Online education isn't dead

It is disturbing to read articles that seek to grab attention by going to extremes and claiming that online education doesn’t work. Sebastian Thrun should have said in front of Bloomberg that he helped building a “lousy product” (Udacity) due to the low number of students finishing the courses. Two separate studies have shown that only around 4% of the people finish and that the majority of those who finish have already been enrolled in a university for 2-4 years. So the logic was that the “democratization of education”, where more people gain access to it, hasn’t happened.

Online education isn’t without its problems for sure. But could it be a failure when someone is interacting with lots of educational institutions to provide free video lectures and materials that were previously available only to students from top universities in exchange for a tuition fee? How many students in real life could be simultaneously subscribed to courses at multiple universities that offer diverse perspectives and approaches to teaching? Where else could teachers and students exchange ideas at such a scale? These are some of the things that are already changing our lives, not the fact that only few people get a certificate. Any educational effort that we tie to a reward isn’t doing us any good in the long term; much better is to know in advance what we’ll use our knowledge for since this can give us the perspective of why we need it. Otherwise we are just wasting time.

We should consider that many people—both young and old—never had the chance to study. Online education allows them to see the world in a new light and expand their horizon. Even a 50-year old person may have never stopped dreaming to study nanotechnology. Now everyone (with a computer and Internet) has the chance to pursue their interests and create something they love. This can only improve our society. It is important to give people initial time for adaptation, so they can find the courses and study what they could practice later in life. “Everyone works what they are least capable of” still rings in my ears.

An important way in which online and offline education seem to differ is in the absence and presence of “stepping stones”. When we enter a university, the courses follow a program that has been discussed and approved by the administration. Many courses are made available by the time they are needed and there is less chance that a person entering the course would have missed any required prerequisites. This allows for a more effective education since what was last studied is still fresh to build on top of it. In online education, courses are more dispersed, there is more choice and different universities follow their own agendas. It is less obvious whether taking a course would only teach us things we don’t know or, on the opposite, teach us only what we already know. Sometimes many courses teach the same and sometimes no courses teach something specific. We have to connect the dots mostly by ourselves, which is very similar to other forms of self-education, but can be time-consuming. What can be done is to offer multiple “pyramids” of synchronized classes and let the students choose their climbings. Combined with other related courses, a single course becomes much more valuable.

Education is largely a matter of timing—if we allow long periods to pass since we have last studied something, by the time we enter a course to expand on it, we may need to go through the old material again, which is ineffective. Because of that, a student is often experiencing “bumps”, understanding A, but being unable to explain how B follows from it. If a student experiences too many such bumps during a course, he/she will be less patient to finish it. The course itself will end in a mystery. Even with the right reasoning, the feeling of progress can only be slow and gradual—with both ups and downs. A student who thinks that the effort invested doesn’t bring any meaningful returns, or is getting tired because of it, will stop advancing, which will lead to sharply declining skills. With education, this is probably a major risk factor.

The specifics of online video also make online education a bit harder. For instance, professors often feel pressed to talk and explain faster when every second would add x kB to the size of the final video file. If the file gets too large noone would download it (especially in poorer countries, where the Internet may be quite slow), if the file is too small, the depth of the explanations may suffer. It is a tradeoff that needs to be made in discussion with all participants. Looking at the average download speed can give a good sense how large the video files should be. Another way to save on bandwidth in video may be to remove any backgrounds that have nothing to do with the current idea discussed, using homogenous colors and less movements where possible. The advantage of video is that it supports going through the same material again, making information more permanent. A potential disadvantage is when it is constantly interrupted to ask the student a question in order to validate understanding, when the same thing can be done at the end.

Education shouldn’t overrely on any platform. It is the combination of all platforms that makes it possible. It is great to see that some lectors realize this and publish their content not only on the educational platform they use, but also on their personal sites. This way they let others choose when and where they want to look at the content. Some of them complement their videos with textbooks, which gives people an alternative way to learn. Even if a student may not seem interested in a course, such a material can wake a new appreciation for it. Also, it doesn’t send a good message when materials are removed from the platform after a course has finished. People who come to see a course too late should still have a chance to take a look at it and learn, albeit not having the chance to earn a certificate. A course can also be seen as an orientation mechanism for people who haven’t selected their field of focus yet.

Approachability is something else to think of. Khan Academy is successful, because the material is taught in a conversational manner. It is best when a course is taught by a person from the group, and not a person that is “in a position to do so”. This means that integrating more young people in the education from an early age, where they teach their colleagues under the supervision of a lector, can make things more interesting and spur new ways of thinking. This requires a shift in how we see education today (mainly as teaching from first hand) to how we could see it (as teaching to live in/through many others), but it may be hard for this ideas to find enough acceptance.

It is best when online teaching happens in real time, so that students have more often the chance to ask questions and think critically. By hearing all of them, they get a better understanding what is important and which questions are truly worth the lector’s time (in a many-to-one setting). Online education can be less personal, so progress may be harder to track over time, which is why we need more ideas here if we want to make online courses more engaging. Forums can’t be enough as a means to exchange ideas between students with the same problem. They need to be able to make friends as in real life and see the course both as a means to learn and collaborate even beyond the end of a course.

Despite all problems, online education isn’t dead, it just needs to be improved and we can all contribute, because everyone has something to teach. As technologies improve, so will also the means to get better education. We can’t allow online education to die, because this will be costly and will also decrease the quality of regular education. That said, the future seems bright.

I have participated in a couple of courses and these are my own impressions. Here is the place to thank all people who spend their time teaching and improving the lives of others.

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