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Running courses openly – fewer problems and more benefits than expected

The idea of open teaching — opening access to the course materials and interaction to anyone, not just the enrolled students — seems foreign and a bit wacky to many professors and lecturers. More students sound like more work, less opportunity to engage with each individual student, and the practicalities of facilitating a diverse group of participants using online technologies seems daunting as well. It turns out that those who try it are often surprised that it’s much more rewarding and easier than they thought.

As David Wiley wrote about his experience in 2009 “open teaching multiplies the benefits but not the effort.” He started by placing the syllabus for his course on a public website, and selected readings that were accessible for anyone, not just those who could enter an academic library. In some disciplines this is easier to do than in others, because more of the relevant literature is open access or at least available for download online. But even for papers published in closed journals tools like google scholar are getting very good at finding working draft versions that are almost identical to the final published ones. A simple mailing list or discussion forum can provide the main communication tool for interaction between the professor and the students, and personal work is easy to store on blogs or wikis. All of the tools that are needed, are easy to use and freely available, and often the students are using them already and can help each other (and the Professor) with problems.

Since 2009 others have followed suit and experimented with slight variations on the theme. David Wiley’s course was simply opened up, George Siemens and Stephen Downes experimented with a more decentralized approach for their Connectivism course. It attracted a huge following, more than 1200 people signed up, but there was much less interaction between the core (Professors and enrolled students) and self-learners some of whom formed their own independent groups. Very ambitious in concept and scope, this is an approach that might not be as easy to replicate.

The latest example, and more similar to David Wiley’s course is Joi Ito’s course on Digital Journalism which he has been teaching for the past three years at The Keio Graduate School of Media Design (KMD). Since a lot of the interesting work that happens in digital journalism is driven by the innovation on the open web, Joi decided it was fitting to run the course through Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU), a free and open online community for peer learning on almost any topic. Only the KEIO students received formal credits, but anyone who participated benefited from the interaction with a motivated and enthusiastic group of individuals from around the world. Joi was “excited by the effectiveness and the quality of the discourse” (he wrote a longer blog post reflecting on the experience) and confirms David Wiley’s earlier impression that “[t]he added richness of broader, international perspectives that these outside, informal students brought to the course was priceless for the official students in my class.” And contrary to the expectation to the informal students might need extra help and support – they might turn out to be the most motivated, and engaged participants, and produce the highest quality work.

Sounds like a win-win-win situation, if there is such a thing. With little effort the Professor increases the benefits of his or her teaching and gets to work with motivated and engaged learners (win), enrolled students enjoy a richer learning experience (win), and informal learners have access to a learning opportunity that did not exist before (win).