MOOCs and Online Learning: Students prefer good lectures over the latest technology in class

MOOCs,  "Massive online open courses" and other forms of online courses are being pushed by for profit companies and startups as ways to bring higher education to the masses. Apparently though, the average MOOC manages to have a drop out rate of 90%.
Venture capitalists have invested in companies to deliver MOOCs, such as Coursera. The first MOOCs were delivered in Canada to smaller than 5000 students at a time and their founders used more than just video, quizzes and multiple choice methods. They used the entire internet's resources. What we see now as MOOCs are basically classroom recordings put online, with students doing rather bland multiple choice questions, short summaries of literature reading assignments and students marking each other "blind".

There are lots of opinions from professors and consultants regarding online learning. Not that useful. As a scientist, and an educator, I am more concerned with: what actually works? When it comes to teaching how to do biochemistry in a research laboratory for example, I have already figured out that I can mentor and teach someone to be a real scientist by making them do science research on my team. In my lab. Since every student has a different starting set of knowledge and experience when they hit my lab for their independent research projects, they all get a "different course" from me as their preceptor. That is not the kind of a course that you can just pre-record and put online. It could be done in distance learning with LIVE online video, because the student and I could "talk".

The most important talks I have with my students are just verbal or using a secret chalk board on the back of my lab's main door. Swinging it closed a bit, they know what's coming. A 15 minute session of sip your water or coffee and get a lecture from Dr M. But, it works. They know things now about DNA, genes, photoreceptors, PCR, lab management, what differentiates a fluke result from a reproducible result, and how long it takes to complete real lab-based biomedical research. No matter what the form of teaching and delivery though, there is one MASTER secret about making the teaching work well. Its obvious to me what it is, and all the research and discussion of "pedagogy" (definition: the method and practice of teaching) is mostly hand waving around the real secret of student/teaching interaction that works. It easy to figure out if "learning" is happening, far easier than what most learning consultants would have you believe. What is my secret?
Read to the end of this blog post to find out my secret. I will tell you, for FREE! Try to imagine what my secret might be before you read to the end.

Lets change gears a moment though, and get some insight from the students themselves. What a neat idea, ask students! Imagine that. A recent study did just that, from the province of Quebec, and it reveals that the "modern" college student is not that impressed with online learning tools that leave out a real engaging Professor they can learn from, LIVE if possible, in real time. It turns out that the traditional classrooms are high on the preference list of students, or mixtures of online and classroom learning, and that purely online courses are not that desired.

So maybe we need more surveys of students, based on their experiences offline and offline, before our adminstrators think they can turn every lecture into a movie stream and get rid of the professor?

You can read the Quebec survey story at this link in "University Affairs":
Students prefer good lectures over the latest technology in class

Basically, I am of the opinion that learning is quite simple and has a lot to do with two things:
1. Student
2. Teacher
...both are individuals interacting. There are good and bad students and good and bad teachers, and a good learning experience comes from good student plus good teacher. A good student does not necessarily know more than a bad student. A good student is first and foremost someone who simply wants to learn more than they know now. The "delivery method" can be classroom, online or a combination of both, and not all subjects can work well strictly online. Sorry but that is true.

If you Google for surveys about MOOCs or online learning, you find lots of surveys of teachers and institutions, and even industries, but few surveys where STUDENTS were asked what they liked or hated after experiencing these learning methods.

Here are some links I found with insight about the student's (user) experience regarding online learning, from: the Province of Quebec, a writer taking a poetry course that started with 30,000 students, and a downloadable (PDF) survey report from UC Irvine.


(Learn who coined the term MOOC, from Canada)
    1. Report: Online Learning – Student perception survey (UC Irvine)

They pretty much find the same results and ideas, from students. Please, give us good, interesting teachers that we can actually communicate with and have discourse. Sometimes that means the asking of ....questions. 

And with that, I will leave you with my special super secret way to know if my students are learning and, heaven forbid, thinking. First, I use the FORCE. That is I FORCE them to think. They have no choice because I do something shocking: I ask them ... QUESTIONS. Verbal questions, so they must think on the spot to respond with the answer I seek to tease from sometimes shy and quiet students. Sometimes I ask the question and tell them to think about it and we will continue exploring the answers later in the day or next week. But, the real secret to knowing when the learning is happening is when the students start to ask ME questions. Then I know they are learning, and have learned the biggest secret to learning more. Ask questions. Once a question is out there, it begs to be answered. Once you get a question in your head and find the answer, you know something you did not know yesterday. You have learned. Sometimes you have to find your own answers, sometimes you can ask someone who knows the answer.


Questions are my secret. Apparently good old Socrates taught this way, and Aristotle noted that this was a great way to do what has evolved into the scientific method. I don't really care if these great Greek philosophers used questioning or not, but as people who spent many hours teaching, I think they naturally found out that this is a pretty good way to make learning happen.

I think that online learning, like offline learning, works best when you get students to answer the teacher's questions and to ask the teacher questions. In other words, the mode of delivery is not that important after all. If questions are not being asked, there will be less learning occurring. Sometimes the students can interact and be teachers as well as students. But, you cannot stop with the questions. Take away questions, you take away thinking.

My brightest students, who have gone on to graduate schools and medical schools, are a mixture of outgoing and shy personalities, but they all have one thing in common. At some point I got them to start asking ME questions. They were no longer afraid to ask questions and reveal to others that they do not know everything. As their teacher, I don't know everything either. But, I do know that I can learn by asking questions, and sometimes finding the answers myself in the literature or by new experiments. Then we have all learned something.

Ken Mitton.
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