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A World without Courses

Do we still need courses? I mean, we have the tools and processes available to learn in alternative (distributed) means. And yet, we still push new learning opportunities through the course model. I’ve been reflecting on this recently, and put together a short presentation on A World without Courses. The function of education – in serving its stakeholders and in how it creates value – can be duplicated in a distributed manner. We’re still missing the final piece of accreditation (though we’re making progress on that) and we’re missing the piece on how we will tie these pieces together. But, I imagine that will be on the horizon shortly. (with tying together, I don’t mean tying content together – we can do that with RSS, PageFlakes, etc. I mean a conceptual tying together so we can say, “yes, Susan has achieved those learning targets”). Treat it as a conversation starter, not a declaration of belief. Appreciate any thoughts/feedback.


  1. Courses make sense when you’ve got canonical content and a prescribed/required outcome, and when “packaging” a set of learning experiences and assessments serves the stakeholder(s) who are paying to have their achievement documented and certified. It seems to me that if any of those conditions is n/a, then a course might be a less than optimum approach (if not an outright waste of time, money, and effort).

    It also seems to me that, increasingly, we have fewer situations in which “canonical” and “prescribed/required” are not debateable. In spite of the best efforts of legislatures to require certification and accountability for *everything* citizens do.

    My biggest worry about how to tie all the stuff together (including content) has to do with changing technology. PageFlakes may only be around briefly. Any given proprietary element of a PLE (there’s that word again!) can disappear. Some ambitious, unknown, tiny legal entity can finagle a patent that shuts down all accreditation methods unless the accrediting entities pay Big Bucks for a license. And so on. It’s still an uncertain world. Not that it wasn’t always, of course.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  2. Sam Bachert wrote:

    As I was listening to this presentation I was thinking about one of the courses I teach and wondering what it would be if it wasn’t a “course”. In order for this course to transfer to another higher ed institution it requires that I teach certain learning outcomes. These would be the pieces that a learner would have to demonstrate their knowledge of in order to say they have achieved a certain level of learning in Introduction to Biology. But what if the learner didn’t want but only one of the twenty five learning outcomes?

    mmmm…. something to think about! This is basically the way I currently learn now that I have my degree and a job. But it is considered professional development.

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 5:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Tony Hirst wrote:

    I’ve just started blogging an ‘uncourse’, which tries to blend some of the informality of blogging with some of the structure of a (draft) online, foundation level course.

    The topic is interactive media and computer game design. I expect the expt to last at least 10 weeks or so in the first instance.

    One output I’m looking for is a draft of significant amounts of content for an online course (possibly… ;-) Another is to see how the informality of the form, and the potential for conversation through comments et al, shapes the direction. The third is to explore what sorts of online content reuse feel right (laying aside draconian copyright laws – whilst I do intend to be respectful of the intent of copyright, by blogging the uncourse as an individual on a personal blog, i also intend to push the limits of what is IPR acceptable whilst being trivially doable…)

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Mark Nichols wrote:

    Hi George,

    Good question raiser for me, some below read more randomly than others but will hopefully prod some further conversation:

    * “…with experts all around the world…” Who would these people be? Who would reimburse them? Is ‘reputation’ a solid (robust) enough basis for promotion?
    * “…accreditation adds value…” This made me think along the lines of whether or not accreditation adds value because it is meaningful. If so, to what extent does this also reveal a value to the current course-based process? Is it fair to criticise the current system from an atomistic perspective, when outcomes and accreditation recognise something more holistic?
    * What are the differences between students “finding the learning [they] require” and finding the ‘information’ or ‘answers’ they need? What might this say about the underlying epistemology?
    * How will new ‘thinkers’ emerge? Might the proposed system actually benefit people with a better social intelligence (Gardner), more than other forms? Might there also become a new pecking order of elitism, given prominent thinkers’ finite ability to commit to networked relationships?
    * In what ways would a ‘connected’ university not be hierarchical, albeit based on ‘reputation’ rather than quality assurance criteria?
    * Might a connectivist vision work within existing structures, provided learning outcomes are met – in other words, might emancipation take place within a curriculum (as happens in thesis and recognition of prior-learning programmes)?

    For me you’ve raised more questions than provided answers, no doubt your intention!

    Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink
  5. Viplav Baxi wrote:

    I went through your presentation and loved it. I did have something relevant that I wrote at Sliced PLEs and Soft Peer Review. It may be useful way of looking at the challenges that you described.


    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  6. Hi George,

    I actually DO work for an incredible, innovative, AND fully accredited interdisciplinary PH.D. program that has NO courses… Antioch University Ph.D. Program in Leadership and Change. This is a rigorous research program with a traditional dissertation which is offered in a hybrid format – 4 residencies per year with online and self-directed learning between residencies. Strong faculty mentoring combines with a strong cohort-based learning community model. Credit is awarded at the completion of the “learning activities – each of which can be customized to support the student’s area of interest I, myself, am an embedded librarian – a faculty member. I attend every residency, and also support students online, using both synchronous and asynchronous strategies, throughout the year. In a model based on collaborative and self-directed learning, the personal research librarian takes a new role! In my 30 years of doctoral support I have the perspective to be amazed by the learning and success happening in this program. I think our “NO COURSE” model could be successfully applied at many levels, but will note that my students are successful leaders in education, industry, and non-profit world. This motivated and mature student population combined with accomplished senior faculty certainly contribute to the success of our program.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  7. Roger Stack wrote:

    Thanks George – just the concept/meme I’ve been looking for… I’m ‘teaching’ a non ‘course’ at the moment and have started to think about some of the questions you raise as I think about what happens next – for my current students and our post-secondary curriculum.

    The non-course I’m facilitating atm ( and ) is accredited within a ‘traditional’ system so students can only do it once… but it’s a start.

    Friday, March 7, 2008 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  8. Cable Green wrote:

    If we want to take small steps toward the un-course… we could start by leaving the course in tact, but make it public, use open educational resources and open textbooks, students’ assignments are to evaluate, critique and contribute to the course content, and most important.. the course never ends – cohorts of students flow through it, adding to and refining the knowledge that came before them… and “graduates” of the course become networked experts and mentors for future cohorts.

    Saturday, March 8, 2008 at 11:46 pm | Permalink
  9. Lisa Kivalo wrote:

    You name accredidation as a major concern of stakeholders in the process of education and a key challenge that has not been sufficiently addressed. However, to me an even equally critical question is how the selection of contents that are available through “the global online distributited organisations” figure into an education one (the stakeholders) can be comfortortable with. In traditional class room settings it´s the responsibility of the educator to present a curriculum, a responsibility that is somtetimes shared with the students. How will students know what they need to learn when they do not yet know the field they´re exploring and who will say it´s enough?

    Thursday, March 13, 2008 at 7:49 am | Permalink
  10. Hi BilltheEditor – good points. Different contexts drive different learning needs. When a stakeholder requires a certain level of competence, then it will pre-plan and package the course content. But that particular type of learning plays a small role for most people – especially once they are employed. The vast majority of my learning today is driven by interest…and as such, courses are not always ideal. Unless, of course, I am about to enter a new field. Then courses can serve as a basis for additional support – (go Ausubel!).

    Great point about tools like pageflakes. I should note that I’m not suggesting that pageflakes is our tie it together tool. Instead, I’m suggesting it is an indication of what can be done with distributed information. We are still at generation#1 in dealing with how to alternately present learning outside of courses.


    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 10:49 am | Permalink
  11. Hi Sam – I imagine in many situations, learners will not want all of the learning outcomes provided by educators. I played with an idea on what this might look like about a year ago. Nothing much has come of it since then…but it is (I think) worth exploring. Somehow, formal education musts make greater inroads to lifelong learning. Sure, the 18-25 year learner base may prefer courses (and as such should have access). But once beyond that stage, flexibility and choice are important. Anyway, here’s that presentation:

    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  12. Hi Tony – thanks for the info. I look forward to hearing of your experience. Are you doing research on it? Planning publication? Regardless, let me know how things turn out.

    The balance that you are trying to achieve – informality of blogs with formality of a foundational course – is exactly where I see the greatest opportunity. On the one hand, I can see value in newcomers to a field learning via a course – it is, after all, a structured representation of information and serves as a scaffold for learners new to a discipline. Yet, on the other hand, approaches like problem based learning can be effective when dealing with newcomers as well.

    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 11:07 am | Permalink
  13. Hey Mark – heh, tough questions.

    1. Who are these experts? The best model I can think of is what I’ve encountered with edublogs. The people who are in the field mentor/link/comment on the work of others who are joining. It is the sustained involvement in (and connections to) the community that fosters learning. But that’s not that far off of traditional peer review, is it? Profs aren’t paid to review journal articles. But to do so is an indication of prestige and a giving back to the network one belongs to.

    2. Criticism of accreditation from holistic, and courses from atomistic – good observation. In the presentation, I put forward several distinct aspects (I’m posting on this on my connectivism blog soon…so hopefully this will clarify things): content creation, content aggregation, and accreditation or determination of competence. Regardless of courses or non-courses, accreditation is holistic. While my criticism was directed at courses, my discussion of accreditation was derived from how learning might be evaluated in a non-course model. In that sense, I think the discussion is not of atomistic/holistic level.

    3. Underlying epistemology – finding the information they need vs. finding learning they need. Again, good distinction:). Information assumes they need a missing piece, but they already have roots in the field. Learning needs are more broad in my eyes…and requires building a base of knowledge. Example: when I want a bit of a refresher on a learning theorist, I use Google Scholar to find a paper. But I know it exists in some capacity and I’m just filling an information need. However, if I know nothing about a field, I need to form a base before any single piece of information will provide much value.

    4. A new pecking order? I’m afraid that will likely happen. With one slight shift from our current pecking order. Power laws and small worlds exist online, much like they do in regular society. In regular society, however, the feedback loop is closed due to position, wealth, etc. Online (in theory at least), a feedback loop is more accessible. I guess the issue here becomes one of human nature, control, and power. We don’t shed our existing aspirations (vices?) when we move online. Those who crave attention/power/control will bring those attributes to how they desire to organize the virtual environment.

    5. How would a connected university not be hierarchical? I would suggest, with much idealism, that a connected university would be more permeable in how it assists learners in forming learning networks outside of the academy. How it collaborates between depts in bringing different ideas together, and demonstrating how biology influences physics, etc. Greater cross-dept discourse…and so on. But that is non-hierarchical view of learning. Of greater interest for me is how the administration of the university could be set up to be more adaptive and flexible. I haven’t thought on that enough to even begin to give you a coherent answer :) .

    6. Might a connectivist notion work in an existing model? Yes, I think it would. I wonder, however, how long we can adopt innovations in classrooms and universities before we are forced to make some significant systemic changes.

    Thanks for your questions, Mark.


    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 11:44 am | Permalink
  14. Hi Viplav – thanks for the link. I’ll review your post…

    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 11:45 am | Permalink
  15. Hi Deborah – thanks for sharing the program you’re involved with. Sounds like a great approach. Could you suggest someone for me to talk to at Antioch about the genesis and success of your approach?

    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 11:55 am | Permalink
  16. Hi Roger – I appreciate the comment. Would love to hear more about your experience with the approach you’ve taken…especially with regard to next steps.


    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 11:57 am | Permalink
  17. Hi Cable – thanks for your comment. Looking forward to meeting you in Spokane in a few weeks.

    You raise an important idea about leaving courses as they are and adopting OERs, social learning approaches, etc. to extend the learner’s experience. I would suggest, however, that at some point, this model will require changes to courses themselves…if learners get used to freedom and control over their learning content, it’s possible the course model will no longer be able to sustain their interests.


    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  18. Hi Lisa – your question is at the heart of the challenge of moving away from course models. As you state, in traditional courses, the educator plays a key selection role in determining what will be covered. When we learn in more distributed means, the clear start/end dates are challenged. And maybe that’s the real issue – perhaps we need to stop seeing learning as having artificial end points as indicators of “you’ve learned enough”. Keep in mind, however, that I have far more questions than answers on this topic. I’m trying to play around with different ideas…and explore implications. So to those who have shared ideas/perspectives/concerns, thanks!

    Friday, March 14, 2008 at 12:04 pm | Permalink
  19. Gina wrote:

    Hi,just wondering – who pays for this connectedness? Who pays for the hardware, software, bandwidth? Is it possible that the information to be taught can become polluted by the people paying the bills?

    With no hard rules to establish an authoritative voice, is it possible that “cult of personality” could be the deciding factor on who the experts will be? Could the information they provide be biased, or could their position be bought and paid for? (The latest Wikipedia scandal is a good example of this).

    Saturday, March 15, 2008 at 9:31 pm | Permalink
  20. Fabi wrote:

    Hi George, I’m late for the party. First time I read your blog. The stuff you talk about here is precisely what I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I’m off to check out your World Without Courses presentation you mentioned in the post. :)

    Monday, February 16, 2009 at 3:18 am | Permalink
  21. Fabi wrote:

    FYI- It seems like something’s wrong with the player. I couldn’t view the presentation.

    Monday, February 16, 2009 at 3:23 am | Permalink

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