Online, Bigger Classes May Be Better Classes

Experimenters say diversity means richness

Brian Blanco for The Chronicle

Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctoral associate at the U. of Florida who says huge open classes have provided her with valuable learning experiences, is planning to help teach one on technology and learning.
August 29, 2010

In his work as a professor, Stephen Downes used to feel that he was helping those who least needed it. His students at places like the University of Alberta already 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, Mr. Downes welcomed the chance to expand that privileged club. The idea: Why not invite the rest of world to join the 25 students who were 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 experiment that could point to a more open future for e-learning, Mr. Downes and George Siemens attracted about 1,200 noncredit participants last year. They expect another big turnout the next class, in January.

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—at the University of Florida, Brigham Young University, and the University of Regina, among other places—is now giving away the learning experience, too.

"We have to get away from this whole idea that universities own learning," says Alec V. Couros, who teaches his own open class as an associate professor of education at Regina, in Saskatchewan. "They own education in some sense. But they don't own learning."

Openness proponents contend that distance education often isolates students behind password-protected gates. By unlatching those barriers, professors like Mr. Couros 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 encounter discussing their lessons with a small group of graduate students.

Some open professors are finding, though, that exposure brings its own challenges. Like disruptive jerks who 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 Online Course, or MOOC. In February, Wendy K. Drexler, a postdoctoral associate at the University of Florida who studied with Mr. Siemens and Mr. Downes, will help lead a new would-be MOOC about technology and learning. Ms. 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 designers, 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 remain.

Start with privacy. How do professors protect students who feel uncomfortable—or unsafe—communicating in a classroom 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, most basically, 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 Mr. Siemens this year, says he shut off registration because a couple of people had clearly signed up to spam students.

In the class taught by Mr. Downes, a research officer at National Research Council Canada, and Mr. Siemens, 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, Mr. Downes recalls. She slammed the forum like a "one-woman posting machine," accusing the teachers of being pretentious unqualified technocommunists.

"The minute you open this up to anybody in the world to participate, you are giving up a considerable amount of control—and just going with the adventure," Ms. Drexler says. "Not everybody is comfortable doing that."

The Students' View

But she learned to love it. It's a feeling shared by some other open-course alumni, both students and professors, whose glowing descriptions can make these happenings sound like digital Woodstocks for the educational-technology set.

Not that everything was revolutionary. As a for-credit student, Ms. Drexler jumped through some of the usual hoops: papers, final project, weekly readings (though those were posted openly on a wiki). What was different was the radically decentralized, "kids in control" environment.

Instead of restricting posts to a closed discussion forum in a system like Blackboard, the class left students free to debate anywhere. Some used Moodle, an open-source course-management system. Others preferred blogs, Twitter, or Ning. In the virtual world Second Life, students built two Spanish-language sites. Some even got together face-to-face to discuss the material.

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

Instructors, for their part, curated rather than dictated the discussion. Each day they e-mailed a newsletter highlighting key points. While 2,300 people got the newsletter, a far smaller group, perhaps 150, actively participated in the course. Only those taking the course for credit had their work evaluated, although in smaller open courses at least one faculty member has volunteered to grade work by nonpaying students.

Much like the founders of Napster shredded the notion of an album, allowing users to remix songs however they pleased, Mr. Siemens is hacking the format of a class.

"It's a construct that is necessary in a physical world," he says. "But it's not a construct that's necessary in a digital world."

The course-hacking did have frustrating elements, though. Users were flooding 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, "The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC."

What's more, the course design "allowed for disruptive trolling behavior in the forums to go unchecked," 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 adapters. 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 materials, such as lecture slides and syllabi. But Gary W. Matkin, dean of continuing education, says he can see inviting outsiders to participate in an online course only if they did so in a separate space.

Partly, he says, it's about student privacy. But it's also about setting a learning context for paying students, 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 responsibilities to their own students."

"Let's say a bunch of dummies got into the class and started asking all kinds of stupid questions," Mr. Matkin says. "How would we preserve the learning 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. Mr. Couros, at Regina, has begun more explicitly emphasizing a "safe space" for enrolled 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 even allowed one for-credit student worried about privacy to participate in the course under a fake name.

Mr. 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 misbehavior, such as prejudice or acting inappropriately toward women.

"People say, 'Well I'm a lot more comfortable in private,'" he says. "I sometimes think of that as meaning, 'I'm a lot more comfortable being a jerk in private.'"

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

But the biggest obstacle might be technology. At the end of the day, the popularity of open classes will depend on whether learning-management software companies like Blackboard make it easy to publish open versions of online courses, says David Wiley, an associate professor of instructional psychology and technology at Brigham Young and an open-teaching pioneer.

If there were a simple feature to open up a course, perhaps with different tiers of access, "then I would bet 50 percent of people would do it," says Mr. Wiley, who has also been a blogger on The Chronicle's Wired Campus.

For now, anyway, 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 confidential information like grades, says Greg Ritter, director of product management. He says Blackboard is considering ways to make guest access easier in the future.

Even Manitoba, the university 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 academe's history of private classrooms 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."