Should We Even Be Offering Online Classes?

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It’s probably clear—I’m not a fan of online classes. Honestly, I very surprised out how much emphasis universities put on creating MORE online classes.

However, I’m ready for you to change my mind.  Let me offer my thoughts and then you can leave a comment or reply on twitter. Seriously—change my mind.

Learning is about doing

Let me start with my fundamental idea about the nature of learning.  You can’t learn if you don’t do.  OK, I will stop you right there.  Here is what you are going to say (or at least one person will say this):

I don’t buy this learn by doing stuff.  I spent a bunch of years learning physics and we just had a textbook along with traditional lecture. It looks like I turned out just fine.

Yes, you turned out fine—but what about everyone else?  Anyway, I still think you learn by doing.  Some humans are pretty good at watching a lecture or reading a textbook and then engaging in the material in some way—maybe just inside of their heads.  I don’t know.

But here is real truth.  No one learns real stuff (like physics) by just watching a lecture or a video or a presentation.  There is no short cut to real learning.  It takes effort and struggle.  It is through this struggle (in our minds) that we change and learn.

What are these “learn by doing” things that could happen in a course?  Here are just a few examples. I’m using an example of a physics class.

  • Work physics problems—as homework, or tests, or group work or whatever.
  • Interactive questions.  This could be clicker questions in class or conceptual physics questions such as physics tutorials or something.
  • Ranking tasks.  Students get several options for a question and they have to rank them.  Many more ideas at PhysPort.
  • Card sort or speed dating problems (pretty much anything you see on Kelly O’Shea’s site).
  • Find the error in someone’s physics solution—I think this is also from Kelly.

OK, you get the idea.

Can you “do stuff” online?

Yes. I believe that it is technically possible to have an online course that engages students.  It has to be possible, but I’m not sure exactly how this would work.

Maybe I’m old, but for me it’s like having a video conference?  Have you ever been in a video conference?  Surely you have.  What happens when there are perhaps 4 or 5 people in the conference and there is that ever so slight delay in communication?  I don’t know about you, but for me it ruins everything.  I can’t stand it.  It seems like it would be the same as talking face to face, but it isn’t.

This is how I feel about online learning—it seems like you could do all the things I listed above but do them online.  It just doesn’t seem to work as well.

Oh, and if your online class just takes the powerpoint lectures you use and puts them online—that just seems silly.  Honestly, why are we still using powerpoint stuff that just covers the same material as the book?

Is the future of learning online?  

Maybe.  Who knows.  Maybe I’m just resisting change that will happen anyway.  I’ll say this—if the goal of learning is just to transmit information, then what the heck are we doing in class?  Wikipedia already does this better than I can.

Two links:

Why are we trying to compete nationally? 

Let’s just focus on local.  We can win at local.  If we (the university) want to compete online, aren’t we competing for students that could use MIT’s online programs or some other online university that does a better (or cheaper) job than us?

I’m not against videos.

In case it’s not clear, I have been putting educational videos online for a long time.  A long time.  Here is one from 2009.

My feeling is that if there is a short lecture or demo I could do in class, I might as well put it online.  That way students can watch it and rewatch it (and other people can use it too).  These videos then allow me to do more active-learning things in class rather than going over the solution to some physics problem.

But I don’t think you can just put a bunch of videos online and say “boom – online course”.  If you think that, what about just posting the textbook online and calling it a course?  It’s essentially the same thing.

What do students think?

Sometimes I talk to students. I ask them what they think about the online courses that they take.  Here are some things they say:

  • I like the online courses—especially for intro courses.  That way I can get it over with and do the work from home.
  • I hate online courses.  I get super confused and it’s really hard to learn.

I could be wrong, but it seems as though they like online courses for simple stuff but not for complicated courses.  Courses that are just a bunch of facts work great as online courses but not something like physics.

Perhaps we have too many courses that are just a collection of facts.  Yes, some of these courses are necessary—but it should just be a few.

Focus on community of learners.

Let me share my chocolate chip cookie model for higher education.

College is like a chocolate chip cookie.  The courses a student takes are like the chocolate chips and all the other stuff they do between classes is like the cookie dough.  What if you put all the courses online?  Then you just have a bunch of chocolate chips.  You might like that, but it’s pretty hard to call it a cookie.  Personally, I prefer the whole cookie.

The most important part of college aren’t the classes—it’s all the other stuff.  The goal of higher education is to build a community of learners (where the faculty are also learning stuff).

The end.  Change my mind.