The Trouble with Online Education

In the wake of Coursera announcing partnerships with twelve new universities, Mark Edmundson (author of Why Read?) has a fantastic op-ed in The New York Times. He argues that online educations tends to be a monologue rather than a dialogue. The Internet teacher, even the one who actively responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is the gist of the message:

We tend to think that the spellbinding lecturers we had in college survey classes were gifted actors who could strut and fret 50 amazing minutes on the stage. But I think that the best of those lecturers are highly adept at reading their audiences. They use practical means to do this — tests and quizzes, papers and evaluations. But they also deploy something tantamount to artistry. They are superb at sensing the mood of a room. They have a sort of pedagogical sixth sense. They feel it when the class is engaged and when it slips off. And they do something about it. Their every joke is a sounding. It’s a way of discerning who is out there on a given day.

A truly memorable college class, even a large one, is a collaboration between teacher and students. It’s a one-time-only event. 

I absolutely agree. The best professors I’ve had in college were magicians in front of the stage: able to guess student’s emotions, and to tune their lecture accordingly. The corollary to the argument is that Internet courses can work, but it requires extremely motivated students to slog through the lectures. This motivation, arguably, is easier to find (and tune) in students who attend live lectures and interact with their professors.

Georgia Tech Joins Coursera

My alma mater, Georgia Tech, is one of twelve new universities that has joined the Coursera team. Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free. In their own words: “We envision a future where the top universities are educating not only thousands of students, but millions. Our technology enables the best professors to teach tens or hundreds of thousands of students.”

Take a look at the course offerings from Georgia Tech. The Computational Photography course taught by Professor Irfan Essa looks intriguing:

This course is aimed at teaching you the basics of how computation has impacted the entire workflow of photography, from how images are captured, manipulated and collaborated on and shared.  At the core of it photography means, drawing with light and how light can be captured to form images/videos. In this class you will learn about how the optics, and the sensor within a camera are generalized, as well as the lighting and other aspects of the environment are generalized to capture novel images. We will also cover post and pre processing techniques to manipulate and improve images. Finally, we will consider the power of the web and the Internet for both analyzing and sharing images, as well as the impact of mobile smart phone cameras. This class builds on concepts from well known disciplines like computer vision, computer graphics, and image processing. Look forward to participate in this class.

Sign me up!

Readings: Counterfeiters, The Virtual University, NASA

Here are some interesting articles I’ve read over the weekend…

(1) “Outfoxing the Counterfeiters” [Wall Street Journal] – a really interesting piece on the redesign of the $100 bill, as well as a brief history of the evolution of currency in the United States. The article is written by Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia and the author of A Nation of Counterfeiters (I haven’t read this book, but after reading this thoughtful article, I have put the book on my to-read list). The two most interesting tidbits below.

On private currency that circulated in the United States during the Civil War era:

Santa Claus, sea serpents and rampaging polar bears, to name a few—showed up on these private currencies.

What’s the new redesign of the $100 bill?

The centerpiece of the redesign is a purple strip that runs from top to bottom of the bill. The strip is coated with hundreds of thousands of microscopic lenses in the shape of the number “100” and what seems to be the Liberty Bell. Thanks to some complex optics, these thousands of lenses combine to create a single, larger image. When the bill is angled one way or another, the strip comes alive, making it seem as if the images can move.

(2) “The Virtual University” [The American Prospect] – a thought-provoking piece by Anya Kamenetz on why cash-strapped colleges should embrace the online classroom. What are your thoughts on this topic?

(3) “Reinventing NASA” [The Washington Times] – an excellent op-ed piece, written by the president of Georgia Institute of Technology, Dr. George “Bud” Peterson, about the current state of NASA, and its future potential. [via]

The key takeaway, I think:

A commitment to working with start-up companies to develop the technologies and hardware necessary for success will inspire and create a new generation of businesses and technology-focused jobs and will nurture and strengthen our top research institutions. With this new emphasis, NASA will return to its roots as an important catalyst for innovation and economic expansion for the U.S. economy.