Professor Hopes to Support Free Course With Kickstarter, the ‘Crowd Funding’ Site

Free online courses for the masses are all the rage—and many are being run by start-ups hoping to profit by selling related materials and services. Jim Groom thinks that’s too commercial, so he’s raising money for the online course he co-teaches at the University of Mary Washington using Kickstarter, the popular “crowd funding” service.

In a campaign released today, the professor makes his plea in an irreverent video that mixes in clips from a 90s true-crime show, and video interviews with students and professors shot from unusual angles. He explains that last year he ran the course, which is on digital storytelling and is called DS106, using his own equipment. But the class has grown so large that he needs a new server to keep it going, and he estimates that will cost him $2,900.

He’s asking for contributions ranging from $1 to $3,000, and those who give will get what he describes as “DS106 schwag”—a T-shirt, a bumper sticker, or a desk calendar with a different creative assignment for each day. Some of the rewards reflect the quirky nature of the course itself: For $100 you can have one of the course assignments named after you.

The campaign will run for a couple of weeks. If he hasn’t met his goal of $4,200 (a price that figures in the server cost and the price of the schwag), then the project gets nothing and all of those who pledged keep their money. If the target is met, the deal is on. If the goal is exceeded, he says he will use the extra money to add other enhancements to the course.

In an interview this week, Mr. Groom stressed that the course is “not about him,” and he criticized the way some massive online courses rely on what amounts to a celebrity professor to attract students. He used the word “community” frequently to describe the group of professors and students involved in the course.

The idea for the campaign came from Tim Owens, another instructional technologist at Mary Washington. “I’ve wanted to do a Kickstarter for so long, but I’ve never been able to think of what could we do,” he said. When he heard Mr. Groom wondering where they could come up with $2,900, he suggested the crowd-funding site.

Mr. Groom argues that crowd funding could be a model for other free online-education projects. Even some of the largest, such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare effort, have mostly relied on grants for support and have struggled to find a long-term way to stay afloat.

“It’s like a PBS model” of pledge drives, Mr. Groom said.

The Chronicle asked the folks at Kickstarter whether other educational efforts have used the site to raise money. A representative from the company pointed us to these five campaigns, all of which succeeded:

SmartHistory: Raised $11,513 for a Web site created by two art historians.

Punk Mathematics: Raised 28,701 for a book of mathematical stories.

Open Educational Resources for Typography: Raised $13,088 to develop teaching materials for courses on typography.

Trade School: Raised $9,133 to run a program that turns storefronts into temporary trade schools.

Brooklyn Brainery: Raised $9,629 to set up a collaborative school whose courses would cost $25 for four weeks.

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