Wharton professors say online learning adapts to student needs


You can't click rewind in a classroom




Two Wharton professors think that online learning may provide benefits absent from traditional classroom learning environments.

In their study titled “Will Video Kill the Classroom Star? The Threat and Opportunity of MOOCs for Full-time MBA Programs,” Co-director of the Mack Institute of Innovation and Management Christian Terwiesch and Vice Dean of Innovation Karl Ulrich said that the technology embedded in massive open online courses is beneficial to the learning process, but doubt it will displace the traditional classroom system.

MOOCs utilize a system of technology — which Terwiesch and Ulrich coined SuperText — featuring three main components: videos, online learning platforms and a social network that creates a sense of community.

Both professors believe that SuperText has the potential to be more reactive to a student’s needs than a professor in a traditional, in-person classroom.

“In a classroom, every participant is forced to share an identical experience,” Ulrich said in an email. “With SuperText, the learning experience can adapt dynamically to the needs and preferences of each individual student.”

Terweisch added that MOOCs facilitate some functions that may supplement the learning process in ways in-person classes cannot..

“As simple as it might sound, the SuperText has a rewind button. You watch that video and you get confused so you just rewind it, pause it, text a friend and get an explanation,” Terweisch said. “That’s actually more adaptive than the traditional classroom environment.”

Terweisch went on to cite a technology embedded in the SuperText called “adaptive learning” — essentially, the testing platform runs a diagnosis on the student, sees where that student is struggling, and directs the learner towards the area where he or she most needs help.

“When it comes to a dull lecture with practice problems, the SuperText technology is probably doing a better job [than the professor]. As faculty we have to ask ourselves how we are spending time in the classroom. We have to deliver a meaningful and exciting experience in the classroom,” Terweisch said.

Both professors currently use the SuperText technology in tandem with their normal classroom instruction. Students meet once or twice a week in the classroom after having completed parts of the course online to discuss, clarify and work in small groups. This is also called “flipping the classroom.”

Terweisch has uploaded parts of his lectures to YouTube for years.

“Increasingly, [we have] the generation of students who grew up with Khan Academy. It’s a very different type of learning than ten years ago,” Terweisch said. “These people are going into college and grad school and we will have to adapt. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

The professors’ study also raises an old debate — the possibility of technology surpassing the instruction of a tenured or tenure-track professor and displacing the traditional classroom learning system.

“I just don’t see that happening,” Terwiesch said, noting that in-person classrooms allow for personality building and the formation of communities.

“I am quite optimistic,” Terweisch said. “As long as we keep our eyes on the students’ needs we will have our [in-person] MBA programs.”

Similar to technology’s impact on other industries such as media and entertainment, Terweisch noted that its influence, while significant, has not rendered the effectiveness of classroom learning obsolete.

“Movies have seriously reduced the number of people who go to the theater , but people who go to the theater are still out there,” Terwiesch said.

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