I’ve been interested in e-learning for quite a while, and I got a chance to develop an e-learning program for ESL learners 6 years ago when I was living in Japan. I’m currently working on a new e-learning program for environmental education, which I’m pretty excited about. Lucky for me, a few recent developments are pointing to the fact that e-learning might finally be ready for prime time.
E-learning has been around forever, without really taking off, but it seems now that an approach combining independent e-learning with focused classroom practice is set to change the way that students learn. The “chalk-and-talk” approach, where the teacher writes on a board while lecturing the class and students carry out projects at home, is still the method used almost everywhere, as it has been for centuries. However, a few new cases are showing what the future classroom might look like. The future classroom will be inverted: students will listen to lectures independently and they will do their projects in class in collaboration with other students and under the supervision of a teacher.
The first case is the Khan Academy, which started out when Salman Khan, a young hedge fund analyst wanted to tutor some of his young relatives who lived in India. Using simple screen recording software, he started to record lectures teaching them how to do math. He didn’t even appear in the lectures. He just recorded his writing on a black board, interspersed with a few pictures here and there, and posted the results to Youtube. Nothing revolutionary, but surprisingly his young relatives took to his lectures immediately and asked for more. Khan continued to record lectures in the same style, eventually expanding to cover the other major high school areas: biology, chemistry, history, and English. When they came to visit, he tutored them in person, but to his surprise, they told him they preferred him on Youtube. When they watched his lectures on video by themselves, if there was one part they didn’t understand, they could simply replay that part, without stopping him and asking for clarification. Video is a more patient teacher than any live teacher could ever hope to be. Since the videos were open for anyone to watch, people outside of Khan’s family began to watch them, and reported back the same positive results that Khan’s relatives had experienced. He soon received emails from parents telling him that their children who had been unable to learn in the traditional classroom and had been considered learning disabled were finally able to learn using his videos.
Realizing he had something major on his hands, Khan quit his day job and started a non-profit organization. After eventually obtaining funding from the likes of the Gates Foundation, Khan was able to create more and more lectures, eventually expanding to over two thousand lectures covering most of the academic classes in high school as well as many other topics. But given that it was the Gates Foundation, one would expect that the operation would become a bit more high-tech, and indeed it has.
Although the lecture format remains unchanged, Khan has been joined by programmers who have created software to analyze student’s viewing habits and check their understanding of material. This makes it possible to check that students have watched the lectures, see what parts they went back and replayed. Further, it makes it possible to see which students had difficulty and pinpoint exactly which material they found difficult.
These capabilities have made Khan’s lectures ideal for introduction into schools, and the Palo Alto school board has launched a test case, introducing Khan’s lectures to one math class to see well it works. Under this system, students will watch lectures independently, and in class they will collaborate to work on problem sets. The teacher will spend their time directly tutoring students and directing students who are strong in one area to help other students who have had difficulty in that area. Using the analytics software, teachers are able to identify exactly which students had problems and where, so they can focus their energies where they are most needed.
Thus, two of the strongest objections to e-learning - that it misses both the mentoring role of the teacher and the social environment of school – have been turned on their head. The teacher will actually be spending far more of their time working directly with students and less time on marking and preparing lectures. Students will interact more with one another, cooperating on projects in class, rather than spending their time listening quietly in class and struggling with problems at home alone. Khan has stated that the materials the Palo Alto school is using are ready now for any school to begin using. Early results from the Palo Alto school are quite positive. For more about this, check out Khan’s brilliant TED talk.
While we wait to hear how this develops there is already strong data favoring the inverted classroom model from a second case involving 850 engineering students at the University of British Columbia published recently in the prestigious scientific journal, Science by Louis Deslauriers and his colleagues.
Dr Deslauriers’s lab rats were a group of 850 undergraduate engineering students taking a compulsory physics course. The students were split into groups at the start of their course, and for the first 11 weeks all went to traditionally run lectures given by well-regarded and experienced teachers. In the 12th week, one of the groups was switched to a style of teaching known as deliberate practice, which inverts the traditional university model. Class time is spent on problem-solving, discussion and group work, while the absorption of facts and formulae is left for homework. Students were given reading assignments before classes. Once in the classroom they spent their time in small groups, discussing specific problems, with the teacher roaming between groups to offer advice and respond to questions.
At the end of the test week, Dr Deslauriers surveyed the students and gave them a voluntary test (sold as useful exam practice, and marked on a 12-point scale) to see how much they had learned in that week and what they thought of the new teaching method. The results were striking (see chart). The traditionally taught group’s average score was 41%, compared with 74% for the experimental group—even though the experimental group did not manage to cover all the material it was supposed to, whereas the traditional group did.
Given these kinds of results, it looks e-learning is finally ready to provide an alternative to the chalk-and-talk approach. Rather than isolating students and replacing teachers, e-learning will allow students to absorb material at their own pace and then apply it in a social context and allow the teacher to escape some of the drudgery of lesson prep and marking, focusing their attention on students where it is most valuable.