Online learning promotes passivity
Up til I took Andrew Ng’s online machine learning class last semester, I had two worries about the concept of online learning. First, I worried that the inability to ask questions would be a major problem. Second, I worried about the possibility of building up material. I could imagine learning a given thing online but the ability to sustain and build material over an entire semester seemed kind of unrealistic.
On the second point, I think I’m convinced. Andrew definitely taught us a real semester’s worth of stuff, and he built up a body of knowledge very well. I now communicate with my colleagues at work using the language he taught us, which is very cool.
On the first point about asking questions, however, I am even more convinced there’s a crucial problem.
I want to differentiate between two different kinds of questions to make my point. First, there’s the “I’m confused” type of question, where someone literally doesn’t get the point of something or doesn’t understand the notation or a step in an explanation.
One can imagine tackling this kind of question in various ways. For example, one can strive to be a really good teacher, which Andrew certainly is, or to explain things at a high level but shove the details into black boxes, which Andrew did quite a bit (somewhat to my disappointment, especially when linear algebra was involved). If neither of those two things is sufficient, and the class is really important and/or really common, one can imagine teaching a computer to anticipate confusion and to ask questions along the way to make sure the students are following, and to go back and explain things in a different way if not.
In other words, the first kind of “clarifying questions” can probably be dealt with by the online learning community over time.
But there’s a second kind, namely the kind of question where someone is not confused but rather asks a question for one of the following reasons:
- they want to know how a certain idea relates to something else they know about,
- they want to generalize something the teacher said,
- they want to argue against an approach or for another approach,
- they see a mistake, or
- they see an easier way to do something.
Almost by definition, the above kinds of questions aren’t anticipated by the teacher, but the fact that they are asked almost always improves the class, certainly for the student in question but also for the other students and the teacher.
For example, one semester I taught three sections of 18.03 (exhausting! and I was pregnant!), which is a calculus class at M.I.T., and I remember thinking that in every single class one of the students made a remark or asked a question that I learned something from. It got to the point that, the third time through the same material, I’d be waiting for someone to explain how I should be teaching it. I loved that the students there are so smart but also so engaged in learning.
And that’s what I’m worried about- the engagement. When you embark on an online class, the best you can hope for is that you learn something and that you don’t get hopelessly confused. And that’s cool, that you can learn something, for free, online. But what you can’t do is what I’m worried about, and that’s to get instant feedback and discussion about some idea you had in the categories above.
I’m definitely one of those people who asks questions of the second type, and although I may sometimes annoy my fellow students, I really feel like the active engagement I pursue by coming up with all sorts of crazy comments and ideas and questions is what made me capable of doing original and creative things. For me, the most important part of my education was that training whereby I got to ask questions in class and got smart teachers who liked me to do so and would talk to me about my ideas.
How can that possibly happen with online learning? I’m afraid it can’t, and I’m afraid we will be training people to receive information rather than to engage in creation.
I imagine that in 200 years, almost everyone will be taught online, hooked into the machine and pumped up with knowledge. It will be only the elites who will have access to real live people to teach them in person, where they will be taught not only the material but also how to argue against a point of view and to propose an alternate approach.