Online learning

A few thoughts on the current phase of online learning

In this article from A16z, the author discussed the 3 phases in online learning in the US.

Here’s  a quick recap of the 3 phases, according to the authors:

Phase 1: MOOCs (Massive Online Open courses): referring to university-style courses such as those offered by Coursera, MIT Open courses, etc.

Phase 2: Built tools & resources that support in-person tutoring.
This phase includes softwares in 3 sub categories:

  • Learning management systems (LMS): for admin-related work
  • Pre-recorded content: such as YouTube, Khan Academy, Duolingo, etc.
    • In my opinions, we should have a new category to include self-study learning software such as Duolingo, ABC Mouse, etc. b/c their content are way more dynamic and customized than pre-recorded videos.
  • Tutoring & tutor-matching platforms: facilitating online tutoring & students-tutors matching. Exs include PhotoMath, Brainly, etc.

Phase 3: (Current phrase): Building tools / platforms for after-school or out-of-school (home-schooling) learning.

I was quite fascinated by the idea of categorizing phases in online learning b/c it brings us a deeper understanding of online learning, with which we can also better predict the next phase.

It appears from the above post that they came up with this classification using an evidence-based approaches: that’s what has happened.

But let’s approach this from the angle of market needs & software capabilities.

The need in education is pretty static with the key goal has always been about efficient dissemination of “useful” knowledge.

  • Here, “useful” is pretty subjective and hence allowing for different interpretations and focuses in education.
  • But oftentimes, “useful” is interpreted to mean skills that are in high demand by industries.

As such, I think the deciding factor for online education is not the “education” part itself, b/c it’s relatively static, but the evolving capabilities of software – the “online” part.

The key deciding factor, in my opinions, is still the effectiveness of software in the context of education. It’s definitely much cheaper, but it’s still unclear how effective it can be.

For MOOCs, they’re universities bringing their content online: the content has always been there, already recorded, and now made available online for wider distribution.

In this direction, sites such as Udemy or Coursera are also bringing teachers online through recorded videos: but these are new videos purposefully created for the online medium.

So these approaches are actually very much the same: still teachers teaching, but instead of offline, let’s record them and bring them online: better distribution + reduced cost.

The interactivity part will be “simulated” via forums and other async communication channels: again with a cost-consciousness.

This approach brings a really wonderful thing that traditional offline teaching couldn’ produce: it allows everyone to access the “best” teachers in a field / subfield.

Traditionally, in countries like Vietnam, the “best”/”interesting” teachers already attract a large crowd of students for extra-classes, but now these videos will potentially bring the winner-take-all dynamic to a new level: instead of being the best locally, now the best “globally”, given certain constraints such as language and curricula, will attract all students.

But again, that’s just the theory. In practice, it hasn’t happened that way at all for very understandable reasons (but we’d talk about that in another post).

Also in this direction, there’s another related approach: instead of using recorded videos, which aren’t as interactive as having live teachers, why don’t we just bring teachers live, online?

This is the fundamental idea behind online live tutoring (1-1 or 1-m) and tutors-students matching platforms.

This approach is good in the aspect that it allows students & teachers to still keep the familiar face-to-face teaching experience.

But the drawbacks? Many: compared with recorded videos, the price is a multitude higher, almost as high as 80% of in-person teaching. Another: although very interactive and with live teachers, the online medium still hasn’t reached its full capabilities, and, for example, certain types of learning activities traditionally available are not (or can not) be supported.

A popular use case of this approach are apps connecting students learning a foreign language with teachers abroad.

In another direction, there’re learning software / platform that teaches: software will replace human teachers and a built-in curriculum combined with software capabilities will deliver the teaching / training.

One of the most successful example of this is Duolingo.

But even with Duolingo, the target audience is still quite limited: elementary learners. When one’s level gets higher, the lessons become less and less adequate b/c the it’s harder to deliver deep content via software (w/o humans).

It’s still very difficult to build software that can be as effective as a good teacher. At least not yet.

So how about “Phase 3”: building platforms for after-school learning & home-schooling, mentioned in the A16z post?

In terms of delivery, I think they’re not actually much different from what we’ve seen for videos-based or software-based platforms.

But what’s different is the scope and the target audience: previously, there’s no such option and now there is.

And hence, I think the best opportunities for online learning is to enable learning situations where traditional offline couldn’t cater to due to economics factors. In other words, online education is best in unlocking new markets, not replacing existing well-served markets.

Initially, these will inevitably be small niches. Gradually, with a lot more progress in tech / AI, hopefully we’d have better market adoption.

There’s one thing that’s certain, though, that the emergence of online education is helping / pushing everyone to getting used to self-studying, using the available online platforms and tools.

But it will likely be a very gradual shift.

(Ref: Photo by August de Richelieu from Pexels)

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