Saturday, May 25, 2013

Teaching with Online Resources

Jodi Beggs wrote an interesting post on the subject of massive open online courses (or MOOCs) in which she argues that large online courses can be a boon for instructors as well as for students.  Here is an excerpt:
Granted, they are likely mostly appropriate for standardized courses such as calculus, economic theory, organic chemistry, and so on (as opposed to more customized or discussion-based courses), but MOOCs offer a huge potential to offer not only lecture content but also university-level problem sets and exams, and therefore would not only enable instructors to redefine their role from authority figure to student advocate but also allow them to switch over from play-by-play to color commentary, if you will. (Everyone knows that the color guys have way more fun.) MOOCs, properly documented on college transcripts, could also help employers compare students across institutions and enable lower-ranked schools to credibly convey that they offer the same level of instruction as higher-ranked institutions.
There are two dimensions to her argument about the role for using online resources.  Effective instruction must balance (1) content versus context, and (2) authority versus approachability.

On content versus context, Beggs' analogy to the difference between play-by-play and color commentary is insightful.  Good instruction gives both, but it is more fun to give color commentary.  As I see it, Beggs argues that well-designed online resources can expedite the delivery of content while leaving more time for context.  In addition to being more fulfilling, this can be more effective for students as well.

On authority versus approachability, I can see her point, but the tension between being an approachable student advocate and being a credible authority figure is unavoidable.  A well-designed course needs to hold students accountable to a timeline, as well as assign consequences for effective learning.  Being a credible authority figure is essential to a high-quality course, and this is true whether or not the instructor uses online materials.  That said, the tradeoff between being an authority figure and being a student advocate is an important one.  Authority manages extrinsic incentives while student advocacy manages intrinsic incentives to learn the material, and it is optimal to motivate students internally and externally.

All in all, I think Jodi's post is worth reading.  Online resources can be extremely useful in augmenting the classroom experience, and instructors shouldn't shy away from using them.  On that point, Jodi and I are in agreement.

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