• September 1, 2015

Obama's Great Course Giveaway

Clues to a grand online-education plan emerge from the college and the experts that may have inspired it

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Joe Johnson

Focused learning: Anya L. Goodman, an assistant professor of biochemistry at California Polytechnic State U. at San Luis Obispo, discusses work with students Jake Harvey and Logan Stark (far right). Before class, the course Web site alerted her to topics that students didn't understand.

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Joe Johnson

Focused learning: Anya L. Goodman, an assistant professor of biochemistry at California Polytechnic State U. at San Luis Obispo, discusses work with students Jake Harvey and Logan Stark (far right). Before class, the course Web site alerted her to topics that students didn't understand.

Logan Stark's classmates scramble for courses with professors who top instructor-rating Web sites. But when the California Polytechnic State University student enrolled in a biochemistry class on the San Luis Obispo campus, he didn't need to sweat getting the best.

It was practically guaranteed.

That's because much of the class was built by national specialists, not one Cal Poly professor. It's a hybrid of online and in-person instruction. When Mr. Stark logs in to the course Web site at midnight, a bowl of cereal beside his laptop, he clicks through animated cells and virtual tutors, a digital domain designed by faculty experts and software engineers.

By the time Mr. Stark steps into the actual lecture hall, the Web site has alerted his professor to what parts of the latest lesson gave students trouble. That lets her focus class time on where they need the most help.

Mr. Stark's class is one of about 300 around the world to use online course material—both the content and the software that delivers it—developed by Carnegie Mellon University's Open Learning Initiative. If the Obama administration pulls off a $500-million-dollar online-education plan, proposed in July as one piece of a sweeping community-college aid package, this type of course could become part of a free library available to colleges nationwide.

The administration has released only vague statements about the plan. But Chronicle interviews with a senior Education Department official and others whose ideas have informed the emerging policy suggest how colleges might use these courses—and how Carnegie Mellon, repeatedly cited by officials, might offer a model for the effort.

The government would pay to develop these "open" classes, taking up the mantle of a movement that has unlocked lecture halls at universities nationwide in recent years—a great course giveaway popularized by the OpenCourseWare project's free publication of 1,900 courses at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Millions worldwide have used these online materials. But the publication cost—at MIT, about $10,000 a course—has impeded progress at the community-college level, says Stephen E. Carson, external-relations director for MIT OpenCourseWare.

The result is a "huge population of students," he says, "that aren't being served."

Experts see huge potential in serving those students with open courses: To help them explore careers. To give them confidence before returning to school. To improve retention once they get there. To lower the cost of a degree. To spur alternative ways of awarding credit. And to guarantee standards "whether you are in a more impoverished, underserved, or remote area of the country," says Curtis J. Bonk, a professor in the department of instructional- systems technology at Indiana University and author of the new book The World is Open.

The plan coincides with Mr. Obama's goal for the United States to have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020. But Marshall S. (Mike) Smith, senior counselor to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, feels that won't happen simply by moving middle- and high-school students further through the system. Higher education also needs to rope in older students who never went beyond high school, or who abandoned college before finishing a degree, he says.

"The opportunity to attract those people would be greatly enhanced by having a bunch of really good courses that they could work on in the evenings," Mr. Smith says, so they could "try out the idea of getting course credit for them—and get hooked."

Mr. Smith, a veteran of the Clinton- and Carter-era Education Departments, is an open-education evangelist who recently returned to government after serving as education-program director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The California foundation has funneled more than $80-million into making digital resources like textbooks and lecture videos freely available on the Web.

Mr. Smith has bigger ambitions still. In January he published an article in the journal Science laying out the dream of "a 21st-century library" composed of Web-based open courses for high-school and college students. The courses would be laced with multimedia features and personalized with feedback from computer programs that track student performance. The language coming out of the White House and Education Department today echoes some of the concepts in Mr. Smith's article.

But his article also stacked up the challenges and mixed incentives that the controversial free-knowledge movement must surmount.

Working against open access are "financial concerns, authors' fears of exposing mediocre content, the weight of traditional practice, and legitimate reasons for protecting intellectual property," he wrote. "Some publishers and professional academic organizations believe they have a lot to lose" as open educational resources grow more popular.

In an hourlong interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Smith focused on many of the details facing the administration as it tries to create an open-course clearinghouse and navigates delicate, still-unanswered questions about what role the government would play in financing and disseminating its contents.

One big question: Who would get the money?

A possible answer, which is not specified in a House of Representatives bill that includes the online proposal, could be an outside laboratory-and-research organization that would receive a block of government money and parcel it out into competitive grants for course development, and then make sure the courses were updated. A community college could house the project, Mr. Smith says. So could a consortium of community colleges, a university, or a nongovernmental group.

The courses created would reach students through multiple devices, such as computers, handheld devices, and e-book readers like Kindles. They would be modular, and therefore easily updated. Both nonprofit and for-profit entities could compete for the money to build them.

The cost of each course: probably about $1-million, although development would cost less "if you did a number of them," Mr. Smith says.

When asked why government should get involved, Mr. Smith responds that its help "would make those courses available to anyone, which is not the case now—and wouldn't be the case if the government didn't do it."

And delivering them? Here's one possibility Mr. Smith describes: Macomb Community College, in Michigan, takes an open statistics course and puts it into its catalog. The students don't meet face to face, but there's a webinar every week or an open discussion online among the professor and students. Macomb gets the course free, adds value to it in the form of interaction with its professor, and charges for it.

The White House has also pledged that the courses would be made "freely available through one or more community colleges."

The ways colleges or companies might repackage the courses intrigue one skeptic of Mr. Obama's higher-education agenda. Richard K. Vedder has called the president's desire to see all Americans pursue some post-high-school education "an impossible dream." But the Ohio University economics professor, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, cautiously welcomes the president's online-course proposal, suggesting an institution could offer a $1,000 degree anchored by the federally developed courses.

A field whose methods haven't changed much since Socrates taught could benefit from this strategy, Mr. Vedder says.

"With the exception of—possible exception of—prostitution, I don't know any other profession that's had no productivity advance in 2,500 years," he says. Online, he adds, "is a way to kind of offer a new approach. It's applying technology to lower costs, rather than to add to costs."

Mr. Smith describes Carnegie Mellon's Open Learning Initiative as a model. The director of Carnegie's program, Candace Thille, says her goal is "to fundamentally change the way postsecondary education is done in this country."

As she sees it, the problem has its roots in history. Higher education was originally available to a privileged few. Then the notion arose that college should be accessible to everybody. But the way it was scaled up—putting more people of varying skills and knowledge in front of the lecturer—led to uneven quality and wasn't very effective.

"Even though we've provided access, we haven't provided access to the same kind of education, because we didn't really have the tools and technology to scale," Ms. Thille says. "And I think what the information technology now, finally, is affording us the opportunity to do, is to really provide that kind of personalized instruction—high-quality rigorous instruction—to everybody."

When the program began, in 2002, the idea was to offer students outside Carnegie Mellon online courses that gave them a shot at learning the same information without any instructor. But researchers have found the material can be even more powerful when combined with live instruction.

Carnegie's materials have already changed how Logan Stark's professor at California Polytechnic State University approaches her widely feared biochemistry-for-nonmajors class. Anya L. Goodman used to work from a prepared lecture, starting with the basics so she didn't lose anyone. Now she puts the burden on students to learn the basics online. She focuses class time on clearing up misconceptions, applying the materials to real life, and working in small groups.

"They're more attentive," she says. Especially when she comes in and tells her students, "Here's what you guys already don't know."

Some students dislike the extra work. Mr. Stark isn't one of them. He wishes others used the format.

And you don't have to carry a textbook around, he adds.

"Which is awesome."


1. amproguser - August 03, 2009 at 05:28 pm

Providing grants to develop new online course is a good idea. It can speed development of such courses, a task for which funds are in chronically short supply. But such a program should seek to do more. It should support the goal of increasing degree completion. It should also be designed to overcome barriers to adoption of online courses at accredited institutions by involving faculty and other stakeholders in the development process. And it should leverage advanced technologies and new knowledge about learning styles to meet the needs of a broader range of students. Depending on how this program is designed and implemented these courses can sit on a shelf at a clearinghouse institution and grow stale with few users relative to their cost or they can have far-reaching impact. More of the design details of how this program is expected to operate should be revealed so they can be discussed, debated and refined to make sure the program will truly deliver on its promise. These details include the answer to a basic but important question of whether "free" meant free to individual user or free to educational providers, and whether the providers will be lawfully bound to provide for free what they ostensibly got for free. The legislation is silent on this question. This is a discussion worth having, and I'd like to help start it. My policy paper on how these investments in new online courses should be strategically targeted for maximum impact is found here: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/07/educational_tools_memo.html Louis Caldera, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress

2. richardtaborgreene - August 03, 2009 at 08:00 pm

There will emerge a market (whether paid with cash or something else) among courses and degrees, so Harvard's Mrs. X's version of some topic will compete with Community Community College's Mr. Y's version of that same topic. There will be lots and lots of surprises when this eventuates---unpleasant for those top ranked now. That is one trepidation we all have---some "bozo" from nowhere may clearly and publicly "out-teach" us and "out-read" us. To survive in this market of courses and degrees, a supplier will have to package "the product" to fit in the traditional 3 ways ANY product must fit, student-consumer lives. Such packaging will penetrate deeply into many aspects of each course and hour of "instruction". Competitive community dynamics will emerge--whose course lets you interact with the most useful, entertaining, and compatible, socially skilled and nice, community. The learning community may emerge as the ultimate competitive advantage to any course, not the "materials". We will end up selling powerful communities against each other. Who can assemble, year in and year out such communities will win such competitions if that is the way this goes. In the beginning nearly all such courses will invite commentary from anyone in the entire world who wishes to interact about the topic concerned. Some professors have already had courses e-delivered with non-students getting grades though they cannot buy degrees without paying. The particular "degree" someone gets will be some minimum standard "topics covered" plus utterly competitive unique offerings--NOT degrees from particular institutions. Employers can publish their own "degree standards" for certain topic areas, and find suppliers worldwide who conform to those standards. The prestige sub-part of this overall market will also thrive as mere learning dominates most course offerings from lesser institutions, and educative offerings of vastly more challenge self change assignment types, out-snob mere learning courses.

3. ugacampuslife - August 04, 2009 at 06:57 am

Well-taken. I am living in the State of Georgia. Less than half of the high school students graduate. They are not looking for Harvard's Mr. X. They are looking for help up from someone they can relate to, to allow them to get past where they are. They want that high school diploma or training for a skill. They will more likely relate to Community College's Mr. Y (a "bozo" that more reflects America). This is a great idea. I fully support Mr. Caldera's position. He was instrumental for the start-up of the eArmyU program in 2001, that is still going strong. This has placed a much greater emphasis of college education for our U.S. soldiers.Let's place this "dough for developers" on the front burner (after all, we are in the process of funding $3 billion dollars in cash for clunkers). The $1 million dollar per course estimate is truly the "Harvard" cost. There are a number of talented developers across the country that will compete to produce a quality product of multiple courses in multiple disciplines at much less than $1 million dollars. The care must be taken to not allow red tape and government fluff interfere with the purpose of providing a quality education to many deserving Americans.

4. jmunroe - August 04, 2009 at 07:37 am

As Bergquist and Pawlak (2008) (amomg others) have predicted, this move toward what they have termed "global virtual culture" requires new ways of organizing and envisioning the academy. Noting that the virtual culture was born of postmodernist thinking, they remind us that participation entails brushing up our non-linear thinking, honing our eusocial proclivities and developing our abilities to cross disciplinary lines, to tolerate ambiguity and to work cooperatively. It is clear that what we are talking about is bigger than teaching people to be computer literate, much bigger than easing enrollment and much bigger than alleviating fiscal pressures and adding to convenience by offering e-delivered courses that we can take while sitting in our pajamas at our computers. Identifying six major functions for computers in academic settings, (storing and processing information,teaching computer literacy,conveying and testing for comprehension of new material, simulating complex physical and social systems, creating graphics, art and animation to create more exciting and aesthetically pleasing learning environments and engaging in scholarly and research activities), Berquist and Pawlak look at the socio-cultural shifts that accompany this move to a global virtual culture. It is upon these shifts that we will need to focus. The question becomes: As the world has become digitized, has our thinking in higher educational institutions followed? Along with our students, we have the access, but are we prepared for the new episteme that formed the tool? Are we disruptive innovators? A year ago I asked David Vise'(2005) question to learning community innovators in an online network: "What does it mean for teaching and learning when your student can 'Google' the answer to your question before you can get it out of your mouths?" I think it bears repeating. If the introduction of these online options means that there will be more vibrant discussion of and interaction around course content, if it means that we will be facilitating peer-to-peer discussions in which students are engaged with one another as well as in dyad relationships with their professors, if it encourages us to wrestle with ill-structured problems and to communicate them to other human beings while continuimg to develop our "soft", "high touch" skills and if it means designing learning experiences and environments conducive to learning, unlearning and relearning, this is, indeed, an exciting development. If, however, we do not recognize, as Bergquist and Pawlak note, that "virtual epistemology is based on the assumption that we know in a virtual way- a way that has no substance but that carries real meaning in the moment", we are adding barriers rather than opening doors. As we introduce the technology will we change assumptions and classroom practices as the Logan and Stark suggest? The practices that Logan described are good practices online or offline. High quality, rigorous instruction? I'm all for it . . ."by any means necessary." Joanne Munroe

5. strausba - August 04, 2009 at 08:01 am

If the goal is to change higher education as Ms. Thille says, who will pay her salary in the future? What will the economics be of the changed higher education system?

6. rburns - August 04, 2009 at 08:46 am

Let's keep this straight. This is not Obama's "course giveaway." Oh, Obama will get whatever credit there is to be had, if this new toy lasts longer than the Cash for Clunker program has--so far one month. But I and the rest of the nation's taxpayers (including all those oh so rich folks at 250K who are seen as the eternal piggy banks) will pay every penny of the cost--whatever it turns out to be. And here is another Obama program that has a title and nothing more--no details, no method of implementation, no evaluation system--just a title. Have you seen the TV ad of the little boy being allowed to play with a fancy toy truck for 10 seconds and then having it taken away in favor of a crude cardboard cutout of a truck? And the adult figure says "it's all right here in the fine print." This is the kind of crap Obama's team puts out. Fancy name but no real substance. Laws passed without being read. We should know that the devil always is in the details--but we seem content so far to buy in before those details even are written. And of course every program MUST be done immediately. And we seem to think that is just fine, thank you very much.

7. rfonte - August 04, 2009 at 09:24 am

A limited number of students can take 100% on-line course. As supplemental instruction, this initiative has considerable value. However, if it is pushed as stand-alone and institution cannot charge--this will be problem for institution and also for the student. The vagueness of the entire proposal at this stage is somewhat distressing. Hopefully, there will be much more discussion before this is advanced too far.

8. mdefusco - August 04, 2009 at 09:50 am

Congratulations on a fine article. In a commentary yesterday here, Robert Zemsky hinted that the only thing that would change the academy was what he referred to as "Dislodging Events". He included among these potential events, a change in the government's notion of financial aid, the taxing of endowments (if universities did not use proceeds to reinvest in students, faculty or infrastraucture), and a Bologna type summit which would reduce the standard degree to 3 years. This online initiative might represent another event. By focusing on the what (learning outcomes) rather than the where, this initiative is a wonderful investment in the citizens of our country. With relatively little financial resources and a good deal of initiative, students can grab substantial knowledge on their own, and use strong faculty to clarify and define. Getting performance outcomes to faculty give them a powerful tool to meet students where they are, and there is the potential to meet a prediction I have made for years that there will become a class of superstar faculty who will be able to facilitate learning to broader numbers of students and who should be paid for their special skills. As we move from an industrial economy, where inputs were considered important (see the US New rankings) to a information/customer based one (see Six Sigma) where outcome is king, this notion represents a first step to a time in the not so distant past when lawyers could sit for the bar without ever stepping foot in a classroom. That is the access that is most important and which will make the most impact for the students who are smart and industrious enough to use it.

9. dogvomit - August 04, 2009 at 11:36 am

I don't like it at all.

10. dwalcerz - August 04, 2009 at 11:44 am

Obama's plan could affect the economics of education providers as profoundly as file sharing affected the economics of music and movie providers. It isn't pretty, but it will happen.

11. davidafoster - August 04, 2009 at 12:01 pm

This is an exciting initiative. Let's just hope that the focus is on processes for adoption, delivery, and data rather than flashy multimedia. The One Laptop Per Child project provides a cautionary tale: see this article in Communications of the ACM. http://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2009/6/28497-one-laptop-per-child-vision-vs-reality/fulltext For example, in these open courses, will there be structured asynchronous discussion, like that proven in today's online degree programs? And, how will CC instructors be trained to facilitate these open courses? And, how will we collect data about students' interactions and success in these courses?

12. charliemarlow - August 04, 2009 at 02:18 pm

Fortunately, there is only one school of thought, one way of analysis, and one set of acceptable outcomes for every part of every field. Thus, we can have one master class for each one.

13. jaysanderson - August 04, 2009 at 04:15 pm

in the software world, Obama's big plans would be called "vapor ware"--no details, just a vague title and a "compelling story". This administration creates a need and then fills it. Do we really have any interest in becoming classroom assistants for government standardized courses? Doesn't this raise any red flags for anyone else?

14. mdefusco - August 04, 2009 at 04:52 pm

Jaysanderson, I see this very differently. The Department of Education with this investment will provide learning objects for colleges (read their faculty) to employ. The value added would be the faculty who teach and can use the very best curriculum (read curriculum that a single faculty member sitting at their desks in a single institution would be unwilling or unable to create). In this way, the nation leverages the best material possible and faculty members are free to select what works best with their students. It would seem to me that this would free up enormous capacity for teachers who could use the feedback of the learning system to better assist students to reach learning goals. I would see superstar teachers who could assist hundreds if not thousands of their charges to completion, and hopefully institutions could find reward systems to better remunerate the very best teachers (namely those that get their students to the finish line from wherever they start). I believe that this could be a real boon for the best teachers who right now get the same levels of compensation as their mediocre colleagues.

15. moursund - August 05, 2009 at 03:42 pm

I think this is a great idea.

16. ken_d - August 05, 2009 at 04:25 pm

I don't think this will work, because the lack of free course materials is actually not the problem. There are plenty of free materials now which are underutilzed.

17. archman - August 05, 2009 at 04:43 pm

In my experience, one of the biggest problems in higher education has been the student:teacher ratio. It is so easy to forsee how university administrators might use online education as a tool to increase class sizes even higher. A few of my colleagues can already attest to this happening. I also bristle whenever I hear talk of "superstar teachers" in higher education. As such a "rating" can be wildly subjective or based on assessment criteria that many professors find objectionable (e.g. student evaluations, pass retention), I and many of my peers find it has little merit. Heck, half the instructors in my department think they're "superstar teachers" to their students! Even if they actually are well above the average, does that mean I want them forcing what would be essentially a canned course on other instructors? I have perfectly fine teaching resources available to me right now, thank you. They're called textbooks and journal articles. As a professor in higher education, I have the training and experience to supposedly design my own teaching curriculum to a standard that should be more than satisfactory to my student audience. I neither require nor necessarily desire some other "superstar teacher" (I say other since I obviously am a superstar teacher myself) to dictate MY curriculum beyond the broad level of learning outcomes.

18. charlescarrillo - August 06, 2009 at 12:07 pm

My impression is that American society is moving generally toward a mass medium model. Educaction is likely to take that direction despite any discourse among professionals in academe. Personally, the human-to-human contact in the classroom and the communication skills developed there are a precious element in education. Instructors may develop new methods on line to maintain the quality of higher education on a mass level, but I fear this goal will not be reached immediately. Instead, disaffected responses to canned syllabi, unchanged in the moment of student interaction, will likely break down the discursive skills so vital to our expanding audience. Perhaps we have no choice and this trend is inevitable social evolution in a global perspective. No, I do not like it because it seems to defeat the social outcomes it is purportedly proposing. My thoughts for what they are worth. Faux-Prof.

19. marcus704 - November 24, 2009 at 01:19 pm

One problem with this idea is updating the course content. Courses in many fields go obsolete quickly, so who is going to keep them updated. A prof recorded in 2009 can't say ... "I read a paper this morning that disputes the conventional wisdom". Once, in a psych class I used videos from Philip Zimbardo's video course DISCOVERING PSYCHOLOGY, a brilliant course, but my students said they prefered me to lecture. Another time I showed a video lecture by Steven Jay Gould in class, and Steven Jay Gould was a brilliant lecturer, but the students rejected that lecture and wanted me to give my own lecture on it. That was OK with me but I never expected to beat out Zimbardo or Gould as a lecturer. My point being that canned courses, even brilliant ones have their limitations. Now, recorded music can be great too, but when the music is live, up-to-date, poignant, in the moment, in the setting, etc., that does make a difference. My bias would be in favor of online education since I have a website, discoveryouronlinecollege.com, but even in the online context it seems to me that the live input of a knowledgible professor, relating, at least in part, his or her own ideas, has a value that can't be replaced by ... recording technology ... anyway.

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