A Proposal

As readers of this blog know, I get pretty excited about various projects that seek to open up research and teaching to the general public.  I have a naive faith that the public is interested in what we as scholars do and a commitment to trying to meet them half-way in explaining my research, interests, and discipline.  I am not always sure that I succeed in making my research accessible, but, as I hope this blog testifies, I certainly try.

As part of this commitment, I’ve been mulling over a way to offer my classes to the public for free.  It’s easy enough to make content available; I post my podcasts and usually syllabi here, list the books and topics of my classes, and even report on my pedagogical successes and failures. These efforts, however, are a one way window into my courses.  With the exception of the occasional blog post from loyal readers or past students, I don’t get much feedback from students because the media that I have used to communicate my course material is not designed to foster the kind of dynamic interaction that a full-featured online course, for example, or a classroom discussion requires.

A recent notice in the Chronicle of Higher Education and a quick read of Mark Taylor’s new book, Crisis on Campus: A Bold Plan for Reforming Our Colleges and Universities (New York 2010), once again rekindled my interest in imagining a different way to teach. In a moment of excitement, I sent an email to one of the “powers-that-be” on campus and pitched an idea that the University of North Dakota offer some free classes on-line, open to anyone who signs up (for no credit) as well as paying students (for credit). I pitched the idea to some of my trusted interlocutors here and got some good responses, and now have a meeting set up with some folks on the technical side of developing this idea as well as folks on the administrative side.

I even have imagined a name for this venture: The Institute for Open Learning at the University of North Dakota.

The programs would look for intellectual and technical support from folks with existing expertise on campus and seek to build alliances that encourage the development of contemporary, sophisticated, and varied course material for large scale online teaching opportunities on the web.  As I have argued in an earlier blog post, teaching an open online class with for-credit students enrolled will offer unique opportunities for students to simultaneously experience life within and outside the university classroom.  As Taylor and others have suggested, bridging the gap between the life within the academy and life outside the academy is a vital way to keep what we do here relevant and, at the same time, communicate and reinforce core academic values to a broader audience.  I remain optimistic that if more people saw what goes on in a university classroom, they would be more able to understand the value in a university education.

And, unlike most of flights of fancy, I even have something of a funding model: At present the university splits funds collected from an online instruction fee with the college who then usually passes some of these funds onto individual departments.  In effect, departments have a financial incentive to teach online classes.  What I’d want to do is to capture a sliver of the funding that the University collects from these online classes and use that to offer incentives to faculty to develop and teach open classes.

Ok. That’s not a great plan, but there’s more.  My idea of an Institute for Open Learning is mostly altruistic, but part of it imagines that these open classes can serve as marketing vehicles for both various programs as well as the university’s efforts at online teaching in general.  In fact, I’d go so far to say that these classes could come to represent the University’s commitment to the local and global community as well as showcase the truly exceptional teachers on campus.  In order to make the link between the universities outreach and marketing goals and the course content clear, the courses would be available for advertising.  These advertisement would have to adhere to certain standards of taste and would have to come from approved sources (mostly, I suspect in house, but it could extend to various approved groups like the local art museum or the local visitor bureau).  For example, each page might have a banner type advertisement for the Graduate School or for The College of Business and Public Administration.  In addition, there could be simple introductions to each podcast or video lecture which feature a brief advertisement much in the same way that NPR introduces segments of its programing with a plug for the title sponsor.  These advertisement could be relatively inexpensive since our overhead would be relatively low.  And a significant percentage of the revenue could go toward course development, faculty recruitment, and advertising for the Institute.

Over time, I could imagine offering 4-6 class a year over the spring, fall, and summer semesters.  If the Institute is successful, these course could develop a following and a significant group of engaged and interested learners.  This group of learners could also be an audience for various other programs at the university – some of them, like local and visiting lectures, conferences and colloquia (like the Writers Conference), and events would be free – while others like new certificate programs or distance programs in allied fields would be for credit and involve a fee.

I have a meeting tomorrow the begin the process of pitching this idea. Like most of my great ideas (ahem), I suspect that my excitement has led me to overlook some kind of fatal flaw in my plan, but until then I am going to just enjoy the excitement of a new idea.


  1. September 8, 2010 at 10:24 am

    I think it’s a great idea! The phrase ‘long-tale education’ keeps popping into my mind as I read your proposal… have you seen what the Open University offers by way of ‘free’ using their Moodle platform?
    In my former life in the for-profit edu world, I floated the idea of free courses in order to habituate potential students to our platform, and as a marketing tool, but I didn’t have the high-level contacts to get very far. The idea of ‘giving away’ learning was a bit of a lead balloon there, strangely enough (and I think of that Simpson’s episode where the class visits Fort Springfield and are chased away ‘cuz they’re lernin’ fer free!’).
    I will follow this project with interest! Good luck!

  2. September 8, 2010 at 10:25 am

    …er, make that ‘tail’. Long-tail.
    Darned homonyms.

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