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The Problem with Online Education (metamorphblog.com)
21 points by MediaSquirrel on April 23, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 11 comments

I think that there is a benefit to online education that is rarely discussed. Paul Graham talked about breaking the "geographical monopoly" of schools through online education. I've worked in test prep for many years (Sylvan, Kaplan, College Network, Grockit, Veritas), and I've seen the same flaw in all of their classroom and tutoring offerings: If you live in a big metropolitan area, you have a better chance of finding a good teacher or tutor. It's no coincidence that the best GMAT teachers are in Manhattan, because that's where Wall Street is.

This phenomenon is not unique to test prep. I'm willing to bet that there are more Spanish teachers (and therefore a better chance to find great ones) in Los Angeles or Tuscon than in Boise or Cheyenne. But since students usually go to school near where they live, they have to settle for what is available. But imagine an online learning platform that let a student in Bozeman, Montana take Spanish from a teacher in Buenos Aires, English from a teacher in London, calculus from a teacher in Moscow, and art from a teacher in Paris all in the same day? I think it would be interesting to learn about the Vietnam war from a teacher in Saigon.

When people talk about online education, they tend to highlight the isolation students experience. I think it can be quite the opposite...it can be a more social experience than sitting in a classroom a few miles from home with an instructor and peers who likely share the same background as you.

I just don't think that what you're saying jibes with what actually motivates people to learn and complete a degree program. It's not just about watching great lectures. It's about forming bonds and social support structures that enable you to stay focused and on track in what inevitably is a hard road.

Bonding and social support like has existed for years between people with common interests on platforms like IRC and forums? People are capable of producing tight groups in any form, but not all those forms are amenable to all people. The question is if the face time that physical presence affords is required.

I never said watching lectures would be enough. I think it can be a combination of videos, discussion, collaboration, creation, and sharing. Think of the communities that form around YouTube channels. It's more than just the videos, it's the comments and response videos, subscribers, and followers that make it interesting.

It isn't just the structure of social interactions that is missing, but also the structure of educational options. Someone who is already intelligent and motivated can pick the right courses and do well, but if you're trying to reach people currently underserved, they come from under-educated families, don't have a sense of what is out there to learn, and can't really evaluate their options.

If you've ever worked with parents in this position, you realize the potential danger of DIY education. These parents are embarrassed because they know their kids need education to get ahead, but because they aren't educated, they don't know how to do it. They develop bizarre ideas about what is and is not important. My wife tutored for a poor family that was working double duty to send their son to an awful private school. The school was worse than the public schools in the area, but because it was "private" they felt their son must be learning more. Many online academies are like this: they make you feel narrowly knowledgeable and valuable, rather than introducing you to painful humility the way a top-notch research program tries to.

that painful humility seems so so important for high intelligence types. it seems to be one of the biggest common factors correlated to the distinction between high intelligence people who leverage their skills and those who don't.

short version: the kind of people attracted to online colleges are the kind of people that need the support structures of traditional colleges to succeed. the kind of self starters that can excel at a self paced, self disciplined class probably don't need it.

There's probably a way to work structure into online classes. Require a certain amount of time spent drilling flashcards or whatever every day, for example.

that is an EXCELLENT summary!! Thanks!

The other barrier to online education is breaking down the paradigm wall that non-enrolled students taking a class online at a prestigious school can someday prove they learned the material and earn real grades and course credit. I doubt Harvard et al. will willingly sacrifice their reputation for granting course credit to online only students.

I think it should be mentioned that even in the last 3 or 4 years some really awesome software has been made and hasn't been sufficiently introduced into the education market.

The time sounds about right for something innovative to change the game; it's just a question of having the will to do it. We'll try a few things, see what works, and iterate.

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