Monday, April 19, 2010

Getting a Start in Open Learning

The NY Times ran an excellent piece yesterday on the state and future of open learning. It got me thinking about how institutions like Westminster who have done very little in this area might get a start.

It describes four models of open learning:
1. The MIT OpenCourseWare model (also used by Yale) where videos of classes, along with (sometimes) syllabi and other course documents are posted online. Anyone can view them, but students cannot get a grade, communicate with faculty, or demonstrate their learning in any significant way.

2. The Carnegie-Mellon approach, which has put full courses online--including simulations, tests, etc. and then marketed them to students and to community colleges. The Carnegie-Mellon approach has so far developed 10 courses at $250K each with plans for four more. These courses are at least focused on learning (as opposed to teaching) and students can get credit for completing them.

3. The hybrid course model, where students complete some of their work online, thus freeing up classroom space for more students.

4. The Peer to Peer Model where new institutions like Peer to Peer University offer courses that can eventually add up to the learning equivalent to a degree, but which do not offer degrees (due to accreditation and other obstacles.) P2PU bundles open source materials with a moderator who helps engage students with learning and provides evaluations of student work. P2PU aims to have its students demonstrate their competence through portfolios, etc. rather than through a formal credential.

So for an institution who hasn't gone far in any of these directions, and who focuses on student learning, which is the best path to follow? It seems to me that only the third and fourth have any promise, and that the fourth is particularly interesting. Here is why: The first two models take a huge influx of resources, and they rely largely on a teaching model--faculty delivering learning to students. Big and wealthy schools will always have the advantage here.

Hybrid courses, and programs built around them, are interesting too, but they require a major redesign of the course to be successful. Such redesigns take time and money.

The fourth model seems to be the opening because it is built on a collaborative model. Imagine a partnership where a tech company, content experts, and a college got together. The tech folks provide the infrastructure, based in social networking. The content people, experts in their fields, either develop content or more productively scour the web for the best stuff out there. And the college's faculty link in to coach students and evaluate the learning. Faculty thus continue in their favored roles without having to take on a ton of new tasks. The college doesn't have to create its own technological infrastructure. The organizations share the risk and they split the rewards.

Of course cost is the question--what can a partnership like this charge students and still make money? But still it seems that partnership building rather than starting from zero is the best bet. And it draws on the best-developed skills of faculty--not in using technology or re-working courses to have a web-based bent, but in supporting student learning.

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