Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Online learning can teach us a lot.

Online learning is teaching us a lot. Mostly about reasoning fallacies: of those who like it and of those who don't.

Let us first dispose of what is clearly a strawman argument: no reasonable person believes that watching Stanford computer science lectures on YouTube is the same as being a Stanford CS student. The experience might be similar to watching those lectures in the classroom, especially in large classes with limited interaction, but lectures are a small part of the educational experience.

A rule of thumb for learning technical subjects: it's 1% lecture (if that); 9% studying on your own, which includes reading the textbook, working through the exercises therein, and researching background materials; and 90% solving the problem sets. Yes, studying makes a small contribution to learning compared to applying the material.

Good online course materials help because they select and organize topics for the students. By checking what they teach at Stanford CS, a student in Lagutrop (a fictional country) can bypass his country's terrible education system and figure out what to study by himself.

Textbooks may be expensive, but that's changing too: some authors are posting comprehensive notes and even their textbooks. Also, Lagutropian students may access certain libraries in other countries, which accidentally on purpose make their online textbooks freely accessible. And there's something called, I think, deluge? Barrage? Outpouring? Apparently you can find textbooks in there. Kids these days!

CS has a vibrant online community of practitioners and hackers willing to help you realize the errors of your "problem sets," which are in fact parts of open software development. So, for a student who wants to learn programming in Python there's a repository of broad and deep knowledge, guidance from universities, discussion forums and support groups, plenty of exercises to be done. All for free. (These things exist in varying degrees depending on the person's chosen field -- at least for now.)

And, by working hard and creating things, a Lagutropian student shows his ability to prospective employers, clients, and post-graduate institutions in a better country, hence bypassing the certification step of going to a good school. As long as the student has motivation and ability, the online learning environment presents many opportunities.

But herein lies the problem! Our hypothetical Lagutropian student is highly self-motivated, with a desire to learn and a love of the field. This does not describe the totality of college students. (On an related statistical note, Mickey D's has served more than 50 hamburgers.)

The Dean of Old Mizzou's journalism school noticed that students who downloaded (and presumably listened to) podcasts of lectures retained almost twice as much as students in the same classes who did not download the lectures. As a result, he decreed that henceforth all journalism students at Old Mizzou would be required to get an iPod, iPhone, or similar device for school use.

Can you say "ignoring the selection effect"?

Students who download lectures are different from those who don't: they choose to listen to the lectures on their iPod. Choose. A verb that indicates motivation to do something. No technology can make up for unmotivated students. (Motivating students is part of education, and academics disagree over how said motivation should arise. N.B.: "education" is not just educators.)

Certainly a few students who didn't download lectures wanted to but didn't own iPods; those will benefit from the policy. (Making an iPod required means that cash-strapped students may use financial aid monies to buy it.) The others chose not to download the lectures; requiring they have an iPod (which most own anyway) is unlikely to change their lecture retention.

This iPod case scales to most new technology initiatives in education: administrators see some people using a technology to enhance learning, attribute that enhanced learning to the technology, and make policies to generalize its use. All the while failing to consider that the learning enhancement resulted from the interaction between the technology and the self-selected people.

This is not to say that there aren't significant gains to be made with judicious use of information technologies in education. But in the end learning doesn't happen on the iPod, on YouTube, on Twitter, on Internet forums, or even in the classroom.

Learning happens inside the learner's head; technology may add opportunities, but, by itself, doesn't change abilities or motivations.