Online Teaching Versus What?

Is online teaching (e.g., MOOC) a big deal? In an essay (“Why Online Education Works”), Alex Tabarrok argues for the value of online education (meaning online lectures) compared to traditional lectures. A friend told me yesterday that MOOC was “a frontier of pedagogy”. No doubt online lectures will make lecture classes cheaper and more available. Lots of things have gone from scarce/expensive to common/cheap. With things whose effects we understand (e.g., combs), the result is straightforward: more people benefit. With things whose effects we don’t understand, the results are less predictable. Did the spread of sugar help us? Hard to say. Did the spread of antibiotics help us? Hard to say.  It may have helped sustain simplistic ideas about what causes disease (e.g., “acne is caused by bacteria”, “ulcers are caused by bacteria”) reducing effective innovation. Do we have a good idea of the effects of lectures (or their lack of effect), or a good theory of college education? I don’t think so. Could their spread help sustain simplistic ideas about education? Maybe.

As books spread, the teaching of reading increased. Everyone understood that books were useless if people couldn’t read. The introduction of PCs was accompanied by user interface improvements. This helped PCs become influential– not restricted to hobbyists. Will online education be accompanied by similar make-it-more-palatable changes? I have heard nothing about this. Their advocates seem to think the current system is fine and if it could only be available to more people…

Online lectures will make much difference only if the cost and quality of lectures is the weakest link in what strikes me as a process with many links. It would be a coincidence if the link that can be most easily strengthened turned out to be the weakest link. For example, is the cost of lectures the main thing driving up the cost of college? That would be wonderful if it were true, but I haven’t seen evidence that it’s true. At Berkeley, for example, there has been enormous growth in the administrator-to-faculty ratio.

Here are two arguments used to argue that online lectures are a big step forward:

It will help people in poor countries, like Zambia. There is a long history of people in rich countries misunderstanding people in poor countries. Several years ago I was in Guatemala. I heard about a school being built by a (rich country) religious group in a poor area. After two years, the American running it wanted to leave. No member of the community took it over. It disappeared. “Maybe they didn’t want a school,” said the graduate student who told me about it. Maybe few people in Zambia want online lecture classes. (I have no idea.) If so, the benefit will be small.

It will save labor. Each lecture will be viewed many more times. Saving labor is not always good. It is plausible that the growth of online lectures will mean fewer college professors. Colleges and universities are among the few places where people do research and almost the only places where they do unrestricted research. Most of the research is useless; a tiny fraction is enormously useful. At the moment, lectures subsidize research. By giving lectures, professors are allowed to do research. Fewer professors, less unrestricted research, less innovation. “Wasteful” lecturing might be labor we shouldn’t save.

One thing I like about online classes is the possibility they will connect people who want to learn the same thing, like ordinary classes do. They can help each other, encourage each other, and so on. I have no doubts about the value of this. (I find language partners — I teach them English, they teach me Chinese — way more pleasant and helpful than tutors.)

At Berkeley, I tried to find good lecturers. With two exceptions (Tim White and Steve Glickman) I failed. Almost all lectures, even those by brilliant researchers, were dreary. (A shining exception by Robin Hanson.) They suffered from a lack of stories and a lack of emotion. (At Tsinghua, things are worse. A friend who majors in bioengineering told me that 80% of her teachers lecture by reading from the textbook.)  The power of professors over students in some ways resembles the power of doctors over patients. Just as there is little pressure on doctors to understand disease (if antibiotics have bad effects, it doesn’t harm the doctor who prescribed them), there is little pressure on most professors — at least at the elite research universities that produce online lectures — to understand education. At Berkeley, many professors say they teach their undergraduate students “how to think” or “how to think critically”. In fact, they were teaching their students to imitate them. The simplest form of education. This is neither good nor bad — it depends on the student — but it is the opposite of sophisticated.

A few months ago I assigned my Tsinghua students (freshmen) to read 60 pages of The Man Who Would Be Queen by Michael Bailey, a book full of stories and emotion. Any 60 pages, their choice. No test, no written assignment, no grade. One student told me it was the first book in English she’d ever finished. It was so good she couldn’t stop reading. My assignment had changed real-life behavior: what my student read in her spare time. Maybe it changed her tolerance of homosexuality and the tolerance of those around her. My assignment (not a textbook or academic paper, not a fixed reading) and evaluation (none) differed from conventional college teaching. Experiences like this make me wonder what fraction of important learning during college happens due to lecture classes. (In my case, the fraction was zero.) If the fraction is low, it suggests that online learning won’t make much difference.

12 Replies to “Online Teaching Versus What?”

  1. As I read this, I could not help but consider that blog posts – such as this one – are akin to online lectures (“micro-lectures”, perhaps?), and that the explosion of blogs and blog readers exemplify the potential value of MOOC. At the same time, there is no doubt that blog quality and readership varies widely, suggesting that MOOC, for MOOC’s sake, is a grossly naive concept.

    Quality of content is paramount. Easy, free/inexpensive access to poor quality lectures cuts both ways: the customer, having little investment in acquiring the lecture, is likewise predisposed to promptly drop that lecture if its quality is in the least substandard. Just as a blog’s readership can readily rise and fall with the quality of the posts.

    This may ultimately improve online learning, as long as lessons are taken from successful online lectures and applied to new attempts. The question for me is whether the “old dogs” (the run-of-the-mill lecturers) have the willingness and/or capacity to change. My guess is that they generally do not.

    Seth: I like the blog/lecture comparison. When I was in college, I tried to find good books about the subjects I wanted to learn about. A good book about genetics, for example. These were never textbooks. They were often histories of the subject (a series of stories) or memoirs (a series of emotional stories). Nowadays I might try to find a good blog on the subject. Lots of blog posts convey emotion.

  2. “It would be a coincidence if the link that can be most easily strengthened turned out to be the weakest link.”

    A truth that applies alnost everywhere.

    I am following the internet Harvard Computer Science course and can share some observations.

    Some parts of the academic process scale up readily, like lectures and design of assignments. Others, like marking assignments, not so much. For me, most of the learning takes place when working on the assignments. The fact that it will be seen and marked helps me to focus on finishing. I expect the future will unbundle research from teaching undergraduates and there will be just a few, expert lecturers. There are other issues which come with eliminating the campus as where the students are – in particular cheating is going to be harder to police. It could be that learning and credentials get unbundled, so you learn online with Harvard, but to get a certificate you go to an office and take a paper and pencil test under controlled conditions – a bit like Gmat or US bar exam.

    Seth: Thanks. “For me, most of the learning takes place when working on the assignments.” I agree. For me, there is little learning without doing. This is what I mean about an incomplete theory of higher education. How important is doing? If it is 100% or 95%, yet most courses (outside math, engineering, foreign languages, etc.) provide only a little, then we should be trying to increase doing.

  3. When I was at Berkeley, John Searle (phlilosophy department, class was Speech Theory) was an impressive lecturer – he walked the stage like an actor, using a full dynamic vocal range. Different vocal accents, changes in pitch, changes in volume and body language and a full command of the material.

    Alan Dundes (folklore professor, class was “Forms of Folklore”) was just so fascinated by his subject matter that he made the students fascinated too.

    Also, if you ever have the chance to see economist David Friedman lecture you should do so (I first saw him guest-lecturing at Stanford). He’s more in the mold of Robin Hanson – defending unusual positions them through interesting stories that make connections that wouldn’t have occurred to the audience.

    Seth: I once had dinner with Alan Dundes. Strangest dinner ever. In an hour, he told fifty jokes. Very enjoyable. Many years earlier, I had attended one of his classroom lectures. He was extremely funny — again, nonstop jokes — but the psychoanalytic theory that he used to explain them seemed worthless. This was the strange case, the only one I can think of, where the delivery was great and the content was poor.

  4. I haven’t tried anything on Coursera, but I like the format of Udacity and Khan Academy. The lectures are much shorter, focused and digestible, and they have great software to make the experience interactive and reinforce what you learn. Typical lectures and lecture notes generally offer a lot less than the course book if you can stand to get through it. The benefit of uni is more in the coursework, exams, guidance from professors and the structure and motivation a course provides. I found it harder to make use of the MIT OpenCourseWare materials than go through a Udacity course.

  5. The price of a university education really started to skyrocket once the law was changed to make it impossible to discharge college debt through bankruptcy.

  6. In scholarly conferences, the value of getting together lies not so much in the presentations, as in the kibitzing that goes on in the hallways in-between, and the lunches and dinners where people get together to talk.

    The unstructured bits are very valuable, but there has to be a structure to hang them on. Seth’s students wouldn’t have followed his informal recommendation to read a certain book if they weren’t already interacting with him within a formal structure. So it looks like you need both.

    Seth: It wasn’t an informal recommendation. It was a homework assignment. I can’t imagine an online lecturer saying “read any 60 pages and I won’t test you on it”.

  7. Three Dozen Private-College Presidents Earned Over $1 Million in 2010

    In 2010, the latest year for which data is available, the highest paid president, with $3,047,703 in total compensation, was Bob Kerrey of the New School in New York City. Mr. Kerrey, who left the job in December 2010, received a $1.2 million “retention bonus” and a payout of more than $620,000 in deferred compensation on top of his base salary of $602,593.

    Among the 493 colleges with budgets greater than $50 million, the highest paid sitting president was Shirley Ann Jackson of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, at $2,340,441.

  8. I always had trouble paying attention in class, which had the fortunate side effect of giving me a lot of practice at teaching myself mathematics from textbooks.

    That said, I actually recently tried Khan Academy because I wanted to review linear algebra (planning to teach myself group theory). Before that, I thought the idea of online education was hokey BS for reasons similar to things you said above. I was pleasantly surprised–there was an amazing sense of clarity.

    But I think that it’s for a fundamentally different reason than people think: I was able to pause and rewind. I could therefore skip through segments that weren’t important and play others multiple times. Also, it meant that if I spaced out or had to go to the bathroom, there was no problem.

    And what makes this such a valuable supplement is that while many lecturers are far from perfect, there is something about watching someone giving a tutorial that’s fundamentally different than reading a textbook.

    As for what scheme will actually work, that’s a great question. I think the only straight answer I can give is that the education system as it is now is unsustainable, and when things break, we will hopefully see some serious creative destruction that leads to innovations about how people will be taught.

    Seth: The Khan Academy makes much more sense to me. One reason is that elementary school teachers may have trouble with or dislike math and science — at least, compared to Khan’s teachers. Another reason is that everyone should learn to read, write, do arithmetic, and so on. A third reason is that Khan stuff frees teachers to give special attention to students who are having trouble mastering the material. That’s not the case with MOOC’s.

    I do think there’s something to be said for adding a personal element to learning. An emotional connection with the teacher. Which might happen much better with a video than a book. But I have never heard the advocates of on-line learning mention this much less say how it will happen.

  9. I think online lecturing needs to be considered as only a single tool of online learning. I learn a lot online (as mentioned above, blogs are an important piece of that), but I have never WATCHED an online lecture. I can probably count on one hand the number of YouTube videos that I’ve seen – it’s just not my thing. On the other hand, my husband does most of his online learning (car repair, art techniques, languages, etc.) by watching videos. Hopefully, as MOOCs increase, the purveyors of learning will keep in mind that different students have different learning styles – and, of course, certain subjects work better in certain formats.

  10. The concept of online learning is recent if I am correct and it is imperative that at the beginning there will be lot of adjustments readjustments to be made. While I agree that we can not equate the learning environments of online and offline education but if adopted in a proper way backed by field studies this mode can work wonders for those who cannot afford the luxury of online courses.

  11. I went to school (electrical engineering – EE) with a guy that would skip the lectures (would attend for pop quizzes, etc., of course) and would copy his homework from other people. He had straight A’s and was the president of the student IEEE. He would take 18 credit hours or more (unheard of for EE). How did he do it? He learned best by studying from the books. No need to attend lectures. Unfortunately, the system caused him to jump through hoops that only slowed him down from being productive and getting to work on a real job. I e-mailed him looking for work after losing my first job as a EE. He wasn’t in the business of EE anymore, he followed the money and was a hedge fund worker, not sure what exactly he was doing.

    My point is, people learn differently and the current one-way college trip is valuable only marginally. It seems because it is subsidized by the government to such a great extent that it has become much more valuable than it would otherwise be. Why is it valuable? Maybe because it acts as a screener for employers that shows the person is willing to stick with it for a long time?

    I’ve left EE also for computer programming. Rather than go through another 2-4 years to get a CS degree I’m teaching myself. Books are great, stackoverflow is a great resource, programming themed blogs is great, creating an actual product while teaching myself is great, creating a meet up group in my area is great, connecting with other programmers is great. I think if I were to join a company and learn more closely with programmers would also be invaluable (something I will likely not do since I don’t want to move and work regular office hours – 32 hour weeks is too nice).

    My best resources for learning?
    1) Doing the actual programming.
    2) Reading programming books.
    3) Reading code written by others.
    4) Writing about my code that I have written.
    5) Asking questions on forums about problems I run into.

    Seth: Very revealing, thanks.

  12. Oh, last comment. One of the guys in my programming meetup group I started loves doing research (on electronics). It seems he is making little to no money. He open sources his findings.

    My point? I think there is a lot of research going on out there. People love to tinker and learn. If they are passionate about what they learn then they want to share what they find out with others.

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