Open learning online

Not every American can go to college, but what if college comes to them? (Note: Sentence recast to please Stephen Downes.) The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at the potential for “open” classes offered  online.  The Obama administration has proposed a $500-million online-education plan as part of its community-college aid.

The government would pay to develop these “open” classes, taking up the mantle of a movement that has unlocked lecture halls at universities nationwide in recent years — a great course giveaway popularized by the OpenCourseWare project’s free publication of 1,900 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millions worldwide have used these online materials. But the publication cost — at MIT, about $10,000 a course — has impeded progress at the community-college level, says Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare.

The Chronicle interviews Mike Smith, back in the Education Department as an advisor, who wants to create “a 21st-century library” of Web-based open courses for high-school and college students.

The courses created would reach students through multiple devices, such as computers, handheld devices, and e-book readers like Kindles. They would be modular, and therefore easily updated. Both nonprofit and for-profit entities could compete for the money to build them.

Federal aid would ensure the courses are available to anyone,  Smith said.

Here’s one possibility Mr. Smith describes: Macomb Community College, in Michigan, takes an open statistics course and puts it into its catalog. The students don’t meet face to face, but there’s a webinar every week or an open discussion online among the professor and students. Macomb gets the course free, adds value to it in the form of interaction with its professor, and charges for it.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Open Learning Initiative is a model.  While students can use the online courses for independent study, “researchers have found the material can be even more powerful when combined with live instruction.”

Carnegie’s materials have already changed how Logan Stark’s professor at California Polytechnic State University approaches her widely feared biochemistry-for-nonmajors class. Anya L. Goodman used to work from a prepared lecture, starting with the basics so she didn’t lose anyone. Now she puts the burden on students to learn the basics online. She focuses class time on clearing up misconceptions, applying the materials to real life, and working in small groups.

“They’re more attentive,” she says. Especially when she comes in and tells her students, “Here’s what you guys already don’t know.”

High-quality courseware would make it much easier for people who are working and raising kids to take college courses cheaply and conveniently.  It would make it easier for high school students to try advanced or specialized classes. It would lower costs, something higher education never seems able to do.

About Joanne


  1. tim-10-ber says:

    I think this is a great idea. My concern is the federal government continues to put its “hands” where I do not think they belong. If colleges were to charge significantly less for these courses, couldn’t they do this on their own? Why do the feds have to continue to intervene. They normally just screw things up or in education dumb them down. Just my two cents worth-

    I do love the idea of online/interactive classes. I like webinars. I also like the idea of putting more of the burden on students to come to class prepared to learn. This should put the pressure on the K-12 world to upgrade how they teach and how students learn.

    Now to make it happen….it has been done in countless ways in this country before…say 100 years ago…when the demands of education were on the family and the curriculum much harder than today…

  2. You wrote, to open this item, “Every American can’t go to college…”

    The proposition “Every American can’t go to college” means the same as “No American can go to college,” which is demonstrably false, and almost certainly not what you mean.

    Probably, what you mean to say is “Not every American can go to college.”

    Or, if you want to express the point using a negative tone (this is, after all, Joanne Jacobs) you could say “Some Americans cannot go to college” or even “Most Americans cannot go to college.”

    This may seem like a small pedantic point, but careful readers know that when the author cannot avoid an obvious logical mistake in the first few words of the item, the remainder of the reasoning is equally suspect.

  3. To the main point of the post, readers interested in the topic would do well to follow the goings on at the Open Education Conference, taking place next week in Vancouver. All the materials will be (naturally) freely available online.

    Open ecducation is about much more than “high quality courseware”. Indeed, it is arguable (and I would argue) that packaging open learning resources into pre-compiled course packages makes them less useful and less likely to be used (there is empirical evidence to suupport this).

    In any case, very few institutions actually provide ‘courseware’ – Britain’s Open University does, and (arguably) Rice University’s Connexions project does, but otherwise, open educational resources (such as MIT’s OCWS project) are simply collections of resources intended to be reused on an ad hopc basis by teachers and instructors.

    One of the things people working in open education and online learning have learned over the years is that you can’t just arrange all the contents into a sequence and expect people to simply follow along. This only works (if it works anywhere, which is doubtful) where participants are required to take mandated training. It does not work at all in an open environment.

    What we see outside very narrowly defined institutional projects is the development of open educational resources (OERs) by a wider community, through the process of dialogue and interaction, in which experts and novices participate in an exchange of questions, suggestions and responses, and where a shared library of canonical materials accrues over time.

    Learners, in such an environment, don’t so often receive guided expert-based instruction (though they may from time to time sign up for should courses or online conferences or seminars) but rather learn by participating in the relevant community, often becoming familiar with new content and new ideas by themselves producing resources that others review and share.

    The OER movement is very much an international movement, with a lot of support from the United Nations (especially UNESCO) and OECD. American involvement to date has largely been through major educational foundations, such as the Wellcome Trust or the Hewlett Foundation (which have funded the major projects at MIT and elsewhere).

  4. I love MIT’s Open Course (as well as the free lecture series at Yale), but it is important to recognize what they are good for and what they are not. I love them because I can go in and refresh stuff I need to know and have forgotten; for instance, I wanted to do some Jungian analysis on Portrait of the Artist this year with my kiddos, but I needed to fill in some gaps in what I remembered — Open Course was perfect. Also perfect for stuff I’m just curious about. In other words, for the self-directed learner, this is amazing and wonderful stuff. BUT, note that nobody is assessing what I’ve picked up (and, indeed, I do pick and choose what I look at according to its usefulness) so no credit is issued. If there is a value added that a university would supply, an essential aspect would be how to grant credit toward an actual degree — and, suddenly, it is no longer free.

    FWIW, most standard (and advanced) high school courses are already online in some form — for home schoolers, distance learning, etc. I don’t see why one would waste resources re-inventing the wheel. Just go and see what’s out there and pick the best.

  5. Ryan Lanham says:

    The real breakthrough will come when accreditation organizations like the University of Wales begin to fully accredit these free programs into degrees when combined together.

    Why not have it so a person can take a course from MIT, Macomb CC, Rice, etc. and piece them together into a degree? Where are the validating institutions to assure such programs are up to snuff? Seems logical enough to me.

    As to the first sentence, maybe… “Not everyone can go to college, but…

  6. >>The proposition “Every American can’t go to college” means the same as “No American can go to college,” which is demonstrably false, and almost certainly not what you mean.<<

    While it's true that there is some ambiguity in this sentence, and that "Not every…" is probably the better construction, Joanne's use of "Every…not" is both correct English and has the meaning she intended. It's problematic only because it *additionally* is susceptible to another interpretation, which might cause confusion in some cases. Although it doesn't in this case, I think. Language =! logic, and some ambiguity is par for the course.

    See the discussion of "All…not" vs. "Not all" in Garner's Modern American Usage for more.

    (If this blog is going to win an award as a leading language blog, we need to help Joanne live up it :))

    On the actual topic, while I'm a fan of using the internet to help with learning, I'm still pretty skeptical that it will have more than a niche impact or will meaningfully reduce the cost or convenience of attending college.

  7. While it’s true that there is some ambiguity in this sentence, and that “Not every…” is probably the better construction, Joanne’s use of “Every…not” is both correct English and has the meaning she intended.

    You’re wrong. It means “no American can go to college.” There is no other meaning. Garner’s not infallible.

  8. Ragnarok says:

    Herr Downes said:

    “This may seem like a small pedantic point, but careful readers know that when the author cannot avoid an obvious logical mistake in the first few words of the item, the remainder of the reasoning is equally suspect.”

    Does the same apply to spelling, usage and grammar?

  9. On my own blog I just reviewed Liberating Learning, a book about how technology might transform our K-12 schools. You can read the review here.

  10. All that “open learning” stuff is fine but education isn’t the only function of a college and for some people it’s not the most important.

    I’m referring to human resource departments which are, as a rule, incapable of determining the quality of a prospective employee so punt the ball back to the college by demanding a degree. In some cases there’s no choice the law having been used to bar entry into fields to help hold up wage rates with a degree, once again, being used as the magic touchstone that assures quality standards’ve been met.

    How do open learning advocates propose to advance the cause against impediments like that?

  11. HR departments are hamstrung by law.  After Grigg vs. Duke Power, it is unlawful to use e.g. IQ tests to determine capability for placement into jobs.  Employers have been forced to use degrees as a substitute, at a very high cost to the public.

    You can blame “disparate impact” standards for this.  It is time to repeal them, which Ricci vs. DeStefano unfortunately failed to do.