Monday, December 19, 2011

Online learning revisited: death knell for the lecture

Perhaps the best reason for claiming that the lectures are dead, or inappropriate for 21st century classrooms, is that online learning modes offer better alternatives. This is the case made by Daphne Koller, a professor in the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory who teaches one of Stanford's three online computer science classes, and who is also the author of a recent Science Times article entitled Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education.

Since I recently wrote a blog post critiquing online learning environments, I was particularly interested in what Koller had to say. One of her best arguments is about the flexibility of videotaped presentations, which can be much shorter than lectures:

Presenting content in short, bite-size chunks, rather than monolithic hourlong lectures, is better suited to students’ attention spans, and provides the flexibility to tailor instruction to individual students. Those with less preparation can dwell longer on background material without feeling uncomfortable about how they might be perceived by classmates or the instructor.

Conversely, students with an aptitude for the topic can move ahead rapidly, avoiding boredom and disengagement. In short, everyone has access to a personalized experience that resembles individual tutoring.
The only concern I have about this is that it leaves it up to the students to decide when they're ready to skip things or move on. They--particularly the weaker, less motivated among them--may not always be the best judges of this, and may be tempted to skip over content that they don't find interesting (which may specifically include stuff they don't understand).

While software programs can't ensure that students are devoting sufficient attention to the video presentations, they can control their access to the specific assignments, providing additional tasks when students show weaknesses and advancing them to the next level if and only if they've mastered the current one. Ideally these two features--student control over which presentations to which, and ability-based advancement--allow, as Koller points out, a kind of individualized tutoring that may optimize learning. In this connection, Koller notes that:
In 1984, Benjamin Bloom showed that individual tutoring had a huge advantage over standard lecture environments: The average tutored student performed better than 98 percent of the students in the standard class.
Third, as Koller points out, while online curricula may not be able to address all areas of difficulty or confusion, the broader online environment allows efficient ways to pool student questions and to connect those with questions to those with answers:
Our Stanford courses provide a forum in which students can vote on questions and answers, allowing the most important questions to be answered quickly — often by another student. In the future, we can adapt Web technology to support even more interactive formats, like real-time group discussions, affordably and at large scale.
Furthermore, as others have noted as well, putting teaching presentations online allows for:
the flipped classroom, [where] teachers have time to interact with students, motivate them and challenge them.
Fourth, online environments are a better laboratory than brick and mortar schools are for identifying what works in education:
More broadly, the online format gives us the ability to identify what works. Until now, many education studies have been based on populations of a few dozen students. Online technology can capture every click: what students watched more than once, where they paused, what mistakes they made. This mass of data is an invaluable resource for understanding the learning process and figuring out which strategies really serve students best.
All these things, indeed, are the big advantages of online learning. Beyond this, the more instruction you automate, the more money you save and the more you can circumvent shortages of qualified teachers. But there's one big limitation to automated instruction. As I know from evaluating language teaching software programs and creating such programs myself, it's quite easy to automate a passive, multiple choice, right-or-wrong answer learning protocol. But a truly active learning environment--one in which students receive helpful feedback about where they went wrong and what to do about it--is both more more pedagogically effective, and much more difficult to automate. Here, Koller may be overly optimistic
For many types of questions, we now have methods to automatically assess students’ work, allowing them to practice while receiving instant feedback about their performance. With some effort in technology development, our ability to check answers for many types of questions will get closer and closer to that of human graders.
It's telling that the online subject with which Koller is most familiar is computer science. As I note in my earlier post:
The only truly active learning environment that I've ever seen in any software program for any academic subject is that which a computer programming language platform provides for--what else?--computer programming. Only here does the feedback--the error messages or the unexpected outputs--precisely reflect what you've done wrong.
We're a long way from achieving that in any other subject (with the exception of English morphsyntax for English language learners).

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