My foray into online education

3 minute read

I pass along for consideration this essay by Robert Tracinski “Bigger than Facebook”.

Let's put it this way: if you can build a $100 billion company by using the Internet to replace the college yearbook--imagine what you can do if you use the Internet to replace college.
That's what is just beginning to happen. It all became official when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appointed as its new president the guy who is responsible for MITx, the school's free online education program.
What makes MITx so interesting is that it isn't just a bunch of lectures posted online. It also includes discussion groups and coursework and a certification program for completion of the work. My first thought when they launched MITx was that it's a little unclear how such a "certificate" differs from a "degree." In turn, that raises questions about how universities are going to be able to keep on jacking up their tuition every year and expecting that students go $100,000 in debt, when so much top-quality education is becoming available for free.

The article is an incomplete examination of the scene developing in online education. It can be considered alongside “Learning by app”, which reported on a study showing that online learning was just as effective as classroom learning for some kinds of content.

I’m still evaluating my “open courseware” experiment from this spring semester. If you missed it, the lectures are archived at my course website (, though I will have to move the streaming content soon. I taught 160 on-campus students in my lecture course, but gave many of the lectures and most of the materials online for free.

The benefit of classroom lecture archives was most evident for on-campus students, who could rewatch portions to get the material in more detail, supplement their notes, or make up for missed classes.

Personally, I think that online lectures based on filming classroom sessions make for a poor viewing experience. I was really lucky over the last couple of years to become involved with the Teaching Company, who make dedicated lecture courses available on DVD and audio. You can see my profile page from the Great Courses, or check out my two series of lectures: Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates, and Major Transitions in Evolution, which I co-taught with Anthony Martin. The experience making content specifically for home viewers and listeners is really different from making lectures for classroom interactions.

Working with the professionals in a real studio has helped to focus me on finding ways to do better online videos for my course content. My online students didn’t get the practical lab materials and face time that my in-class students get. I’d like to find better ways to communicate that multimedia content with them, as well as make a more engaging listening or viewing experience.

But even with the imperfect system of classroom lecture captures, I reached more than 3000 people with some of the lectures. The lectures’ average viewership has been more than ten times my in-class enrollment. I have been so happy to hear from several people who watched some of the online lectures this semester. They’re being used in lots of ways that I didn’t expect, by a surprising cross-section of viewers. To give a hint – my lectures are already being used to improve a documentary project.

If you have comments about the online materials that would be helpful, I’d like to hear them. I’m planning a different format for the fall, with videos produced specifically for home viewers. These can be a lot more targeted, with tighter narration than a classroom lecture. I’ll also be doing some of the content for my senior-level course, Biology of Mind, which covers brain evolution.

It’s a lot of work to write and produce these, and my university doesn’t give me any resources to do it. So I really appreciate hearing the way that people use the materials, so that I can justify my time and maybe seek resources for more online content in the future.