Published on 2013/01/21

The Evolving Online Course: Can a Course Get Smarter As It Ages?

The Evolving Online Course: Can a Course Get Smarter As It Ages?
The imagination of the higher education industry has been captured by the explosion of online learning, but in truth the innovations and advances that are happening are not entirely dissimilar to changes that have already happened. Today’s technology presents educators with the opportunity to truly innovate and revolutionize the distance education experience.

Much has been written about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and their potential to change how people access course content, and discussions abound on how faculty might change their style of teaching and how learning might become more personalized. These questions are an extension of the ongoing dialogue related to the potential opportunities afforded by online education.

One of the untapped areas of potential for schools, faculty and students is how to best take advantage of the digital assets created during the development and delivery of online courses. If you begin to think “outside the box” of the traditional course, or even the traditional online course, you quickly identify a variety of potential issues with how we use, re-use and re-combine these digital assets, which could lie at the heart of a future transformation of the course.

What is a course and who owns it?

Faculty members have traditionally been good curators of content, aligning readings and guest speakers with their own lecture topics to create a unified course. The faculty member regularly updates lecture content, adapts new reading lists and chooses new textbooks as new material becomes available.

In the digital environment, the faculty member now has a much broader menu of options for course content, increasingly supported by the learning management system being used by his or her institution, which makes it easier to integrate, link and embed third-party content into the course. Some of these options take the more traditional form (such as e-textbooks and journal articles) while others include online assets such as blogs, wikis and RSS feeds. Over the past several years, faculty members have had access to content from various open educational resource repositories, as well as YouTube or iTunesU videos. Added to this list now are MOOCs, which could serve as rich course material sources or pre-requisites, depending on the platform being used. Lastly, the new format for online courses has led to an explosion of student-generated content. Student discussion posts, blogs, tweets, etc. from prior courses could also become a rich set of new content.

For administrators, the questions will arise:

  • “Where does the definition of what counts as course material stop and start?”
  • “What ownership does the faculty member have over the course, its content and its design?”
  • “How does this new world of aggregation change how we think about stipends and other compensation for course development?”

New opportunities for aggregation and social sharing

Indeed, some of these issues related to IP ownership, rights and access have been part of the discussion for many years. And, certainly, the creation of a fully digital course is nothing new in some circles. But where it gets really interesting is when you factor in the ability to aggregate the student-generated and socially-shared content of an online course.

One of the unique characteristics of an online course, compared with a classroom course, is the digital footprint created by the students and the faculty member. At eCornell, where we typically offer short courses (two to four weeks long), each session is still populated with hundreds of unique discussion posts and dozens of student-created projects, papers and other assignments by the end of the course. Recent attention and focus has been turned to the field of learning analytics and tools like Knewton that can help faculty identify students in need, and offer more targeted and personalized content based on the aggregation of data on the student’s progress in the course. While interesting in its own right, I think there is another, more interesting use of student data.

When we move beyond the binary distinctions of faculty member and student, and instead look at everyone as having the role of a contributor to the learning experience, you can ask new questions. What if you could systematically capture, tag, anonymize, analyze and aggregate the various types of student contributions to an online course, such as discussion posts, blog posts, tweets, projects and assignments? The result could be a new set of course assets, based entirely on the insights, wisdom and questions of students. In professional programs, you could create “Best Practices” or new types of Case Studies that draw on the real-world experiences of those in the class. As enrollments in a particular course grow (through a MOOC, for example), or as you aggregate contributions from multiple sessions of a course, you have the opportunity for a true “wisdom of crowds” type of learning experience.

In essence, what if a course could actually get “smarter” in each successive running, not solely based on the updates of the faculty member, but based on the knowledge, insights and experience of prior students? Imagine a course with new assets that could reflect recent trends drawn from the diversity of its students. This could could enable the construction of new knowledge in a way that is possible but may not be happening in a systemic way.

Of course, there are questions

Do the students have to explicitly consent to the use of their contributed materials in this way? What types of tools do we need to aggregate and analyze this unstructured “big data”? How should faculty members adapt their own teaching and content to best leverage this student-generated content? Are they comfortable with this latest evolutionary step, which turns them from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”? Do institutions see this type of learning as a competitive advantage or disruptive threat?

With so much hype about the disruptive potential of video-captured lectures (arguably a significantly old technology) and the transformative effects of blending digital content with human-powered learning (a not-so-recent development), I suggest we turn our attention to figuring out how to do things in the online environment that take advantage of its unique ability to capture learning that truly reflects the collective knowledge of the learning community.

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Readers Comments

Zandra Thomas 2013/01/21 at 10:13 am

This is a very interesting idea. This adds an interactive element to online education that I think is currently missing, despite efforts professors have made with discussion boards, etc.

I am a bit confused as to how Proulx envisions the new role for faculty. He doesn’t go into much detail about this, except for saying that a faculty member would become more of a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.” However, as he says elsewhere in the article, faculty members are already content curators. Even with the creation of these new materials, it seems that professors would still have a curatorial role – sifting through content for the best examples, aggregating and organizing data, etc. I would argue that what Proulx is proposing would provide professors with a new source of content/information/knowledge for their courses, but I’m not sure their role has fundamentally changed.

Quincy Adams 2013/01/21 at 11:43 am

It’s refreshing to read an article by an educator who is willing to push the boundaries and think creatively. Crowdsourcing course content is a great way to take advantage of the technology we have access to, such as Google Analytics. I can see it being complementary to the competency-based education model that some schools are starting to adopt because it requires students to demonstrate their knowledge. This might also be a particularly good opportunity for non-traditional students, who may have valuable experiences to share, to become more involved and invested in their courses.

Greg Allen 2013/01/21 at 12:54 pm

The question of intellectual property ownership is one I’d never considered when thinking about the possibilities of using and re-using student work to help teach future students.

It’s interesting how often assignments and curricula are recycled even today, but past work simply isn’t used to teach future learners.

I should think that any work a student does for a class at a college would be the property of that college, with students retaining the right to use it (responsibly) as they wish.

Jane Terpstra 2013/01/28 at 5:00 pm

Many faculty/instructors do not realize that students hold the copyright for any course work that they write. This includes everything from discussion posts to uploaded papers to answers to essay questions on an exam. In order to reuse any of this copyrighted material in a future course, faculty/instructors would need to obtain permission from the individual copyright holders — the students.

Susan Farber 2013/01/30 at 7:57 am

Chris Proulx describes a new paradigm for course design incorporating the new knowledge that students co-construct in online learning communities. Additionally, course content is shifting in its format, how it is accessed, and its constant availability. These are indeed the traits of online learning that capitalizes on web 2.0 traits and emergent technology, as Quincy Adams promotes for its capacity to engage those who may not often readily participate in learning opportunities.
Jane Terpstra raises a valid issue: who owns this content, especially if faculty and the publishing companies seek copyright protection for their creative and intellectual output? Why should a student’s product not deserve protection?
With the increasing use of Open Educational Resources (OER –, how do we create a healthy balance between these tensions of intellectual ownership? A resolution of this tension can only guide online educators’ actions and instructional design decisions in the future.

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