“Not about Doing Education on the Cheap”

Philip Zelikow

by James A. Bacon

About a year ago, Philip Zelikow, the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia, knew little more about online learning than the average man. But one day he found himself in an executive retreat at the Boar’s Head Inn with Meredith June-En Woo, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, to brainstorm the college’s future.

The subject came up of online learning and the recent launch of Coursera, a Silicon Valley-funded start-up that had signed up some prestigious universities to teach so-called massively open online courses, or MOOCs. “Email Coursera,” Woo told Zelikow. So he did, then and there. And thus started the College’s engagement with state-of-the-art online learning.

UVa’s Darden School of Business had already initiated contacts with Coursera, but Zelikow became the College’s point man. Indeed, he became so engaged in online learning that he now teaches “The Modern World: Global History since 1760,” to some 70 UVa students and 25,000 other enrollees around the world. Last night Zelikow regaled an audience of Richmond-area UVa alumni with observations about his experience in online education and how it will transform the University of Virginia.

The bottom line: Zelikow sees online learning as enhancing the experience for university students residing on campus but also opening up opportunities for a lesser, though still valuable, education around the world.

Further, he said, the University of Virginia will be a leader in this brave new world. “We’re on the eve of a transformation of higher ed around the world. It will be led by about 15 universities. The University of Virginia is one of them.”

The standard method for teaching a college history course has not changed in centuries, said Zelikow, whose non-academic accomplishments include heading the 9/11 Commission and working as a deputy to Secretary of State Condelezza Rice. The professor delivers lectures in a lecture hall students who passively take notes. Later, the students break into smaller classes where they interact with graduate teaching assistants.

The MOOC works very differently. Zelikow spent considerable time up-front converting his lectures into 92 video presentations of varying lengths that students could view at any time on their own. The lectures are supplemented by reading and digital-source materials accessible online and quizlets by which students can test their mastery of the knowledge going forward. UVa students can participate in discussion forums with 25,000 students enrolled around the world. Getting the perspective of a student from Colombia, say, on South American independence revolutions can broaden their understanding.

What’s more, because he wasn’t delivering lectures, Zelikow has time to interact with his UVa students. He has broken his class into two, which allows him to conduct meaningful discussions.

Zelikow says that the exercise has allowed him to develop a more powerful version of the course he has taught for years, and it forces students to stay engaged consistently throughout the semester as opposed to alternating between goofing off and cramming for tests.

Creating MOOCs is expensive — hundreds of hours of work must be invested up-front. But making that investment allows UVa to powerfully enhance the residential college experience. “This is not about doing education on the cheap,” Zelikow said. “This is about how to leverage 21st century technology to reinvent the classroom.”

UVa is determined to be one of the handful of elite institutions that shape the market for online learning, Zelikow said, but it is not yet clear how the effort will be paid for. His justification at this time: Online learning “powerfully enhances the experience of the students who pay the tuition. Parents are willing to pay for something that enhances their children’s experience.”

Online learning is still evolving and even Coursera hasn’t figured out yet how to make a lot of money from the technology, he said. “We want to be in the space because we recognize the potential.”

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4 responses to ““Not about Doing Education on the Cheap””

  1. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    This article fits in quite well with preceding article on Ms. Woo efforts. This is UVA playing to its strengths in market savvy ways. This is bold stuff.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Let me make the reasonable assumption that I am the only person contributing to this blog who has actually taken a Coursera course (Introduction to Python Programming – taught by Rice University). Let me say four things:

    1. Given the state of the art, the course was masterfully prepared and very well taught.

    2. As I worked from my second home overlooking the Chesapeake Bay I was glad to be able to receive top quality online education without paying a dime.

    3. I can’t, for the world of me, see what Rice University gets out of this.

    4. I have a strong suspicion that I know exactly what the investors in Silicon Valley will get out of this (and it won’t just be a sense of doing good).

    The biggest issue with all instruction is that the instruction is generalized rather than individualized. MOOCs make a tiny dent in that flaw by involving so many online students that you can almost always find somebody willing to help you with a problem. You still get spoonfed the material through video taped lectures but 25,000 students asking and answering questions online provides a great searchable database for fixing your unique misunderstandings of the material.

    However, it is still the same stuff taught the same way, writ large.

    The real trick is to break the material into components and then alter the way it’s presented to each and every student. For example, some students learn better when they can concentrate on the lectures in relatively large chunks. Some students learn better when they have to answer questions in the middle of the lectures and, if they get the questions wrong, see the relevant part of the lecture again. Some students learn more through multiple choice questions, some through writing essays. Etc Etc

    In order to economically individualize teaching I need automated teachers, feedback by individual student, a gigantic database of student questions and answers and a process for identifying trends.

    Here’s how it works (in very, very simplified form):

    The lessons are broken down into small (5 minute) videotaped chunks. The “mainflow” of the lesson might be 9 consecutive 5 minute chunks. Watching those chunks in sequence would be the same as watching a videotape of the lecture. In addition, there are multiple “sideflow” 5 minute chunks. These chunks delve into more depth on a particular topic and might even incluse clips from movies in a history class. They are developed in different ways. Some more visual, some more Q&A, etc.

    I go through the “mainflow” lecture, starting with chunk one. However, I am asked questions as I go. As I answer the questions I am doing two things – I am establishing the pattern of learning that best suits me and I am helping to fill a large database of student responses that will be “mined” for ever more sophisticated patterns of instruction.

    The software feeding me the “mainflow” chunks analyzes the accuracy of my answers and starts to individualize my instruction. In a simple example, if I am getting all the questions right the pace picks up (including playing the lecture at a faster speed – already available in Coursera). If I start missing questions the software chooses from several types of “sideflow” chunks. Some require me to answer questions every minute or so. Some use a graphical depiction of the material, some use play acting to make a point. The software keeps track of which approach is working the best. Sometimes, two alternative “sideflow” chunks using the same technique will be developed to teach the same point. The computer will randomly chose one or the other and track which chunk is working better. The author of the more popular sideflow chunk will get more in royalties. The software also draws on a large database of patterns from previous students to pretty quickly nail down my learning type.

    The result? I am given the instruction using the pattern of learning that suite me best. I learn better. Slow, methodical learners don’t hold up faster learners. Etc

    The value is not in the videotaped lessons. It is in the database of questions and answers. It is in having 25,000 guinea pigs used to find and perfect patterns of learning.

    hence, the interest from Silicon Valley.

    In retrospect, I shouldn’t have paid Coursera – they should have paid me.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Very interesting comment, Don. As you know I am fan of distance learning. Typically I spend a hour each day biking with a Great Course I-pod plugged into my ear, often like today, cruising along the Chesapeake Bay as well.

      Not long ago, I subscribed a UVA professor’s course Know Thyself. Its ongoing right now. I am ashamed to admit I have yet to hook into it. I suspect that’s in part because its free. I’ll rectify that. And report back.

  3. larryg Avatar

    What is the unique purpose and value of a human instructor in a physical bricks/mortar venue ?

    What DJ pointed out was how an online virtual instructor can personalize and individiize the timing, delivery and content of information specifically tailored to your own learning style.

    At some point, perhaps already, someone is going to compare the same course delivered via tradiional classroom vs online delivered the “new way” in terms of results – i.e. what did the students actually learn and retain – one way compared to the other way.

    I predict a drammatic increase of Luddite panic attacks.

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