The Greatest Shift in University-Level Learning |

online learning
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by Jeff Doyle, Ph.D.

What do the following companies have in common: General Electric, Disney, Microsoft, Netflix, Airbnb? They share the same thing in common as Texas A&M, University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, Georgetown University, and Brigham Young University. All these companies and universities were founded in the middle of an extended recession. 

Many new organisations (and many adaptable current ones) will start doing some things different as this COVID crisis continues. One of the most significant changes will be the use of video to broadcast teaching and stimulate increased learning. 

How the internet changed the classroom

In colleges pre-internet, many students were advised not to take classes with interesting titles, but take classes with interesting teachers. This is because some teachers, who were often brilliant researchers focused on ground-breaking new knowledge which could alter the course of human history, had never been taught how to teach. 

In the 2000s, advances in technology allowed lecturers an approach to bringing great speakers into the class – by bringing their presentations into the classroom via video conferencing.

In the 2010s, even better technologies emerged; the introduction of TED talks in 2006 was a game-changer. The benefit of TED talks is that they’re all 20 minutes or less – which has demonstrated to be the amount of time most students are willing to track with an engaging talk.  

In the past few years, a group of researchers from MIT and EdX completed the largest study of video learning engagement. They used data from 6.9 million video watching sessions and discovered that “shorter videos are much more engaging, that informal talking-head videos are more engaging, that Khan-style tablet drawings are more engaging, that even high-quality pre-recorded classroom lectures might not make for engaging online videos.” 

In short, it had better be short and amazing to maintain attention. They shared several graphs showing that after six minutes of watching any speaker behind a podium, the drop off in viewer engagement was a steep trajectory down.

What Do Multisite Churches, the Khan Academy, and Universities Have in Common?

For over 2,000 years, one of the primary methods of learning has been to be in the presence of someone who can teach (e.g. Socrates, Jesus, Gandhi). Now, with the advent of film and video, we can record great teachers and show them over and over.  

There are thousands of organisations trying to spread a message that have capitalised on this trend. Take the multisite church movement in the USA – while they began in the 1990s, there are now thousands of multisite churches. How do they make this happen? Many, if not most, of them provide multiple “video venues.” 

There is a parallel movement to multisite churches in higher education. One of the best examples is Coursera, a platform for online courses anyone can take. Some are free, and these are typically called MOOCs (massive online open courses), and some cost money. Currently there have been over 2.6 million “students” in Coursera’s “The Science of Wellbeing” taught by Laurie Santos of Yale University. The class is ten weeks long and requires ~20 hours of work. Financial aid is available and course completers receive a Course Certificate. Coursera is one of many online learning opportunities. 

LinkedIn Learning, formerly Lynda, has become a major higher education partner and has many courses with hundreds of thousands students. Other top online course providers with thousands of students include: Udemy (50 million students and 57,000 instructors teaching courses in over 65 languages), Udacity (100,000 graduates), Khan Academy (5.7 million subscribers and 1.7 billion users,) and Codecademy (50 million users).  

These online course providers identify some of the best professors/teachers in the world on a topic and pay them to provide talks that walk learners through the content. Students in these programmes are paying a fraction of the cost to take courses from educators significantly better at teaching than most college campus professors. For example, a month-long Coursera course costs between US$30-$100. The Khan Academy courses are always free!  

The great learning shift

In 2020, we are living during one of the greatest shifts in learning ever. More universities are incorporating more online learning as a response to COVID and safe distancing. 

Let’s celebrate that the greatest teachers of this generation can now be living anywhere in the world (with decent internet). Many of them are already on the internet teaching millions of students. Let’s use this unfortunate crisis as a building block for one of the best opportunities higher education has ever had to improve and expand student learning.