In the midst of the recent craze and controversy about free online learning, Jonathan Haber wanted to see things from the learner’s perspective. He undertook a daunting project: earn the equivalent of a four-year philosophy degree* in just a quarter of the time. He documented everything at Degree of Freedom, and recently recapped his experience for Slate magazine.
The full article is worth your time, but I wanted to share some highlights from Haber’s article (block-quote sections below) that I think can speak to the Saylor.org student experience as well as the thinking of our staff.
“To begin with, all the professors I studied with over the last year took their courses and their unseen students seriously, treating us as eager and grown-up learners ready to grapple with complex ideas, often from novel perspectives.”
Our model of self-paced/guided learning makes student enthusiasm and commitment almost a necessity. We want — we need — to improve the interactivity of courses and both build and sustain true communities of learners, but we take for granted that students who stick with us are curious and motivated at a minimum. And although we lay out a path, saying in effect, “do this, then do this, then do this, now take an exam”, we also take for granted that students will want — need — to stray from this prescribed path. If one of our courses meets your educational/professional/personal need and you just want to get it done and walk away with a certificate, we make that pretty easy to do. If you want to go down the rabbit hole, discover new resources, skip this assignment and do that one three times in a row, we make that possible, too.
“[A]ttempts to engage with fellow students via forums or attempted meet-ups generally fell flat (in part because the speed at which I was working left little time for community building).
“That said, I will always remember how a question I posted in the Greek Hero forum regarding the portrayal of Achilles in Troilus and Cressida was answered by a fellow student who knew exactly which classical sources Shakespeare had at hand when he wrote that work. So while online classes do not facilitate the back-and-forth of an undergraduate bull session, they do offer the chance to interact with other students with a wide variety of life and academic experience, some of it quite useful.”
Our self-paced courses sure are convenient, but they are not so good at supporting vibrant discussion forums. Our own discussion forums are hit and miss — popular courses sustain rich dialog, while quieter courses offer students little opportunity for interaction with others; for the truly massive MOOCs, the problem is noise, while for our courses, the problem is chronology and vacancy, or both. Also, without course moderators or TAs, our forums are not great at providing student support; we jump in when we can and a few of our faculty and star students provide outstanding support, but our forums are largely defined by an absence of foundation staff.
The thing is, we hope for our students the pleasure of meeting others who have “a wide variety of life and academic experience”. The other thing is, we simply don’t have the time, although I would spend all day in the forums if I could (the very best part of my job is talking with our students).
We have to do better, not by working harder, but by working smarter. I have heard very good ideas from students on how we can more effectively support and strengthen community in the forums (expect more on that in coming weeks).
What is success?
“[A]s data that became available during my year of online learning and research demonstrated, the numbers we have been using to evaluate the success or failure of MOOCs (including huge enrollments and high dropout percentages) are shallow at best, misleading at worst. For students hitting the Enroll button on the Coursera or edX website do so with different goals in mind—ranging from simply wanting to browse a syllabus, to auditing, to earning a certificate.”
We get messages every day expressing thanks for providing free courses on a variety of subjects, and we immensely appreciate hearing positive reports from people. Visitors come to Saylor.org for a lot of reasons. Some really are just visiting, perhaps reading an article or watching a video, for fun or for school, that they found from a regular web search. Some come as students, intending to complete from one to literally dozens of courses. As with the MOOCs, a relative few have actually “completed” a course to earn a certificate, which is admirable when one considers that many of courses take well over a hundred hours — that’s two and a half weeks of full-time employment — to complete.
What are our students getting from us? What are we really giving back? As a nonprofit organization, that’s a really serious question for us. Heck, it’s the only serious question for us (okay, that and paying for it all…two serious questions). For years, our model has been to discover, vet, organize, and present free learning materials, providing sufficient structure (learning outcomes, final exams, certificates) that a school or an employer or the student him/herself can take the work seriously. And that’s good, but it can be awfully difficult to measure real impact.
We need to do more for our students, which is what 2014 is going to be all about. The work we have done to date is effectively permanent; links may go down from time to time, but the planning and structure of all the courses is openly licensed and can exist practically forever on our site or on any other. To give back to our students, to advance as a nonprofit education provider, we will be driving hard toward building partnerships, extending affordable credit opportunities, expanding and supporting credentialing systems, and ultimately making sure that our students know what they are getting from their investment of time and energy and community.
Other measures of success
“[M]y One Year BA…was meant to create the type of transformative educational experience one receives at the undergraduate level, one that leaves you a different person at the end of it than you were when you started. With that in mind, is it outlandish to consider me the equivalent of a graduating senior with a B.A. in philosophy?
“As Socrates, one of my guides over the last year, put it, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” And in a world where traditional education is costing ever more, and seems often to seek to fill rather than kindle, the free-learning bounty growing and improving online might yet prove a valuable resource to turn young people into passionate independent learners.”
Frankly, this is tough for us. Most of our staff (and I do not include here our many wonderful faculty consultants) have been teachers or one kind or another at some point or another; many of us still are educators. We want to kindle a passion for learning but we also want to “fill”. Many of our students come to Saylor.org out of curiosity and a pure love for learning, but a great many others need more than personal fulfillment — they need a job, a promotion, a boost toward a degree, or an alternative to a degree. We want to provide for those needs, while making the student experience as effective and efficient as possible.
I do not believe that kindle/fill needs to be an either/or proposition. For one thing, while we provide the experience and some of the tools, our students will always succeed best when they bring their own curiosity, motivation, and passion to their work. At the Saylor Foundation, we do not fill up vessels; we provide a well and invite all comers to fill their buckets. Moreover, anyone who taken a few of our courses has learned something of time management, organization, and evaluation of materials. That person has become a better learner.
I thrill at the idea that a student in our community should be or become a passionate, independent learner. That is an immense accomplishment, if exceedingly difficult to measure. But I am also excited by the student who takes our macroeconomics course to clear a hurdle into a Ph.D. program; or the student who is learning biology and chemistry toward starting a fermentation science certificate; or the student who is picking up computer science so that he will be as able in the second half of his professional career as in the first half; or the student who is getting a traditional degree on her terms, at her pace, and for less cost.
So much of driving toward the life you want is about becoming an independent learner that we are more than happy to provide the well and the buckets and help people carry them home for as long as people want the water and know what to do with it. This we believe unequivocally: nobody should have to postpone their dreams simply because they cannot access an education.