What Campuses Can Learn From Online Teaching

Source: WSJ, Oct 2012

<Insightful comment>

Insightful comment by David Z.

I took the MITx course online last spring. I’ve taken online courses at Coursera, Caltech, and Udacity. I have become an addict at Coursera, wanting to take way too many courses than I have time for (e.g. Neural Networks for Machine Learning from the University of Toronto, Scientific Computing from the University of Washington, Web Intelligence and Big Data from IIT, all graduate courses at their universities I believe). I think I’ve seen enough to form an opinion.

And I’m an MIT graduate…so President Reif’s views do strike home.

However, they don’t go far enough.

First, Coursera and edX allow you to play the videos at a faster speed. They all either intentionally or unintentionally allow you to download the videos. Playing the videos faster DRAMATICALLY improves comprehension. I’ve only had one course that was best a normal speed. I’ve seen 2 courses that 2x isn’t fast enough. Most are best played 1.5-1.75x normal speed. The correct speed for the student based on the professor and the material lets the student stay in the range where they are learning without getting bored. In a lecture, there are times a student miss the material because their attention wanders.

Videos can be replayed. If something is missed in lecture…it is missed. Online, it is easily replayed. Classes can be reviewed during assignments or tests (time permitting). And the replay can be at a very fast speed.

The dead periods of the lecture are edited out. The student covers more material in less time. It makes reviewing the material easier.

The lectures are divided into smaller segments (for most classes). This lets you ‘attend’ a lecture for 30 minutes, read your e-mail, have lunch, mow the lawn, then continue. Sometimes an 90 minutes is just too long for complex material.

The student can stop the lecture at any point to read supporting material, google the Internet for supporting material, try out what was learned. This minimizes going through a lecture that the student doesn’t really understand. If they figure it out a day later, they missed content of the lecture. Here, the student can fill in the voids. Can replay the lecture.

The online homeworks usually allow multiple submissions. edX had unlimited submissions with the solutions after the deadline. Coursera typically has limited submissions, but gives the answers immediately. That is making grading a problem, requiring many more ‘answers’ so they can be changed. All will have a problem with solutions floating around the Internet in a year or so. So far there doesn’t seem to be a good solution. However, since these courses aren’t for credit, does it make a difference.

The student isn’t on campus and the lectures are not at a fixed time. This provides lots of opportunity to fit into a busy schedule. Very important for people pursuing further education while employed.

When many universities have courses online, the professors will be directly competing with each other on a course by course basis. There is a tremendous difference in presentation skills between the professors online. With several offering similar courses, the students can pick and choose who they prefer. In a traditional university you are constrained to that universities professors. Additionally, the student can take similar courses at several universities, picking up additional nuances each time. The neural networks course will be my third in machine learning, the others being from Stanford on Coursera (Coursera’s URL is listed under Prof. Ng) and Caltech’s own online program (where the Prof. Abu-Mostafa actively participated in the forums).

This form of education is so superior I expect it to sweep through undergraduate college education within a decade. It may cause many schools to fail or dramatically restructure. It will probably also sweep through middle and high school, however resistance from…


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