A Way To Think About Online Courses (By Apple, For Example)

So Apple’s big education-oriented product announcement has come and gone.

I’m going to tread softly here about what it might lead to, because I’ve been wrong before on tech rollouts (both overestimating and underestimating impacts). In general, most of what was discussed in this announcement seems to follow Apple’s established pattern of looking at what other companies and institutions have been trying to do and doing some redesigns of the hardware and delivery channels for those services or products.

Back in the middle of the first dot-com boom, I was asked with some other Swarthmore faculty to attend a presentation by a tech company trying to sell us on digitizing courses and moving to some kind of online delivery of a portion of our curriculum. The main argument they offered was that if we didn’t get on board right now, with their company, we’d be out of business tomorrow because everyone else would be on board with them and we’d be the last analog dinosaurs left on an Earth for small, nimble mammals. For a residential liberal-arts college that emphasizes high-quality teaching in a small, intimate community, that seemed like roughly the Stupidest Idea Ever. It was like an undertaker showing up and trying to convince you that you could save a lot on a funeral plan if you’d just commit suicide right now.

One thing that struck me during the meeting, though, was that if you created a really rich body of materials that looked somewhat like an “online course”, what you really might be doing was crafting a completely novel form of publication. Imagine a work of historical scholarship that included video of the author giving an explanatory lecture at the beginning of a section of the reading; that had direct links to a huge body of archival pictures, audio recordings, maps, and other supporting materials; that extensively linked to relevant (or competing) analyses available in digital collections like JSTOR; and where the author would appear live once every week to take questions from students reading the book in a class.

If you think about it, some “online courses”, whether the Khan Academy or the AI class at Stanford or maybe what Apple’s putting forth, are beginning to converge on something like this design: publications which incorporate materials that have a pedagogical or instructive dimension to them. As a straight-up replacement for an actual small, focused face-to-face class, it’s pretty clear that any online course is going to fall seriously short. But as a kind of publication that works alongside of classes, or that imports some of the substance of classroom pedagogy into their multimedia mix, and which are a guide to self-guided learning or a supplement to a course led by a teacher? I think there’s some real potential.

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3 Responses to A Way To Think About Online Courses (By Apple, For Example)

  1. Jay Scott says:

    There are two lines of technical development is automating education. One is the distance learning push which is big now. It favors good materials and interactive arrangements for the students, both so the students can help each other learn and to give the feedback to the instructors that they need to make the materials good.

    The other line is teaching by computer. Automated tutors are pretty good at teaching narrow technical domains like high school geometry or beginning programming. And uses of machine learning, like automated essay grading, are becoming more feasible. The automated essay grader that I played with was narrow-minded (I easily figured out how to write a good essay that it thought was bad), but acceptable for a restricted context. Over time, computer teaching will become useful in broader domains and broader contexts.

    The two lines of development will eventually join.

    How this will play out depends on the economics of education, which is much too complicated for me. But surely the price-sensitive segments of education, like public schooling, will aim to substitute capital for labor as much as they can.

  2. W.P. McNeill says:

    Out of curiosity, was the system that was being pitched to Swarthmore back in the first dot-com boom Moodle-based?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Nope, an independent for-profit company called Global Education Network that Mark Taylor was involved with.

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