On average, the reading requirements for my course-load are significantly less than what I remember from my original college experience. But, on average, the statistician sitting on a block of ice and lighting hair on fire will be at just the right temperature.
This observation may be behind the mixed feelings I’ve developed with regard to the seemingly light amount of reading MOOCs and other free courses demand. For this average reading load seems to reflect multiple phenomena, some of which impact the virtual and physical classroom equally.
For instance, classes in technical subjects (such as the astronomy, statistics and logic classes that are part of my Freshman year lineup) would normally be associated with a college textbook. But, speaking as someone who has spent time in the textbook industry, the college text is undergoing transformation more rapidly than any other aspect of higher education.
This transformation is somewhat obscured by the fact that textbooks still represent a highly profitable, multi-billion dollar industry that supplies students in both K-12 and college with the bulk of their educational content (in both print and digital formats). And while a number of companies have tried to pick off pieces of this market by offering lower-cost alternatives, MOOCs are demonstrating that a course does not need to be built around a single text offering pre-selected readings built into a curriculum established by a publisher.
In olden days (i.e., 10-20 years ago), I would have had such a textbook at my side when working through some of the homework assignments for that iTunes U astronomy course I mentioned in my last posting. But today, when I needed to categorize different organisms as chemoautotrophs, photoautotrophs, chemoheterotrophs, or photoheterotrophs, I simply Googled those terms in order to recall their meanings originally introduced to me through lecture.
Both the Udacity Starting a Business and Coursera Think Again: How to Reason and Argue courses I recently completed were taught by professors who were also textbook authors. And while their courses closely paralleled the texts they had written, owning these books was completely optional and – as it turned out – not necessary to completing (and, more importantly, understanding) all of the material taught in class.
Classes in humanities and social sciences topics have ranged considerably with regard to reading demands, from the Property and Liability class I just started (that has no required reading) to my Modernism and Post-Modernism class (that has so far required reading one book or 40-50 pages of essays per week) to EdX’s recently started Greek Hero class (where close reading of classical texts is the cornerstone of the course).
But even in cases where specific readings are not part of a course (I’m thinking here of not just classes like Property and Liability, but of audio-only lecture courses like the ones I just finished on The Modern Intellectual Tradition or the World of George Orwell), there is nothing preventing me from reading the works discussed during class.
Determining my own reading list to accompany a Modern Intellectual Tradition class that covered 350 years of thinkers would not be practical without some guidance over where to start (and end). But when studying George Orwell, the obvious books to read either already sit on my bookshelf or can be obtained for free from the public library or web. (Or I could simply borrow the copy of Animal Farm my son is reading for his 8th grade literature class.)
As technology continues to transform both the education and textbook industries, I anticipate a convergence between online instruction and the custom and open publishing industries/movements which will result in free or low-cost pre-packaged “coursepacks” supporting a diversifying range of physical and virtual classroom experiences.
This transformation is already well under way at “brand name” colleges that increasingly favor custom reading lists over standardized textbooks (at least in humanities and social science courses). And an educational movement like open learning that stresses low cost is not likely to move in the opposite direction when it comes to packaging and pricing reading to accompany a course.
Underlying all of these discussions is a complaint I heard repeatedly during my time in the book trade: that regardless of whether it’s a textbook or custom course-pack (delivered in printed or digital format) most students are simply not reading the materials assigned to them. And while I suspect that this observation is the result of another misleading average, it may turn out that commitment to reading is the differentiator between those who succeed in MOOCs and other experiments in alternative learning, and those who get nothing out of them.