Classroom Learning v. Online Learning

By James Wallace Harris, Thursday, October 15, 2015

This week I started a continuing education class in beginning drawing. It’s the first classroom learning experience I’ve had in over a decade. Of course, folks my age don’t usually go to school, but I was still taking some graduate courses in my fifties. In recent years I’ve been using online courses from Coursera and Udemy, or I sometimes buy Great Courses on DVD. And whenever I want to learn something quickly, I go to YouTube and find a How-To video. Plus, I’ve been an autodidactic my whole life, and learn on my own with books.

Taking this drawing course is way off my beaten path because I’m trying to learn something I have absolutely no previous experience with in any context. Even my expectations for what the class would be like was completely different from what I experienced. I assumed the teacher would start us with pencil and paper and teach us the rudimentary skills of line drawing. Instead she had us create two 1-10 gray scales with 9B pencil and black Conte crayon. Then she had us “draw” from still-life objects by using shading rather than lines. She took us through a tour of the building where the walls were covered with student artwork and showed us how it’s possible to draw without lines, and explained the lines we see in reality are just edges to various levels of shading.


[See the power of the pencil]

It was when we actually got down to work that I realized the difference between classroom learning and online learning. Nine-seven percent of my time I worked alone, but when I did get the teacher to come by to show me something it caused a big leap in my ability. Unfortunately, my teacher didn’t spend that much time with me. She had to lecture and visit the other students. Now this one little insight is the intent of this whole essay. I have found numerous videos online that teach drawing. They are all equal or better to classroom lectures when dealing with information. The same is true for books, although seeing someone demonstrate drawing techniques works much better in videos than from the printed page.

Where the classroom wins is when you get feedback. Sadly, most classroom instruction is built around lectures, and the reality is most video lectures come from top tier instructors. I also watched my fellow students in class and realized if I could work with them, all of whom had more experience drawing than I did, I could learn from them as well. This reminds me of when I went to computer school back in the early 1970s, at the State Technical Institute in Memphis. Classes were three hours. The first hour was lecture. The next two hours were programming. The teacher hung around to give one-on-one help, plus students worked together and helped each other. This method was perfect. This is how Pythagoras and Aristotle taught over two thousand years ago. This is not how most of my university classes were like. It was better decades ago when classes were lectures and discussions, but unfortunately, someone asshole invented PowerPoint, and things got real boring. That’s why my last stint at college was taking fiction writing workshops.

My guess, the best way to learn is with a tutor, with one-on-one instruction. And I’d advise colleges and professors who don’t want to be put out of business by online courses to spend more time interacting with students while they work. Leave the lecturing to the folks who are most eloquent in front of a camera. Instruct while walking between your students, and having them work on something you can guide them personally. Stop by each student often to see how they are progressing. Give the students time to work together. Spend as much time as possible away from the front of the class. Online learning can’t compete to this kind of instruction.

Here are some samples of online lectures. Notice how the video deletes dead time—some of these seven minutes lessons would be a whole class period in the real world. It’s very easy to go back and repeat parts. It’s also easy to find other teachers covering similar topics. What the videos can’t do is give instant feedback and guidance. It really helps to have a human say, “That won’t work, try this.”

My continuing education course would actually be far more effective if it was built around a computer lecture series, and all the time I got to spend in class was interacting with a teacher and my fellow students.

JWH – #973

Why Aren’t The Great Courses by The Teaching Company Online?

If you aren’t familiar with The Great Courses by the Teaching Company you should be.  That is if you enjoy learning.  The Great Courses are a series of college like courses done by well known professors for educational entertainment.  I’ve bought several over the years and have checked out others from my library.  Originally they came on audio cassettes, and since evolved to DVDs, digital audio downloads, and now video downloads.  But what I’m asking is why aren’t they available for streaming?  The Teaching Company needs to create a Netflix like service for their educational videos so I can watch them on my TV, computer, iPad or even iPhone.

I don’t like owning stuff like DVDs anymore. Netflix streaming has ruined me for that.  Nor do I like owning MP3s, Rhapsody and Rdio have ruined me for owning music.  I like to pay a monthly fee and just call stuff up when I’m in the mood.  If the Teaching Company offered their library for $7.99 a month I’d subscribe.

Online education is taking the world of higher education by storm.  Educational videos from the TED Talks, Khan Academy and iTunes U are also gaining popularity.  There’s a market for fun learning, or edutainment, especially when it’s convenient.  The Teaching Company videos have always been rather staid in production format, reminding me of educational TV from the 1960s, but they are slowly learning to jazz things up with multimedia to support the lectures.  What The Teaching Company needs to do is get away from it’s old fashion 20th century marketing concepts.

The Teaching Company would do well to model its distribution on Hulu Plus and Netflix.  The $7.99 all you can eat video services are the way to go.  That’s $95.88 a year, about equal to one of their 36 part courses.  Now I’m sure The Teaching Company fears giving everything away for the price of one course, but how many people buy more than one course a year?  And would they attract more customers if they offered their courses in a much more convenient and easier to pay fashion?

Sooner or later someone is going to bring edutainment to the Netflix streaming model.  Right now there are several companies trying to copy Netflix, such as Amazon Prime Video, but they tend to offer the same kind of content – movies and old TV shows.  The same thing is happening with music.  There’s are a half dozen or more streaming music services all with almost the same 12-15 million songs.  I would think the entrepreneurial action would be delivering new kinds of content, and I’m thinking online education would be popular for a niche market.

The Power of Online Learning

Look at this sample lesson from for Cascading Style Sheets.  It’s quite slick, and it illustrates the value of studying at the computer or TV screen.  You can pause the lecture at any point.  You can have your own text editor in another window to practice the lesson as you watch.  You can have a third window open to take notes. charges $35 paid by the month, or $240 paid by the year, to access all its courses, which mainly focuses on tutoring kids for high school or some basic college courses.  That’s a good value if you’re going to school and want extra help, but a little high for edutainment.

Free Online Education

These sites are offering free courses in a variety of formats. You can go to YouTube and search on any subject and find videos to help you learn too.  The Teaching Company has a lot of competition from free sources.  But their video and audio courses are well produced.  I don’t mind paying for them, but I have to say there’s lots of good free content out there.  Look at this MIT video on linear algebra.  It looks like being back in school with a professor at the blackboard.

Another free approach is from the Khan Academy.  And that’s the cool thing about having a variety of courses – if you are having trouble with a topic, just find another teacher with a different approach.

Look at this link to’s lesson on linear algebra to see even another approach.  It uses a multiwindow technique, with the professor in one window, the exercises on a whiteboard in another, and the course outline in a third.

I wished The Teaching Company had some sample lectures I could link or show.  But here’s a lecture at YouTube on How to Read World Literature.  It is has a rather long intro, but even that explains the value of the lecture.  Often this is what The Great Courses are like, a professor who is passionate about his subject just talking to a class.  The Great Courses are a bit more slick, filming the lecture without distractions with better sound, but it’s the content that counts.

I think The Teaching Company has done a poor job of advertising itself.  I’ve asked a number of professors I know if they’ve seen one of The Great Courses videos and many have not.  Over the years I’ve met a few other Great Courses fans, but I feel The Great Courses are an acquired taste.  Most bookworms read fiction, but if you love non-fiction they may appeal to you.  Even then, you can read a book by Bart D. Ehrman or James Gleick and ingest facts far faster than you can by watching lectures.  However, there is something different about having a specialist just talk to you, and maybe show some sample photos or film clips.  Listening to people lecture sometimes helps with learning.

One reason why I like The Great Courses is they enhance my personal map of reality.  For instance I watched From Monet to Van Gogh: A History of Impressionism and learned so much, that when I went to Washington DC looking forward to seeing the Air & Space Museum, I actually ended up more thrilled at the National Gallery.  And since then I’ve read books about the history of Impressionism and the artists, bought impressionism art books, and took in every visiting exhibit of impressionistic paintings that have come to town since. 

I’ve read three books by Bart D. Ehrman on early Christian history, and now want to get his lecture series from The Great Courses.  What happens is you take up a topic and start studying it just for fun.  There are no stressful tests, no homework, no writing papers.  It’s just learning because it’s fascinating.

That’s why I believe I would enjoy The Great Courses if they were available like TV shows.  Instead of watching an old episode of Star Trek on Netflix, I could watch a lecture on British literature, or one about cosmology.  Watching the YouTube clip above about world literature makes me want to read outside of my normal territory of the US, Canada and Great Britain.

JWH – 10/22/11

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