“Online education has become a viable substitute for a large part of the educational mission that we have within institutions, and the miracle of it is that the same online component can then be used to reach a much broader population in a cost effective way”—Prof. Daphne Coller, Stanford University
This opening remark by Stanford professor Daphne Coller could not better summarize the purpose of inverted or flipped classrooms, in which homework is about watching lectures online and answering quizzes or submitting questions to the professor before class, so that class time can be devoted to answering students’ questions and working out problems using engaging activities. The method works—students learn better than in a regular classroom environment—because the easier task of getting exposed to new knowledge through a lecture is left to the students, while that far much harder of assimilating that knowledge through reasoning and critical thinking happens with direct guidance of the instructor during class. Both Eric Mazur and Sal Khan have been fervent proponents of that strategy and have helped develop methods and technologies to support it. Stanford’s initiative last summer brought such pedagogical common sense to its next level, by proposing three new softwares (for video recording, social interactions, and dissemination of online lectures) that were designed with the flipped classroom approach in mind.
Now, a parallel approach is the complete transfer of both delivery and assimilation of knowledge to virtual environments. Repository of top-notch lectures from ace universities have been growing exponentially in quantity and quality. Here’s a list of websites classified by discipline which offer free online courses. Many free courses are also available through iTunes U. Although previously limited, iTunes U just expanded to facilitate design and distribution of online courses, which will undoubtedly boost the number of courses that will be available on that platform. The PowerPoint alternative Prezi also created a platform to share presentation materials and educational experiences. Even Google has joined the ranks, by offering computer science courses on its Google Code University. Because online distance learning is spreading so widely, books such as The next generation of distance education are being released to propose strategies to teach in this new environment.
Online courses are on the rise and incorporate more social media features that would make the flipped classroom model possible in a 100% virtual environment. This is a very good thing, at least for two reasons. First, students or even individuals would be able to choose which courses to follow based on their interests in order to create their own cocktail of experience and expertise. That’s got to be a fantastic avenue to promoting creative spirits and tomorrow’s entrepreneurs! The only way this could really be done before is illustrated by what Steve Jobs did: He dropped out of college so that he could just join in only on classes he was interested in. Just imagine discussions among students with such strong interests, but at the same time broad backgrounds and horizons! Naturally Steve Jobs did not earn credit or a degree, but it probably won’t be long until the most popular platforms such as iTunes U will start offering credit like real universities do. MIT’s online course already offers some certification for registered students. Second, online courses are often free or cheaper than their on-campus counterparts, making it much easier for students from all financial horizons to sign up and benefit from the same quality teaching. Such an advantage could prove to be tremendous for closing the worrisome gap between rich and poor children, which has widened as a consequence of increasing stretches on finances for low-income families. Together with increasing availability of internet connections worldwide, expansion of social media, and decreasing costs of computers and tablets, cost-effective online education could have a significant leveling effect, so that every one would get a chance to study in Boston, Oxford, Tokyo or Paris without needing to leave their homes. Discussions among these diverse students in such a virtual environment are likely to be highly productive and enriching for all!