Rethinking Online Education

Malala Yousafzai, a sixteen-year-old Pakistani student made headlines when she was injured by the Taliban for pursuing her studies. She has since grown increasingly vocal in her fight for female education in Pakistan, and universal access to learning for children worldwide.

Photo: DFID – UK Department for International
Development, via Wikimedia Commons

This month, a young, clear voice reminds us of the global need for education. Recent years have brought incredible educational progress in many areas of the world. Teachers, supplies, and funding have been dedicated to building more schools. More children, women, and students in developing countries are provided with ways to learn. Not only are there more formal schools; recent years have also brought online universities and lectures, and, most recently, MOOCs. But access to learning remains far from universal.

Last week, Malala Yousafzai marked her 16th birthday with a powerful speech that addressed everyone: from her native Pakistanis to us at iversity in Germany. At the U.N.’s Youth Assembly, Malala, who was shot in the head on her way home from school by Taliban, demanded female education in Pakistan, and for all children worldwide. With 57 million children out of school in 2011, according to UNESCO and Save the Children data, 3 million gained educational access in the past three years. But the numbers of students out of class remain staggering, energizing iversity to produce MOOCs that reach the masses.

MOOCs are not an answer for every educational shortcoming. In developing countries and areas of conflict, many lack internet access, and women may be restricted from using computers at internet cafes. But MOOCs expand higher education, widening access and eliminating costs. They do not discriminate based on age, location, or gender, providing all with the opportunity to learn and to grow. Consider how MOOCs offer Pakistani girls access to top faculty and high-quality courses. Malala’s words push for universal education, a revolution that MOOCs ensure will include those in conflict zones.

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Some students are extroverts, happiest as the centers of classroom attention and leaders in vocal debates. They are the academic equivalents of Brian May, lead guitarist of the glam-rock band Queen. After thirty years on tour, he not only looked like Sir Isaac Newton, but also completed a PhD in astrophysics titled “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” at the Imperial College in London.

Large, crowded lectures intimidate many students.
Photo: Sk Education Consulting Group

But not every student enjoys performing publicly. Some dislike large lectures with hundreds of other students, or feel uncomfortable in small seminar discussions.

Traditional courses are therefore not best for everyone. Shy students are overlooked in large lectures, where they passively absorb lessons without discussing content with others. Lectures are intimidating; many are hesitant to address professors in front of hundreds of peers. Many lectures have small group meetings, where students are either more comfortable participating, or feel exposed and are thus reticent.

MOOCs offer an environment that may engage introverts. Online anonymity can make students comfortable expressing themselves in forums. They may contact established professors online, whereas approaching them in person is daunting. Participating in course conversations online may give students confidence to contribute in traditional classrooms and work environments.

Though MOOCs integrate peer-to-peer editing, student feedback, and discussion forums, they create communities different from those in classroom courses. Students may organize meet-ups, but predominantly converse online. They can contact professors, but many MOOCs have organized feedback systems. Many MOOCs integrate social media comprehensively, like Professor Dr. Spannagel’s and Dr. Gieding’s “ Mathe-MOOC: Mathematisch denken” (Math MOOC: Mathematical Thinking). He has created his own blog, as well as Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter sites for his iversity MOOC.

According to Duke University studies, introverts need time to observe before participating. With MOOCs, students work at their own paces, reading forums before jumping in themselves. Competitive learning environments adversely affect shy students, rendering MOOCs a productive space, where students don’t compete for grades or teacher attention. MOOCs do not force student participation. Students could continue to passively learn, but their silence in forums wouldn’t necessarily go unnoticed, as it would in a standard lecture. Online platforms allow for student monitoring, which instructors can use to find and encourage quieter participants.

Hesitant participants exist in every learning environment. MOOCs, however, level the playing field between extroverts and introverts, allowing all to comment when they choose to in a comfortable online platform. MOOCs do not have the intimidating facets of a large lecture or small, intimate seminar, wherein students can be passive observers or may be forced to speak up before they feel ready to do so. The online platform is, in many ways, conducive to teaching shy students. The experiences introverts have in MOOCs may revolutionize how they engage in every area of their lives. Confidence developed in online classes has the potential to help shy students better engage socially and professionally, channeling some of Brian May’s boldness.

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The German business magazine “brand eins” sees itself as a critical observer. In its July issue, the magazine covered MOOCs and interviewed iversity founder Hannes Klöpper about his plans to digitize higher education. When we first read the article, we had some trouble recognizing Hannes.

Read more about this in our article (German)

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In the year 1776, on a warm but cloudy 4th of July, the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence after a long struggle with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the then-ruling colonial power. The Committee of Five, consisting of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson among others, had spent weeks drafting the declaration before presenting it to Congress and produced one of the most important documents in modern times.

(Photo: Martin Burns)

The signing of the declaration meant a decisive step towards a free nation and is still widely celebrated as Independence Day. It is the most important national holidays in the United States and stands as an important symbol for a nation that holds liberty and democracy as the most important values of all.

But a democracy can’t be built overnight: it still took the young nation more than 10 years until the Federal Government was formed and George Washington was inaugurated as the first president of the United States in 1789. Naturally, things happen a lot faster now in the internet age than during the time of the Founding Fathers.

Just like the United States began their journey towards freedom and liberty back then, it is now higher education that is becoming more democratic. Massive Open Online Courses offer education for everybody: accessible from every place in the world, with modern didactics that meet individual student’s needs and without high entry requirements that are unsurmountable for many. The internet makes all of this possible. Within 8 years, the number of internet users in the world rose from roughly 1 billion to 2.8 billion, more than one third of the world’s population. With so many people connected to the internet, it is time to bring education into the digital age as well – because we think that MOOCs will bring about an unprecedent transformation of higher education and will without doubt change many people’s lives for the better. We look forward to your thoughts on the democratisation of higher education!

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Though MOOCs are offered in a wide range of disciplines, satisfying curious intellectuals and skill-seekers, most online courses exist in science, math, and technology. But organisations like iversity and institutions like Wesleyan University (the first liberal arts institution to launch MOOCs) are producing courses in the humanities as well. iversity spoke to Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, Wesleyan’s first Distinguished Teaching Fellow, Jane A. Seney Professor of Greek and Professor of Classical Studies, whose MOOC “The Ancient Greeks” ran this fall and spring.

iversity: What was your personal approach to teaching a MOOC, and how might it differ from those instructing in science or math?

Szegedy-Maszak: With courses like organic chemistry or subatomic physics, what one needs to teach may be clear. But in a humanities course, there is greater flexibility in selecting topics, determining their depth, and assigning readings.

“I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance”

Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak

(Courtesy of Olivia Drake)

I received advice for my course from Professor Peter T. Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, who taught a successful 10-week MOOC on Classic Mythology. He said he wished his course was shorter; I therefore made mine 7 weeks long. I did so for two reasons. The first constricted the effort involved in making the MOOC, which was hundreds of hours of prep. I also shortened my course to retain student interest. There is a downward slope in engagement from the first to last weeks of courses.

I gave 6 lectures per week, which cover the earliest Greek civilization to the death of Socrates. Deciding on these topics was, in some ways, arbitrary. I chose to teach a survey-style class. The Archaic Age, for example, receives scholarly attention. I could’ve done a course on just that period, or concentrated entirely on the Athenians. But I thought it’d be more useful to give students a broader historical perspective and introduce the sense of a wider Greek world. I taught what students are likely looking for, working in allusions to today’s research, because Greek history keeps changing. I wanted to suggest to my audience that I wasn’t teaching your grandfather’s Greek history class.

The origins of Greece: golden “Mask of Agamemnon”. Bronze Age.

National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Courtesy PD

iversity: Your MOOC assigns no papers, grades, or final assessment. How do you keep students engaged and focused? Is passion alone enough, and is it specific to humanities courses?

Szegedy-Maszak: For most students, Greek history is a subject they’re interested in and wanted to learn more about. I assign blunt, evaluative weekly questions to ensure they stay on track. These quizzes enable people who want them to get statements of accomplishment. Some students requested a tougher final examination, and a statement of accomplishment with distinction for those who do well on it. When the course is offered again on September 2, I may include a final to up the ante.

iversity: In your lectures, you don’t read from a script, as many MOOC instructors do.

Szegedy-Maszak: That’s similar to how I teach my classes at Wesleyan. I’ve been teaching this material for a long time, and know it well. I instead make a list of key topics to cover during each lecture. My MOOC doesn’t use textbook readings, also like my Wesleyan courses. All readings are primary sources in translation. The value of this particular subject [Greek history] lies in hearing the voices of long ago. It gives students a sense of what we, modern historians, deal with when reconstructing past narratives.

An unavoidable factor in teaching online is the amount of compression required, hitting only the subject’s high points. A friend said to “leave a lot out to get it all in,” my operating principle. My lectures at Wesleyan are 80 minutes, and these were from 12-20. Though I left a lot out, I felt a responsibility to the material and students not to dumb it down. I worked to allow for complexity, ambiguity, and ignorance, as there’s a lot we still don’t know about Greek history.  

Bust of Socrates. His death concludes the MOOC.

Rome, Vatican Museum

Courtesy of Wilson Delgado

Interview for iversity by Anna Meixler

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