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Don't Call It a Course

October 28, 2013

As ed tech companies and universities search for the most effective way to teach students online, some have found the term “course” no longer captures what it means to pursue an education. Enter the “learning experience” -- a term being used to describe a module of higher education not anchored to a specific place or time.

The name change is more than just semantics or corporate jargon, its creators argue, but a necessary shift as colleges and universities establish what does and does not work in online education. The traditional 90-minute lecture in particular has proven to be a poor method of delivering content online, and professors have been encouraged to follow the Khan Academy model and split their material into modules often covering no more than one concept. When those modules are freed from the time constraints of a semester or quarter, the end result bears only some resemblance to a course.

The term no longer fits, they say.

When Harvard University co-founded the massive open online course provider edX in May 2012, faculty director Robert A. Lue said the conversation between faculty members initially revolved around courses, but within a matter of months, "it became very clear that in fact sticking to courses as the only grain size was simply not the way to go.”

A year and a half later, the conversation has gotten to the point where a HarvardX spokesman said "we actually now edit ourselves to not say 'MOOC' or even 'course' in meetings."

“It really does reflect in my view a real sea change in how we’re thinking about education,” Lue said. “The word [course] is still meaningful, but I feel strongly that as a defining term, it is increasingly less defining of all the different options that we want to have.”

Lue compared the breakdown of courses into modules to textbooks and chapters. "It’s very hard to use a course in another course, while once you modularize into these more discrete learning experiences, it’s so much easier to share," he said.

In addition to the term addressing size and scope, some companies believe “learning experience” signals a change in how information is transmitted to students.

The shift “comes out of a recognition that learning is a very social activity, that it involves and requires a set of experiences that connects students to students, students to faculty, student to ideas, and that it’s not a top-down information transmission process,” said Marie Norman, senior director of educational excellence of Acatar, which unlike edX creates small-scale online and hybrid courses.

“Clearly there's more to it than just content,” CEO Matthew H. Cooper said. “The learning experience has to do with things that occur by design and all sorts of other things that aren't on the syllabus that are spontaneous and student-generated.”

Ryan Gialames, senior director of product strategy and user experience, said Acatar has deliberately avoided certain terms -- among them, “course,” “learning management system” and even “online” -- since the Carnegie Mellon University subsidiary was founded last year. The terms, he said, carry a lot of baggage.

“We too see the boundaries of the traditional course eroding away,” Gialames said. “We’re speaking with folks at CMU who are interested in building this whole body of knowledge, then figuring individual paths to point students through it. It’s also just as important when you’ve got that body of knowledge that you can build maps and paths.”

Other companies have yet to declare the death of the course, even though they have adopted much of the same rhetoric. Blackboard’s Matthew Maurer, vice president of strategic communications for Blackboard, which builds its original learning management system products around courses, said the company is not prepared to make any extreme proclamations, even though it acknowledges more attention is being paid to learning occurring outside traditional courses.

“Like degrees and credits and badging and competency are blurring lines, so too are content and social learning and concept-based learning blurring the lines of the traditional ‘course,’ ” Maurer said. “[It’s likely] that the course will stay on as a concept but there will be increasing acknowledgement, support for and investment in learning outside the course.”

Champions of the course can take heart in the fact that officials of several education companies, including Coursera and Pearson, responded to news of the learning experience with bewilderment.

“There’s of course good reason to be skeptical and critical, but this is not a term that is baseless or just cute-sounding,” Lue said. “There’s corporate speak. there’s academic speak, there’s all sorts of education speak, and this certainly falls into that. You know what, though? These terms and how they are selected carry meaning.”

 

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