Teaching in China from Texas
How I'm Teaching Chinese Students to Speak English
I have a confession to make: I tend to be a luddite when it comes to new technologies. I do not have insta- “this” or insta- “that.” Sometimes, I am tempted to toss my expensive smartphone in the trashcan when it buzzes. All my friends tell me that I am bad at responding to messages. Despite my aversion to the invasion of particular technologies into my life, my experiences with both university and online education systems have led me to believe that online learning is changing the world for the better. Online learning is democratizing education and redefining how we learn, where we learn and even why we decide to crack open an educational website in the first place.
Most people can recall one particularly bad teacher or professor who has taught them. I am no different. Dr. Sedwig*, a short, balding man of about sixty-five years of age who taught my upper-level biology course, stands out as an exceptional example. Dr. Sedwig rushed through complex concepts in a thick accent, yet always seemed to ramble on about the obvious. His lectures slides were incomprehensible, consisting of detailed data tables, crude figures and few words. Questions from students were often responded to with a testy, “Well, what do YOU think?” My stress levels rose higher day-by-day, like water threatening to breach a levee as my final exam got closer. I had a stroke of genius one morning when I remembered a trick used by generations of university students: attend a different course section taught by a better professor. Unfortunately, no other professors taught this particular biology class at my university, so I looked online.
In high school, I relied on the popular educational website, Khan academy, to help me break down confusing concepts into manageable chunks of information. While Khan academy did not offer any videos directly relevant to my course, I was fortunate to find a MOOC that closely matched the curriculum of my biology course. MOOCs are massive open online courses, which often include video lectures and online interactive assignments. The MOOC was taught by a professor with extensive teaching experience at at an Ivey-League college. The quality of teaching in the MOOC was much greater than that provided by professors at my university, like Dr. Sedwig, who were research-heavyweights, but had little interest in teaching undergraduates. Furthermore, I appreciated being able to speed through irrelevant lecture videos and slow down, stop and re-watch important concepts. I found that the combination of access to high-quality education from top global institutions and personalization of my learning experience facilitated more effective learning for the effort I invested. Indeed, I found myself tutoring my peers with ease after studying from the MOOC.
Of course, MOOCs are far from the only type of online education. MOOCs are ideal for content-heavy courses, such as biology; however, other areas of study that require substantial feedback and problem-solving, (for example language arts or mathematics) may be difficult to learn through online lectures alone. I would go as far to suggest that many of the large introductory courses offered in-person on most university campuses offer little more than online lectures: it is difficult, if not impossible for professors to provide individualized feedback and interact face-to-face with 500 students without a veritable army of teaching assistants. Consequently, online tutoring services represent an excellent tool for education. Traditionally, students might have used notice-board advertisements or word-of-mouth to find tutors. However, neither of those approaches guarantee that a student will find a qualified and professional tutor. Online services can connect students with top-rated tutors, regardless of where either person is located. They allow students to compare tutors, read reviews, and find individuals with compatible teaching styles. Moreover, I have noticed an expansion of tutoring services into less traditional areas such as study skills, time management, job-interview preparation just to start
with. Online learning offers a great opportunity for individuals to develop new skills and increase their employability, beyond what local educational institutions offer. Through MOOCs from the likes of Harvard and John Hopkins and tutoring, I have personally been able to increase my job prospects through learning basic coding and gaining an introduction to research methods relevant to my field.
It is simply unprecedented that almost any student with an internet connection can take online courses from top institutions, like Harvard and MIT, for free with a few clicks. Many have lauded MOOCs for democratizing education for this reason. I believe a similar argument can be made for a number of other online learning services as well, such as tutoring. For much of Western world history, children were educated at home. Wealthy families hired private tutors to teach subjects, such as religion, Greek, Latin, English, philosophy, music, arithmetic and the natural sciences, although some private or church-run educational institutions existed. During the industrial revolution, schools were set up for the middle and lower classes. These institutions focused on teaching a standardized curriculum of basic reading, writing, maths, and vocational skills to large numbers of pupils. Although, education has clearly evolved over the past few hundred years, opportunities to study at top institutions and receive an individualized tutoring have never been truly equitable among all social classes. However, online learning represents an important first step in making quality education accessible to all. Single mothers working a minimum wage job can in theory study MIT courses for free, online. Middle-class youths can access high-quality tutoring services online at reasonable prices, rivaling centuries of aristocratic and oligarchic education tradition.
Furthermore, online learning may allow individuals to receive an education, when it would otherwise be impossible due to political or geographical constraints. For example, there is some evidence that online learning may allow women to receive a high-quality education in regions where women have reduced access to education. Online learning may also allow individuals with mobility-limited disabilities to receive an education without traveling to a campus and in regions where university systems have become disrupted, for example due to natural disasters or violent conflicts. The impact of MOOCs in developing nations and populations otherwise excluded from education systems is murky: many MOOC-users hold advanced degrees, even in developing countries. Data on web-based tutoring programs and access to education is less clear. Online learning in its current state represents an important step towards the democratization of education, but is still evolving to meet the needs of users. However, great efforts are being made to tailor online learning to developing countries. For example, The Open University of Tanzania is offering distance learning degrees, using a range of technologies, including MOOCs, e-learning and telecasting. Other universities in Africa are adopting similar models.
There are currently 200 million Africans aged 18-25, and this number is expected to double in the next thirty years, representing a huge potential market. It is thus more important than ever before to make online learning available in African nations and other developing regions. Key challenges must be addressed for online learning to take-off, particularly low literacy rates, the large numbers of languages and regional dialects spoken across much of Africa and weak technological infrastructure. Although big, these challenges are not insurmountable. In 2016 I had the opportunity to participate in the Hult Prize competition, which is supported by the Hult Business School and Clinton Global initiative. The goal of the competition was to develop a social enterprise which could double the income of ten million of the urban poor in five years. My team partnered with a non-governmental organization providing education in
entrepreneurship, information technology and leadership to under- and unemployed youth in Uganda with high success rates. Our idea was to use mobile phones to scale-up the delivery of the high-impact curriculum created by our Ugandan partner in other African and Asian nations. Although our social-enterprise did not receive funding from the Hult Prize, it demonstrated the potential for technological disruption to challenge traditional methods of education delivery.
Critics of online learning have been vocal. Common criticisms of online learning are that it reduces face-to-face interactions and is easy for dishonest individuals to exploit. In her book, “The Village Effect,” Susan Pinker suggests that individuals who have less face-to-face interactions are less happy, have a poorer memory and experience worse health outcomes. I do not dispute her research and would agree that the social environment is a vital and integral part of the university experience. I believe that the criticism that online learning reduces meaningful face-to-face contact is misguided, because it does not accurately represent how online learning tools are used by students. Online learning is not going to replace all university courses, particularly in the developed world. I can recall a number of courses where vibrant debates and face-to-face meetings with my professors have challenged my views and helped me refine new skills. That being said, I attend a commuter school and cannot recall making many meaningful social contacts in my 500-student introductory lectures. Furthermore, few students in developed countries who enroll in MOOCs have degrees, but few students actually complete their MOOCs. This likely indicates that most students wish to try out courses or use small amounts of content to supplement their learning. Students who complete courses may want to upgrade specific skills or knowledge to enhance their professional prospects. In developing countries, approximately half of students complete MOOCs. This trend suggests that MOOC certifications either hold real value for employers in those locations and may be an alternative to traditional education models. I do not think this is a bad thing. An online course from Harvard or online tutoring may represent major educational opportunities in regions where access to educational institutions is limited. A similar argument can be used to address the concern that widespread cheating will reduce the utility of MOOCs. Online learning sites have gone to great efforts to establish their reputations and limit cheating. Moreover, you would not hire a lawyer with a ‘degree’ from EdX or an accountant who studied on Coursera. Professional regulatory bodies exist to protect the public from quacks and cheaters. Online learning modules registered with legitimate professional bodies may, however, allow your lawyer, accountant or doctor to enhance and update their skills and knowledge more frequently.
In conclusion, online learning is shaking our industrialized-education model to the very core. What is emerging is a much more adaptable, effective and fair system. Whether helping students struggling with course material in developed nations to access better tutors or allowing individuals otherwise excluded from formal education systems to take high-quality courses at a low cost, online learning is revolutionary. It is redefining who can learn, when, where and how. By reducing the barriers to a high-quality education for all, online learning will make the society of tomorrow better-educated, more employable and more equal. I believe we are currently seeing only the beginning of online learning. Innovations, such as artificial intelligence, automated grading and mobile-phone platforms for education are coming. I am certain that when they arrive, they will alter the online learning landscape further and continue to redefine what it means to get an education.
fictional professor inspired by a small number of professors in desperate need
of taking a course on teaching pedagogy.
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