Building the perfect MOOC

As proof that the idea of online education is (one might say ‘finally’) gaining traction in many disparate fields, a recent episode of Econtalk discussed the topic:

Arnold Kling, economist and teacher, talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about recent technological innovations in education and Kling’s forecast for their impact on learning and how they might affect traditional education. Examples include the recent explosion of online lessons and classes, new teaching styles that exploit those offerings, and the nature of learning in various kinds of classrooms and student-teacher interactions.

One of the comments that caught my attention in the discussion was the idea that the best form of teaching is one-on-one, not one-to-many. Thus the current fashion in MOOCs to expand to as large a group as possible, they would argue, is exactly the wrong direction to more effectively educate. Which on reflection struck me as insightful – what we really want is each learner to have a completely customized experience to their particular needs.

One could imagine that advances in artificial intelligence might give options in this regard. Perhaps because of my misspent youth, my first thought was not to an AI adaptive course, but rather to a choose-your-own-adventure book, but either way the idea is the same – adaptive branches take the learner along a path depending on their choices or reactions to particular parts of the lesson.

The online education portal I run (which is targeted at K-12 teachers) actually has a rudimentary form of this, in the form of pre-testing which then opens particular sections of the course depending on which questions are answered correctly and which ones are not. It’s easy to imagine how one could extend this idea a great deal further. However, it’s also then easy to see how much work would need to be invested in the design and set up of the course, and I wonder if you would end up spending just as much time building such a course as if you actually sat down and taught every student individually.

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