There are exceptions to how bad television was in the early 2000s but, for the most part, America’s favorite babysitter deserved every pan received. What TV did for democratizing and proliferating entertainment, online learning could do for education. Even two decades into its existence, e-education has lots of promise, and many students enrolled – many viewers, if you will – but the quality is low even compared to its often flawed and inconsistent face-to-face alternative.
In the first four decades of television programming everything on the tube had to fit into 26 annual episodes of 30-minutes to 1-hour duration punctuated by commercial advertisements every 8 to 10 minutes. Consequently, all television scripts followed a very common pattern of the “acts” between commercials: prologue/setup, problem, complication/unveiling, resolution. While viewers developed a comfortable familiarity with this pattern, it also led to boredom. The best writers and actors were unchallenged by the format, thus content suffered.
Currently most e-learning is facing a similar fate. Content comes directly from face-to-face courses. In fact, there is a dictum in many universities that the online course cannot vary far from the in-person source of the materials. Our online courses are very much like the early television shows which were adapted stage plays and short stories. In online education, we are simply adding electronic delivery to a century-old technology known as correspondence schools: read/watch something, take a test on it, repeat.
Everything in television changed because of one TV provider: HBO. Home Box Office did more than any other entertainment channel to help TV become critically acclaimed and respected by both viewers and entertainers alike. HBO had been showing movies on cable since its start in the late 1970s. But when it seriously ventured into original scripted material at the millennium, everything changed. At the same time, DVRs like TiVo were just appearing on the market. And the combination of great scripts and easy to use time-shifting technologies was the ticket to a new “golden era” of television.
A similar shift is coming in online learning in two ways:
Technological change is already here – cloud-based computing can make e-learning content as flexible as that found in a great classroom experience. A good professor is constantly changing a course’s content and methodology to continually challenge students – all based on what is actually working in class. This can now happen in e-learning. It doesn’t yet. Professors in online courses still prerecord video lectures, create online reading lists and exams, and use them over and over again as a kind of annuity – invest once then the course continues to “pay out” semester after semester until it eventually dies. The economics of our current e-learning system almost demand a single path to be followed by all students in a particular course, regardless of their abilities or comprehension speed … and without measuring or adjusting for the effectiveness of a process. In study after study, the learning outcomes of electronic delivery of education have proven to be significantly lower than those found in a “brick and mortar” classrooms.
The revolution in content is still coming in e-learning. HBO changed television when a relaxed set of format and technology boundaries allowed for a new kind of writing and audience engagement. This is the key to changing education – we need better content. For the last three years, I and a small team of really smart people, have devoted much our time to the course content for a single subject: business strategy. It replaces a core business school course and – unlike in the classroom – lends itself to role-plays, contingency development, competitive simulations, and data application. It is often taught with a combination of playfulness and predicament.
I have not seen those elements in any existing e-learning course on the topic. But we believe our Interactive Learning eXperience (I-L-X) has the potential to become the Six Feet Under, Sopranos,or The Wire of business education – showing others that with great plot, script, humor, a little mystery, and even the element of surprise, we can teach better than anyone has ever been able to do online. Maybe even better than the best professors do in the classroom.
And if all we can do through our efforts is shine a little light on the possibility of this happening sometime in the future, I am confident that some bright folks will come along who will take this far beyond our meager pioneering efforts.
I believe that a probable byproduct of great new online education courses will be even better face-to-face classes – consider how Broadway has improved since television hit its stride.
Wouldn’t it be nice to believe we are on the verge of a “golden era” of education?
image: flickr/Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office and Home Box Office