Sophia Naide, a 13-year-old 8th grader in Northern Virginia, is studying Computer Science 101 with her mother. Is she taking a high school course? No. Is she enrolled in a community college? George Mason University? The Virginia Tech satellite campus? No, no, no. She signed up for a free, online course with Coursera, the online teaching enterprise that recently forged an agreement with the University of Virginia along with a dozen other prestigious universities. Sophia is one of several learners interviewed by Fast Company writer Anya Kamenetz in an article about Coursera.
The article is worth reading because it sheds light on the growing competitive advantage of online classes in the higher-ed setting. Traditionalists, reactionaries and others with a vested interest preserving in the status quo insist that nothing can replace the face-to-face interaction between teacher and student in a real-world, campus setting. But the Fast Company article makes it clear that online courses can do things that conventional classroom courses cannot.
For starters, the face-to-face experience isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be. “When you’re giving a lecture and you stop to ask a question, 50% of the class are scribbling away and didn’t hear you, another 20% are on Facebook, and one smarty-pants in the front row blurts out the answer and you feel good,” says Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller. “Why not take the 75-minute lecture, break it up into short pieces, and add interactive engagement into the video so that every five minutes there’s a question?”
In a Coursera course, students pause periodically throughout the lecture to answer questions. The program tells them immediately if their answers are right or wrong, thus whether or not they understand the material. Neuroscience research showing that exercises in instant retrieval enhance memory and comprehension more than complicated questions for later study.
As for that coveted interaction, online students form virtual study groups. If students have questions, they can ask other students. Moreover, course designers can see how students interact with the lecture, tests and one another to continually refine the courses. Says Koller: “We can see every single click: pausing, rewinding, the first and second try on the homework, what they did in between.”
Bacon’s bottom line: Inevitably, the best teachers (“best” in their ability to deliver a quality online experience) will gravitate to online courses where they will be richly compensated for their talents and knowledge. Instead of teaching dozens of students or even a couple hundred, star teachers will reach thousands. What will that mean for the not-so-great instructors and the no-name educational institutions that employ them? Perhaps they will provide supplementary services, as intermediaries or subalterns, to students who crave that face-to-face experience. Perhaps they’ll go out of business. Either way, they will adopt or die.
Idealistic higher-ed officials see online learning as a way to disseminate knowledge to millions of students in developing countries who cannot afford a traditional degree. Perhaps it also will become a way as well to disseminate knowledge to millions of Americans who can’t afford a traditional degree!