The History and Future of Learning Online

The History and Future of Learning Online

When the first massive open online course (MOOC) was released by Stanford in 2011, it took little work for 160,000 students to sign up. This was it: the inevitable rise in online courses that would disrupt traditional education. The New York Times declared 2012 the ‘year of the MOOC’ as more universities rushed to put their prized content online for students worldwide to experience. And then, one year later, there wasn’t much learning to show for it.

By 2013, Sebastian Thrun, the ‘godfather of online education’ announced he was getting out of the industry. The reason why? Students of online courses were not actually learning. While sign-up rates were incredibly high, course completion and attrition rates were very low. The actual rates varied, but it was widely reported that for every 100 students that enrolled, only 5 learned about the topic (and that doesn’t include getting a passing grade). The only surprise should have been how surprised everyone was at this failure. In reality, human behavior scientists have predicted this trend as it has played out many times before in history.

A personal admission

Before getting into the science, first a confession. I was one of the 160,000 that signed up for the first MOOC, a Stanford course on artificial intelligence. I still remember my excitement at the possibilities. No, I wasn’t a scientist, or even that good at math. But learning about artificial intelligence and machine learning? I had daydreams of a not-so-distant future version of myself building robots and subsequently taking over the world. And then lesson one hit my inbox.

“Wow, this is serious.” The initial lectures were packed with mathematical terms I didn’t really understand. As soon as the lessons made a foray into conceptual physics, I checked out. You know that feeling you’d get if you walked into the wrong classroom and it was in a foreign language? I had the same feeling, just in a virtual setting.

But yet, years after this first experience, why haven’t I learned better? The examples are clear all through my apartment. 20-30 books that I have not yet read but had to buy at that moment in the airport bookstore. A hard drive full of video courses that have not been watched. More unopened PDFs than I care to admit. Why do I do this to myself?

The brain and planning

Turns out, it’s human. The planning fallacy was first discovered in 1979, and it basically sums up a huge cognitive bias in our brains toward completion times. Turns out, we are terribly optimistic about the work required to complete a task. The kicker? It occurs even if we have the knowledge that a past activity took longer to complete then generally planned.

So, to go and look up at my previous examples, here’s a summary: I viewed the reward that the online class is offering (knowledge) and then severely underestimated the time and effort to complete it. After I abandoned the course because the commitment was too great, I still became susceptible because of my mental blindspot. Therefore, the next class I sign up for, the same thing happens. Fortunately, principles of design can help get us out of this terrible feedback loop.

The fault in course design

The medium is the message.Marshall McLuhan

It’s hard to find a college media class that doesn’t mention McLuhan’s influential book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.” In it, McLuhan proposes that the vehicle for delivering a message is just as important as the message itself due to the effect the medium has on the viewer. He strongly believes that the the medium controls “the scale and form of human association and action.” What would he have to say about the medium of online courses if he were alive today? Probably a whole lot.

The way we learn in college lecture halls is quite different from when we are in front of our computer. First, remove all of the context that a university offers. The hallway discussion, study groups, conversations about course material over lunch in the dining hall. Second, take a look at the testing system and accountability. I recall in college a few classes that were painful to study for. But I still took the time because I knew sooner or later I’d be sitting in a testing room and couldn’t escape from a bad grade. If I fail an online quiz on Coursera, it’s a quickly deleted email and with no social consequences or guilt. The list goes on and on.

While many colleges have been quick to put their lectures and in-class studies into video versions, there are other companies doing far more to revolutionize the medium of online learning. The brightest of them are using human behavioral science and psychology to set up their students for success.

Take Code Academy as an example. They give out virtual badges to students upon completing a course as a token of their new skill. It turns out that the small gesture has huge payoffs. Students are more likely to complete a Code Academy course knowing that they will have some recognition and social proof of their achievement. There has been a lot of talk recently about the idea of nano-degrees and how they will change education. If completing an online course becomes a viable way to get a job in the next few years, then even if the medium fails there will be a steep increase in competition rates.

Another company, Zaption, has recently launched as a way to increase student interactions and learning through videos. They let users place quizzes, additional information, and pictures inside of existing video content to increase engagement.

The Solution

Online course creators need to better understand the differences between classroom and online learning to overcome the failure of MOOCs. While there are a few leaders in the computer science space, most of the industry is lagging behind. What students need is a framework to work inside of based on proven psychology and successful course design. In the startup world, companies are placing a larger emphasis on ‘user experience’ and designers who can build systems to modify and educate users. Once this translates to online learning, there will likely be a transformative shift in what we consider education to be.


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