A Brief Consideration of Dreyfus and Online Learning

Having just completed my first full online course in Computer Science through Udacity.com, I wanted to write a brief review/reflection on my experience.

In “On the Internet (Thinking in Action)”, Hubert Dreyfus takes a critical perspective on the nature of distance-learning. He argues that the nature of the Internet means its users are disembodied, anonymous, and isolated- and that these features promote nihilism and irresponsible action– and detract from our ability to learn effectively. He concedes that the Internet has immense potential for certain kinds of learning, and for those who do not have access to offline education, but maintains that online learning can never be as good as the “real thing”.

I would agree with Dreyfus’s analysis on many counts. My personal experience was that without having the physical presence of a teacher, I felt much less compelled to pay close attention to the lectures, and much more likely to become distracted and wander off into the Internet. In fact, I probably would not have made it through the entire course if  I had not signed up with a friend, who watched the lectures with me and discussed the homework problems assigned each week.

That said– I was truly surprised by the effectiveness of this course. Several ingenious features of the course helped to counter the problematic factors identified by Dreyfus, and I would suggest would be useful to add as a component to any course, online or off. In particular, the course forums were an essential tool for finding help with the often extremely challenging programming problems. In my “real” computer science class, I can email my teacher or maybe ask a friend for hints about a problem when I am stuck- but if my teacher does not understand the source of my misunderstanding, or if my friend is also stuck, then I am out of luck. The online course forum, which was moderated by both official TA’s and forum-users, provided a huge breadth of advice. Although the tens of thousands of members of the class made the typical sense of community found in a class impossible, these numbers also meant that the crowd-sourcing of teaching/advising was all the more effective.

The class forum was also complemented by a feature called “Office Hours”, wherein the course teacher and his TA took the top-rated questions from the forum and answered them personally. These were not always specific programming questions, but also included discussion questions about conceptual questions in programming, class policies, and a few good jokes. While these videos were of course not the same as real office hours, where you can (at least in theory) ask your own specific question and have it answered by the teacher, they were still helpful and promoted a sense of a relationship with the teacher.

In terms of the class structure itself, it was very useful to have the lecture broken down into very short videos, between 1-10 minutes, with frequent questions to help check your understanding and maintain active engagement. It also made it very easy to go back and re-watch specific portions of the lecture that were not easily grasped on the first pass. These are features I often wish I had in my “real life” classes- control over my time and where it is invested within the material, and a strong incentive to remain engaged in the form of mini-quizzes– almost as if the teacher could call on every student in the class to answer a specific question.

Udacity quiz on python strings

There is much more I could mention, but let me finish by pointing out that these features mentioned seem so effective because they break down the problems identified by Dreyfus as detriments to distance learning. The course forum and office hours created a sense of community and connection- and a system of rewarding frequent forum contributors with more “power” as moderators creates a sense of personal responsibility. The common practice of “upvoting” important questions/answers helped to organize the information on the forum for increased relevance and usefulness. Breaking the course content down into very small and easily digestible units actually helped satisfy the need for instant gratification we often feel when using the Internet- to complete each unit, even if only a few minutes long, felt like a sort of accomplishment and made it easier to continue. The intermittent quizzes also promoted a sense of engagement and responsibility for the information being presented- perhaps even more so than is feasible in an offline course!

The future of online learning seems immensely promising; although online classes can never be exactly the same as offline learning, recognizing the problematic short-comings as Dreyfus did can actually help us to design better course-structures to counter these problems– utilizing methods not even possible in “real life”! Not only can online courses be redesigned to take into account the important elements of embodied learning- but embodied learning can also learn a lesson from digital learning about the potential of creative and critical teaching methods to make for a more efficient learning environment than ever before.

One thought on “A Brief Consideration of Dreyfus and Online Learning

  1. I took by first online course last trimester, a business class, it didn’t go as well as I though it could have. There were no videos mostly reading and forums. Overall it wasn’t very engaging, it could have been the nature of the class but I believe that other implemented features would have made it better. Online-Learning has a lot of potential and maybe each type of class need to find its own method of efficient instruction. The TA like forum sounds like a helpful feature as well the buddy system! I’ll give that a try next time! To be honest, I don’t think I would have made it through an online CS class….. hardly made it through the introductory course in real life! Nice job!

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