Heading Towards a Post-Course Era?

A few weeks a go, this quote was posted by Dr. Semingson of UT Arlington:

“Today, courses may be better thought of as tools to manage time, staff, and resources or as building blocks for the discipline. However, the bounded, self-contained course can no longer be the central unit of analysis of the curriculum because it may no longer be the place where the most significant learning takes place. In the ‘postcourse era,’ learning occurs through inquiry and participation, social connections (e.g., blogs, wikis), and reflection.” – IT as a game changer, by Diana Oblinger

With all of the focus on MOOCs as anything from “Game Changer” to “University Killer”, I think we are missing larger ideas like this one. MOOCs (at least the xMOOC variety that gets all of the press) are really just another form of modularized assessment, one that will most likely not be considered individually once the degree or certificate (or whatever it may be) is earned. When employers are conducting interviews, do they more often that not want the transcript (list of modular accomplishments) or the resume (summary of accomplishments at a macro level)?

More often than not, employers are looking at applicants from a macro level. They want to know how future employees are pulling all of the pieces together to be a well-rounded contributor to society, business, etc, etc.

Many colleges are aware of this and have responded by adding portfolios and cohorts and other organizational ideas to their degree plans. But even in these cases the course is still the “central unit” or main focus of the assessment of learning. What if we could see inquiry, participation, social connections, and reflection become that central unit? Classes would still be a good way to manage resources or add some building blocks to the overall picture, but the shift would be away from rigid walls and divisions and onto how a learner connects, synthesizes, reflects, and participates with the larger community of learners.

Open learning (which is not just MOOCs) is poised to push this idea forward. Instead of killing or destroying universities, openness can be the concept that turns the tide in favor of the “post-course” era. Portfolios and cohorts can grow into the forum where the most significant learning takes place.

A lot of this has been on my mind recently as I set out to start working on a peer mentor-ship program that has the possibility to be seeding ground for these ideas. I remember a few years ago when I had this crazy idea of “If We Ditch The LMS, How Then Could We Change Colleges?“:

When a student wants to take a course, they would sign up to “follow” an instructor in that instructor’s personal teaching environment (which could also even be a classroom in the real world for all it matters).  They would work through the material and assignments at their pace, moving quickly through what they already know and slowing down on the stuff that they need more time on.  Once they have completed the projects, the instructor could look at them and say “great job – you are finished and ready to move on.”  Or the instructor could say “you are not quite there – spend a few more weeks in class and see how that will change your project.”  Or maybe even “that is something I have never thought of – you pass, but could you stay on a few more weeks and teach us what you have found here?”

So this would be a little bit chaotic.  Students would be moving through the material at their own pace, following the research that instructors add, adding their own research, and creating projects.  New students would be joining each week and interacting with students that are half way through and maybe even about to finish.

I’m considering circling around to these ideas again to see what still has relevancy and what was just pointless hype. But the idea of tearing down the rigid course structure has the true feel of disruption.  MOOCs that just digitize the lecture hall experience? Not so much.

4 thoughts on “Heading Towards a Post-Course Era?

  1. I like the course, the idea of a curated path through a field, led by someone who has been there before. It has staying power, whether or not there is a university around it. Blocking out time and dedicating lots of one’s attention to a particular purpose during that time is how to get deep into a topic.

    But I also think the course is not the natural expression of the personal learning network (PLN) model of how people (probably) naturally learn in a networked world.

    Your “follow a professor” idea is interesting. It is like Twitter, yet you still emphasize small groups working together for a time.

    It seems more like the current practice of graduate students than undergrads. Though there is probably room to expand that relationship to a rotating crew of undergrads as well. It would be messy, but courses are messy in their own way.

    Few people are able to move at the pace of the syllabus, and the in-class discussion that is supposed to be the selling point of on-campus learning suffers. Less synchronous arrangements would solve some problems at the expense of creating many more. People would be constantly catching up to conversations you had finished weeks before.

    The cMOOCs do a decent job of keeping network-distributed conversations archived, but are they too distributed for a new group member to join weeks late and have any hope of making sense of an order to attack things in? And if you take the Course out of MOOC, what you’re trying to create is a persistent workspace for the development of a discipline that is still newbie-accessible. A course does a good job curating “the essential perspectives and arguments to introduce you to this field in only 10-16 weeks plus discussion.” Teach an amorphous learning network to recreate that, and you could unbundle the course. Tall order, but I think you’re right that something besides the course could be a more natural way to collaboratively learn in a network.

    Of course as a badges nerd, I’ll ask you to develop a plan to credential students’ learning as well.

  2. Good thoughts, Nate. I think, like you said, that realizing that learning is messy will help guide the whole idea of unbundling education or open education or the post-course era or whatever it ends up being called.

    Some people, like myself, do see their informal learning as taking on “themes” at different times that resemble courses. Others don’t. I think the key will to be to create a system that works well for the more chaotic learners as well as the more organized learners. Ultimately, though, I think we need to look at courses as more or an organizational aspect of the university, which helps to identify things at a macro level. Learning doesn’t have to be constrained to that organizational scheme. Like you said, we do see that happening more often at the graduate level.

    Order of learning is going to be a tough nut to crack. Obviously, some topics don’t need a defined order, so they will be fine. I wonder if we can stop thinking or some topics as strictly linear and more cyclical? There would be certain entry points, say 5 entry points that are three weeks long, or three that are five weeks long. The learning after each point goes in a certain order, but the entry points can all serve as the starting point.

    That may cover a few more. But there will probably be certain courses (certain mathematics come to mind) that have a long stretch of concepts that have to be learned in a certain order. But the flip side to those topics is that if they have a large number of students taking them, you could theoretically have small cohorts starting every week, especially if you can separate the grading from the teaching. Have the instructors there to interact and answer questions.

    But, a lot to ponder and work out. I think the biggest problem is that you will never truly work out most of the problems until you jump in and try it… and most colleges will want all of the problems solved before they even sign on. Oh, well…

  3. You’re right to call courses an organizational mechanism.

    I think there are lots of great reasons to have some organization in learning, mixed to some degree with freedom and chaos.

    Cyclical paths through a field (or maybe spirals?).. I had not thought of that explicitly before. Part of unbundling the course is to break down its core metaphors. Like linearity.

    Good things come from studying the same material more than once. You gain depth. You could have 3rd time and first time students looking at the same parts of the core literature in a field at the same time. One spin around for those students looking to broaden their knowledge, and those who want to specialize in the field would come back for another pass after a few iterations away.

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