Can Higher Education Be Open Source? (2)

Yesterday I speculated that the open source model in the software world is going to undermine the basic delivery system for higher education in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere). Today I want to consider what, exactly, a transformed system of education might look like.

What is the purpose of the college degree? It seems to me that there are several: to provide some assurance that the degree holder has mastered some body of knowledge (at least as much as we would expect from four years of college); to provide access to a more or less privileged elite called the alumni; and to provide a convenient stopping point on the way to even greater mastery of some body of knowledge. College has to end at some point, so why not after 120 credits?

There are many impediments making it difficult to complete those 120 credits and one of the chief problems that students complain about is the fact that “My university doesn’t offer a course in X” or, in the same vein, “I need to take Latin American nationalism before I graduate, but Professor Y is on leave this whole year!”

So imagine an open source solution to either of these problems. The weary student, trying desperately to graduate on time, finds out that Princeton, or Stanford, or the University of Missouri-Rolla offers that course in X that she needs, or that Professor Y’s PhD adviser is teaching a course on Latin American nationalism, and that these courses are available, in their entirety online–lectures, study guides, reading lists, paper assignments, the works.

So, our enterprising student goes to the chair of the history department and says, “I’ve found an open source solution to my problem.” Aghast, the department chair protests, “But you won’t have actually taken the class.”

But what if our enterprising student did everything for the class, including writing the papers, doing all the reading, watching all the lectures, etc., etc.? Couldn’t someone in the history department grade those papers? Maybe even give her an exam?

Or, alternatively, the history department might say to its majors that they needed to demonstrate mastery of some certain set of content and that they could do so in two ways: the traditional method of taking some number of history courses, or the open source method of acquiring a body of knowledge and being tested on it. If our enterprising student passes the history departments exam(s), then she earns her degree. If not, then it’s back to the books.

It’s a crazy idea, I know, largely because it’s such a blend of old school and new media. Once upon a time, not that long ago, before universities became knowledge guilds, students “read” a subject and were examined on it. If they passed, they graduated. But “back in the day” (as my students are so fond of saying) readers in history at University X were limited to the professors who taught there. Tomorrow’s students will have access to a virtually unlimited number of professors.

It’ll never work, right?

Ah, but it does. I think it’s safe to say that the legal profession is pretty conservative when it comes to professional qualifications. But four states (California, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington) allow would-be attorneys to take the bar exam without ever having attended law school. Aspiring attorneys in those states have to “read the law” with a judge for some period of time, but then can take the bar and if they pass, they are attorneys.

So, it turns out my proposition is not so radical after all…All we need is a history department (and a university) willing to embrace open source education as an option, and our enterprising student can craft an amazingly exciting educational experience.

15 thoughts on “Can Higher Education Be Open Source? (2)

  1. Derek

    Very interesting ideas here, Mills. I’m reminded of the student in my first-semester calculus course a few years ago who only showed up on test days. Since she aced all the tests, it didn’t bother me that she was never in class. I figured that if she could pick up all the material on her own, more power to her.

    However, I would worry about a couple of things under this model. One is that your enterprising student wouldn’t receive any feedback on her work for the course along the way–just a grade at the end of the process. I know that’s how things were done “back in the day” (and continue to be done at many European universities), but I think most students benefit from formative feedback as they learn. Only the best students can get by without it, I think.

    Also, what about student-to-student interactions? There’s a lot of value to having students in the classroom together (or part of a shared online discussion space). Where’s the community in your open source version of college?

  2. Larry Cebula

    I’ve got an idea Mills. You and I raise ten million in venture capital and buy a bankrupt but accredited brick and mortar school somewhere in the U.S. Then we put all the classes online and hire academics in Indian and the Philippines to teach them. The course would all be fully accredited and free. We would make our money through textbook deals and click through ads.

    Do you know anyone with ten million dollars?

  3. Greg Byshenk

    I have to admit to being quite confused with your discussion. I read this page, then the previous one, but can’t see how what you discuss has anything specific to do with “open source”.

    To be sure, education is almost invariably “open source”, but this has nothing to do with putting courses on-line, distance learning, or anything else. Education is almost invariably “open source” because it cannot be otherwise. How could one hope to provide education if the “source” (the textbooks, the professors’ lectures, etc.) were not “open” to the students? Such is already so, and has been so pretty much since formal education began. Of course, such “open source” education is usually not _free_, either as in speech or beer: a student must pay for access to the source, and usually is not free to distribute the source. But whether education is _free_ in either of these senses is something different than whether it is “open source”, as ‘open source’ and ‘free’ are not the same thing.

    There seems to be continuing confusion in what you discuss, which so far as I can see a) is nothingnew, and b) has nothing to do with “open source”. Distance learning and studying at other universities is nothing new; my mother did almost all of her university coursework via distance learning — 30 years ago! — and students have been doing coursework at other universities than their own for at least that long. And what you are discussing has nothing _specifically_ to do with “open source”, for the reasons above.

    Further, the “problem” you raise has nothing to do with “open source”, and thus “open source” seemsunlikely to be the solution. The “problem” has very little to do with the _education_ or even the coursework, but with the evalution thereof. In the first place, it seems generally accepted that the creating and marking of exams is among the _least_ enjoyable aspects of teaching, which means that it is highly unlikely that anyone will volunteer to do so without being compensated. In the second place, this task is not an easy one, and in all probability the only person qualified to evaluate a student’s coursework is someone who is qualified to teach the course in question. If the department’s specialist in Latin American history is on sabbatical, who will be qualified to evaluate the student’s work, given that the “problem” is that there is no one present in the department who specializes in that particular area, and no one familiar with the content of the course? When I was a graduate teaching assistant, I led discussion sections and graded the exams of the students in my section, but this required — at minimum — that I did all of the reading required and attended all the lectures; in short, it required that I follow the course myself. Which seems entirely reasonable, as there seems to be no way to evaluate the student’s performance in the course otherwise. Even supposing that there was another Latin American specialist in the department, creating an exam focusing on Chile and Argentina would not be a reasonable evaluation if the course focused on Colombia and Venezuela.

    Finally, even your last discussion of reading for exams has nothing specifically to do with “open source”. Apart from issues already mentioned, it should be clear that such is the case when you consider that what you are discussing is not learning itself (which _must_ be “open source”), but the _evaluation_ _thereof_ (which, at least so far as I can see, has no relation whatsoever to “open source”).

    Certainly an American university could introduce the “reading a discipline” method of study (as is done in some places), and it is likely that “new media” could provide a richer “reading” experience for the student. But I fail to see how this idea has anything at all to do with “open source” — at least in any way that education in general does not already.

  4. Joe

    Never mind the courses and the lectures. Just hold the exams and grade the coursework.

    Students find their own teacher and study for the course then pay you to grade their work and award a qualification. Colleges throughout the third world advertise that they teach a course leading to a degree from your University. A whole secondary industry grows up publishing tables rating the quality of these courses based on exam pass rates and student satisfaction polls. The teaching and the qualification do not have to be from the same institution.

    This is already happening to some extent. I was recently in Singapore and there are lots of universities with branches there or local colleges whose courses are ratified by universities in England or Australia.

    As I understand it Oxford and Cambridge already do this. While your degree is from the university the teaching is all done by colleges which are independent. There is no law that says those colleges have to be physically in the towns of Oxford and Cambridge.

  5. Anthony Fejes

    Actually, this isn’t such a crazy idea at all. I did a whole degree like that: check out University of Waterloo’s Independent Studies Program. The only problem is that, when you leave, you have a “Bachelors of Independent Studies” degree, and very few people understand what that means.

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  7. Derek

    @Will Godfrey

    I think you’re on to something. An open course on topic X (with lectures, readings, assignments, etc., available for free online) could have a set of community-building tools to go with it–perhaps synchronous tools like chat, more likely asynchronous tools like discussion forums. That way, students who were learning from the open course materials could interact with other such students. The author of the materials could join the discussions from time to time, as well.

    That’s not too far from what Wikipedia is, I think. Wikipedia gives you a page on a particular topic, with discussions about the page that anyone can join. The author of the page isn’t a credentialed authority on the topic, and there’s no multimedia or assignments, but the community tools are there.

    I think the real challenge here is the one that Greg Byshenk raised above–who’s going to want to / be able to assess these students? Professors aren’t particularly great at assessment, especially when they’re assessing students not in their own courses. (For example, I took a qualifying exam in my second year of grad school that supposedly covered one of my first-year courses. The exam was not written by the teacher of the course, however, and there was almost no correlation between the exam and the course content.)

    As for Greg’s comment about the use of the term “open source,” I tend to think of the term in the context of open source software. In that case, it’s not just the program that’s freely available (“open”), but also the underlying code, so that users can modify it if they so wish. That metaphor doesn’t really work for what Mills is describing here. There’s no code that’s used to generate learning content in general. In mathematics, however, many course-related documents are often written in TeX, a mark-up language that handles mathematical notation very well. I would want instructors who share their course materials to share the underlying TeX code so that others could modify their materials. That would be “open source.”

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  9. Bogdan Bivolaru

    I was thinking about mixing day courses (face to face with the teacher, at a “home university”) and distant learning courses at some other University.

    Exams and paperwork could be done online at the location of “home university”. Teacher would be connected online at the remote location.
    It would be like a University would “outsource” some courses to another university. All there needs for such an exam to happen is someone willing to supervise the exam at the “home university” and therefore certify to its correctness. (students did not try to copy during exam).

    Have you heard of Globewide Network Academy, http://www.gnacademy.org/ ? Here is an excerpt stating their goals:
    “We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose purpose is the research and development of open source tools that promote distance learning and online communities. We are happy to share our research, and code and to provide support services to other open source projects and non-profits.”

  10. Mel

    @Derek: Wikiversity, one of Wikipedia’s sister projects, is beginning to act like the kind of space you describe – a little less flexibly because they’re Mediawiki-based, but there’s a test server that you can request accounts on and install and play with other software with (to support a Wikiversity “course”-project).

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