Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Online Courses: The Great Courses

John Hawks has recently blogged about My foray into online education. He's posted videotapes of the lectures in his anthropology course: Principles of Biological Anthropology.

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.

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.
You can buy the complete set of lectures for Major Transitions in Evolution for only $254.95.

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:

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.
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?

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]

16 comments :

  1. I believe that learning is not just for college students, but for everyone. The best learners are not those trying to get a grade or a degree, but those who come to the subject with an interest deep enough to sustain them, even without external rewards or recognition. I love talking to these people and they inspire me to be a better teacher.

    I think you underestimate the potential audience for your courses. Most of the Great Courses customers are professionals who like to expand their horizons by learning outside the traditional classroom. Some of my university colleagues are customers! I don't know about Toronto, but here in Wisconsin we have a program allowing anyone 55+ to audit courses on campus for free. I love having those senior students in my classes, and the depth of knowledge and interest they bring is unparalleled.

    The traditional classroom has several things to offer that are difficult to manage online. I can give students exams and quizzes that give students additional incentive to read and study. I can walk students through laboratory exercises, and I can give them direct feedback on their work. Some kinds of material are very hard to adapt to a video or computer-based media format. In my field, skeletal materials are difficult to handle on a computer.

    As far as classroom style -- that must vary with the content. In some of my courses it is most appropriate to lecture with relatively short interactive experiences for students. That's a combination of the style of content and the class size. These classes have dedicated laboratory sessions that engage the students in more directed interactions. In other courses, the amount of student contribution to the discussion is much higher, and making archives available to the public would be inappropriate.

    Several instructors on our campus are now using the video system to record lectures and provide them online for students. There are some statistics on this now from student evaluations. Most students use these to review material, improve their notes, and clarify their understanding of the classroom sessions. They report very high satisfaction with having the sessions available, and my perception is that student learning has improved.

    Nevertheless, I think that a shorter format lecture directed to online viewing would be more effective for students than the classroom archived sessions.

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    1. In some of my courses it is most appropriate to lecture with relatively short interactive experiences for students. That's a combination of the style of content and the class size.

      I go to education conferences every year and I serve on the editorial board of an education journal. We hear those kind of comments all the time. There are many experts out there who would be happy to show you how to change the way you teach. The key step is understanding that now fact covered in a textbook needs to be presented in a lecture. Class time is far too valuable for that.

      Another key point is that almost everything in a power point presentation is a waste of time.

      (I admit that I haven't yet mastered the new techniques, but I'm trying.)

      Several instructors on our campus are now using the video system to record lectures and provide them online for students. There are some statistics on this now from student evaluations. Most students use these to review material, improve their notes, and clarify their understanding of the classroom sessions. They report very high satisfaction with having the sessions available, and my perception is that student learning has improved.

      I don't put much faith in student evaluations. If getting a good grade requires memorizing the information in the lecture then it's not surprising that they want to see the lecture several times.

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    2. John Hawks has posted a copy of his comment (above) on his own blog, with additional commentary.

      A little more on online learning

      He says ...

      I'll be writing more about this topic. Online learning is clearly going to become more and more important to the future of higher education, and I'm working hard to be at the forefront of that trend.

      Meanwhile, I'll be working hard to reform undergraduate education, especially in the sciences. There are many experts in pedagogy who are fighting for the same cause.

      If we succeed, online courses will become an excellent example of what NOT to do in education and nobody will give you credit toward a degree if you take an online course.

      If we fail, traditional teaching colleges will become useless and you'll be able to get a B.Sc. while sitting in the bedroom of your parent's house. Your degree will have about as much cachet as an MBA.

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  2. Students, who are well-motivated, take very opportunity they can to engage with the taught material. I record my presentations on a laptop along with my narrative. The recordings are posted with the notes. They are well-accessed by students -- especially those who are well-motivated to succeed. There are also a growing number of students with dyslexia, and related issues, who benefit from having material available in a number of formats.

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    1. They are well-accessed by students -- especially those who are well-motivated to succeed.

      This doesn't mean a thing. "Well-motivated to succeed" applies to any student who wants a good grade. Our pre-med students will access anything that improves their chances of success.

      The important question is whether you've taught your students to think critically. Look at your exam questions. How many of them are questions where the answers require simple regurgitation of facts presented in your lectures?

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    2. Larry do you give take-home exams? I tend to ask questions that challenge students to synthesize what we have discussed and apply that understanding. Those type of questions that get students to think critically take time to answer and are not conducive for timed exams. Take home exams get around this problem but do open the door for cheaters.

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    3. Larry do you give take-home exams?

      No, but I assign essays. In one of my courses students also have to do group presentations and individual posters. I'm still not sure how useful they are.

      When I taught introductory biochemistry the students were allowed to bring all their notes to the exam. None of the questions depended on simple regurgitation of facts.

      Take-home exams are excellent for students with a network of friends in the class. They're not so good for those students who don't/can't form a study group. I haven't figured out how to compensate for that problem.

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  3. Surely there must be some portions of undergraduate science courses that are more amenable to a "traditional" lecture style, and, as such, can be separated to a hybrid online format?

    Granted, as a student, I see the value and the enjoyment of having engaging conversations on the content, but as class sizes increase and meeting times decrease this is simply not possible logistically. Socratic method for teaching science? Excellent. Real, hands-on, lab experience? Unparalleled. But addressing the individual variations in understanding in a class of modest size seems prohibitively taxing.

    I suspect that (strictly for undergraduate science courses, excluding their lab components) online courses provide a superior way to augment (not replace) the really valuable portion of teaching: in-class interaction between real people, in real time.

    We should also note that over some intervals, the lecture format is a necessary, but not sufficient component of successful teaching. There are just some unavoidable bits of information that can't always be reached efficiently, if at all, by discussions. The proportion of the lecture to the rest of the method is debatable, but, for this component, why is it unreasonable to resist an online memory of the event?

    If it's an argument against open distribution, intellectual ownership, or student/faculty privacy during discussions, this can easily be remedied using whatever methods the instructor currently uses to distribute "class only" content. Emails, private video hosting, etc. These are far from insurmountable challenges.

    If the argument is that the traditional lecture is completely ineffective for course "X", fine. Students can be self-taught from some provided, non-lecture material (usually interpreted as textbooks or research literature) and be expected to engage in in-class discussions on the basis on what they should have learned from the medium. But it seems unlikely that most professors would opt for this method and find it suited to the learning environment.

    There may be benefits to having a "traditional" lecture, as, by extension, a private, per-semester copy of the lecture audio and video. For example, the value of a narrative in a lecture is often undervalued. Fluent technical writing is great -concise and efficient- but it may not be digestible psychologically. [Whether this a fault of the presenter or the audience is contentious] I'm certain there are numerous occasions that you or other professional scientists have found that a colleague's research presentation is both more enjoyable and more memorable than the peer-reviewed paper on the same subject. [part 1]

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    1. There is also the issue of recording. Let's split this into two access categories: Group A, open, public access (Youtube etc), and Group B, private, time-limited, contractually protected against outside use etc.

      In the case of Group A, some of your concerns can be addressed.
      -That the course has solid prerequisites or may contain campus-specific discussions is irrelevant. Interested third parties will either continue to learn independently or they won't. The same applies to their willingness to tolerate "local discussion". Even if the barriers to effective learning for third parties was impossibly high, such that no one not currently enrolled derived any intellectual benefit, it would still have no effect on the worth of the course or the labor of the instructor. If the online courses are less than impossible to learn from, then the public only stands to benefit, at no additional exertion from the content providers.

      Regardless of the behavior of the public audience for your course, the value of your teaching and the cost to produce said content remain unchanged.

      That the privacy and thus comfort of the participating student body may be compromised due to public content disclosure is a legitimate concern, but certainly not one that is without adequate solution. Student participation can be essentially anonymized by avoiding direct video recording of the individuals, or even masked through trivial editing techniques such as switching to a brief transcript of the student’s question.

      However, as with all ethical questions, the cost of not choosing an option must also be defined. For example, is being the vicinity of a question-asking student beneficial to an otherwise silent student enrolled in the same course? Is there a value to hearing other students elaborate on their learning process? How should one design the recordings for the benefit of the other class members?

      [part 2]

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    2. In the case of Group B, the focus shifts to the needs of the student.

      Now, I have had teachers (in courses with low in-class discussion levels) who sought to incentivize attendance through the use of in-class quizzes mediated by electronic "clickers". While I recognize the obvious shortcomings of having to use such an unsophisticated (multiple choice) approach, I understand their intentions. There is a phrase that runs something like "Students can be their own worst enemies."

      However, there are incentive structures for attendance and engagement (content impermanence) that inadvertently punish students under circumstances beyond their control.

      For example, I have a dear friend who suffers from an extremely severe intolerance to gluten, a condition whose hallmarks include excruciating intestinal pain and an obvious distraction in any cognitively demanding environment. The conditions of their enrollment were such that they had a meal plan provided by the institution in a non-optional default; unfortunately, the meals were often highly variable in their "gluten-free" quality. As a result, this student would essentially be incapacitated on an unpredictable schedule that included course time.

      Obviously, this is an anecdote, but it doesn't take more than a few minutes to realize that a class of functionally similar circumstances can reduce the student's learning experience in a way that is independent of their efforts or skill.

      For such circumstances, the value of a stored classroom experience cannot be exaggerated.

      The counter-argument for non-hindered students runs a bit like Plato's stance on written copies of rhetoric: the presence of a copy removes the incentive for retention/memory, and as such, these skills will inevitably fall into disrepair. It's not a totally unreasonable argument for some portions of content, but it is an obviously inadequate model for things like class discussion.

      In a situation where there is a quantitative incentive for attendance (either through valuing presence or participation instances/quality), and if the classroom sessions are recorded and distributed in a private, time-limited fashion, what argument is there against having a "back-up" of your course content? [part 3, final]

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    3. Surely there must be some portions of undergraduate science courses that are more amenable to a "traditional" lecture style, and, as such, can be separated to a hybrid online format?

      One might think so but I have several friends who work on student-centered learning and they refute every example I come up with.

      ... but as class sizes increase and meeting times decrease this is simply not possible logistically

      In that case, the best solution might be to reduce class sizes!

      We all know that isn't going to happen so the next best thing is to learn how to teach large classes better. I've participated in demonstrations (as a "student") where large class sizes were not an impediment to effective teaching.

      One way to do this is to form small groups of students (four students seems to be ideal) and ask them to reach a consensus on a particular problem.

      We should also note that over some intervals, the lecture format is a necessary, but not sufficient component of successful teaching. There are just some unavoidable bits of information that can't always be reached efficiently, if at all, by discussions.

      Most "bits of information" are in the textbook. They are part of required reading. There are some difficult concepts that require some instruction but even those benefit from an interactive style rather than traditional lecture.

      If it's an argument against open distribution, intellectual ownership, or student/faculty privacy during discussions, this can easily be remedied using whatever methods the instructor currently uses to distribute "class only" content.

      Why would you want to do that? Is it only for those students who might have unavoidably missed the class?

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    4. However, there are incentive structures for attendance and engagement ...

      I am totally opposed to giving out marks for attendance and/or participation. That sounds like kindergarten and I prefer to treat my students as adults.

      For example, I have a dear friend who suffers from an extremely severe intolerance to gluten, a condition whose hallmarks include excruciating intestinal pain and an obvious distraction in any cognitively demanding environment ....

      First we decide on the best way to educate undergraduates. Then we figure out if it's possible to accommodate students with special needs. You can't defend second rate teaching on the grounds that it's more accessible to people like your friend. That's not logical. It's a distraction.

      In a situation where there is a quantitative incentive for attendance (either through valuing presence or participation instances/quality), and if the classroom sessions are recorded and distributed in a private, time-limited fashion, what argument is there against having a "back-up" of your course content?

      Well, for one thing, not all students behave like adults. Some excerpts from those classes are going to end up on YouTube.

      But there are other answers. You're ignoring the fact that the very presence of a camera in the classroom has an effect on behavior. Mine, especially.

      Also, I think you're asking the wrong question. Video recordings are not the default here. You need to have a sound reason for posting recordings, not for rejecting them.

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  4. Great insight... i found the stuff on online courses and e-learning very fruitful and beneficial. Being enrolled in a similar course at Online Learning Courses I found this knowledgeable.

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  5. L.M.:"In that case, the best solution might be to reduce class sizes! "
    But of course, the whole point of "massive" online courses is to greatly reduce the teacher:student ratio. Heck might as well have part-time adjuncts w/o health care coverage make the videos and moderate the online discussions.

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  6. Good Blog! But I feel that Online teaching is the new face of teacher training and development. It makes learning more interesting and interactive. It enables focused Learning and accommodates multiple learning styles and mediums.

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  7. I agree too. Being able to acquire college online courses as a new breed of learning, it is just exceptional.

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