ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING DEPARTMENT HEADS ASSOCIATION

May 2014

Featured Article

Digital Natives: A Defense of the Internet Community

By Daphne Koller, Professor, Computer Science, Stanford University and Co-Founder, Coursera

(Original blog post accessible here)

The use of technology in higher education is a movement that is bound to have its detractors, but in response to concerns about the replacement of a community-based physical classroom with a cold, interaction-free digital one, I’d like to call out two important perspectives. First, when we discuss the role of digital media within the context of education reform, we do not want to confound forward technological progress with a rejection of all that came before us. Second, we must leverage, not fight against, the changing tide of the preferences of a new generation — the digital natives.

In “Higher Education in the Digital Age,” I’m quoted as saying that with the help of the digital media, “we can release ourselves from the shackles that we have gotten used to in the context of in-class teaching.’” Here, I’m referring to the potential of online education to enhance, and not replace, professors’ interactions with their students. Giving the same lectures time and again takes up thousands of hours of a professor’s time. By making more lectures and informational materials available to students online, along the same lines of assigning work from a textbook, professors can be freed to spend more time engaging in high-quality activities and discussions with their students.

I have consistently rejected the argument that an online learning format can or should take the place of physical interactions between peers and professors. Instead, we work closely with our university partners to enhance the quality of on-campus teaching through technology. This type of effort has seen validated successes. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, has been doing flipped classroom teaching for almost a decade, combining online content with active learning in the classroom. They have demonstrated significant success in reducing the student failure rate in introductory engineering courses. A similar model has been applied in multiple other settings, including at the University of Minnesota, the joint medical school of Duke and the National University of Singapore, and the Technion in Israel. A recent experiment at Georgia Tech demonstrates that, when the same online content is used in blended learning, it is possible to achieve a much greater consistency in student learning outcomes across different sections.

I also moved to using a flipped classroom model within my own Stanford class about five years ago, and it was, in fact, my initial motivation for engaging in the field of technology-enhanced education (you can read more about my perspective on this in a 2011 Op-Ed essay I wrote). Supporting this model of teaching is a major goal at Coursera, and was a reason many of our university partners elected to join this effort. On an informal level, we’re also seeing this combination of virtual/physical classrooms move beyond campuses, and into communities.

We must also recognize the well-documented phenomenon of today’s youth being digital natives: that is, their ability to socialize, communicate and learn both virtually and physically. I believe the digital medium is a powerful addition to the ways in which our students can interact with one another in an educational context. In particular, while face-to-face communication has its advantages, so does the online medium.

For example, we hear anecdotally that certain groups of students can feel more empowered in an online format, where they may feel less self-conscious. A face-to-face discussion can easily get dominated by a small number of more assertive students, whereas an online format provides more opportunities for shyer students, or ones who are slower to form an opinion and present their perspective. And the online medium provides opportunities for students from diverse demographic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to engage with one another. This richness of perspectives is one of the most appealing aspects of these large online courses.

Finally, while we may all agree that online interaction doesn’t provide exactly the same experience as a physical interaction in a four-year college, that is not always the relevant question. There are many students who have little chance of obtaining a degree from a quality university (or, in the developing world, from any university) because of physical location, health reasons or financial means. For those students, a rigorous online course that allows engagement with other students around the world is a huge improvement over the current opportunities open to them. This free and open access to education is a moral imperative, and one that should not get lost in the discussion regarding how this transformation may affect the on-campus education of those students fortunate enough to have the opportunities that most people in the world would never otherwise have.



 
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