Online education: beyond MOOCs

6 minute read

I’ve been doing a lot of reading about online and distance education lately. I’ll be writing about this topic recurrently during the next few weeks, so I will give some words of introduction to explain where I’m coming from.

Last spring I got some first-hand experience with a more open lecture model for my introductory course, putting lecture videos online here at the blog for worldwide viewing. This experiment was a great success in many ways. I had an average of two thousand views for each of the lectures, and I had hugely positive feedback both from long-time readers and from some who started following the blog just because of the lectures. As I told some representatives from my university last month, I was basically running a MOOC (massively open online course) from my Rackspace account.

But what some readers may not know is that I have an even deeper level of experience with developing online courses, through my involvement with the Great Courses. My two courses, Major Transitions in Evolution (taught with paleontologist Anthony Martin) and Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates, were huge undertakings that took months of development. The Great Courses team includes education specialists who really know how to design courses and lectures for maximum impact on learning. They have an incredible art department and were able to bring out many of the beautiful aspects of the fossil record for our courses. The art program is beyond textbook-quality, and for Major Transitions is so central to the course that we decided it could not be offered as an audio-only course. For Rise of Humans, I had a tough choice – broaden the audience by making it possible to listen to lectures without video, or broaden the visual program at the cost of a narrower audience.

The thing about online courses is that we are constantly faced with such compromises. It is really easy to film lectures and make them available to students. But filming lectures meant for a classroom is a really poor learning experience for students who aren’t in the classroom. Today we have several different models emerging for online learning, each of which tries to address this problem in a different way.

Another problem is that most instructors don’t put nearly enough work into lectures to maintain consistently high quality. How many teachers check the facts behind a good anecdote, or provide references along with the content? We have seen already with many MOOC courses that lectures are uneven in quality of information. It takes a tremendous amount of work to check the quality of information for an entire lecture.

Beyond the information content, there is the visual content. How many lecturers are using visual material drawn from papers without permission from the journals? Use of copyrighted material is acceptable under fair use guidelines for in-classroom presentations, but that isn’t true for video material that will be shared many times in an online format.

Carole Cadwalladr in the Observer has a long piece up yesterday, “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?”. Cadwalladr directs a lot of her attention to the Coursera course offered on genetics and evolution, offered by Duke University biologist Mohammed Noor.

Coursera’s solution to the problem of online lectures involves a massive online discussion forum for students. Cadwalladr found this to be the most compelling aspect of the course:

They're just videos of lectures, really. There's coursework to do, but I am a journalist. I am impervious to a deadline until the cold sweat of impending catastrophe is upon me. I ignore it. And it's a week or so later when I go back and check out the class forum.
And that's when I have my being-blown-away moment. The traffic is astonishing. There are thousands of people asking and answering questions about dominant mutations and recombination. And study groups had spontaneously grown up: a Colombian one, a Brazilian one, a Russian one. There's one on Skype, and some even in real life too. And they're so diligent! If you are a vaguely disillusioned teacher, or know one, send them to Coursera: these are people who just want to learn.

That reflects my perception: The success of online courses is the extent to which students form a community. If you can get the students talking to each other, you will see some good learning. I have highly engaged students in my course here at UW-Madison, Biology of Mind, even though none of them are required to attend lectures. The discussion that emerges around their online writing is much richer than I could manage in a classroom with such a large number of students. I accomplish this by making peer evaluation and interaction part of their grades.

With the Coursera offerings so far, tens of thousands of registered students may yield a few hundred who actually become highly engaged. But a very high proportion – usually more than 80% – just tune out entirely before finishing many assignments. Noor’s reaction:

How gratifying must it be to be a teacher on one of these courses? When I catch up by email with Noor the next day, he writes. "I'm absolutely LOVING it!" By phone, he says it's one of the most exciting things he's ever done.
What's more, it means that next semester he's going to be able to "flip the classroom". This is a concept that Khan has popularised and shown to be successful: students do the coursework at home by watching the videos, and then the homework in class, where they can discuss the problems with the instructor.

Personally, I also love to hear when students are enjoying the online lectures – and if you are one of my Great Courses students, I love hearing from all of you, too!

Still, what sets the Great Courses apart is the amount of production that goes into the lectures. These are far from ordinary classroom lectures – they are specifically developed for maximum information value outside the classroom setting. When I think about what an online course should look like, I need it to have rich media and storytelling that goes well beyond the ordinary lecture.

After my online lecture experiment last year, I could have just given out my recorded lectures to my current classroom students and “flipped” my lecture this semester. I think that the learning in my field (paleoanthropology) has much greater potential than recorded classroom lectures. Online education presents a great opportunity not only to bring the classroom out into the world, but also to bring the world into the classroom. The lecture format may be great for presenting mathematical concepts, but in anthropology we can make use of interviews, narratives, reports from archaeological sites, and demonstrations.

I present material on primates in my courses, but I also show film of wild primates. This is because, however much I knuckle-walk and pant-hoot for my students, I am not a chimpanzee. They can learn more from an integrated explanation that includes recordings of chimpanzee behavior, than they can learn from me merely talking about chimpanzee behavior. At the moment it would be very challenging to find film footage that could be incorporated into an online course, and even more challenging to produce the material into a documentary format that can contribute to student learning.

I don’t have final thoughts on this one, just a continuing set of questions. I think for online education to meet its promise, we must improve the quality of material beyond that available within the classroom. When that happens, in-person education may fit seamlessly with online presentation.