If We’re Moving Classes Online, Where Are They Leaving From?

There’s been a recent trend of moving opening up coursework to the world on the internet. The first steps towards this happened a few years ago with resources such as iTunes U and OCW, where recorded lectures and notes were made available online. This trend, however, has taken the next step as university courses in their entirety are being offered online, with graded homework and a certificate to boot. I’m mos  t familiar with offerings from Stanford, but I think others are jumping on the bandwagon, too.

The reasoning behind it is sound. A lot of coursework is moving online anyways as convenience for students, and it seems like the right thing to do. I’m fortunate enough to be a student at a well-funded private university, but that luxury isn’t available to most people. With the popularity of this model from sites such as Khan Academy and the pipeline to do it, it seems almost unfair to restrict the content to the few who can afford it.

It’s not perfect. For many classes, there’s no replacement for the ability to work hands-on and in-person for a class. You lose the physical environment of a college campus and the ability to collaborate with instructors and other students directly. Some argue that the most valuable part of college is not the class but the people you meet. If you can’t have that, though, this is pretty close. The traditional teaching model with hour-long lecture and problem sets don’t really involve interaction to a large degree.

At the risk of sounding privileged and snooty, however, I’m a little disappointed by how this change is being embraced in class design for in-person students. Since this was an initiative in the Stanford Computer Science department, I’ve taken several classes (and am currently taking a class) that are now in the online format. To accommodate the students, they’ve made some changes to how the class is taught, both for online and in-person students. And I think they’re a little worse for it.

Most professors really do just lecture, and a recording is no different. I actually depend heavily nowadays on watching lecture online to work with my schedule. But some professors are really good in class, and it’s a shame to lose that. For example, Dan Jurafsky is teaching an online class on Natural Language Processing. I took the class from him junior year, and the lectures were great. He actively pushed students to think in-class, ask and answer questions, and just made it a really fun environment, even though he did teach by lecturing from slides. Even though the class was early in the morning, everyone was awake and could really be a part of things.

That class, however, might be an exception. The other substantial change that I’ve noticed is a change in the workload for students. In order to make classes available to possibly thousands of students, grading must be automated: it isn’t practical have TAs go through all the assignments by hand. This model isn’t really scalable for, say, English classes, where most of the work is discussion and essays. But for many technical fields, where work boils down to getting the right number at the end of a derivation or writing a program that computes the correct output for some specification, it might work.

Having gone through these classes, however, I think that might be cutting students short to some degree. Let’s take Computer Science as an example. Past the 3 course introduction to programming series, most of my work has been tailored towards proofs and conceptual understanding. Once you has a sense for how to program, actually programming in classes becomes much less relevant: if you need to implement a program, you take a few days and learn the specifics of the language. The real trickiness comes in understanding how to build systems, which requires conceptual understanding to compose and extend systems.

Take, for example, Probabilistic Graphical Models. Roughly, this class on artificial intelligence is about modeling phenomenon using probability. This class is historically known to destroy students. In the past, there were biweekly problem sets involving derivations and proofs for 5-ish problems, often the results of research papers in the field. TAs were responsible for grading these lengthy, often page-long proofs involving a mix of mathematical derivations, cleverness, and intuitive explanation. This syllabus, however, needed to be switched up, so it’s now weekly programming application projects.

So admittedly most of my response to that is bitterness at having been brutalized by the problem sets for this class while current students can just write a little bit of code. But it seems to me that students now aren’t getting the same depth that they would have thinking through problems. For many advanced algorithms, the actual implementation is relatively easy when it’s already outlined: it’s basically just translating a description into code, which often doesn’t require much insight into the algorithm itself. Trying to re-derive the same result or prove a similar concept, however, is much more difficult and requires understanding of how things work. I don’t need a class to teach me whether I did something right: I need a class to teach me whether I understand.

We’ll see how this shift goes moving forward. I’m all for providing content online as long as it doesn’t displace valuable aspects of current teaching methods. By focusing on the most tangible products of coursework, such as lecture content and quizzes, we might lose out on more subtle parts of an embodied, learning experience. Let’s democratize education as best we can, but don’t sacrifice the vitality of colleges while we’re at it.

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