Online Teaching: Promise, Pitfalls And Potential!

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I am a teacher. That is how I describe myself to anyone who chooses to ask me what I do for a living. I am not a professor (sounds pedantic and pompous), definitely not an academic (how boring is that..) and don’t consider myself anything more than a dilettante on almost every topic that I hold forth on. It is in pursuit of my teaching mission that I have put my regular classes online for most of the last two decades, though technology has made that sharing easier. For those of you who have read my postings before, I usually announce a few weeks ahead of every semester, the classes that I will be teaching at Stern, what each class is about and how you can access it, as I did in January with my Spring 2017 valuation and corporate finance classes. As September 2018 approaches, I was going to skip that ritual, since I will be on sabbatical next year (and if you have no idea what a sabbatical is, more on that later..) but I will be teaching, nevertheless, during the year.

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Online Education

I still remember the first semester that I shared a class with an online audience was in the 1990s, when the internet was still in its infancy, we were still using dial-up modems and phones were connected to landlines. I recorded my regular classes using a VHS camcorder onto tapes, and then converted the tapes into videos of woeful quality, but with passable audio. I posted these online, but with only minimal additional material, since sharing was both time consuming and difficult to do. Needless to say, the internet has grown up and made sharing much easier, with class recordings now being made with built-in cameras in classrooms and converted to high quality videos quickly, to be watched on tablets on smart phones. Here, for instance, is my entire Spring 2017 valuation class, with links to the videos as well as almost every scrap of material that I provide for the class and even the emails I sent to the class.

I have long believed that the traditional university model not only is ripe for, but is deserving of , disruption, saddled with legacy costs and a muddled mission. That said, the attempts by online education to upend the university model have, for the most part, had only marginal success and it is in trying to answer why that I started thinking about how we teach, and learn online. In particular, online classes have proved a imperfect substitutes for regular classes due to three shortcomings:

  1. No personal touch: This may be a reflection of my age, but there is a difference between being in a live  and watching a video of the same class, no matter how well it is recorded and presented.
  2. No interaction: We forget how much of the learning in a classroom comes, not from lectures, but from interaction, not just between the teacher and students but between students, often in informal and serendipitous exchanges. With online education, the interaction, if it exists, is highly formalized and there is less learning.
  3. Tough to stay disciplined: When you were in college, and enrolled for an 8.30 am class, did you feel like not going to class? I certainly did, but what kept me going was the fact that my absence would be noticed, not just by the professor, but by other students in the class. In fact, it is that group pressure and class structure that keeps us focused on project deadlines and exam dates, with regular classes. With online classes, that discipline has to come from within, and it should be therefore no surprised that most people who start online classes never finish them.

It is perhaps easiest to see the challenges and limits of online teaching by looking at what it is that makes for a good class, in person or online. In my view, the measure of good teaching is that students don't get just content (tools, techniques, models) but that they learn how to create their own content, i.e., the capacity to devise their own tools to meet their needs. In the context of a regular class, you use readings, problem sets, quizzes and exams to deliver the former (content) but the latter (learning) requires a more complex mix of classroom and informal interaction, real life projects and intellectual curiosity (and I believe that it is partly a teacher's responsibility to evoke that). The time schedule of a regular class also puts limits on how much students can procrastinate, and peer pressure, from others taking the class or working with you on assignments, serves to keep most on task.

With this framework, the challenges of teaching online become clear. You have to find ways to keep students engaged, disciplined and interactive, and you have to do it online. While there are technical solutions to each one of these challenges (great videos for engagement, a time schedule and online exams for discipline, and discussion boards for interaction), and we have come a long way in the last few years, there is still a great deal of work to be done.

Online Classes: My learning curve

My search for a better way of delivering what I teach online started about five years ago, with a simple first step. I decided to try to take each of my regular lectures, which go for 80 minutes, and see if I could compress it into a 10-12 minute slot and the results were both revealing and humbling. It was not that difficult to compress my classes, a testimonial to how much buffer I build into my regular classes to ramble and pontificate. (If you have been in one of my regular classes or watched one, you probably know that there is nothing I enjoy more than going off on a riff on a topic or news story and I think you need a few of these in a 80-minute class to keep your class engaged.) I also started developing short post-session quizzes with solutions that someone watching the class could take, to check on whether they were "getting" the session material. I organized and sequenced the sessions and you can click to see the online versions of my corporate finance, valuation and investment philosophy classes.

I was under no illusions that I had unlocked the key to online learning with these classes, and these classes had significant limitations. First, packing material densely into 10-12 minute chunks can make watching even these short sessions taxing. Second, the videos that I made (with the help of a friend who was a camera man) were lacking in bells and whistles, basic talking-head videos with slides in the background. Third, there is no personal touch or interaction, since the videos are recorded. Finally, given the number of people in each of these classes, there was no way for me to give and grade exams, look over valuations or corporate financial analysis (a key ingredients of my regular classes) or provide certification that someone had taken the class.

Valuation Certificate Class

Just over a year ago, the Stern School of Business, which is where I teach, asked me whether I would be willing to teach an online certificate class. My initial response was to say no for two reasons. First, universities always seem to operate at deficits, no matter how much revenue they collect from tuition, and I knew that Stern would extract its pound of flesh from those who took the certificate. Second, I was concerned that if I did do a certificate class, and it became a money generator, that I would be asked to remove my free online classes. Stern must have wanted to do this certificate really badly since they offered to leave my online material untouched, if I agreed to work on the certificate course. It was this assurance, in conjunction with the opportunity to have videos shot in a studio, a platform that would allow me to offer exams and quizzes and discussion boards that finally led me to yes.

So, what makes the valuation certificate class different from the free online version? It is certainly not the content, since everything I teach in the certificate class is available on my website in multiple forms, but here are a few of the primary differences:

  1. Studio-shot videos: A studio, with professionals manning cameras, sound and lights, does allow for much better videos. With the help of a talented group that knows a lot more about editing and animation than I ever will, the final versions of the online classes are better than my online videos. There are, in all, 28 video sessions, with two sessions each week, over a 14 week time period.
  2. Supporting material: In addition to the post class tests and the supporting slides, I have links to papers, spreadsheets, data, YouTube videos and blog posts that go with each session. While I am a realist and know that much of this additional material will go untouched, having it accessible will make it easier for you to use it, if you feel the urge.
  3. Live Webex sessions: Every two weeks, through the semester, we will have a live webex session, where you (if you are enrolled in the class) can ask questions, not just about material covered in the previous week's sessions but news stories and happenings. I know it is not much, but it is a step in the right direction.
  4. Announcements and outreach: I contact the students in my regular classes about once a day, but I will spare you that level of harassment. You will hear from me a couple of times every week, checking in on how you are doing and keeping you updated on the course.
  5. Exams/Quizzes: There will be three quizzes and a final exam for the class. While they will  be scheduled on specific dates, you can take them any time during a 24-hour time period and if you miss a quiz, the points will be moved to the remaining quizzes. So, if life gets in the way and you are unable to take a quiz, it is not the end of the world.
  6. Valuation Project: Each person in the class can pick any company he or she want to value and value it, over the course of the class. Midway through the semester, I will offer feedback, if you want,  to allow you to tweak your valuation, and at the end of the semester, it will become a significant part of your overall grade.
  7. Certificate: After the final exam and valuation are graded, you will receive a certificate for the class, if you complete the requirements. If you do exceptionally well (and you will have to leave that judgment to me), your certificate will come "with honors".

There were 66 people who signed up for the pilot version of the class, which started in January 2017 and 39 completed the class in May 2017. I learned as much from my students as I hope they learned from me, and here are a few lessons. First, I discovered that the discussion boards were effective at creative interactive discussions, among the students, if I did my job and organized the boards by topic. Second, in perhaps the most rewarding part of the class, a few students, who found the material both interesting and easy to grasp, took on the role of teachers helping others deal with mechanical and conceptual questions. Since the most effective way to learn something is to explain it to someone who does not quite "get" it, I restrained myself from jumping into the discussion boards, unless absolutely necessary. Third, I was impressed with both the work that was put into and the quality of the valuations that were turned in by those who finished the class. Of the 39 who were certified at the end of the class, about a third did well enough to get "with honors" attached to the certificate. I would have been proud with any of these students in my regular classes.

This fall, Stern will be offering the valuation certificate class to a bigger audience, with a class of several hundred. The good news is that the class will be tweaked to reflect the lessons learnt from the pilot class. I will continue to do what I did for the pilot, with my webex sessions, and provide feedback and grades not only for your exams but on the companies that you choose to value. The bad news is that Stern will charge "university level" prices for the class and I will not try to tell you that it is "worth it", since that depends on your circumstances. It is entirely possible that you will decide that the price charged is too much for a certificate, that you cannot afford it, or that you are more interested in the learning than in the certification, and if so, I hope that you give the free online version of the class a shot. If you are interested in enrolling in the class, the webpage where you can start the process is here. Incidentally, a pilot version of my corporate finance class, also offered as a certificate class, will be run in Spring 2018, and if you are interested, here is that link.

My Sabbatical

I mentioned, at the start of this post, that I would be on sabbatical, and at the risk of evoking envy, I will tell you what that involves. I am taking the 2017-18 academic year (September 2017- September 2018) off from my regular teaching, as I am allowed to do every seventh year. It is an entitlement that people in most other professions don't have and I recognize how incredibly lucky I am to be able to take a paid break from work. I do have a few odds and ends to take care off during the year, including teaching the certificate classes that I just listed and writing the third edition of The Dark Side of Valuation, but I plan to spend much of the year idling my time away, thinking about nothing in particular. That may sound wasteful, but I have discovered that my mind is most productive, when I am not trying too hard to be insightful. At least, that's my hope and if it does happen, that would be great. I  But then again, if I don't have a single creative thought all year, that too was meant to be!

YouTube Video

My Free Online Classes

  1. Corporate Finance (YouTube Playlist version)
  2. Valuation (YouTube Playlist version)
  3. Investment Philosophies (YouTube Playlist version) (New version will be out at the start of 2018)

Stern Certificate Classes

  1. Valuation Certificate (Fall 2017)
  2. Corporate Finance Certificate Pilot (Spring 2018)

Article by Aswath Damodaran, Musings on Markets

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