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The other day I stumbled across Coursera.org and fell in love.

I am so excited to enroll in (and complete) their courses. From Model Thinking to Social Network Analysis (or Networked Life); from Human-Computer Interaction to learning to program in Python (1, 2). Refreshers in statistics and calculus. In October or later, courses on Design, Intro to Philosophy, Computational Neuroscience and Astrobiology. There’s even a course in E-Learning and Digital Cultures.

Online education has exploded in the last several years (Coursera is hardly alone). You may have heard of one of the first such projects, MIT’s OpenCourseWare, which has course materials from hundreds of MIT courses; or AcademicEarth, with lectures and short courses from diverse top universities; or Stanford’s AI class, for which over 150,000 people from all around the world signed up, with thousands completing it. Coursera seems to have, in my opinion, advantages over MIT’s OCW–unsurprising since it’s had time to learn from such pioneering projects–but even MIT’s OCW offers vast possibilities of self-education. Blogger Scott H Young is currently finishing his “MIT Challenge”. His goal? “Over the next 12 months, I’m going to learn the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science, without taking any classes.” (Doubtless you have an objection or two to this claim, so click this link to get a clearer idea of what he’s trying to do.)

Let’s step back for a second. What Coursera does is gather good teachers at prestigious universities, professors excited about the idea of teaching thousands. Then enable them to connect with the unwashed multitudes such yourself and I, who are excited about that idea, too. There are video lectures, exams, certificates of completion and more for every course, which typically last between about 5 weeks and 10 weeks. The number of hours per week expected (in order to succeed) varies by course (just like it does in ‘real-life’ courses). It’s true that these courses are shorter, but (a) that’s good thing, and (b) that doesn’t necessarily mean they lack comparable comprehension to traditional courses. The reason why is because…

traditional education is highly inoptimal

I’m not well-versed enough to give an intelligent diatribe on why this is the case. But I know that models of learning implicitly or explicitly included in, say, the wildly popular Khan Academy, are superior to those traditionally used in education. And it should be no surprise, given how old the lecture tradition is.

The Khan Academy has several advantages, such as:

  1. What needs learning comes in bite-size chunks. The first reason this is helpful is attention span: attention drifts if you study in longer than 20-minute (or so) chunks. But also…
  2. You can learn as much or as little as you want at a time (mental energy varies, don’t you find?).
  3. You can target exactly what you need to understand (because only concept or a small cluster of concepts is covered at once). This is helpful because it’s conducive to mastery learning, as is #4…
  4. There is clear and immediate feedback. Khan Academy, and other savvy newer projects (like Coursera) incorporate frequent quizzes. This follows mastery learning principles.

These advantages apply, more or less, to Coursera as well, and often to other similar endeavors.

the credentialing problem

Fundamentally, education does two big things: (a) the actual education (knowledge and skills) and (b) the certification; the signaling. Completing a college degree does show that you’re more intelligent than the average person, and perhaps more determined to succeed or better at completing long-term goals than the average person (this need only apply on the average), so employers may assume a positive correlation between a college credential and greater ability. This does matter, but it goes beyond the scope of this post.

A few tenacious advocates have addressed this issue, though, and I recommend reading this article by best-selling author Josh Kaufman and this one by best-selling author Michael Ellsberg because your sophistication will grow in regard to understanding the issue.

parting thoughts …

The only reason classrooms do not usually follow mastery-learning programs is because it’s too difficult for one teacher to do so for a whole classroom. In general, the lecture model accommodates certain limitations, limitations that are no longer inevitable, and in doing so becomes highly inoptimal for learning.

But we have already improved upon, and is in the process of doing so again, the fundamental paradigm used in education.

  • Earlier times: a one-to-one tutoring model of learning, in which a very few receive a very good education.
  • Modern times: to a one-to-many lecture model, in which a great many receive a good education.
  • Now: a one-to-many model using technology to mimic the one-to-one model at much smaller cost and with additional advantages as well.

Just as Dr. Asimov predicted would happen, in e.g. his essay in Bill Moyers’ A World of Ideas….  It’s fun to witness and live through significant markers in history, isn’t it?

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