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Keeping the Fourth Online-Learning Revolution from Flaming Out into Disaster

Most people do not know that our current online-learning revolution is actually the fourth. The first was made by Aristocles son of Ariston and Aristoteles son of Nicomachus when they created the philosophy book to help those who could not find or could not afford their own personal Sokrates to learn. The second came with the invention of the medieval university so that those who could not afford to buy and own all the books they needed could nevertheless meet in groups to hear them read aloud and take notes. The third came with Gutenberg's making books cheap enough so that intellectuals could own all that they wanted. And the fourth is today.

We will not manage the fourth revolution unless we first figure out why the third revolution--that eliminated the original raison d'etre of the medieval university did not destroy but rather strengthened the university. What, exactly, were the useful intellectual functions that the university performed that meant that it could not be fully replaced by sitting on a log under a tree surrounded by your stack of books?

My outline of the problem is here.

Commenters respond:

eightnine2718281828mu5 said: "What is it about the institution of the university that allowed it to survive the third online-learning revolution?" signalling

Omega Centauri said: Beyond signalling, which is important, I think we need some interactive intelligence. Its tough to get a deeply challenging subject mastered from online stuff alone. What if I don't really understand the Poincare conjecture? (Heck I can't even spell it). Will that mean that by about chapter 11 I'll hit some intellectual brickwall I don't know how to get through? If I had a sharp teacher, he could insure some crucial but tricky foundational principle is really mastered. But, online (and in a hurry usually), its just to easy to slip past something important, then find out too late that you've build your whole intellectual understanding of XXX -on a house of cards.... Now, even really good wetware computers (actual flesh and blood neuronal processors) have trouble doing this. Training a computer to..... Wish I had a clue.

jeremy said: I thought you were actually going to comment on how today's distance learning is 4th rate...I am thinking of the U of Phoenix, and other for-profit distance learning programs. There are some decent distance learning opportunities available. For instance, while I lived in Germany I used archives of recorded calculus courses from a university in North Carolina to learn 1st year calculus. I also took a 4th year statistics course online through Iowa State. Those courses served a very specific purpose, but the lecturer's impact was not very high. The interaction level was near zero for me, but I learned the material. I probably could have just read the books and done some of the problems at the end of each chapter and done just as well on the tests. It's really tough for a first rate mind to give you a first rate lecture through distance learning. I don't even think lecturers try; you might as well just find out what the book is, read it on your own, and later find a better class a few levels up at a campus nearby.

MBH said: "No philosopher understands his predecessors until he has re-thought their thought in his own contemporary terms." PF Strawson. As an online PhD student who studied undergraduate philosophy at a brick and mortar school, I agree with the above comments that signaling and interaction preserved the university after the cost of books could have made it obsolete. But not just any kind of signaling: hinting in the Wittgensteinian sense. For instance, if I start to read Kant -- online -- without any background, his metaphysics may baffle me. But if the facilitator presents a supplemental lecture that proposes "For Kant, phenomena is to software as noumena is to hardware..." then I can go on. And not just any kind of interaction either. To make sure the class understands, the facilitator may begin a thread in which every student must rephrase an aspect of Kant's metaphysics in their own words. Whether the rephrasing matches or mismatches the meaning, the facilitator can track the students' understanding. That would prevent the problem that Omega raises above.

Hopefuly Anonymous said: universities, and lectures for that matter, provide paternalistic structure for those that lack autodidactic discipline. We should make it easier for those with autodidactic discipline to get credentialed (licensing exams) without trying to extract wealth from them or creating other inefficient barriers.

Pat D said: I propose there were actually five revolutions. The first 3 are the same as what you propose above. But along the way, the quantity of first-rate thinkers increased due to earlier revolutions. Therefore, the fourth revolution is each classroom apprenticed to a (near-)first-rate thinker, rather than being read the work of a first-rate thinker. In other words, the best classrooms today are not following the lector style, but are instead akin to Socrates teaching a group of students. Your proposed fifth revolution is about decreasing the price of a service provided by the fourth revolution. In a broader sense of online learning, you don't need to worry about it going bust - Wikipedia is increasingly popular, and MIT provides free lectures via iTunes University. UPhoenix is just the "missing link" in this evolution, one that we should not worry about going extinct.

Jed Harris said: Why do these answers focus on the student - teacher or student - content relationship, when the student - student interaction looms so large in the actual experience? Teaching and content are useful, but peer interaction is an essential part of the process -- quite possibly the most essential part. Even for very content intensive domains. Look at the student groups studying together in the engineering library. Look at how graduate students spend time in their offices and labs. Even the university doesn't value or facilitate this mutual support nearly enough. Current distance learning makes it nearly impossible.

derek said: Books were cheaper than your own personal Socrates, but still expensive, and still not a substitute for your own personal Socrates. Universities arose to address the "still expensive" part, but they survived the printing press by evolving to address the "still no substitute for your own personal Socrates" part. (when i went to uni we really did have our own personal Socrates; that was his actual name)

bad Jim said: Perhaps it was the explosive growth of knowledge which accompanied the printing press that made the university even more valuable than before. Before Gutenberg, and the Reformation, the chief output of the university was clerics; afterwards the output included lawyers and physicians and most crucially teachers of all kinds, because learning had become valuable to accountants and mechanics and sailors and so on. With the invention of science universities became the place where science was mostly taught and mostly done, and it remains so to this day. It may not be beside the point that the work of a student is facilitated by living among other students whose lives are similarly devoted and governed by the same schedule, or that there are synergies produced by a concentration of bright and motivated young people. Although it's possible for a serious student to educate itself with nothing but a large enough library, it doesn't happen often enough to be considered a serious alternative. The internet hardly changes that.

Greg said: Different types of leverage. The book was a simple force multiplier, allowing the thoughts of the thinker to be absorbed by more people. The university system, as well as further multiplying force (at the cost of some imperfections), also had a large element of guidance. This guidance is the quality that guaranteed the survival of the university system when printed books came. The printed book was again a simple force multiplier, but vastly more powerful than the scribe-written book. It enabled the expansion of the university system among other effects. The next form of instruction must retain the guidance introduced with the university, and must require less labour from the teacher, who can then focus on the students for whom the regular guidance is not working. In this way, the work of the teacher will be leveraged. Aplia and companies like it are making a start on this. However, the next major step suggested by the "force multiplier versus guidance" analysis is a new guidance system: instructional software that can monitor the student's eye tracking and other behaviour in real time, ask questions, and adapt the instruction in real time to deal with incomprehension, loss of focus, and so on, in exactly the same way that a one-on-one tutor does now. It shouldn't be hard to get something that does 80 percent of the job and knows when to kick the problem upstairs. This "force multiplies" the guidance provided at universities. Obviously the above does not apply to leading-edge graduate study, which must still be operated on the apprentice/collegial system, but to undergraduate/early graduate teaching and to labour force skill acquisition.

Greg said in reply to Jed Harris: "Teaching and content are useful, but peer interaction is an essential part of the process -- quite possibly the most essential part." Yes, students learn from each other because they can't afford personal tutors. Affordable computation and machine vision should allow us to change this.

Neal said: The basis of learning to date is accountability. While there is nebulous blather about the importance of face-to-face, the real value of face-to-face was in accountability. You were there, you were expected to learn, and you were expected to produce evidence of your learning. People, and especially students, are weaselly creatures. I was a student, I know people who have students, and I am a father to students. They are weaselly creatures. The danger to the value of an on-line education is the pretending that the weaselly factor does not exist. The embedded nature of what was learned in the face-to-face accountability is replaced by what? I know how my children skitter and skate through the "inter-web net-tubey" thing and there is very little of value that remains after the interaction. Quick solutions seized from here and there, on-line boards and chats for the "smart" persons answer, "cut and paste", done, and on to another round of COD4.