Tag Archives: internet

Does Online Education Actually Work?


Conventional wisdom states that the future of higher education lies online. However, few studies tell us whether this is necessarily a good thing. Indeed, both the detractors and supporters of online education tend to rely on anecdotes rather than data. So a recent report by William Bowen, Matthew Chingos, Kelly Lack, and Thomas Nygren of Ithaka S+R, a non-profit organization devoted to furthering online education, is a welcome addition to the discussion.

The report, “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials,” summarizes the results of an experiment the team conducted to rigorously compare Interactive Learning Online (ILO), with traditional classroom-based learning (CBL). Bowen et. al. randomly assigned students wanting to take introductory statistics into two groups. The first enrolled in a traditional classroom-based course, while the second took a prototype ILO course developed at Carnegie Mellon University and met face-to-face once a week. Both groups were subsequently tested for their mastery of the material.  

The study found that there was no statistically significant difference in outcomes for students in their sample overall, and none for any particular subgroup (by gender, ethnicity, language spoken at home, year in college, or income level). It appears that students learned just as well from ILO as from CBL. When you consider how inexpensive ILO is (or is likely to be in the future) compared to CBL, this is a major finding. If confirmed, it means that ILO is likely to be far more productive.

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Here’s How the Scholar Disappears

Political scientists Gary King (Harvard University) and Maya Sen (University of Rochester) recently produced a working paper titled, “The Troubled Future of Colleges and Universities.” Everyone interested in higher education should read it. The paper is instructive for those who want to understand how little most academics understand the crisis universities face. The problems with the paper are numerous, but I will just focus on one–their ambivalence about learning, or what they call “education.”

King and Sen uncritically assume that “education” is a unit of computer data. They define the purpose of the “modern university” as the “creation, preservation, and distribution of knowledge,” like how computers produce and distribute data to consumers. University research generates knowledge, and professors then distribution that knowledge in university classes which, until recently, were “the most sought way to get educated.”

However, the university is experiencing competition from the Internet and for-profit schools, and it may lose its ability to provide knowledge, especially considering how the University of Phoenix has apps (apps!) that put that knowledge on smartphones. Imagine the efficiency of getting educated in between rounds of Food Ninja.

The metaphor completely misrepresents how learning works; it is not a piling up of data until amount equals the common measure for “educated.” What King and Sen do reveal is their ambivalence about education itself. They say nothing of how the financial troubles of universities might deprive generations of a liberal education, as Joseph Epstein fears. Their ambivalence explains the relatively low esteem with which Harvard holds teaching, as Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus detail. Harvard faculty place greater emphasis on research, largely for professional and institutional reasons. As a result, we should not be surprised that teaching suffered, since it amounts to an obstacle to research. Unsurprisingly, King and Sen recommend that traditional universities compete with Internet-based alternatives by putting undergraduates to work in faculty research projects, which is something University of Phoenix Online and Udacity cannot offer.

The solution is strange. It is hard to imagine luring students into college with promises of data coding, regression analysis, and grant-writing; worse, this solution is simply admitting defeat–universities are no longer places of learning but training facilities in quantitative methods. As Martin Heidegger prophesied in “The Age of the World View”:

The decisive development of the modern business character of science, therefore, forms people of a different stamp. The scholar disappears. He is replaced by the individual engaged in research projects. This, rather than the pursuit of scholarship, gives his work its keen atmosphere. The research man no longer needs a library at home. Besides, he is always moving about. He does business at meetings and gets information at congresses. He contracts to work for commissions from publishers, who now help to determine what books must be written.”

On a final note, the recommendation that undergraduates simply start apprenticing as research assistants comes at an unusual time for those like King and Sen, who advocate quantitative social science research. NassimTaleb, Jim Manzi, and Emanuel Derman are part of growing movement of former “quants” skeptical of the attempts to quantify human behavior and afraid of the dangers that come from living and governing as if such quantification were possible. Increasingly, the moment seems right for a heartfelt defense of the university as a place of learning, tradition, and contemplation. There is no app for that.

Student VoicesWhy I Dropped Out of a MOOC

Early in the summer, a friend and I enrolled in Introduction to Sociology, the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) recently discussed by Princeton Professor Mitchell Duneier. Prof. Duneier taught 40,000 online students via six weeks of free reading assignments, lectures, and discussions, interspersed with weekly quizzes and two exams.

I quit three weeks into the course. The videos were distracting. I felt disconnected from the professor, as if the face I saw on-screen was a detached third party serving up neatly packaged bits of information for massive consumption. It felt sterile.

Prof. Duneier ‘s article praises the way technology can overcome the barriers of time and distance: thanks to video discussions and online forums, “my audience became as visible to me as the students in a traditional lecture hall.” But that’s the problem: audience, not students. Seated in front of a camera, the professor has no choice but to talk at his far-flung class, instead of talking to or with them. MOOCs are by nature impersonal: they’re massive. Despite his best efforts, a professor can’t possibly know 40,000 students, or even a fraction of them. They’re faceless, nameless, anonymous, blurring together into one conglomerate blob of class-takers. He can’t interact with them. He can’t gauge their needs and adjust his method and content accordingly. He doesn’t know them.

Likewise, students, aware of their anonymity, cannot possibly get to know their professor. There is no opportunity for trust- and relationship-building. My MOOC included a discussion group, but participation was limited to a handful of students; the other 39,990 of us simply watched. Prof. Duneier responded faithfully to student questions, but he was only able to answer those questions that generated the most online interest. He guesses that these were probably the “most meaningful” questions to his students, but without some authority present to guide the discussion, what’s to say those questions were most relevant, incisive, or important?

MOOCs will never rival brick-and-mortar classrooms in quality of education. With that said, Prof. Duneier’s article does highlight two real benefits of MOOCS. These courses provide opportunities for students who otherwise would have no such educational access. MOOCs also give professors a unique opportunity to test new methods, collect large numbers of student reviews, and investigate a wider range of student ideas and opinions. For these reasons we shouldn’t discount MOOCs entirely. But we shouldn’t mistake a MOOC for a classroom.