online vs in-class teaching

The National Bureau of Economic research has published an article comparing live teaching and online teaching.*

Students in a large introductory microeconomics course at a major research university were randomly assigned to live lectures versus watching these same lectures in an internet setting, where all other factors (e.g., instruction, supplemental materials) were the same. Counter to the conclusions drawn by a recent U.S. Department of Education meta-analysis of non-experimental analyses of internet instruction in higher education, we find modest evidence that live-only instruction dominates internet instruction. These results are particularly strong for Hispanic students, male students, and lower-achieving students.

My problem with the study is that it compares the blandest-but-neccessary form of live teaching with the absolutely blandest form of online teaching.  When teaching a large group, lectures are almost the only low-tech way to go.

-there was a movie years ago that displayed a lecture hall.  In the first lecture, I think everyone was there. In the second lecture, the professor was absent and an audio system delivered his canned lecture.  In the third lecture, no one was there: at the front of the class was a big, professional looking audio tape player and at each student desk there was a small mini-cassette recorder.-

Online lessons do not need to, and should not, resemble in-class lessons.  I am still uncertain what a good online lesson needs to go or even how it can be measured.  Still, I can make some reasonable suggestions and form a reasonable picture.

First, the audio, visual and written components remain important but but are no longer the entire content of the lesson.  Before I go into the other components, I feel these basics can be improved and want to offer a suggestion.  E-book content: The text could be read anywhere and done so while listening to the audio as most reader devices include mp3 players.  The thing is, this is not a groundbreaking or particularly original thought.  I would, at a minimum, compare a live lecture to an online lecture, downloadable text and downloadable audio.  The study above is comparing what I presume is excellent live-lecture delivery (good acoustics, the opportunity for questions and interaction, good sight-lines…) and crippled internet delivery  (the mere video).

We might as well compare my bike to a car that can only use first gear and is limited to the carrying capacity of my bike.  My bike would look pretty good but even I would admit cars are not so limited.

Next, what else can be offered online?  To be fair, the study is only comparing lecture delivery – perhaps both groups could access other material online.

  • Sample tests can easily be placed there – both to prepare the students and to let the prof know if he taught the stuff he thought he taught.
  • Peer review has great potential online.  Students write essays, or post the notes they took during the lecture, and classmates -and the prof- can look them over to see what they missed or misheard.
  • Links from the lecture is another obvious thing to add.  Case studies, journal articles, popular press reports and other content could be added.
  • The biggest problem with supplemental material online is the urge to add bells and whistles (this may even be a literal complaint – we don’t always need sound effects in educational software.  Sound effects that continue beyond a second quickly seem too long). Cute graphics and gifs have their place, but can be easily overused as can varying fonts and colours in the text.

Again, a lecture is great way to send content one-way, but the internet is all about the  two-way flow of information. The article seems to be comparing my bike to a crippled car or an apple and a piece of watermelon that has been carved into apple shape.

An excellent website for learning Korean is at Sogang.  Here is an excellent and professional website that does teaching right.  I would say it is insufficient in itself, but that’s true of any part of the learning experience.

via Freakonomics.


* “live teaching and online teaching” – that looks weird.  I wanted “live teaching and online learning” but teaching and learning aren’t really synonyms.  This really fits the heart of my complaint with the article.


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4 Responses to “online vs in-class teaching”

  1. Graduation Rate Says:

    Good info! I’ll be adding your feed.

  2. surprisesaplenty Says:

    The “graduation rate” comment above bothers me. If it is a sincere compliment, thanks. I normally expect more content specific material in a comment before I approve it.

    The linked site seems to be a blog about statistics. I am not sure how it connects to my content here.

  3. John from Daejeon Says:

    The movie is “Real Genius” starring Val Kilmer.

    Personally, I think having the “best” of the best instructors delivering internet-based or dvd lessons would really help level out the playing field for all those students cursed with poor instructors or poor schools that can’t afford decent instructors, texts, computers, etc., that rich districts can. It would also provide an alternative for those being bullied in school or for those who don’t like what sort of evolution, or non evolution, the school is teaching.

  4. surprisesaplenty Says:

    Thanks for the movie title.

    I have seen some excellent lectures and many of them would still be good on video. I listen to ‘Big Ideas’ – a TVO podcast of lectures -as well.
    Still, as I tried to describe in the body of the post, the internet can deliver and manage content in different and possible better ways than a lecture and much better than a video recorded lecture.

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