Sunday, May 13, 2012

Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education?

"Is Canada lagging behind in online education?" is the title of an article in today's Toronto Star. The title in the print edition is "Education not evenly distributed."

The author is Michael Geist who is described as follows ...
Michael Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law. He has a Bachelor of Laws degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Master of Laws degrees from Cambridge University in the UK and Columbia Law School in New York, and a Doctorate in Law from Columbia.
Hmmm ... that's interesting. A lawyer with no obvious expertise in education is writing about education. Let's see what he has to say ...
... in recent weeks it has become increasingly clear that the future of education is here, though it is not evenly distributed. The emerging model flips the current approach of expensive textbooks, closed research, and limited access to classroom-based learning on its head, instead featuring open course materials, open access to scholarly research, and Internet-based courses that can simultaneously accommodate thousands of students. The concern is that other countries are becoming first adopters, while Canada lags behind.
Let's focus on "internet-based courses." Are they really the "future" of education? Are they desirable?

Geist gives us several examples where American online courses are being funded and developed with the help of grant money from rich private universities and the federal government. He emphasizes that Harvard and MIT are planning "to bring free or low-cost, Internet-based classes to thousands of students." Is this a problem for Canada? Yes, it is ...
The massive investment in open course materials will likely prove attractive to Canadian schools and students, with the prospect that domestic materials are dropped in favour of more flexible, free alternatives. Several B.C. and Alberta universities are investing in the creation of their own open materials, but more is needed to Canadianize the steady stream of U.S. funded works.

As for online education, there may be the occasional pilot project from Canadian universities, but no one seems ready to confront the emerging reality of competition from top-tier schools from around the world offering online courses at low cost to Canadian students. In fact, many schools seem stuck in their traditional model, complete with restrictive licensing agreements that are likely to slow the technology transition. The education future may be here, but few Canadian universities have woken up to its implications.
The kind of teaching that can be done by online courses is, unfortunately, very common in universities. It's probably true that as long as this kind of teaching is viewed as adequate for an undergraduate degree, then so-called "top-tier" American schools may outcompete Canadian universities by offering cheap online courses, especially if those courses are being subsidized by tens of million of dollars of support from rich private universities. (The Harvard/MIT initiative is funded by a $60 million dollar fund put up by the two universities. No public university in Canada could ever match that, even if it were desirable.)

Michael Geist assumes that education quality is not an issue. He assumes that since many universities are already offering low quality education experiences then online courses will be just as good. He may be right. I know for a fact that many biochemistry courses in North American universities consist of a lecturer spewing out facts and students being tested by multiple choice questions to see if they have memorized those facts. That kind of course can easily be replicated online.

But that's not the correct way to teach. There's a reason why online courses have not proliferated at most universities. There's a reason why very few of the experts in education are promoting online courses as the "education future." It's the same reason why televised courses didn't become standard in the early 1970s in spite of all the hype back then about a revolution in education and the imminent destruction of university campuses.

The correct way to teach is to engage students. In today's world of education this takes the form of "student-centered learning" but the basic concepts have been around for decades. The idea is to create a classroom where there is lots of give-and-take between students and the teacher, and between students themselves (peer learning). The idea is to concentrate on core principles and concepts and not on memorizing facts. It's not easy to teach this way because it requires a lot of work and a lot of feedback. When you're explaining difficult concepts, such as evolution, you need to see how the message is being received and you need to ask questions and generate discussion.

Learning at this level is not a passive experience that can work when you're sitting by yourself in front of a computer monitor. That's why the best teachers aren't taping their lectures and skipping the interactive part of education. It's not because they are stuck in a "traditional model," it's because they are trying to break out of the traditional model that online education wants to perpetuate. The online education model is "traditional" and old fashioned. Just because it involves some not-so-new technology doesn't make it a better way to educate.

In order to illustrate the fundamental problem with online courses, let's construct a thought experiment. I believe that the Socratic Method of teaching is highly effective in teaching critical thinking. Imagine that you are in Athens in 405 BC and you could hang out with Socrates and a group of students who were interested in learning fundamentals of ethics and philosophy. Alternatively you could read a series of articles by Socrates in your apartment in Syrakusa (Sicily). Which method is better?

Now imagine that the new university in Syrakusa hired a teacher who was almost as good as Socrates. Would it be better to keep to yourself and read discourses by Socrates or stop by the university and engage in debate and discussion?

Those of you who think that reading on your own is just as good will probably favor online courses. Those of you who think that active engagement is crucial will wonder why anyone would think differently.

There are other points that often come up when debating the value of online courses. The first is whether there are any subjects where the material is static for several years. It certainly isn't true of biochemistry. The material in an introductory biochemistry courses changes every year as new ideas and new data are incorporated into the course. This means that the online lectures would have to change every year and that means they won't be as cheap as some people imagine.

I'm also worried about accuracy and appropriate level. In principle, there's no reason why the material in an online course couldn't be just as accurate as the material taught in the best classrooms, but, in practice, this doesn't seem to be true. Perhaps it's because the teachers who favor online courses don't think the material changes very much from year to year. This is one of the problems with the MIT Opencourseware Project. Some of the lectures in introductory biochemistry and molecular biology are, quite frankly, embarrassing because the concepts and principles aren't correct. Of course in this case the online video is actually the same as the classroom lecture so the classroom lecture is wrong as well. The important point here is that just because MIT is a "top-tier" school doesn't mean they are good at undergraduate education.

Want an example? Look at this lecture: Respiration and Fermentation (2011). In the first few minutes the lecturer gets three fundamental concepts wrong: (1) glycolysis is NOT the most ancient evolutionary pathway, gluconeogenesis evolved first, (2) the fact that glycolysis can operate in the absence of oxygen is irrelevant because all ancient pathways in bacteria evolved in the absence of oxygen, (3) no pathway can operate if the free energy changes are positive (I don't know where those free energy changes in his figure are coming from). (The description of the significance of the free energy changes is very, very, wrong.) See how many other mistakes you can find.

In the case of the MIT courses, the level is also a problem. Much of the material is high school level material not university level. Sometimes there is so much material covered in a lecture that the student has no hope of actually understanding the material—all they can do is memorize. Here's an example from one of the 2011 MIT lectures: Biochemical Reactions, Enzymes and ATP.

Finally, there's the question of what, if any, benefits one gets from being physically present on a university campus as opposed to being in your bedroom one thousand miles away. Some of us think that there's more to a university education than just sitting in lectures, no matter how well they are taught. Some of us think that joining the debate club or playing hockey are important parts of the university experience. We think that just hanging around in the pub or library and discussing politics is important. Those who believe in online education don't put much value on those things.


  1. A bit off topic but you may be interested in
    "Next Generation Science Standards for Today’s Students and Tomorrow’s Workforce" especially since they seemingly are promoting the outdated adaption-only-theory-of-evolution (which of course still drives the IDiots at UD mad).

  2. I largely agree with you on substance Larry, but the term student centered needs to go away. The name not only leads to catering of students, it creates a caustic expectation that the student has a privileged perspective on what they should learn. I prefer the term knowledge centered. And it doesn't get more knowledge centered than Socrates

    1. I think the important point is that students need to be engaged in their own learning and that we (teachers) need to address their misconceptions and misunderstandings directly. I agree that catering to students is a serious problem—that's one of the reasons why we should abolish student evaluations—but I'm not sure that your term "knowledge centered" fixes the problem.

  3. I can go surfing with my friends and debate the homeless guy on the corner who was once a professor and attend Hillsdale College's internet coarse on the U.S. Constitution for free. Spending tens of thousands of dollars to debate and play sports and then find out what I was taught in Intro Bio was a load of crap doesn't sound like much of an education - except in personal finance.

  4. " I believe that the Socratic Method of teaching is highly effective in teaching critical thinking."

    Any data to support this?

  5. Well according to me Online Education is best way.