Monday, May 27, 2013

Class in Session

My roommate back in college passed on some advice that helped get through our studies: Use your resources. That meant using your available TA sessions, your provided solutions manuals, your network of peers, your professors' phone directories, and so on.

"I'm not telling you what's on the test tomorrow. How did you get this number?"

Resources these days are a lot farther-reaching. The Internet is populated with lots of people aged 24 and younger, so the subject of school has popped up here and there. It has manifested itself in ways that have radically changed the learning process for students. These new resources are poised to change the way we think about education.

Nowadays, the first thing that a resourceful student could employ is a Google search. Most high schools and universities operate on similar systems, and there are a finite number of textbooks in use. It is often the case that someone else has had the same assigned problem as you have, so chances are good that your question has found its way online.

And the answers can come well-formatted, too!

Enterprising students have capitalized on this phenomenon. Services like Koofers, Coursehero, and Chegg offer scanned study aides to other students at the cost of a subscription fee. Sometimes those study aides include official solutions and old exams. Their offered advantage over free resources like Yahoo Answers is ownership of a more complete index of resources. Consider this along with services like RateMyProfessors and RateMyTeachers - websites that revolve around students submitting reviews for their instructors - and you begin to see the thriving online exchange of information among students.

In a lot of ways, this online exchange presents itself as an adversary to the established education systems. They are designed around the knowledge that schooling is painfully formulaic. Their proposed solution is not necessarily to help the learning process but to help jump through academic hoops.

Unaware professors who recycle their own exams are enabling these study aides to become tickets to easy grades. Students in competitive academic environments will find justification in using these services to stay competitive with one another. A greater user base for these websites permit greater access to new contributed study aides, expanding the database of exams, homework solutions, and other resources.

"Isn't the Internet for porn and cats? What do you mean, kids use it to cheat?"

Granted, these resources will elicit different reactions from different students. Passionate students - students who already make the effort to learn - are going to use these resources as additional guides to learn the material. More dubious students will probably use these resources as answer keys. Institutions and professors don't have to worry about the first group, but the first group is often in the minority. The real concern in education has always been the students that need direction.

Some teachers react to this by limiting or forbidding Internet access. Given how ubiquitous the Internet is, this seems like a decidedly futile approach. The online sphere is now an important part of most of our functions, and it is time we used it in our teaching functions as well.

Within our institutions, it's been more important than ever for teachers to keep their lessons and assignments fresh and different for each class. Lessons need to increasingly take the form of hands-on experiences so that there is unique value to classes that cannot be replaced with online resources.  Two can play at the technology game too, with plagiarism checkers like TurnItIn providing a simpler way to review students' work.

Some universities have even taken to moving entire courses online with pre-taped lectures. MIT's OpenCourseWare, for example, allows for some of its lower more general classes to be accessed by anyone willing to sit through their lectures. If such a course is being taped and uploaded for free access online, then even the chronically absent student can have access to the lectures that he or she missed. Services like Blackboard and WebAssign allow for the digitization of assignments, so that the student can access homework documents at any time.

But education reformation goes beyond changes in lesson plans and teachers' behaviors. The whole system may be due for an overhaul.

Why are we limiting the Internet to merely supplementing our educational system? Perhaps the K-12 hierarchy, the lecture model, the standardized tests, and all such relics need to give way to something new. What if the student resource network was made completely obsolete? What if the only way to do that is to completely change what education demands from the students?

Students learn best when they feel personally engaged. One-on-one tutoring has always been more effective in engaging students than lectures to classrooms, but using that model on a large scale has historically been difficult. Services on the Internet, however, can completely turn that on its head. Websites like have students and tutors sit one on one, discussing individual problems at length until the student understands the material. Location becomes a non-issue, and the online client permits easy communication through use of a digital blackboard and chat window.

In conjunction to this, we've seen a bunch of informative YouTube channels pop up over the years. These channels are run by individuals who are very passionate about their chosen subjects. They produce easily digestible videos, often on a regular schedule. Some of these channels have amassed over a million subscribers, so they clearly have a following. These channels manage to be informative, entertaining, and personal all at the same time. What's more, videos that are years old can be watched at the viewer's leisure.

How do we marry the easy-to-consume educational videos with the personal engagement of each student? Well, we look at Khan Academy.

Khan Academy best exemplifies the Internet's potential to revolutionize our education system. Its massive archive of online lectures are presented in easily digestible modules, and even give students incentives to progress in subjects. They also offer extensive statistical information about its student base to instructors. In the above talk, founder Salman Khan discusses how Khan Academy has already infiltrated some classrooms.

The most interesting thing is this: With classrooms that extensively use Khan Academy, the website lectures replace the class lectures. What's more, the lectures are assigned watching for students, effectively functioning as the "homework". The traditional homework - the problem sets and worksheets - is done during the school day.

This is a very different paradigm. The school is no longer where the student passively listens. Instead, the school devotes itself entirely to the hands-on activities associated with learning. Khan Academy provides the robustness of the curriculum, while teachers are free to address individual students' needs.

Let's look at Koofers, Yahoo Answers, and the other components of the student information exchange. What can they hope to offer in this new learning environment?

The fact that students aren't left alone to work on assignments immediately subverts most of the reason why someone would turn to free answers and study aides. Students' work can now be supervised as it is done in the classroom, while keeping them close to teachers who are now free to individually help them. This increased availability of help also subverts the sense of competition among peers - if everyone is successfully learning, then nobody has to lose.

Suddenly, the student network has no role in school. This is a good thing.

"I understand chemistry now! Thanks, porn and cats!"

Imagine the resource distribution within the education system if this becomes the norm. If everyone is watching the same lectures, then standardization is inherently built in. If everyone is getting the academic attention they need, then standardized test scores go up (presuming we still even need standardized tests at this point). If the online, individual-focused lecture becomes the norm, then teachers and professors alike don't have to spend so much time attempting to engage students in lectures.

High school classrooms become centers of individual development, with resources devoted away from textbooks and more towards hands-on studies within science labs, field work, and the fine arts. Universities can shift away from lectures for lower-level subjects, and focus more on niche studies and research endeavors (presuming that OpenCourseWare is redesigned to emulate Khan Academy, which might be a good idea). Never before could we implement such radical change to the educational system in such a progressive and economic way.

One potential concern is that not all students have reliable Internet access outside of the school. While most people have Internet access nowadays, this may not necessarily be the case in poorer communities. This concern can be alleviated by focusing more resources on better and more widespread online infrastructure. As was argued with regards to social justice, access to online communications has quickly established itself to be as important as any other fundamental human right. If it means a radically improved education system, then it is imperative that we treat the Internet as no less than essential.

Should we be concerned about people within the current system resisting change? If anything, teachers and teachers' unions would welcome the changes brought upon by Khan Academy. The work environment for teachers can be expected to drastically improve if classroom time becomes spent on helping individuals. Perhaps some questions would arise down the line about streamlining the number of faculty employed in schools, and for how much their services are worth when they are without obligation to lecture. There will have to be discourse about how the role of a teacher may change over time. But I do not think that people would want to shy away from that discussion.

What about other school systems? Charter schools have serious problems, for-profit schools tend to be deceptive and of poor quality, and the majority of private schools are bunkers for the religious. The thing these all have in common are a fiscal reliance on private entities, and incentives that extend beyond mere education. Perhaps there will be some who would resist ventures in online education out of a desire to see information that is more in tune with their religious beliefs or corporate interests. However, for those who pursue these schools for their higher academic quality compared to public schools, online education can give parents a reason to save on money and stick with the public sector.

In any case, I get the sense that educational institutions are only beginning to do what my roommate's been telling me to do for years - to use their resources. And now that the Internet is becoming a real learning resource, we can expect something revolutionary to happen.

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