Online, Bigger Classes May Be Better Classes

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Online, Bigger Classes

May Be Better Classes

Experimenters say diversity means richness

BY MARC PARRY From The Chronicle of Higher Education

In his work as a professor, Ste-phen Downes used to feel that he was helping those who least needed it. His students at places like the University of Alberta al-ready had a leg up in life and could afford the tuition.

So when a colleague suggested they co-teach an online class in learning theory at the University of Manitoba, in 2008, Downes wel-comed the chance to expand that privileged club. Why not invite the rest of world to join the 25 students taking the course for credit?

Over 2,300 people showed up. They didn't get credit, but they didn't get a bill, either. In an experi-ment that could point to a more open future for e-learning, Downes and George Siemens attracted about 1,200 noncredit participants last year.

The Downes-Siemens course has become a landmark in the small but growing push toward "open teaching." Universities such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have offered free educational materials online for years, but the new breed of open teachers is giving away the learn-ing experience, too.

Openness proponents contend that distance education often iso-lates students behind password-protected gates. By unlatching those barriers, professors are inventing a way of learning online that feels less like a digital copy of face-to-face classes and more like the open, social, connected web of blogs, wikis, and Twitter. It can expose students to a far broader network than they would encoun-ter discussing lessons with a small-group of graduate students.

Some open professors find, though, that exposure brings chal-lenges. Like disruptive jerks who Marc Parry is a staff reporter for TUe Chronicle ot Higher Education. Con-densed, with permission, from The Chronicie of Higher Education, 57 (Sep-tember 3, 2010), A1, 22. Copyright 2010, The Chronicle of Higher Education. The compiete version of the articie is avaiiable at



inject themselves into your class. Or a loss of privacy that some students find jarring.

Still, the concept is spreading. The classes have even spawned a new name: Massive Open On-line Course (MOOC). In February, Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctor-al associate at the University of Florida who studied with Siemens and Downes, will help lead a new

The chance to engage with so many different people on a focused topic was "mind-boggling."

MOOC about technology and learn-ing. Drexler calls their course, which she took for credit as a high school teacher, one of the most valuable learning experiences of her life.

She found herself interacting mostly with participants who weren't taking the course for credit: corporate instructional de-signers, other classroom teachers, consultants. The chance to engage with so many different people on a focused topic, she says, was "mind-boggling."

Openness vs. Control But the difficult questions re-main. Start with privacy. How do professors protect students who feel uncomfortable—or unsafe—

communicating in a class on the open Web? How do they deal with learning content that isn't licensed for open use? What about informal students who want course credit? And if professors offer the masses a chance to pull up a virtual seat in class, how do they make sure the crowd behaves?

Dave Cormier, who co-taught a 700-person open class with Sie-mens, says he shut off registration because a couple people had clear-ly signed up to spam students.

In the class taught by Downes, a research officer at National Re-search Council Canada, and Sie-mens, a researcher and strategist with the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, one woman joined simply to attack the concept of the course, Downes recalls. She slammed the forum like a "one-woman posting machine," accusing the teachers of being pretentious unqualified technocommunists.

The Students' View Not everything about open learning is revolutionary. As a for-credit student, Drexler jumped through some of the usual hoops: papers, final project, weekly read-ings (though those were posted openly on a wiki). What was differ-ent was the radically decdiffer-entralized, "kids in control" environment.

Instead of restricting posts to a closed discussion forum in a sys-tem like Blackboard, the class left


students free to debate anywhere. Some used Moodle, an open-source course-management system. Oth-ers preferred blogs. Twitter; or Ning. In the virtual world Second Life, students built two Spanish-language sites. Some got together face to face.

"This is a very different way to learn," Drexier says. "I as a learner had to take responsibility. I had to take control of that learning pro-cess way more than I've had to do in any traditional course, whether . it's face-to-face or online."

Instructors curated rather than dictated the discussion. Each day they emailed a newsletter high-lighting key points. While 2,300 people got the newsletter, a far smaller group, perhaps 150, ac-tively participated in the course. Only those taking the course for credit had their work evaluated.

Much as the founders of Nap-ster shredded the notion of an al-bum, allowing users to remix songs however they pleased, Siemens is hacking the format of a class.

"It's a construct that is neces-sary in a physical world," he says. "But not in a digital world."

The course-hacking did have frustrating elements, though. Us-ers flooded Moodle at first. More than 1,000 messages were posted to the Introductions forum by 560 participants, according to one of the multiple research papers that emerged from the course.

What's more, the course design

"allowed for disruptive trolling behavior in the forums to go un-checked," the researchers found. "This made some participants feel 'unsafe' in the forums and caused them to retreat to their blogs."

Future of Open Teaching The question is whether open teaching has a future beyond early adopters. Distance educators who haven't taken the plunge yet are interested, but also cautious.

Like many institutions, the University of California at Irvine publishes free online learning ma-terials, such as lecture slides and syllabi. But Gary W. Matkin, dean of continuing education, says he can see inviting outsiders to par-ticipate in an online course only in a separate space.

Partly, he says, it's about stu-dent privacy, but also about setting a learning context for paying stu-dents, meaning what they see and how their education is structured. If instructors don't control that context, he says, "they're in some sense abdicating their responsibili-ties to their own students."

"Let's say a bunch of dummies got into the class and started ask-ing stupid questions," Matkin says. "How would we preserve the learn-ing of our students and not have it confused and corrupted and messed up by people who really weren't qualified?"

On privacy, some open teachers are already adjusting their courses



to address student needs. Alec V. Couros, at Regina, in Saskatch-ewan, has begun more explicitly emphasizing a "safe space" for en-rolled students, who are typically hesitant at first and crave a private forum for certain questions. He sets up protected areas for them with tools like Google Groups and Moodle. He allowed one for-credit student worried about privacy to participate in the course under a fake riame.

Potential for Misbehavior Downes, who writes a well-known education technology blog called OLDaily, permits students to create private groups if they like. But that isn't the default position. He also argues that closed classes provide a lot of latitude for mis-behavior, such as prejudice or act-ing inappropriately toward women. "People say, 'Well I'm a lot more comfortable in private,'" he says. "I sometimes think of that as «mean-ing, 'I'm a lot more comfortable being a jerk in private.'"

Beyond privacy, distance edu-cators also question how well the open-teaching model, which has been limited mostly to educa-tional-technology courses, would apply to more-traditional subjects that may require more guidance for students.

But the biggest obstacle might be technology. The popularity of open classes will depend on wheth-er learning-management software

companies like Blackboard make it easy to publish open versions of online courses, says David Wiley, an associate professor of instruc-tional psychology and technology at Brigham Young and an open-teaching pioneer.

If there was a simple feature to open up a course, perhaps with different tiers of access, "then I would bet 50% of people would do it," says Wiley.

For now, professors who use Blackboard will have to settle for its guest-access feature, which typically has to be approved by both a system administrator and an instructor. Administrators can also assign guest accounts that allow broader participation in course discussions, wikis, and blogs, without exposing confiden-tial information like grades, says Greg Ritter, director of product management. Blackboard is con-sidering ways to make guest access easier in the future.

Even Manitoba, the univer-sity hosting the Downes-Siemens class, has so far limited its model to a pilot project in» an emerging-technologies certificate program. Open teaching is up against aca-deme's history of private class-rooms and intellectual-property ownership, says Lori Wallace, dean of extended education. For it to spread more broadly in distance education, she says, would involve "some very significant changes to the culture." •


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