Good Courses and Great Courses

I’ve been thinking today about the differences between good online courses and great  ones, based in part on my experiences thus far as a student in “Critical Thinking in Global Challenges” (CTGC) — a Coursera course I’m taking as part of a project I’m doing for Greg Light and Susanna Calkins at Northwestern. It’s too early to say whether CTGC will be a great course, as it’s is only the first week and we haven’t really gotten into any of the projects. I can see already  that it’s a good course, though, and this prompted me to reflect on what makes a good course good; but not great.

It seems to me that the design of a good course is motivated by the question: what are the best ways to engage students in learning this set of materials? That is, the teachers/designers of good courses want their students to actively learn important concepts and skills, and they have spent time creating and organizing course content to support this learning. Good courses, then, are student-centered in all the ways we typically think of this.

CTGC is already a good course. It has clearly articulated goals, and it’s obvious that time and thought have been put into organizing the material to support defined learning objectives for each week. Components in each lesson are also easy to find and seem relevant. What’s more, the two videos in the first lesson are well-produced, and introduce and explain key concepts for the unit in ways that are accessible and interesting. The two primary instructors (Celine Caquineau and Mayank Dutia at the University of Edinburgh) seem genuinely interested in the material, and in helping students learn to become more critical thinkers. The course seeks to give students new methods for thinking about real problems we face in the 21st century.

It’s a good course. I like it. I already like the instructors a lot. I feel like it is going to be a positive experience.

But so far, CTGC doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a great course, and that’s prompted me to think about why. What makes a great course great? What are the differences between a good course and a great one? And how can you tell early on whether a course is going to be informative or transformative?

The design of great courses is shaped by a different question (and set of assumptions) than those posed by teachers of a good course. Great courses seem to ask the question: how can students be empowered to create  knowledge around the problems posed by this course and the material? That is, the teachers/designers of great courses seem to want to use the class space — however we want to define that — for promoting learning-centered experiences; and ones from which they are just as likely to learn  from their students as the students themselves.

There are two ways I want to think about this already.

First, there’s the issue of creating a student-centered versus learning-centered experiences. As Light, Cox, and Calkins (2009) argue, student-centered pedagogy focuses on engaging students to acquire and master material that the teacher has selected, and thus, retains some of the essential features of  teaching-centered models. That is, while good courses have been designed in ways that are mindful of how students process and will actually use information, student-centered teaching is still largely framed within a non social-constructivist model of knowing and knowledge. (“The teacher still defines and frames knowledge, but through explanation and demonstration rather than transmission.”)

In contrast, great courses offer rich opportunities for students to develop new concepts, and ways for teachers and students alike to explore these concepts in a fashion that is transformative. That is, unlike student-centered models that focus on how students can better grasp well-defined concepts and apply them, learning-centered models use unstructured problems as opportunities for students to think through and create new meanings.  Again , using the work of Light, Cox and Calkins (2009):

“Good teaching consists in developing ways to help students improve and change their conceptual understanding. And in developing those practices, it recognizes that meaning and knowledge are outcomes constructed by students in an active dialoque within the socially rich situation of the course and programme” (p. 30).

I think in some ways the distinction I’m trying to make here is partly the one Alison Regan and I suggested in our article, “Environmentalist Approaches to Portals and Course Management Systems” — the difference between designing a “managed course” experience and creating a “learning environment” as a liminal space for connection, exploration, and change.

The second way I want to think about this (and it really isn’t distinct from the first) is in terms of the teacher-as-researcher. That is, while the good course is a well-designed presentation of information, the great course is a research project that teachers as scholars design in order to engage in critical inquiry. That is, the great course is motivated not simply by a number of clearly articulated and supported learning objectives, but by a set of dynamic research questions whose solution is uncertain. That is, if the learning-centered course is to be a relationship between teachers and students equally engaged in the social process of creating new knowledge, then the great course is one in which the research of students becomes an integral and vital part of the scholarly enterprise.

So one question I would pose to any would-be developer of a Coursera course is this: how can you design your course as a platform for crowd-sourcing solutions to complex problems that you don’t really have answers to yet?

So why do I already think “Critical Thinking in Global Challenges” is going to be a good course and not a great one? In the first video Caquineau and Dutia make it clear that while the class will engage in exploring a range of “global challenges”, the course isn’t really about these topics. That is, they make clear that the class will focus on teaching steps/strategies needed to think more critically, and that this work would be practiced through exploring a number of controversial issues. Presumably these topics have been selected because students will find them important and engaging. But I have no sense that as researchers, Caquineau or Dutia are that interested in learning more about the process through which people actually engage in critical thinking, nor in using the class as an opportunity to engage the 70,000 students enrolled in it to actually posit new solutions to some of these challenges.

Again, it’s too early to say if my suspicions about this are correct. It’s also possible that the kind of “crowd-sourcing” work that I posed about occurs outside the curriculum of this particular course (say, in the discussions students have with each other about these topics). But that’s what I’m thinking about today: 1) how a MOOC can be designed to be transformative rather than simply informative and 2) the degree to which the transformational potential of the MOOC experience is driven/depends on whether the course has been designed to address genuine research questions on the part of the teachers/designers who have created the class.

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