Online education

For my sins, I guess, I’m a member of the Berkeley faculty Committee on Courses of Instruction. Things are looking up for this gig, though, because there’s growing interest on campus and at the university level in online instruction, and the committee is starting to seriously deliberate this very interesting issue.  Not surprisingly, I guess, a lot of the action is going on in the wrong arena, looking for ways to cut costs “without reducing educational outcomes”, and this approach will assuredly wind up cutting costs and only reduce quality somewhat. But it’s almost certain that we could actually teach more, better, and cheaper with technology if we go at it wisely.

How would we think about online education if we were focused on quality and value instead of penny-pinching?

First, we would be looking at students, which is where value actually gets created, instead of faculty.  When someone videotapes a class session, where is the camera? If there’s only one, it’s almost certainly at the back of the room pointing at the prof and the blackboard, collecting supply-side information,  not at the students who are quite eloquent with body language, fidgeting, and the like about what they are experiencing.

So let’s talk more about learning and less about teaching , just to maintain the right focus and undermine professorial ego bias.  In my vineyard, higher education, it has a few characteristic productive routines:

A. reading textbooks, journal articles, and the like to accumulate declarative knowledge and maybe skills

B. practicing acquired skills, including engaging with exhibits like poems, paintings, lab exercises, critters on the hoof on field trips or in the barn, and narrative cases

C. being talked to, sometimes with exhibits on slides or a blackboard, in one-way, one-to-many lectures [did I mention professorial ego? If you haven’t tried it, you have no idea what a rush it is to be standing up in front of dozens or hundreds of people, saying exactly what is most interesting to you for eighty minutes straight , not having to waste time on (or, being able to diss) all the wrong things other people know, especially if the audience has been conditioned that making you feel smart will be very good for them.  This element must be absolutely central to the educational enterprise, mustn’t it? Any student for whom it isn’t the moon and the stars is surely a very lost soul…]

D. conversing with peers about the course material

E. conversing with peers, in a facilitated discussion section [cf C: this one is really scary and fairly dangerous for the prof, because once you let the students start doing their own thinking, you lose a lot of control, and if you aren’t in control, what are you?  I have led class discussions in which evidence leaked out that I was not the smartest person in the room, nor the best informed on some key issue.  Really. You can feel the ground shaking at those moments.  I really feel for the track coach who can’t outrun a single person on his team – how does he get himself to work in the morning for more humiliation?]

F. creating original work like a term paper, a sculpture, or answers on an essay exam [another ego problem for the prof, frequently. If I let them, students often do stuff beyond my own abilities, beyond what I expected from the assignment (or sideways to it), and sometimes beyond my comprehension, so it can be really hard to grade.]

G. engaging with comments and critique of original work by the prof and/or GSI [see F]

H. being asked questions to which the prof knows a single right answer, in exams and problem sets [why this pointless affective error, instead of exercises or opportunity sets? all my students have all the problems they want and would much prefer solutions to problems they know they have]

I. engaging with evaluation of exam and assignment work, in the form of a letter or number scalar summary.

J. providing feedback to management, in time to be useful for mid-course correction, about how the class is changing the student intellectually (and affecting her in all the other ways that matter). [We are so bad at managing and enabling this one…]

[update K. as James points out, and how could I forget given that students do this in every course I teach, formal presentations to peers, individually or as groups.]

This list is important because faculty attention to each of these has very different time fractions, salience, and intensity from students’ allocations, so thinking about how we teach is very different from thinking about how students experience what we put before them.

For most people, it appears that “putting a course online” is mainly providing C as online video, and eliminating E or turning it into a chat or email exchanges.  But lots of the other elements are already “online”, even in conventional courses.  I receive and critique papers as files, including mp3 files of dictated comments, not dead trees, and email students all the time.  Almost all my reading assignments are links, not all to text, in a syllabus that is also a file. I still assign three paper textbooks in my two regular courses (none in others), but one of the three comes with a CD of cool software, actually a sort of online lab. If 75% of student time is spent “online” doing  things other than C and E, isn’t that pretty much an “online course” already?  If C is experienced on a computer monitor as a video instead of passively but live, does that make it cross the on-line line?

What technology allows, that seems to me incredibly valuable, is to allow A and C to run together into a medium like the one students are already adept at using, and you are using now because it pays off for you at this moment better than a book or the TV: a multimedia thing like a web site with videos, perhaps including some talking-head shots of the prof, text with copious links, interactive experiments like those at PhET, chat rooms, and the like.  This thing allows student self-pacing, “rewinding” and repeating, and has no bottom to the depth to which it can be plumbed in the parts different students find especially interesting, and with bSpace (for example), we’re going there willy-nilly: might as well be reflective, take some data, and get really good at it.

What’s at risk?  Well, paper books have pace control and rewind, portability, and they are just really nice to use.  I read them and I love them, but I’m not sure their deficiencies won’t doom them in competition with an iPad or something along that line.  I also worry about physical engagement for a lot of B; nature documentaries on TV, and the feedlot scenes in Temple Grandin, deliver much more content per minute than stumbling around in the jungle or even visiting a facility, but touching a large animal, or seeing just how hard it is to see a real kinkajou going about its business in a real tree  are very different, and maybe importantly so. We’re certainly not going to teach sculpture without hands on clay, or piano playing without a physical keyboard; if a prof can’t put her hands on the clay or on the hands of the pianist, is there any real substitute?

Most troubling to me is the fate of D (for distance-learning students not in the same zip code) and E [update: and K] (for all students). Learning is not just content, but also affect. We are hard-wired to talk face-to-face, and not only with words or even words in voices, but eyebrows and all the rest of it.  And conversation in a group of four or fifteen is not the same as three or fourteen separate dyadic schmooses, not at all. I’ve been in a lot more than my share of on-line international meetings recently, on the phone and web-enabled with exhibits and chat, and have a little experience with videoconference teaching. On the one hand, those meetings would not have happened if they required physical travel; on the other, they are really lame, and I don’t think it’s only that I (and all my colleagues) are on a learning curve getting better at doing them (from a low base).

The “question of online education” has been settled: learning in for-credit degree programs is mostly online now.  Instead of asking whether we should do it, we should be asking how the on-lineness can pay off even better for students, and we need to think outside the absurdly cramped box of videotaping a bunch of standup lectures to sell to more customers than fit in a room.

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.

10 thoughts on “Online education”

  1. For completeness:

    K – making an oral presentation to pers (ie, acting as teacher). Italian secondary education apparently puts a lot of emphasis on oral presentation skills; I have no first-hand experience of this.

    The ex cathedra lecture – where there isn't much student feedback anyway when live – should evolve toward something like a good TV documentary, with high production values and a lot of preparation. Example: the famous Christmas lectures on science to children at the Royal Institution in London, to a live audience of very bright London schoolkids, but televised. Nobel prizewinners feel honoured to give these, and terrified.

    Assuming that face-to-face interaction with teachers and other students is important, some distance learning organisations like the Open University in Britain, and AFAIK the new Scottish University of the Highlands and Islands, try to solve the problem by time-shifting: organising concentrated residential summer schools. Don't know if there's any formal evidence on effectiveness, but it seems to work.

    Perhaps you need to go to another level of analysis and ask what different modes of learning are good for. A group won't, I think, help you much grasp a difficult new concept like calculus or relativity. It´s essential for rhetoric: persuasion and answering objections to your views. There are many other aspects to being educated in which online and face-to-face have different comparative advantages.

  2. As a California taxpayer, why can't I access the information at bspace? I'm fine with UC in any of its campuses trying to make use of technology to improve education or to lower cost, but what is the excuse for keeping the online resources private? For that matter, why can't anyone who wishes to simply take the exams for a fee and get credit?

  3. More Italian. I thought O'Hare was the Italian expert here.

    Sad to say, Italian secondary education consists in large degree of oral exams in which students answer questions. This can be dreadful as often teachers want students to recite from textbooks. Also the same questions are asked of student after student so those who answer late can repeat what they heard minutes earlier.

    I'd consider Italian secondary (and university) education to be positively damaging. Basically the model student is a parrot.

    Actually the only thing I do which actually strikes me as useful is to hang around with students after the lecture and converse. Also the 3 or 4 students who came to my office during office hours may have benefitted. I'm confident that my colleagues teach better than I do, but they rely almost entirely on C.

    Robert Waldmann professore ordinario Università di Roma "Tor Vergata" Facoltà di Economia

  4. If your students are going to be lifelong learners, then having online learning as a part of their bricks and mortar education is key to helping them be prepared for a world where many, if not most, of the opportunities for that later learning are online.

  5. Is Robert proposing a Coliseum rule of thumb by which RBC bloggers have to be experts on everything they mention, even when they include a caveat to the contrary?

    Thanks anyway for puncturing one illusion. However, presenting rubbish convincingly is unfortunately a valuable, and in some professions an essential, life skill. I concede that imparting it is not a proper goal for a Socratic as opposed to a Sophist university.

  6. As a mathematician and a teacher I find that the most important aspect of learning something like Math is not so much A or C at all. It is my thesis that problem solving and investigative skills cannot be learned by watching someone solve problems. The skill must be learned by putting the nose to the grindstone and solving problems. Mathematics is best taught in an apprentice mode at every level, even the most basic. However, it has traditionally been taught en masse by lecturing and solving problems in front of students. The effect of this approach is self evident. Our educational system has alienated all but a few who somehow figured out that thinking about and solving problems is rewarding.

    The reason we've taught mathematics by lecturing and solving problems in front of students is because traditionally it is much less expensive and resource demanding than teaching by apprenticeship. However, I have used and seen systems on computers and online that enable apprenticeship like learning in a just as cost effective but much more powerful way. The system is based on the use of Mathematica as a palette and place for investigation, problem solving, and communication. It seems that providing students with real tools of investigation and guiding them in the right direction by setting up well thought out easter egg hunts where ideas and concepts can be discovered and owned by students is much more effective than simply telling them the "facts" of mathematics.

    Of course, I think that this approach may be subject matter appropriate and not for everything. But for Math, Physics, CS, and the like, aren't we better off setting up discovery and exploration than with telling everyone how it is from the beginning? For this subject matter wasn't given in the beginning, it was discovered, so why take that which is most important and fun about these subjects away from students??

  7. With respect to peer interaction, I think online classes have to encourage students to gather for discussion off-site and on their own time. That doesn't guaranty meaningful dialogue, but realistically nothing does.

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