Online education, upgraded

BitDepth#995 for June 30, 2015

Stanford University’s Dr Paul Kim. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
Stanford University’s Dr Paul Kim. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Dr Paul Kim had an interesting proposition for local educators on the third day of UWI’s three-day seminar series on Institutionalizing Best Practice in Higher Education at the university’s Centre for Excellence in Teaching and Learning on Friday.

And he had hard facts to back up some bracing assertions.

He does lecture at Stanford University, which sits pretty much in the middle of California’s Silicon Valley, a university whose entrepreneurial graduates have created more than 5.4 million jobs in 40,000 companies which generate 2.7 trillion annually.

Among those graduates are the cofounders of Google, Yahoo, Netflix, Linked-In and PayPal.

So when a man who sits in the middle of that kind of activity tells you that there’s a new sector riding on the growth of technology, it’s probably time to pay attention, particularly if it’s the sector you happen to be employed in.

Among the new Internet based educations are Coursera,, K12, Chegg, Schoolology, Udacity to name but a few of the companies who represent a surge in online education spending that’s jumped to more than two billion annually.

Remind, a service to help students organise themselves, has 10 million users and has sent 65 million reminders since it went live.

Dr Kim is the author of a book about the phenomenon, Massive Open Online Courses: The MOOC Revolution, which he positions as the spark of an education revolution.

He points to the curated free courses offered online by Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, and Caltech as examples of the subtle shift in learning from the classroom to widely dispersed computer and tablet screens.

Udemy, which has six million students, offers 25,000 courses and stands as an alternative to both the traditional university track and course material system.

By comparison, the Khan Academy strikes him as rather sedate, a flipping of the education model that’s remained firmly within the box.

But the educator is also clear on the problems that are inherent in moving from chalk and talk to self-motivated and paced learning.

“If a student has been in a one-way stream learning environment for 12 years, don’t expect the student to suddenly become a self motivated and self regulated student, taking advantage of alternative education options,” he said.

There is real difficulty in keeping students engaged in online education. Udacity has an average course completion rate of below 13 per cent. Kaplan University notes that video lectures alone don’t create the best learning opportunities, “empathy and learning opportunities do.”

That’s given rise to coaching and mentoring systems such as BLOC, which bills itself as a learning “bootcamp,” taking on the chores of reminding, coaching, modeling, mentoring and motivating and boasts a completion rate of 96 per cent.

NovoEd is an evolving MOOC, focusing on team-based learning while adding peer evaluation to the mix. Students who participate effectively earn reputation, while a connection with Linked-In acts as a global registrar’s office, and endorsements there build student reputation and demand for them as team members.

None of this is a one-way street.

The millions of students participating in online learning opportunities leave a quiet thunder of digital footprints, which analytics companies can mine.

Civitas Learning examines all this digital spoor and offers predictive models and early warning signal detection which tracks how students use digital education services to guide interventions that boost student progress.

Like Heat Maps for online students.

Students also have to play their part in this rapidly evolving environment. They must come to the table knowing how to search intelligently, knowing who knows what, knowing how to present and persuade, leveraging networks, delegating are all basic skills to using these tools efficiently.

Dr Kim is particularly fond of the quality question as an indicator of student involvement in the classroom.

To that end he’s created the Stanford Mobile Inquiry-based Learning Environment (SMILE), which builds a seamless question system into most common mobile devices that’s been tested in South Korea and Colombia.

“Questions are indicators of learning,” Dr Kim said.

“Better questioning is the process and outcome of better learning, passion fuels sustainable learning and engagement.”

The software allows participants to create questions, incorporate mobile media, present problems, solve problems, evaluate, reflect and exchange learning.

For dramatically underserved communities, there’s a stand-alone webserver box that runs on batteries that includes a range of software that’s allowed the system to be used in environments with no Internet.

A test of the closed loop system was tested in Tanzania eliminating textbooks altogether, using the information built into the box. Several of Dr Kim’s students have, in turn, used his MOOC system in their own projects in challenged communities.

At the core of his system is the idea that teachers are coaches, not leaders and certainly not totems of all-pervasive knowledge.

He fondly recalled one SMILE project that generated questions so deep that he had to convene a panel of professors to properly answer them all.

“To ignite passion, Dr Kim said, “you present relevant problems and link to development initiatives. I remain as a coach – I want my students to be rock stars.”

“Incentive and evaluation are key to the success of the system. I’m sorry, but you are not the sole source of information anymore. I am not the sole source of information anymore.”