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Summer Online Courses and Outreach

June 4, 2012

Summer is the time we typically pull out those books unread during the rest of the year for a lack of time.  However, this year, let me suggest an alternative consideration – register for an open online course.

Everyone except the hyper-Luddites of the world accept that online education can be a  quality alternative to the traditional bricks and mortar approach.  At the University of Memphis, the History Department’s online M.A. program is an excellent example a quality online offering.  Within my own disciplines of Museum Studies and Applied Anthropology institutions such as Johns Hopkins, the University of Leicester, the University of North Texas, and the University of Oklahoma have demonstrated the potential of online graduate programs.

But what about all of those “free” online higher education options that are now cropping up?  There is iTunes U which at this point is primarily a one-way lecture based experience.  Then there are the newer breed of open source free online courses that are completely interactive.  Jennifer Carey blogs quite a bit about new online resources, such as the edX ventures by Harvard and MIT that will offer extensive open online courses, along with current offerings from YaleStanford and iTunes U.  The Do It Yourself Scholar blog is a great source for keeping up on this discussion.  Check Dara’s Best Free Courses and Lectures link a the site.

I have registered for several courses through coursera.org a consortium of Stanford, Princeton, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania.  The courses I registered for range in length from 5 to 12 weeks and have staggered starting dates from May through September.  The coursera offerings cover a subject spectrum including mathematics, health care, computer science, the humanities and social sciences.

I registered for a 6-week Intro to Statistics course as I still consider myself more-or-less a mathematical illiterate and need to get beyond means, medians and standard deviations in my work; Listening to World Music because I am intrigued by how the course might prove useful in thinking about our Drumming Across Cultures Program at the C.H. Nash Museum; and a social media course because I am fascinated by this work.

I also enrolled in the course Human Computer Interaction because the description seems like a good way for me to think about prototyping and evaluating museum and visitor interactions that we are moving into at Chucalissa.  The course is taught by Scott Klemmer an Associate Professor in Computer Science at Stanford and consists of video lectures, assignments, quizzes and discussion forums. I will receive a grade for the course but no credit hours from Stanford.

I am one week into the course and totally engaged.  The lectures are interesting.  I take notes.  The quizzes are basic.  The assignments are real, require effort, but the learning payoff is fantastic.  To succeed in the course, I estimate that my weekly input will need to be about 4-5 hours.  The course seems to be set at an upper class undergraduate level and will give me a platform for a solid introduction to an area of interest that will be applicable to my daily work.  It’s irrelevant to me whether I have a degree to show that I successfully completed the course.  However, the edX offerings envisioned by Harvard and MIT will offer certificates of completion for those needing documentation.

I am confident that these courses will continue to expand.  In conversation the other day with a Doubting Thomas about coursera.org, he asked – What is the business model for this?  My immediate one word response was – Relevance.  Besides a shift from the bricks and mortar approach to education, open online courses are a way for higher education to be relevant to the public who through their tax dollars provide support.  This approach seems to be an outstanding demonstration of community outreach.  Naysayers will focus on all of things that open online courses are not.  Unfortunately, they will miss the opportunities that open online courses bring to the table.  Think of this.  You have a 45-minute commute to work each day.  You are interested in Anthropology.  You go to iTunes U and find that you can listen to the 28-lecture course offered by Terrence W. Deacon’s at Berkeley.  How can that not be a good and great thing?

How can we apply the open online approach to our museums and cultural heritage institutions today?

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