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.