Friday, June 20, 2014

Online v. In-Person Classes

I’ve recently returned from taking a course on negotiation at Harvard Law School.  This was an in-person course where I was a student, which gives me something to compare my MOOC experiences to as I address the topic of online v. in-person classes.  I provide a few of my thoughts on the topic after the break.

Engagement/Learning.  When I was studying for the Georgia Bar Exam (a number of years ago) I occasionally missed the live speaker in the morning session and had to watch the video of the lecture in the afternoon.  While the material in both sessions was exactly the same, and the sessions were strictly lecture-based, I found myself drifting off in the video sessions.  There is something about being in the presence of an actual person as the presenter that causes (most) students to pay a good bit more attention.  In addition, there are also things like group work, student presentations, simulations, and Socratic method that are more difficult to do well online.  A benefit of online classes, however, is the ability to structure classes so that each student proceeds at her own pace.

Interaction with Instructor.  In the MOOCs I have taken, there was no interaction with the instructors.  At Harvard, I was able to ask questions of the instructors both in and outside of class, which I found valuable.  Colleagues who have taught online courses where there is interaction between the instructor and students tell me that those online courses actually take more time than similar in-person courses (given the asynchronous nature of those online courses and the accompanying increase in student e-mails).  If the online courses take more time and have a similar number of students as in-person courses, the costs will start to look similar as well.  

Peer Pressure.  Why do people join expensive gyms and hire personal trainers when you can get a good workout for free (or cheap) at home?  I cannot speak for everyone, but when I join a gym it is usually not for the equipment, but rather for the positive peer pressure.  There is some positive peer pressure that comes from just being at the gym with others who are working out, more if you take a group class, and even more if you hire a personal trainer.  Granted, I could try to get positive peer pressure by buying a workout DVD or hiring an online personal coach, but neither of those motivate like someone in-person.  Similarly, the abysmal completion rates of MOOCs and other online classes suggest that the positive peer pressure is stronger in-person that online.  That said, people with strong willpower might not need in-person peer pressure and not all peer pressure at the undergraduate and graduate level is positive. 

Relationship Building.  There were approximately 1 million (in total) people taking the three MOOCs I took and I have not connected with a single participant – either on or offline.  In contrast, there were 66 people in the in-person Harvard course and I have already e-mailed or connected on social media with about two-dozen. We negotiated against each other throughout the course, but also ate many meals together and engaged in conversations about our respective careers and families.  It would be difficult to put a value on those relationships, but they could turn out to be very valuable and I don’t see similar relationships being built exclusively online. Granted there are some ways to get people taking online courses to connect with other students, though I think it remains to be seen whether infrequent in-person meetings would lead to strong relationships.   

Cost.  I do not think I know anyone who claims that online education is as effective as in-person education.  The issue is how much more will students be willing to pay for in-person education.  MOOC-like online courses seem like they would be inexpensive to produce and they are scalable. (The New York Times article I referenced in my previous post claims that it would only cost a school about $20,000-$30,000 for an online class with a million students).  As Clayton Christensen often notes, disruption comes from the bottom of the market; the disrupting product is usually inferior, but is much less expensive and is sufficient for the purposes of a large percentage of consumers.  Granted, as a professor, I strongly believe that there is value in education beyond the value contained in typical products and services.  We will have to wait and see whether prospective students agree. 

One significant positive springing from online education is that it should cause professors to work to improve and differentiate their in-person classes. Large, in-person, lecture-only classes from professors who disappear after class are getting much more difficult to justify.

Business School, Haskell Murray, Law School, Teaching | Permalink


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