which we lack motivation at all levels of society by the fact that we can get a lot of shit done that we haven't. I mean, we haven't been back to the moon. We don't have hoverboards yet. Manned interplanetary space travel is still science fiction.


Good point. Even though I think online education is great when I think back to my Uni days the things that stick with me most are the personal moments I had with some professors. At the time I had some thoughts rolling around in my brain which seemed to be outside what was being taught in the coursework. For a while I thought I was off the plot. I'd say things in class and get blank and your nuts looks from other classmates. It was unsettling until I took advantage of professors office hours to have one on one discussions. They didn't think I was nuts and provided motivation and guidance to keep on that path. I had one that told me point blank just to get through the required coursework but focus on something more. He even provided me with guidance in that direction. I had another class where I failed to turn in the final paper (I was working on something else related and chose to take a lower grade) and was shocked when I ended up getting an A in the class. After a inner debate whether to just take it (maybe a mistake) and say nothing I talked to the prof and he said that although he was disappointed I didn't get the paper done he made an exception because through all of our discussions he knew I had the material down back and forward.

Those teachers most definitely provided the motivation to trust my own brain and not necessarily listen to the status quo. They also helped me understand that education and learning for me was inherently personal and not just showing others, like employers that I knew things.

However even with that personal experience I know that everyone isn't like that. Some people aren't and probably will never be interested in the same way I was. Many people do just need the education to work and get on with other things in life that they're interested in pursuing.

Access is another thing I hold to be important. I consider myself lucky that I could afford both in time and money for my University experience. With the cost of higher education these days not every one can. Those 200 people that can get access and be taught by a motivating teacher are lucky. I hope that form of education never disappears for those that desire it or get it even if they don't realize what they are getting. However that leaves the other 200,000 out of luck, completely. They don't get anything at all. I would much rather a good teacher, even a 'celebrity' teacher have access and people in turn have that access to the knowledge they have, even if a bit gets lots then to only have a minority of people get anything of it all.

This is one of the main reasons I think online education and teachers who have put their teaching work out there for everyone is fabulous. I've followed the courses of some pretty amazing people that in the past I would only ever see if I went to their home institution. A few that I wish I could go pick their brains like I did my own professors. I'm not realistically physically ever going to go to Harvard, Stanford and Oxford though so I will gladly take what I can get from them. I find that now anyone can get access to some of these great minds to be a pretty amazing thing and overall better for education as a whole.

The other thing I've found to be pretty cool and not possible in the past is that now people can access similar coursework on the same subject from numerous people. Last year I went through the lectures of three different professors, from major institutions giving a basic philosophy 100ish level course. The subject content was similar but each had their own take and each offered something the others didn't. Before all of this online stuff doing that sort of thing was very difficult if not impossible. I sure wish that this existed like it does now when I was in University. I would be using it to get more from the subjects I studied.
posted by Jalliah at 12:01 PM on September 2, 2012 [3 favorites]


When Wal-Mart came along, its economy of scale crushed the mom-and-pop five-and-dimes and local department stores, especially in rural areas. But it didn't touch Nordstrom, which sells in its clothing space but to a different clientele, and it co-exists with Target AND Dollar General, which aim at socioeconomic groups slightly above and below Wal-Mart.

When Amazon came along, its economy of scale crushed the mom-and-pop local bookstores that had survived getting crushed by Wal-Mart, and it eventually wore down Borders (which was perpetually mismanaged in the latter half of the 2000s). But it didn't touch niche bookstores, only dented used bookstores (and arguably made running a used bookstore easier by making it easier to sell on the web), and has coexisted with Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million.

Whenever I talk about people about this whole Coming Apocalypse Of Higher Ed, I find they're either clueless about what's coming, or they're failing to understand how this apocalypse will take shape (and how universities can survive the rocks and shoals). The university isn't going away. Just because you have Amazon Prime doesn't mean Nordstrom is pointless. Just because Home Depot brought economy of scale to the home DIY guy doesn't mean you won't shop at Ace or some local chain.

And what do the local store and Nordstrom have in common? Service. A niche. Depth of knowledge. And you can figure schools that have those things will survive the Apocalypse. Offer quality at a fair price and those with money will choose you.

The idea that Khan or UotP are going to push universities out of business is laughable. It's like naming a 4 year old blowing snot bubbles as your CEO. They're not mature enough, there's no accreditation, and the space is still dominated by schools whose entire purpose is to create student loans that its victims have no choice but to pay back.

Of course, in all of this, the people who will hurt the most are the creators. Why hire a tenured prof at $100K when you can hire three coursewriters for that? And thus teaching will be commoditized. The great teachers wil get a reputation and draw the money touring and teaching. Everyone else, though, will just have to figure out their own brand and hope they can pay their bills.
posted by dw at 12:37 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


The great teachers wil get a reputation and draw the money touring and teaching. Everyone else, though, will just have to figure out their own brand and hope they can pay their bills.

I'm honestly not trying to be snarky when I say: Welcome to the way the rest of the world lives.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:47 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


dw: Of course, in all of this, the people who will hurt the most are the creators. Why hire a tenured prof at $100K when you can hire three coursewriters for that? And thus teaching will be commoditized. The great teachers wil get a reputation and draw the money touring and teaching. Everyone else, though, will just have to figure out their own brand and hope they can pay their bills.

Unfortunately, what will probably suffer is basic research. Those $100K profs aren't hired primarily to teach; they conduct a lot of the basic research (i.e. anything that advances the field without an immediate profitable application). Those coursewriters won't be doing any of that, and funding for foundational research is getting harder and harder to come by.

This does damage the educational experience in the long term, too. STEM students benefit a lot from attending active research institutions - you pick up a lot of the 'atmosphere' of an institution actively advancing the field, and undergraduate research is incredibly beneficial while contributing valuable work experience. Losing that would do a lot to damage the edge we have in higher education.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:07 PM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Jalliah: Even though I think online education is great when I think back to my Uni days the things that stick with me most are the personal moments I had with some professors.

Yes! I think this is true for a lot of people, and it's particularly valuable when you're young and still trying to find your vocation (in the capital-V-voca "calling" sense of the word). It was for me, to the point that I still think of two of my undergrad profs as my intellectual parents. And this was at a large research-I state school!

In fact, I'll go one step further, especially since we're discussing Daphne Koller as an example: I think that the in-person interaction is absolutely crucial to increasing the participation of groups who are underrepresented in the field. It addresses the issue from both sides -- first by easing the path of the non-majority student, since nothing beats the guidance & support of an interested mentor in onvercoming one's insecurities; and second by (slowly) normalizing diverse participation, since in a real-life classroom the underrepresented folks are at least visible (and hopefully also visibly contributing).
posted by Westringia F. at 2:28 PM on September 2, 2012


dw: The UoP is regionally accredited, although there are still myriad issues with the place (instructors are more or less told exactly what to do, to my understanding, can't use their own texts or design their own course, it tries to go for a vocational slant that underfunded community colleges can usually still do much better and with knowledge of regional marketplace needs, it has a history of dubious recruiting practices, etc.), but what's hurting it at this point how crazy expensive it is. Otherwise, its enrollment is down due to increased competition and--according to its parent company--regulation.

It costs more to go to that place than most regional public universities, even the big ones with giant sports programs. It also has increased competition from myriad for-profit schools developed to get into the federal loan and grant-accepting biz (including some traditional universities that decided it would be smart to get into the act).

You want to talk about a bubble? There's your bubble. It's the subprime education market, practically. The Obama administration has tried to regulate the for-profits, btw, but not as much as it would like to.
posted by raysmj at 2:31 PM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ugh, I hate how video-based most of these are. That's not exactly learning at my own pace.

I never attended a live lecture that was exactly my own speed. Video has pause, rewind, FF, and scrub in the timeline.

Unfortunately, I don't see many video courses that take advantage of the potential of multimedia. Most of these videos don't even have chapter markers, let alone any interaction with non-video content.
posted by charlie don't surf at 3:15 PM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Obama administration has tried to regulate the for-profits, btw, but not as much as it would like to.

Lobbyists have fixed that 'problem' for consumer choice.
posted by lalochezia at 4:10 PM on September 2, 2012


The UoP is regionally accredited

I believe dw was referring to the University of the People referenced in the post. (Hence UotP, though I understood University of Phoenix on the first pass too.)
posted by hoyland at 4:17 PM on September 2, 2012


I recently attended a postsecondary teaching and learning conference where the topic of online instruction came up quite a bit. I teach face-to-face humanities courses with small class sizes, and have never taught an online course, so it was interesting to listen to my colleagues' accounts of teaching online courses. I do believe that the opportunity to take a course by distance can be very valuable to people with schedules or geographic circumstances that don't permit them to be in a physical classroom. But I think online courses can work only if the student already understands how to be a successful student. That is, that they are good at time management, they understand how to study and process information, they know how to participate effectively in academic discussions, and already possess good reading skills.

Part of what students learn in my courses is, to put it bluntly, school skills. First-time students often don't know how to participate in a class discussion without guidance. They often have not yet developed effective work or study habits. Yes, I teach at an open-enrollment institution, but from my conversations with other instructors at R1 universities to community colleges like mine, a LOT of students are coming to us without the necessary academic skills. Is it our job to teach them? Well, that's another debate. However, the reality is that a lot of students aren't prepared, and you NEED to have these skills and habits before taking an online course.

I get the feeling that many institutions see online course delivery as a cheaper alternative, cutting down on instructional or administrative costs. A good online course takes time to develop, and administer, and requires that the instructor be very available to the students who want help and support. If done well, it may not be any cheaper at all than a face-to-face course; it might just provide an alternative for students who can't make the face-to-face sessions for whatever reason.

For first-time students, or students returning to school after a long time, I think colleges and universities may be underestimating the amount of support people need and want from their instructors and their institutions.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:48 PM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]


Unfortunately, what will probably suffer is basic research.

I'm not sure it will. I spent nearly a decade working for a Large Research University, and the more the institution took in money from NIH, NSF, and private sources, the more important basic research became to the university. In fact, my particular division had more "research" faculty than "teaching" faculty.

Over time, though, it became more about keeping the research money rolling in than research or teaching. Part of the research funding -- the part earmarked for "indirects," the money meant to keep the lights on and the water running -- was getting skimmed off and used for keeping the teaching part of the institution alive. And this was before the brutal budget cuts from 2008 on.

I don't think basic research will suffer. I can see the public universities that have become research dynamos -- Washington, Johns Hopkins, UCSF, perhaps MIT -- turning into full-blown academic research centers freed of the obligation of teaching pesky undergrads. So basic research will continue, mixed in with all the targeted grants.

But the general idea of universities being research centers may well be dying. If you're not on the NSF/NIH gravy train (such as it is, I mean, it's what, not even .01% of the annual US budget?) you're not going to have a reason to focus on research. Of course, with the rise of Khan and other educational startups, you're not going to have a reason to focus on teaching, either.
posted by dw at 5:55 PM on September 2, 2012


But I think online courses can work only if the student already understands how to be a successful student.

This is a very good point. At this point, don't we have evidence to support this idea?

dw: I don't think basic research will suffer. I can see the public universities that have become research dynamos -- Washington, Johns Hopkins, UCSF, perhaps MIT -- turning into full-blown academic research centers freed of the obligation of teaching pesky undergrads.

FWIW, Johns Hopkins and MIT are private. UCSF doesn't have undergrads.
posted by hoyland at 5:59 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is not the first time I've heard someone claim that Johns Hopkins is a public school. Where is this notion coming from?
posted by Nomyte at 8:54 PM on September 2, 2012


I'm not formally trained in my field, although I'm successful at it. Now I'm taking online courses to back-fill the fundamentals. So far, I'd say I'm learning something new -- but that I've never needed to use at my job -- about 50% of the time, and I've learned a few things I wish I'd known sooner. It is really a fantastic thing for someone like me, who can't justify the time and expense to go back to school, but who also genuinely wants to learn as much as he can about his field.
posted by davejay at 9:23 AM on September 3, 2012


I just want to second, third, and fourth everything hurdy gurdy girl said. The retention rates for online programs are horrendous precisely because so many people, especially the traditional undergraduates, don't have any idea what they are getting into.

The current MOOC craze is fueled by hype, not research. We need and evidence based approach to online education.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 8:54 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Introducing MRUniversity
MRU’s First Course: Development Economics
posted by kliuless at 9:06 AM on September 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


FWIW, Johns Hopkins and MIT are private. UCSF doesn't have undergrads.

*smack* I knew all that. Sigh.
posted by dw at 11:25 PM on September 5, 2012


No more pencils, no more books...
posted by Renoroc at 9:08 AM on September 8, 2012


No more pencils, no more books...

I think I've seen this before.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:42 AM on September 8, 2012


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