Online Learning on a Roll: Picture a Steamroller that Accelerates like a Ferrari

Sophia Naide. Photo credit: Fast Company.

Sophia Naide, a high school student 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!


Note: I have deleted Ms. Naide’s age and grade level from this post at her request.

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  1. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    Yes, the prestigious university will not be exempt. Indeed, they will have to scramble aboard a train leaving the station: that is engage in massive streamlining and cost cutting, to compete and stay in the game of educating the most talented students who will quickly discover that they do not want) the old fashioned massive brick and mortar U with its poor teachers, inefficient methods, high costs, gross inconvenience, and that those old fashioned Universities need them far more that they need the degrees from such places, whatever their past reputations. Indeed the unheaval may well start at the top.

  2. The aristocracy will continue to attend university. Online will be useful for training technical skills to those who will work for us. As an added benefit, it will rid the university grounds of the proletariat that have become quite the burden on historically fine institutions.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Quite. The prols endless trampling on the lawn to cut corners creates dirt paths. Their refusal to display “The University” bumper stickers is disgraceful. I hear that some have even taken to referring to Mr. Jefferson as TJ and don’t know what a lovin’ cup is or what purpose it serves.

  3. I think it is ADDED ON to their existing rather than destroying anything.

    and I’d think it would increase the number of people able to access knowledge from a UVA experience.

    the world changes. It’s usually ultimately for the better but not without some losses.

  4. DJRippert Avatar

    One of my sons goes to Clemson. He lives and studies on campus in Clemson, SC. He is taking an online accounting class this semester. It seems that everybody at Clemson who wants to take that accounting class takes it online. It’s an introductory class.

    Could it be that Clemson has decided that it could live with fewer accounting professors while still teaching accounting in Clemson, SC.

    I’ll see my son down south this weekend. I’ll get more details.

  5. reed fawell Avatar
    reed fawell

    The ranks of college professors with take a big hit. Its a huge expense that will by necessity be cut dramatically. Many who retire will not be replaces. Many buildings will be rendered obsolete. Universities will have to find ways to unload them, perhaps with creative market driven solutions, if the circumstances are right. Economics will force all this.

  6. […] … MOOCs: “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 […]

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