Friday, November 25, 2011

Online Education and the Dentist vs Personal Trainer Models of Learning

I'm a little skeptical about online education. About 2/3 skeptical.

Most of the (traditional) teaching I received was squarely based on what I call the Dentist Model of Education: a [student|patient] goes into the [classroom|dentist's office] and the [instructor|dentist] does something technical to the [student|patient]. Once the professional is done, the [student|patient] goes away and [forgets the lecture|never flosses].

I learned almost nothing from that teaching. Like every other person in a technical field, I learned from studying and solving practice problems. (Rule of thumb: learning is 1% lecture, 9% study, 90% practice problems.)

A better education model, the Personal Trainer Model of Education asserts that, like in fitness training, results come from the [trainee|student] practicing the [movements|materials] himself/herself. The job of the [personal trainer|instructor] is to guide that practice and select [exercises|materials] that are appropriate to the [training|instruction] objectives.

Which is why I'm two-thirds skeptical of the goodness of online education.

Obviously there are advantages to online materials: there's low distribution cost, which allows many people to access high quality materials; there's a culture of sharing educational materials, spearheaded by some of the world's premier education institutions; there are many forums, question and answer sites and – for those willing to pay a small fee – actual online courses with instructors and tests.

Leaving aside the broad accessibility of materials, there's no getting around the 1-9-90 rule for learning. Watching Walter Lewin teaching physics may be entertaining, but  without practicing, by solving problem sets, no one watching will become a physicist.

Consider the plethora of online personal training advice and assume that the aspiring trainee manages to find a trainer who knows what he/she is doing. Would this aspiring trainee get better at her fitness exercises by reading a web site and watching videos of the personal trainer exercising? And yet some people believe that they can learn computer programming by watching online lectures. (Or offline lectures, for that matter.*)

If practice is the key to success, why do so many people recognize the absurdity of the video-watching, gym-avoiding fitness trainee while at the same time assume that online lectures are the solution to technical education woes?

(Well-designed online instruction programs are much more than lectures, of course; but what most people mean by online education is not what I consider well-designed and typically is an implementation of the dentist model of education.)

The second reason why I'm skeptic (hence the two-thirds share of skepticism) is that the education system has a second component, beyond instruction: it certifies skills and knowledge. (We could debate how well it does this, but certification is one of the main functions of education institutions.)

Certification of a specific skill can be done piecemeal but complex technical fields depend on more than a student knowing the individual skills of the field; they require the ability to integrate across different sub-disciplines, to think like a member of the profession, to actually do things. That's why engineering students have engineering projects, medical students actually treat patients, etc. These are part of the certification process, which is very hard to do online or with short in-campus events, even if we remove questions of cheating from the mix.

There's enormous potential in online education, but it can only be realized by accepting that education is not like a visit to the dentist but rather like a training session at the gym. And that real, certified learning requires a lot of interaction between the education provider and the student: not something like the one-way lectures one finds online.

(This is not to say that there aren't some good online education programs, but they tend to be uncommon.)

Just like the best-equipped gym in the world will do nothing for a lazy trainee, the best online education platform in the world will do nothing for an unmotivated student. But a motivated kid with nothing but a barbell & plates can become a competitive powerlifter and a motivated kid a with a textbook will learn more than the hordes who watch online lectures while tweeting and facebooking.

The key success factor is not technology; it's the student. It always is.

ADDENDUM (Nov 27, 2011): I've received some comments to the effect that I'm just defending universities from the disruptive innovation of entrants. Perhaps, but:

Universities have several advantages over new institutions, especially when so many of these new institutions have no understanding of what technical education requires. If there was a new online way to sell hamburgers would it surprise anyone that McDs and BK were better at doing it than people who are great at online selling engineering but who never made an hamburger in their lives?

This is not to say that there isn't [vast] room to improve in both the online and offline offerings of universities. But it takes a massive dose of arrogance to assume that everything that went before (in regards to education) can be ignored because of a low cost of content distribution.

* For those who never learned computer programming: you learn by writing programs and testing them. Many many many programs and many many many tests. A quick study of the basics of the language in question is necessary, but better done individually than in a lecture room. Sometimes the learning process can be jump-started by adapting other people's programs. A surefire way to not learn how to program is to listen to someone else talk about programming.