A test of online courses

I have a bookmarked list of tens, if not hundreds, of video lectures from around the net. I’m intending to watch them. At some point. I’m not actually doing it, because – well I don’t know – I’m me I guess. There’s always stuff with deadlines skipping the line, no matter how interesting or well lectured the video is.

Online courses offers (in theory) an improvement for people like me: start and end dates, deadlines, discussion forums, and assignments. Things that make us get stuff done. Sure, the videos are still in there, but now they have are viewed – perhaps even understood – to take the course in.

Always interested in learning, I decided to invest some time at the end of the summer into coursera.org; a site someone (can not remember who) told me about. The courses are free to sign up for – as of writing this at least. I guess that coursera may charge for things like diplomas et c. but I did not look into that.

I signed up for two courses: Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation, offered by University of California, Berkeley and taught by Umesh Vazirani, as well Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, taught by Eric S. Rabkin of University of Michigan. I choose them only on the merit of being interesting. That they represent very different fields (Theoretical Computer Science/Physics, and Litterature) was just an additional bonus.

The courses finished a couple of weeks back, and I thought I should offer up some thoughts. Not so much on the individual courses (both were very interesting, the Professors were good lecturers, and I felt I gained knowledge, even if I guess the course syllabi are more extensive in an offline university course) but on the online learning experience: How well does it work? Can it compare to a university course?

The foundation of both courses consists of video lectures, discussion forum, and weekly assignments. Videos were released in weekly batches, about ten at a time, each ranging from 10 to 20 minutes. Something I really appreciated was the ability to download mp4 versions of the videos for offline viewing.

I did not spend very much time in the forums for either course but looked around now and then. From the little I saw the tone was generally nice, and although there were some typical internettery and student whining going on, as well as interesting discussions. Even if forums are not my thing, I believe that it could be an integral part of the learning experience for sites like coursera.

The assignments were handled somewhat different in the two courses I experienced reflecting their different nature. The physics course relied on weekly tests (multiple choice and numerical questions), optional assignments, and brief quizzes embedded in the videos (for the first half of the course – they were sadly removed later), all leading up to a final test in the end. The literature course on the other hand assigned a text each week (one or two books, or a set of stories and poems) and required short (~300 words) essay in the end of it. In addition each student had to grade four of those essays every week.

Both methods worked reasonably well serving their purpose forcing me to think and learn from the rest of the course material. I saw forum and blog posts about plagiarism, I don’t think it will be a huge problem. While possibly common it should be possible for pure online courses to automatically detect say, copied essays, by searching the web or comparing to databases. In theory prevalent cheating will decrease the value of an online course diploma, but I am not sure the diploma is the reason one would take an online course anyway.

On the other hand from the point of view of learning, online assignments do show some shortcomings compared to physically attending a university. I’ll try to argue why I think one would learn more in-depth from an ‘analog’ course. This is not in any way due to the professors of the course, both who were great and very inspiring, but rather due to the nature of having the course online.

It is simply not yet possible to have the same level of feedback on an online course as offline. While the multiple-choice questions of the QM course were well designed, better in-depth learning could almost certainly achieved if symbolic answers – derivations – were possible. Such an assignment would not only test the answer but how it was reached. Something very hard using computers today. As for the literary course, essay writing as well as crowd-sourced marking seems common practice also offline; but while the forum discussions were interesting, they are not of the same grade as a seminar with the lecturer present. The Professor of the course did a very good job of following up on one or two themes from each weekly discussion, yet that will only address the most prevalent issues. So to speak.

I can think of no other way of doing it however, the paradox of online learning is that while it reaches so many students, it becomes impossible for the professors and teaching assistants to address individual issues. I would never expect them to! They have to rely on automated methods. In my experience however personal contact with lecturers are very beneficial for understanding. Artificial teaching will not be fully solved until artificial intelligence is.

Now, though I may sound critical, I still think that one probably can learn as much from attending an online course on web sites such as coursera.org as from a university course. It depends more on personal motivation and discipline. Knowledge is relatively easy to transfer online; wisdom is harder, and can only be learned through dialog or experience. It needs to be pursued.

To conclude: while I may have some issues with quality control, the courses were absolutely top-notch, and the coursera format suits me well. I can pause, go back, and repeat the video lectures. Having assignments and deadlines ensures that I will actually see them instead of bookmarking for later viewing. Mastery of a subject however comes either from extensive experience, or by interacting with those who have already mastered it and thereby gaining from their wisdom. Due to the limits of technology however the latter case is exactly where online courses fall behind.

On the other hand, the real benefit of coursera and co. is not immediate mastery of a subject, but introduction to (or repetition of) it. This is where they shine and I will probably sign up for more courses in the future.

.L

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