Gas station without pumps

2010 September 27

On-line learning not a big win

The University of California administrators have been pushing full-speed ahead for on-line learning, in the hopes of eliminating those pesky faculty and buildings.  Meanwhile MIT has been doing a courageous experiment in putting materials for most of their courses on-line at MIT Open Courseware.  Stanford has been doing a smaller-scale experiment with Stanford Engineering Everywhere.  I’ve blogged about both of these projects before (here and here), because I think that they may be valuable to gifted high school students.

But are they working?  Does anyone really want on-line education from a top-rank university enough to pay for it?  Are people snapping up the freely available material from MIT and Stanford?  The Computing Education blog points out that statistics are available from MIT at  They get a lot of traffic (7 million page hits a month, 41% from USA and Canada), but visits average only 7 page views (or 9 pages and 9 minutes, depending which set of statistics you look at—they have new stats every month).  Fewer than 4% of the MIT faculty participating report any drop in in-person attendance in their classes (so the on-line content is not replacing people’s desire to go to classes in real life).  Quite a bit of the use is by educators, who then use the content in their own face-to-face classes.

Given that a typical course is 30-to-35 hours, and the average connection is only 9 minutes, there aren’t really such a huge number of courses being delivered (about 6000–7000 courses a year, probably about 1000 complete ones and lots more short visits and partially completed courses).  If that is all you can get for a completely free system, how much demand is there going to be for an expensive UC system?

It has been pointed out that only a few of the MIT Open Courseware classes actually have any useful content in them: most are just PowerPoint slides or cryptic lecture notes.  I wonder what the statistics are on people actually viewing full video of lectures.  I know that I don’t have the patience to sit through an hour-long video of a lecture, even though I have no trouble going to live lectures that long several times a week.


  1. I’ve downloaded some of the course videos from MIT (you can download them to iTunes & one’s iphone or ipod). I’ve listened to a few lectures from the Landscape Architecture series. But not much more than that. But, I’m unusual. I didn’t like attending classes either, and don’t like linear/audiovisual delivery of information (I prefer to read). So, I think the videos might be useful for some. I think the real problem, though, is that learning in topics in depth require a reason — needing it for some project, for example, or in the case of classes where there’s no immediate project, a supervisor and tests. The open course ware doesn’t deliver that. Online courses, though, with grading and feedback, might.

    Comment by bj — 2010 September 27 @ 17:55 | Reply

  2. Mark Guzdial points to research that drop-out rates are much higher from on-line classes than the same courses delivered in person.

    Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2010 October 1 @ 09:00 | Reply

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