Education, Online Education

Coursera Present and Coursera Future

Some years ago a couple of MIT undergrads told me they no longer went to lecture, because the lectures were videotaped and put online. Watching the lectures online was actually better than watching in person, because they could watch at 1.5x speed!

So many questions. Would that be true for even the best lecturers? Is this confirmation that the age of the stand-and-deliver lecturer is really over, or at least, on its way out? What could I do to make sure that the students in my classes still came to class (aside from simply not videotaping)?

Making Progress In Classroom Practice

We all know that we have been educated in the style of the 18th century. We all know we have been educated the way our professors’ professors’ professors were educated. Education was designed to create a compliant industrial workforce, not to create the initiative-driven, forward-thinking problem solvers we need for our world today.

We’ve all heard or read Sir Ken Robinson (and if you have not, take in this great 11-minute animated version!). Along with Sir Ken, thousands of educators are working on education practices that engage the learner in ways other than just listening and repeating — there’s active learning, explore-before-explain, inquiry-driven learning, and on and on. Fantastic. In the face-to-face world, we are making progress. All over the world, educators are trying to improve the effectiveness and engagement of their classroom practices.

The Online Education Boom

And now, online education is booming, bringing even more challenge and opportunity. People want to learn from home, in their own timeframe. There are not enough seats in classrooms to hold all the people who want to be educated. We seem to have a deep human need to keep inquiring throughout our lives. Dr. Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera, the huge online education company, talks about the growth of free and low-cost online education in this Wall Street Journal article. Now every year millions of people take online courses.

The Same Problems Exist

And yet, almost all the existing online courses are structured in the traditional way, lectures and quizzes. It’s clearly the easiest way to take existing courses and put them online, but it brings with it the same problems it had in the classroom, perhaps even magnified. Remember those undergrads listening at 1.5x speed? Their practices imply to me that video lectures are not the best and richest way to transmit content.

What Do We Need to Do?

As we improve face-to-face education, so we also need to make strides in improving the online learning experience, perhaps even more urgently. The challenges with face-to-face learning, like moving beyond content to problem-solving, and engaging the learner so that they absorb and retain more ideas, are even more urgent in online learning, because so many people have access only to online learning and it is growing so fast.

These are the challenges that drive us. More than ever we need a populace with the confidence and training to take on their local and global issues, and to make decisions based on logic and not emotion. We need to figure out how to teach online in a way that makes learners better learners.

How Might We Do It?

How do we make online learning better right now? One path is to think beyond content and recognize that the act of learning, the act of engaging curious thinking, of engaging problem-solving, are the critical steps for future progress. On this path, we think about the structure and process of the education more even than the content. Online today there are relatively few options for teaching methodologies other than lecture-and-quiz. One exciting option is gamified course design, where the learner searches and competes for knowledge. There’s a lot of excitement around this concept, but assessments and evaluations are in early days, and one drawback is the cost of creating a course.

The coming months and years will hold many new options for formats and structures of online learning. This is going to be a recurring topic on this blog: how to we help learners learn better online?

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About Lindy Elkins-Tanton

Lead of NASA Psyche mission; School of Earth and Space Exploration and Interplanetary Initiative at ASU; co-founder of Beagle Learning (
  • Phoenix, Arizona