Most online education today is poorly designed and implemented. It merely places a boring classroom lecture into an online video, changing a synchronous three-dimensional realtime experience into an asynchronous two-dimensional one. It does so without creativity and without harnessing the full power of online technologies. It does not begin to fully use the hyper-linked, multi-media, interactive, community sharing elements of the world-wide web. Still, even in these early primitive forms, current research shows that online education is already more effective than traditional face-to-face instruction!
Although today’s students get this already, many in the academic community find it hard to believe. That is one reason the U.S. Department of Education published a report recently based on a survey of 1,000 studies of online learning conducted between 1996 and 2008. See: Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. The consensus of research shows that online instruction is better than traditional bricks and mortar instruction for today’s plugged-in students. Also See the NY Times article Study Finds That Online Education Beats the Classroom.
It is time for teachers and administrators to wake up and accept this fact of life. That includes our Universities, our law schools, our programs for continuing professional education, and our educational publishers. Those who change and go with the times will prosper, those who do not will go the way of the newspapers. For law schools that means their income and rankings will decline, their enrollment will suffer, and their faculty will transfer. They will struggle to make ends meet, and ultimately, many will close. The few who lead the way, or quickly catch up, will make up the difference as world-wide matriculation increases. They will grow in quality, prestige, and wealth. I predict a large shakeup from the current, already dubious rankings.
The Key is Liberation from the Restraints of Time and Place
I will examine the details of current research into online education later, but first, here is my personal view of why traditional classroom instruction will soon fade in preeminence, at least at the University and professional continuing education levels. Online instruction has one inherent advantage over traditional bricks and mortar. This advantage is present in even the most rudimentary (primitive) forms of online instruction prevalent today, the video of a teacher on a webpage. Online education is asynchronous, meaning it is free of the traditional classroom learning restrictions of time and space.
A student can receive instruction when and where they want. The virtual online class can be viewed anywhere in the world that has Internet connectivity, which today means pretty much everywhere. It does not require travel or residence in any particular place. It does not require attendance at a particular time. Online studies take place at a time of convenience to the student. The bad dreams common to those of us trained in the bricks and mortar world — of not being able to find the classroom or get there on time – are a thing of the past. (I suppose in the future the nightmares will consist of not being able to find your computers or lost connectivity.)
This liberation from the constraints of place and schedule give online instruction a huge advantage over traditional instruction. It allows a community of teachers and students to converge together from all over the world to study a subject of common interest. There will still be some time constraints, but they will be in broader time frames, of entire days, weeks, or even months and years. A student can choose the best time to study. A teacher the best time to teach. Yes. The liberation of time and space applies to both students and teachers.
This freedom from the four walls of a classroom meeting at a particular time gives online learning its principal advantage. This fact alone radically transforms teaching and learning as we know it. It makes education accessible to everyone. It also makes it possible to drastically reduce the costs of education. And, potentially at least, as new more creative online instruction programs are developed, this new education will not just be slightly better than time-space restricted classroom education (a position it has already achieved), it will be far more effective, especially for advanced University level instruction and beyond.
A student can logon to study at the time when they are most alert and receptive. They can do so in an environment of their choosing, one that they have found to be most conducive for learning. They may choose to study alone, or in a group. Some may learn best in a crowded coffee-shop. Others may prefer a quiet room by themselves. For some the preferred time to learn may be in the morning. For others it may be late at night. Online learning can happen anywhere and anytime.
The liberation from the constraints of time and place has, to date, primarily impacted students. But its potential for impact on faculty is just as profound. Today most online instruction consists of a video of one professor teaching a class, plus perhaps some written materials. The video may include questions and interactions with a live class, or may simply consist of a lecture. Either way, it follows the traditional bricks and mortar model of one instructor per class teaching at a set schedule.
The faculty too should teach when and where they are at their best, and in the subject for which they are best qualified. No one professor on campus is the best qualified subject matter expert in the world (or even in the University for which they are employed) on all topics that they teach. They may be an expert in their general field, but as an expert, they will readily acknowledge that there are at least a few others better qualified than they to teach on some specific sub-areas in that field. Also, sometimes the best subject matter expert is not the best teacher of that subject, no matter how broad or focused the area. The experts and best teachers in any field are always scattered throughout the world. They are never all conveniently located on one University campus. Online education removes that spatial obstacle.
As online instruction matures, the best and the brightest instructors will converge online to teach a course together. A new role of moderator instructor will then develop, one who introduces and weaves together the teaching of specialists to present a unified whole for that course. The people with the most knowledge in the world on a subject, and the best skills at explaining it, at transmitting it, will be the teachers of that subject. This may ultimately reduce the number of teachers on any given subject, but should dramatically improve quality. Further, this reduction in the number of teachers needed for a subject is likely to be balanced by an increase in the number of subjects taught.
The top-level teachers can be filmed in bricks and mortar classes interacting with students, or in a studio, or in their home, or in front of a large audience, whatever fits their personality, whatever environment captures their best teaching moments. The best video-takes, where everything really gels and the magic of teaching happens, will be the videos that are preserved and shared in future online instruction of that subject. The video presentations that will be part of an ideal online program will be the videos of the best teachers in the world at their best moments. (I emphasize that these videos will be only a part of the program because there is far more to online education than viewing another speak and gesture. That is mere distance learning, the precursor to modern online instruction). These teaching moments will be preserved for posterity. This again is a game-changer for education and heralds a paradigm shift in quality of instruction.
Transformation to Online Education
This transformation will happen in steps. It will begin by a University or other learning institution capturing its best instructors on a particular subject and weaving their good presentations together into an online course. They may supplement the course by video input from other subject matter experts who serve as guest-lecturers. The variety of input and styles this entails will require, as mentioned, a new type of moderator instructor. They will provide continuity and also serve as mentors for students, to interact with them in a group or individualized basis. Others may specialize in the mentor role, and still others in the testing and certification roles. The personal touch in education will continue, so too will community, but it will change forms.
Such online community building and interactivity will be key, just as it is in current bricks and mortar instruction, but it will use many different media. It could include realtime video and teleconferences, and instant messages, or convenient-time emails, messages, twitters, wikis, and forums. Face-to-face meetings may still occur on occasion. The teachers who respond to questions may also include a much wider universe of subject matter experts, who would agree to be on call for certain universities on various subjects on which they possessed special expertise. Students can also easily interact with each other in online communities built and supported by their school. This interaction, like the instruction itself, will take many forms, including multi-media formats with audio-visual enhancements to videos. It will constantly change and evolve as new technologies emerge.
The instruction will include many short videos, not just a few long-winded talks. Research has shown that students tune out after 15 to 30 minutes. The videos will be interspersed with extensive and fully hyper-linked writings, drawings, diagrams, and other images and animations. Videos of instructors will also be enhanced with graphics and animations, as I have already done with a few videos on this blog. See eg. EDRM – The Unofficial Video Version. Instruction will be designed to impact both the left and right brains. Each course will also include a variety of creative task oriented challenges and interactivity opportunities. It will include periodic testing, both computerized and person-administered and graded. There will be structure and order in the curriculum, but this will be balanced by student empowering selection and arrangement choices. Online instruction in the future will be more like a challenging video game and less like a public television show. As I have often said before: Creativity is the best friend of learning and boredom is the enemy.
Research on Online Education
Current scientific research supports these postulations. First of all, research shows that online education is already better than traditional classroom instruction. Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies (hereinafter “Department of Education Report” or “Report”). The Report at page ix of the Abstract states that:
… on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.
The Report stresses repeatedly that online instruction tests “significantly positive for undergraduate and other older learners, but not for K–12 students.” The advantages, if any, for the K-12 age group are still somewhat speculative, in large part due to the absence of significant research for that age group. By contrast, there have been many tests and research concerning the university level and beyond, including significant testing in the area of medicine. Report pgs. xiii, xvii. Unfortunately, but not too surprisingly, only a few were noted in the area of law. This is not surprising because there has, until recently, been virtually no online training offered in law. This is, however, now changing rapidly, as seen for instance by NYU’s new offering of an online Masters of Law program in Taxation. This new online program by New York University School of Law is, I submit, of great importance, and should serve as a wake-up call to all in the academic community.
Some of the key findings of the Report include the following quotes:
Students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction. Id. at xiv
The effectiveness of online learning approaches appears quite broad across different content and learner types. Id. at xv.
Blended and purely online learning conditions implemented within a single study generally result in similar student learning outcomes. Id. at xvi. [Note: some of the studies suggested to the contrary that the inclusion of some face-to-face instruction did improve learning. For that reason I believe that some real-time interaction remains important, be it in person, by video, telephone, IM, or the like.]
Elements such as video or online quizzes do not appear to influence the amount that students learn in online classes. Id. [Note: in my opinion this finding in one or more studies is the result of overly-long and otherwise poor quality videos and quizzes.]
Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection. Studies indicate that manipulations that trigger learner activity or learner reflection and self-monitoring of understanding are effective when students pursue online learning as individuals. Id.
Providing guidance for learning for groups of students appears less successful than does using such mechanisms with individual learners. When groups of students are learning together online, support mechanisms such as guiding questions generally influence the way students interact, but not the amount they learn. Id.
The Report also includes a caveat about the conclusions and limitations of these studies. This cautions against immediate abandonment of traditional face-to-face instruction for the seemingly superior and obviously much cheaper online instruction modes:
However, several caveats are in order: Despite what appears to be strong support for online learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium. In many of the studies showing an advantage for online learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction. Id. at vxii.
There are other legitimate criticisms and caveats that you can make concerning the Department of Education Report. See for instance Clive on Learning. But the major thrust of the report is incontrovertible. Online asynchronous learning has many distinct advantages over traditional synchronous classroom learning and is more effective for many students at advanced University and post-graduate levels.
The following quotations provide a good flavor for the contents of the sixty-six page Report. They also suggest ways, which I consider especially important, to improve online education programs by student powered creative interactivity and community based functions:
- One common conjecture is that learning a complex body of knowledge effectively requires a community of learners (Bransford, Brown and Cocking 1999; Riel and Polin 2004; Schwen and Hara 2004; Vrasidas and Glass 2004) and that online technologies can be used to expand and support such communities. Another conjecture is that asynchronous discourse is inherently self-reflective and therefore more conducive to deep learning than is synchronous discourse (Harlen and Doubler 2004; Hiltz and Goldman 2005; Jaffee et al. 2006). Id. at pg. 2.
- In deciding how to implement online learning, it is important to understand the practices that research suggests will increase effectiveness (e.g., community building among participants, use of an online facilitator, blending work and training). Id.
- Typically, in expository instruction, the technology delivers the content. In active learning, the technology allows students to control digital artifacts to explore information or address problems. In interactive learning, technology mediates human interaction either synchronously or asynchronously; learning emerges through interactions with other students and the technology. Id. at Pg. 4.
- Scoville and Buskirk (2007) examined whether the use of traditional or virtual microscopy would affect learning outcomes in a medical histology course. Students were assigned to one of four sections: (a) a control section where learning and testing took place face-to-face, (b) a blended condition where learning took place virtually and the practical examination took place face-to-face, (c) a second blended condition where learning took place face-to-face and testing took place virtually, and (d) a fully online condition. Scoville and Buskirk found no significant differences in unit test scores by learning groups. Id. at pg. 39.
- A study by Zhang et al. (2006) suggests that the way in which a medium is used is more important than merely having access to it. Zhang et al. found that the effect of video on learning hinged on the learner’s ability to control the video (“interactive video”). The authors used four conditions: traditional face-to-face and three online environments—interactive video, noninteractive video, and nonvideo. Students were randomly assigned to one of the four groups. Students in the interactive video group performed significantly better than the other three groups. There was no statistical difference between the online group that had noninteractive video and the online group that had no video. Id. at pg. 40.
- Zhang (2005) reports on two studies comparing expository learning with active learning, both of which found statistically positive results in favor of active learning. Zhang manipulated the functionality of a Web course to create two conditions. For the control group, video and other instruction received over the Web had to be viewed in a specified order, videos had to be viewed in their entirety (e.g., a student could not fast forward) and rewinding was not allowed. The treatment group could randomly access materials, watching videos in any sequence, rewinding them and fast forwarding through their content. Zhang found a statistically significant positive effect in favor of learner control over Web functionality (see also the Zhang et al. 2006 study described above). Gao and Lehman (2003) found that students who were required to complete a “generative activity” in addition to viewing a static Web page performed better on a test about copyright law than did students who viewed only the static Web page. Id. at pg. 41.
- Grant and Courtoreille (2007) studied the use of post-unit quizzes presented either as (a) fixed items that provided feedback only about whether or not the student’s response was correct or (b) post-unit quizzes that gave the student the opportunity for additional practice on item types that had been answered incorrectly. The response-sensitive version of the tutorial was found to be more effective than the fixed-item version, resulting in greater changes between pre- and posttest scores. Id. at pg. 44.
- These studies found that a tool or feature prompting students to reflect on their learning was effective in improving outcomes. Id.
- Zhao et al. also found that instructor involvement was a strong mediating variable. Distance learning outcomes were less positive when instructor involvement was low (as in “canned” applications), with effects becoming more positive, up to a point, as instructor involvement increased. Id. at pg. 53.
I am not arguing for the dismantlement of our brick and mortar Universities, including our law schools. Nor am I suggesting that our current system of CLEs be discontinued entirely, a system where people travel all over the country, if not the world, for just a few minutes of face-to-face presentations. What I am saying is that the current bricks and mortar only systems cannot and should not continue. More than that, they will not continue. The forces of history, competition, and technological advances will compel change, whether we like it or not.
This is a good thing. Online education is already better than face-to-face education, even though it is, I contend, still in its infancy and just beginning to realize its full potential. Moreover, online education is far more energy efficient and far less expensive. It is also far more capable of widespread distribution. Although we should not abandon or quickly replace our traditional modes of education, we should immediately begin to supplement these traditional modes with innovative online methods.
I predict that in the next five to ten years online education will surpass traditional education in popularity in all major fields of education, including legal. But surpass does not mean replace. Just as some people will still read paper newspapers in the future, myself included, some will still continue to attend and teach in face-to-face schools. Our universities are better funded and established than our newspapers. For that reason, they are better positioned to perpetrate the traditional pre-technological forms while adding to and embracing new online methods.
I call upon all schools to embrace this coming change, including law schools and the ABA which accredits them. The law should take notice and follow the lead of NYU. Law schools should start planning today to add online J.D. instruction and Masters of Law degree programs to supplement their in-person classroom instruction and degrees. CLE programs must do the same. If anything, the need for change is strongest in the area of continuing education, especially in my field of electronic discovery. Our scarce educational resources should be invested in technologies, including video and multimedia production facilities, not in more brick and mortar classrooms and jet fuel. We should be able to turn on our computers to meet the best and the brightest in the field, not travel to New York, Washington, or London. The way of the future is green and efficient. It is online.