Learning for the Masses

Humanity now has an unprecedented opportunity for learning. Not only do we have the classic ways of learning like attending a university or reading books, but now we have a new generation of online resources ranging from online video to sophisticated online tools enabling people around the world to learn nearly anything for little to no cost. With a time and motivation you likely could attain the equivalent to a college degree.

In the last couple weeks I’ve had the pleasure of starting the Functional Programming in Scala course from Coursera. So far I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the course and enjoyed learning to think functionally.

The course is setup so that each week the students watch recordings of the professor lecturing and then do homework. The homework is submitted via a terminal script and then automatically graded within about 10 minutes. Because of the automated nature of the grading, the class can have far more students than any normal college class. The last time the class was offered over 50,000 people signed up!

The great thing about courses like this is that anyone can sign up, you don’t have to fork over thousands of dollars, and you can take the course from anyware – no need to sit in a classroom.

Cousera is only one of many new online tools people can use to learn. edX, Khan Academy, MIT Open Courseware, DuoLingo, Codecademy, and JustinGuitar are just a few popular sites where you can learn a wide range of topics but many more are available (check out NoExcuseList!).

When you start looking at these available resources you’ll quickly notice they take very different approaches to teaching. Some, like Coursera, attempt to replicate the traditional class format and have lectures to watch and due dates for assignments. Others take more of a “go at your own pace” approach where there are no due dates and you can do the work and learning on your own time. Both ways have pros an cons. If you lead a busy life and have very little free time then being able to work at your own pace might be the best. But for others, having a due date for assignments and having a sense of keeping up with the rest of the class may provide some incentive to stay caught up and meet the deadlines.

Because these new ways of learning are still in their infancy, many challenges have not yet been met.

One challenge being worked on is how to let students get credit for completing a course. Coursera gives students a certificate upon completion but it is hardly college credit. Many of these online courses are equivalent to what you’d get in at a fully accredited university yet once the course is completed, no college credit is given. One might argue since the course is free or cheap, it is an acceptable trade off. That said, for employers that want an employee to have a degree, a list of equivalent courses taken online is unlikely to be a good substitute. Coursera has begun to explore giving credit for some courses but there is still a long way to go.

Another challenge is that because of the often massive class sizes, it is nearly impossible to get the same kind of tutoring or one-on-one time with the professor. This can be mitigated with other tools like forums where students can talk with other students and with the professors but it isn’t quite the same. There is a risk of students being left behind because they can’t get the help they need to work through a problem or get feedback.

Student retention seems to also be a problem with some of these online resources. Due to the low cost and ease of signing up for a course we may simply be seeing people who would not normally sign up checking it out only to find it isn’t their cup of tea and abandon it. Another possibility is that some students may be getting stuck and not able to get the help they need. More investigation should be done to find out why many students don’t finish the online courses. Maybe a survey at the end of the course sent to the students that didn’t finish could be beneficial.

One thing is certain though, despite any problems, it is an exciting time for those who want to learn!