Online learning in the fashion of Khan Academy or the MOOC is an extension of the factory model of education which I believe to be outmoded. One key assumption is that online learning extends a teacher’s reach to more students. My thesis is that students achieve better with individual attention from and dialogue with a teacher.

Khan Style Online Learning

My colleague Frank Noschese said it well,

While Khan argues that his videos now eliminate “one-size-fits-all” education, his videos are exactly that. I tried finding Khan Academy videos for my students to use as references for studying, or to use as a tutorial when there’s a substitute teacher, but I haven’t found a good one. They either tackle problems that are too hard (college level) or they don’t use a lot of the multiple representations that are so fundamental to my teaching (kinematic graphs, interaction diagrams, energy pie graphs, momentum bar charts, color-coded circuit diagrams showing pressure and flow, etc.).

Online learning in the model of Khan Academy (a video library with accompanying assignments) moves classroom focus from the student to the teacher. It becomes about what I’ve taught, not what the kid has learned/mastered. Teachers are not in the business of delivering content. We’re in the business of helping kids learn.

That said, Khan Academy and his competitors, aren’t entirely awful. If you need to reference how to factor a quadratic expression, the video may be helpful. Maybe Khan is most useful when the material is a refresher, not entirely new. In my opinion, Khan Academy-style videos can be excellent tutoring resources but are horrible full-time teachers.

MOOC Style Online Learning

The Massive Online Open Course, MOOC, made a lot of noise this year. You can take a university level class with a university professor (and often for free). Learning from leaders in the field at schools such as Stanford? Wow! Audrey Watters declared 2012 the Year of the MOOC. She gives a great deconstruction of the pedagogy, getting to the crux of the MOOC’s drawbacks with,

much of what’s being lauded as “revolutionary” and as “disrupting” traditional teaching practices here simply involves videotaping lectures and putting them online…xMOOCs might be changing education by scaling this online delivery

When I taught in public schools, my class sizes crept up to 32 students. One colleague taught math to 50 kids in a single classroom. We barely knew or kids’ names, let alone what they understood of our learning objectives. For the same reason, I don’t advocate the MOOC — it fails to address each student’s understandings and misunderstandings of course material.

A teacher with a relatively small (<20) class CAN know every student and track their progress toward learning objectives. For example, I know that not all my students have the same misconceptions, therefore not all benefit from the same instruction. Kids are not widgets in a Ford factory. They require individual attention from a teacher who can address their misconceptions.

Maybe Ok? Flipped Classroom Style Online Learning 

I see promise in some of the flipped classroom pedagogies invented by Jon Bergmann and implemented by Audrey McLaren McGoldrick, Kyle Webb, Graham Johnson, and Ryan Banow. You can see that group share a presentation at Global Math Department in December 2011. One key piece I took from them: flipped classrooms are about YOU the teacher connecting with YOUR students. Not Sal Khan or an MIT professor.

Last semester, I played with video a lot as a tutorial tool. While not a flipped classroom, the videos were effective at letting me respond to student questions asynchronously. Case in point: my videos from December are based on a final exam study guide and ALL were solved based on prompts from students.

It would be fair to characterize my entire argument as one of local control. I form relationships with my students that I don’t believe can be duplicated to a large scale. Those relationships help me understand how to best teach each one of my students instead of talking at them in a traditional lecture.

Why Traditional Lecture Doesn’t Work

My very favorite explanation comes from Derek Muller at Check out his graph, below.

Why Lecture Doesn't Work

On the left are the results of a pre- and post-test when the instruction style was a expository video (aka, lecture). On the right are the results of a misconception-attacking style he’s created. In a typical Derek Muller video, he interviews people with a question (which ball will hit the ground first, for example). Their answers are riddled with misconceptions, just like the students. He then goes on to attack every misconception. Until a kid understands why his conception is wrong, he’ll continue to believe it. Muller blows those misconceptions out of the water. His research proves that a simple lecture is NOT the answer.

Sadly, online learning today (as represented by Khan- and MOOC-style pedagogies) is anchored in the traditional lecture. Until we find a way to individualize the learning and attack misconceptions, I can’t back online learning as the primary mode a student gets their learnin’.