In a traditional college setting, there is a distinction between taking a class (which includes fulfilling all course requirements) and simply auditing it (i.e., just sitting through the lectures). In the world of MOOCs and other free online classes, however, this difference is not so clear.
For most “brick-and-mortar” (and even online) degree-granting colleges and universities have standardized their courses to a certain extent, meaning that courses at the same credit level generally require comparable amounts of class time (divided into lectures, discussion sessions, lab periods and other components specific to the course).
In other words, students enrolling in a full-credit physics or Shakespeare course at most universities can expect to devote comparable amounts of time to fulfilling the classroom requirements for those courses. Workload beyond the classroom (such as reading, writing and other forms of homework) and difficulty of tests and other graded assignments can vary widely, depending on the teacher and subject matter. But a rough equivalence allows schools to assign different credit levels to different courses (giving half the credit for a class that meets for 1.5 hours per week vs. one that meets for three, for instance).
The fact that credit is awarded for performing all of the work in a class also allows some schools to offer an auditing option for certain classes, giving students the option to just sit through lectures, but not do the rest of the work assigned in the class, for zero credit.
In the emerging world of free college-level courses (MOOCs and otherwise), such standards do not yet exist which leads to questions regarding what constitutes a “true” college-equivalent online learning experience.
To take one example from my Degree of Freedom Freshman year curriculum, one of the science classes in my lineup is Life in the Universe, an iTunes U recording of Ohio State University’s Astronomy 141 taught by Professor Richard Pogge. Like most iTunes offerings, this course consists of just lectures (in this case, recorded audio lectures from the actual class Professor Pogge teachers to his Ohio State students).
On one level, my enrollment in this course should be considered an audit since the only things on offer from iTunes are lectures (no reading assignments, no homework and no assessments). Which means learning from Professor Pogge should be considered a “weaker” auditing option in contrast to a similar course (such as University of Rochester Professor Adam Frank’s Highlights of Modern Astronomy MOOC offered by Coursera).
But notice that the Coursera course runs for just four weeks. And unless that course breaks from the Coursera formula I’ve grown use to of 1-1.5 hours of online lecture per week, this means Frank will end up delivering 4-6 hours of lectures during his classes four week run. In contrast, Life in the Universe from iTunes includes over 44 lectures making up more than 35 hours of learning material.
But, don’t MOOC courses (like Coursera’s Big Questions class) provide all of the other class components that an iTunes course lacks (such as reading assignments, homework and graded assessments)?
Well yes and no. Of the traditional MOOC classes I’ve enrolled in, some (like Wesleyan’s Modernism class) include assigned readings while others (like Duke’s Argumentation course) do not. And as we’ll be discussing next week, other class elements such as homework and graded assignments have serious issues in environments where scale means scoring by trained, human graders (such as a professor or his or her assistance) is not possible.
So claiming that a full-featured MOOC (whatever that means) can close the gap between less than 10 hours of lectures vs. more than 30 through non-lecture materials of questionable quality and validity would be a hard case to make.
And to confound matters even further, since most iTunes classes are recorded from genuine, live course lectures, resources such as reading and homework assignments for those classes are often available for those wanting to do them. For instance, Astronomy 141 has a web site that includes homework exercises (which I actually did while taking this class). So, again, using the availability of non-lecture course material to distinguish auditing from taking a course becomes even more challenging.
Now one can make the case that both MOOCs and other types of free learning (including not just iTunes, but lecture-based courses from companies such as Great Courses and Modern Scholar – many of which are available free at public libraries) lack the rigor of traditional classroom environments, an issue that we will be exploring, discussing and debating for the rest of this year.
But for purposes of this project, I am choosing to declare that any class providing comparable amounts of learning (in whatever form that might take) to a traditional, full-semester college-level course should be assigned a full credit, and anything less a fraction of a credit. And as a way of formalizing that choice, I’ve decided that for lecture-only classes (from iTunes and elsewhere), twelve hours of lecture will constitute my dividing line between a full-credit and half-credit course.
Do you agree with this analysis and formula? If so (or not), I’ll be interested in hearing your opinions.