Thursday, September 20, 2012

Are Free Courses Really the Point?

First, it must be admitted, that giving away high-quality content for free on the internet is a terrific thing.

It doesn’t matter if they’re movies, images, ebooks, or video lectures. Free knowledge that does not require a trip to the library, let alone the cost of a physical book–that must be admired.

And so: hat’s off to Stanford, MIT, Harvard, Princeton and other places which are giving this a shot.

One can complain that the video lectures being given away for free are sometimes worth exactly what you pay for them.

But there will always be some dross in smelting the purported gold stored up in elite universties. (I’ve been horrified by what passes for a ‘lecture’ or even intellectual insight or debate–but that’s another story.)

We can honestly ask, however: Are universities actually giving away the right thing?

(And one hopes that a few institutions who have not rushed into the fray may pause and choose to demonstrate their thoughtfulness in other ways.)

Let’s point out, for instance, two things that are not being given away: a curriculum and a platform.

The Curriculum.

  • A lecture is nice.
  • A discussion question is nice.
  • A reading list is nice.
  • Some free articles are nice.

But you could find all these things with a few queries in a search engine.

What’s missing here is something larger: a curriculum.

A reading list is halfway there. But a reading list and lectures tell you nothing about what you might do to acquire or demonstrate the knowledge contained in those books and lectures.

A curriculum in the strongest sense of the word is a structured sequence of topics and tasks whose performance is more likely than not (even highly likely) to result in learning–the acquisition of a skill, disposition, habit or body of knowledge.

The Khan Academy has a kind of curriclum. But I am not enamored of video demonstrations: they seem to me to assume too much about the learner. For me, these lists of videos are closer to an index than a curriculum.

A curriculum implies standards, but it’s more than standards.

There are many published sets of standards. Most states publish them for K-12. But the standards most often do not set out learning objectives: what task must be performed to what standard to demonstrate that learning.

A standard could help you devise a grading rubric: ‘Did the learner in task x show skill y or z, and to what degree?’ But that doesn’t say waht the task is.

Most published ‘free’ courses, even from very fine institutions, are more of a reading list and a few lectures–which often amount less to guidance than to commentary.

Some of these lectures are very fine: I’ve admired some of the Open Course lectures on literature from Yale. But then I went to college there and studied literature, and so I have some feeling for the topic and the approach. It’s a refresher course for me–and reminding yourself of something is quite different than learning something new.

The Platform.

Even more dispiriting about giving away lectures but not a curriculum is: paying little or no attention to the platform that hosts and supports online learning.

In the era of Drupal and Wordpress, of Moodle and CanvasLMS, there is no shortage of software packages that ‘manage’ content (i.e., a CMS) or learning (i.e., an LMS).

This makes it particularly striking, disconcerting and even frightening that those who have chosen to enter The Give Away Learning Derby have had so little feeling for the software which enables not merely downloads but social interaction.

It’s as if universities have bought into the Matrix view of knowledge in which a plug gets stuck in the back of your head and–boom–you know kung-fu. (Whoa.)

I’m not master coder. I’ve never contributed a line of code to Firefox or Android or TightVNC or Ubuntu or OpenOffice or MySQL.

But I see the inspiring virtue of coders around the globe contributing, checking each other’s work, and making the best possible product for the most possible users. The altruism of it astonishes me–and delights me, too. I think it’s one of the best things about our current refashioning of the world on a highly-networked model.

The web site is not where the learning takes place. (That could be on a bus or a couch, or in a bathtub.) But the web site might be the place where interactions take place which feed and support learning. (I say ‘might’ because existing social media can host conversation, publication and commentary very nicely.)

So what is this weird idea that the knowledge is in some video lectures and pdf’s–and not in:

  • the tasks people use to acquire knowledge & skills,
  • the sequence of tasks which build learning,
  • the interactions people have which motivate and demonstrate learning,
  • the places which host and support these interactions?

Most MOOC’s today are to college what instant coffee is to coffee: instead of taking out the water, they’ve taken out the sequences of activities and the social interactions.

What’s left is so unpalatable, it often seems hardly worth consuming.

–Edward R. O'Neill


  1. I have come to very similar conclusions, just with different terminology. I think they're offering courses not classes, but I like the way you've articulated this. Instant coffee indeed!

  2. Curriculum is crucial as you point out. If I want to learn something new, there's no shortage of content 'resources', but little that tells me how to place and structure those in the context of the subject. Which is why, of course, we get the perennial student question 'can you recommend a good textbook for this course?'