Online Coursework and Hult

3 05 2013

This open letter from the San Jose State University’s philosophy department, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, has been floating around the internet for the last few days and is igniting controversy- is it’s argument that live faculty are necessary for real university classes legitimate, or is it simply a case of turf protection?

Clearly, if it’s simply a matter of information transfer, having live-taught classes with full professors is probably a waste; books are a much more efficient medium for data, and software tutorials and simulators are better for teaching the preliminaries of hard skills; beyond that, the basic questions that come up and the sort of nuts and bolts of practical application can be taken care of by teaching assistants. Lecture-based learning is functionally obsolete- why take a lecture class from Dr. Joe from the University of Wherever when you can watch a lecture by the greatest living (and in some cases deceased) scholar in the world? In the case of this letter, they’re reacting against the Justice course taught by Michael Sandel… one of the foremost ethical philosophers on the planet. It’s easy to see how he could be a tough act to follow. (And I’ve watched a few of the lectures… back in my English teaching days, one of my colleagues used excerpts from them in his classes for advanced students.)

 

For almost two years now I’ve been going to a Monday night lecture series presented by the Royal Asiatic Society in Shanghai. Every other Monday, we get together to watch an hour of video lectures on Chinese political history, then followed by an hour-long discussion of the subject matter of the night. The lecture series we watched up until this winter was presented by the late Dr. Richard Baum, an observer of modern Chinese politics who had first-hand encounters with many of the crucial figures and events of late 20th century Chinese politics (including a very funny meeting with Hua Guofeng, Mao Zedong’s ill-fated successor).  The combination of video lecture and discussion was very stimulating and appropriate for casual, non-degree coursework. This was clearly an excellent use of this sort of class.

On the other hand, I’ve been less than impressed by online classes that I have taken, which don’t seem to have much value-added beyond what you could get reading a (much cheaper) book on the subject, and I find the webinar format of delivering information extremely inefficient- it offers neither the benefits of reading (speed, working at your own pace) or audio (you can listen while you need your hands free for doing something else). Webinars and online courses are often worst-of-both-worlds solutions.

When I mentioned to a stranger that I was attending Hult, I remember that he replied, “That’s an online MBA program, isn’t it?” “No,” I replied. Hult’s classwork is, with the exception of some preliminary material and course supplements, entirely live, and based on case method and Socratic dialogue. This is often a very new experience for many of the incoming students who have only been exposed to lecture-based university curricula, often in overcrowded universities in the developing world or large state institutions where professors are primarily focused on research rather than teaching. I’ve gathered that this method is something of an Anglosphere thing- while British, Canadian and US students are very familiar with it, continental Europeans, Asians and Latin Americans often aren’t.

However, Hult does make extensive use of online resources. Our course materials are now entirely digital and accessible through the MyCourses system, which makes accessing cases, articles and chapters for assigned readings a very simple process; equally, we can submit our work to our professors via the system as well, and receive direct feedback. Hult also uses videoconferencing to link up it’s six campuses, and online preliminary courses purchased from other universities to be completed before arrival so that some of the basics can be cleared. At a lunch meeting with the school dean, I made the recommendation that an online accounting class be added and required for all students who did not take accounting classes as undergraduates; this way, the single non-case-based course, International Accounting, could be moved to a case-based curriculum that would be more satisfying for the students who have extensive experience in accounting already.

There is something valuable in having direct exposure to top-notch professors, and Hult obviously recognizes this, going to the trouble of flying in professors from around the world to teach at it’s various campuses. Rather than working with inexperienced DBAs or MBAs with minimal real-world experience, almost all of the professors I’ve had in the program were graduates of elite institutions, usually in their mid-40s to mid-50s, with experience in high level management or consulting positions. I’ve been very impressed by the faculty here, and the experience they offer- and the way it comes out in their classes- can’t really be replaced by a lecture or a textbook alone. This is the practical experience that Hult advertises.

When I went to business school, I was worried that I’d be disappointed by the instructors- they couldn’t possibly be as good as the ones I had as an undergrad at Augustana, a school that prides itself on hiring very devoted teaching professors, small class sizes and conversational teaching methods (not to mention, huge reading loads- I recall one semester where I had to purchase more than 30 books).  While Hult has fairly large class sizes- generally 60-70 students to a cohort- the layout of the main classrooms is one conducive to conversation, and I’ve always felt just as engaged with the professors as I did at Augustana.

On balance, I don’t think that online coursework is a bad thing, and I’m quite supportive of innovative programs like Coursera (I’ve been thinking of doing some of their classes on Python and Financial Engineering). But there are limits to it’s usefulness, and some approaches probably need to be rethought.

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