«Beyond Courses: The Search for New Forms of Education Online G. Natriello Teachers College, Columbia University EdLab, The Gottesman Libraries ...»
The Search for New Forms of Education Online
Teachers College, Columbia University
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contents and its distribution outside of EdLab prior to publication should be limited to peer communications and specific requests. For information on republication rights, please contact: email@example.com G. Natriello 2 Beyond Courses: The Search for New Forms of Education Online With the course firmly established at both the secondary and post-secondary levels as the basic unit for delivering and accounting for education, it is perhaps not surprising that it has also assumed such a role online. On high school and college campuses, courses serve to structure the time and attention of instructors and students. Courses constitute the major portion of the formal educational program. Moreover, they allow for the efficient use of physical facilities by permitting schools to schedule multiple courses in any one classroom throughout the day, the week, and the term. Courses also structure educational accountability processes by allowing for assessments of student performance in each course and then by providing convenient units that may be assembled to fulfill the requirements for a diploma at the secondary level and for general education, majors, and degrees at the post-secondary level.
The course has served a number of similar functions as it has been moved online. Perhaps more than anything else, the use of the course as the unit for packaging and delivering education online has lent legitimacy to education in a non-traditional environment. However, the use of the course as the primary unit for online education has also brought some expectations that may be inappropriate or unrealistic. Courses are assumed to allow for a certain degree of interaction and for the establishment of close relations between faculty and students that may prove unattainable online. At the same time, reliance on the course as a delivery mechanism may prevent exploration of other more appropriate models.
To begin the exploration of models of online educational delivery other than the course this paper will consider alternatives, including research collaboratories that can take students to the leading edge of scientific discovery, expert discussion groups that rely on broad participation, and digital libraries that organize and present content to address a well-developed conception of audience need.
Before considering the particular case of the course as a unit of online education, it would be useful to take stock of where we are in the development of online education. It is safe to say that we are still very close to the beginning of the development of online education and online learning environments. This means that we have probably not yet witnessed the resolution of key questions about the most effective or appropriate, or indeed the most popular, form for online learning. Consequently, we may not yet have seen or noted what will ultimately become the dominant form of online learning.
A brief example from the early stages of another new technology will illustrate this point.
Consider the development of motion picture technology. In the nineteenth century when the technology was emerging the dominant form for its application was not the feature film projected on a screen that we know today. The most widespread early form was the kinetoscope, a single viewer peephole machine (Robinson, 1997; Balio, 1976). These very different forms existed together for some period of time before the feature film emerged triumphant.
Every form of educational organization entails a combination of features that work more or less well to promote learning under particular conditions. The course model is a form that has evolved to a meet the needs of secondary and post-secondary educational institutions operating in physical campus-based environments. The features of the course model have advanced to address concerns under the conditions that prevail on physical campuses. Whether the model can be successful in the online environment remains to be seen.
Functions Served by the Course Model To understand some of the requirements that new models of online learning must address we first consider the functions currently being served by the course model. Each of these functions might have to be addressed by alternative models if they are to prevail.
Courses serve a wide variety of individual and institutional needs in secondary and postsecondary education. First, they allow for the segmentation of the curriculum into manageable parts. This segmentation allows instructional staff for any one learning sequence to be specialized and focused. Such specialization reduces the need for staff to have broad competence in a vast area of the curriculum. Alternatively, it reduces the need to assemble complex instructional teams to cover the same broad expanse of the curriculum. The course model thus serves to reduce the complexity of instructional resources that must be mobilized.
Second, courses serve to narrow the focus that students must bring to the learning task. Such narrowing permits students to concentrate their efforts on a well-defined and bounded part of the overall curriculum at any one time. Presumably such a focus allows for more rigorous learning experiences.
Third, courses structure the time of instructional staff and students. Courses essentially place learning on a schedule to attempt to ensure that a certain amount is accomplished within a defined period of time. There are several implications of this structuring of time. The course model defines the time that will be devoted to course activities, at least those activities that require both instructor and student participation and/or interaction. Campus-based courses have associated requirements for course meetings that impose expectations and/or requirements for instruction and student performance at least to the level of attendance. In addition, courses can include requirements for time and attention outside of the required meetings.
In addition to course expectations and requirements defining the time that should be devoted to course activities, courses also function to limit or ration the time that will be devoted to a particular segment of the curriculum. Courses limit the meetings between instructors and students to a certain number of hours per week, and they limit the duration of attention to any one area of the curriculum to a certain number of weeks.
Fourth, courses also ration the use of the physical campus by designating particular times for particular course meetings. Such rationing applies not only to space on campuses, but also to access to particular instructional resources.
Fifth, courses offer a way of managing the assessment of student performance and progress.
Each course enrollment results in a grade that serves as a record of the student’s performance.
These individual course grades provide a series of assessments that can be accumulated in a student’s transcript to show the overall academic performance of a student. The course model of instruction with its required assessments and discretely scheduled learning activities anchors the assessment process and ensures that assessment takes place and that the results of assessments are communicated to students.
G. Natriello 4 Sixth, in addition to allowing for the monitoring of student performance, the course model also allows for the monitoring and management of instructional delivery and the performance of instructors. At the very least courses offer educational institutions a mechanism to assign instructional responsibilities and rationalize the distribution of instructional duties among a group of faculty members.
Seventh, educational institutions often use the course as an accounting device. The course can be specified as a relatively standard unit of instruction, and then a tuition rate can established in relation to the number of courses in which students are enrolled. For example, tuition rates can be specified in terms of a certain number of courses or in terms of a certain number of course credits. Since credits are associated with courses, the metering of tuition relies on the course model. The course is also used as a meaningful unit of student accomplishment toward a degree, and degree requirements are typically set in terms of a certain number of courses overall as well as a certain number of courses in one or more subsets (e.g., courses in a major, courses in a science, a language, etc.) Overall, the course serves as a key element in the packaging and delivery of education. All of these functions had accrued to the course prior to the advent of online education. Even in the pre-internet era, the course served as a major organizer of distance education in the form of the correspondence course. With the new possibilities for distance education afforded by the internet, the course model migrated quite naturally to the online environment. It is easy to see why the course model is now the dominant model in formal thinking about online education. In addition to all of the functions noted above, the course model brings with it a certain legitimacy that carries over to the world of online education and makes it appear more palatable to those who might question it. Policies at many educational institutions make no distinction between courses taken through on campus attendance and those taken online, and the common unit defined by the course model is, in part, responsible for this integration of online learning activities into campus based programs and degrees.
Limitations of the Course Model
Although the course model has some significant advantages for organizing educational activities and experiences and although it has come to dominate campus-based educational institutions, it also carries certain limitations that are made more manifest when it is employed in the realm of online learning. Considering these limitations may provide some insight into the requirements for any model that could serve as an alternative to the course model.
Some of the limitations of the course model are the result of the very same features that confer certain of the advantages noted above. Although the course model provides a manageable way to segment the curriculum, that very segmentation reduces the flexibility of students and instructors to pursue knowledge in precisely the way they might wish. Thus the course model mandates the presentation and sequencing of content, and in so doing it places limitations on instructor and student self-direction in learning. This limitation may not be noted much on traditional campuses where the entire environment is organized to offer learning opportunities, but it may be more problematic in the online environment where the single course is often the only educational option presented to students.
Course structure itself presents a substantial limitation that is recognizable both on campus and online. The typical course structure of periodically scheduled meetings and fixed duration sessions and terms has a logic all its own that is independent of any logic related to the content that is the subject of the course. In some instances (e.g., science labs, language labs) the course structure is configured to permit certain kinds of inquiry specific to a subject, but in general courses take the same form of meetings, assignments, examinations, and fixed length terms regardless of the content studied. When specific instructional goals are recognized as requiring particular structural configurations (e.g., discussion of material in small groups), a structural G. Natriello 5 accommodation is made, but that accommodation is often extended generically with little opportunity to organize and structure a course to enhance the educational experience in a particular subject domain. Under the course model, a course is a course is a course, and the one thing you know when you start participating is that you are in a course. That is one reason why on the first day students have to be told what course they are in to make sure they have not ended up in the wrong room. If every part of every curriculum is best taught in 50 minute segments several times a week for 12 to 15 weeks, then perhaps the course model is the best alternative. But this seems unlikely.
One of the virtues that is widely touted for online education is the fact that it offers “any time, any where” learning. However, the course model of online education imposes a rather severe limitation that is typically overlooked. Although education can take place “any time, any where,” course-based online education does not easily support “any thing” learning. That is, students must typically make a selection from a set of courses, and then they can learn only those topics that fall within the courses they have selected.
The course as a package for learning, particularly online learning, may not be the most appropriate size. Courses may be too big (e.g., too highly aggregated) to meet some learner expectations and too small (e.g., too discrete) to address other learner needs. Are courses of traditional length simply too long to be sustained online? Is the traditional course length too long to sustain maximum engagement and learning? Are traditional length courses efficient vehicles for the delivery of education? Although there may be some good reasons for courses of standard length on campuses where the physical plant operating costs are fixed and student living conditions must be maintained, in the online environment these conditions do not apply.
Although there is some variation in course length online, the need to mimic campus-based offerings has curtailed the range of possibilities.