Friday, November 12, 2004

Raising the Benefits

OK, so I’ve been thinking about the MIT open content project and what might drive somebody to participate in a course. Remember, we are talking about learning a difficult subject, by yourself, with little or no guidance. This is a high cost, so unless the benefit is equally as high, a person is very unlikely to participate.

So who goes through these courses? What is the benefit of doing so? If a participant has an insane curiosity about a topic, then simply learning the material is a high enough benefit for that person to pay the cost. But what else is there? Couldn’t there be some other way to provide a benefit so that more people would take advantage of these open educational opportunities? If, after taking these courses, businesses or other institutions of learning don’t recognize the work you’ve done, what is the purpose of going through the material?

What if there was a way to ensure that the material had been learned? Usually this is determined by a professor who also serves as a mentor and content expert in the class. But in an online environment, the professor has already provided both the content, and, to some extent, mentorship. The only piece missing in the open content courses is the ability to ensure the material has been learned.

But couldn’t there be another way that a student could demonstrate they know the material other than to have a professor watching over and checking their work?

What if to earn ‘credit’ for a course, a student must do two things. First they must complete the course under the guidance of an expert by demonstrating competence in all of the necessary areas. Second, they must then take on the role of an expert, and turn around and guide another student through the same process. So completing a course is only half of the work, you must then take on the role of teacher and help somebody else complete the course. A person would be ‘graded’ on both the work they completed, and the work his/her student completed. If a person passes, and their student passes, couldn’t it then be said, with a fair amount of confidence, that this person knows the material?

What if we took a group of students and sent them though an online course under the direction of a faculty member. Call them Group A. Take a second set of students (Group B) and have them go through the same course, but have them turn around and serve as mentors to a third set of students (Group C). Have Group C (who has not been in any contact with a professor mentor a fourth set of students (Group D), and then wait six months (Halo 2 just came out, there are plenty of things which can occupy our time). At this point test Groups A and C (the group that never worked under a professor) and compare the results.

It can be argued that learning under somebody who just learned the material themselves could never replace learning at the feet of the ‘masters’, but what if you're not 'accepted' to learn at those feet? Or what if the privilege of sitting near those feet runs you $30,000 a year, plus books and housing? Couldn’t this be a viable alternative, especially in the ‘hard sciences’, where you either know it or you don’t? Do I really need to sit at the feet of the masters to learn the quadratic equation? Just give me somebody who knows it, and can explain it to me, and I’m good to go.

I doubt MIT is close to handing out credit just because a person has gone through the material, and mentored somebody else, but if it can be demonstrated that these mentors are learning the material just as well as their in-class counterparts, couldn't you argue for a the possibility of some other kind of recognition? Perhaps a certificate system or something? One that businesses may honor, or possibly even other institutions? What if a person in a lesser developed country could earn a 'certificate degree' from MIT without ever having to leave their country? Couldn't this benefit drive more people to online content, and thus result in the education of more people?


shelleylyn said...

You raise a question of incentives- why would a person go through the pain (cost) of autonomous learning? You make the assumption (and a pretty good one, I think) that adding something like certification would be seen as an additional incentive (benefit) that just might bring more hungry learners to the open content table. I think it is important to acknowledge that while certification may be AN incentive, it certainly is not the only or even most powerful incentive for self-directed learning. That said, it may be what tips the balance in favor of a learner making the effort to sit down and learn something new.

So before there can be certification, there must be assessment. I really dig the peer mentoring/teaching model you suggest. I think it brings up some incredibly interesting questions that lie at the heart of the open content movement.

:Is peer mentoring/teaching adequate or is something vital lost without the presence of a formal instructor?

:How can peer mentoring/teaching contribute to the self-sustaining nature of a learning community?


David said...

Remember that half the users don't need an extra certification. 15% or so are faculty looking to improve the courses they teach. Another 35% or so are students in formal courses at other schools looking for supplemental materials / help. So only about 50% of the users are "self-learners" who need the motivation you're talking about. They're an important 50%, but they are only 50%.

I think the model you're describing could be made to work -- if some small sample of every generation of students were actually formally assessed to try to ensure that no funny business was going on. Maybe.

Have to agree with Shelley... interesting.