Online teaching is the future?

Recently, Bill Gates gave us the main reason for the ongoing revolution in university teaching:

Fortunately for all of you, you’re in a generation where all of these courses are going to be online and basically free. I’m taking solid state physics from MIT, though MIT doesn’t know it. You are far more empowered in terms of your ongoing education than any other generation has ever been.

It is, indeed, about empowerment. By teaching to students online, we are telling them that they can learn at any time and at any place, not just when they are in a classroom. News flash: you don’t need to be in the physical presence of a Physics professor to learn Physics. You do not need a professor for reading a textbook.

Michael asked a related question: why isn’t university free? Why don’t we just put all of the teaching material online, for free. Well. Michael. I do so. Right now. Except for graduate students, I never meet students. I have tutors who answer students’ emails and correct papers.

There are a few things you should know about online teaching however:

  • Mostly, professors are not there to provide scientific content. There are books, online articles, wikipedia, and existing online videos from which all of the content can be derived. There is the odd exception, mostly at the graduate level, where no textbook or online material is available. But even original courses are mostly aggregates of existing material.
  • The professor and his assistants provide the structure and the motivation. Offering solved problems and examples is a great way to get the students going.
  • Watching 3 hours of video a week on your computer screen is really boring. A large fraction of what happens in a classroom has nothing to do with the material.
  • A course is mostly about assignments and tests. The whole concept of a structured course falls apart if you do not get a grade at the end.
  • Most of the expenses in a well-run university have to do with salaries. Thus, online teaching is every bit as expensive as classroom teaching.

Why is online learning taking off now? It is all about the bandwidth and latency. You do not need video to have a great online course, but you need to offer the student a lot of interesting data quickly and interactively. Web technology has reached the point where you can surpass the classroom with a well-designed online course.

4 thoughts on “Online teaching is the future?”

  1. I certainly agree you don’t need the physical presence of a Professor. But most people do need other people to talk to, ask questions of, and so on. For that reason, I think a major part of really making online learning work as well or better than the traditional approach is going to be the development of social institutions (local meetups, online fora, assignments, exams, and so on) to accompany the basic course materials.

  2. Yes, see my last paragraph. It begins with sufficient bandwidth and latency.

    What is, fundamentally, the difference between a face-to-face meeting and our current electronic exchange? Bandwidth and latency.

    Distance learning, where you get a book and study by yourself, has existed since — since Gutenberg…. But books have terrible latency. Most authors never answer when you ask a question. Some people have learned Physics on their own with books and articles, that has always been possible… but it is a difficult process because the feedback loop is very long. You may study 4 years, then attempt to publish your first article and… it gets rejected… that’s tough.

    Bandwidth is also very important for motivation. You can’t tell right now whether I am upset or pleased by your comment. If you could see and hear me, all these non-verbal indicators would be there — assuming we share some cultural background. You are missing bandwidth. This may leave you to assume the worst: that I am annoyed at you and you may decided never to write to me again. Students tend to stick with a course if they feel that you care… but how do you convey feelings without bandwidth?

  3. Also, you seem to assume that it does not work, right now, as well as classroom teaching. It does! Online learning works. I learn online every single day.

    My information retrieval course, for example, is every bit as hard as any undergraduate course you would find in any top university. I get a satisfaction rate of about 95%: 95% of the students would recommend the course to their peers. Overwhelmingly, the students say that they have learned a lot.

    Are there problems? Yes. But unless you had great lecturers throughout your education, you should admit that many times, classroom teaching fails. And it often fails miserably. At least, when the content is online, the students can see that it is not going to work quickly.

  4. Hi Daniel, I don’t assume that it doesn’t work; I think it works quite well. I do think that, for most (not all) people, it doesn’t _yet_ work as well as the _best_ offline alternatives. I suspect most people would prefer to go to Harvard than to any institution based on an online model. But I think this will change as the sort of changes you talk about in your post are made.

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