Why Online Education Works
Source: Cato Unbound, Nov 2012
… three principle advantages to online education, 1) leverage, especially of the best teachers; 2) time savings; 3) individualized teaching and new technologies.
Quality, however, need not be lower with online education. Quality can increase by increasing the number of students taught by the best teachers and by substituting substantial capital for labor in teaching.
The best way to increase the quality of teaching is to increase the number of students taught by the best teachers. Online education leverages the power of the best teachers, allowing them to teach many more students. Moreover, online education means that we also see the best at their best.
Many teaching experts say that adult attention span is 10–15 minutes in a lecture, with many suggesting that attention span has declined in the Internet era.
Computer-adaptive learning will be as if every student has their own professor on demand—much more personalized than one professor teaching 500 students or even 50 students.
Online education vastly increases the potential for productivity increases because it greatly increases the size of the potential market. Bigger markets increase the incentive to research and develop new products (coincidentally the very topic of my TED talk.) A tool used to improve online education–an interface, an algorithm, a new teaching method–can be applied very widely, potentially world-wide, thus greatly increasing the incentive to invest in the education sector, perhaps the most important sector of the 21st century economy.
Educational productivity will also increase with online education because online education is inherently data-rich. Every video watched, every link clicked, every question answered or not answered, all can easily be collected and analyzed. Randomized controlled trials, which are very expensive in the offline world, become very cheap in the online world.
Online education will also dramatically shorten the time from learning what works to implementing what works. Once again, scale and leverage are key. In the online world, the best teachers will teach more students, but that leverage also means that better teaching methods can diffuse through fewer teachers to more students much more rapidly.
 The evidence for these assertions is surprisingly weak. Nevertheless, I am confident that the optimal lecture length is not 50–90 minutes. See Wilson, K., & Korn, J.H. (2007). “Attention during lectures: Beyond ten minutes.” Teaching of Psychology 34, 85-89 and for one of the better recent studies, Bunce, D. M., Flens, E A., & Neiles, K. Y. (2010). “How long can students pay attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers.” Journal of Chemical Education 87, 1438-1443.
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