Are MOOCs and Video Lectures Just Expanding a Bad Model?

June 17, 2013
Kelsey Herron
Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA
CATEGORIES In the Classroom, Research & Studies, Tools

MOOCs—massive open online courses—are everywhere. Stanford, MIT/Harvard, Yale, Coursera— they’ve all jumped on the bandwagon to put courses online. Find a course taught by a professor in a leading university, sign up, and take it at your own pace. Perfect. MOOCS, many claim, are democratizing learning.

But a recent experiment raises a question about this model of learning.

Because it’s online, much of the instruction in MOOCS is based on a video lecture. Naturally, at least at first anyway, the professors who have put their lectures online are some of the most charismatic and energetic lecturers. You can’t get a movement off the ground with a professor who drones on without looking into the camera, loses his place in his notes, can’t put sentences together, and goes off on deep-dive tangents.

But in that charismatic, fluent performance lies a problem, at least for students.

“A more fluent instructor may increase perceptions of learning without increasing actual learning,” writes Iowa State professor Shanna Carpenter and colleagues in a recent study on lectures as teaching tools.

The researchers asked two groups of undergraduates to view two different videos on the same science topic. The first was presented by a lecturer who was an engaging presenter, who spoke fluently and used few notes. The second presented the same material but the lecturer lost his way, didn’t make eye contact, and stumbled on his delivery. The students were then asked to do three things: predict how much they think they learned, how much they thought they’d be able to recall, and then to take a short test to see how much they actually learned.

Students who watched the smooth talker predicted they’d remember more information than those who watched the stumbling presenter. Yet despite their predictions, their actual performance on a short test was no better than those who had watched the less fluent lecturer.  The researchers also wondered whether that overconfidence might lead the students to study less because they assumed they already knew the topic well enough. The results suggest no.

One theory is that the students are more confident because of the sheer ease with which the lecturer presents the material. It’s like seeing Roger Federer play a game of tennis and thinking tennis is easier than it is. They never saw Roger when he first started out with his backhand constantly landing long or in the net.

Therefore, the authors write, “The question students should ask themselves is not whether it seemed clear when someone else explained it. The question is, ‘can I explain it clearly?’ 

Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard had a similar suggestion: learner beware. As Chris Parr writes for Inside HigherED, Mazur wants learners (and teachers) to remember that sometimes learning takes work.

"With a better presenter it might seem like you are taking more in, but it doesn't mean that anything has actually been learned -- it doesn't mean there has been an 'Aha!' moment," Mazur said. "The hard work has to be done by the learner -- there's not much the instructor can do to make the neuroconnections necessary for learning."

Mazur said that despite modern technological advances, universities had work to do to redesign their lecture halls and rethink their teaching methods. "What is really worrying is that people are jumping on the massive open online course bandwagon, taking a failed model and putting it online. We need to rethink how people approach teaching," he said.”

To their defense, MOOCs do more than just put a video online and hope people learn from it. They include interactive features and prompts that require learners to pause and think about what they’ve learned as well as structured online discussions. But it does make one wonder if the model shouldn’t stop and rethink some aspects of its approach, particularly if they expand to learners who are not as self-motivated or self-directed as those who seek out MOOCs voluntarily today.

Journalist Annie Murphy Paul nonetheless thinks the model of dynamic video lectures, ala TED talks, are still good options. As she writes of their benefits, videos can:   

·     Gratify our preference for visual learning

·      Engage the power of social learning

·      Put practitioners in the role of teachers

·      Enable self-directed, “just-in-time” learning

·      Encourage viewers to build on what they already know.

Maybe sixth grade teacher Jody Cohen has the best answer: use lecture or video as just one of many methods of conveying knowledge. In a recent clip shot by Education Week, she pointed to helpful sites like BrainPOP for in-classroom video resources that she’s found to be extremely effective.  

The site features animated videos that answer student-submitted questions like, “how do lasers work?” and takes viewers step-by-step through various problems relating to a variety of different school subjects. The site is especially useful for strengthening and remediating complicated school lessons at home, she said.

“It’s like when you were in school and your math teacher said to you, ‘I want you to do these problems,’ and you thought you knew how to do them in school, but at home it looked like a foreign language. Now they can say, ‘Wait a minute, I can go to this BrainPOP or LearnZillion, and I can re-watch it and see the steps,’” said Cohen. “It’s a great reinforcer and it’s a great accelerator.”

Cohen, who has spent 25 years in the classroom, explained that, despite her experience, she often feels like a brand new teacher because of new technologies. Maybe she shouldn’t beat herself up, because sometimes, despite the technological tools, it’s still about conveying ideas and information to people and helping that lightbulb turn on. The teacher, whether virtual or real, still matters.