What’s wrong with canned courses? Just one thing.

As we see colleges like Rio Salado and for-profits like National, Argosy, and Walden “Universities” create huge online programs, we see more and more courses designed by “teams” and taught by associate faculty/staff. When online learning began, of course, faculty created their own courses and taught them, but there were efficiencies to be had by creating one course and having it be reused by everyone. Publishing companies were quick to start creating their own courses to go with their textbooks, complete with Blackboard cartridges and/or their own learning management systems (I was asked by at least one of them to write a course they could sell). And now Google and Pearson are teaming up with their own “free” LMS (you’ll pay with your personal and marketing information) so that people can “share” courses (in their LMS’s format) under a Creative Commons license (Attribution only, of course, so they can be sold later — it wouldn’t do to have them be Non-Commercial and Share Alike).

Sense my disgust? To me, these are all canned courses, made to last a long time and be consumable by anyone, but more importantly, taught by anyone. We continue to sojourn, often voluntarily and with enthusiam, into the Land with No Professor, as detailed elegantly by Alex Wright in his From ivory tower to academic sweatship of 2005.

So now I hear things like this more than ever:

“So what’s wrong with using the publisher’s PowerP*ints if it’s good stuff?”
“So why shouldn’t I use the course cartridge? I create and run my own discussion boards.”
“They do all this video and stuff better than I do — that keeps students engaged.”

I sputter around, after I get my chin off the floor. What about the de-professionalization of teaching? what about improving those technology skills? can’t you see it’s all the commercialization of education and you are a willing participant?

But today, after thinking about this issue for, oh, fifteen years, it occurred to me what’s really, really wrong with using course cartridges and canned material.

It’s modeling the wrong thing.

Modeling is very important — some say it’s the most important aspect of college teaching. It’s our main job, Stephen Downes says, modeling and demonstrating. A faculty member shared with me only today an exam where he accidentally had two questions that were the same, but one phrased concretely and one conceptually. The students aced the concrete question and failed the conceptual question, though the answer was the same. I suggested that instead of asking them what happened, he instead should model how he developed the question, what he was thinking he’d get in response, and what happened when he saw the completed exams. I suggested this would show the students he’s human and works on these things, share his method with them so they feel included, get him good answers to why it occurred, and review the material, all at the same time. That’s what modeling does.

So what does it mean when we build our courses on material created by someone else?

If we are using it wholesale, out of the can, we are modeling a lack of creativity (in addition to implying that our own view as a discipline expert is kind of beside the point). It’s very difficult to model how historians do history (or chemists do chemistry, or writers write) when we are using someone else’s interpretation or method.

We are also displaying an absence of critical thinking, the kind that we say we want our students to engage in, unless we are using canned content as the start of a discussion about perspectives on that content (I wish that happened a lot, but it doesn’t).

And we’re showing a lack of respect for our own professions as practitioners of both a discipline and of teaching.

If we want to promote a thoughtful citizenry that can make important decisions, work creatively to change what’s wrong, and innovate to make our society better, it’s a pretty poor example to rely on canned material.

Tin Can as Cheese Press cc Chiot's Run

Is there a good way to use all this excellent content? You bet. We can disassemble, disaggregate, reinvent, repurpose, re-create. We can take just what we need (quiz questions, maps, slides) and use it to support our pedagogy. If the publisher doesn’t allow that (I can’t take apart the PowerPoints provided by the publisher of my textbook, for example) we don’t use it. We can learn just a few skills — maybe editing video or doing a screencast or slideshow. Make our own stuff. It won’t look professional, and that’s OK. It will look human, and students will be seeing an example of an instructor who makes his own stuff to get a point across. As with modeling the design of a test question, whatever we make will be saying to students that we cared enough to make it to help them understand.

It will also model that we are professionals with viewpoints created from a deep understanding of our fields, individual viewpoints based on common methods, vocabulary and standards. That’s what we want them to do — use the skills of our discipline to better understand the world, and help improve it. As Richard Kahn notes about Howard Zinn’s argument that professors should share not only their viewpoints with the class but how they developed them:

[F]rom a perspective such as Zinn’s, our job as educators is to invite our classes into the rigorous pursuit and production of the living history of ideas—the truth of our unfolding human process in all of its registers. In this way, we thus also model for students how to begin naming and navigating the various socio-cultural forces coalescing around them, to articulate and argue for their own perspectives on society and its institutions, and so in good faith become democratic citizens capable of exerting their own civic leadership.

We certainly can’t do that with a course cartridge.

9 comments to What’s wrong with canned courses? Just one thing.

  • Clare Atkins

    Thank you Lisa for articulating so clearly so many of the concerns that have nagged at me over the last 10 years! I had never really taken the time out to really examine what made me so uncomfortable about canned courses that can be taught by ‘anyone’ – I just knew there were a number of things wrong with the model, for both students and faculty. I really appreciate you giving me such a well considered reference point.

  • Pedro Tamayo

    Thanks, Lisa, for sharing your thoughts. I agree totally with them.

  • Amy

    And I disagree, but that may be because I oversee a team of instructional designers who work with faculty to build courses for our growing online program. What I’ve seen is that as we work with faculty, the courses we are developing are more creative and rigorous than anything they’ve taught before. Our students are extremely happy to have assignments tied directly to the learning outcomes and with artifacts that demonstrate professional competencies. If I could trust that the 100 or so adjunct faculty that we bring on every 8 weeks to build courses that had the same level of rigor, that had creative ways to meet learning objectives and assess consistently, then I certainly wouldn’t be spending $2m converting 200 courses to what we call “curated” content. What I’ve heard from faculty is that they want less things to evaluate, they think students should be doing less work, I’ve had several faculty complain about including short answer questions in with multiple choice exams because then they have to grade them.

    If you, like I, bring a wealth of online teaching experience and the creative passion to the project, then I value you as a course curator and I want you to help me build the courses that we roll out. (We’ll even pay you more to help design a fantastic class than we will to have you teach it.) But I can’t scale a program from 10,000 students to 100,000 students with individually designed courses, and those 100,000 students? They deserve the best education they can get. (I’m at a non-profit, by the way, and while some complain about the scaling, our growth has kept full time faculty employed, with low health care contributions, high pension contributions, new buildings that allow us to attract great students and a robust financial aid program that lets us get first generation students in and out of college with as little debt as possible).

    • Amy, I understand that people need jobs, that instructional design (especially for the web) is a new field where schools such as those I mentioned are encouraged to give degrees in education, ID, or ed tech to people who need those jobs. I also understand that there are more people with Masters and PhDs than there are jobs, and that college instruction is quickly becoming an industrialized, factory product of the kind you describe here. I regret it wholeheartedly. I don’t “roll out” my courses; I teach them. All students deserve the best education they can get if they are able to do the work, and providing them with canned courses taught by people who don’t want to grade short answer questions because it’s too much trouble is not, I believe, doing that.

  • Amy

    I understand your objections, I really do, but I think they privilege the elite and don’t reflect the reality of who today’s adult learners are. When I think of the single mothers I know who are our students, they don’t really care who put the content together, they just care that they can do their work to the best of their ability, and still pay for the heating bill or the new boots their 9 year old needs because they grew two sizes in a month. Our economies of scale can help them do that.

    • Maybe I’ve lost track of something in this conversation, but I can’t see how our community college instructors creating their own classes privilege the elite in any way. Serving the population you mention is exactly what we do.

  • Carrie

    I think there have been some rather hasty assumptions made about instructors who teach these “canned” classes. I happen to be one of them. I am a graduate student working as an adjunct at a community college where I *must* teach according to the planned course. I don’t have much choice. I do the best I can with the course shell, and customize or add whenever I can. I also assess student work very diligently; my colleagues do the same. There is a place for many different teaching philosophies; while I have some serious reservations about a factory model of teaching classes, I don’t wish to bite the hand that feeds me either, and I think there are situations where it is possible that such a course is the most appropriate because of material conditions. If you wish to believe you are automatically so much better than those like me just because you have more freedom in course design, then feel free. Just know that such attitudes do little to foster cooperation, collaboration, etc. among educators. I tire of being judged as an instructor “who [doesn’t] want to grade short answer questions because it’s too much trouble.” That is not the case by any stretch of the imagination.

    • Hi, Carrie, and thanks for joining the discussion! 🙂

      I hope I haven’t been misunderstood.

      I do not think I’m automatically better than people who teach canned courses. What I would like to see is a world where instructors DO have a choice to teach as they see fit, and are not just given someone else’s class to teach. I am also aware that I am blessed in having the freedom to design my own classes, and have nothing but admiration for instructors like you who adapt everything they can in an effort to help students.

  • The conversation by all (which I loved) to me highlights that focusing on the technology..even when canned…has less to do with good or bad teaching as the teacher herself or himself. A great phrase I read earlier today is that we teach people, not subjects. We establish relationships with our students in a learning environment. Whether we create that environment from scratch or have it delivered to us, it is what we do with it afterwards that carries much of the impact.