Sunday, September 09, 2012

Online education

In doing some experiential research, I've been watching various free online "courses" and confirming my preconceptions of their ineffectiveness as a replacement for college and their similarity to many American efforts at "continuing education" - providing enrichment and a dilettantish sense of edification for adults. In the nineteenth century it was lyceums, in the early twentieth it was workers' groups, then community college and "extension" courses, now the internet. Everything is going to replace elitist traditional colleges with their high costs and selective enrollments, until it doesn't. This looks a lot more like the past than the future to me.

But anyway, that is not the point. The point is that watching videos of people lecturing is remarkably boring, perhaps because they're conveyed by a medium I expect to provide me with print and so get impatient when it instead delivers talking that is slower than my reading. (When I hear them "live," I can usually keep my eyes open better.) So I've read lecture transcripts instead. And mostly, meh, but I do have to say that Paul Freedman's Yale lectures on the early Middle Ages are surprisingly absorbing (in transcript form). Continuing ed and dilettantish edification for Miss Self-Important, who knows nothing about the Middle Ages, anyway.


Alpheus said...

"Teaching" an online course is convincing me that, if this is the future, we're really in trouble. Surely such courses only work to the extent that students read, think about, and discuss the material being taught -- the sort of things it's hard enough to get many of them to do in a conventional class? But I'm starting to suspect that the attraction of online courses to most students is how easy it is to skate by in them: you sit at home watching videos, you do only as much reading as you feel like, and cheating on quizzes and exams is relatively unproblematic. Is this the solution to the higher education bubble, or just another attempt to keep it from bursting by making college education as passive and undemanding as possible?

Miss Self-Important said...

The passivity is I think what makes it seem so much like continuing ed. The point of that is not to make you a scholar, or even to engage you in the beginnings of scholarship, as with a traditional college education. It's to give to a kind of summary view of what scholars somewhere are thinking about and doing. And that doesn't require much active engagement on your part. It's precisely listening to lectures about books instead of reading and writing about them yourself. And there's nothing wrong with sitting in on some lectures - that can be pleasant and informative - but it's not an equivalent or replacement for what happens in college.

Withywindle said...

For what should happen in college.

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, yes.

Sigivald said...

Agreed, at least with how awful watching a video of a lecture is; I'd far rather spend less time reading a more thoughtful version.

I suppose some people Really Love Video And Hate Reading, and this serves them well.

(On the matter of replacing traditional colleges and Alpheus' comment, it seems to me that the students who won't learn from a video class because they aren't also reading the material, thinking about it, and passing the test are... exactly the ones who are also not learning in person.

Big classes are much like watching a video, in terms of personal interaction and interest. Hell, even in small classes, many people don't want to interact, and others don't need to in order to learn.

The latter, especially, can probably learn quite well from an online course, if it's decently put together.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Maybe, but I'm not reading and thinking too hard when I watch these videos, so I'm not learning very much. I'm treating them mostly as superfluous entertainment. On the other hand, when I took in-person classes, I did read and think, so it's not true that online is simply catching the intractable lazy man demographic.

Also, b/c online classes resemble adult ed so much, they exacerbate the sense that classes don't teach you necessary but rather decorative things, so partial or minimal attention is all they require, whatever is enough to get by and check things off on a screen. In person, there are additional holds on one's interest - the desire for honor in the eyes of your classmates or the teacher, the sense of camaraderie with others, the pressure and example generated by seeing some people around you taking the course seriously, even the experience of hauling ass to a class located in a place that is decked out like a school is different from the indifferent detachment of watching something alone in your bedroom. Maybe there are some people who can master philosophy and literature and history in their pajamas in bed, but such people would seem to be so much rarer than those who require some presence of others engaged in similar undertakings that it would be ironic to think of online education as democratizing and accessible if it's beneficial to those people alone.