More thoughts on online education

Thanks Dan for the mention I had a few more thoughts.

I took advantage of a lot of online classes during my undergrad education. You know what my number one irritation was? The classes were always sold out. I think online classes fill up faster than any other kind, and yet they usually are more expensive.

So my first question is, why does the online version of the class cost more? Just looking at it at face value I would assume that most of the overhead would be eliminated. No physical buildings required to meet in, no desks, no electricity, no projector, no heating, no parking, etc… so are they just charging more because they can?

I was actually perfectly fine with paying more, because I saw an online class as a convenience. I was still able to work full time, and go to school full time. Expect more often than not they were full. Why oh why do they not offer more classes online.

To use a web metaphor, I envision that online classes should scale much better than a physical classroom. If you have a sudden explosion of interested students, you should be able to scale out your classes to match. Amazon never says ‘sorry, we have too many customers this quarter, please try again’. Of course I’m being flip, but still, how much different is this really. The front end to your class is software, Blackboard I think is dominant. Blackboard also has some really broad patents which they have promised not to use. So to scale all you have to do is pay more to blackboard, although if it were me I would be investigating moodle which was compared to blackborad in this study by CSU (they spent $1 Million annually on blackboard licenses) and from the study (done in 2005, I’m sure moodle is even better now) it seems to conclude that Moodle was at least on par with blackboard. If online education was my core competency I think I would enjoy the flexibility that an open source, customisable, and free! LMS would provide.This software looks interesting as well.

There is the cost incurred for the time and effort of retraining staff and students though. As well as overhead in maintaing your own system. Outsourcing does have its benefits. But they should be weighed. Let students vote with their pocketbooks, offer a slightly cheaper verison of the class on the moodle system.

But anyways, back to scaling our online education. You pay someone more money, either blackboard, or buy more servers. So now the front end is taken care of. So now you need to recruit teachers quickly. I believe there are a surprising number of people who would love to teach an online course. I see a few ways of tapping into that.

Why not follow the university model of using TA’s? Online TA’s would allow larger classes that could be overseen by one ‘real’ teacher. They could be former students who did really well in the class, they would help lower the collaboarative friction.

Why not recruit from local high schools? Teachers are usually looking for additonal income. You can always outsource as well, there are many highly (over) qualified individuals in foreign countries who would love to teach.

So if you can easily scale the front end, and easily scale the back end, where is the hold up? It must not be that simple, it never is 😉



  1. Again, interesting thoughts. A couple of responses:

    MIT is offering online courses for free – of course, you don’t receive course credit, but lectures (often video lectures), lecture notes, and I don’t know what else is available online for a wide variety of classes. That doesn’t answer the question for folks looking for credit (most of us). To find it, just google “MIT Open Courses.”

    As for why the online courses cost more, could there be a fear among educators that online courses would reduce the demand for bricks-and-mortar classes? If so (and there probably is), this could inspire higher tuition for online courses. It would be interesting to compare rates for online courses at brick-and-mortar institutions with those of pure-online institutions.

  2. Yes, I love the proliferation of free online courses. There really is not much of an excuse these days if you have an interest in something, to be able to find ‘excelente’ information on the subject! A while back I was listening to an astronomy class, I think from Harvey Mudd or Carnegie Mellon. One of these days I should force myself to pretend I was back in class, and start attending!

    It would be interesting to compare rates! Especially since for most other things going online means cheaper! Fear as a market driver… interesting 🙂

  3. I would say that online courses have a size limit, because it’s really much more time consuming to answer and help students online.

    In a lecture setting, it’s easier to figure out what the students are not comprehending, and can adapt what and how you teach in the course of the lecture, as well as having them catch you afterwards for any questions they’ve been having.

    An additionally benefit with this, and with office hours, is that there’s always more than one student, and typically they need help on a similar issue, so when you help out one student, the others patiently wait their turn, but at the same time, they’re learning too.

    I guess techncially you get this behavior in a message board/forum/mailing list type setup, but there’s still a lot of students that feel embarassed to in that type of situation.

    Face to face interaction really does speed up the process of helping a student learn. You are able to interject questions to get a sense of what the student does and doesn’t understand, and with that evaluation, can adapt to the student.

    This is much more diffiicult in an online situaiton, as if you give ‘hints’ to a student, or ask them to attempt a different ‘toy’ problem, when they come back to you still totally confused, you never know if it’s because they aren’t able communicate online (needing to draw figures/diagrams, which again take much longer online than in face to face and whiteboard), if they didn’t understand you, if they didn’t really spend anytime and just go back to asking you on first sign of frustation (or laziness), or some other random reason being lost in translation.

    Even though i’ve never taught an online course, communicating with students online versus face to face is much more time consuming and difficult. Which is probably why there still isn’t this huge revolution of everything being done online.

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