A Course is A Course, of Course of Course

Recently I have been pondering the term “course” and whether or not it is a good way to describe educational experiences. We seem to be seeing more rumblings about the deconstruction of courses – from people questioning whether MOOCs really should be called courses to the idea of breaking courses down into smaller chunks.

For the record, I really don’t have a problem with the term “course” or it being changed to include concepts like flipped learning, student-centered learning, or any future new concepts. But there are also other obvious times when the concept of “course” is too broad or too limiting.

I think the part that I am growing uncomfortable with is applying the term “course” to everything regardless of design or intent. Courses are most often attached to an official learning process where an expert confirms that the learner understands, demonstrates, knows, etc. a certain set of knowledge or skills or both. This confirmation could be college credit or a certificate of completion or any other form of “certification.”

Calling that confirmation a course even if the process changes to active learning or semi-connectivism or competency based learning or whatever is fine. But even in pure instructivist courses, learners still step outside of the course boundaries (sometimes ethically and sometimes unethically) to learn. Even when you plagiarize you learn something, even though the whole thing is unethical.

I’m beginning to look at “courses” as experiences where the design of the learning and the intent of the learner is to earn some type of official second party confirmation that they learned some skill or set of knowledge or both. Learning experiences that go beyond this official arena are something else. Those that seek to create competencies or smaller modules are still really just changing the length or format of the confirmation process.

In other words, I don’t know if “course” can apply as a blanket statement to all learning experiences, or even to the path for all learners within any one given experience. Take DS106 for example. Learners can go through this experience in many paths. However, for some learners, they go through a tract specifically designed to earn college credit with the intention of earning said credit. The intention of the design and the learner is to officially earn confirmation of learning. For those learners, DS106 is a course. For everyone else, it is something else. Basically, a Connected Learning-based Open Experience (the experience is designed to be open, but the learning can be closed if the learner so chooses). I don’t really like using the terms “connected” or “experience” when referring to networked learning, so I will need to ponder this one more.

But as we push into more varied intentions of learning design, such as heutagogy, our terminology may need to expand so that not everything fits in the same box, or so that there are enough boxes to accurately describe everything that is happening, or _____ (who knows what). So while I identify that those that say that the term “course” can describe any learning experience currently, I also identify with those that say the term is limited. Just instead of getting rid of it, maybe focus it and add others?

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

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