What the Revolution in Online Education Can Teach Us About Digital Experiences

Author: Barbara Palmer       

digital experiences

Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun (left) and Wired magazine’s executive editor, Nick Thompson, discuss online education during a recent Facebook live conversation.

To put the growth of online education in perspective, consider this: More people enrolled in classes offered by Udacity, a global company that specializes in online tech education, during one week in March 2020 than enrolled in the entire second half of 2019.

When Sebastian Thrun, a research professor at Stanford University who founded Udacity in 2013, shared that statistic with Wired magazine’s executive editor Nick Thompson in a Facebook interview earlier this week, Thompson asked him to repeat it.

That rate of growth is too fast, said Thrun said, and reflects the fact that instructors have been pressed into putting classes online virtually overnight. But the social distancing made necessary by the pandemic is helping online education shake off its reputation as a second-class medium, he told Thompson.

When companies like Udacity and Coursera launched massive online open courses — known as MOOCs — almost a decade ago, it was amid the convergence of cloud-based computing, expanded Internet access, mobile devices, and social-networking tools.

Their founders, including Thrun, predicted that they would revolutionize learning by making instruction accessible to vastly larger numbers of people.

The technology was there, said Thrun, who teaches classes in artificial intelligence and is working on designing a self-driving “flying” car. But in many instances, online education offered “a mediocre experience,” he said. Just as the first generation of movies was created by taping stage plays and putting them on screen, online education often simply replicates the lecture style of teaching, Thrun pointed out, and “the most boring way to go online is to have a professor speaking to a camera.”

What works is instruction, followed by the opportunities for students to do things themselves — a dynamic familiar to event designers who make their sessions interactive. Well-designed, online education can be a medium that challenges the learner every minute, not something you can do while checking your email, he said.

And although many online courses have “improved, improved, improved,” most professors hate them, preferring in-class instruction, Thrun said. In addition, approximately half of students drop out of online classes, he told Thompson. “It’s hard to train yourself to do something new. It’s hard to change big systems.”

RELATED: How Online Learning Is Changing the Face of Face-to-Face

But the pandemic is demanding that schools and universities — and we would add professional education — take online education seriously, Thrun said. In the future, there will be vaccines and treatment for COVID-19, but when universities come back, “we won’t be sitting together in the same way,” he said, “or hanging out the same way.”

Just as quarantines have given workers the opportunity to find out that videoconferencing is not that bad, “people are going to get a taste of how good online learning can be,” he said. One of the most liberating aspects of online education is that users learn at their own speed and schedule, Thrun said. The biggest revolution will come for people that normally would not attend college and in lifelong learning, he said.

However, he added, innovation in online learning is likely to come from outside of academia. It wasn’t the Shakespearean stage actors who became the first movie stars, Thrun said, but people who were willing to try new things. “It’s a completely new medium and will take fresh minds.”

One of the improvements Thrun is looking for in online education is the expression of empathy. “Computers can help, but education is a human thing,” he said. “Education is emotional and requires having people on your side.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.


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