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Kevin Drum has a quick post on online education, a topic all the hip bloggers pop off on frequently. The incidiary quote from Berkeley professor of Public Policy Michael O’Hare is, “the ego boost for the prof of having a roomful of students listening to him for ninety minutes twice a week is important”.

This is offensive in a funny way because profs typically don’t thrill from lecturing undergrads. On a bit more of the serious side, a tech education future where live lectures are not necessary at all could be a future where colleges don’t have an explicit need for most humanities profs. Natural science profs make money for a college, and so are less at risk. This possible future is naturally a cause of concern.

The broader question is how to do online, tech driven education. I don’t think an effective way of doing this exists today. Different experiments are being tried, in distance learning classes at traditional schools, at low quality for profit education mills, and in variations in experimental classes all over.

It’s worth asking why traditional lecture classes work–how do they teach students as effectively as they do? There are lots of aspects of traditional classes that I think add in to making them successful.

1) Classes take several months. Learning spread out is more effective.

2) Lectures add to learning. They communicate information in audible/visual form, and this complements written info. Some students learn better from one of these channels. This is old hat. But the benefits of lectures go beyond this. A recording doesn’t capture all the benefits of the lecture.

3) Lectures are given at specific times, preventing procrastination, preventing cramming, and spreading out learning. Recorded lectures that a student can watch anytime lose these benefits.

4) Lectures are social events.

  • 4a) Students meet each other in person. And can talk about the class, plan later study sessions, etc. The imposed social event of the lecture encourages these things.
  • 4b) Watching a lecture with other students reinforces student attention and signals students that this an important event, not just a TV show. I would hypothesis that feeds into human instinct and human nature to help learning.
  • 4c) The students have a social interaction with the prof, and even the weak social interaction of a large lecture has this benefit. People are more willing to learn from someone they know and pay more attention at a live event and to a prof lecturing than to a recording.
  • 4d) A prof localizes the class. Connects it to current events, often local events. Speaks the language of the students, not completely of course, but to a degree. Explains concepts with reference to local or familiar examples. This aids not just communication, but is another way in which social interaction aids learning.

I’m not a social scientist or education researcher, and I haven’t studied this, but based on my experience I think these factors are part of why in person education works.

I think these elements are a good part of the reason why the format of the traditional class developed. In theory, college (or HS, or middle school) students could be given a textbook and a detailed syllabus and set of learning objectives. They would go learn, and show up for tests to demonstrate their learning. No traditional college does this, has this format. And no students, or effectively no students, do this. Students who can’t afford college don’t work through the textbooks and pop up fully educated, leaving colleges to awkwardly wrestle with the question of whether to grant a degree or require the student go through the empty formalism of paying and taking classes.

For some reason students need classes and teachers and can’t learn without them. A tech-enabled, tech efficient class that uses only a fraction of the highly skilled labor done now by profs and TAs needs to replicate the human and social factors that are part of the current college course to be as effective.

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