Daniel Lemire's blog

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Some myths about online teaching

Last year, I launched an online graduate course on Information Retrieval. This summer, I am preparing an online data warehousing course, my fourth online course. It will cover topics ranging from multidimensional indexing techniques, the MDX language, what data warehouses are, Mondrian, JPivot, and so on.

Chatting with a few colleagues who have never taught online, I was reminded of how mythical online teaching still is in 2008. Here are a few myths:

  • Videocasting classroom lectures works. No, it does not. A few lecturers are good enough to keep you watching a YouTube video for 50 minutes. Chances are that you are not among them, at least not always. (Video lectures may work, but only if they are carefully prepared and edited. And that is a lot of work.)
  • Posting lecture notes is pretty much good enough. Not really. There is an insane amount of details making up a course, beyond pedagogically correct notes. Also, you must organize and divide the student work in small chunks. Self-assessment is also very important: you must prepare solved problems for the student to do on his own.
  • Online teaching is mostly good for introductory or low-level courses. Actually, online learning requires a lot of maturity from the students. For this reason, it works better with advanced topics or with more mature students. While teaching calculus online may certainly work, it will work with a very small fraction of the students. You would expect graduate students to have enough maturity to learn on their own, but do not count on it too much.
  • Online courses are ok for learning Microsoft Word, but you cannot possibly teach real science. Think again. Actually, an online course can be much tougher than a traditional course because you do not have to waste time with reminders: just offer a link to a refresher and the students are all set. You also do not waste time with questions about when such and such an assignment is due: the student is expected to read.
  • I do not have time for such nonsense as online teaching as I must focus on my research. Actually, if you have time at all for teaching, online teaching is probably more research-friendly. For one thing, there are fewer unwanted disruptions with online teaching.
  • Online courses will empty the classrooms. That is very unlikely. Universities have been offering bachelor and graduate degrees online for years, how many graduates do you know? Many, many students feel that they need 3 hours of classroom lectures per week to learn. Let us not forget that the classroom play a role in the country-club model of the university: you go on campus to meet people, socialize, and so on. Online courses miss all that, mostly. With the current technology, online learning is a complement to what is already done on campus, not a replacement.