Trevor Hastie is a superb teacher. He excels at making complex things simple. Till recently, his lectures were only available to those fortunate enough to be at Stanford. But now, he teaches a free introductory course on statistical learning via the Stanford online learning platform. (I browsed through the online lectures — they are superb.)
Online learning, pregnant with rich possibilities, however, has met its cynics and its first failures. The proportion of students who drop-off after signing up for these courses is astonishing (but so are the sign-up rates). Some preliminary data suggest that compared to some face-to-face teaching, students enrolled in online learning don’t perform as well. But these are early days, and much can be done to refine the systems and promote the interests of thousands upon thousands of teachers who have much to contribute to the world. In that spirit, I offer some suggestions.
Currently, Coursera, edX, and similar such ventures mostly attempt to replicate an off-line course online. The model is reasonable but doesn’t do justice to the unique opportunities of teaching online.
The Online Learning Platform: For Coursera etc., to be true learning platforms, they need to provide rich APIs for allowing the development of both learning and teaching tools (and easy ways for developers to monetize these applications). For instance, professors could get access to visualization applications, and students could get access to applications that put them in touch with peers interested in peer-to-peer teaching. The possibilities are endless. Integration with other social networks and other communication tools at the discretion of students are obvious future steps.
Learning from Peers: The single teacher model is quaint. It locks out contributions from other teachers. And it locks out teachers from potential revenues. We could turn it into a win-win. Scout ideas and materials from teachers and pay them for their contributions, ideally as a share of the revenue — so that they have a steady income.
The Online Experimentation Platform: So many researchers in education and psychology are curious and willing to contribute to this broad agenda of online learning. But no protocols and platforms have been established to exploit this willingness. The online learning platforms could release more data at one end. And at the other end, they could create a platform for researchers to option ideas that the community and company can vet. Winning ideas can form the basis of research that is implemented on the platform.
Beyond these ideas, there are ideas to do with courses that enhance students’ ability to succeed in these courses. Providing students ‘life skills’ either face-to-face or online, teaching them ways to become more independent, etc., can allow them to better adapt to the opportunities and challenges of learning online.