A little more on online learning

Following up on my post from this weekend (“My foray into online learning”), I wanted to share more widely part of a conversation. Larry Moran is a biochemist at the University of Toronto and blogger (“Sandwalk”), who responded to my post with one of his own (“Online Courses: The Great Courses”).

Larry has been skeptical of the press surrounding online learning. When journalists report on the initiatives undertaken by schools like Harvard and MIT in learning online, they often pose these efforts as a credible replacement for the traditional college classroom experience. My own opinion is mixed. I think that many students are much better served with online learning than a degree that would require them to go into debt by $100,000 or more. That’s not the problem we face at the University of Wisconsin for our in-state students, nor is it the issue at many other state universities, but it is increasingly the economic reality of the “prestige” colleges. In his post, Larry asks, are online classes really university courses?

I replied with a comment on his post, and wanted to share my reply with my readers here:

I believe that learning is not just for college students, but for everyone. The best learners are not those trying to get a grade or a degree, but those who come to the subject with an interest deep enough to sustain them, even without external rewards or recognition. I love talking to these people and they inspire me to be a better teacher. I think you underestimate the potential audience for your courses. Most of the Great Courses customers are professionals who like to expand their horizons by learning outside the traditional classroom. Some of my university colleagues are customers! I don't know about Toronto, but here in Wisconsin we have a program allowing anyone 55+ to audit courses on campus for free. I love having those senior students in my classes, and the depth of knowledge and interest they bring is unparalleled. The traditional classroom has several things to offer that are difficult to manage online. I can give students exams and quizzes that give students additional incentive to read and study. I can walk students through laboratory exercises, and I can give them direct feedback on their work. Some kinds of material are very hard to adapt to a video or computer-based media format. In my field, skeletal materials are difficult to handle on a computer. As far as classroom style -- that must vary with the content. In some of my courses it is most appropriate to lecture with relatively short interactive experiences for students. That's a combination of the style of content and the class size. These same classes have dedicated laboratory sessions that engage the students in more directed interactions. In other courses, the amount of student contribution to the discussion is much higher, and making archives available to the public would be inappropriate. Several instructors on our campus are now using the video system to record lectures and provide them online for students. There are some statistics on this now from student evaluations. Most students use these to review material, improve their notes, and clarify their understanding of the classroom sessions. They report very high satisfaction with having the sessions available, and my perception is that student learning has improved. Nevertheless, I think that a shorter-format lecture directed to online viewing would be more effective for students than the classroom archived sessions.

I’ll be writing more about this topic. Online learning is clearly going to become more and more important to the future of higher education, and I’m working hard to be at the forefront of that trend.

I will say, that if Harvard, MIT, or Stanford were really serious about their online learning initiatives, they’d be heavily recruiting professors who are effective in that format.