## Saturday, March 24, 2012

### thoughts about online education (wired.com article post)

somehow i suspect that online-available courses and degrees are not going away, despite recent outcries that some are scams.

it could be a good solution for access to education, amidst a trend of ever increasing university tuition costs. moreover,
"People around the world have gone crazy for this opportunity. Fully two-thirds of my 160,000 classmates live outside the US. There are students in 190 countries—from India and South Korea to New Zealand and the Republic of Azerbaijan. More than 100 volunteers have signed up to translate the lectures into 44 languages, including Bengali. In Iran, where YouTube is blocked, one student cloned the CS221 class website and—with the professors’ permission—began reposting the video files for 1,000 students."

from "The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever" @wired.

if you truly believe that a more educated public is the path to a better society, then we should make more lessons accessible to everyone, locally and around the world.

it seems that, nowadays, the internet is the best way to disseminate that opportunity.

i wonder, though, about the wisdom of removing students from a physical classroom and whether a virtual presence can ever replace an actual physical attendance.

(to be fair, i'm an academic who's been (reasonably) successful in his career [1],
so necessarily i have some incentive in maintaining the status quo that has rewarded me.)

when i think of what a student gets out of a lecture, though, i'm hard-pressed to identify what would be so crucial in physically showing up to class.
the only thing that currently comes to mind is scope, at least if the lecturer uses a chalkboard.

it's harder to see the "whole picture" when all you have is a camera shot of the board.  on the other hand, being in the classroom allows a student to turn her head [π/2], look at the part of the lesson that came just before, remind herself of how the topic initially came about, the motivations ..

(this obstruction could be solved, however, by having better video cameras and a big computer screen, so that a viewer could "see it all.")
i can imagine, however, an analogous feature from having videos of lectures available on-line. despite a smallish projector screen in the classroom, where only a limited amount of information can be shown [2], students can rewind the lecture and catch something that they missed.

this is very crucial and incredibly helpful for students.

many of my students have told me that i go quite fast through the material, to the extent that they cannot take effective notes.  keep in mind that most students don't have any real time to think about the contents being discussed in lecture; often they are simply copying what you're writing on the chalkboard, and then they will read them later to understand [3] ..!

honestly, it almost seems that having students in the classroom is more a benefit for the lecturer than the students themselves (although they do get something out of it, too).  you see, body language is incredible effective; to me, its lack is almost like being blind [4].

it is impossible to gauge reaction from a video camera.  there have been plenty of times that my colleagues and i have turned to an absolutely confused room of students, realised that we were talking nonsense, and made a completely improvised, down-to-earth example on the spot [5].

sure, you could read through students' comments after posting the lecture online, realise that you gaffed up something and could have given a better example, and redo the lecture and re-post it.  then again, why go through that trouble if you only have to do it once during a live lecture, in front of students that react to you?

the fact is, we humans are physical creatures and interact best, face-to-face.  it's how we are hard-wired.  i mightn't be able to point out all the explicit strengths that come from the physical manifestation of lectures, but i don't think it should be so easily dismissed either.

and now .. for a random, nitpicking opinion:
".. Thrun acknowledges some harsh feedback from his students. “We made a lot of mistakes,” he says. “In the beginning I made each problem available only once. I got a flaming email from a student saying, ‘Look, you’re behaving like one of these arrogant Stanford professors looking to weed out students.’ I realized we should set up the student for success, not for failure.” KnowLabs tweaked the software to allow students to keep trying problems."
i don't know how i feel about that response.  when i think about it .. if you really want a student to master a particular concept, then the best thing to do is allow them opportunity to try until they succeed.  otherwise, will they really learn the material?

thinking about it more, though: if a student knows that there are countless chances to do something .. at least, up until the end of the term .. then the "natural" thing to do is to procrastinate, or at least, not to give your best effort.  if this is but one task, then it doesn't matter too much .. but if this is one of many concepts to master, throughout the course, then the student inevitably falls behind.

our students may physically be adults, but many of them come straight from high school and new to all the responsibilities of adulthood and learning on their own.

that said, drilling the point that there is only one opportunity to complete a task for the course emphasizes the point: don't slack off, because there is a penalty ..

.. but i've rambled on enough;
perhaps there's more to say, but not tonight. (-:

[1] by which i mean that i'm still employed, and found a tenure-track job.

[π/2] i learned recently that women are now the majority of university enrolled-students, so "her" might be a better pronoun to use, here.

[2] this is by far the most compelling reason that i prefer chalkboard talks to slides.  with slides, it is harder to track what came before; as for a chalkboard, it's there until someone erases it.

[3] not that it's something that i take pride in, but students have told me that they like my teaching style because i write out everything that i say (nowadays); it's how it even occurred to me that students have this problem.  their notes from my lectures "read like a book," apparently.  i suppose it is good that i'm clear, but .. you know, i did assign a textbook to the course, and i'm taking the material from there ..!

[4] this is why i hate talk to people on telephones.

[5] for example, one friend of mine was trying to explain to her class why
$$\#(A \cup B) \;=\; \#A \;+\; \#B \;-\; \#(A \cap B)$$ and why strict inequality can occur (here, $\#$ means cardinality of a set).  none of the students were having any of it, and then it occurred to her: she physically made the students break up into groups:
1. those that prefer Batman to Superman,
2. those that prefer Superman to Batman,
3. those that like S and B equally,
4. those that don't care for either.
when she asked the students which groups are included in the set of people that like S or B, everyone gave the right answer, right away.  she then pointed out that, unlike on their homework, they didn't count group #3 twice .. and then a collective "ah" erupted in the room.

you could argue that a really good instructor would have came up with an example like that in advance, but come on: how well do you read your students' minds? i credit my friend for being that insightful to explain something so effectively!