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Open Online Course Content

What would happen if we had an open or community approach to online course content in higher education? We have an Open Source computer operating system, Linux. The source code is posted online and anyone can download it and modify it. I understand a committee of senior Linux users reviews the modifications in case others want to use them. There are also “open community” tools for the development of online courses, such as Prometheus, an adaptable educational software platform developed by George Washington University. The members of this community pay the owners of Prometheus to participate, but then they can download the source code and modify it. If the modifications are deemed widely useful to the community at large, they are incorporated into subsequent versions of the software.

So, why not some sort of open system for course content online? A colleague, Marshall Smith of Stanford University, recently suggested this concept to me. Our brief conversation on the topic started me thinking about how it might work.
One college or university could start by posting its course materials online (some of this is already starting at MIT thanks to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation). Then faculty at other institutions could then add to it. While this is likely to occur informally, what would a formalized system look like?

One approach would be to involve a formal multi-institutional faculty coordinating group that would review additions (and presumably deletions). These would then be incorporated in the next version of the course materials. This would result in an open community approach to course content.

Another approach might be more in the spirit of Open Source. A Web site would be set up for each open course. Faculty from anywhere could then create threaded variations associated with that particular course. If the course were introductory statistics, there could be threads with titles such as: Stat for Social Science Majors, Stat for Business Majors, Pre-med Stat, Community College Stat, and the like. Any one could add a thread that included any or all of the previous version’s course materials. Within a few years any faculty member anywhere could teach their version of statistics from one of these threads.

The first approach assumes that faculty who would use the open courses would use the “official” version. That would be one way for statisticians to maintain some control over the content of a statistics course. The second approach assumes that faculty members teaching statistics would be able to discriminate good material from bad. I think that is probably true. However it is possible that one small piece of misinformation could be compounded fairly quickly.

Perhaps a better approach would be something in the middle of these two. As soon as a new course thread is entered into the Web site, a couple of experts would review it. These reviews would be posted with the new thread so that less-than-expert potential users of the course thread would know whether to accept all aspects of the new thread.

All right, where would we get these expert reviewers to diligently analyze each new course thread? New people would need to be alerted whenever a new thread appeared. They would spring into action to ensure no thread was left un-reviewed once it landed on the Web. You know, they are beginning to sound more to me like the Dragon Riders of Pern created by science fiction writer Anne McCaffrey in the late 1960s than academic statisticians. In the story, dragons and humans bond for life, uniting against the menace of “thread,” little bundles of destruction that fall from space every so often.

Come to think of it, maybe the model needs more work.

About the Author

Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.

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