Online education for students, by students: an introduction to openlectures – by “Jie Jessica Y – YLT2012”

Secretly, we spend all of our budget on researching the perfect duckface.

Since January this year, I’ve been involved with a Singapore-based educational startup called openlectures. A little like Khan Academy, we offer video lectures in several academic subjects, freely accessible to anyone who can view YouTube videos. This year we hit 1000 lectures filmed and are continuing to produce them at a steady rate. Unlike Khan Academy, our approach is specifically focused on complementing a country’s official school system, so the lectures available right now focus on some of the most common subjects Singaporean pre-university students study like economics, chemistry and math. In time, we hope to create things like SAT and AP prep materials for the American market, then material for the Abitur, and eventually conquer the world. Our founder and “strategy” (that’s just what he calls himself) both just started their first year at Columbia, where they’ve roped in an unsuspecting French freshman to help kick off openlectures USA efforts. The rest of the team includes people from Yale (cheer), Harvard (hiss) and several other top schools in the US and UK – and of course students back home in Singapore.

I was originally supposed to lecture on art, art history and art theory, but my legendary procrastination skills meant that by the time we went through the first complete overhaul of the lecture system (imaginatively named “OL 2.0”)  I was still working on how to prioritize works in the school syllabus without falling into the trap of evaluating art in a vacuum. Those lecturing plans are now on indefinite hold (“nobody studies art anyway!”), and my current role in the organization is “Artistic Director/Cake”, where my main contribution is anal-retentive criticism on web design and user experience. Nevertheless, I’ve been with them for quite a bit, and thought I would use this blog post to give everyone an insider look into one online education initiative, especially “official” responses to the project.

There are already so many free learning resources online – why add openlectures to the mix?

Although knowledge is universal, openlectures was still created to address some educational problems specific to Singapore. Firstly, although Singapore’s education system grew out of the UK system, over the years changes in both countries have resulted in Singaporean-style education being quite different from what you find in open courseware from any other country.* For instance, the way microeconomics is taught at A-level (equivalent to grades 11-12) is very different from how it’s taught here at Yale and many other Intro to Microeconomics college courses on iTunes U. Singapore A-level economics looks at the big picture and almost always relies on general models instead of quantitative analysis, and examination responses are supposed to reflect this. openlectures takes that into account and you will be hard-pressed to find numerical examples in our economics lectures.

Secondly, the philosophy behind openlectures (similarly to the Access to Knowledge movement, we believe that education should be freely accessible to all) is very general-sounding, but was driven by a specific phenomenon: Singaporean schools cover a lot of material in not a lot of time, which is great for helping us skip introductory-level courses if we attend college in America, but also makes classes hard to keep up with for many. At the pre-university level, most information is disseminated through huge lectures to 700 students at a time for the more popular subjects, supplemented by a few hours of “tutorial” time per week that is closer to traditional 25-kids-in-a-room classroom teaching. Private tuition outside of school is seen by most Singaporean parents (and, sadly, students) as a necessity for keeping up with school – a shadow educational system exists next to the one run by the government, one that you can only access if you have the money to pay private tutors. We believe this reflects a shortcoming in the school system, and wanted to do something to help students. In the spirit of open access, openlectures’ terms are also based on the idea that “since we’re here to offer something for free, we’d like to do it with as little [sic] strings attached as possible”.

How stuff gets done at openlectures.

We do have a long-term goal more similar to Khan Academy of “anyone who wants to learn anything can come here”, but realistically, we’re more focused on test prep for now. But as our lecturers start taking more fun college courses and learning about things beyond what we did in high school, who knows? One of us might just decide to do a series on underwater basket-weaving in the summer.

The openlectures model and how we work

Our efforts are mostly coordinated via Facebook. It is a little weird that I haven’t met many of the people I work with – or if I have, I don’t have any impression of them. The guys whose web designs I bash whenever I’m procrastinating on a paper? No clue what they look like (never bothered checking their Facebook albums).

Our coordinators put up announcements like “Session as usual come this Saturday.
Who’s coming?”, people respond, and magic happens in the small green room we film in. How we actually do the lectures is one area I can’t provide much insight into, unfortunately, because I’m not particularly involved with it. My contributions usually go along the lines of:

And since we are a bunch of teenagers after all, a fair amount (probably too much) of the material on the Facebook group looks like this:

Cost is perhaps where openlectures stands out the most from other open education initiatives. If you take a look at the openlectures website and videos, what you’ll see isn’t too shabby: every one of our courses contains video material, and the newer ones undergo intensive post-processing where we add in animated lecture aids. A New York Times article explains how much it costs traditional education providers to put their material online (bold mine):
Open course material on the Internet may be free, but getting it there definitely isn’t. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the principal financial backer of the open educational movement, has spent more than $110 million over the past eight years, with more than $14 million going to M.I.T. The cost of re-creating the educational experience is high. Only 33 of the 1,975 courses posted by M.I.T. have videos of lectures. Another hundred or so contain multimedia material like simulations and animations. The rest is simply text: syllabuses, class notes, reading lists, problem sets, homework assignments.

Relying largely on money from Hewlett, Yale has spent $30,000 to $40,000 for each course it puts online. This includes the cost of the videographer, generating a transcript and providing what Diana E. E. Kleiner, who runs Open Yale Courses, calls “quality assurance.”

openlectures started producing our first complete courses with a budget of something around S$1000 – around US$820. We are literally a bunch of teenagers in a room with a camera, microphone, green dropcloth and computers. The whole project is run by volunteers; we have a team of over 100 people doing lecturing, admin, public relations, design etc. but no one has ever gotten paid. There’s money involved (grants! free money!), but it goes to buying filming supplies, our domain name, and coffee to keep the lecturers running. We’re also not picky about our setup. Until someone threw money at us, we filmed all our lectures in a tiny room near a busy street (I think we still use that room, actually; I haven’t been there in a while because, you know, studying overseas).

Zooming in carefully would give us videos like this:

And now that we have a green screen (basically a green bedsheet), we can do this! (This video also shows that 1. we’re aware that the Singaporean accent is kind of weird, and are working on subtitling all the lectures; 2. we try not to repeat school lectures and try to share strategies that have worked for us instead)

While we’ve previously tossed around ideas for improving the learning experience on our Facebook group, truth be told, openlectures is not revolutionary. The earliest openlectures videos used the traditional “guy standing in front of a whiteboard” model of remote education. Newer videos have replaced that whiteboard with a green screen onto which we can superimpose animated graphics, but it’s still a very traditional approach to lesson delivery, especially compared to things like Khan Academy’s computer science lessons which teach by actually getting you to write programs on the spot. (When I asked founder Linan Qiu why we used this model, he justified it with “you always want to see a person […] explain something to you […] seeing his passion/his gestures”.)

So openlectures isn’t that special – we just explain topics better than our school lectures do, put the videos on the internet to make them rewatchable, and do it for really, really little money. But the way the Singapore government has treated us suggests they view us as a serious competitor to the official education system.

Responses to openlectures from “traditional” education providers

Shortly after we started to get off the ground, openlectures began to attract interest from several parties. First there was the press…

O hai bilingualism!

And then came several private tuition companies who approached us about “partnerships”, i.e. running ads for the very industry we are opposed to. (We gave them a polite middle finger and they learned to stop bothering us.) But then we received word from Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) – government attention! How nice! While I’m not too clear on the specifics, I know that the the Permanent Secretary (= big shot) of the MOE has tried meeting us a few times but (quoting Linan Qiu) “couldn’t get anything out of us”. I’m not too sure, but I believe the Minister for Education himself, one of the most important people in the country, has also asked for a meeting with our CEO this month.

I initially thought they were concerned about copyright and intellectual property issues. Most of our lecturers work based on notes from school, though of course we break them down and incorporate our own examples or external knowledge. But my counter-argument to this would be that we choose what to teach based on government syllabi, but what we teach itself is universal knowledge that cannot, and should not, be copyrighted. Also, educational generally gets a “fair use” free pass when it comes to copyright enforcement. And it seems the MOE isn’t really interested in that at all.

Speaking with the founder reveals he thinks the MOE is more interested in understanding how we work, and then probably taking over us. “They’ve been trying to do an online system for the past decade ever since the SARS crisis, but failed”, he told me, “and we came over and did it with a budget half the salary of their admin executive, i.e. around a thousand bucks. […] they tend to think that they have a claim over what you do simply because you’re a student. Oh and second thing is that they feel threatened and just wanted to make sure that we’re not trying to subvert the school system.”

“[…] they wanted us to be subsumed under them – they didn’t make it so explicit but they wanted to “fund” us, or give us support. And usually what MOE does is that from then on they start putting their own staff here. Oh and they wanted ot [sic] “supervise” what we are doing.” (edited for punctuation, because we were talking on Facebook Chat)

The government probably felt threatened because there has been much buzz about open and free education replacing traditional educational providers, but for now at openlectures we hope to complement traditional school-based education instead of replace it. Hence our lectures are all structured around helping students taking Singapore-style examinations. Still, that our education ministry thinks we’re doing a good enough job to feel threatened is high praise indeed.

A bunch of kids teaching other kids: what about quality?

This is a legitimate concern, and probably the most important. But students teaching other students has been around for a long time already: it’s called peer tutoring. The openlectures system is highly reliant on lecturers knowing their stuff, but based on our academic transcripts it’s generally assumed that we do.

Some quotes from the openlectures staff when I asked them about this problem:

Founder Linan Qiu: We don’t admit to have error free content all the time. But we do admit to our mistakes and refilm vigorously. Those whose videos have been trashed by the terabyte by Kenneth [CEO] and I will know this.

CEO Kenneth Lim: We do a lot of ground work before a lectures comes into place. There’s the syllabus outline which everyone works on, the scripts, the slides, the post-processing and the uploading/publishing. At every stage the person who’s doing it is keeping an eye out. Sometimes it’s a technical problem, sometimes it’s a content problem. If it’s a technical problem, we see whether we can do anything in post-production. More often than not we can, but if we can’t, then we refilm. [name of lecturer] is one such victim . Entire lesson refilmed because we couldn’t key her nicely. If it’s a content problem… since we introduced OL2 we’ve not had any content problems. We are awesome like that.

Most importantly, as students, we have an advantage in knowing what our audience wants. Most lecturers begin lecturing right after graduation, and quite a number lecture while still in school. Every one of us has fallen asleep in a useless lecture; every one of us has had the experience of frantically trying to make sense of confusing school notes the night before the big exam, so every one of us also knows what confuses other students the most, and what works in helping people understand the material.

Reception from the public

People seem to like what we’re doing. So far our website has had 41000 unique visitors with 350,000 page views, of which about half are returning visitors. The average visit duration is about 5 minutes, enough to view one or two lectures, and 30% of our visitors show browsing patterns indicating that they watch several videos a time – presumably they are working through a course. And then there are heartening YouTube comments from students – not just Singaporean students:

Although sometimes we do get annoyingly patronizing comments.

But yes. Overall, heartening comments.

And now because the deadline is approaching I am going to abruptly end this blog post: I hope this has been an interesting post from the other side of open education! Feel free to comment with any questions or criticism for me or the team.

* Open courseware is also dominated by providers from the US. Just saying.



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