Sunday, February 11, 2018

Rethinking On-Line courses

About five years ago Massive On-Line Courses (MOOCs) were all the rage among politicians and university managers. Like most hyped up fashions, they have lost their gloss as reality has set in. There are no simple panaceas, particularly technological ones, for the complexities of tertiary education. I have previously expressed skepticism and concern about MOOCs, but recently I have rethought some of my views.

Last year I was visiting some friends in a small Majority World college and I noticed that one of the administrators had a copy of the book Poor Economics on his desk. I told him how much I liked it and he said that he had really enjoyed and benefited from taking the associated on-line course at MIT. Then he said, "But the online course I really like is the Oxford one, From Poverty to Prosperity, by Paul Collier.'' Wow!

To me, this represents the best of on-line courses; when they provide access to educational opportunities that were inconceivable a decade ago.

I have also been helping another friend with an on-line Masters course. A positive here is that it is not a substitute for regular classes for traditional students in physical classrooms but a course for students who are in life situations (family, jobs, location, ...) that do not afford them the luxury of full-time study in a traditional setting. I think a big positive is having an excellent on-line tutor who actively engages with the students.

Overall, I think the key issue here is that On-line courses are not a desirable substitute for traditional courses, but rather can complement them. Similarly, I think within traditional contexts (i.e. students on physical campuses) "blended courses" (i.e. ones with a mixture of face-to-face and on-line interaction) can be superior to traditional ones. For example, I have found that an on-line quiz about pre-lecture reading seems to increase the quality of the experience for students who then come to the lecture.

However, I want to emphasize a basic claim: the ideal educational environment and strategy for most students (particularly young undergraduates) is one where you have a group of students and a teacher in a physical classroom interacting with each other. People are relational and learning best happens in the context of relationships.

I welcome comments.

Postscript (Feb. 13).
I forgot to link to this excellent NYT article.
Online Courses Are Harming the Students Who Need the Most Help Economic View, by Susan Dynarski


  1. The trouble with online courses

    Letters in response to the article

  2. the response was to this article. However, the other article is also good. The online courses one.

    1. Thanks for the helpful NYT articles. They are relevant and helpful.

      This made me realise how when I was originally writing this I meant to link to an excellent recent NYT piece. I have added it above.


    The last lines of article.
    "Course developers could aim to structure classes so that students can benefit from both the flexibility of online learning, and the greater engagement experienced in face-to-face discussion"

    For both types , esp in undergraduation, a medium or small student class size is preferred. The larger the class size more the emails and even sometimes SMS 24 into 7, which could put the academic in stress considering the publish or perish environment for survival.