Colleges around the country should be worried. The quality of online courses is catching up fast.
Depending on whom you talk to, MOOCs (massively open online courses) will upend and democratize higher education, or are half-baked approximations of lectures that can never equal the classroom.
Kevin Carey, the director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation put it to the test, spending four months taking two MOOCs, from start to finish.
One, a Coursera Introduction to Philosophy was everything critics dislike, he says. Too brief, and with none of the problem sets, essays, or tests that make sure you absorb and apply the information.
The second, an MIT introductory biology course hosted by edX, was an entirely different animal.
“Live and taped lectures really aren’t the same. Live lectures are definitely worse,” Carey said.
After taking the course, Carey admits that while not every course can transition online for less money and at a higher level of quality than what most students experience, the amount that can is “a lot more than people realise or want to admit”
That’s going to lead to a lot of disruption, and many lost jobs. But there’s a lot of upside, as well.
The course managed to respond to the biggest criticisms of the sceptics.
“It’s not as good as being in the classroom”
The course was the same one MIT teaches freshmen, reproduced as faithfully as possible. The professor was Eric Lander, who helped lead the Human Genome Project and co-chairs President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. In addition to that impressive pedigree, Lander is actually an excellent teacher, Carey writes.
The lectures are the same, videotaped a month ahead. There are “deep dive” videos with TAs and grad students on tricky topics And as for the notion that you miss something not being in the classroom? Dead wrong, Carey argues.
Carey made the trek out to MIT for one of the live lectures. “Based on what followed, I can say this: Live and taped lectures really aren’t the same. Live lectures are definitely worse,” he concluded.
There’s a lot to be said for the pause button, especially when there are complicated diagrams and ideas. There’s even more to be said for being able to watch a nicely produced HD video on your own time, as anyone who’s been stuck at the back of a lecture hall can attest.
Beyond the pause button, the edX platform allows all sorts of visualisation and interaction, from molecule editors to a protein-folding simulator.
You miss the interaction with the professor, but how many students take full advantage of that? The gap between 7.012 (the MIT course) and 7.00x isn’t large, Carey argues:
“Think about how much of Eric Lander made the translation from 7.012 to 7.00x. All of his educational design is the online class, all of his great lectures, all of the wisdom he brought to bear on constructing the tests and problem sets and supervising those who helped him. I believe the vast majority of what Lander ultimately brings … is represented in 7.00x. If that makes it a Robot Lander, so be it — Robot Lander is pretty great, and Robot Lander didn’t charge the 40,000 students who enrolled a dime.”
“The standards aren’t high”
That’s not a criticism that works for this course. The problem sets and tests were approximately the same as those given at MIT, and were extremely difficult by design.
There’s a great deal of self-motivation required.
But the same can be said for a traditional education. It’s possible to get through college, even at top schools, without fully mastering the material. Carey cites research which finds that undergraduates spend 27 hours a week on academic pursuits, down from 40 hours four decades ago.
To complete the problem sets and earn a final score of 87 per cent, Carey spent 15 hours a week on the class. “With the exception of writing my master’s thesis, I don’t think I’ve worked longer or harder in any “regular” college course I’ve taken in my life,” Carey wrote.
The entire experience leads Carey to make a pretty explosive claim, and one that should prompt colleges to change sooner rather than later. Too many in education think of online options as just an extra tool professors can use while charging the same tuition.
“Now that we can build Robot Lander, the single most important question facing higher education is not: How can technology improve the cost and quality of the education that people provide to students? It’s: How can people improve the cost and quality of the education that Robot Lander and his ilk provide to students? The burden of proof is no longer on technology to show that it can make traditional higher education better in a way that’s worth the price to students and taxpayers. It’s the other way around.”
These courses are rapidly improving. And technology is going to improve on a much bigger scale than individual schools and individual teachers can. You’d be hard pressed to find a more rigorous intro biology course than MIT’s. Now consider what five years of data collection, student feedback, and technological improvement will do to it.
It’s going to be incredibly hard to replicate discussion-based, Ivy-level humanities classes. But given the job market many liberal arts students are facing, there’s more value in replicating STEM courses:
Not every online course is up to this high standard. But there are plenty of bad teachers at top schools. The best ones are just being heard by far more people now.
People ranging from medical students in South America to a 13-year-old taking the course instead of 8th grade science, to a Filipino nurse who took the course with Carey. That itself is laudable.
And it’s also just the beginning.