When does an Online Course Stop Being an Online Course?

What is an online course? When does an online course cease to be an online course? Since my days in graduate school, I’ve been drawn to a simple but helpful exercise to get at the “essence” of something. It consists of asking three questions. What is essential? What is important? What is merely present? Asking these three questions helps find out the attributes so significant that removing them causes that item to become something else. Amid the growth of online learning and talk about “online courses”, perhaps it is time to use this exercise to consider the essence of an online course. What are the attributes that are so central to an online course that removing them causes it to no longer be appropriately labeled an online course?

To illustrate how this works, consider asking these three questions about a ball. What are the essential attributes of a ball? Some people start by talking about its shape, that a ball must be round. Yet, we need to adjust that definition to consider something like a football. As such, we might revise our first statement to say that it must be round on one plane. From there we go to the second question. What is important? These are the attributes that impact its use and purpose but it remains a ball. Shape, size and weight fit into this category. Finally, we ask about those attributes which are merely present. These are the traits that do not significantly impact the use or purpose. In many cases, the color might be such an attribute. By going through such an exercise, we don’t just come to better understand the essential attributes. We also develop an overall, deeper, nuanced, and more multi-faceted perspective on whatever we are studying. Let’s apply this to the idea of an online course, a concept that continues to evolve.

If you go the route of studying the history and etymology of the word “course”, you will likely end up with something like a “planned series of study.” In the United States, we tend to use “course” to describe a part of a larger program, but “course” is used to describe the entire program in other parts of the world. What people call a degree program in the United States, people in parts of Europe might call that a course or course of study.

If you are speaking with people in a K-12 or traditional University setting in the United States, it is easy for people to describe what they think of as a course. It is something led and organized by a teacher for a group of students. It has a start and end date. There is a teacher. There are students, planned lessons, assessments, and assignments. There might be lectures, larger and small group activities, projects, quizzes and tests, discussions, homework, papers, readings, and dozens of other elements. Which are essential? Which are important? Which are merely present? What are the attributes of a course that make it a course and not something else?

One of the difficulties with educational innovation and the adoption of new practices is that we get used to and comfortable with certain constructs. Whether they are better or worse than an innovation, their familiarity gives them superiority in our minds. We are quick to defend them even when we are something unhappy with them. I suspect that this is part of the reason why we run into problems with the changing idea of a course, especially an online course.

There have been innovations to challenge or stretch our idea of a course for many years. Self-paced or correspondence courses, for example, conflict with traditional ideas of a course. There may be a teacher, but not one that fulfills the same role that we think of in traditional courses. There may be no scheduled time when people gather together, and the start and end dates for the course vary by learner. There is also likely like to no student-student interaction. Yet, we still call it a course. At the same time, because it is new and suspect, it is common for these new ideas of courses to be given lower status or credibility, at least among the most mainstream people in a given domain.

In the digital world, this becomes even more complex. Scan the web for what people call courses and you will find countless models. A course might be a series of three or four webinars led by one or more different people followed by a short quiz. It might be 3-credit class in a learning management system, part of a larger degree program. It could be non-credit or credit-based, offered by a school, a company, a government agency, even an individual. Students might have scheduled activities, readings, assignments, and graded participation in weekly discussion groups. We use “online course”  to describe a MOOC led by one or a few people, largely consisting of short videos and readings with a few quizzes or peer-reviewed exercises shared among hundreds or thousands of learners. An online course might also be something like what you often see on a site like Udemy, largely made up of a bunch of small video recordings, possibly with some quizzes or checks for understanding and a Q & A area. Sometimes there is an “instructor.” Sometimes there is not. Sometimes there are assessment of learners, but not always.

With such a broad use of the term, is there anything essential to an online course? Yes, but it is still important to recognize that it is a rapidly expanding term. With that caveat in mind, consider the following traits. Despite their differences, each of these examples includes a planned course of study. Whether explicit or implicit, something was established to be learned, explored and/or studied. Resources and/or activities were included in that plan. The other part, of course, is that these resources or activities relied upon online resources and/or environments.

That is all that I can come up with for essential attributes of an online course in today’s world. The rest is important or merely present. This includes whether or not it is for-credit, part of a larger program, includes student-instructor interaction, includes student-student interact, the nature of the learning activities, whether it is teacher-directed, learner-directed, or peer-directed and organized. The same is true for the length, complexity, and host/provider for the course. These all play an important role in how the course is valued, how it is experienced, and the impact of the course. Yet, people can implement diverse experiments with these attributes while still calling it an online course.

I’m sure there are many implications for such a broad and popular use of the phrase “online course”, but one comes to mind for me. Because people use the phrase so widely, it is not adequate to make broad assumptions about the idea of an online course. Blogs and other media sources report and reflect about online courses and online learning, but they sometimes jump from example to example without recognizing the distinctions. Studies come out about online learning, but people do not always take the time to consider the type of online courses represented in the study. This has led to widespread confusion, sometimes unnecessary debates, misrepresentations, and often overly general statements about online learning.

Consider the example of MOOCs. As soon as people started writing about MOOCs, most failed to compare them to more traditional online courses. In fact, some wrote about MOOCs as if they were the beginning of online learning, ignoring decades of practice and research that preceded MOOCs. Instead, people compared MOOCs to traditional college courses leading toward traditional degrees. It created a debate that led to a more guarded and often dismissive tone to the conversation instead of allowing us to just be curious about the affordances and limitations of this new construct. This was likely intensified by using the word “course” and people’s pre-existing notions of what constitutes a course.

MOOCs were not, however, the first alternative use of the word “course.” Long before MOOCs we used, people used the word “course” to describe a vast array of online learning experiences. Many of these mentions didn’t have the widespread media attention of MOOCs, so people skipped over them, missing the chance to compare MOOCs to multiple concepts of courses. If this happened early on, it could have transformed and expanded our thinking about MOOCs, their benefits, limitations, and positive potential use moving forward.

What is an online course? It is a course that relies heavily upon online resources, activities and experiences. What is a course? Now that is the important question. Its’ essential attributes involve planning and learning, but in the evolving use of the term, a course can be almost anything. Until we recognize these developments, we will continue to miss promising possibilities, talk past one another, and fall prey to overly simplistic understandings of learning in a connected world.

It is Time for some MOOC Assessment Makeovers

I’m convinced that is time for some MOOC assessment makeovers. I’m a fan of Coursera, EdX and many others who are investing in creating open and high-quality online content and learning experiences. While the data may show that these providers continue to mainly serve already educated people, we live in an age where lifelong learning is more important than ever, and MOOCs are unquestionably enriching people’s lives and learning. They are not solving all of education’s problems or eradicating problems of access and opportunity, but it is unreasonable to think that they would, especially in the short-term. For MOOCs and open courses and content to increase access and opportunity, we have much work to do to inspire, equip and empower diverse individuals to take advantage of such resources. If you are not informed about the power of possibility of open learning as a tool for personal growth and development, you are not very likely to take advantage of these innovations.

With all this said, it is time to add greater design depth and sophistication to many of the existing MOOCs and open learning experiences. I suggest that we start with some MOOC assessment makeovers. In 2014, I hosted a MOOC on this subject called Learning Beyond Letter Grades, an opportunity to explore what is possible if we climb out of our century-old assessment ruts and re-imagine the role of assessment, especially formative assessment used for increasing student learning, student engagement, and even the ability to transfer what is learned to real world circumstances. Then I taught a short course for Educause members on the same topic in 2015. And, in 2016, I am scheduled to host a series of webinars outlining these possibilities. My mission is simple but substantive. It is to help people discover or rediscover how an assessment makeover of your course or learning experience can produce delightful and positive results for both teacher/facilitator and learner.

This is not prohibitively complex, but it does require us to look beyond many of our lived experiences with assessment and to reconsider assessment plans for our courses and programs. We must let go of the idea that “tough grading” is equal to academic rigor. We will benefit from moving our attention away from high-stakes quizzes and exams, and instead looking at formative and low-stakes feedback and assessment opportunities throughout courses. It means taking the time to learning about distinctions between formative and summative assessment, understanding the limitations of common “grading” practices, weaning ourselves from treating grading and assessment as synonymous, and understanding that frequent and meaningful feedback is one of our greatest friends in the pursuit of quality and engaging learning experiences. As such, this calls for a deeper understanding of things like authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, narrative feedback, checklist and rubric designs (and their benefits and limitations), designing for self-feedback and peer-feedback, the benefits and limitations of standards-based and competency-based assessment models, integrated assessment in educational games and simulations, and how you can blend many (even all) of these into a course or learning experience to create an extreme classroom assessment makeover that pops. This is design work that matters in education.

It means taking the time to learn about distinctions between formative and summative assessment, understanding the limitations of common “grading” practices, weaning ourselves from treating grading and assessment as synonymous, and understanding that frequent and meaningful feedback is one of our greatest friends in the pursuit of quality and engaging learning experiences. As such, this calls for a deeper understanding of things like authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, narrative feedback, checklist and rubric designs (and their benefits and limitations), designing for self-feedback and peer-feedback, the benefits and limitations of standards-based and competency-based assessment models, integrated assessment in educational games and simulations. Then it calls for exploring how you can blend many (even all) of these into a course or learning experience to create an extreme classroom assessment makeover that pops. This is design work that matters in education.

As I review various existing open courses, some of this assessment innovation is happening. There are promising experiments around peer assessment, for example. Yet, the dominant practice is still discussions and quizzes, multiple choice exams and checking off viewing of a video or participation in a given activity. These courses still have value, especially for learners ready and able to add their own feedback systems on top of what the course provides. Yet, it would be huge progress for MOOC providers and participants if we invested more creativity and thought into robust assessment makeovers of these courses. Let’s get to work.

New MOOC on the Power of Self-Directed Learning

I’m excited to announce the next MOOC that I will be hosting called Adventures in Self-Blended (and Self-Directed) Learning starting on August 15. All are welcome to sign up now through the end of the course. For those who are used to Coursera and EdX MOOCs, you may not know what to expect. My work tends to be, well, unconventional. I have every intention of making this MOOC a wonderfully enriching, quirky and unconventional learning experience. I tend to approach MOOCs less as courses and more like experiences that leverages the power of life in a connected world; and I am committed to making this a MOOC that helps celebrate and spark greater interest in the power of curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning. If any of these interest you, I welcome you to sign up and help make this an experiences that amplifies the promise and possibility of self-directed learning in a digital age. While I am the course host, I aspire for this to be a course that leverages the wisdom and creativity of the community.

If you’ve participated in one of my past MOOCs (Learning Beyond Letter Grades, CheatMOOC, or Adventures in Blended Learning), you have some sense of what to expect; but I have a few new twists in mind as well. Yes, there will probably be some use of digital badges. We will leverage the power of crowd-sourced knowledge generation. There will be some suggested resources and live events with inspirational figures in the self-directed learning world. There will be challenges and resources to help you think about how to apply these ideas in your own life and learning communities. There will also be opportunity to connect and collaborate with others around the world.

What is self-blended learning? Some use it as a synonym for what they refer to as the a la carte form of blended learning where students select between face-to-face and online courses amid a larger course of study. I have been using the term differently. I am looking less at a course level, and more at the micro level. I use the phrase to represent students (or just people) taking the initiative to self-blend their learning.

This can include:

  • unschooling,
  • people in traditional schools who enhance/augment/supplement their otherwise traditional face-to-face learning by taking advantage of life in an increasingly connected world,
  • people building rich and rewarding learning experiences by mixing and matching resources, activities and communities online and offline,
  • learning in formal and informal contexts,
  • and pretty much any learning that taps into aspects of heutagogy and/or self-directed learning…usually by blending digital and physical resources.

I’m still working on the course design, and I will likely be doing so until the official start of the class. Well, that isn’t completely accurate because I treat MOOCs as dynamic communities, which means that the course will be in flux even as it is running as I and other co-learners contribute new ideas, activities, resources, and experiences.

I probably should have led with the compelling why, but in this case I’ll finish with it. Why a MOOC on self-blended learning? It is because I believe that curiosity, a love of learning, human agency, and connected learning are some of the most critical issues for our age. They are more important than testing, national standards, integrating technology, learning analytics and many other aspects of the contemporary education landscape. We read research showing that non-cognitive skills or signature strengths have a huge impact on lives of people. If we can help people discover how to own and shape their learning throughout life, then we have finally lived up to that age-old cliché about teaching a man to fish versus giving him one. The why behind this MOOC is nothing short of striving to draw as much attention as possible to the power and possibility of nurturing a generation of curious, courageous self-directed learners.

Adventures in Blended Learning MOOC Starts January 5

Are you ready to start the new year with a thought-provoking, possibility-exploring, community-building professional development experience? I’m excited about the launch of our 3rd MOOC, thanks to the generous support of my colleagues at Concordia University Wisconsin Online. All are welcome to take part and it starts January 5th.

For those who have participated in past MOOCs with me, you can expect:

  • the same informal, personal touch;
  • the same commitment to collectively generating new knowledge together;
  • the same informal but rich live and recorded guest lectures;
  • the same adaptive design (where I adjust the course on the fly based upon participant needs and interests;
  • and, of course, you will have a chance to earn some new digital badges.

Register by clicking here. I’ve also included a 3-minute introductory video below. Please sign up and help spread the word. The more, the merrier!