Getting serious about online teaching

Earlier this month, Michael Mitzenmacher told us about the record number of students attending his Harvard class online-only. Yesterday, Dick Lipton predicted that online learning will replace campus learning : “I see no reason that On [Online Universities] could not do as good a job as Un [Campus Universities] with this basic goal [Educate Students].” In the comments, Lipton questions the importance of credentials and whether social interactions really need the campus.

I have already written much on the topic but let me reiterate my message:

  • In this new online world, professors are not content providers. They provide structure and motivation. They are role models. And most importantly, by their reputation, professors can provide certification. If someone gets a reference letter from Michael Mitzenmacher or Dick Lipton, I trust they know something about Computer Science, because I trust Michael Mitzenmacher and Dick Lipton. I suspect it is not easy to get these fellows to write fake reference letters because they have a high degree of independence (job security, good money, and so on) and their greatest asset is their reputation.
  • Students are trained to expect classrooms. Many students need structure and constant attention. That is not a good thing! We are effectively training students to be good employees working in large organizations with much structure. Yet, this world made of large and stable organizations has already fallen apart. We urgently need to teach students to learn on their own, using the Web.
  • Yes, there will always be campus classes, the same way there will always be physical libraries with actual books, and newspapers printed on paper.

Further reading:

13 thoughts on “Getting serious about online teaching”

  1. @Misha

    In 2010, we don’t quite know how to reproduce the socialization effect of the campus online. I edited a journal special issue on this very topic (http://socialwebjetwi.info/, to appear in February).

    However, in the last five years, the web has gotten a heck of a lot more social. The technology, the bandwidth are there, or coming soon.

  2. Daniel, do you really think that the “socialization” part will not be affected after completely switching to the online education?

    I believe that “professors as the role models” is the main reason to study, but I’m not sure that this part will be unaffected by going online either.

    Misha

  3. “We are effectively training students to be good employees working in large organizations with much structure. Yet, this world made of large and stable organizations has already fallen apart.”

    This is not really correct. You can’t draw valid generalizations from sensationalistic newspaper headlines. If you look at actual statistics, the world hasn’t changed all that much. There is no solid reason to think that training employees to work in large organizations with much structure will be any less applicable today than it was forty years ago.

  4. Your first point re: professors providing certification doesn’t seem to scale, as it would require everyone to know everyone in order to establish reputation. Or everyone to trust some computer to tell them how reputable a professor is.

    Does this mean that students will be going through university in order to collect a set of reference letters from the most reputable people?

    Will professors really be able to vouch for everyone in their class in a way that is more meaningful then the current grading system? Will the reference letters be more meaningful then the grades they currently assign? Will they be more or less objective? Would such a system be more or less open to favoritism and bias?

    What happens to the students of a professor who becomes disreputable? Do they automatically suffer for the professors misdeeds in the same way that they benefited from their successes?

    Can a professor be a good teacher even if they are not known?

    Not show-stopers, just questions.

    Also, I 100% agree with your statement that students are not ready for student-centric learning.

    –Ed

  5. @Ed I did not mean that a professor’ job was to write reference letters.

    Consider: what is a university degree?

    It is a piece of paper that says that according to some professors (who run the academic program) you desserve a “degree”.

    Most of these professors might be terrible teachers, and it changes nothing. Their primary functions are to be role models, and to provide certification by their involvement (however indirect) in the academic programs.

    Hence, you can change entirely how the delivery of the “content” is done, how the testing is executed… it changes nothing to the role professors play. We’ve been under the false impression that lecturing in front of the students was the professors’ job, but it isn’t.

    So, you can take a lecture by Michael Mitzenmacher, record it and deliver it online to ten times as many students, it does not matter.

    But realize we don’t even need that much to have a Harvard degree. To a large extend, merely attending a degree that Michael can vouch for is enough.

    Yes, some students will prefer seeing Michael live, and they’ll pay for the privilege. And similarly, there will always be people who prefer to do their research using actual books in an actual dusty library. But that’s clearly not where the future is.

    Is this a challenge to everyone involved in higher education? You bet!

    If you have a full time permanent job lecturing to students in classrooms, good for you. If you don’t, you should realize that these types of jobs are very similar to the jobs journalists are losing right now. They won’t go away entirely, but from now on, expect universities to cut back and invest in online learning.

    Or, you can choose to live in denial, and be oblivious to the upcoming earthquakes.

    Your choice.

  6. Sorry, I was focusing on your statement that the role of the professor was not to provide content, but to certify students, and that the value of that certification would be based on the reputation of the professor.

    I agree that the role of the instructor is not to provide content. However, I also believe that learning is not about processing content. The future you’ve outlined here (and I’m aware that this probably doesn’t do justice to your actual perspective on the situation) is still focused on content delivery. While this scales well and is amenable to computerization, it is a pale shadow of what the higher education experience needs to be.

    I believe that it is the instructor’s role to facilitate student learning, guiding them through the information that is already available, providing opportunities for them to learn (i.e. through discussion, problem solving, etc), and coaching them through their learning experience. Information technology certainly has a role to play in the process, but despite its benefits, online interaction will always be a poorer substitute for face-to-face interaction between people.

    I fully expect your prediction on universities pushing online learning will come to pass, but the reasons for doing so will have nothing to do with improving students’ learning experience, but rather with organizations optimizing their operations for scalability and cost-effectiveness.

    –Ed

  7. @Ed

    I fully expect your prediction on universities pushing online learning will come to pass, but the reasons for doing so will have nothing to do with improving students’ learning experience, but rather with organizations optimizing their operations for scalability and cost-effectiveness.

    The “quality” argument is the same one journalists have been bringing forth endlessly. Sure enough, when the scribes were replaced by the printing press, they pointed out how much nicer a hand-written book is… It is still a lot more fun to buy books in a real bookstore than going to Amazon.com, and it will probably always remain so.

    I’m sure it will always remain more fun to learn algorithms with Michael Mitzenmacher as your private coach.

  8. It strikes me that there’s going to be a lot of institutional resistance to this.

    You bet!

    Newspapers are declining because people found they could get the same value online.

    And journalists will argue that twitter, craiglist and blogs, and all that, does not provide the same value. And they are right.

    Thus you need buy-in from the universities, and while the Harvard’s and MIT’s are likely to excel, why would students attend 2nd tier schools online? So why would 2nd tier schools promote digitization that vastly expands the scope of their competition?

    Here, in Canada, we have one of the oldest University, Laval University, offering an entire degree in Computer Science online (since 2006). Why do it? Simple. More students means more money.

    Why are Michael Mitzenmacher’s lectures available online? Because Harvard makes a load of cash selling these lectures.

    Sure, some universities can resist the change. They can simply say no to the change. And sure enough, most of them will.

    After all, all bookstores didn’t become online book stores, did they?

    Will students choose living at home or working part time and going to school online over that experience?

    I cannot read the future. But can’t you imagine a scenario where students take half or 3/4 of their courses online? Or maybe they have all their classes online, but students from the same program have weekly meetings?

    Honestly, I have no idea what the future has in store. But I could not have imagined YouTube back in 2003. When I first saw twitter, I thought it was silly. Back in the nineties, I would have thought what Google does to be impossible.

    I think that merely because we cannot quite see how the pieces fit, does not mean that we can deny the upcoming change.

    We still don’t even know what exactly will happen with the remaining newspapers, and how the news business will turn out…

  9. We seem to disagree on the importance of quality in higher education.

    I’m suggesting that there is a difference in quality between a course whose contact-hours consisting primarily of information-transmission (i.e. lecturing in-person or online, real-time or time shifted; the medium is irrelevant) and a course whose contact-hours consist of interaction, coaching, and collaboration. Not only is there a difference, but this difference is important to providing students with authentic and useful learning experiences. I am putting this forward as a preferred future, the one we should be working towards specifically because it would do a superior job of achieving the goals of higher education.

    Given your comments of the difference in quality between books produced by scribes and books produced by printing presses, I believe you are talking about something else, about the difference between physically sitting in a lecture hall watching someone talk and sitting somewhere else at some other time in front of a screen watching someone talk.

    Putting aside the question of whether a recording of someone talking is the best way to transmit the information to students, I would agree that making these recordings available online is a good way to scale the information, and furthermore it has several advantages over the in-class lecture. Students have the additional flexibility of viewing the lecture when and where they want. They can also review the lecture in whole or in part, based on their own learning needs.

    Your comments suggest that you believe that universities do not have learning as their goal, but rather that they are primarily motivated by generating revenue. While there is plenty of evidence to support this idea, I think it oversimplifies reality. I see this more as a case of university administrators struggling to meet a diverse set of requirements within set of constraints. In order to make their lives easier, there will be pressure to redefine what is meant by ‘learning’, to reduce it to something less then it should be. The future you are suggesting here fits that bill, which is why it wouldn’t surprise me to see it gaining traction in the halls of academe.

    I have already started to see pressures from university administration to move courses online, so I agree with you in that this isn’t a hypothetical situation: it is happening now. What I’m arguing for is that we should be very careful to not bake the dated teaching practices of the past into our learning systems of the future. We have an opportunity to use information technology to radically improve the student learning experience. I’m hoping we make the most of it!

    –Ed

  10. @Ed Sure. Maybe I can use another blog post to explain why I think online learning can be substantially better?

    But you have to watch out because there will always be people insisting that classroom lecture is the absolute best thing. And within their frame of mind, they are right too.

    So “better quality” is something you need to qualify.

  11. It strikes me that there’s going to be a lot of institutional resistance to this. Newspapers are declining because people found they could get the same value online. Since we’ve assigned universities the role of certifying knowledge, it’s a larger social change vs. a personal one (if you’re up to date on news, nobody knows how you obtained it. If you watch 1,000 hours of video lectures on physics that doesn’t make you a physicist in many employer’s eyes). Thus you need buy-in from the universities, and while the Harvard’s and MIT’s are likely to excel, why would students attend 2nd tier schools online? So why would 2nd tier schools promote digitization that vastly expands the scope of their competition? If the lecturer is threatened, what’s that going to do to the rest of university staff?

    Additionally, we’ve tied up a right of passage with higher education. It’s become a transition to adulthood, where you’re freed from parental guidance but not given the responsibilities of the “real world”, an opportunity to explore exciting ideas with other individuals, or party depending on your philosophy. Will students choose living at home or working part time and going to school online over that experience?

    I think the direction is a valid one; technology needs to improve the learning experience. But I suspect in it’ll play a supportive role, rather then replace the lecture hall, at least for a few generations.

  12. @Paul It depends what “near term” means for you. Lipton’s perspective is 25 years.

    Universities move slowly. That’s in their nature. I don’t expect anything quick to happen.

  13. Two thoughts: One, this blog post and the comments are an example of the benefit of technology on education. You put forward an idea I wouldn’t have considered and you’re leading interesting threads of discussion, the two basic roles of a teacher. Perhaps in some ways the decentralization of the Internet is the important new contribution to learning, letting anyone learn from anyone else.

    Second, Laval University offering an online CS degree strikes me as paralleling the news industry’s relationship with the Internet. Newspapers put content online for free, hoping for big advertising dollars and figuring anything was better than nothing from people who otherwise wouldn’t have read the publication. The first ones out probably did well. Then when everyone arrived margins shrunk, and suddenly it wasn’t just attracting new readers, but pulling away existing subscribers to the higher margin, more established products. Now we’re seeing the start of the backlash against free online news as media corporations pull their content behind paywalls. It’s not exactly parallel, particularly in that online degrees aren’t free, but they should result in lower margins than housing students locally. Just as free, online high quality news seemed inevitable online before there was a sudden a fight against it, we may be in the optimisitic phase of online learning, before it grows common enough to threathen the existing model.

    As you say, none of us can predict the future, but I could see one where the bogeyman of online degree mills is trotted out as a reason we need to differentiate between online and traditional degrees. “I talked regularly with leading thinkers in my field, why should I get the same piece of paper as someone across the world who just watched youtube videos?” the talking point would go. Philisophically, I agree with you that online learning could lead to a better education system. I just have my doubts about whether it’ll happen in a meaningful way in the near term. If society starts to look at online degrees as inferior, that’ll start costing those students jobs, and the smart money will be on offline learning, whether or not its better.

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