Online learning: Campus 2.0

Source: Nature, Mar 2013

Koller wanted to look inwards and reform Stanford’s teaching on-campus. She particularly wanted to promote ‘flipping’, a decade-old innovation in which students listen to lectures at home and do their ‘homework’ in class with their teachers, focusing on the most difficult aspects or discussing a concept’s wider implications. This lets the instructors concentrate on the parts of teaching most of them enjoy — interacting with the students — and relieves them of the repetitive lecturing that they often dislike.

Koller also wanted to incorporate insights from the many studies showing that passively listening to a lecture is a terrible way to learn (F. I. M. Craik and R. S. Lockhart J. Verb. Learn. Verb. Behav. 11, 671–684; 1972). Following an approach pioneered by other online developers over the previous decade, Koller broke each video into 8–10-minute segments separated by pauses in which students have to answer questions or solve a problem. The idea was to get them to think about what they had learned; the deeper their engagement, studies showed, the better their retention.

“There are two ways to make something new,” says Krakauer, a biologist who directs the Institute for Discovery at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “You can design something that’s perfect on paper, and then try to build it. Or you can start with a system that’s rubbish, experiment and build a better one with feedback. That’s the Silicon Valley style — but it’s also the scientific way.”

Learning informatics could provide an unprecedented level of feedback for colleges and universities, says Stevens: “We haven’t measured learning in higher education very often, very consistently or very well — ever.” Academics have endlessly studied factors that are associated with university enrolment and success, such as race, parental income and school achievement. They have also studied what happens after graduation: the higher earnings and other benefits that college confers, on average, over a lifetime.

What we don’t know is how college performs this magic,” says Stevens. “We certainly don’t know the extent to which digitally mediated college experiences will deliver the same returns as a four-year residential experience.” Now, however, he and his colleagues can begin to see what education science will look like as it merges with data analytics. Instead of looking at aggregate data about students on average, for example, researchers can finally — with appropriate permissions and privacy safeguards — follow individual students throughout their university careers, measuring exactly how specific experiences and interactions affect their learning. “It’s thrilling,” he says, “a huge intellectual frontier.

An unspoken irony weaves through almost every discussion about MOOCs: thanks to innovations such as flipping, online technology’s most profound effect on education may be to make human interaction more important than ever. As Krakauer puts it, “what’s absolutely clear is that the very large lecture hall can be completely replaced: there’s no value added over watching it at home on an iPad screen with a cup of tea. But there is also no substitute for a conversation.”

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