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Online Classes Should Replace Traditional Lectures Only When Necessary

Large online courses will become even more in-demand since the quality and accessibility of education is rising. They will not, however, replace traditional in-person interactions between student and teacher. This was the conclusion of participants in the eSTARS 2018 international academic conference on the present and future of online education. HSE and the online learning platform Coursera teamed up to host the event in Moscow on December 5-6.

A Quick Revolution

At the end of the last century, no one could have guessed the world would soon experience a digital revolution. ‘We thought the future was space exploration and that people would travel in flying cars,’ said UNICA President Luciano Saso.

Additionally, no one expected digitisation to bring about large-scale changes to higher education. It seemed as if the only model of education was the traditional one, in which the professor gives students knowledge in lectures and seminars, while the student takes notes and studies.

Higher education has transformed right before our eyes in a very short amount of time. Global online course platforms gained nearly 60-70 million students over the course of just 10 years, noted HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov. And forecasts predict this number will rise to nearly 200 million in just four or five years.

Because of this, global online platforms will surpass the traditional system of higher education by number of students very soon, a system that took centuries to form. Around 150 million people currently study at universities around the world.

What About Quality?

Studies show that in most cases, the quality of online education is no worse than that of traditional classroom instruction.

This year, under the leadership of HSE professor and University of California, Berkeley research associate Igor Chirikov, an experiment was conducted with groups of students from 10 regional technical universities.

Students from the first group studied in the traditional classroom format, while those in a second group listened to online lectures by top universities and took online seminars. A third group studied exclusively online. The academic results of the three groups were measured, and they ended up being practically the same.

If this experiment had been conducted at weaker universities, the results of the first group of students would be no worse than if they had studied online, Yaroslav Kuzminov noted. The opposite is also true; if students study at stronger universities and work with leading scholars in real life, then the results would be better than online learning.

What Are the Advantages?

Conference participants used a lot of examples of how online learning is just as good as, if not better, than traditional instruction based on effectiveness. Online classes are available at any time and give students who live far away from intellectual hubs the opportunity to listen to lectures by renowned scholars.

The elements of digitisation in education improves students’ motivation, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology Rector Nikolai Kudryavtsev said. He believes that this interest should be utilised as much as possible.

Online courses allow the learning process to be individualised based on a student’s learning behaviour. ‘Say a student started taking a course, and we see difficulties arise because he or she re-watches videos often, misses deadlines, or makes mistakes on exams,’ Coursera Chief Product Officer Shravan Goli explained. ‘Then we can propose that the student slow down the pace, speak with the instructor individually, and participate in a form discussion.’

Eduard Galazhinsky, who is the rector of Tomsk National Research University, discussed the importance of analysing the ‘digital footprint’ that students leave behind not only during a course, but also on social networks, for example. Large amounts of data on different students’ behaviour allow conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of certain methodological approaches, as well as on the payoff of the teachers’ work. Previously, instructors drew these conclusions on their own, but now they have precise data to help improve the quality of their work.

Yaroslav Kuzminov compared this innovation with the emergence of blood analysis. Doctors used to diagnose an illness based solely on symptoms, but now there are digital metrics.

Профессор ВШЭ Александр Архангельский, ректор ВШЭ Ярослав Кузьминов и член совета Колорадского университета Стефен Людвиг
HSE Professor Alexander Arkhangelsky, HSE Rector Yaroslav Kuzminov, and University of Colorado Regent Stephen Ludwig. © Mikhail Dmitriev / Higher School of Economics

Who Opposes?

HSE Professor Alexander Arkhangelsky, the moderator of one of the conference’s panels, was interested in whether the reliance on education’s digitisation would cause applicants and their parents to oppose it. Would they not want to return to traditional learning formats?

Doug Lederman, the cofounder and co-editor of Inside Higher Ed, responded that the demands of applicants and their parents depend on whether or not higher education that uses online classes reaps a reward. If people who receive such an education find a good job, build a career, and earn a lot, why oppose this?

Another problem exists, however – a number of instructors who adhere to traditional teaching methods are sceptical of digital technologies, said Neil Morris, Dean of Digital Education at the University of Leeds.

But typical formats are not disappearing from universities, noted Eduard Galazhinsky: ‘When online courses were just coming about, we heard forecasts that they would very soon destroy traditional education. But now the authors of these forecasts are keeping quiet.’

Personal communication between student and teacher, as well as small group instructor, is not disappearing, added Yaroslav Kuzminov, just like it did not disappear after the birth of book printing. It’s just that professors were able to select the best students from those who read their books, whereas now they can choose them from the people who take their online courses. And this circle of students is much broader.

Voluntary Decisions

Universities have to decide whether to replace traditional courses with online ones when necessary, commented Yaroslav Kuzminov, adding that new technologies could not be forced upon anyone. It has to be the voluntary decision of departments and individual staff members. If a school provides students with the quality of education demanded by the government and society, then it can get away without online courses. But if this quality is not evident, then the use of online courses is one of the most obvious solutions to the problem.

Representatives from Russian and international universities talked about how online courses could be used, both their own and those developed by colleagues from other universities. There are various types, as well – from full distance learning to mixed classes in which online courses are used when necessary. The University of Leeds, for example, has practically all types. Applicants are offered online courses to become familiarised with the subjects they’ll be expected to learn, while students can take online courses to improve research and critical thinking skills.

HSE is considering implementing online courses into all basic courses. This does not mean traditional in-person classes will be gotten rid of; they can just be devoted to solving more creative problems.