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Can the Internet save education?

A new initiaitive by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will offer an array of free online courses -- but is the Internet a pancea for education?Jordan Silverman/Norwich University/AP

The Internet can save everything, even education. At least that's what tech companies would have parents and government officials believe. Too bad it's not true.

Incensed at the apparent lackluster performance of our students and our supposed lack of educational competitiveness on the global stage, proponents of the magical properties of the Web argue that we can save education if we just used the power of the Internet. Put up free classes and instruction online from the best teachers, they argue at conference after conference, and all our education ills will be cured.

In fact, all the leading educational institutions have been keen on the idea for years, with more jumping online every day. Just this past week Harvard and MIT announced a joint $60 million project called edX to offer free courses online. (You won't get academic credit, but students can earn completion certificates and a grade.) 

The poster child for much of the online education movement is the Kahn Academy, which has roughly 3,200 educational videos available for free. But one has to wonder whether any of these online cheerleaders has ever watched a complete "class" on the site, because if they had they would immediately see the multitude of problems with this approach.

The first issue is what I like to call the talking hands problem. Like an extended version of a SeƱor Wences routine -- although not nearly as entertaining -- a hand or pair of hands gesticulates and writes on a smart board, explaining linear algebra or differential calculus. This is engaging for about 5 minutes, after which it's about as exciting as a Cnet video chronicling the unboxing of a smart phone.

'EdX represents a unique opportunity to improve education on our own campuses through online learning.'

- MIT President Susan Hockfield

While a pair of talking hands or simple step-by-step instructions online may help a student cramming for a math exam (you can replay and slow a lesson down), the process won't work for other subjects. Several history lessons about Napoleon that I watched on the Kahn site demonstrated what was wrong with the way history was taught many years ago: It was simply an endless litany of dates and events, completely devoid of any historical context or motivation.

Of course, there's no guarantee that a live teacher in the classroom can do any better, but at least in class a teacher can look students in the eye, show enthusiasm, and query pupils in the middle of a thought to generate new ideas. Without this contact, online videos can be absolutely deadening and end up doing a disservice to students rather than encouraging them to pursue further study.

In addition, there are large swaths of the curriculum in which the online model will not work. You cannot do lab work for biology or chemistry online. You cannot use the Socratic approach for a philosophy class in a video (even Skype won't help there). And students will inevitably suffer for a lack of discussion with other students. Facebook posts are no substitute.

What may be the real Achilles Heel of online video learning today, however, are the poor production values. To truly engage a student requires a whole set of skills involving how to tell a story through video, sound, and pictures. Those are not skills that everyone has, which is why "The Avengers" is a good movie, and "Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol" is a stinker.

Some commercial online learning companies do understand this and have made a solid business of offering "better than free" educational videos targeted at a particular audience. Lynda.com, for example, offers online software training videos that are an excellent anodyne to those poorly written user manuals many of us have torn our hair out over. The company recognizes that production values count -- and built its own studio.

What's lost in all the hype about e-learning is that plenty of it is going on right now. One survey of schools in Indiana last year, for example, found that roughly 80 percent of teachers and students there were using some form of digital access or online tools in and out of class.

Furthermore, e-learning can be a terrific supplement to teaching in what many educators call the "flipped classroom." Essentially, the idea is to add pre-class instruction, lessons and video online so that when the student gets into the physical classroom they are prepared to work through new material, solve problems, and discuss new topics. This "flipped" approach can maximize the short amount of time teachers have with students in the classroom. It can also be used by students who miss a class or want to refresh their memory about a particular point.

The online materials in the flipped classroom approach are no substitute for regular classroom instruction, of course. But it can enhance a pupil's understanding through digitally enhanced historical documents, pictures, recordings, and, yes, videos.

I recently availed myself of an expert online, MIT physics professor Walter Lewin, to understand the basic principles of polarization via a lecture he posted on the Web. Granted, the lecture was for elementary school children, but it was perfect for my purposes: to impress a 9-year-old with my keen knowledge of how a rainbow is created.

On the other hand, while watching professor Lewin's lecture -- as animated and helpful as he was -- I couldn't shake the idea of why online video lessons won't by themselves make us all smarter: There's nothing like being there.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.

John R. Quain is a personal tech columnist for FoxNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.