Lectures are often the least educational aspect of college; I know, I’ve taught college seniors and witnessed how little students learn during their four years in higher education. So, while it’s noble that MIT and Harvard are opening their otherwise exclusive lecture content to the public with EdX, hanging a webcam inside of a classroom is a not a “revolution in education”.
A revolution in education would be replacing lectures with the Khan Academy and dedicating class time to hands-on learning, which is exactly what Stanford’s medical school proposed last week. Stanford realizes that great education comes from being surrounded by inspiring peers, being coached by world-class thinkers, and spending time solving actual problems.
To give a little background, last week, Harvard and MIT made headlines with the launch of EdX, a joint online education initiative that will place lectures from the best instructors online, complete with reading material, automated quizzes, wiki-style forums, and a tailored assessment of progress. Essentially, EdX slightly expands the existing MIT OpenCourseWare with some basic forum and feedback technology–technology that has been around since the dial-up days of the late 90′s (and what universities have had since the invention of the Scantron). MIT OpenCourseWare has been wildly popular, with over 125 million lifetime visitors; so, the new EdX will certainly be useful for the existing base of MIT students who use it in deciding their course schedule and those in the public who want to enhance a neatly organized syllabus of readings with some occasional online chats.
But, saying that EdX is “the biggest change in education since the invention of the printing press” ignores the fact that lectures are often the least educational aspect of college: after four years of instruction, research shows that many students haven’t mastered basic reasoning or communication skills. Students forget most of what they hear in lecture and then only recall 40% of the tested material two years later. Lectures do little for students actually enrolled in the school, let alone the millions of online users who will study part-time, without a supportive community or frequent feedback from a professor.
So, last week, two Stanford professors made a courageous proposal to ditch lectures in the medical school. “For most of the 20th century, lectures provided an efficient way to transfer knowledge, But in an era with a perfect video-delivery platform — one that serves up billions of YouTube views and millions of TED Talks on such things as technology, entertainment, and design — why would anyone waste precious class time on a lecture?,” write Associate Medical School dean, Charles Prober and business professor, Chip Heath, in The New England Journal of Medicine. Instead, they call for an embrace of the “flipped” classroom, where students review Khan Academy’s YouTube lectures at home and solve problems alongside professors in the classroom. Students seem to love the idea: when Stanford piloted the flipped classroom in a Biochemistry course, attendance ballooned from roughly 30% to 80%.
Skeptical readers may argue that Khan Academy can’t compete with lectures from the world’s great thinkers. In response, Prober and Heath point to a recent one-week study that compared the outcomes of two classes, a control class that received a lecture from a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and an experimental section where students worked with graduate assistants to solve physics problems. Test scores for the experimental group (non-lecture) was nearly double that of the control section (41% to 74%).
“Students are being taught roughly the same way they were taught when the Wright brothers were tinkering at Kitty Hawk,” they explain. After a revolution, an organization should bear little resemblance to its former self. Harvard and MIT have merely placed the 20th century education model online. Stanford, on the other hand, is completely doing away with the old model of the “sage on the stage” and embracing a learning environment that mirrors life forever connected to the world’s information.