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Free Online Courses Take Fresh Approach

By CityTownInfo.com Staff
August 6, 2009

No one can deny the growing appeal of online education for time-crunched and increasingly budget-minded Americans, especially those launching or changing careers. Over the past several years, Internet-based courses have proliferated among learners from K-through pre-med students and beyond.

But how well do these Internet classes actually work? A recent review of research on online and classroom learning from the U.S. Department of Education yielded mixed results. Analysts found that the conventional multiple choice quiz, for instance, did not prove to be effective.

Now, Spaced Ed, a new website, is experimenting with an innovative teaching strategy. Created by B. Price Kerfoot, an associate professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, the site is built on two psychological principles: the spacing effect and the testing effect. People learn more, he believes, when they encounter knowledge periodically and, as every teacher knows, when they are tested on what they know.

Kerfoot has tried out his approach in more than 12 trials with 7,000 medical students, doctors and others, reports Inside Higher Ed. One experiment involved two random groups of 240 physicians who enrolled in an online course on clinical practice guidelines in urology. One group viewed the class material three times at intervals over 20 weeks. Overall, the "spaced education" group showed 50 percent more learning of the coursework than did the control group.

Based on trials like this, Kerfoot claims that his teaching methods can help online learners gain knowledge, build their information retention up to two years, and gauge their knowledge. The site itself is eclectic, with free course offerings ranging from immunology and other medical topics, to music theory, to bartending and caring for a newborn.

Subject matter aside, each course works roughly the same way. Every learner gets as many as two questions daily by e-mail. If he/she gives the wrong answer to a question, he/she will see the same question presented a week later. A right answer will trigger repeat of the question three weeks later. Answering a question correctly twice in a row will result in that item disappearing from the course. The learner graduates from the course when he/she has correctly fielded all of the questions twice in a row.

Begun in April, the site has won a wide range of responses--from tepid to enthusiastic--on the part of a handful of learners who have submitted reviews. Meanwhile, John Bourne, executive director of the Sloan Consortium, a group of colleges and other groups dedicated online learning in higher education, gives the site a mixed evaluation, reports Inside Higher Ed. Faulting it for its lack of human interaction, he suggested that the learning format appeared to be "good for facts and less good for discussion."

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