These days anyone can take a course at Stanford. All you need is access to a computer and a reasonable Internet connection.My 11 year old son just took a course at Stanford and he just watched a bunch of videos on the Internet.
This ‘bunch of videos’ is currently being heralded as the future of higher education. In the New York Times, David Brooks saw courses like the one my son took as a tsunami about to hit campuses all over the world. And he isn’t alone. Harvard’s Clay Christensen sees it as a transformative technology that will change education forever. So I wondered, what happens when someone who has grown up online encountered one of these new ventures?
The most important button for video lectures is not ‘play’ but ‘pause.’ Students can always choose to pause at a point and, say, absorb a slide. What that means is that when you are creating an online lecture, you can build this option in and go fast.
The Stanford course had assessment although, as with all these things, they were at pains to tell us that this did not constitute official accreditation. Want that from Stanford and you have to get in and show up. For online courses, no one has cracked how to verify whether an identified student is the same person as the one doing the assessment.
Assessment and grades aside, let’s focus on the learning outcomes. Did my son actually learn anything from this? The answer is a resounding yes. As I noted the lecturers were rather dry and divorced from the real world, especially his world, but once he started he began to see applications of game theory everywhere. What is more he believed what he was learning could help him understand the world.
In the end, from this exercise I learned that online learning will require considerable investment in time and energy of academics before it really hits the mark.
There is much hype about online learning and its potential to disrupt higher education. But all we have really learned by the tens of thousands signing up is that there is tremendous demand. That itself, however, does not spell doom for higher education but should be a sign of its continuing value.
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