Crossposted to Teaching Thursday.
This week the Chronicle of Higher Education's technology blog featured a short article on two faculty members who offered a course to the public for free and attracted over 2,000 non-credit earning students. The article argues that, for some classes, opening the course to the public created a more diverse and dynamic classroom environment only really possible through online teaching. In Profs. Downes' and Siemen's class, non-credit students and paying, for-credit students mingled in discussion forums, witnesses the same lectures, and engaged the same readings, but unlike efforts pioneered by places like MIT where the lectures and syllabi are made public, these non-credit students were invited to participate fully in the educational process as well by engaging with their fellow students and, presumably, the faculty member. In short, their class emphasizes the interactive potential of online teaching over and above the internet's well-known ability to disseminate prepared content.
I couldn't help but also see this as an opportunity to democratize the university experience in a fairly radical way. Not only would students have to consider how a particular class or material or problem solving exercise helps them to navigate the unpredictable shoals of a distant, abstract "real world", but they will be forced to confront the "real world", right there, in the classroom. In other words, such a public course might help students overcome the separation between what happens in the classroom where students sometimes regard skills, methods, and knowledge as simply "course objectives" or tools to get an "A", and what happens in the real world where these skills, methods, and knowledge function in a far more ambiguous way and the rules followed to get an "A" rarely apply neatly. Expanding the conversation by bringing the real world into the foyer of the Ivory Tower could have a revolutionary effect on how students understand the application of classroom skills.
I've just begun to discuss the possibility of running some classes like this at the University of North Dakota. As part of my sounding out processes, I talked to my good buddy, online teacher extraordinaire, and frequent Teaching Thursday contributor, Mick Beltz, and he and I came up with some issues that will have to be considered before developing and deploying a class to the general public. Both of us bring the perspective of teachers in the humanities with some online teaching experience.
So, five observations.
1. Technology. The first thing I thought of is how do we run a course like this. It seems that the classes described in the Chronicle article ran through Moodle which is open source and, presumably, more flexible (or at least developable) than Blackboard in some ways. The course will also have to be able to function with almost no live technical support. I can't imagine any university who would want to commit large scale technical support to a class full of non-credit, non-paying students. So every aspect of online delivery would have to be iron-clad to work and very straight forward to access.
2. Scaleable content and exercises. Once one had assurances of a solid platform, then the content would have to be scaled in some way. For example, a course that relied on a $400 textbook would not be a very appealing class to open to the public because few public, non-credit students will be interested (it seems to me) in purchasing a $400 textbook. Open source content and public domain texts would work better. Multiple-guess type questions are more easily scaleable than essay tests and papers. Currently I teach my online History 101 class as asynchronous - meaning all the content is available from the first day. This may not scale well for a massive online course where a less-engaged public might not be inclined to complete weekly assignments in order and prefer to skip around defeating any pedagogical goals dependent upon the sequential engagement with content.
3. Access and Control. One key to managing the relationship between paying, for-credit students, and non-credit students is creating levels of access that, for example, prevent open discussion boards from turning into the worst kind of comment sections on a blog. I initially thought that limiting the length of time a discussion board was accessible would limit the opportunities for crazy comments or spam. Mick offered a better solution. He suggested that discussion boards be controlled through "adaptive release" exercises. In other words, to get access to a discussion, you have to score above a particular grade on a quiz based on the readings. Of course, a clever instructor could develop a whole series of adaptive release access points; with achievement would come ever more intimate levels of access much in the same way that video games release bonus features at certain levels. This adaptive release model would not only limit access to people with malicious intent (to some extent), but also create incentives to non-credit students to engage the material in the class.
4. Goals and Objectives. A public course - like any course - will need a clear sets of goals and objectives. There is no escaping that any course like this would have to be experimental at first. And like any experiment, we would have to establish certain metrics to determine whether the class was successful or not. The simple statistics, like number of students and length of time on-site (as a metric for engagement) would be useful, but we would also want to see if we could gather data on student engagement more broadly. The goal, to my mind, would be to draw people into the subject matter. Following the model of many video game creators, we'd want our course to create an immersive space, and we would have to monitor certain clear criteria to determine whether this was successful. We might also borrow from are colleagues in marketing to understand better the various metrics used to determine the success or failure of a website or a viral or web-based marketing campaign.
5. Resources. The biggest hurdle to implementing a class like this would be to determine whether the benefits of the course are worth the commitment of resources. A public access course has the potential to break down barriers between "the academy" and the public, engage types of learners who might not be inclined to enroll for credit at a university, and expose students to ways of thinking, priorities, and experiences rare or impossible in the classroom. On the other hand, how many hours per week does managing a potentially massive online class take, how robust of a cyber-infrastructure, and, even, what is necessarily to publicize the course and actually get non-credit students to "enroll". As much as we'd like to say that we're teaching the world "for free" there is always some cost in time and resources.
Those are just my preliminary thoughts on the potential issues and rewards of teaching the world for free.