Going online on the wrong foot

My colleague Chris Edley is out in front of the push to get Berkeley in the on-line education business .  Kevin Carey and Matt Yglesias discuss whether the new product should start upscale, like the Tesla sports car as a pilot product , or downmarket, like a knockoff LV bag that holds just as much as a real one, or maybe a Lite Vuitton that cuts some corners in the stitching and doesn’t have real leather trim .

Naturally this has all occasioned a fair amount of debate at Cal and the UC President’s office, debate that strikes me as missing a lot of points, many because of insufficiently respecting the great intellectual principle of “compared to what?”

Most people think an on-line course will be like the courses we teach now, except with the lectures on videotape and discussion sections either finessed or somehow recast into something like GoToMeeting . I think this approach is a big mistake for several reasons.  First, and fundamentally, why are we still giving live lectures with everyone in a room together at all, never mind trying to fossilize them into mpegs?  This used to be the only way to efficiently use instructor time, but as the students almost never interact with each other in a class larger than a hundred (often in much smaller courses as well), why should they have to look at the prof as a tiny fraction of a steradian, and a blackboard limited to chalk or marker handwriting, now that we have computers, much less do it when some of them could be playing soccer and others could be doing fieldwork in the rain forest?  No-one outside of our business uses this method of enlightenment any more. Hold your thumb up at arms length, in front of your computer screen: that’s bigger than my head in a lecture class; what’s the rest of your visual field doing? Why should notes and equations be handwritten, forty feet away, instead of right in front of you on your laptop in nice fonts and thoughtful layout?

Didactic transmission of declarative knowledge is the function of a textbook, not a live lecture, and indeed, the textbook for one of my courses has a cd of software inside the back cover, and many textbooks include access to all sorts of online material. Now if we can start to develop proper 21st century textbooks in the form of multimedia interactive DVDs or websites, with text, exercises and labs, pictures, videos, and all that good stuff, with lots of branching and options, we would be going in the right direction. Customizing learning sites like this is the place for individual professors to be creating value.  Don’t put lectures on video; forget them (OK, maybe a prof could pop up now and then in the lower left-hand corner of the screen and say a few words of guidance…but why not a star from the drama department?).  All the research I’ve seen indicates lectures are really lame devices for retention or any real learning. If the ego boost for the prof of having a roomful of students listening to him for ninety minutes twice a week is important, let’s find a cheaper way to deliver it, maybe with medals or parking spaces.

I think we’re naive to think on-line education should be benchmarked only against what we deliver now, or to think that’s the way the world will see it. In the first place, an enormous fraction of our current education is already on-line; I communicate with students by email much more now than by phone or in office hrs, and almost every reading for all my courses is a link in a syllabus distributed as a Word file. More important, the Discovery Channel, Simon Schama’s art history programs, yes, and Dogs 101, are on-line education, with very high production values that match what we’ve come to expect on a screen.  The only things they don’t have are interactivity and a monopoly charter to award degrees.  Maybe we can stay in business behind our market power, but as education blurs out across a working lifetime (as it should) rather than being delivered in a big dollop before most people really know why they’re having it, the credential will probably lose value, or be diffused across a variety of certificates and other evidence of learning. Meanwhile, ascertaining evidence of traits like being smart or glib or a good memorizer has already been pried away from my outfit by testing companies.

We’re also contemplating starting up the on-line learning curve in the worst place possible, namely introductory large-enrollment courses where failure is most damaging to students and where top-level, effective pedagogy is most important (not to mention wisdom, experience, and the confidence that allows a prof to listen to the students when they’re hitting the wall instead of desperately saying everything again faster). A new product like this needs to be developed in skunk works, at a small scale, with lots of ready-fire-aim experimentation at low stakes, not in public and with the most difficult item to deliver in our product line. Graduate seminars and specialized upper-division courses with students who are already committed to the material and have learned how to learn is where we should be learning this new skill, and before we rush off offering online degrees, we need to get really good at the large on-line fraction of our current residential programs.

Down the line, there is real cause for concern about losing the residential on-site experience of college, most of which is a network externality among the students. Edley correctly notes that we won’t be delivering that to any fewer students if we are also offering online degrees to lots of others, but society needs to think about whether a student far from Cal is better off at a local college, where he can have a beer with people who are taking the same courses he is, than sitting in his basement in pajamas getting a Berkeley degree. I don’t know what I think about that because I haven’t heard enough serious discussion of it either way. In any case, let’s modestly get good at delivering online advanced courses to seniors who are off-campus in the jungle or in Florence for a semester before we try to deliver a whole degree through a monitor.

Finally, I definitely come down on Carey’s side of the quality discussion.  There is no reason to believe we face a cost/quality trade doing education in a way that really embraces the technology at our disposal. We should assume we are nowhere near the production possibility frontier on those dimensions, and strike out to the northeast, expecting to deliver something much better and much cheaper that we make now.  If we surrender to imaginary constraints with unwatchable amateurish videos of professors lecturing, we are doomed, some outfit like this [check those prices for a DVD!] or this will eat our lunch, and we will deserve it.

[Update 9/VIII: Interesting reflections on a real on-line course here]

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

13 thoughts on “Going online on the wrong foot”

  1. Michael, your lectures are far more interesting and edifying that you let on! I think PP101, for example, was great when you taught it, and I was you humble GSI.

    Besides network effects, I think there are important normative and socialization effects in: a) getting students to prepare for class, b) getting them to show up to a certain place at a certain time, c) letting them see that the class is important enough for the university/professor to build buildings, show up for lecture, prepare slides and handouts, d) etc. It's good to prepare them for their working life, as well as for educational purposes. Better an 8 am lecture than a 4 am, slightly drunkenly watched video.

    Let alone the fact that when I'm online, my focus is divided horribly more than when I was in a lecture (one reason I don't allow laptops in section, and I oppose them when I advise my professors on classroom policies).

    I agree with you about the relative value of, say, a Simon Schama or Kenneth Clark or Ken Burns. But I think their documentaries are really complements to, rather than replacements for, a liberal arts education. One piece of data we do know is that education requires multiple vectors in order to get to the students– lecture plus multimedia, in my opinion.

    Nothing I'm saying is really contradicting you; just my two cents.

  2. There are lecturers who are so good that they hook right into your mind, organize the stuff milling around in there, and leave you feeling like you have a new and firm foundation from which to climb. Those people should be heard and, ideally, seen. Written material and graphics, no matter how interactive, can't replace them; we still connect best with other human beings.

  3. Shorter Michael O'Hare:

    Sure, I've benefited tremendously from some of the best educational institutions in the country, but why should anyone else?

    Alternative shorter:

    A robust educational experience for me, but not for thee!

    Look, if you start by framing "an education" as a product that needs to be delivered, as the Dean has been doing since he hatched this plan and you're repeating here, you're already playing a bit of switcheroo.

    First, "the college lecture" is being bandied about as if it's a singular entity with a universal form (a form that everyone secretly hates). I'd suggest taking a stroll around your campus and sitting in on some lectures by colleagues in other fields. At the very least you'll discover that there's a ton of variation in style, content, and student engagement in those lecture halls. You may still conclude that lectures are suboptimal for student learning, but you'll at least get a better picture of what's out there in the world.

    But more importantly, the lecture is only one of innumerable components to "an education", most of which get stripped away with online courses — interaction with peers in an out of the classroom, learning to show up to class, learning how to decide which classes are worth showing up to, learning how to ask questions, interact with various kinds of adults (professors, staff members, etc.). This doesn't even touch upon things like labs and discussions. Bottom line, to discount "being there" is to discount a huge portion of the educational experience. To claim that this way of education doesn't work ignores the fact that *everyone* involved in this debate not only experienced the kind traditional education they're starting to dismantle, but gained a tremendous amount from it, up to and including a position from which to credibly criticize it. This doesn't even touch upon the fact that funneling public money toward online education (or privatizing it, as Edley wants) at a time when public universities are hemorrhaging funds will only speed up their very destruction — despite well-intentioned calls for a dual system of online and brick-and-mortar institutions. Or the fact that over time fewer real-world classrooms means fewer instructors, which means fewer grad students, which means the end of the post-graduate system as we know it — especially in the humanities and social sciences.

    I'm a UC professor, and I have yet to be convinced by any argument or data point that online education will benefit either students or the university. This is largely because the strongest voices for change have no idea what being on the ground interacting with undegraduates is like (Edley, for instance), and those who do are stuck with too narrow a view of what counts as "quality" in education.

    And lastly, if online education is such a panacea, why don't we see places like Harvard and Chicago rushing to put their courses online?

  4. OK, I've calmed down a bit. I still disagree with some of the arguments and framing here, but I think much of my wrath is aimed at Edley, not Michael.

  5. "Online education" in its very nature assumes a student who is motivated enough to give each "class" or subject the time and attention it deserves, and motivated enough to do this without any peer pressure or direct interpersonal pressure from instructors. I don't know about you, but in our experience here it doesn't work for the vast, vast bulk of freshman and sophomores. It can work for highly motivated juniors and seniors, perhaps especially those in professional programs. It works best for people who need another degree for professional advancement– they have very defined goals and high motivation. But that's a small group and a limited market.

    It would be good if we could work with reality-based data showing how many of those students who start online courses complete them. I believe I saw something fairly recently to the effect that the completion rate for online courses is abysmal. But I could be mistaken.

    In the bigger sense, it seems to me that we ought to consider what the educational problem could be with classroom-based instruction– not the financial one. A colleague points out that most of our current students have grown up with their own separate bedrooms and (often) bathrooms at home and with several rooms they can move around in. They have very big space requirements– a huge comfort radius. When they come to college they get forced to spend long periods of time in small spaces right up against bunches of strangers, and that make them feel uncomfortable, often at a subliminal level. That's the kind of thing we can think substantively about.

    Beyond that, we ought to be thinking about whether these students will be spending the rest of their lives among humans or among data screens. I don't mean just their laboring lives. If the former, then I can't agree that the latest technological toys will give them a better shot at education (as opposed to, say, more entertainment value). They just have to interact with real humans and deal with the unpredictability of these interactions. Some of that unpredictability is about real education.

    I won't get into the desire of administrations to leverage the work of one generation of instructors so they won't have to hire another. It should suffice just to say that the professoriate *should* be skeptical about most administrative claims and dreams along these lines, and that any moves should be backed up with data showing their efficacy with the target groups of students.

  6. (a reassuring email from a pedagogically astute Berkeley colleague who's been involved in high-level discussions about our financial woes and what to do about them, posted with permission) No one, but no one, in the discussions of online UC has talked about recreating the lecture format as the appropriate pedagogical tool. Quite the contrary: online is meant to teach on-the-ground a few tricks. I share most of your pedagogical predilections….so do my fellow enthusiasts.

  7. In theory it is true that online education, if it was done properly, could be as effective as in-person classes, or more so. But that runs completely contrary to what, in my experience, online education currently actually is, which is a way for well-funded colleges to provide their classes in an even more skinflint way than they already do.

    Online classes would be better if they were:

    1) run by the top-flight professors of a school,

    2) those professors knew how to take advantage of the online medium (or had assistants that did),

    3) the classes were taken as seriously as in-person classes by everyone involved (administration, students and teachers), and

    4) they were funded by the university with the intention of making them the best class they can be.

    In practice online classes, as I've experience them are:

    1) taught by grad students or cheap adjuncts who are treated with even less respect than the usual intellectual slaves schools teaching most college classes today,

    2) those teachers rarely take advantages of the multimedia or other advantages of being online, but rather treat it of like a paid blogging/comment moderation job,

    3) everyone considers these classes a joke, since they are far easier to fake your way through, and

    4) used by the universities as a cheap way to cover their butts on classes they need to give but don't really care about.

    I'm sure someone, somewhere out there, is doing it differently. But I have a hard time seeing how top professors who have the prestige position of being listened to by groups of twenty to hundreds of live students will suddenly widely agree to switch to what is considered by anyone in the academic world a major demotion.

    And though I consider myself an educational progressive, I hate assumptions based on academic fads. We begin with the valid and important educationally progressive argument that too many teachers tend to lecture too much rather than the more challenging task engaging students. But educational fad-ism suddenly turns that into an article of faith that the lecture, one of the primary teaching methods used by almost all Western educators at least as far back as Ancient Greece, is outdated and must be utterly abandoned. And everyone must rush to do everything completely differently before there's any data that the new methods work any better, or even as well, as what people have been doing before.

    What needs to happen is for some really good college teachers to sit down with some technically savvy people figure out how to make a really first-class online program. Then get a small number of serious students to take the class, with the understanding it will be at least as rigorous as a "real" class. Make sure the University understands that this class won't be any cheaper than a regular class in the short run, and may even cost more as it's developed and worked out. When you've truly figured out a new, progressive way of teaching online, and you have data to show it works, take the beta version and go live.

    That's what big companies like Google and Microsoft do when someone has a new idea. Why can't educators ever do things the same way?

  8. Oy, this argument comes round and round eternally. Universities have wasted millions and millions on this (just ask NYU or Illinois).

    A lot of these administrators don't know the first thing about online education and so generally the product is as extraordinarily expensive as it is ineffective.

    The better route is to look at what's already being done in various programs and integrating the good examples bit-by-bit. An earth-shaking global approach is guaranteed to be a tremendous waste of money that only sounds good in news releases.

  9. What a terrible and ill-thought out post and idea. I would have thought that a fellow professor would recognize that people learn in different ways. Many professors devalue teaching precisely because they're the sort of people who can self-teach themselves, basically learning what they need to know from books or reading on a computer. The students who really benefit from the classroom are the sort who need to talk with someone to understand the material; the skilled instructor is one who can figure out where they're having trouble, adjust on the fly, and get them unstuck. This is not a task that lends itself to automation….and, yes, lectures that are too large lose effectiveness. Which is a reason to avoid making them too large, and to stress the benefits from human contact.

    You're not even gaining in many important areas; you're actually doing things worse. Students have questions – how do they ask they? If it's email or a blog – in what way does it help students to require them to put their questions in writing and give them a nice response time lag? Automated online trouble-shooting tips are to talking to a teacher as voice mail hell is to talking to a customer service rep.

    Online education is a cost-cutting matter, pure and simple. And it's very good at that: teach many more students, for a lot fewer person hours per student, and charge a lot for it. The only thing that is sadder is professors too blinded by technology or fads to realize that the goal of the automation is to remove people from teaching.

  10. > But more importantly, the lecture is only one of innumerable components to “an education”,

    > most of which get stripped away with online courses — interaction with peers in an out of the

    > classroom, learning to show up to class, learning how to decide which classes are worth

    > showing up to, learning how to ask questions, interact with various kinds of adults (professors,

    > staff members, etc.). This doesn’t even touch upon things like labs and discussions. Bottom line,

    > to discount “being there” is to discount a huge portion of the educational experience. To claim that

    > this way of education doesn’t work ignores the fact that *everyone* involved in this debate not only

    > experienced the kind traditional education they’re starting to dismantle, but gained a tremendous amount

    > from it, up to and including a position from which to credibly criticize it.

    That's exactly how the big-dollar consulting class (McKinsey, Bain, etc) destroyed the US manufacturing sector when they went full-tilt at it with "re-engineering" in the 1980s, so why should the educational establishment be immune? Do elite professors really think that they are not in the sights of the CEO/Republican class just as manufacturing workers were? That there will be some long-term fate for the university that is different from the long-term fate of Chrysler, GE Industrial, etc?


  11. Funny you should mention Bain, who are in the middle of a two-million dollar project at Berkeley that seems entirely focused on cost-cutting. That despite its name, Operational Excellence, which contains the only reference to quality I have seen in any of their reports so far.

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