Mathematics in everyday life

Online learning

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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 Koller argues that the traditional 50 or 80 minute lecture format is outdated and ineffective.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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