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Lessons e-Learned

We have the technology to reinvent teaching, says MIT’s distance-learning guru, but do we have the will?

As director of MIT’s Center for Advanced Educational Services, Richard Larson leads MIT’s efforts to integrate technology and education, from high-tech “learning studios” to distance learning projects that take him to every corner of the globe. Recently, Larson sat down with staff editor Alan Leo, after speaking at a distance-learning conference in Iran.

TR: What brought you to Iran?

LARSON: An e-mail out of the blue asked me to go. Like many developing countries, they are extremely interested in distance learning as a way to deliver top-notch education to more and more folks.

Not only are there not enough brick-and-mortar institutions, there aren’t enough qualified professors. Distance learning has a great scaling effect. You no longer need to think of the stage play; this is the movie version. You afford an education to people in the developing world. You afford them world-class teaching and learning.

Mexico is a leader in this. The Monterrey Institute of Technology’s virtual university is large and well financed. Professors there take two semesters off to create a distance-learning course. The University sends the courses to twenty-five or thirty campuses in Mexico and by satellite to every country in Latin America. China is also quite extensive in its use of distance learning.

And in the developed world, technology is changing so rapidly, it is naive to think that you will know everything you need by age 22 or 25. You now need formal education in many different jobs.

TR: Tell me about distance learning at MIT.

LARSON: We teach a battery of educational programs for PBS’s business and technology network, a for-profit spinoff of PBS. We teach courses in e-commerce, supply chain ventures and wireless. The market is very interested in courses that bridge technology and management. We are developing a business plan for a scaled version of the PBS venture called Knowledge Updates. Courses will be decided by market demand. If a professor says I want to teach a course on Latin engravings on sunken vessels, I might say there’s not much market demand for that.

TR: Last spring, MIT announced the OpenCourseWare initiative (see “MIT to Show All”). Is that distance learning?

LARSON: OpenCourseWare is an MIT initiative to publish on the Web the syllabus, course notes and related textual content, like problems sets and their solutions or quizzes and their solutions, and to make it available to all, worldwide. With OpenCourseWare, there is no e-mail or other contact with MIT staff. It’s a one-way publication activity. So OpenCourseWare is not what we consider distance learning, any more than a library is distance learning or any public Web site without feedback or interactivity is distance learning.

Now, an individual who sees some content of interest on an OpenCourseWare site may want to take an actual course or short learning activity from MIT or from elsewhere. So, in that way, OpenCourseWare may stimulate the learner’s desire to take more formal courses-at a distance or on a campus, from MIT or from elsewhere.

TR: You conduct a distance-learning program with two universities in Singapore. How does that work?

LARSON: You can’t get further from MIT than Singapore. Singapore from here is this way [points straight down]. We use Internet2 for connectivity. There’s no statistical difference in performance between distance learners and classroom learners. And when there is a difference, it favors the distance learners.

TR: So what does a distance-learning class look like?

LARSON: We do them with high production quality and broadcast them live by satellite and asynchronously via the Internet. We chunk up the content into ten-minute bits. We cue the professor every ten minutes to take a sip of coffee.

“We broadcast live by satellite and asynchronously via the Internet.” (Illustration by Matthew Bouchard)

TR: Do you run into misconceptions about distance learning?

LARSON: A lot of my colleagues, who are otherwise impeccable scientists, make statements like “there is no substitute for face-to-face learning.” I take that as a research hypothesis. Some might say, “We all know the on-campus experience is the best in the world.” It’s certainly the most expensive.

The blackboard is basically an adaptation of cave drawings. In thirty thousand years there has been the invention of the eraser. A lot of my colleagues say asynchronous learning is revolutionary, but cave drawings are an example of that. The artist shared what he knew about buffalo, or what-have-you, and the painting made it asynchronous. The printing press revolutionized asynchronous learning.

I have this image in my mind. In the early 1800s, the Dewitt-Clinton steam engine was invented. They had a steam engine, but nothing for it to pull, so they hitched together three stagecoaches. So they had the latest technology, a steam engine, pulling old technology, the coaches. If you take the usual learning, that’s the stagecoaches. The engine is the technology available today.

The typical brick-and-mortar university is used to teaching courses as a handcrafted thing. It’s been used for centuries. That stagecoach doesn’t work with this bullet train engine. To do this right, you have to invest up front in the kind of course students have come to expect. But you can go too far in that direction, too: all flare and no substance.

Until very recently-1995-very few, if any, faculty members reflected on their teaching as an intellectual exercise. Now we have many faculty members devoting a great deal of thought to the question.

TR: Like who?

LARSON: Walter Lewen teaches Newtonian mechanics, a requirement for all MIT first-years. They’re some of the most gifted students in the world, but fifteen percent of them flunk [this class]. To help students learn better, we created PIVoT: the Physics Interactive Video Tutor. This was designed not as a substitute, but as another resource. By and large, the students loved it.

TR: How does it work?

LARSON: We give them their professor, on their desktop, 24/7, answering questions, working out problems. He starts with the scariest thing in the world to an engineering student: a blank piece of paper.

Now we’re trying to license PIVoT. It could either be used as distance learning or as a course supplement. We have a program with Ford called Masters’ Voices. In Ford’s brake division, the folks who have craft knowledge are near retirement age. Ford’s problem is, how do you capture that before they walk out the door? We created videos of the senior folks talking about brake design, then took the PIVoT shell and populated it with information for Ford’s brake design system.

TR: It seems like a lot of companies have tried to build businesses around distance learning-and failed. What happened?

LARSON: There are lots of entities trying to be in the business of distance learning. To keep it simple, let’s say there are two kinds: not-for-profit universities and for-profit companies. For universities, the greatest risk of failure is to try to do it on the margin. You have to treat it as a successful business. Stanford University is a huge success story. They’ve been doing distance learning to Silicon Valley by satellite for twenty-five years. You can get an engineering degree from Stanford off-campus if you qualify. There are many who feel that Stanford would not be where it is today if Stanford had not taken that path.

TR: What about the for-profits?

LARSON: Distance learning is experiencing 25 to 50 percent annual growth. Many companies are trying to capture that market. It’s difficult getting that formula right. Some will succeed. Many will fail.

In the for-profit sector, I would point to the University of Phoenix, owned by Apollo Group. The fastest growing part of their business is distance learning. Other for-profits, like Pensare and Caliber, have not succeeded. Many of these dotcom startups didn’t do any mid-course correction when they saw their plan was in trouble.

TR: You often speak of the importance of “high touch.” What is high touch?

LARSON: High touch means interactivity. We set up a three-layer pyramid. The first layer is people we hire and train to handle technical questions and some questions about content. If a question is too difficult, it’s bumped up to the next level, a team of teaching assistants. Questions too difficult for them are bumped up to the professor.

On the other side, no high touch means no feedback. The dropout rate for this model-when there’s only teaching by text-is 70 percent.

The other aspect of high touch is that we pair up the students, who probably will never meet each other, for projects. We had a bilingual student from Buenos Aires teamed up with a Boeing engineer, for example. The best high-touch is when students learn more from each other.

We polled MIT students on various ways of learning, from large lectures to small classes to textbooks to independent reading to informal discussions among students. From twelve ways to learn, what do you think ranked highest? It was the peer discussions. And what do you think ranked lowest? The large lecture.

TR: What would you do to make this article more high touch?

LARSON: Let’s redesign a stagecoach. We’ll create a threaded discussion group and invite people to contribute. I want to find out what the marketplace wants from us.

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