More Thoughts on Open Course Design

I am going to make a quick return to some previous writing I did on the potential power of community to drive course and knowledge creation. Bear with me, as I am still getting my head wrapped around this whole thing. I am clearly not there yet, so this is an open call for discussion around this concept.

Let me just say that I am loving the wiki. I have never (in my 10 years at PSU) seen the power of the collective more clearly than I have through the use of the ETS Wiki to drive thinking forward. Nearly as many of the edits to the things we are working on internally are coming from those outside the ETS staff — amazing and very powerful. Since I said no more invitations in my last post, let me say that I was wrong. You are invited to continue to participate. It is making my work more meaningful on levels I didn’t anticipate. With that said, I am getting set to explore a new use of wikis here at PSU.

With the closing of the IST Solutions Institute, a place I called home for six and a half good years, I have been working through emotions about lots of things. One thing I am struck by is the fact that much of the work of SI in the early days centered around creating courses for use across the State of PA to help manage curricular drift, create new standards for problem based learning approaches, and unify faculty in their curricular decisions. We built the Online IST courses to serve as the basis for the core undergraduate curriculum for a brand new College at a big, geographically dispersed University. The most amazing thing about it to this day was that faculty used it! They used these centrally designed course materials as their textbooks, delivered the problem activities we designed, used the ANGEL templates to quickly generate their semester sequence, and they participated with us by offering to help edit, create, and grow the content so it better matched the needs of the curriculum. Amazing participation and for me it was career changing observation.

So flash forward to the SI closure and a note I recieved about how the course materials would be “frozen” and left in their current state — no new updates. Perhaps an opportunity to explore new thinking? Why not go the other route? Why not “defrost” the materials and turn them into wiki articles and invite the IST community in to participate? Think how a concept as simple as “Knowledge Worker” (update …compare the linked Wikipedia article with this lesson from Online IST 110 on the same conceptsorry, PSU authentication is required.) could be created and grown through active participation. Think about dozens and dozens of these articles being created and shared openly within the community so the content grows and becomes as rich a resource and it once was — only stronger with the power of community behind it.

Well, people say that is fine, but what do you do with hundreds of disconnected articles? I guess my answer is to invite the community in to create meta articles — articles that creates a narrative story about the collection of concepts you are trying to string together into lessons/topics/chapters or whatever you want to call them. Let a course committee determine how the meta articles link and drive the course structure, but do it from a wiki approach.

I would have to think new affordances would present themselves … here are a couple I am thinking about:

  • Faculty could weave their work into the articles in a more seamless way. By exposing their research and citing their publications in a wiki article students would get a more complete perspective of what the field is all about. Encouraging debate within the articles would open up new perspectives on otherwise mundane topics.
  • Students could be asked to contribute new knowledge and make it available to the course committees for inclusion in the meta articles. Students are often out in front of us on emerging trends and getting them to contribute seems really exciting and very appropriate.
  • Alumni, Doctoral students, and industry partners could participate in new ways that brings in perspectives that would otherwise be locked out. One of my former colleagues at IST, Shawn Clark, has done amazing work with an advisory board member and letting him work side by side (virtually) with the students. The reason it works is because Dr. Clark gets that there are people outside the academy that have much to contribute to the work going on inside the academy. His futures site is a model of open collaboration and contribution. If Shawn can pull it off, don’t you think other interested parties connected to IST could as well? Wiki content could help that.

There are more, but at the end of the day this would be a ton of work — not at all hard to move content out of existing systems, but really hard to socialize the whole approach. Someone would have to apply that energy and someone would have to see the value in it all to make it real. With the closing of the Solutions Institute, I’m not sure who that person is.

14 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Open Course Design

  1. As an academic adviser and the social networks adviser for World Campus, I think that this idea has tremendous potential. I just this week received a phone call and an email from one of my students who was incredibly frustrated about a course he was taking. The course was related to technology and covered content that the student said was so out of date, he felt it was worthless to him. Many of our online students are leaders in business and bring an entirely different perspective and new knowledge to what’s being taught. Allowing them to provide their input and stimulate new discussions will keep the information relevant and exciting.

    Just think of the potential of having an wiki associated with that course specifically where students had the power to update and change content so that the relevance was there for them. Obviously not all students are on the same page with their learning and use of technology, but in my opinion that’s an even stronger argument for this sort of thing. Allowing students to participate only increases their desire to make the course better and to facilitate the growth of the entire class – all while building a stronger community of learners.

    I think the idea of wiki-centered courses is fantastic and certainly a perfect fit for online and distance ed students. Any tools we can use to increase conversation and collaboration among those students to build a stronger, more connected community is a GREAT thing. For everyone.

  2. You are on to something there, Cole. Often in my conversations with faculty in staff at the campus there is a sense of “us” and “them”, that what we provide is UP-centric.

    With the campus faculty, with graduate students, alumni, industry partners, or the students themselves, people are more engaged if they have a sense of ownership.

    From my experiences in the classroom, having content to use is helpful, but using content that doesn’t have your own personal mark is much like showing up for work in borrowed clothing: it’s not very comfortable, it just doesn’t fit, and everybody can tell something is a bit off.

    Beyond the benefits of engagement, however, I also see an economic one. I was with the World Campus for three years, and in that time I watched it grow. Growth is wonderful, but I don’t know if the current model of acquiring content from faculty, marking it up in HTML, chunking it, placing it in our own home-brewed system, revising it, uploading it to ANGEL, etc. can accommodate growth forever. It involves many Instructional Design Assistants to markup content, and the majority of the attention of the Instructional Technologists to develop and support the home-brewed system. Also, space itself is a concern in an institution where space is at a premium; adding another position may not always be on the table.

    Having the faculty members and IDs work with content directly in a wiki would free some IT time to allow them to work on more innovative things to do with courses. It would require less IDAs or fewer IDA-time devoted to actual content. It puts content back in the hands of the people who are the experts on content.

  3. Just sitting down on your computer to find a recipe (since mine has been hijacked by a 6 yr. old) and read this post. Obviously you know I agree with the approach. I think back to how we talked about opening up the content mgmt. system to faculty and students (probably 7 or 8 yrs. ago) but we just didn’t know how to pull it off. Clearly we needed a technological solution and it seems like wikis are it.

    And I will say (as a former SI employee) that it would feel like a tremendous waste to not see that content grow and evolve. There was so much work put into it…

    But I do disagree with you on one thing… that it would be hard to do/hard to socialize the approach. My bet is that it would happen almost effortlessly once the content was there. Look at how people outside of your group are collaborating through your wikis now. I’ll be honest here — getting faculty to collaborate in the content creation/writing process was the hardest part of my job. My gut feeling is that faculty would be much more excited about building a shared body of knowledge (which is essentially a “create your own ending” kind of thing driven by the consensus of the academic community) than being handed a content outline and being told to write.

    If I am wrong, I’ll make you risotto.

  4. Courses need boundaries. I like the idea of group participation in the development/updating of a course, but given time, the gathered knowledge will spill beyond what the course can contain (or what students can absorb in a finite amount of time). So maybe the course level is not granular enough? Should we break the course down to major topics or even beyond, encourage group think at that level, and let it up to the instructor to reconstruct those pieces to make the course anew periodically? This is one way to avoid course drift, too much info, etc.

  5. Shannon, I recall that kind of stuff happening quite a bit when I was more involved with overseeing online course content — emails and comments from students that the content was wrong. We had a “screen index” on every page that they could reference in an email to us … problem was that it would often take us until the following semester to actually fix any of it. I just think of how much easier it would be if the edit button was available to the motivated student to fix it in the moment.

    Nikki … your observations as related to the workflow issues of the EC (and others) is spot on. As the number of online learners increases, so will the need to produce deeper, richer, and more complete sets of online resources. I can’t imagine continuing to scale at the human resource levels to reach targets — it just isn’t a sustainable model. Engaging the larger community is the only way to make it all balance out in the end. Giving up on homegrown systems will also give people the time back they need to innovate on the design side — not chasing down technical issues.

    Kristin … I tend to agree now that I think about it that people would participate. I think to clarify, the thing that worries me is the idea that administrative support would take time — and someone would have to apply that energy. There is fear related to turning over control and the “edit” button dismantles the traditional notion of control. I think what would have to happen is a serious champion would have to emerge with a message of “trust that communities self correct.” Without that I fear there would be a lack of top down support. Maybe it isn’t required though. Might be worth a shot.

  6. Brett, I disagree with you. Online content is not a course, the instructor is responsible for what she decides are the boundaries. It happens all the time with textbooks — “read chapters 1, 3, and 6 …” Great learning environments tend to encourage students to stretch beyond their comfort levels and explore new ideas on their own. Traditional eLearning materials may be too tightly controlled/designed. Just a thought.

    I think one of the critical things to consider here is the notion of wikis as mind tools — in this way the student/learner is engaged in not just consuming information, but working to help construct it. This active cognitive initiative should lead to deeper connections and bindings. I am reading an article now that discusses this and will share thoughts on it soon. My point is that the lack of boundaries may actually produce greater depth of understanding and may lead to learning on new levels.

    I do agree with the idea that we haven’t tapped the power of more granular content development. I think we need to explore skipping the notion of the full unit of instruction as a stand alone and instead focus energy on the creation of rich “articles” (in wikipedia speak) that are based around a single concept. Instructors could create new paths to explore (maybe even using something like PMOG) or could rely on College/Department approved meta articles that bind the articles together.

  7. Dave … the classes I’ve been teaching don’t rely on pre-built content. This past semester I had my students use a wiki to produce their synthesis and asked them to organize their thinking in the wiki, but I haven’t taught a course that needs pre-built “stuff” in a while. I know the next time I do teach, I will be working with my students to have them create the beginning of what will be a living archive of our activity. I think the next step is to work towards encouraging the learner to use the wiki as a cognitive tool — to help them collaboratively create the body of content that builds a foundation for the course. I am thinking through the contribution we all build deeper connections.

    I just haven’t had a chance yet. Not all courses rely on pre-built content, but that isn’t an excuse as much as it is a personal challenge to think about how to move the class thinking into a wiki-like space.

  8. OK – we need to clarify some things here. Your state that online materials a course, but in your original post that’s how I read it. Thus my comments. If you have all course materials in a Wiki, how does one separate out just what they want to present to a class?

    You’ll have problems here, unless the faculty member can assemble the course from ONLY the parts s/he deems appropriate.

    This isn’t a bad problem, it’s a neat one. But it still needs to be addressed. Someone or some mechanism needs to be in place to constrain a particular chunk on info. from becoming too large, to blurred. Even if you have a system that consist of 1,000 chunks of info, and the faculty member selects 100 of them for a course, over time each of those individual chunks will grow too large, too full of information, to remain useful or appropriate. Knowledge grows. Maybe instead of adding X to an existing chunk, it’s time to make a new chunk. It’s like taking a long sentence and breaking it into two sentences. Who or what does this? A governing board for the wiki?

    Also, you need some way for the individual to perhaps spawn a child wiki from the master wiki that at least hilights the “must have” pages from the “nice to know” pages. If you throw a full, mature wiki at a student without some sorting mechanism in place, they’ll be quite upset. Students want and expect some boundaries in a course, and a “must do” path through it.

    There’s other things here we need to address. The problem of multiple voices, for example. The problem of creating a Frankenstein’s Monster. Sure, it’s alive, but it’s a conglomeration of misshapen parts jammed together, lurching along instead of smoothly walking. But these are secondary to this initial conceptualization.

  9. Clarification – this system doesn’t like greater than and less than signs in a post, apparently. So, the first sentence of my last post should read:

    OK – we need to clarify some things here. You state that online materials do not equal a course.

  10. I would suggest we all explore the methods that Wikipedia uses for managing how articles are “approved and managed.” One of the potential outcomes of this approach may be to achieve design time savings as Nikki mentions. There may be new cycles available for designers to work in teams with academic disciplines to form some sort of governing bodies. In the world of Wikipedia, just because a change is made doesn’t mean it is accepted by the community. Check out the discussion area of a popular Wikipedia article to see it in action … sometimes that is the more interesting content. I honestly have no idea how this would play out in an environment like this (both the technology or the culture).

    Let me also add that in the world in which I am describing, these wiki articles do no exist for an individual. They are created by the community so many faculty could use them. As an example, think of how many sections of IST 110 there are across the Commonwealth … these articles would be for situations like that. Not as a replacement for those “doing their own thing.” Does that help clarify my perspective?

    As far as spawning child wikis for individualization of content I would consider some sort of hybrid embed code that could pull content into a new space, but then allow for a new generation of the page — sort of an auto copy/paste approach. Not sure about this, but sooner or later we’ll have to come to grips with the argument that every piece of content has to be individualized at every level. That doesn’t happen in a textbook — the content is there and the instructor adds the context she feels is appropriate.

    My point is not to suggest this is the solution, my point is to urge us to move energy into actually trying something new. What is happening isn’t the end all be all … it is fraught with problems. Some bigger than others.

    At the end of the day, I’ll say it again — this is not a technology problem per se, it is one formed in culture. This approach is scary as it releases control — the ID no longer owns the design, the SME no longer owns the subject matter, the faculty no longer owns the content, and so on. It is a space that demands work be done in rethinking how we engage as a community in the creation of shared knowledge that we trust. I am saying this because to really trust it, those who would use it would have to join a community to help produce it. Through accepted contribution trust in the material would emerge.

    At least that’s what I think.

  11. I would argue (with myself probably) that individual instructional designers and individual faculty members have had way TOO much impact on the creation of learning resources — thus reducing the value of our investments in eLearning/online courses/etc. We have historically created courses that fit one perspective (whether it is one faculty member or one instructional designer) and then tried to encourage wide use among multiple instructors and students (to justify the investment). Then we try to redesign the course to keep it relevant and that project tends to be harder than the initial design. Part of the success of the Online IST project was that we brought in many faculty authors to write to the course outline — making buy-in and widespread use a little easier. However, we still limited the design to the instructional designer’s and (generally) one faculty member’s content outline.

    Returning the learning design to the learning community (in which ID’s, faculty/content experts, and students are all a part) seems to me to fit a more sociological, anthropological approach to learning — where we realize that authentic learning of college-level material generally occurs in very non-behavioristic ways.

    And if systems always self-correct, I think we can have faith in the fact that learning systems would too.

    So it seems to me that this approach would foster better models for learning; it would create truly shared reuseable resources that would justify the large investments in courses; and it would create living bodies of content that would change and evolve in accordance with the community (self-correcting along the way). This seems like a TRUE learning system.

  12. Take a look at this new Campus Technology Article

    I love the idea of a content repository for core concepts and classic discipline resources that’s established by the faculty teaching the course. Meld this with the Web 2 tools around it, and you have a great mix that encourages participation and knowledge growth, while “protecting” some areas that need to at least go through a vetting process before becoming part of the course.

    This model speaks to me.

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