The unquestioned assumption of online education

The current model must do more to account for different learning styles

Editor’s Note: This column originally ran in the March 5, 2013 issue of The Tech.

Online education is growing rapidly. Recently, six new universities have been added to the edX platform. Each new university plans to develop its own set of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Between the big three — edX, Coursera, and Udacity — there are now hundreds of MOOCs from universities all over the world. Advocates are quick to highlight that these MOOCs have already served millions of students, enabling anyone with an Internet connection to receive a world-class education.

Online education advocates assume that MOOCs are the best way to teach students. On the surface, the MOOC appears to be very different from its classroom counterpart. Short videos replace a traditional lecture, sprinkled with interactive demos and instant feedback. MOOCs are supposed to reflect the ability of technology to make the learning process more interactive and effective. But underlying a technological interface is the very same teaching structure as a traditional classroom, where the instructor decides the order of the material and presents it in a linear sequence.

Part of the promise of online education is the ability to accommodate different learning styles. The best way to accommodate as many learning styles as possible is to structure the course material such that students and teachers can adapt to the content for their own specific use. Today’s MOOCs make this specificity impossible.

A new, non-linear structure would allow students to develop their own learning pathways, and to learn material in the order that feels most natural to them. A new structure would also allow students to get a better sense of all the concepts and topics within a subject along with the connections between them. The third important benefit is that by giving the student access to all the material, it allows the independent learners to identify which parts of the material they find most interesting — the essential concept, equation, or code that is relevant to their own particular interests.

One model for this new non-linear structure is concept and learning webs. There are two levels of learning webs: a subject level and a topic level. The subject level contains modular lessons about all the different topics within that subject. Within each topic are short videos, practice problems, online labs, case studies, and interactive demos — all the material normally presented in a MOOC — available at any time for students to use. Because each topic is modular, students are free to either focus only on one topic, or define their own learning pathway.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about this structure on the concept level is that it breaks down the barriers between majors. In addition to covering traditional topics like mechanical engineering and economics, there will also be similar modules for topics like robotics and green energy, which will contain concepts and ideas from many different subjects, from materials science to electrical engineering to cognitive science. In a sense, this represents a new paradigm for organizing content.

While concept and learning webs offer a new structure for online education, I do not believe they should replace MOOCs. Instead, concept and learning webs should be created in parallel and offered both as an additional tool for students enrolled in MOOCs and as independent way to learn without having to enroll in a MOOC. Much of the same material already developed for a linear MOOC can be recycled into the concept web model.

The real benefit of concept and learning webs is that they will catalyze the residential revolution promised by advocates of online education. MOOCs alone will not change the residential experience; they are just an online version of the linear lecture style students have today. On the other hand, the concept and learning web creates a new structure where all the material in a course is available from day one, where students are encouraged to learn the material in the order that seems most relevant to them, instead of in the order the teacher decides is most appropriate.

The concept and learning web makes the problem-based classroom possible, because instead of having to provide the concepts and answers, the teacher is now free to create an interesting project or problem and let the students solve it. This is what the multiple learning pathways that the concept and learning webs offer; the most effective order for teaching the concepts depends on the nature of the project or problem. Students may choose to work on different steps of the project and will therefore learn the material in a different order. This would never be possible in a MOOC or a traditional classroom where the teacher sets the learning pathway for the entire class.

MOOCs have already begun to disrupt the education system. Education will change more in the next five years than it has in the last fifty. The promise of online learning is that new technology can be used to teach more effectively — part of this promise means reexamining our deepest assumptions. Technology enables fundamental new structures and models for education, of which the concept and learning web is only one. One goal for online education should be to create a platform that accommodates as many learning styles as possible. That platform opens online education to the world, allowing each user to find the content that is most important to them and to create their own learning pathway. When this platform exists, online education will have arrived and the residential revolution will follow.