Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Online lectures, early movies, and the Open University

There is a lot of excitement floating around the blogosphere right now about various experiments in remote learning. Some of the big name US universities are putting substantial amounts of material on line: lectures, course material, basically everything except the diploma. This post describes how an 11 year old boy took a Stanford University course in game theory (written by his proud Dad, but still...)

One thing the boy said to his father was "I think the concepts are interesting but the presentation is dull. Couldn’t they have done animations and things to make it better?". The presentation in question was Powerpoint slides with an occasional lecturer's head.

This reminds me of the early days of movie making. When the movie camera was first invented it seemed obvious how to film a drama: put some actors on a stage to perform a play, put a camera about where the best seat would be, and film the action. Of course this combined the worst features of film (monochrome, no sound, low resolution) with the worst features of theatre (action a long way away, small stage, static scenery). It didn't take movie makers long to realise that taking the actors out of the theatre and putting the camera in amongst them gave better results. The same goes for video lectures.

The sad thing is, none of this is new. When I was young there was (and still is) a UK institution called the Open University. It was created back in 1969 by the Labour government as part of its anti-elitist education-for-all vision. From the beginning it was designed as a mass-market concept: very few students would be at its physical campus; almost all its work would be done by distance learning, with lectures delivered by television, audio cassette (link for too young to know what they were) and any other form of high technology communications medium. So for many years you could get up at 6:00 am and watch a couple of hours of half hour lectures on anything from Mathematical Modelling to Sociology 101.  In my teenage years I finally got a TV in my bedroom and set up a timeswitch to turn it on at 6:00am. I still remember the theme tune to Sociology 101: "We socialise and we vandalise, We lock the sick awaaayy, Politicians promises, keep changing every daaayy...".

The presentation was similar to a normal documentary, albeit with a drastically reduced budget; a combination of talking heads, pictures of the thing being described (Sociology 101 showed lots of deprived multi-storey housing estates of the kind the Americans call "projects"), and various visual aids. Here are some examples from 1989 (Youtube).

One I remember in particular; it was explaining trigonometry. First it showed a circle with a radius line revolving around it, and the right angle triangle that resulted.   Then it turned the circle end on, so all you could see was a vertical line with the blob at the end of the radius moving up and down. Then it moved the line to the right, and the blob traced out a sine wave. And the lightbulb went on in my head. I knew about sine and cosine for right-angled triangles, and I'd seen that shape called a "sine wave", but until that point I hadn't understood the connection. Now I understood perfectly.

MIT, Stanford and the rest need to get back to the future (although they can leave out the flares and courderoys).