Professors Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Wiley: big publishers producing online courses

A recent article on Slate.com by Gabriel Kahn reports that major textbook publishers are now producing online courses at the introductory level across various subjects. These courses include the extensive materials that are already bundled with many textbooks, such as videos, quizzes and activities, and can be run without much additional input from an instructor. Some of the courses include essays that are submitted online and graded automatically. The courses are offered through colleges and universities, but they essentially the same course no matter which institution is giving the student credit.

Proponents of the courses say that the lower cost of delivering them, as compared with a traditional course that involves many hours of an instructor’s time to prepare, deliver and mark, is a major benefit. The materials produced by textbook companies has a higher production value than what any individual instructor would be able to put together on his or her own. First-year courses are already somewhat standardized across institutions, especially in disciplines where one textbook is used by a majority of universities. Given that many professors (particularly at research-focused universities) would prefer to teach upper-level courses, offloading introductory courses onto the textbook companies rather than onto sessional lecturers may make university administrators happy as well.

I think that for instructors, these textbook-company courses should serve as a real wake-up call. While I am in favour of a flipped classroom model, perhaps using some of the textbook company’s videos and quizzes, anyone whose course could be replaced by software should be taking a long, hard look at their teaching methods. I believe that my job is not just to deliver content and assess students’ memorization of said content (and I agree that software could probably do those tasks), but also to personalize the content for my each group of students, inspire excitement about the subject matter, encourage and advise students, model a scientific way of thinking, and provide meaningful feedback on students’ progress. Maybe looking at what the textbook companies are offering in terms of online courses should give us a push toward focusing on those things that only real instructors can provide, and away from standing at the front of the room (or sitting in front of a webcam) delivering a speech.

Educational games vs. “gamification”

An article on Slate.com by Chris Berdik describes the distinction between using games to reward students for learning (“gamificaton”) and using games to capture the intrinsic fun of learning. An example of “gamification”  would be a math game that rewards correct answers to math drills with a short shooting-stuff video game, animations, or points. The problem with this model, according to the article, is that students learn that the subject matter (e.g. math) is a means to an end – that getting the boring math over with allows you to reach a fun reward. It doesn’t foster any love of the subject matter or inspire students.

Instead, the researchers of MIT’s Education Arcade believe that educational games can capture what is inherently fun or inspiring about the subject matter – for example, that math allows us to solve real-world problems – and put that into a game. They have produced a game called The Radix Endeavor that is aimed at middle- and high school students and covers topics in math and biology. The game is highly complex and large-scale, and involves both individual and cooperative tasks – and is freely available online. It is not designed to replace classroom instruction, but to supplement it by giving students a place to apply their knowledge.

This type of game is clearly a more ambitious undertaking than a simple drill-and-reward type game (which may still have a role as a review tool), but with really exciting implications. It’s sometimes hard to make students see applications for what they learn in an introductory course, when the real-world application may be years away – a game is of course not exactly “real world” but still provides some motivation and excitement about what is being taught in class. An inquiry-based game that gives students room to fail at some tasks without “failing” in a real sense, and to work through frustrating problems using their knowledge, has the potential to teach much more about how science works than anything I could say in front of the class.

More about The Radix Endeavor can be found around the web:

Next Gen Learning Blog

Boston.com State of Play

Games and Learning