University 2.0: Examining the Promise of Online Education

by Gordy Slack

Online education has been launched into orbit, ignited by the convergence of multiple phenomena. College tuition continues to climb while students and their families search for more affordable alternatives. At the same time, public universities face the economic pinch of repeated budget cuts and are seeking ways to instruct growing numbers of students for less. Finally, web technology is now fast and reliable enough that multimedia instructional materials are accessible to anyone with a basic Internet connection. Students can confidently download new plug-ins and load videos.

Still, real questions remain about the effectiveness of online vs. traditional formats and the implications of these technological advances for the future of higher education. To examine the opportunities and challenges posed by online education, the Berkeley Center for New Media and CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative co-hosted an interdisciplinary symposium in late March. The two-day event, Learning Mode: Critical Issues in Online Education, brought together 25 of the top writers, business people, and academics working in fields related to online learning.

Peter Norvig, the charismatic Director of Research at Google, served as the keynote speaker. Norvig witnessed firsthand the explosive potential of online education when he and his Stanford colleague Sebastian Thrun launched a free and open online course in Artificial Intelligence in 2011. They expected the course to draw a couple thousand students; more than 160,000 enrolled.

Their company, Udacity, led the emerging industry by partnering with elite universities to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs).  Additional providers leading the pack include edX,  which offers free courses from Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley, among others. The Stanford-based Coursera offers more than 200 free courses from 62 universities, including UCs in Irvine, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and San Diego. In its first year, Coursera has already enrolled more than two million users around the world. Only a small percentage of students who sign up for online courses ultimately complete them, but the platform shows enormous promise for delivering education to a broad swath of learners who may not have had the opportunity to pursue higher education.

The University of California’s Office of the President has been developing its own core of online courses. UC Online currently has ten accredited courses online and available to anyone for credit but are free only for matriculating UC students. For others, courses cost between one and two thousand dollars.

Even with the rush of players into the field, none of the free online education providers has yet figured out a way to successfully pay for, or make money from, the courses they are offering, says Greg Niemeyer, associate professor of New Media at UC Berkeley. UC Online charges for its courses and few non-matriculating students have been ready to pay for the classes. Of course, the edX and Coursera courses are “selling” like hotcakes…for free.

Nonetheless, Norvig says online education is poised to bring about a revolution in the way we teach and learn. Among other potentially profound benefits, he notes, are the huge amounts of data such courses will make available for research. Until now, long-held assumptions about how students study have been difficult to examine scientifically.

“Online courses give us access to all kinds of learning analytics,” says Niemeyer, co-organizer of Learning Mode. “Every word a student types, every interaction with other students, every quiz result, every minute she spends studying, everything is recorded and traceable. We can get a strong sense of what works generally, but also of how individual students think, work, and learn.”

Niemeyer designed and runs an online course for the UC Online.  American Cybercultures: Principles of Internet Citizenship is one of ten in the UC Online menu.

Preparing the course was an education in itself, Niemeyer says. Because American Cybercultures was offered as a UC Berkeley course satisfying the American Cultures requirement, the academic commission that approves those credits had to approve the course for online use, a process that took an entire year. Meanwhile, Niemeyer was permitted to teach the course material in the classroom. To take advantage of the recorded lectures and other online materials he’d created, he “flipped” his classroom, assigning students to watch the online lectures on their own, outside of class, and to use in-class time to do “together things,” Niemeyer says, such as discussions and cooperative projects.

The American Cybercultures course has been accredited and is being offered for the second time for the summer 2013 term. In some ways the hybrid “flipped” class was ideal, says Niemeyer, providing both the efficiency of recorded lectures and the intimacy of personal interaction.

Bradley Smith, a professor of computer science at UC Santa Cruz, has begun to exploit some online technologies to teach a computer networking course he has taught in more traditional way for over a decade. When he flipped the class and began using class periods for group problem solving, instead of lecturing, “all hell broke loose,” Smith says. “In a good way.”

“If you can combine social engagement and the innate interest people have in solving new problems, this way of teaching becomes a powerful new tool,” says Smith, who is freeing class time to do all this by assigning his students to watch his lectures online as homework.

“Online offers 24/7 access to course materials. Students can review video content over and over again, and take a more independent, self-paced approach with the ability to test-out of certain course content,” summarized UC Berkeley computer science lecturer Dan Garcia. This belies the caricature of the online course as an unresponsive one-size-fits-all experience.

Niemeyer foresees the emergence of what he calls a “new media pedagogy” that will help guide course developers to make online learning more engaging and effective. “With auto-grading and the implementation of some elegant AI systems that can analyze writing to see if a student has grasped key concepts, the course can automatically evaluate a student’s knowledge state and learning style and adapt to maximize its effectiveness,” says Niemeyer.

In addition to helping students better absorb specific course material, online “course analytics could also allow us to determine how one person picks up new concepts very rapidly and another has a very thorough way of studying things, for example. We should be able to qualify studying styles. That’s something that future employers would be very interested in,” says Niemeyer.

Students may value such information, too. Today they graduate with letter grades summarized by their GPA. Imagine if, in addition, says Norvig, they got their own learning profiles. If a student could gain a better understanding of his or her own strengths and weaknesses as a learner, this insight could be extremely helpful throughout life.

Some critics of online education fear that online courses will diminish important social and offline networking functions of classroom-focused higher education.  While conveying a course’s information content is one goal of education, it is not the only one. In actual classes, students also learn to work together, to converse, to “show up,” and to debate in a respectful way. They share insights before and after class. They form friendships and alliances that can last a lifetime. Will online education be able to preserve those key parts of the college experience?

Symposium panelist Howard Rheingold, author of The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs, and many other books about the implications of new IT, argued personal relationships may not necessarily suffer in online courses, they may even be enhanced.

“Technology affords the most in terms of networking, and not just for finding information but for enhancing peer-to-peer and teacher-to-peer collaborations,” said Rheingold.

Niemeyer also hopes that online courses could deepen the connection between students by enlisting them to help to grade assignments and answer questions for each other. “It’s a surprising finding, but studies show that students who evaluate each other’s work give pretty much the same grades as their instructors would.” Some grading will be automated, but other kinds of assignments could take advantage of crowd-sourced methods.

Peer-to-peer grading and tutoring can engage students in a way that traditional teacher-student relations may not, Niemeyer says. “Students care a lot about what other students think of them. We used to think that the ‘sage on the stage’ was the person from whom students sought approval; but socially they would really rather impress other students. Harnessing the social factors of learning can be very powerful.”

Some courses sponsor online student forums where discussions occur in real time by video chat or on discussion boards. Others help students form real-place meetings, where students from a single city, say, meet at a café and discuss class work and help each other.

A panel at the Learning Mode symposium discussed a bill recently introduced to the California State Senate that would require all schools in the state system to accept credit for online courses when equivalent live courses are overbooked on their own campuses. The bill, SB 520, would provoke a sudden injection of online courses and credits across California, says its sponsor, state senator Darrell Steinberg. While the immediate purpose of that legislation is purportedly to bypass the current bottleneck in introductory courses throughout the California system, it would also give a boost to online colleges offering courses for credit.

“Community colleges have a backlog of about 480,000 students for lower-division courses,” said former state senator Dean Florez, a panelist at the symposium.  That backlog sometimes keeps students from graduating in four years, costing them money and valuable time and taking up a year that could be occupied by another student.

Universal access is a recurring theme for many proponents of online education, such as Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng, who argued at a CITRIS Research Exchange lecture in September, that higher education should be considered a fundamental human right, not a privilege, and that online courses could make that right achievable.

Although symposium participants concurred that online courses could help address the bottleneck in lower-division courses, and that increasing access is a social good, not all agreed that SB 520 is the best way to promote those ideals. The law moves control of the curriculum out of the hands of public institutions, says Niemeyer, and gives it to newly-formed, private online education startups.

Norvig says he believes that online education is quickly gaining momentum. As Google Inc’s senior scientist, he says he has seen several “Google applications struggle along without the best algorithm to solve a problem at first. But as we gathered more data we pass a threshold and suddenly start to get very good results. I expect that education is following a similar path.”