Friday, November 05, 2010

ONLINE LEARNING: Getting an education in learning over the Internet

Myriad videos on how to do pretty much anything show not only the value in distance learning but also that fine educators abound on the Web.

David Lazarus


by David Lazarus – LA Times columnist |

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Advancing through Super Mario Galaxy 2 is among the topics of instruction that can be found in videos on the Internet. (Nintendo / November 2, 2010)

November 2, 2010 - Like any good dad, I see it as my responsibility to prepare my son for whatever life may throw at him, whether that means knowing how to solve a math problem or knowing how to field a grounder.

One thing I haven't been able to teach him, though, is how to kill a rampaging Bowser in Super Mario Galaxy 2. Video games just aren't my thing.

For that, my son, who is 9, turns to octaneblue.

Octaneblue is the nom-de-Net of a guy who posts videos of his gaming, along with play-by-play commentary, on YouTube. Watching octaneblue in action, my son has rapidly learned how to advance in the various Super Mario games he plays on the Wii, and in turn his enjoyment of the games has grown.

This has given me a newfound appreciation for the merits of online education, or "distance learning," as some call it. In the past, I'd tended to think of online courses as a second-rate form of academia — virtual classes for virtual students.

I was wrong. There's clearly enormous merit to the Net as a teaching tool, especially for subjects where it's better to show than to tell.

But does that mean distance learning can replace classroom instruction?

"Not exactly," said Vicky Phillips, chief executive of, a website that rates and ranks online colleges. "There are some things you can't do as well online, such as nuclear physics. You'd need a lab or a reactor for that."

But for many if not most subject areas, she said, online education can complement classroom instruction and help people manage increasingly busy schedules.

These days, Phillips said, about 12,000 different degrees can be obtained online from accredited U.S. universities. The number of degrees available has grown by double digits annually for the last five years.

"You can even learn mortuary science online," Phillips said.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Education found that "students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction."

Michael Lambert, executive director of the Distance Education and Training Council, a nonprofit accreditation agency for online learning, said he expects the number of students taking cyber-courses to surpass those in traditional classrooms within the next decade.

"We won't ever replace campus study in this country," he said. "It's just too entrenched and too useful. But that type of education will become the minority."

While it's hard to imagine future doctors attending medical school online, or budding scientists conducting virtual experiments on their computers, I get what the experts are saying. For many subjects, you can't beat the ease and convenience of education via computer screen.

I learned how to carve a turkey online. My wife learned (on a dare) how to do the macarena. The University of YouTube has something for everyone.

Pick a subject. I can pretty much guarantee you'll find a how-to video online. Auto repair? No problem. Dog training? Yup. Cooking classes? Home Ec will never be the same.

And that's why I got interested in finding octaneblue. Here's a guy whose YouTube channel has almost 8,000 subscribers. His videos have been watched nearly 14 million times.

He's a Jedi master of the video game world. And my son is now one of his devoted disciples.

Octaneblue, it turns out, is not an easy man to reach. All he reveals on YouTube is that his first name is Jon and that he's 23. Aside from those tidbits, he's very protective of his privacy.

But after a few hours of firing cyber-flares into the Twittertown and blogospheres, I finally induced octaneblue to break cover and make contact.

He declined to have his full name in print — "Call me octane," he said. He revealed only that he lives in a suburb of Baltimore and is pursuing a business degree at a community college. He works part time at an electronics store. He plays video games about 15 hours a week.

Octane was complimented that my son has learned so much from his videos.

"I never intended to help people with games," he said. "This was just something I thought would be fun, uploading videos on YouTube. But I notice that people watch how I get through levels and then they re-create what I do."

Although there are thousands of gaming videos online, octane attributes his success to the fact that he plays popular games and to the commentary that accompanies his action — a personable, often self-deprecating, occasionally curse-laden narrative of what he's thinking as he traverses the game world.

He's knowledgeable, engaging and enthusiastic. He is, in other words, a natural teacher.

And his lessons are available free to anyone with an Internet connection.

I asked octane what he planned to do after he gets his business degree. Will he try to turn his passion for video games into a livelihood?

"It would be cool to turn this into something profitable," he replied. "But it's just something I do for fun."

In other words, octaneblue will have to turn back into Jon, and he'll have to get a real job some day.

That's a lesson I'll have to get around to teaching my son at some point

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