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Some thoughts (like, a million or so) on instructional technologies July 10, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, family, gifted, grad school, homeschooling, math, older son, research, science, societal commentary, teaching, younger son.
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I’ve been having a discussion with Massimo about his post on instructional technology.  Despite what I’ve already said, I have a lot more thoughts, so it’s just easier to write it out as a blog post (or maybe more than one).

I think I’m going to start by defining some things about how classrooms operate online.  First, you have what I would call the Udacity (or maybe Khan Academy) model.  This is a model where you basically watch a lecture online, complete and submit homework assignments online, and discuss things via discussion boards (or Blackboard or Moodle).  The second model is completely computerized – all the lessons are presented via a reading or lecture, and the bulk of the course is completing problems.  Both my sons have used the former method to learn math.  One uses EPGY and the other uses Aleks.  On top of these choices for online education, there are in-class courses, mixed (some components online and others in a classroom or lab), and earning credit by exam, such as AP, CLEP, or DANTE exams.

If you look at these options from the point of view of a university, some of these options for educating students are going to be more appealing than others.  Credit by exam, of course, is going to be the least appealing.  The university gets a fee for administering the exam but pretty much nothing else.  Many universities simply will not accept them, but there are a lot of them (mostly non-elite schools) that will.

The other one that is bad from a university POV is the completely computerized model.  It works incredibly well for things like math and some sciences because it basically moves working from a textbook to working on the computer.  Also, most of the programs are adaptive in that, if you’re having difficulty with a concept, it will first give you additional problems.  If this doesn’t seem to be helping, it will pull you off that topic and put you on to another, waiting a while before it allows you to revisit the difficult topic.  (I believe K12 uses a completely computerized model for all courses, but I have no experience with it and can’t say how well it works for language or social science-type courses.)  In a classroom where one person is a facilitator supervising several students working on the course, this is a very cost effective method, and a lot of elementary and secondary schools are beginning to utilize it.  When doing it for online education, however, it represents an expense that is more, generally speaking, than hiring an individual to teach a class.  The majority of tuition money would be spent on licensing (as there are already several good ones out there) or development of a program (which may not compete well with pre-existing products) and not going into university coffers.  Also, why offer something that everyone else can offer, too?  That’s certainly not going to set you apart in terms of attracting students.  Therefore, universities are more likely to want to have in-class courses, mixed, or online courses that utilize the Udacity model.

In the discussion Massimo’s final comment was this:

I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

Here’s the problem: there are decades of research showing that online education is, at the very least, equally effective for most students and significantly better for other students.  So why aren’t we using it more?  I could also state that lectures have been been shown to be one of the poorest forms of teaching known to man, so why do we continue to use it so much?  Turns out, there’s an answer.  In this journal called Science (you may have heard of it), they ask exactly this question about interactive teaching and inquiry-based classrooms:

Given the widespread agreement, it may seem surprising that change has not progressed rapidly nor been driven by the research universities as a collective force. Instead, reform has been initiated by a few pioneers, while many other scientists have actively resisted changing their teaching. So why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed defend on the basis of intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective? Many scientists are still unaware of the data and analyses that demonstrate the effiectiveness of active learning techniques. Others may distrust the data because they see scientists who have flourished in the current educational system. Still others feel intimidated by the challenge of learning new teaching methods or may fear that identification as teachers will reduce their credibility as researchers.

I’d like to note that this was published in 2004, almost a decade ago.  Here we are, 8 years later, and from my observation, active teaching strategies are seldom used in most classrooms.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the same set of problems faced with online education.  I would also add that people who learn well in the classroom have a hard time understanding that others may learn as well or better using a different medium.  Or there’s just simply the problem that they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs.  (I only see this as likely in the scenario colleges would somehow try to implement completely computerized online classes…but you can see my comments on that above.)

One major issue that I see is how few college instructors really understand how people learn.  They learned well through a lecture style course, and so they assume that it is obviously the best way to learn.  I personally think that every instructor ought to have at least one course in educational neuroscience so that they understand how lousy lectures really are as well as so that they may communicate to their students how they ought to try to approach learning and studying.  (This was a significant part of the class I taught to incoming engineering students last year, but not all places have a course where you can cover topics like that.)  I do realize that such a course is not available at most universities, but I don’t think that should prevent one from accessing this knowledge.  I would suggest that one who has never taken such a course invest some time in the course materials available online (are you feeling the irony?) at Harvard.  Those opposed to online education can read the book Brain Rules, which was used as the text for the course.  (Of course, if you are opposed to online education, I hope you’re reading an actual paperback rather than downloading it onto your iPad.)

Massimo also says:

I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching foreveryone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?

No, I don’t think so.  There are two reasons why I think this.  First, teachers who embrace online learning are more likely to embrace other technology that is likely to enhance learning.  Generally, this will enhance learning beyond anything that is likely to occur in a lecture-based class that occurs in a classroom.  Despite what some people may say, research shows (read Brain Rules) that learning which is multisensory (like watching YouTube clips) is better for you than sitting in a lecture.  Images will convey more information than talking, and video (or seeing something in action) conveys more information than straight images.  Sitting in a lab is likely the best environment of all.  Online learning also is likely to be able to keep people’s attention.  (If you read Brain Rules, you’ll come to find that most people can only focus for about ten minutes, and then they need something to restimulate their attention.)

Second, I think accessibility is a huge issue in education.  I have one parent who found it incredibly difficult to finish a degree (and she never did) because she had a choice between quitting her job to take classes at the local university, which were only offered during the day, and taking night classes at an expensive private college.  I have a sibling who is currently finishing a degree in accounting online because she lives two hours from a university and works 4-10s.  How is she supposed to finish a degree at a school in those circumstances?  There are a lot of people in similar situations who would otherwise be unable to earn a degree.  In fact, my husband earned his MS through Penn State through a Navy program where he took some classes at the university and some through a video link…well over a decade ago.  He said he would’ve been unlikely to pursue a degree if he’d had to drive across Puget Sound (he was in the Seattle area at the time) evenings for two or three years.

Okay, so obviously I know a lot of people who have benefitted from these sorts of things.  So why do I think it could work for everyone?  I think this is a basic principle behind Universal Design for Learning: the notion is that if you design a curriculum that helps people with difficulties and disabilities, you’re going to help many other people as well.  Our brains work on a continuum, and while not everyone may have learning disabilities, they may operate in a region where learning may be difficult, if not disabling, when it’s presented a certain way.  Therefore, if you design materials to teach someone who is hearing impaired, for instance, you’ll likely help a lot of people who may have difficulty with ingesting information through auditory means in general.  (Lest you think this must be a small part of the population, take into consideration that I was working toward a master’s degree before I found out that I likely have some sort of auditory processing disorder…and only because my son was diagnosed with one.  Smart people can often do well even with learning disabilities because they often have other ways to compensate…but it can be frustrating for them, nonetheless.  I wrote a post on this topic a while ago.)

So what does this have to do with online learning?  I can give a concrete example: my older son is ADHD and had auditory processing disorder.  He really struggles sitting in a normal classroom and, for most of his life, his teachers  told me he couldn’t possibly be gifted because of his classroom performance despite the fact that I had documented evidence to the contrary.  We took him out of the classroom, and he started earning college-level credits through CLEP exams beginning his freshman year of high school…working independently, primarily through reading.  As I mentioned above, he does all of his math through Aleks.  He does extremely well on pretty much any type of standardizes examination.  I can easily see a kid like him, even with less problems, having huge difficulties sitting in a college classroom but being able to handle an online class very easily in no small part because the method of presentation.  So why can’t this help someone who is less distractable?

Take it a step further.  If online learning is ideal for people who have jobs and families and can work in the evenings but not get to classes, why can’t it also work for students living in dorms or even at home?  Maybe some of them find that they concentrate best at night and it is preferable to sitting in a large, crowded, warm, boring classroom at 8 a.m.  (And yes, people do function on different clocks.)  Aren’t you benefitting the student by allowing them to work at their peak time?

I’m not saying everyone will take advantage of this, but I think it ought to be an option for many people.  Some people really thrive on personal interaction and keeping them out of a classroom would inhibit them from learning.  Some people don’t.  The ideal situation is where students have choices and options.

I think the final thing I have to say on this topic is that the real problem, in my mind, is that teachers see themselves as essential to the learning process.  Really, the one thing I’ve learned going through graduate school and homeschooling my kids is that teachers are more often an impediment.  The university functions to teach students, and yet, in many cases, students are quite capable of learning the materials on their own.  That’s really the reason behind homework: you learn it far better by doing it than by sitting and listening to someone talk about it.  In reality, students are still learning on their own.  The role of the university is to focus the effort, speed up the process, and assess performance.  Students are not necessarily learning anything from their classes that they cannot learn on their own…and in fact, they may be learning it less deeply than if they did it on their own.

I find this ironic given that the other aspect of a university is research: people are expected to learn new things and create new knowledge all the time.  If learning really only happens meaningfully in a classroom, then research couldn’t exist.  I can’t wrap my head around the fact that researchers who learn things on their own all the time will turn around and claim that undergraduates somehow lack that ability.

My conclusion, therefore, is that online education should seriously be considered as an alternative whenever available.   I think it democratizes education and makes a better environment for learning for a significant portion of students.  The reason we haven’t shifted to these models is mostly because professors, on the whole, are unwilling to consider that it should be done another way and are uninformed about the benefits.



1. Luke A. Holzmann - July 11, 2012

I think it’s going to take me a while to ingest all this information and synthesize it down to fit it into my head. But my initial response is applause. I agree. Lecture can work, or we can find ways to learn in a lecture environment, but far bigger is the doing… be it experiment, discussion, rehearsal, or attempts/practice with feedback.

This thinking was fairly foundational to the structure of my free Filmmaking 101 course (shameless self-promotion there): Give direction and feedback on short projects rather than lecture on theory. What I realized in film school was that the real benefit was–as you point out–the focus. They “forced” me to practice, to produce films and scripts and such. I gleaned a few tidbits here and there from the lectures, but mostly it was the doing.

Since I was at a Christian University, I had Bible classes as well. Again, even with some of the top minds of Christiandom today, the lectures imparted very few nuggets of knowledge. Far more important to my developing theology were the discussions and talks I had with my classmates and professors. College thrust me into an environment that fostered such interaction, which is great, but my classes were, by and large, the catalyst for learning rather than the mechanism. …oh… I like that. I think I’ll blog about it [smile].

Thanks for passing me the link. I had overlooked it in my RSS reader…



2. The Catalyst for Learning | Sonlight Blog - July 11, 2012

[…] one of my bloggy friends, suggested I read her post on instructional technologies. The title hadn't grabbed my attention while zipping through my RSS feeds this morning, so I'm glad […]


3. Linkin’ and lovin’ « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured - July 14, 2012

[…] Another viewpoint on online teaching technologies by cherish the scientist.  Ultimately we think these are empirical questions about who benefits, if there’s a benefit, and how and when people benefit.  We imagine that online ed can be great for systematic learning, and possibly puzzle-based learning (with aha moments) if given the right kind of gaming system.  We also think that perhaps there are other critical thinking skills that it is not so good at (and are thus very leery of its use in graduate school).  But how to measure those skills is also difficult. […]


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