[Some excerpts from NYtimes – BSA]
Open courseware is a classic example of disruptive technology, which, loosely defined, is an innovation that comes along one day to change a product or service, often standing an industry on its head. Craigslist did this to newspapers by posting classified ads for free. And the music industry got blindsided when iTunes started unbundling songs from albums and selling them for 99 cents apiece.
Some imagine a situation in which the bulk of introductory course materials are online, as videos or interactive environments; students engage with the material when convenient and show up only for smaller seminars. “In an on-demand environment, they’re thinking,
Mr. Schonfeld sees still more potential in “unbundling” the four elements of educating: design of a course, delivery of that course, delivery of credit and delivery of a degree. “Traditionally, they’ve all lived in the same institutional setting.” Must all four continue to live together, or can one or more be outsourced?
Edupunks — the term for high-tech do-it-yourself educators who skirt traditional structures — are piloting wiki-type U’s that stitch together open course material from many institutions and combine it with student-to-student interaction. In September, Neeru Paharia, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School, and four others from the open education field started up Peer 2 Peer University, a tuition-free, nonprofit experiment financed with seed money from the Hewlett and Shuttleworth foundations.
Ms. Paharia doesn’t speak the same language as traditional educators: P2PU “runs” courses. It doesn’t “offer” them. There are currently 16 courses, in subjects as diverse as behavioral economics, music theory, cyberpunk literature and “managing election campaigns” (and all with a Creative Commons license that grants more freedom of use than a standard copyright). Several hundred people are taking classes, Ms. Paharia says.
P2PU’s mission isn’t to develop a model and stick with it. It is to “experiment and iterate,” says Ms. Paharia, the former executive director of Creative Commons. She likes to talk about signals, a concept borrowed from economics. “Having a degree is a signal,” she says. “It’s a signal to employers that you’ve passed a certain bar.” Here’s the radical part: Ms. Paharia doesn’t think degrees are necessary. P2PU is working to come up with alternative signals that indicate to potential employers that an individual is a good thinker and has the skills he or she claims to have — maybe a written report or an online portfolio.
David Wiley, associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young University, is an adviser to P2PU. For the past several years, he has been referring to “the disaggregation of higher education,” the breaking apart of university functions. Dr. Wiley says that models like P2PU address an important component missing from open courseware: human support. That is, when you have a question, whom can you ask? “No one gets all the way through a textbook without a dozen questions,” he says. “Who’s the T.A.? Where’s your study group?”
“If you go to M.I.T. OpenCourseWare, there’s no way to find out who else is studying the same material and ask them for help,” he says. At P2PU, a “course organizer” leads the discussion but “you are working together with others, so when you have a question you can ask any of your peers. The core idea of P2PU is putting people together around these open courses.”
A similar philosophy is employed by Shai Reshef, the founder of several Internet educational businesses. Mr. Reshef has used $1 million of his own money to start theUniversity of the People, which taps open courses that other universities have put online and relies on student interaction to guide learning; students even grade one another’s papers.
The focus is business administration and computer science, chosen because they hold promise for employment. He says he hopes to seek accreditation, and offer degrees.
Mr. Reshef’s plan is to “take anyone, anyone whatsoever,” as long as they can pass an English orientation course and a course in basic computer skills, and have a high school diploma or equivalent. The nonprofit venture has accepted, and enrolled, 380 of 3,000 applicants, and is trying to raise funds through microphilanthropy — “$80 will send one student to UoPeople for a term” — through social networking.
A decade has passed since M.I.T. decided to give much of its course materials to the public in an act of largesse. The M.I.T. OpenCourseWare Initiative helped usher in the “open educational resources” movement, with its ethos of sharing knowledge via free online educational offerings, including podcasts and videos of lectures, syllabuses and downloadable textbooks. The movement has also helped dislodge higher education from its brick-and-mortar moorings.
If the mission of the university is the creation of knowledge (via research) and the dissemination of knowledge (via teaching and publishing), then it stands to reason that giving that knowledge away fits neatly with that mission. And the branding benefits are clear.
The Open University, the distance-learning behemoth based in England, has vastly increased its visibility with open courses, which frequently show up in the Top 5 downloads on Apple’s iTunes U, a portal to institutions’ free courseware as well as marketing material. The Open University’s free offerings have been downloaded more than 16 million times, with 89 percent of those downloads outside the U.K., says Martin Bean, vice chancellor of the university. Some 6,000 students started out with a free online course before registering for a paid online course.
Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative is working with teams of faculty members, researchers on learning and software engineers to develop e-courses designed to improve the educational experience. So far there are 10 complete courses, including logic, statistics, chemistry, biology, economics and French, which cost about $250,000 each to build. Carnegie Mellon is working with community colleges to build four more courses, with the three-year goal of 25 percent more students passing when the class is bolstered by the online instruction.
The intended user is the beginning college student, whom Dr. Smith describes as “someone with limited prior knowledge in a college subject and with little or no experience in successfully directing his or her own learning.”
It works like this: Virtual simulations, labs and tutorials allow for continuous feedback that helps the student along. The student’s progress is tracked step by step, and that information is then used to make improvements to the course. Several studies have shown that students learn a full semester’s worth of material in half the time when the online coursework is added. More students stick with the class, too. “We now have the technology that enables us to go back to what we all know is the best educational experience: personalized, interactive engagement,” Dr. Smith says.