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This week at Dartmouth we are launching our first open online edX (DartmouthX) course, Introduction to Environmental Science. Everyone I know in higher education seems to have a set of strong opinions about open online education at scale. What have we actually learned from participating in this movement? What are the biggest myths about open online courses at scale?

Myth #1 – The People Involved in Open Online Education At Scale Are Trying To Replace Residential Education:

Everyone at my institution who is involved in creating and teaching our open online courses is doing so because they truly believe in our model of an intimate residential liberal arts education. If you believe that the highest quality education requires the development of a relationship between the educator and the learner, the faculty and the student, then you will do everything you can to figure out how to make that relationship stronger. Any teaching and learning activity that can be replaced with non-relational activity should be.

We need to discover what can only happen when faculty and students come together in time and space in a learning community. If there is learning that can happen at scale, via platforms such as edX, then great – let’s contribute to creating the best scaled learning materials and interactions possible. The real value add of higher education, however, cannot occur at web scale. It can only occur at human scale. At the place where a skilled and passionate educator interacts directly with a student to guide and shape their learning.

If your institution decides to experiment with open online education at scale then it will be forced to really think about what can only happen on campus and in the classroom. These are essential conversations that every college and university needs to have in an age of information abundance.

If you are interested in how a liberal arts college thinks about open online learning at scale then I invite you to participate in the DartmouthX Introduction to Environmental Science community. If you are a member of a liberal arts community, and want to discuss our motivations and experiences with open online learning at scale, then I invite you to get in touch.

Myth #2 – Participating in Open Online Education At Scale Will Be Very Expensive for Your College:

The largest costs of any open online education at scale program are not costs borne by the institution. They are the costs in time, effort, and foregone opportunities that the faculty, instructional designers, media people and all the other educators absorb in creating and teaching the courses. Unless your institution pays everyone involved in your open online courses at scale by the hour, (which hardly ever happens), then your institution will be getting a great value.

The reason that everyone involved in creating and teaching open online courses at scale works so many hours is that they are involved in an amazingly creative endeavor. Their work is driven by the internal motivation to share their love of the subject, and to build a learning community around the topic, freely and openly with the lifelong learner’s who share their curiosity.

This does not mean that faculty teaching open online courses at scale should not be compensated. Do whatever you can. Any dollars or course release provided, however, will be more about fairness than about full compensation. The work simply takes way too many hours than any payment scheme can account for. Faculty involved in creating and teaching open online courses at scale are doing so for their love of their disciplines and their love of teaching. Everyone that I see participating in creating and teaching open online courses at scale is working incredibly hard (as their other work does not go away), and they are all relishing the process.

Myth #3 – Open Online Education At Scale Needs To Develop A Revenue Model:

How often do we hear questions about the revenue model for open online education at scale? To this question, I always respond with a question in return. Does every piece of your institution have its own revenue model? Your IT group? Your academic library? Your student center? Your communications office? Your quad? Of course not.

The way any organization works is through cost sharing. We need to bring in revenues in some places to account for costs in all places. The real question is if the activity that you are doing on your campus is aligned to your core mission? The hard work that we all need to do is come up with the right activities and revenues that enable us to meet our core mission in as an efficient, responsible and productive way as possible.

Those of us who have participated in programs to develop open online courses at scale are thoroughly convinced that this activity aligns with our core mission.

If you go to an edX Consortium meeting (and I imagine Coursera meetings as well), you will hear about how the process of creating open online courses at scale opened up new conversations on campus about teaching and learning. You will hear about how open online courses at scale are labs for disciplined experiments. You will hear about how creating and teaching these open online courses at scale enabled the creation of new capacities, new digital curricular materials, and new relationships – all of which carry over into the residential teaching activities. You will hear about the availability of learner data in platforms such as edX inspires and challenges us to utilize evidence to make decisions about teaching.

Myth #4 – The Success of Open Online Courses at Scale Are Judged By Enrollments or Percentages Completing the Course:

The worst thing that your school can do is judge the success of your open online at scale courses by either enrollments or percentages completing the course. Rather, judge your success by how much you learn.

How much did creating and teaching these courses inform your thinking about teaching on campus? To what degree did your participation catalyze conversations about teaching and learning? What sorts of new relationships were formed between faculty, instructional designers, librarians, and media professionals – and how can these relationships be leveraged to improve campus teaching? How is the thinking of your colleagues about the use of learning data to make teaching decisions evolving? How much were you able to connect with and learn from colleagues at peer institutions about new methods of teaching? To what extent are you able to use methods and materials created in the open online course at scale for your core, residential, blended and online courses that you teach for your enrolled students? Were you able to connect with your larger community through your open online courses, your alumni and prospective students and other lifelong learners associated with your institution? To what degree has creating and teaching an open online course at scale shifted the local culture to encourage more experimentation, risk taking, and innovation?

Don’t worry about the enrollment and completion numbers. Sure, you can learn from them – but they will be what they will be. Everyone in higher ed seems to have anchored on the huge numbers of the very first MOOCs. These numbers were driven by the subject matter of the first open online courses, the lack of any other alternatives, and the novelty factor. We will rarely if ever see that scale of enrollments in the hundreds of thousands again, and we should not expect them. Nor should we be too worried about the percentage of enrollees that complete the courses. The best analogy that I’ve heard on this topic (I think it was George Siemens) is that nobody ever completes a library. Call it a success if lifelong learners dabble in your course. If they skip around. If they take what they need and want, and move on to other educational opportunities.

Myth #5 – Open Online Education At Scale is a Fad:

Open online education at scale is here to stay. The results for colleges that have been participating in these efforts are too positive for any of us to abandon these initiatives anytime soon.

There is something about creating something that is being offered for free that frees us up as well. Free allows us to experiment. Free enables us to try things that we would normally not want to do. Free helps us create structures and relationships that have not yet existed on campus. Free lets us have wide-ranging campus conversations about teaching and learning. Free helps us rethink some of our assumptions about how our residential classes should be set-up and taught. Free assists us in thinking about how learning data may be used to inform teaching practices. Free lets us take risks, experiment, fail, and try again.

How will open online education at scale change and evolve? We don’t know. What we do know is that we want to be part of creating that future. How will teaching and learning evolve across higher education? We don’t know, but we think that participating in the open online education at scale movement will help us get it right.

Open online courses at scale will always be a very small part of what we do on our campuses. These courses are not all that expensive create and run (save for the time and effort that the the faculty and course teams invest), and they are in no way intended to replace the core activities that define our work in higher education. If an open online course at scale can substitute for one of our residential (or regular online) courses then we are in trouble.

What we do on campus and in our classrooms (residential and traditional online), needs to be about what cannot be achieved at digital scale. We need to recognize that the relationship between educator and student is the essential element for authentic learning and personal development, and that this relationship only happens at human scale. Open online courses at scale expose just how valuable, essential, and irreplaceable are our tight-knit learning communities. Never before has the teaching efforts of a gifted, knowledgeable and passionate instructor (in an environment where students are known as individuals), been as valuable and as essential. Never before has a traditional liberal arts education been as important or as worthy of our support.

Will you join me in participating in the DartmouthX Introduction to Environmental Science learning community?

Guest Post: Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning