Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On the Quality of Online Courses

Are online courses a good thing, a bad thing, or relatively neutral? There's much to debate.

The main issue, as far as I'm concerned, is pedagogical. Are online courses a good way to teach critical thinking—the primary goal of undergraduate education?

There are tangential issues that often get in the way of dealing with the important questions and I'd like to deal with one of them here.

In a previous post [Is Canada Lagging Behind in Online Education?] I criticized a newspaper article by Michael Geist because he made an incorrect assumption. He assumed that any online course from a "top-tier" university would be serious competition for the average Canadian school. I selected two courses from MIT and showed that the quality of their biochemistry teaching was not a threat.

This point needs to be emphasized. Just because an online undergraduate course comes from Harvard, MIT, or Stanford does not mean that it's a good quality course. In my own field of biochemistry I know of many, many teachers in small schools throughout North America who can teach biochemistry better than famous research professors at the so-called "top-tier" schools.

It still may be true that students will flock to the Harvard, MIT, and Stanford courses and pay those schools for biochemistry credits but let's not assume, without justification, that they are getting a better education.

Today I received a copy of Academic Matters: OCUFA's Journal of Higher Education, a magazine published by the Ontario Federation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA). The articles are devoted to technology in the classroom ("Professor 2.0." ugh!). An article by Sidneyeve Matrix [Challenges, Opportunities, and New Expectations] caught my eye. She says,
When Stanford University offers massively open online courses (MOOCs) in science and engineering, in one case drawing over 150,000 participants, people take notice. When the Khan Academy wins significant Microsoft funding, posts 3,000 instructional videos online, and attracts massive traffic, stories proliferate about the future of self-directed, online, informal e-learning. ... Critics ask, what’s the value of having students attend a lecture in real time if essentially the same material is covered by world-renowned professors on professional-quality video courtesy of free services at TED-Ed or YouTube Education? ... Why pay enormous fees to learn from faculty in an accredited university program, when MITx offers free online courseware with options for students to get peer-to-peer and professor feedback, assessment and earn branded certificates of achievement? What is the return on investment for students (and perhaps their parents) opting to earn their credentials at a bricks-and-mortar university when they could join the 30,000 others enrolled at the London School of Business and Finance in their Global MBA program—delivered online via a Facebook app?
There's a myth here that needs exposing. The quality of undergraduate education in the sciences1 should be judged by the content of the course and not the prestige of the university that offers it. Let's not get bamboozled into thinking that just because Stanford and Khan University Academy offer an online course in biochemistry that it's necessarily a good course.

The MIT examples I highlighted in my previous post says that this is a a bad assumption. You can look at the Stanford University Courses and make up your own mind.

Here's the important point: don't just assume that because an online course exists, it is necessarily a good course. You may have legitimate reasons for thinking that online courses are good things, but that doesn't excuse you from actually looking at the quality of an online course before declaring that the producers of such a course did a good job. Putting a bad course online is worse than putting no course online no matter what you might think of online courses.

1. I restricted myself to the sciences because we are presumably judging quality by the ability to teach critical thinking and factually correct material. There may well be degrees and programs where this isn't important. For example, it may not be important who teaches MBA courses since the goal is just to get a degree to put on your CV. In that case the prestige of the London School of Business and Finance may be far more important than whether you are actually learning something useful, or correct.


  1. I have a question. Is the online course the same as the respective classroom course taught at MIT? If so, then, assuming that Prof. Moran's characterization is accurate, the students who are paying through the nose to attend MIT are getting shortchanged. The same goes for Stanford, Harvard and any other prestigious university.

    1. It's not clear - EdX has only been announced, but I don't see any actual courses available yet. That said, OpenCourseWare includes actual course materials, and it is often used by MIT students themselves to better prepare for the courses they're taking by looking at past editions of the course (or to be better prepared for the exams, depending on how cynical your point of view is)

      But nothing can substitute for the actual experience of being in the class room with the professor, asking questions, preparing for real exams that do matter, and taking them in an actual room with other people, being in a teaching lab doing experiments, and more importantly, working in a research lab, doing real research, sitting in group meetings, immersing yourself in the research culture. Then there are the advanced courses which in biology consist mostly of reading discussing current research papers - I personally have learned an enormous amount from such courses, but there is no way you can put those online, you have to be in the room with a small group of people, having an interactive discussion; and the fact that the professors that lead the discussion are so famous does matter - they may sometimes be poor teachers in the traditional sense, but this a very different situation where it is the way they think about problems that is the most valuable thing to learn and you do in fact learn a lot from them that you can't learn otherwise. Those are the things that make an MIT or Harvard education what it is, and I don't see how that unique experience can be digitized and made available online.

      So, no, the regular students are not shortchanged; if anyone may get shortchanged, it will be those who take the online courses and make the mistake to think it is a valid substitute for the real thing - it is not. But in the same time, it is admirable that course content is put online and made widely available - that can only be a good thing; if only the primary literature was freely available to everyone too...

    2. I think that Mr. Marinov is missing my point so let me make it perfectly clear so that there be no misunderstanding. If the same course using the same materials is taught to MIT undergraduates as is presented on-line, then, assuming that Prof. Moran's evaluation is correct and accurate, the undergraduates at MIT who are taking the course are, indeed, being shortchanged.

    3. That's precisely what I responded to:

      1) Even if it's exactly the same course, it is still not the same thing

      2) There are courses that you can not put online due to their nature

      3) You can not put the research experience that students get online

      What I pointed out is that the courses which you can present online in exactly the same form as given to real students happen to constitute only a part of an MIT education, and not the more important one; it's also indeed the case that you can probably find better versions of some of those courses at other places (although I have no direct observations on this, I thought that the core courses were too condensed and glossed over a lot of important material that should have been discussed in more depth). It's the rest of what you do at MIT that makes MIT education what it is.

    4. The undergraduates at MIT certainly appear to be getting an inferior education in basic introductory biochemistry.

      This is not news. We've known for some time that schools like Harvard, MIT, Princeton, and Stanford are not superior to other schools in terms of undergraduate education. Some of their courses may be excellent and some may be terrible. We've also known for a long time that the students in those courses get very good grades relative to students in other universities.

    5. I don't know how familiar you are with the details of the program, but the reason for the biochemistry problem is that there is only one required biochemistry course - 7.05 and only one other more advanced biochemistry course offered, which most people don't take because it's considered old school and not very cool. Now 7.05 is a 15-week course, half of which is about DNA and proteins and is more molecular biology than biochemistry. So basically the whole metabolic biochemistry is condensed into half a term - of course it's not going to be taught well. I had the good fortune to have studied the subject a lot on my own in high school so I at least have whatever knowledge I acquired back then to fall back on, but I still feel I don't have the kind of mastery of the subject I should have (especially since I have never worked on anything that requires it since then) and the fact it was never really taught to me the way it should have is a major reason for that - there is no way you can teach that material in 7-8 weeks, it has to be stretched over a whole year and you have to go really into depth into it; sadly, that's not done.

    6. There are two problems. First, as you point out, there's not enough time to teach biochemistry effectively.

      The second problem is that what is being taught is not correct. The second problem is not excusable and can/should be fixed.

    7. I think that Prof. Moran has it right. If what is being taught is not correct, assuming his assessment is accurate, then students are being shortchanged. I don't see how Mr. Marinov can argue otherwise.

  2. Four of my family members have taken online classes at a local community college (NW State Community College). In general, the courses are poorly put together, easily gamed, and almost always inferior to the same class taught at the school. This Is not always the case, Dr Ed Singer's online classes being an exception, but I was shocked at how poor most of The classes were.

  3. I took a few masters level courses from University of Maryland in biotechnology. Overall the courses were good, and the interface with faculty was good. The weakness I saw was lab work. I am a science guy and know that labs is where concepts are proven. Biotechnology may have been a more bookwork field It's a cross between buisness and biology which would work, so would english. But, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, etc., may not, unless you can come up with labs based on my growing say bread mould in my kitchen, or purifying chemical constituents from common houshold products (joke intended). I think because you are a scientist and you are unconfortable it's warranted. Science classes require face time and more face time as a student progresses.

  4. It depends on the course, it depends on the teacher and it depends on the student. So, it's similar to a traditional class which can be excellent or lousy too. It depends on the topic, to some extent. Not everything can be successfully taught remotely. Sometimes you have to be there. The level of the material matters too.

    You seem to assume that the sciences have some unique "ability to teach critical thinking and factually correct material" and other academic fields don't have that. Having argued with quite a number of people with degrees in science, history, the law, and, yes, theology, over the years, those abilities aren't unique to the sciences and having an advanced degree in the sciences is no guarantee that those will be consistently present or extend outside of the narrow confines of the person's specific topic of expertise.
    These days I'm finding a lot of people with degrees in science depend on a presumed ability to cow their opponent on the basis of their superior sciencyness instead of knowing what they're talking about and applying reason to it. And becoming frothingly furious when that intimidation doesn't work.

    1. I didn't mean to imply that critical thinking is only taught in science courses. I certainly don't believe that. In fact, I believe that all university students should be forced to take (and get a good grade in) philosophy courses.

      I was trying to distnguish betwen critical thinking courses and those that are merely intended to make money by awarding a job enhancement credit. MBA courses come to mind.

    2. Good. Universities becoming little more than trade schools tends to degrade the quality of learning and how thinking is valued. Which could be a bigger danger than online courses.

  5. While I've largely agreed with your series on on-line learning, you're dead-wrong on Khan Academy; it has been built to work with teachers, in the classroom. Teachers can monitor their students work, and will automatically be informed if a specific student is having trouble with a topic/area. Unlike the "youtube lecture" model of on-line learning (which is what the Stanford/Harvard/MIT model seems to be), Khan is designed to increase student-teacher interactions, in order to allow teachers to more effectively target individual students problem areas.

    That - IMO - makes for a vast improvement over the more classical teaching styles, where teachers are often unaware of a students troubles until either an exam (i.e. too late) or when a student comes to them for help (i.e. rare).

    I see two major limitations of on-line training that you haven't touched on. One is that regardless of how well designed/implemented such a program is, sometimes hand-on is the only way you can learn something. How you (effectively/safely) do a chem lab, for example, on-line is not entirely clear. The second limitation is that not everyone learns in the same fashion, and a straight lecture-based program caters to those whose learning style is compatible with that kind of teaching. Its hard enough to develop lectures/tutorials/labs that appeal to all learning styles; I'm not even sure its possible to implement that in an on-line environment.

    1. ... you're dead-wrong on Khan Academy

      The point I was making is that we should not assume that just because a course is offered by the Khan Academy, it's necessarily a good course.

      Why am I "dead wrong" about that?

      You seem to have fallen into that trap. Just because the Khan Academy says it has lofty goals doesn't mean it achieves them. Almost all universities have lofty-sounding mission statements. It proves nothing.

    2. Why am I "dead wrong" about that?
      My mistake; I read more into your statement that you intended.

      Just because the Khan Academy says it has lofty goals doesn't mean it achieves them
      Except that, at least on their pilot run in Los Altos, they appear to have achieved many of those goals. Granted, some of them are very wishy-washy ("humanizing eduction" - WTF is that?). But in terms of enhancing teachers abilities to monitor student progress and rapidly identify trouble areas, the program appears to excel.

      I only wish I could have the kind of feedback teachers receive from the Khan program in my own courses - often, we have no indication that a topic was not understood by a broad swath of the class until the exam.

  6. Dear Larry,
    Thanks for holding fast and turning back this tide of nonsense. Online courses simply cannot be the primary means of teaching a course. At best it can help reinforce certain best practices, and at worst it helps (rather well) with exam prep. And contrary to what some say, online learning is equally ineffective for "science" as well as "humanities" courses. And is not because science courses require hands on lab work. In the humanities too, since it is about the people among whom we live, a student must attempt to experience what ideas mean to the people around him, how it changes them, all within the bounds of propriety, caution and order. And regardless of whether it is the sciences or humanities or the arts, a student must be exposed to disciplines outside his narrow area of concentration. Learning is several things - memorization, analysis, expression, creation and experience and a lot else.


  7. Goodness, are there really people who believe that online courses are a viable substitute for "real" courses? I have never met anyone who does, and more importantly I've never met anyone who has taken an online course (or even a "real" course with online components) who wants to do so again. The technology just isn't good enough to make it worthwhile, and quite possibly never will be. I thought this was so self-evident that I didn't even bother reading this post in detail when it showed up on the Planet Atheism feed. But I see from the follow-up post that -- although Professor Moran is on the side of all that is good and sensible -- there are actually academics who are pushing this nonsense.

    My objection is not because I think it is necessarily impossible to design good software -- although I admit I can't imagine how a piece of genuinely good online course software would work; it would have to be a completely new concept, as opposed to the poorly-adapted CMS designs we currently have -- but because every piece of online course software I have seen seems to be designed by someone who understands neither education nor user interface design. In most cases, it would be easier and better for the professor to record a lecture as a series of videos and then talk to the class via e-mail than it is to use the software which is theoretically designed for coursework.

  8. I don't get it - why are people saying "course" when they mean "lecture series"?

    I'm all in favour of online lecture material, just as I am in favour of text books. These are sources which present the actual content being studied in a format that can be reviewed repeatedly and at a pace determined by the individual student. What I am confused by is the use of the word "course" - are you saying that a set of online lectures is being thought of as a "course" in a way that a text book is not? Why would anyone do that?

    In my mind, a course consists of a set of learning aims that students are expected to accomplish and (usually) a series of evaluations to assess whether they have done so. A good course will also provide learning materials (such as text books, written notes or video lectures), opportunities for interactive discussion with peers and instructors, opportunities for (guided/supervised) hands-on application of what is being learnt, and opportunities for students to receive regular feedback on their progress. A set of video lectures can be an important component of such a package, but should not in itself be referred to as a course. How does it even make sense to ask "Is the online course the same as the respective classroom course taught at MIT?"

    Where I would like to see this headed is a situation where there are established video lectures that can be prescribed as required study material in the way that text books are now. One technique that could then be used in live lectures is to screen sections of recorded lectures with pauses for class discussion.

  9. So, if a potential student can't judge a course as "good" just because it comes from a prestigous university, how can we judge them? How do I know whether the biochemistry and molecular biology I have been taught at a regional Australian university is accurate or not? I've been hoping to supplement my learning using some of these online resources but am now concerned about how I decide what resources to use.

  10. I wish I knew the answers to those questions. It seems almost impossible for students to judge the quality of the course they are taking, especially if it's an introductory course. That's one of the reasons why student evaluations are so useless.

    With respect to introductory biochemistry courses, the textbook used in the course can provide some clues. If there's no required textbook then red flags should go up. It usually means that the instructor is overly confident that whatever he/she is teaching is correct.

    There are different categories of textbook—some are better than others. If your instructor has chosen one of the lower level textbooks that has lots of errors, then that's a bad sign.

    There are a few diagnostic examples that you might examine. Check to see if you were taught the reactions of citric acid cycle correctly and if you were told the correct definition of the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology. If your instructors got those right then chances are your course was good.

    1. Thanks for responding.

      So, how do I know what level a textbook is? We used Essential Biochemistry by Pratt and Cornely, 2nd edition, which I would guess is a lower level one - it certainly states that the discovery of reverse transcriptase has "rewritten the central dogma" which I gather is incorrect from reading your posts on the subject.

      More generally, I would assume those that are still having new editions published after many years and are more widely used are better quality - like Campbell et al's Biology and Stewart's Calculus.

      Although, would the fact that the MIT course you referred to suggested Campbell's Biology as a text rather than a specialist Biochemistry textbook be a hint that their Biochemistry coverage might be suspect?

    2. Pratt & Cornely is an upper level textbook. (Charlotte Pratt worked with me on earlier versions of my own textbook.)

      Unfortunately, they get the Central Dogma wrong and exacerbate the problem by directly attributing the incorrect version to Francis Crick.

      They get the citric acid cycle correct except for one small mistake in the citrate synthase reaction.

      Campbell's Biology textbook was the very best biology textbook in the 1990s but not now. It's true that you might not expect a biology textbook to accurately portray biochemistry but that's not an excuse for a biochemistry Professor to repeat the errors, is it?

      I wonder what other criteria we might use to assess the quality of a biochemistry course? Were you taught that most reactions inside the cell are near-equilibrium reactions where ΔG = 0?

    3. I don't remember being taught that "most reactions inside the cell are near-equilibrium reactions where ΔG = 0", nor can I find it on a quick look through my notes from my course (which was several years ago and, to my shame, not a lot of it has remained clear in my memory since I haven't really used or built on it since). I have been aware since I started my course that the quality of teaching in some of the subjects may not be ideal (although it is rated very highly by students), but it is the only university that I am able to attend.

      What I would like to see now that free (or nearly free) online courses are becoming available is some sort of advisory website from people qualified to judge the quality of courses. If you're attending a bricks-and-mortar university, you need to pick one that is the "best" you can find in terms of accessibility, course quality, etc, but then you take the courses they offer and hope that you're getting a reasonably good education. Now that it seems there may be the possibility of taking individual subjects from specific universities in order to supplement in-person learning or just extend one's knowledge, it would be nice to be able to judge the quality of the individual courses on offer and just do the better quality ones.

      Something similar for textbooks would also be nice to have, again with opinions from people who are qualified to make judgements on textbook quality, rather than from students who "like" a textbook because it has lots of pictures or is "easy" to read. Then at least if the textbook required by your own university is a lower quality one, you could purchase a better quality textbook as well to supplement it. It is certainly a surprise to me that you don't consider Campbell's Biology textbook to be the best one any more and yet it is still very widely used for introductory biology courses.

      I find it frustrating that something like the central dogma is incorrect in so many textbooks and that, as a student, if I hadn't been reading your website I would have had no way of knowing that I had been taught the wrong thing - unless I went back to the original articles by Watson and Crick, which is impractical to do for every "fact" we are taught. I expect science to be "self-correcting" in that each new discovery or advance is published so it can be peer-reviewed and replicated and corrected if wrong, and even long-held "facts" can be challenged with new evidence. Certainly in the case of the central dogma, it seems like science textbooks aren't going through this process, but are perpetuating incorrect information. It makes me wonder what else that I have been taught in various subjects or read in textbooks is also wrong but I simply haven't found out about it yet.

      Sorry, this got way too long, I'll get off my soapbox now and just say thankyou for your contribution to communicating accurate science on this blog.

  11. There was a story on this sort of thing on NPR a few months ago. I forget the specifics of most of it, but generally, it detailed the "innovative" approach to teaching that physicists at (insert 'prestigious university here - I think it might have been MIT?) are taking with their introductory level classes. They focused on one physicist, who lamented his poor student evaluations and the high failure rate of his classes. It was explained that because of this, he decided to change the way he taught - he incorporated 'directed inquiry'-type plans into his classes, utilized online resources, etc., and voila! - things magically got better, and thus all classes should be taught this way. But then they aired a little before and after comparison of his classes - in the 'before' class, he droned on in thickly accented, drawn-out English (he was Polish I think) - I got bored in the 5 seconds I was listening! OF COURSE he got bad evals and had a high fail rate - students couldn't understand him and were bored! THAT is no reason to declare that ALL classes should be taught a certain way, THAT is a reason to tell the boring, aloof, hard-to-understand professor to get his shit together.