Online courses need to be more than just video lectures and assignments

Forbes has an interesting article which argues that Coursera and the other posterboys of online education are getting it wrong, and other companies (specifically, 2U and CorpU) are doing it better. The basic theme of the article is that online courses need to be much more than video-lectures

Let’s start with this provocative quote:

One of the founders of Coursera has, on multiple occasions, proclaimed that its “innovation” was no less radical than the printing press.

Really? If you have ever taken a MOOC course, you will know that a statement like that might qualify as among the most significant hyperbole of the decade.

I agree that what Coursera has on offer currently, falls far short of this promise, as one look at the completion statistics will show

But, online courses do have potential. What more is needed?

Online Courses need to break away from 1-hour lectures

The first questions is this – does idea of video-taping 1-hour lectures and putting them online really make sense for an online course, or are we doing that simply because that is easier and what we’ve been doing for a 100 years?

First, you cannot do this by simply filming a classroom and posting the video. Lecture capture is online learning 1.0 and, to be frank, it is lame.


You have to share the learning concepts in “bite-size” nuggets that move constantly back and forth from concept to exercise.


Further, high-level production values that use narrative nonfiction, animation and documentary filmmaking techniques are essential.

Online courses have less interactivity than classrooms

When you take people out of the classroom, they lose the primary touch point of that social experience. You have to replace this with touch points through online modalities. These range from synchronous sessions facilitated by faculty to team-based exercises and problem solving. There are many ways to build in social experiences in the online environment, but online learning architects must be thoughtful about it.

Online courses can beat classrooms with data

Third, data collection allows for better outcomes. As I have noted elsewhere, “Big data in the online learning space [gives] institutions the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students. By designing a curriculum that collects data at every step of the student learning process, universities can address student needs with customized modules, assignments, feedback and learning trees in the curriculum that will promote better and richer learning.” We are still at the early stages of capturing and utilizing data in this way, but the opportunities for dynamic learning are tremendous.

Read the full article.

Also read our other posts about MOOCs.

A simple yet BIG point – “Teachers need real feedback” – @TedTalk by @BillGates

@ShridharShukla points us to this TED Talk by Bill Gates, which focuses on the fact that everybody needs a teacher/coach to improve, but the one group of people who don’t get a coach or any useful feedback is teachers.

Some excerpts from the transcript:

Until recently, over 98 percent of teachers just got one word of feedback: Satisfactory. If all my bridge coach ever told me was that I was “satisfactory,” I would have no hope of ever getting better

He is talking about the US. Are there countries who do better?

out of all the places that do better than the U.S. in reading, how many of them have a formal system for helping teachers improve? Eleven out of 14.

Here’s what Shanghai does:

Let’s look at the best academic performer: the province of Shanghai, China. Now, they rank number one across the board, in reading, math and science, and one of the keys to Shanghai’s incredible success is the way they help teachers keep improving. They made sure that younger teachers get a chance to watch master teachers at work. They have weekly study groups, where teachers get together and talk about what’s working. They even require each teacher to observe and give feedback to their colleagues

The Gates Foundation has been experimenting with a teacher feedback system:

What would that system look like? Well, to find out, our foundation has been working with 3,000 teachers in districts across the country on a project called Measures of Effective Teaching. We had observers watch videos of teachers in the classroom and rate how they did on a range of practices. For example, did they ask their students challenging questions? Did they find multiple ways to explain an idea? We also had students fill out surveys with questions like, “Does your teacher know when the class understands a lesson?” “Do you learn to correct your mistakes?”

Does this work?

And what we found is very exciting. First, the teachers who did well on these observations had far better student outcomes. So it tells us we’re asking the right questions. And second, teachers in the program told us that these videos and these surveys from the students were very helpful diagnostic tools, because they pointed to specific places where they can improve

Feedback isn’t the only thing. Suggestions for improvement must also be made:

Diagnosing areas where a teacher needs to improve is only half the battle. We also have to give them the tools they need to act on the diagnosis. If you learn that you need to improve the way you teach fractions, you should be able to watch a video of the best person in the world teaching fractions.

What about resistance from teachers?

So building this complete teacher feedback and improvement system won’t be easy. For example, I know some teachers aren’t immediately comfortable with the idea of a camera in the classroom. That’s understandable, but our experience with MET suggests that if teachers manage the process, if they collect video in their own classrooms, and they pick the lessons they want to submit, a lot of them will be eager to participate.

See the full video or read the transcript

Our Maths education is broken because the curriculum is 1000 years old

Shrikant Patil points us to this interesting article on how the 1,000-year-old math curriculum cheats America’s kids

Imagine you had to take an art class in which you were taught how to paint a fence or a wall, but you were never shown the paintings of the great masters, and you weren’t even told that such paintings existed. Pretty soon you’d be asking, why study art?

                                       That's absurd, of course, but it's surprisingly close to the way we teach children mathematics.

That’s because the things we’re taught in school mathematics are all a 1000 years old (or much more):

Most of us never get to see the real mathematics because our current math curriculum is more than 1,000 years old. For example, the formula for solutions of quadratic equations was in al-Khwarizmi’s book published in 830, and Euclid laid the foundations of Euclidean geometry around 300 BC. If the same time warp were true in physics or biology, we wouldn’t know about the solar system, the atom and DNA. This creates an extraordinary educational gap for our kids, schools and society.

Just because something is old, we shouldn’t discard it; but we need to mix in some of the new with the old:

Of course, we still need to teach students multiplication tables, fractions and Euclidean geometry. But what if we spent just 20% of class time opening students’ eyes to the power and exquisite harmony of modern math? What if we showed them how these fascinating concepts apply to the real world, how the abstract meets the concrete? This would feed their natural curiosity, motivate them to study more and inspire them to engage math beyond the basic requirements — surely a more efficient way to spend class time than mindless memorization in preparation for standardized tests.

What is preventing us from doing this?

In my experience, kids are ready for this. It’s the adults that are hesitant.

Read the full article

Do online courses really work? Only 5% of registrants complete MOOCs

Researchers from MIT/Harvard have a study on completion statistics of MOOCs. They analyzed data from 17 MOOCs offered by Harvard and MIT in 2012 and 2013, and found this:


– 841,687 people registered for the 17 MOOCs from Harvard and MIT.
– 5 percent of all registrants earned a certificate of completion.
– 35 percent never viewed any of the course materials.
– 54 percent of those who “explored” at least half of the course content earned a certificate of completion.
– 66 percent of all registrants already held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
– 74 percent of those who earned a certificate of completion held a bachelor’s degree or higher.
– 29 percent of all registrants were female.
– 3 percent of all registrants were from underdeveloped countries.

So, only 5% of registrants complete. And that is after you define completion as “explored at least half of the course content”

The rest of the article tries to argue that completion rates aren’t the best way to judge a MOOC:

A MOOC is more of a blank canvas, said Mr. Ho. Some students who register for MOOCs have no intention of completing, and some instructors do not emphasize completion as a priority. Success and failure take many forms.

I don’t buy it. Most of the people I know who registered for MOOCs would have loved to complete it, but did not have the discipline/motivation to complete. (This list includes me.)

Read the full article

Online Courses / MOOCs for India – A discussion

Recently InnoVidya facilitated a discussion between COEP, [Observer Research Foundation, Bombay] a think-tank working in the area of Education, and InnoVidya, to talk about the use of online courses and MOOC technologies at COEP in particular, but in the Indian education system in general.

Here are some interesting points that I noted during this discussion. These are neither supposed to be comprehensive, nor representative. And it is possible that I might have mis-represented some of the things that are said. But even with all those disclaimers, this is still an interesting discussion.

Are Online Courses or MOOCs going to work in India?

  • Leena Wadia reports talking to an MIT (USA) professor who runs an online course, and he pointed out that it takes him 16 hours of preparation to create one online lecture. (But all this effort is helping his offline lectures too!)
    • Shridhar Shukla points out that given the state of technology adoption in India and amongst Indian faculty, this is going to be an even more difficult task. Hence, creating new online content is a big effort, and probably should not be a focus.
  • Dr. Gautam Shroff, Chief Scientist, TCS Research, has said that there are many people in tier 2 / tier 3 colleges or even in Indian software companies who participate in US based MOOCs (e.g. Coursera, edX, etc). These people need additional inputs beyond what is provided by the MOOCs. He said that they do not have the level to grasp the online lectures and we need to supplement them with helpful local courses/workshops.
  • Anil Sahasrabudhe, Diretor of COEP, points out that Coursera courses assume various things that the students are already supposed to know, or be able to do, and unfortunately, most Indian students are not really equipped for that. In fact, even for IIT courses, which are being put online at NPTEL and other platforms, are not grasped by students from tier 2 / tier 3 colleges in India, because of similar reasons. We need to do something to fix this.

We need Online Courses in Local Languages

  • Prof. Abhijit A.M. of COEP points out that if a subject is taught in a mix of languages: English and a local language, students respond much better. This is because many students come from rural India, or at least small towns, and most of their “English medium” school instruction actually happened in the regional language
  • Leena Wadia points out that asking faculty members to create online content in local languages (i.e. a mix of English and Hindi, or Telugu) can be motivating for them. Because there is lots of competition for online content in English, but nobody is doing it in local languages. So, suddenly the faculty member gets the feeling that they can do something which has not been done before, and they are contributing value.

Major changes to SAT Exam: No obscure words, no negative marking, essay now optional

The New York Times has an interesting article on major changes to SAT, the famous exam that high school students in the US have to take before admissions to college.

The fundamental changes are these:

  • No negative marking: end the penalty for guessing wrong
  • Removing obscure vocabulary words: so get rid of “SAT words” (“depreciatory,” “membranous”), and instead focus on words commonly used in college courses, such as “synthesis” and “empirical.”
  • The essay (which has been mandatory since 2005) is now optional

Some more interesting developments. First, SAT prep is going online:

in the spring of 2016, the College Board, in partnership with Khan Academy, will offer free online practice problems and instructional videos showing how to solve them.

Why this change? One of the biggest points is standardized tests are under fire from critics. The arguments will be familiar to all educators in India, since that is a much bigger problem here:

The new SAT will not quell all criticism of standardized tests. Critics have long pointed out — and Mr. Coleman admits — that high school grades are a better predictor of college success than standardized test scores. More colleges have in recent years become “test optional,” allowing students to forgo the exams and submit their grades, transcripts and perhaps a graded paper.

and, they’re trying to reduce dependence of students on “coaching” classes:

“It is time for the College Board to say in a clearer voice that the culture and practice of costly test preparation that has arisen around admissions exams drives the perception of inequality and injustice in our country,” Mr. Coleman said Wednesday. “It may not be our fault, but it is our problem.”

But, that is easier said than done.

While test-preparation companies said the SAT was moving in the right direction, with more openness and more free online test preparation, the changes were unlikely to diminish the demand for their services. “People will always want an edge,” said Seppy Basili, a vice president of Kaplan Test Prep. “And test changes always spur demand.”

Standardized testing, coaching classes, cracking exams becoming a game, rather than a learning experience, are all serious problems facing us, and the solutions are not easy, but read the full article to get an idea of what is being tried in the US.

Naom Chomsky: How America’s Great University System Is Getting Destroyed

Innovidya member Raja Bellare points us towards in interesting transcript of Naom Chomsky’s views on How America’s Great University System Is Getting Destroyed

The article is quite long. Here are some excerpts from the different sections:

On the trend of hiring non-tenure-track faculty

Chomsky argues that this is simply the corporatization of the university system.

When universities become corporatized, as has been happening quite systematically over the last generation as part of the general neoliberal assault on the population, their business model means that what matters is the bottom line.

and a corporation works best when the workers are “insecure”:

when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”?

Relation of Education to Democracy and Activism

Chomsky actually takes a much broader view, and points out that keeping faculty and students “insecure” is related to how the establishment is trying to control democracy and activism since the 1970s.

If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt.

and the point made is that the best way to tackle the too many special interests problem was by ensuring that our students are appropriately “indocrinated”:

the “special interests” were causing problems and they said “we have to have more moderation in democracy,” the public has to go back to being passive and apathetic. And they were particularly concerned with schools and universities, which they said were not properly doing their job of “indoctrinating the young.” You can see from student activism (the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, the environmental movements) that the young are just not being indoctrinated properly.

So, how do you indoctrinate the young?

There are a number of ways. One way is to burden them with hopelessly heavy tuition debt. Debt is a trap, especially student debt, which is enormous, far larger than credit card debt

And another technique:

… is to cut back faculty-student contact: large classes, temporary teachers who are overburdened, who can barely survive on an adjunct salary. And since you don’t have any job security you can’t build up a career, you can’t move on and get more. These are all techniques of discipline, indoctrination, and control. And it’s very similar to what you’d expect in a factory, where factory workers have to be disciplined, to be obedient; they’re not supposed to play a role in, say, organizing production or determining how the workplace functions-that’s the job of management. This is now carried over to the universities. And I think it shouldn’t surprise anyone who has any experience in private enterprise, in industry; that’s the way they work.

Fixing the System

How do we fix the system? Here are Chomsky’s suggestions:

First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect.

One fix is to increase student and faculty participation in decisions:

Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory.


There are some decisions in a university where you don’t want to have [democratic transparency because] you have to preserve student privacy, say, and there are various kinds of sensitive issues, but on much of the normal activity of the university, there is no reason why direct participation can’t be not only legitimate but helpful. In my department, for example, for 40 years we’ve had student representatives helpfully participating in department meetings.

And increasing he creativity and autonomy of the modes of education:

We certainly want people, both faculty and students, to be engaged in activity that’s satisfying, enjoyable, challenging, exciting-and I don’t really think that’s hard. Even young children are creative, inquisitive, they want to know things, they want to understand things, and unless that’s beaten out of your head it stays with you the rest of your life.


In a reasonably functioning university, you find people working all the time because they love it; that’s what they want to do; they’re given the opportunity, they have the resources, they’re encouraged to be free and independent and creative-what’s better? That’s what they love to do. And that, again, can be done at any level.

Examples of Creative Educational Experiments

It’s worth thinking about some of the imaginative and creative educational programs that are being developed at different levels. So, for example, somebody just described to me the other day a program they’re using in high schools, a science program where the students are asked an interesting question: “How can a mosquito fly in the rain?” That’s a hard question when you think about it. If something hit a human being with the force of a raindrop hitting a mosquito it would absolutely flatten them immediately. So how come the mosquito isn’t crushed instantly? And how can the mosquito keep flying? If you pursue that question-and it’s a pretty hard question-you get into questions of mathematics, physics, and biology, questions that are challenging enough that you want to find an answer to them.

And another example, this time from Kindergarten:

That’s what education should be like at every level, all the way down to kindergarten, literally. There are kindergarten programs in which, say, each child is given a collection of little items: pebbles, shells, seeds, and things like that. Then the class is given the task of finding out which ones are the seeds. It begins with what they call a “scientific conference”: the kids talk to each other and they try to figure out which ones are seeds. And of course there’s some teacher guidance, but the idea is to have the children think it through. After a while, they try various experiments and they figure out which ones are the seeds. At that point, each child is given a magnifying glass and, with the teacher’s help, cracks a seed and looks inside and finds the embryo that makes the seed grow. These children learn something-really, not only something about seeds and what makes things grow; but also about how to discover. They’re learning the joy of discovery and creation, and that’s what carries you on independently, outside the classroom, outside the course.

If any of the above themes resonated with you, you should check out the full article, which goes into much more detail in each section.

CBSE Board is micro-managing schools says @MeetaSengupta

One of the big problems facing the education system in India today is that the boards are micromanaging the schools, under the assumption that teachers will be bad, and school administrations will be focused on commerce rather than education – and while this might, in some cases, prevent bad schools from harming students, often it prevents good schools from doing good things.

For example, @MeetaSengupta has an interesting article titled “Integrated coaching in schools – efficiency or commerce?” where she points out that the CBSE board has recently issued circulars banning the integration of coaching for competitive exams, including IIT-JEE, in school classrooms.

Here are some points she raises:

It raises a few questions – First of course – why is a board of examinations talking about school timetabling? Is it not upto the school to set its own timetables? How and when did the right to decide what happens in a classroom get taken away? This has been a slow and steady attrition of school autonomy as has been seen in the admissions cases in Delhi.

A school and a teacher must have the right to decide what works best for the students they have taken responsibility for as long as they adhere to the standards set for them. Any micro management of classroom time gives the teacher community leeway to merely read out the textbook and do no more – indeed, they could claim that they have permission to do no more than that. It is also extremely insulting to a highly trained and experienced (many are excellent) cadre to distrust their commitment and engagement with their students.


They do not ban coaching for IIT-JEE (nor should they) – the ban is merely on the efficient use of class time and student effort. Consequently (and does anyone ever think this through?!!!) the life of a student becomes one long haul from school to coaching class and then homework and revision while doing their daily tests and preparation for the coaching class. Any integration of learning that could have eased their lives is now barred. 

In such cases, there is usually a knee-jerk reaction that coaching classes are bad, but that’s not a realistic position to hold today:

In a perfect world I would whole heartedly support having a system that requires no preparation for examinations. I would even, in principle, support a ban on all exam preparation. Students either know their stuff or they don’t – and any test is a stepping stone to identifying gaps for further work, or for choice in moving towards an area of aptitude or away from one there is clearly no talent. Schools are supposed to prepare students for life, and tests in life rarely come with a timetable. 

We are nowhere near that utopia yet, so let us come back to real life.  

Read the full article for a detailed discussion.

Great English teachers improve students’ Math scores – Stanford Researchers

According to research by Stanford and Univ. of Virginia researchers having great English teachers results in significant long-term improvements in the Maths scores of students, for reasons that are not very clear yet.

This finding is the result of a long-term, large study:

The researchers, Benjamin Master, Susanna Loeb and James Wyckoff, looked at 700,000 students in New York City in third through eighth grade over the course of eight school years (from 2003-04 to 2011-12).

and this is the finding:

The researchers found that the students of good English language arts teachers had higher than expected math scores in subsequent years. And this long-term boost to math performance was nearly as large (three quarters) as the long-term benefits within the subject of English. Conversely, good math teachers had only minimal long-term effects on English performance. Their positive effects were more subject specific.

The main take-away message is that we shouldn’t simply focus on Maths and Science – language is important:

“Our findings reinforce the value of investments in student learning in ELA (English language arts), even if the immediate effects of teachers or other instructional interventions may appear modest in comparison to effects on short-term math achievement,” the authors wrote. The authors added  that their motivation for this study was a concern that many school districts are too narrowly focusing on rating teachers based on short-term test gains and they wanted to try to understand what kinds of teaching produce long-term learning benefits.

Why English teaching matters so much in other subjects is unclear.

Read the full article or the original paper.

e-Commerce company Snapdeal launches online education marketplace

iamwire has an interesting article pointing out that e-commerce startup Snapdeal has recently launched an education marketplace and expects to earn 20% of its revenues from this initiative in a few years.


The company has currently partnered with around 20 merchants including, Practice guru and Also, the team expects to have 150 merchants on board in another two months. The marketplace would initially offer courses ranging from kindergarten to Class XII along with management and engineering courses.

This is going to be an increasingly important market in India:

“Online education market is expected to become USD 3-4 billion strong over the next few years in India. Services commerce, which does not involve physical distribution of goods, offers better profit margins, making it a highly viable business for internet companies to scale up.” said Kunal Bahl, Co-founder Snapdeal to ET.

Read the full article