The Trouble With Online Education

I’m confused.

I am a huge fan of learning new things. I feel that in this ever changing world, the person who learns the fastest is going to be the one ahead at the end of the day.

So I was extremely excited to observe the explosion of online learning startups. With these online choices, I no longer had to sneak into my local universities and sit awkwardly with 18 year olds to learn about the wonders of Greek mythology, but I could just stumble over to Coursera and hunker down for an hour to get my fix.

There’s one big problem: a recent study showed that 90% of students who start any online only class, drop out before the end of the class. While I initially thought that this was isolated to free courses online, traditional universities that offer online courses have experienced a similar dropout trend as well.

Do we just lack discipline?

I myself have been no better at taking my online classes, despite signing up for Steve Blank’s course on building startups. It took six months for me to work my way through it. While I have gotten an immense amount of value out of it, I could never dedicate myself to watching the videos.

Traditional learning environments know that we lack discipline and force exams, quizzes and essays on us to verify that we are actually learning things.  As a society though, isn’t it a little sad that we need these re-enforcements because we just can’t discipline ourselves to learn something for our own sake?

Perhaps overall we just can’t get ourselves to do what would be good for us. Apparently 70% of gym signups over-estimate how many times they will go to the gym and really, who keeps their New Year’s resolutions?

Can We Hack Ourselves to Learn?

Interestingly enough, Columbia University’s Community College Research Center found that students in hybrid classes — those that blended online instruction with a face-to-face component performed as well academically as those in traditional classes.

Perhaps seeing people on a regular basis serves as another level of accountability and naturally creates a sense of commitment to each other. I experienced this myself when a group of my friends all decided to take the Gamification course on Coursera. When together, it was natural to ask each other if we had done the assignments or watched the other lectures. Saying “oops, nope” shamed us enough to do the other required work on our own.

For online education to provide a societal change, we need to start thinking about what we can do to get people to learn en masse. I’m pretty confident that somebody will come along that will determine a way to hack the social/psychological dynamics to get people really engaged and ultimately get online learning to cross the chasm. Here’s hoping…