The article by Mr. Edgeclifffe-Johnson and Mr. Cook in the Janaury 16th edition of the Financial Times ("Blackboard to Keyboard") touches on important questions in education.
I have some person experience with distance learning and I do not see
it as presently practiced or envisioned to be a solution to current
problems. Early in my education I came into contact with "distance
learning" as defined in the 1960s and 70s. This was practiced as taped
lectures delivered by a star professor and broadcast on CCTV. Teaching
Assistants (usually graduate students in the field) proctored these
lectures, provided Q&A "section" meetings and gave exams, graded them
and provided post exam handholding. Most students suffered under these
conditions and complained about being cheated and they were right. The
literature is rife with criticisms of a variety of types of these
distance packages of the time.
About a decade ago I was asked by my university to produce an
online class. My experience was not comforting of the future
possibilities. Testing is always a problem. Who is taking the exams?
Schemes like that described in the article designed by Signature Track
sound good in presentation but are vulnerable. They argue that the
student's rhythm of typing with guarantee that he or she can be
discerned by the system as the exam taker. But this presupposes that
the typist from the beginning will be the person registered and not a
paid substitute. Other methods are just as open to gaming. Various
product designers have constructed systems where the student must use a
Skype like login to be identified, but that only means he or she is
sitting at the computer and unless the sound is on and is being
monitored (rather expensive and impractical) anyone in the room can
The San Jose State results mentioned using edX materials is a good
example of a gamed system. While they claim the students who watched
the lectures at home "scored" higher, one has to examine both the
lectures and the exams to determine if the scoring is comparable to in
class lecture materials and exam situations and what the "higher"
results were. Are they statistically significant or was there a
novelty element in the results? Other factors? My experience leads me
to consider these online and new "canned" lecture systems to be simply
sales products supported by illogical advertising campaigns. While the
competition for student dollars is heating up, the demographics of
student populations is declining as the last baby boomer children pass
through the educational system. Our present fertility does not promise
a significant increase in college students in the near future.
While students did not prefer the ersatz education of CCTV classes
in the 60s and 70s to the authentic classroom, today's students may be
trained by their technological backgrounds (handicaps?) to mistake
ersatz for reality as in the case of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o. A
distance education can be effective for people who are isolated in
remote locations and need supplementary educational updates like
nurses. But to dismantle a form of education where students can learn
from trained educators in an institution designed for that purpose that
has served humanity for over 2,000 years is rash in the extreme.