Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Yahoo! Throws Schools a Curve

Will virtual teaching replace classroom teaching?

This week, in Austin, at SXSW, the eponymous Music-cum-everything-Festival, edupreneurs are presenting, attending, and probably drinking-a-lot-at seminars.  (I hyphenated that last bit so it would work as a noun in the series.  I don’t think it worked.  But that’s such a good way to attend an education seminar.  I’ve heard.) At one of these seminars at SXSW, the founders of virtual classroom biz standouts InstaEDU, Udemy, and Course Hero will be discussing the future of online education.  These companies are all vying for the opportunity to shape the future of how—and where—students learn.

There’s a lot of excitement (and fear) in schools about the future use of technology in education.  The impact of innovation could (and, I think, most definitely will) dramatically change our national school landscape.  Union reps, politicians, property owners and—always last and always least—teachers are all very interested how the virtual classroom will continue to improve or diminish instruction.

SXSW.edu, as the Fest is called, comes one week after Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer announced that there would be no more telecommuting at her company—and it set the blogosphere aflutter.  Her claim, basically:  distance working ain’t working out so good.  So, naturally, I wondered about the serendipity of it all. Can online classrooms—teleteaching/telelearning—replace the classroom, brick and mortar stuff, that teachers have been doing since Socrates?  If Mayer thinks that Yahoo!’s productivity is a victim of distance-working, might she also think that school’s productivity will also suffer with distance-teaching? 

Teleteaching and Telelearning:  The State of the Art

SXSW.edu, sponsored and backed by Bill and Melinda Gates (which means something politically, for those of you keep track), will be exploring how technology is already impacting pedagogy.  The seminars this week include a particular focus on what I call “teleteaching:” when teachers record lessons or lectures and distribute them online. Teachers have been offering online education for years, of course, but teleteaching seems poised to become a real competitor to “in the classroom” teaching.

Last year, Stanford University professor Daphne Koller got a lot of press when she rolled out Coursera.org at TEDGlobal 2012. The site offers “online course enrollment” in MOOC's from places like Standford, Harvard, and Yale—if you’ve ever heard of such places. You can get credit from these schools without ever going into any classroom at all—a big deal given some of those university names.  Coursera’s website boasts all kinds of wonderful things, mostly the democratization of education.  That’s a good thing.  But do students learn? 

Colleges, high schools, and elementary schools across the country have been expanding their online campuses for years, of course—but rarely as a complete replacement of actual classroom experience.  A couple of years ago, TED shined a spotlight on online teleteaching pioneer Kahn Academy (another Gates beneficiary). At Kahn, students download specific lessons on things such as Algebra, History, and Chemistry. Kahn seems to be working towards the supplemental rather than replacement model.  It has been collaborating with schools across the country, helping teachers “flip” the classroom: the students teach themselves at home with the online instruction then come to the classroom for practice and specific instruction from the actual teacher.  This is right up my alley-- and I have spent some time on Kahn's website.  The model looks pretty good and where I'd put my money for where things are headed.

But does the online instruction work?  The University of Phoenix has long been the butt of many jokes—but it’s been there for years, offering online courses. People get degrees from there and, I suppose, opportunities and raises from the accreditation.  It ain’t Harvard, but a degree is a degree.  But let’s get to the nitty gritty:  do people learn from a virtual instructor?  A couple of years ago, I took an online driving course to lower my car insurance.  Did it make me a better driver?  Heck, I don’t know. 

For years, the internet has been offering free education on places like YouTube and eHow. Many of my students are teaching themselves using online courses of all sorts, learning everything from how to play songs or do dance steps to how to write a better analytical essay.  I have seen students teach themselves ukulele on YouTube.  I’ve taught myself how to chop vegetables, install lights, and how to order grilled meat in Rio during Carnival. So the argument for online video instruction certainly has a foothold in the practical world. 

The Virtual Classroom Is Here To Stay

The lingering question in EVERY conversation about innovation in education is: does this stuff work?  The problem is that there isn’t enough data that we can reliably crunch to lean one way or the other.  But it doesn’t matter.  Like so many other changes in education made in the last 20-30 years (the ubiquity of standardized tests, the use of teacher evaluations, experiments with the length of a class period), it doesn’t matter if it works.  It only matters if people (politicians, school boards, customers, etc) buy into it.

And that’s why this is just more evidence that edupreneurship is the future of education.  Teachers need to think like entrepreneurs because the market forces simply win the day.  As a supporter of public education, it’s a tricky reality to get my head around.  But teachers MUST be on the ground floor of innovations like virtual instruction.  We need to be making the content, testing techniques and strategies, and adapting our models for online consumption.

Will Yahoo!’s Mayer be seen as a visionary for her call for a return to the workplace?  In the end, I think not.  She’s trying to tighten a ship and send a signal to her company—but I’m sure that Yahoo! will still retain a strong telecommuting model.  The future will have us working everywhere, connected online.  Heck, that’s the way it is now.

Online education is a natural extension of the Socratic model:  students learn best when they are exploring things and teaching themselves. Socrates famously used questions. Today, and especially tomorrow, we’ll most certainly be asking most of our questions online.

My hope? That good teachers will be the ones running the sites, making the videos, and managing the process.



  1. Brain science shows that the human brain takes around 25 years to be fully developed, lespecially the executive functions believed located in the prefrontal cortex. Education is far more than the aquisition of information or skill development. Young people need human teachers to develop critical thinking, to apply judgement, and to learn from mistakes. I worry about screens replacing humans for more than adjunct purposes.