It's interesting to watch his lectures but I think he's avoiding the key question that concerns me about online courses. The question is, should we be delivering traditional "lectures" to students in our classrooms?
I would never allow anyone to videotape my classroom time and post it on the web. That's because my goal is to involve the students in the class and generate discussion. I don't want them to be intimidated by a camera and I certainly don't want the camera to record for posterity the interactions between students as they discuss the basic concepts and principles that come up in class. Sometimes I have to tell a student that there question was interesting but not on topic or, even worse, that it revealed a serious misunderstanding. Do we really want that posted on the course website?
Sometimes (often?) I say something really stupid. It's part of the risk we take when we have a course like the one I'm describing. These are not prepared and rehearsed lectures.
Then there's the personal touch that I prefer in the classroom. I frequently address students by name and I frequently refer to other courses, and professors, they have encountered. We often talk about current events, including the student events on campus. None of that would be interesting or relevant to anyone outside the class. Maybe it's wrong to do this?
My classes require certain prerequisites and I assume a great deal of knowledge because I know they have taken those prerequisites. Outsiders viewing the course won't necessarily have the necessary background knowledge. This is another way of saying that many of the courses in our department are not stand alone courses. They are part of a package.
That doesn't mean there isn't a role for traditional lectures. Of course there is. That's the format we use when giving research seminars or presentations to the public. What I'm saying is that there's a difference between "lectures" and a university "course." I believe that a proper university course should focus on student-centered learning and student engagement. I think it should not be a series of canned lectures.
John Hawks has linked up with a organization called the Teaching company.
Personally, I think that online lectures based on filming classroom sessions make for a poor viewing experience. I was really lucky over the last couple of years to become involved with the Teaching Company, who make dedicated lecture courses available on DVD and audio. You can see my profile page from the Great Courses, or check out my two series of lectures: Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates, and Major Transitions in Evolution, which I co-taught with Anthony Martin. The experience making content specifically for home viewers and listeners is really different from making lectures for classroom interactions.You can buy the complete set of lectures for Major Transitions in Evolution for only $254.95.
Working with the professionals in a real studio has helped to focus me on finding ways to do better online videos for my course content. My online students didn't get the practical lab materials and face time that my in-class students get. I'd like to find better ways to communicate that multimedia content with them, as well as make a more engaging listening or viewing experience.
Like I said, these may be exciting lectures (I didn't but them so I don't know) but is it really a university course? That's the question I want to debate. John?
There's one other point that I find interesting. According to their website, here's how the company picks courses.
For more than 20 years, we've produced The Great Courses – college-level courses taught by the most engaging professors that universities like Oxford, Stanford, Princeton, and Georgetown have to offer. The Great Courses maintains a catalog of more than 390 courses in science, literature, history, philosophy, business, religion, mathematics, fine arts, music, and better living. We've created a "university of the best," designed in careful collaboration with our customers. Here is how we do it:This is the same hype that MIT promotes in advertising its online courses. It's quite understandable, actually, the whole point of this exercise is to convince the customer that they're buying the best product. If online university courses for credit ever become popular then obviously you are going to want to take the best available course. That means competition, and competition is good, right?
Customers Choose the Professor: We identify the top 1% of professors and other experts in America and around the world. In the end, only 1 in 5,000 instructors meet the standards set by our customers, who vote on all our professors.
How can the average student tell if the course Major Transitions in Evolution is the most accurate, up-to-date course on this topic? I'm sure John will be the first to admit that if I were to give such a course my "transitions" would be quite different—I would include photosynthesis and sex, for example. Do you think The Great Courses will be willing to mount a series of lectures by me on exactly the same topic? I'll sell mine for only $199.95.
Hmmm ... maybe I should contact them to find out how this system works. I notice that under Biology Courses there isn't a single course on biochemistry but they have many courses that absolutely require knowledge of biochemistry if they are being taught properly. I don't know if many "foreign" universities like the University of Toronto qualify as one of the best.
[Photo Credit: Why I’m jealous of John Hawks]