Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

Online teaching is the future?

Recently, Bill Gates gave us the main reason for the ongoing revolution in university teaching:

Fortunately for all of you, you’re in a generation where all of these courses are going to be online and basically free. I’m taking solid state physics from MIT, though MIT doesn’t know it. You are far more empowered in terms of your ongoing education than any other generation has ever been.

It is, indeed, about empowerment. By teaching to students online, we are telling them that they can learn at any time and at any place, not just when they are in a classroom. News flash: you don’t need to be in the physical presence of a Physics professor to learn Physics. You do not need a professor for reading a textbook.

Michael asked a related question: why isn’t university free? Why don’t we just put all of the teaching material online, for free. Well. Michael. I do so. Right now. Except for graduate students, I never meet students. I have tutors who answer students’ emails and correct papers. There are a few things you should know about online teaching however:

  • Mostly, professors are not there to provide scientific content. There are books, online articles, wikipedia, and existing online videos from which all of the content can be derived. There is the odd exception, mostly at the graduate level, where no textbook or online material is available. But even original courses are mostly aggregates of existing material.- The professor and his assistants provide the structure and the motivation. Offering solved problems and examples is a great way to get the students going.- Watching 3 hours of video a week on your computer screen is really boring. A large fraction of what happens in a classroom has nothing to do with the material.
  • A course is mostly about assignments and tests. The whole concept of a structured course falls apart if you do not get a grade at the end.
  • Most of the expenses in a well-run university have to do with salaries. Thus, online teaching is every bit as expensive as classroom teaching.

Why is online learning taking off now? It is all about the bandwidth and latency. You do not need video to have a great online course, but you need to offer the student a lot of interesting data quickly and interactively. Web technology has reached the point where you can surpass the classroom with a well-designed online course.