Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Siren Song of Open Course Ware

I was given the assignment of selecting a course from a free Open Course site and comparing it to the principles of designing distance learning instruction. I chose Public Health 253BEpidemiology and Control of Infectious Diseases from Open Culture.  
(That is,  from

Does the course appear to be carefully pre-planned and designed for a distance learning environment?  No. The course is not designed as a distance learning course, and it is an observation, not a criticism, when I say that it does not adhere to principles of design for distance learning. The course exemplifies Zemsky & Massy’s (2004) Cycle 1 of 4 e-learning adoption cycles. “In this cycle, faculty introduce basic-level technologies into their courses, such as e-mail, Web resources, and PowerPoint slides, without fundamentally altering their instructional strategies” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012, p. 133). Public Health 253B is simply a videotaped lecture presentation. The instructor physically addresses the students in his classroom, not the video camera, as he verbally walks them through the syllabus, introductions, and the lecture, using PowerPoint slides to highlight key points and supporting graphics.

Does the course follow the recommendations for online instruction as listed in your course textbook? Not at all. Dick, Carey, & Carey (2009) suggest that successful design relies on the balance between the learners, the content, the method and materials, and the environment (technology).  Public Health 253B may be perfectly adequate for the student physically present in the lecture hall who has successfully completed the necessary prerequisites and is able to interact with the instructor, other learners, and hard-copy course materials. For me, from the perspective of a distance learner, the experience was frustratingly passive and unsatisfying; a classic example of shovelware  – “Shovel the course onto the Web and say you are teaching online” (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 134).

Did the course designer implement course activities that maximize active learning for the students? Not for the distance learner, no. 

This seems as good a place as any to go off on a topical tangent about Open Course Ware (OCW) as distance learning. By definition, distance learners are likely more interested in OCW than OCW sites are in distance learners.  Let’s compare.

Widely accepted principles of distance instructional design: Morrison, Ross, and Kemp (2004) “suggest that the learners need to grasp the intent of the instructor when participating in various types of learning experiences. When the learners have an understanding of the reasons why they are participating in a particular type of instructional activity, they are better able to use that experience to expedite their own learning” (Simonson et al., 2012, p. 156-157).

The nature of OCW: “The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone” (Yue, 2013).

And so we see (hear) the siren song of OCW. Dizzying volumes of dazzling information are available for the taking. Yet many of the offerings make no effort to accommodate the unique needs of distance learners. I’m not saying they should. I’m saying that before we gorge ourselves, Templeton-like, at the feast of free information, we need to be clear about the different requirements of, and resources available for, distance learning, distance self-study, and distance indulgence of curiosity.

Sally Bacchetta

Dick, W., Carey, L., & Carey, J.O. (2009). The systematic design of instruction (7th ed.). New York: Longman.
Morrison, G., Ross, S., & Kemp, J. (2004). Designing effective instruction (4th ed.). New York: John Wiley and Sons.
Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.
Yue, D. (2013). MIT School of Engineering. Retrieved February 9, 2013 from
Zemsky, R., & Massey, W.F. (2004). Thwarted innovation: What happened to e-learning and why. Philadelphia: The Learning Alliance, University of Pennsylvania. Available online at