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Online learning

December 15, 2011

A recent series of essays in the NYT on the future of computing and its impact on society was very interesting. I think Jaron Lanier should have been included, but overall the selection was very reasonable. Let me address the article “Death Knell for the Lecture” by Daphne Koller. Prof. Koller argues that the traditional 50 or 80 minute lecture format is outdated and ineffective. Instead we should allow students to use online resources, including shorter instructional videos (those provided by the Khan Academy are a good example).

Dr. Koller makes good points: Online technology would allow us to assess student performance better, and individualize instruction. Good students could move ahead quickly, while those that struggle could get help in exactly those areas they need. This is particularly important in face of the reduction of public funding for education and soaring student/teacher ratios.

However, having taught online courses and classes with large number of students, I have to say that the news of the demise of the traditional lecture have been largely exaggerated. While online classes are convenient for the student, interactions are frequently stilted. When lecturing online, I feel like I am talking to myself. Many students choose not to attend the online lectures, so online courses are frequently nothing more than self-study courses. Even in a regular classroom, my students asked that I stop writing on a tablet, and use a whiteboard instead. They preferred it, although it meant I would not be posting the notes online. I was glad they did.

New technology is changing the way we communicate in many different ways. But I fear that there is a large human component that we don’t take into account when predicting its impact. It takes time to finely tune and meld the technology to our human quirks.  For instance, skyping, even using a large screen, doesn’t feel anything like talking to somebody in person. The visual and auditory input we receive is not that dissimilar, but a number of little (but essential) details are just not the same. Similarly, there are a number of things that just don’t feel right about online learning. And it is not the technology, it is us who are difficult.


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  1. Kidist Z. permalink

    Interesting! I think the students’ preferring the white board than the tablet is because we humans tend to like what we are used to. It is not because there is something which is worg with us but simply we are comfortable with ways of doing things that are familiar. So I would say it is just a matter of time.

    • josic permalink

      I think you are right. I didn’t mean to imply that there is anything wrong with us. Rather, as Jaron Lanier would say, we are not gadgets. We interact with the world in fairly complicated, and somewhat rigid ways. Most of the time we are not even aware of what we will be able to accept as perfectly normal, and what will need to be fine tuned, or ultimately rejected. A good example is the uncanny valley – robots and images that are close to looking like actual humans, but are not quite there tend to creep us out.

  2. Boards probably do work better than tablets in a lot of ways. Most of us communicate quite a bit of information by pointing and gesturing — this is one thing that the Khan videos do very well (you don’t see the speakers face, but you do see their hands as they write).

    I think real-life lectures will continue to have their place, but “bite-sized” Khan-style tutorials are a very good complement. When I was an undergrad, we had small tutorial sessions run by grad students that were very useful (you get immediate feedback on problem solving). This is in addition to the large lecture and recitations (both taught by faculty). Now, not every department will have the resources to run courses that way, and new tech lets us try new ways to accomplish similar goals (and perhaps do even better).

    I really don’t think anyone knows what all the good uses of technology in the classroom are. What seems clear is that after decades of talking about it, technology is finally getting good enough to be useful for some things. There will be (and should be) a lot of experimentation in coming years…

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  1. Death knell for the lecture, part 2 « Mathematics in everyday life

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