How to Transform Education Online


Illustration by Zoran Lucic

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Michael Karnjanaprakorn
Founder, Skillshare

Anka Mulder
President, OpenCourseWare Consortium

The dialoguers: Anka Mulder runs a consortium of higher-ed institutions that advocates free online course materials (cover your ears, textbook companies!). Michael Karnjanaprakorn runs a startup that reverses an old adage and turns doers into teachers, letting them sign up to host a class on any skill. Some of his classes are both online and in person, while others are only in person.

MULDER: People say there is no gap between online and offline education, but that’s not true. Contact is a vital part of education. Putting information online is not the same as educating. To bridge that gap, we have to build communities—not just between teachers and students, but also among students.

KARNJANAPRAKORN: At Skillshare, that’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out: how that hybrid model of online and offline actually works. When I taught an online Skillshare class to 500 students, a lot of them were also meeting at in-person study groups to workshop ideas with one another. The connections and trust built through those physical interactions are very powerful.

MULDER: And if you have 100% online educational programming, that requires so much self-discipline. At OpenCourseWare, we’ve talked about how it’s very hard for a learner to define how he wants to gain competency in a subject. But that subject becomes more interesting if we design an organized learning path to follow. Finding their own snippets on the Internet is difficult.

KARNJANAPRAKORN: That’s because most of online learning has evolved around watching videos, which isn’t engaging. Skillshare teachers have learned that teaching isn’t really about teaching. A lot of them will tell students to read articles or watch videos before class, and then they’ll meet for a workshop and sit down with students to make something together. A lot of the classes are very interactive like that, more than just a teacher lecturing.

MULDER: When talking about online learning, we really have to ask how technology is helping us teach better. Right now, we’re building possibilities to meet online through initiatives like OpenStudy, in which anyone taking an OpenCourseWare course can register to be part of an online community, according to subject. Math is one of the largest OpenStudy communities, with thousands of people. Because there are so many learners, they can post a question and 75% get an answer within five minutes. And these are self-learners who don’t know each other at all.

KARNJANAPRAKORN: I think now, more than ever, there’s a lot of inherent trust between strangers on the Internet that has never existed before. When people trust your online reputation, you can really flip the traditional model on its head.

MULDER: The next step is going to be to focus on how to make online education more than just about self-discipline and finding information. What can the learner do with the information he or she finds online? We have to make sure that we focus on communication.

KARNJANAPRAKORN: That’s why the first classes we hosted were off­line; it was important to build trust within a community. That opens up a bunch of doors to other things we can do, one of them being online learning.