I was a little surprised to see the tone of this article on Online Education, especially the title.
Commodified, one-size-fits-all education is indeed a solution to many problems, including crushingly high tuition, college selectivity, state budget problems and the mania for credentialing. Unfortunately, it is not a solution to the major problem facing America today: teaching people how to think for themselves.
This article is worth a read because it raises a few questions about the effectiveness of online learning. I have mixed feeling about online learning both as a student and a teacher. Here are some obvious differences between online and class room (face-to-face) based training.
- Online courses are scalable. Classroom based courses are not. While a Coursera or Udacity course can train hundreds of thousands of students (across the world) , a class room cannot handle even a fraction of those.
- Because of the very nature and size of these online classes, it is difficult to provide a good interaction model in online training. Online training is not interactive in the same sense of classroom based lectures. In a classroom if you ask a question, the teacher can try to give you an answer in a different way or with a different example. That is difficult to do with online lectures. (It is, however, possible to take questions through chat rooms and email and have a bank of teaching assistants answer them).
- Online training is self-paced. Some students can learn faster and others can learn slower. In a face-to-face classroom this would be difficult to handle. You need to carry the students with you. The pace may be too fast for some students and slow for others.
So what are our choices? Let us assume that we do need to educate a large number of people. There seem to be currently over 50 million teachers around the world over a billion students – according to Wolfram Alpha.
So how can we solve this problem? There may some approaches that may work. I am not an educator or work for government. So my thoughts may be just based on some common sense reasoning.
1. Blended learning may solve part of the problem.
2. Students as teachers may solve another part of the problem
3. Peer based learning may work to some extent expanding the pool of teachers and altering the teacher/student ratio.
4. Students from higher classes teaching students from lower classes may work (for example high school students teaching middle or elementary school students). We are experimenting with a model where some of the college students can teach school students on week ends. While a limited approach, in its current mode, with a few changes it can be made more effective.
5. Self-learning may be one of the most scalable models. In this model, you teach students fairly early how to learn on their own and then shift the role of a teacher to a guide. This may not work with very young students but will certainly work with older students.
In the end, we may need to modify how we educate – the model, the duration and the content. I spent about 5 years in an engineering college learning over 30-40 subjects. I used none of them in my life. That was a one size fits all education. The only thing that experience did for me was that I learned how to learn.
I am sure several educators are thinking about the problem from different view points. It will be interesting to find innovations in this space around the world.