Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Open Courses

A technology article in The Chronicle yesterday describes the Obama administration's plan to develop open courses and give them away. This is a fascinating idea--the sort of thing that I mused about in the post "Unplanned Obsolescence" a few weeks ago. Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative is given as the model for this plan. The delivery of the course is potentially fully online, but example cited is a hybrid course with content developed by a group of experts and leveraging online capabilities for what I would call the low-complexity part. This is a natural way to optimize the delivery of instruction, and you already see it with course packs delivered from text-book publishers. Rote learning, or learning low-complexity modes of thought can be easily and tirelessly done through computer training. It's potentially more fun too. The Rosetta Stone language software is like this, using instant feedback, images and sound to train vocabulary (my wife used it to learn some Arabic). Where computers fail is at answering open-ended questions. If you've ever called your bank with an odd problem and had to navigate the automated phone tree (press one if you're still breathing...) you know how frustrating it is to try to solve high complexity problems with low complexity tools. So the need for actual instructors still exists, but their time could be applied more usefully to high-complexity tasks. This effect is noted in the article:
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.
The idea has merit, but there are certainly some big problems to overcome. If the courseware project is run and funded by the government, it may be open, but it surely won't be cheap. How, then do the course materials get updated? This isn't too big of a problem with, say, Euclidean Geometry, but for something like Finance, I imagine the books get re-written all the time. The article supposes that this might continue to be funded by the government, but this doesn't sound like a wonderful idea to me. It would be far better, methinks, if a culture evolved similar to the open source software movement. Rather than a set of "perfect" open courses designed and maintained centrally, a whole ecology of work collocated in some natural place--analogous to grow and evolve, tagged with comments and other metadata. This depends on willing practitioners doing all the work. Faculty members taking the time to update old materials, probably. It seems unlikely on the face of it, but somehow it works for software. It works for Wikipedia.

A really interesting question is how course assessment ties into the courseware. Would it be developed and delivered in parallel, integrated with the materials? Or will assessment remain a second-thought tack-on for another decade? But if it is to be integrated, then the learning objectives need to be clear. There seems to be an opportunity for the assessment profession to get involved with this train before it leaves the station. Polish up your resume.

In a recent report I asked for, a group of twenty-plus institutions like ours had an average total expenditure on instruction-related items of 37% of total budget. We might suppose then that the asymptotic limit for reducing administration (assuming that all academic support is free somehow, libraries and such) is a 63% reduction in the cost of delivering programs. The cost of instruction could be reduced too, if the low-complexity components are off-loaded to technology. Moreover, competition in the fluid digital domain would tend to force prices down. I don't think it's unrealistic to estimate that a bachelor's degree could be delivered for about 25% of what it costs at a traditional college now.

Marshal Smith, senior counselor to the Secretary of Education seems to be the the guiding light behind this open ed plan. You can read his ideas if you have a subscription to Science in his article "Opening Education." You can also browse MIT's version of open courseware here.

No comments:

Post a Comment