Wednesday, May 2, 2012

On Line Education

Just after my note on 6.002x the NY Times et al released the note that Harvard and MIT will be expanding their on line courses.

Now here is the challenge:

Many education experts are more hopeful about the new enterprises. 

“Online education is here to stay, and it’s only going to get better,” said Lawrence S. Bacow, a past president of Tufts who is a member of the Harvard Corporation and a visiting professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Dr. Bacow, co-author of a new report on online learning, said it remained unclear how traditional universities would integrate the new technologies. 

“What faculty don’t want to do is just take something off the shelf that’s somebody else’s and teach it, any more than they would take a textbook, start on Page 1, and end with the last chapter,” he said. “What’s still missing is an online platform that gives faculty the capacity to customize the content of their own highly interactive courses.” 

Now I am not so sanguine. Let me discuss a few issues:

1. Peer reviewing is one suggestion. For example if 6.002x had been other than engineering, the grading would be impossible for 120,000 students. So a suggestion, peer grading. The problem is that the faculty member is trying to bring the student up to their level, not having a iPhone group grope. This I fear would be a real dumbing down.

2. A lost step. In the late 1950s when I was in High School, I took a course on College Chemistry on TV at 6 AM. I believe it was from NYU but not certain. It was called Continental Classroom. I missed the lecture on the mole. Avogadro's Number. Well for several weeks I just could not figure it out. We had no libraries near by, yes it was NY City, but Staten Island, and no Internet, and I was a sophomore so I could not ask the Chem teacher who taught seniors. So there I wandered for three weeks mole less! Things like this will happen, how do you remedy that, again it seems what is set up is a Facebook like community. But beware the personality dynamics there. What if As are the top 10%. That was not 6.002x, yet! Namely one little bit of ambiguity can lead to total loss. It would be a five second clarification, due to the poorly phrased comment, but there is no way to do this in the current MIT system. I could see that in the student's comments. Thus I wonder how many of the 120,000 just got lost.

3. Authoring tools are not there yet. I had some discussions with friends at the Med School on this issue. Anatomy we can do, just look and memorize. But what of introductory radiology. Kerley B lines, what are they, where are they what causes them, how should you examine the plain film, what next? How does one create a conversational motif? BTW these are all the issues we discussed when I taught the first Multimedia Communications course at MIT in the Fall of 1989. Again a bit too early, but it was MIT. As I noticed in this course at MIT, the authoring tools are just what I would expect of MIT students, functional, no ability to rescue the student if there is an ambiguity, and a bit arrogant, like "you really don't get it do you, after all I wrote this for idiots like you, what a waste of my time...".

4. Heidegger used his construct of Dasein, and its adjunct "throwness", as a means to describe our ontological being. Throwness is in essence the ability to understand a hammer by the act of hammering. To have a successful On Line system I believe that one must have a Heideggerian throwness, or at-hand ontological experience, namely you must be part of the experiment, the experiment which demonstrates what the principle is. If on the other hand your throwness is understanding and experiencing the weakness of the software you missed the point.

5. Seeing How Others Think: One of the most valuable reasons for a class experience is seeing how others think. I believe that that is one of the most critical elements of an education. You may arrive with certain ways of doing things and then you observe what others may do, you adapt, you optimize. On a computer in my experience it is just the opposite. You further internalize and the current designs just further internalize and reinforce your existing practices. There once was a book by a Psychiatrist on the MIT staff called the Hidden Curriculum. Namely do not do what the Prof says to do but do what he wants you to do. Yet how do you find that hidden curriculum? That is the social environment. That often is the most critical part of education.

These will be major challenges. The issues I discussed with the MIT course, they are easy since it was engineering, but will be much more complicated when the answers are not 3.1416.