Curated Learning

I’ve gotten to the halfway point in an Existentialism course I’m taking from Saylor.org.  And while I still need to get to the end before writing a formal review, it’s worth taking a few moments now to comment on a course that’s not simply a recording (a la iTunes U) or repackaging (a la most MOOCs) of an existing college class.

For this class can best be described as curated, i.e., put together from various sources through the guiding hand of a subject-matter expert.

Content curation became a buzz among the social media set once it became clear that while any five-year-old could create a portal, only someone with knowledge or insight could add value to sites providing an onramp to existing web materials.  And so places like iQ by Intel have sprung up combining content selection and organization with commentary and design to provide mediated access to existing web material.

In the education space, the company generating the most headlines with regard to a content curation strategy is Boundless Learning which builds free or low-cost college-level textbooks from existing open source materials.  Said headlines mostly have to do with the lawsuits their strategy has generated from commercial textbook publishers protesting Boundless’ choice to build their texts around the organizing structure (i.e., table of contents) of existing popular college texts.

I’ll leave it to the lawyers to determine if following the flow of an existing textbook represents a theft of intellectual property, and to students to see if two similarly organized textbooks containing different material can be used to cover the same class.  But the point is that enough free material is currently available to generate a textbook of equivalent length, depth and breadth as a market-leading commercial equivalent.  And if a decent textbook can be generated from free online materials, why not a whole course?

That’s the question Saylor is attempting by answer by creating a catalog of over 300 classes, each of which consists of readings, lectures and other materials pulled from web sources and tied together through an online syllabus broken into “Units” (which I’ve been treating as weekly assignments).

To give you a flavor of how this works, the Existentialism class I’m taking consists of eight Units, each of which is dedicated to a specific philosopher (Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, etc.) that forms a link in a chain in the story of Existentialist philosophy.  And each unit includes about a dozen assignments (readings linked to public primary and secondary sources, college lectures from YouTube or iTunes, or podcasts episodes) which ends with an automated quiz that’s part of the Saylor learning management system.

While I’ve had trouble in the past with courses lacking a focal point (such as a single lecturer who anchors the course), it has been interesting to be taught to week after week by experts in a particular thinker or subject.  And the value of a curated course is that these experts were selected and organized for me by someone already familiar with the material who has taught this subject previously.

Now I’ve only dipped my toe into the curated course waters, so I’m sure content selection and organization quality varies.  But I’m eager to compare the results of taking this course (where I’ve been guided by experts) with a similar self-curated course on Kant I’m planning to start towards the end of the summer that will combine material from MIT’s OpenCourseware and iTunes U lectures.

My experience with Existentialism class also highlights that formal courses (whether simply recorded or fully MOOCified) are not the only way to learn something.  So in a few upcoming postings I’d like to look at other ways to learn the same materials you might otherwise study in a college class (MOOC or traditional), methods that could be construed as additional free learning options for the self-motivated student.

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