How to make quality education available at scale to those who need it?

At Vensight, we see this as a key question at the heart of online education and learning. And it presents a challenge:

  • There is quality education that isn’t scalable – just think of how parents teach their children to speak: years of teaching and constant feedback (not to mention the patience and love). It’s very effective – the children go from zero to fluency – but as any parent will tell you, it’s not scalable.
  • Then there is scalable education – made possible by advances in technology and in particular online learning through so-called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). But, as the co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller admitted in an interview with us, the emphasis on scale meant that ‘engagement and interaction got a little bit sidelined’ – and the quality of these courses, when measured by the completion rates and what people actually learn, varies.

So, the challenge is: we know how to do quality – we’ve known that for thousands of years – and we know how to do scale. But how do we do quality at scale?

We set out to answer this question. We spoke with leaders in education and EdTech as part of an interview series called Adventures in eLearning. Here’s what we found:

First, if anyone says they have cracked it, beware of snake oil salesmen!

Second, and more importantly, the focus should always be on the learner and on learning outcomes. When properly applied, the role of technology in education should be to get closer to the quality education that happens when we are taught one-on-one by an excellent teacher. There can be many applications but this is the fundamental approach taken by educational leaders as diverse as the language app DuoLingo as well as Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman, who argues: technology can make bad teaching even worse, but used right it can make good teaching even better. In other words, technology is there to complement teaching – not to replace it.

Third, and building on the second lesson, the most effective form of education is ‘active learning’ – an approach pioneered by Carl Wieman and others. We have a separate post on ‘active learning’, but to put it simply: in active learning 1) a teacher shares knowledge or a skill in bitesize chunks, 2) students then practice that knowledge or skill and, 3) a teacher gives regular feedback. (This is just like how parents teach children to talk, as in the example of quality education above.) Active learning is backed up by lots of evidence, including Daphne Koller who told us that among the many thousands of courses on Coursera, the most successful were those with this interactive element.

So, what does this ‘active learning’ mean in practice for an online learning course?

  • For fully self-paced learning, it can mean producing high-quality video to share the knowledge, followed by quizzes to test the student’s understanding, followed by prompts to help them if they get those questions wrong.
  • For hybrid courses, it can mean producing high-quality video to share the knowledge before the class – or at least to get across key concepts – and that allows the teaching time in the lesson to be devoted towards testing the student’s understanding and giving feedback. Another version of hybrid can mean that students get feedback from their peers or from mentors. And yet another version, as in the case with organisations we have worked with, the online part of the course could be a requirement for students to attend an in-person Q&A or seminar where they can put their knowledge to the test with an expert teacher. All of these hybrid models are active learning in practice.

Key to achieving active learning in a self-paced or hybrid setting is the mix of high-quality video (and text) and then the learning design to combine this with quizzes, seminars, peer-to-peer sessions and a portal that enables all the interactivity (often referred to as an LMS or Learning Management System). There is a lot to factor in and, as we have learned, the focus should always be on the learner and learning outcomes – in other words, what do you as a teacher or organisation want to teach them? This will guide the best approach for you.

In many cases, the answer to this question will be a bespoke solution for you and your learners, and that’s where we can help at Vensight Learn: we understand high-quality video that can engage as well as educate – and we understand the learning design to make it all fit together.