Can the Net Save Education?

Posted: May 10, 2012 at 6:10 am

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The Internet can save everything, even education. At least that's what tech companies would have parents and government officials believe. Too bad it's not true.

Incensed at the apparent lackluster performance of our students and our supposed lack of educational competitiveness on the global stage, proponents of the magical properties of the Web argue that we can save education if we just used the power of the Internet. Put up free classes and instruction online from the best teachers, they argue at conference after conference, and all our education ills will be cured.

In fact, all the leading educational institutions have been keen on the idea for years, with more jumping online every day. Just this past week Harvard and MIT announced a joint $60 million project called edX to offer free courses online. (You won't get academic credit, but students can earn completion certificates and a grade.)

The poster child for much of the online education movement is the Kahn Academy, which has roughly 3,200 educational videos available for free. But one has to wonder whether any of these online cheerleaders has ever watched a complete "class" on the site, because if they had they would immediately see the multitude of problems with this approach.

The first issue is what I like to call the talking hands problem. Like an extended version of a Seor Wences routine -- although not nearly as entertaining -- a hand or pair of hands gesticulates and writes on a smart board, explaining linear algebra or differential calculus. This is engaging for about 5 minutes, after which it's about as exciting as a Cnet video chronicling the unboxing of a smart phone.

- MIT President Susan Hockfield

While a pair of talking hands or simple step-by-step instructions online may help a student cramming for a math exam (you can replay and slow a lesson down), the process won't work for other subjects. Several history lessons about Napoleon that I watched on the Kahn site demonstrated what was wrong with the way history was taught many years ago: It was simply an endless litany of dates and events, completely devoid of any historical context or motivation.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a live teacher in the classroom can do any better, but at least in class a teacher can look students in the eye, show enthusiasm, and query pupils in the middle of a thought to generate new ideas. Without this contact, online videos can be absolutely deadening and end up doing a disservice to students rather than encouraging them to pursue further study.

In addition, there are large swaths of the curriculum in which the online model will not work. You cannot do lab work for biology or chemistry online. You cannot use the Socratic approach for a philosophy class in a video (even Skype won't help there). And students will inevitably suffer for a lack of discussion with other students. Facebook posts are no substitute.

What may be the real Achilles Heel of online video learning today, however, are the poor production values. To truly engage a student requires a whole set of skills involving how to tell a story through video, sound, and pictures. Those are not skills that everyone has, which is why "The Avengers" is a good movie, and "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" is a stinker.

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Can the Net Save Education?

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May 10th, 2012 at 6:10 am

Posted in Online Education