Why Online Education Works

Source: Cato Unbound, Nov 2012
(read source for more details)

Advantages of Online Education
I see three principle advantages to online education:

  1. leverage, especially of the best teachers;
  2. time savings;
  3. individualized teaching and new technologies.

The best way to increase the quality of teaching is to increase the number of students taught by the best teachers. … Moreover, online education means that we also see the best at their best. I won’t comment on my teaching quality but what I can say without fear of dispute is that the 15 minutes of teaching in my TED talk was among the best 15 minutes of my career. Knowing the potential size of the TED audience, I honed my talk and visuals with months of practice. I’d rather be judged by my best 15 minutes than by my average 15 minutes.

… we could teach a full course in less than half the lecture time of an offline course. A large part of the difference is that online lectures need not be repetitive. ….  If 20% of your students aren’t following the lecture, it’s natural to repeat some of the material so that you keep the whole audience involved and following your flow. But if you repeat whenever 20% of the audience doesn’t understand something, that means that 80% of the audience hear something twice that they only needed to hear once.

In an online lecture it pays to be concise. Online, the student is in control and can choose when and what to repeat. The result is a big time-savings as students proceed as fast as their capabilities can take them, repeating only what they need to further their individual understanding.

Time Shifting
As with a play, offline teaching requires that every customer consumes at the exact moment that the supplier produces. As with a movie, online education is consumed and produced more flexibly. In the online world, consumers need not each consume at the same time, and suppliers need not produce at the moment of consumption. 

Online education can also break the artificial lecture length of 50–90 minutes. 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.[4] A good professor can refocus the attention of motivated students over longer periods. Nevertheless, it is clear that the standard lecture length has not been determined by optimal learning time but by the high fixed costs of traveling to school. Lower the fixed costs and lectures will evolve to a more natural level, probably between 5–20 minutes of length—perhaps not coincidentally the natural length of a lecture is probably not that different from the length of a typical popular music track or television segment.

Individualized Teaching and New Technologies

The conventional wisdom is that the classroom allows for more questions. The truth, however, is that the online space is a better place both for asking questions and for interacting with professors and other students. Put aside that students from all over the world can ask questions online. The problem is that a classroom lecture is constrained by the costs of coordination to begin and end at a time fixed in advance. If every student in a class of 50 asked one question per lecture there would be no time for the lecture. In contrast, questions can be asked at any time in an online lecture, and they do not impede the lecture.

Moreover, in the online world there are more resources to answer questions. Answers to last year’s questions, for example, can be used to answer this year’s questions. More importantly, the online world makes it easier for peer-learning, for students to answer their own questions.

Questions are also more powerful in the online world. Consider how much difference is made by the simple possibility of review. Review means that the teacher is held to a higher standard. If I make an error in my offline class, chances are no one will catch it. If I make an error in an online class, a student will invariably catch it. (Knowing this I am more careful in my online class.)

Technology is rapidly changing how much interaction can occur online. The future is lectures plus intelligent, on the fly assessment.

The future of online education is adaptive assessment, not for testing, but for learning. Incorrect answers are not random but betray specific assumptions and patterns of thought. Analysis of answers, therefore, can be used to guide students to exactly that lecture that needs to be reviewed and understood to achieve mastery of the material. Computer-adaptive testing will thus become computer-adaptive learning.

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.

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. Consider two methods of teaching a concept. Which works best? In the offline world, a randomized controlled trial might involve 50 students. In the online world, we can randomly assign one of two videos to thousands of students and then monitor their performance days or weeks later on exams or other material. Online education will allow us to learn about what works much more quickly than in the past.

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.

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