We need to talk about the online university. With the spotty experiences of online courses, and degree mills like the University of Phoenix, the idea of an online education is a little dirtied. In the course this blog was for, we had a lively seminar talking about the problems within the online course structure. What I will attempt to do is make the case that there are great examples of online education, universities are just the worst at it.
So why are university courses so bad? To begin, the technical issues such as relying on an aged intranet, but the systems of the university are what really hurt it. These courses are often underfunded, and given to underpaid and overworked grad students and adjunct faculty, hurting the experience. They also seem to require integration into the university structure. This means testing based on memorization, and semestered schooling. The universities are just far too conservative about online classes, in more ways than one.
There are some great examples of online courses and education we could learn from, and with a little investment and regulatory change, we could see these adding to, or possibly supplanting the university structure in the near future. These classes can hold many more students than a regular class, and with a subscription model instead of traditional tuition, you could keep people learning and putting money into the university for years to come.
My Grad Skills is an online course repository in Ontario for graduate students from a select number of universities to learn professional skills for academic life. Their modules use animated slide shows, with audio narration. These are interactive, and with weaved in youtube content and testing, you could have class modules that teach in a much more involved way than your in-person lecture or assigned reading ever could. Educators say that we need information from multiple sources, and this gives that opportunity. It can also be repeated and move forward at the students' pace, which means retention has the potential to be much higher.
The Khan Academy is another great, and free, online education source. Lessons are delivered as video, and every concept is tested to a high degree of mastery before moved on from. It shines especially in math education. Khan as a former hedge fund banker, understands the hierarchy of concepts needed to learn mathematics, and lets students branch out into areas they are interested in and progress on all fronts at their own pace.
At the university level we specialize, but maybe something in this concept would help people find their specializations even within subjects, and help with both finding specializations, and promoting well-rounded education. No longer would students fear learning about something they don't already know because of the lower grades that come along with difficulty. The Khan academy also has programs, and we could accredit them within the same structure. So we make a program on say 1st year US survey, put all the lessons we feel important into the module, and when they finish it, we consider that the graduation from the course, and it could open up others such as 2nd year 18th century American, 2nd year 19th century, etc.
Duolingo is a language teaching site that has wonderful features when it comes to the dreaded gamification, and skill checks. Where I admire Duolingo is by showing a student which courses they are doing at one time, and they can set a course aside if they are not longer interested, but the strength of the skills they learn declines. They also encourage participation by setting a daily quota of module completion that a student could set, and then encourage keeping their streak of work up.
The last important thing about Duolingo is that it does not see completion as the final use of a module. Modules upon completion have a "strength" that decays over time. You can strengthen the skill with a short test, and depending on the score, it increases the strength again. The speed it decays again is also based on how well you do.
Where could we see this in university education? Well, we all have issues remembering all the skills we learned in university. If courses had strengths that we could boost back up with a mini-test, we'd probably better retain the information we learned over a longer time.
What would the teachers do?
This is a good question. With so much teaching int he hands of designed courses, what would the faculty of such a university do? Well there are a few options here. First of all, unlike with the other online courses here, I do recommend that larger assignments also play in reaching milestones in the curriculum. This means that marking would play a role, but it would be more dispersed rather than in large clumps where often essays get marked with less enthusiasm. So an average professor might have a couple papers to mark every day.
These courses would also not be static. I imagine that professors would be the chief people behind designing updates to the courses and modules as time moves along. I imagine that we would want some sort of system so that these courses are all kept up to date all the time.
Lastly, faculty would be in advisory roles, giving students more 1 on 1 interaction to ensure that people don't get woefully stuck, or suggesting paths a student could take.
Overall, I think education could gain a lot from moving out of the in-person Prussian model, and move towards something that is digital, and lifelong. We could change how jobs work so that they know what modules you need to do to work for them, and if there is a job you want, you know exactly what directions you need to go. I think that this whole system would be a much wiser way to keep us intellectually growing as a species.
Just a PS on this; I wrote an article on online education taking this topic to the next level. You can read it here. I could also never recommend this video enough: