Tag Archives: online education

 How MOOCs Foil Distraction

By George Leef:

With the surge in online education over the past few years, one course at the University of California has been exceptional. “Learning How to Learn” with an enrollment of 1,192,697 since it was initially offered last year, is the world’s most popular online course, according to The New York Times, narrowly beating out “Machine Learning.” Students who have taken it include cardiologists, engineers, lawyers, war refugees in Sudan, and 12-year old kids.

“Learning How to Learn” is the creation of neuroscientist Terrence Sejnowski of the Salk Institute and Oakland University professor Barbara Oakley.  What is so fascinating about the course is that it teaches how the brain functions – the knowledge that enabled Professor Oakley to go from being, as she admits in this Nautilus article, “a terrible student” who “flunked my way through elementary, middle, and high school math and science” to a professor of engineering.

Related: MOOCs: What You Need to Know about Them Now

She had great difficulty with college course material, especially math, because the standard fifty-minute class with homework assignments didn’t convey the material effectively. Eventually, Oakley realized that the problem was the way the educational experience was structured did not match up well with the way our brains work best.

She explains, “Human brains have evolved with a flitting, fleeting ability to maintain focus on any one thing. Those who kept too fixed a gaze on the wildebeest they were stalking could end up being killed by the lions stalking them. So it shouldn’t be a surprise to learn that humans may not have been meant to sit boxed up for prolonged periods, focused on a teacher in a classroom.” In short, she says, “We’re built to be distracted.”

Short Bursts of Attention

That is why online education can be far superior to the traditional arrangement of putting a number of students in a room with a teacher or professor at an assigned time for a span of 50 minutes. While some learning can occur in that format, it is decidedly sub-optimal. Most students learn more in short bursts of attention highlighted with motion, followed by an interaction (a quiz of some kind) to ensure that they grasped the content.

Once Barbara Oakley figured that out, she was able to conquer the math and earn her Ph.D. in engineering. She learned how to learn the abstruse concepts. Well-designed online courses make it easier for students to progress through the material they need to learn.

Oakley’s experience matches up perfectly with that of Kevin Carey, who signed up for the daunting online MIT introductory biology course and wrote about his hard-won success in his book The End of College, which I reviewed here.

The Feedback Loop

Lacking in the science background expected of students attempting the course, Carey was able to earn a solid B only because he could listen (and watch) the videos at times of his choosing, with no distractions. He had the ability to go back over a point as often as necessary, consult with other students in study groups, and benefit from frequent quizzes so he’d know if he really understood the material or not.

That last element, the feedback loop, is especially important.

Oakley explains that research from physics shows that “students don’t really learn from careful explanations – they learn from making mistakes….Mistakes in the frequent low-stakes quiz questions available online can force students in physics—or any other subject—to revisit the explanation.”

Stopping a “real” class every few minutes to quiz the students and get their corrected answers back to them is hardly possible.  But in an online course, the feedback loop is a feature easily built in, one that simultaneously keeps students attentive and increases their comprehension of the subject matter.

Innovations in learning, however, have led to a Luddite reaction from many educators who don’t want to change what they have been doing for years or fear that online courses will make their jobs will disappear.

Oakley calls them the “MOOC deniers.”

Among them is Professor David Bromwich of Yale, who recently wrote an article entitled, “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom.” Bromwich argued that online coursework “discourages more complex thinking about the content and aims of education.” University of Pennsylvania Professor Robert Zemsky brushes aside the development of MOOCs claiming that they’re “neither pedagogically nor technologically interesting.”

Fortunately, educational traditionalists can say whatever dismissive, misinformed, or hostile things they want to about online courses without having the slightest impact on their growth. Educators like Oakley and Sejnowski will keep on improving their courses and large numbers of students will continue to give enroll in them and learn from them.

There is probably no more free market in America than the market for educational material. Nothing can prevent people from offering different modes of learning and students from trying them. No governmental agency (at least to my knowledge) has the power to regulate online education. Whereas incumbents can and often do turn to regulators to stifle new competition in other markets, education remains a wonderfully laissez-faire domain.

Don’t get me (or Professor Oakley) wrong. We are not saying that online courses are always the best or that face-to-face education will disappear. Our argument is simply that by expanding the range of choice for students, online courses catalyze healthy competition. That is vital in education, a field that has long rested contentedly.

The lessons from “Learning to Learn” and other MOOCs can help professors improve their “real” classes. They alone are not the answer to improving education. Oakley writes, “That will come from a variety of sources: MOOCs, resources developed by textbook companies, and teachers themselves. Online assets will not serve as a replacement for in-person instructors—rather, they’ll serve as assets, provide high-quality personalized tutoring and great testing materials with rapid grading.” (If you want to look into “Learning to Learn” yourself, you can do so here.)

How the Brain Learns

We often hear complaints that colleges are “failing their students” because high percentages drop out. I have never regarded that complaint as worth listening to; it’s the students who fail by not doing what it takes to pass.

But Oakley’s work casts a new light on this matter. Something can be said for the argument that if a school doesn’t encourage its faculty to look into what we have learned about our brains and does all it can to incorporate the research into their courses, it has indeed failed its students.

Instead of devoting time and money to workshops on “diversity” and similar fads, colleges should consider a faculty workshop on how to improve teaching effectiveness. Many professors will grumble, but the alternative to doing so might be unemployment.

George Leef is director of research for the John William Pope Center for Policy Research.

Online Education–Almost as Good as Face-to-Face?

in the New York Times, University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson
argues that online education is never going to be as good as live education
with a real professor in a real classroom. In a sense, he’s right. There’s
nothing like a top teacher: someone who can not only present complex material
lucidly and even entertainingly, but who can also coax out a lively dialogue
with his or her students, even in a huge lecture class. Even the best online
offerings lack that “collaboration between teacher and students” that
is characteristic of a “memorable college class,” Edmunson writes.


But in
another sense, Edmundson is wrong. Why? He’s comparing apples and oranges. The
appropriate comparison isn’t between the master teacher (and Edmundson himself
has that reputation) teaching in-person and delivering the same material
online. Of course the online version is going to be a “monologue and not a
real dialogue,” as Edmunson phrases it, that pales in comparison to the
live presentation. But the point of comparison isn’t between the
“memorable college class” and its online version. It’s between the
online version of the memorable class and the typical far-from-memorable
college class, especially at the elementary level and especially at  large
public institutions where there can be little live interaction between
professors and students, especially during the first two years.


that French 101 or Calculus 101 class that scarred you for life during your
freshman year? Chances are it was taught by an inexperienced graduate student
untrained in public speaking who filled the blackboard with illegibly scrawled
declensions or equations that left you more puzzled after you left the
classroom than before you entered it. That’s where a high-quality online course
can offer a superior educational experience. While excellent teachers abound
everywhere, from the Ivy League to community colleges, even at the most elite
universities “memorable” classes–in contrast to classes that are
merely very good–are few and far in between. That’s why they’re called
“memorable.” They stand out from the run-of-the-mill.


Edmunson critiques a pre-filmed online course from
Yale about the New Testament. Despite the fact that the instructor was
“hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate,” the course
“wasn’t great,” Edmundson concludes. Yale has one of the best
religion programs in America.
Maybe the college you attend also has an excellent religion program and some
top teachers–but maybe it doesn’t. Which would you rather do–stick with what
you’ve got or try the online course from Yale? The point of the new Coursera
online venture–which Edmundson’s University of Virginia just joined–is to offer
the best of Virginia’s and other top universities’ courses to people who can’t
get to Charlottesville or Princeton. The experiences might not be quite so
memorable as the experiences of the lucky few in Charlottesville and Princeton,
but chances are that the online students will still learn something they won’t

The Meaningful March of the MOOCS

On July 16 Coursera–one of the new ventures by prestigious universities or their professors that offer free-of charge MOOCs (massive open online courses) to the general public–announced that twelve more institutions have joined the Coursera consortium that initially consisted of Stanford, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania. One of the new partners is the University of Virginia, whose president, Teresa Sullivan, was briefly fired (although later reinstated) by the university’s trustees because she had appeared reluctant to take the online plunge. Others  include Caltech, Rice, Duke, and the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health among others, and some 150 courses–online versions of their on-campus courses–are now on the Coursera roster.
Yet it seems that, although elite universities love MOOCs, they’re reluctant to give course credit even to the MOOCs that originate on their own campuses. According to Inside Higher Education, there were rumors that one of the new Coursera partners, the University of Washington, which is supposed to provide 19 Coursera courses, was going to break ranks–but it turns out that won’t be the case. If you want to receive credit–or even a certificate of completion–from Washington, you’ve got to enroll as either a regular or a continuing-education student for an “enhanced” version (more instructions and assessments) of the Coursera offering. That means you’ll be paying for the course at nearly the same rate as for a brick-and-mortar course.
On the one hand, it could be argued that Washington and its Coursera partners are simply trying to protect their academic reputations, and their exclusivity, by not handing out credits to all and sundry. On the other hand, it appears that Washington has figured out how to turn online education, which is far cheaper to deliver than the conventional kind, into a nice revenue center by charging close to bricks-and-mortar-level tuition for it.