John Cochrane’s excellent essay on on-line education

by on February 10, 2014 at 9:42 am in Economics, Education | Permalink

You will find it here, it is one of the very best short pieces written on this topic.  Excerpt:

A lot of mooc is, in fact, a modern textbook — because the twitter generation does not read. Forcing my campus students  to watch the lecture videos and answer some simple quiz questions, covering the basic expository material, before coming to class — all checked and graded electronically — worked wonders to produce well prepared students and a brilliant level of discussion. Several students commented that the video lectures were better than the real thing, because they could stop and rewind as necessary. The “flipped classroom” model works.

Read the whole thing.

1 Neal February 10, 2014 at 10:00 am

It’s true. Based on my friends’ experience flipping college math classes, >1 standard deviation better than control on exams.

2 Peldrigal February 10, 2014 at 10:01 am

I harbor a burning hatred for video lessons: I am utterly frustrated by the fact that speech is so much slower than reading.
And I cannot but think that the drive for video lessons and powerpoint slides is to mask the fact that a thousand page book can be synthetized into fifity slides and a thousand words. If the professor handed me it in a written format, it would be evident the ridiculous paucity of material that is asked, or the ridiculously inflated bulk of the traditional textbook, depending on how you look at it. But if they give me a video lecture, a pack of slides and a quiz, oooh, then they are progressive heralds of the new frontier in education.
I say they are lazy.

3 Adrian Ratnapala February 10, 2014 at 10:23 am

Yep. Different people’s minds work differently. But I find videos annoying and awkward. I get bored watching them.

4 Bill N February 10, 2014 at 12:02 pm


I tried an online class in statistics with a lot of html rendered text, some examples, and short videos with no voice over and exercises. This worked well.

I tried another on using “R” for statistics with copious video lectures, I dropped after the second lecture because I haven’t the patience for the videos. I seldom attended the lectures because the information density was too low. I have no intention of watching more hours upon hours of videos when the information could be summarized in a few pages of searchable text.

5 john personna February 10, 2014 at 10:24 am

Well, create a text MOOC and compare. I am skeptical. The videos provide a pseudo connection which aids both marketing and commitment.

6 CBBB February 10, 2014 at 10:30 am

Without the videos the Moocs would just fail completely. You end up just reading pages and pages of text? Like I said in the other post it’s just a textbook and very VERY few people are good at teaching themselves.

7 john personna February 10, 2014 at 10:41 am

Before video, people did read books, look at illustrations, to learn how to fix a faucet or cut up a chicken. YouTube changed that kind microinstruction permanently.

I learned programming languages from books, before there were online tutorials, let alone videos, or MOOCs. I don’t think there is any doubt that the more visual forms lower the bar. The argument is just about how much.

Enough for anyone with commitment and without fear?

Strangely some people have fear of failure even about tutorials attempted in the privacy of their own bedrooms.

8 CBBB February 10, 2014 at 11:42 am

Those things are not equivalent. Learning to cut up a chicken, learning to fix a faucet those are specific things. The problem with the self taught approach is if you go and say “Well learn Control Theory” that’s a massive field where do you start, what do you need to know? You would probably have no idea.
The sort of things you cover in academic programs are very, very broad and largely (particularly the fields which then to teach the more marketable things) filled with lots of VERY boring, tedious material. It gets tough to keep at it if you’re on your own.

9 john personna February 10, 2014 at 12:02 pm

We have a branch in the discussion.

On “that’s not education,” I totally disagree. Humans are natural learning machines. Lifelong education includes new recipes and new careers. Learning is an overarching category. Too often, in fact, people who are great learners think they are not.

On “could you,” of course I could, I am a serial autodidact. Probably because I don’t fear, and I do look at subjects at the meta level.

10 CBBB February 10, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Learning small, specific, targeted skills is not the same as academic education. Some people can do it, most can’t. And by can’t I don’t mean intellectually can’t I mean they will quickly lose motivation. Why? Because most academic material (especially STEM type stuff) is extremely boring and requires a huge time investment to learn and practice a lot of little nuances and details.

11 john personna February 10, 2014 at 2:32 pm

In my field of computer science, working engineers rapidly differentiated themselves between those who were aggressive and motivated self-learners, and those who were not. The vast majority passed that test, because CS forced them to. It did not stand still. The available market for a 1980 skill set in 1990 was small. And so people learned new languages, new platform, new paragidms.

You are making assurances, CBBB, that this does not happen … in what domain and with what group?

I certainly know that medicine is similar, and that a 1980 skill set in 1990 … kills.

12 john personna February 10, 2014 at 2:37 pm

BTW, I still view “targeted skills is not the same as academic education” as not only a pointless division, but also a huge disincentive and demotivator. It is true that there are small bits of learning, and large cumulative accomplishments, but knife skills are to French chef as editing skills are to computer scientist.

13 Marie February 10, 2014 at 3:15 pm

In trying to figure out how to raise chickens, definitely had to figure out where do I start, what do I need to know.

I found it difficult to understand Storey’s guide to raising chickens because I didn’t have enough back knowledge to even understand the basics, the language was new to me, the concepts hard to get a grip on.

It wasn’t until I saw enough other people doing the job that I started to understand what the book said.

But I can get and even teach high school level academic subjects, pretty much with ease, because I’m already on familiar ground. I understand the map.

Agriculture or plumbing, those are extremely broad fields, also. I do think it’s true that if you can’t wrap your brain around something you will have a harder time learning it without interaction with a teacher, and lose motivation if you have nothing particularly motivating you but your choice to learn the subject, but I don’t think that’s necessarily subject dependent.

14 Cliff February 10, 2014 at 10:32 am

Agreed. Once, I had a professor who after X number of years had dictated his lectures and then had them typed and sold them to the students at cost. I never had to come to class! Worked perfectly in 20% of the time.

15 peter February 10, 2014 at 11:33 am

Agree 100% with this. I had a professor who would just let us print off the transcript of the lectures and instead of watching a 50 minute lecture I could read it in 10 minutes as well as quickly find the answer to any question I had about the material. I really have no clue why this doesn’t happen more. It is way more efficient and (for me) way more effective of a learning tool.

16 peter February 10, 2014 at 11:34 am

also just noticed the 10 minute to 50 minute being 20% thing ha. that was unintended but accurate. I do think that is about exactly how much more efficient it is.

17 Z February 10, 2014 at 11:44 am

I had a similar experience. One of the required texts was his full lectures, including the slides. Class was for questions, tests and quizzes.

18 Randy B February 10, 2014 at 11:58 am

On the other end of the spectrum, my favorite professor would write out her slides during class each day on a projector based on a copy she had typed up. The only way to get these slides were to copy them down and write notes as she went along. Very good method of keeping everyone engaged.

Sounds onerous but I learned a ton (took her for Intermediate Macro and International Money Theory).

19 derek February 10, 2014 at 1:56 pm

There is a really difficult balance to strike here though. I took a lot of classes in which the teacher moved too quickly for students to simultaneously absorb/decipher handwriting/copy the notes (correctly???), and I also took a lot of classes in which the main task of the class was dictating notes rather than educating.

I only took a few classes in which I got a lot out of taking notes. Most of these were graph or math-intensive courses. My “real” learning in non-STEM classes occurred almost entirely as I wrote papers.

20 Marie February 10, 2014 at 3:19 pm

The Elements of Style, Strunk and White, came from that sort of thing.

21 Bubba February 10, 2014 at 11:29 am

There are video players with variable speed playback which make it much more interesting to view video lectures. VLC on the desktop, AVPlayerHD on the ipad, Dice player on Android are the ones I use.

22 Gusty February 10, 2014 at 1:03 pm

You can understand the spoken word at about 3-5 times the rate that most people talk. Yes, you need to speed it up.

It also helps if you use trained professionals (actors perhaps) to deliver the prose. They’re a lot easier to listen to than your typical college professor.

23 Thanatos Savehn February 11, 2014 at 1:54 am

Not my 5 year old. He hijacked his Mom’s iPad before he was 2 and this past Christmas he typed “how to rap a present” into YouTube and “rapped” the most (almost) perfect present for his Mom.

Language is a construct that leads us astray (thanks to its poor coding) when pondering percentages and magnitudes. I think my youngest boy is on to something.

24 JKB February 11, 2014 at 9:07 am

Processing written text is a skill. One that is not explicitly taught anymore. Look at most of the advice on studying, even from top schools. There is lots of advice about comfort, quiet, lighting, etc., but, little if any instruction on what a student is to do with that book in front of them. Read it, of course, then what? Read it again. Good students develop a way to break it down. Poor students don’t make that jump. But it isn’t magic. Think of how many students might do better if they were taught to do their job, i.e., study?

It’s hit or miss on developing this skill. You might have a parent who passes it on, or a friend. Perhaps a professor. The thing is, it needs to be taught starting about 3rd grade with more and more complex texts till the student can process complex, rambling text produced by a subject matter expert who is, shall we say, not good at writing clearly. Or was writing in the style of his time.

25 Shane M February 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm

On coursera you can run the video at a faster pace. Usually 1.25 speed works pretty well for most lectures, with 1.5x speed working well on the boring parts. There are times I have to slow down to 1.0 speed though.

26 Floccina February 13, 2014 at 11:51 am

I like to listen to pod casts at 1.4x speed.

27 CBBB February 10, 2014 at 10:13 am

because the twitter generation does not read

HERE WE GO with the baseless youthbashing. Sounds like a GREAT start already to this most EXCELLENT essay.

28 CBBB February 10, 2014 at 10:29 am

Alright it’s not bad but based on my Mooc experience he’s (unfortunately) wrong about this:

However, no question about it, the deadly boring hour and a half lecture in a hall with 100 people by a mediocre professor teaching utterly standard material is just dead, RIP. And universities and classes which offer nothing more to their campus students will indeed be pressed.

29 Floccina February 13, 2014 at 12:06 pm

The twitter generation does not read and write because they spend too much time reading an writing on twitter and facebook???

30 john personna February 10, 2014 at 10:20 am

That was very good. It strikes me that one way to reduce MOOC development costs would be to free content and allow CC style remixes. Sadly this runs counter to many motivations in MOOC creation, as mentioned.

31 Mark Thorson February 10, 2014 at 12:17 pm

I have a number of books from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s that speculate how television is going to revolutionize education. After all, you could have the best lecturers from the best universities broadcast all over the country! Like the personal helicopter in your garage, it never happened, of course.

I also have a few books on teaching machines and computer-aided instruction, mostly from the 1950s and 1960s. Another interesting idea that fizzled.

This time, maybe it will be different. People were speculating about widespread use of computer networks by the public back in the 1960s and 1970s, and it did eventually happen. But I think it remains to be seen. There might be other learning paradigms better than the MOOC.

32 john personna February 10, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Is that because Jersey Shore is better than a Cal Tech lecture, or just more profitable?

TedTalks might demonstrate that there is a small but passionate market, but not a mass market capable of driving cable, let alone broadcast, economics.

33 Brandon February 11, 2014 at 3:54 pm

if TedTalks are the example of what moocs are capable of achieving, that’s not exactly high praise.

34 Shane M February 11, 2014 at 9:20 pm

“After all, you could have the best lecturers from the best universities broadcast all over the country! Like the personal helicopter in your garage, it never happened, of course.”

Maybe it’s happening right now, except in an on-demand way on you-tube and online videos.

35 rayward February 10, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Do we do the twitter generation a favor with the flipped classroom (i.e., by preparing the students for the actual classroom with a video presentation of the classroom – i.e., the lecture – in advance in lieu of reading the text). I understand that many top law firms have changed their recruiting practices in response to the twitter generation, because not only do they not read, they are uncomfortable with one-on-one, in-person contact, so the firms have substituted indirect, on-line communication with the recruits. And these are future lawyers; you know, lawyers, who will make their living from one-on-one, in-person contact. I’m a big fan of on-line education. I’m amazed that I can view, for free, Robert Shiller’s class in finance! But that’s from the perspective of someone nearly old. I’m a lawyer, and I’m thrilled that I can satisfy my CLE requirements sitting in my study watching a lecture on-line or on videotape. And I’m thrilled I can expand my mind by sitting in my study watching Robert Shiller and many others give lectures on subjects ranging from finance to the New Testament. To me, the big benefit of on-line education is that it facilitates and promotes a lifetime of learning; and in a rapidly changing world, a lifetime of learning is a necessity. On the other hand, there is no substitute for the intellectual challenge of the classroom, the classroom in which the teacher engages with the students. As a lawyer, my memories are of the Socratic method, the predominant teaching method in law schools (at least it was many years ago when I attended). What surprises me watching on-line courses is that there;s very little interaction between teacher and students. Almost none. If that is the norm in college today, then what is the point of attending class when you could watch a video in your room. Sometimes I think that the popularity of on-line education is more a function of teachers not wanting to engage their students than students of the twitter generation.

36 Mark Thorson February 10, 2014 at 2:29 pm

I’ve been told that in Asia nobody asks questions during lectures. If the lecturer asks “Can anybody give me an example of X?” not one hand will go up.

37 TuringTest February 10, 2014 at 5:35 pm

I’ve been told there are a lot of smart asses in the US. If the lecturer asks, “Give me an example of X,” someone will invariably answer Y !

38 A Definite Beta Guy February 10, 2014 at 8:26 pm

The Socratic Model is not the preferred method of instruction. Please visit your local high school.

39 David' February 10, 2014 at 9:07 pm

** I’ve been told that in Asia nobody asks questions during lectures. If the lecturer asks “Can anybody give me an example of X?” not one hand will go up.**

Based on my (long) experience in Japan, Korea (Republic of), and China (People’s Republic), not true in China or Korea, but very true in Japan. (Too risky: your example or questions might be lame, or other students might feel bad because you made them realize that you are smarter then them, or that might think that you are showing off, or the teacher might ask another follow up question that stumps you. And why is she/he asking the STUDENTS? He/she is the TEACHER. What is he/she really trying to do? Identify and weed out the trouble-makers, potential rivals, misfits who get accepted to the school probably due to a computer error? Is my breathe bad? Is he/she hinting that I haven’t brushed my teeth enough? Is my nose too long? I don’t know. I don’t know what other people think. Why is he/she asking ME? Stop looking at ME. I want to go home).

40 Mark Thorson February 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm

I heard it from someone who spent time in Japan. I must have misconstrued it to apply to Asia, rather than just Japan.

41 JKB February 11, 2014 at 9:19 am

I was heartened to see that they have MOOC experts who are stopping the video a lecture implementation that is the first idea of the subject matter talent. I don’t think the capability of the medium is being fully utilized as of yet. To much of trying to move the classroom online. A bit like early movies were essentially films of plays from the audience. In time, however, creators started using the film medium in ways that created a completely different experience than the stage play. We’ll see that with online learning.

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