“Online learning” and higher education

A nation-wide conversation is currently taking place about the efficacy and value of “online learning” and “MOOCs” in higher education, a conversation that permeates to us here at Centre College where we value personal, “transformative” educational experiences. There are lots of people who know a lot more about these topics than myself, so I’m not going to try to “pick a side” one way or another or to offer a brilliant new perspective on the issue. I’m merely going to describe a recent experience with online learning.

I’ve spent the last several months participating in an online course offered by “Open Yale Courses.” I picked a class based on a topic I was interested in and wanted to know more about. I downloaded 24 separate MP3 files, each an hour long, that contained recordings of the class lectures given by the professor from the first day of class to the end. I did not do any of the assigned readings and I certainly didn’t bother doing any of the assignments. But over the course of several months I listened to the recorded lectures on my MP3 player while out jogging in the mornings.

On balance, I found it to be a positive experience. The lectures were interesting and kept my attention. The professor presented the material in an engaging way that challenged how I thought about the topic. Some of the things that I learned sparked me to go online and search out additional information. I learned about the approaches and methodologies of an academic discipline different from my own. 

On the other hand, I didn’t have a thorough experience with the subject. I didn’t learn the material as well as I would have if I had been required to take an exam on the subject. The professor often cited material from the readings (that I hadn’t done) so I didn’t follow the details of the lecture as well as I could have. And sometimes it was boring so I skipped to the next topic. If pressed, I probably could regurgitate maybe 10%-20% of the actual “pieces of knowledge” that the professor presented throughout those 24 lectures. 

I can also say, however, that I have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject now. While I don’t recall 100% of the facts and pieces of evidence presented, I feel like I have a good handle on the major paradigms and the overall “narrative” and key “take away” points of the class. Listening to the lectures over a series of weeks has definitely changed my perspective on the subject matter and the way I interact with it. It challenged some of my very strongly-held assumptions about how the world works. And I know where to go if I want to learn more about the topic and I will understand it better given that I can now think within the “paradigms” of the scholarly approach of the topic. Given all that, I think it’s fair to say that I experienced a “transformative” learning experience.

I can compare that experience to another that I had while an undergraduate student. I took an online course that countered toward one of my minors. It was a topic I was interested in and so I was motivated to learn the material. The course, however, was perhaps one of the absolute worst I have ever taken, speaking from a pedagogical perspective. The method of delivery was ineffective and the assessment tools were, at best, a joke. I learned very little and felt that it was a complete waste of my time and inefficient use of resources. 

So from my very limited experience (N=2), I can offer the following observation: Some online learning experiences are good and others aren’t. It’s not that different from in-class experiences. Some professors are better than others. Therefore, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss the usefulness of an educational experience simply because it’s presented electronically. 


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