Blog Post

Where's the Courseware Revolution? What If STUDENTS Created Public, Online Courses For Others?

Is anyone else out there feeling as frustrated as I am by all the "revolutionary" new open courseware and online digital courses being announced that do very little to really tackle the basic assumptions of hierarchical, one-directional, silo'd learning--unconnected intellectually, unconnected to the world and problems around us, unconnected to other learners around the world?   Can't we do better?   I think we can!   I know we can.


Last December,  when Times Higher Ed (UK) asked me to make my prediction for education in 2012, I said we would witness the unveiling of open courseware by elite universities. I also offered the caution that not all of this open courseware would offer new paradigms that really helped students in the challenging world we face today.   Well, that seemed like a no brainer since MIT and Harvard had already announced, with great fanfare, that they would later be announcing new twists on their Open Courseware initiatives.   It's clear now that other universities are following this pattern, where tens of thousands of students can take online courses, using course materials from traditional courses taught by esteemed professors and made open and available online.  I'm delighted Harvard and MIT are making offerings available online, although I'm nervous about the for-profit possibilities down the road and about the assumption that a lecture online constitutes an education.  


As I've said before, if we professors can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be:  meaning, if we offer nothing more or other than a computer, why not make ourselves available more conveniently, to a wider audience, and more economically?    However, I believe there is so much more that a great teacher offers to students than simply content.  That "something more" is what is tragically missing from online courseware and from the premature excitement (especially by commercial vendors) to get into this market. 


Stanford has gone further by saying its medical students now would take courses online through Khan Academy's online programs, and then would use classtime for face-to-face tutorials and in-depth knowledge.   That's colloquially called "flipping" the classroom--and research shows that it is a better way to learn content, retain it and be able to apply it elsewhere, as opposed to sitting through and being tested on the content in a traditional classroom.  And it seems especially well suited to the hands' on life of a clinical physician.   Bravo!   To my mind, this adaptation of the flipped classroom model makes more sense precisely because it does put the prof in the role of a true, intense, one-on-one or one-to-some teacher in a situation where that method seems ideal, and perhaps preferable to the lecture model.   What would be essential in this case, of course, is quality control and consistency between what is delivered by the Khan Academy videos and what the Stanford medical school profs consider to be reliable, state-of-the-art research on the various subjects.

But neither of these is particularly revolutionary as pedagogy or fully takes advantage of the other affordances of the digital educational technologies now available to us.   In a piece for Fast Company, I argued that we shouldn't stick with "flipping" the classroom.   We should use the technologies available to "make it do cartwheels."

Through collaborative tools, through distance collaborations with partners who bring more to the subject, we can make learning into a rich, connected, vital experience that can help train students (both those in the classroom and the collaborators) for the unpredictable, changing, global world they are entering.   That requires not the passive receiving of content from a teacher (the flipping model doesn't change that) but students being actively engaged in the production, transmission, and broadcasting of knowledge--co-teaching, co-learning, co-researching.  If students weren't just taking courses on line but participating in the making of new public courseware, that would not only make for a great learning experience (being forced to reconceptualize what you learned as something someone else might learn from) but for the possibilities of integrated learning communities, where the course material is not just received by but also enriched by future users.  Now the flipping starts to become interesting, the traditional educational paradigm challenged, and the idea that knowledge is static content challenged in a significant and important way.


 Here's the url for that piece on "cartwheeling" a classroom:


Next year at Duke, we hope to inaugurate the next phase of our continuing work in the Franklin Humanities Institute's Humanities Labs: the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   In this Lab, we will be exploring all the important new ways that learning and research can happen, not just because of technology but because of connection:  peer-to-peer learning, global interconnection, the interaction between those learning about a subject and those who live those experiences, with transmission of experiential knowledge and book knowledge flowing in multiply enriching ways.   The Ph.D. students leaving the Lab will be maestros in an array of new techniques for learning, research, and assessment--but they, even more, will have experimented with multiple new ways of conceptualizing:

(1) new ways of defining knowledge across the silos of the university.  The Haiti Lab (described in detail in the Fast Company piece), for example, brings together historians, literary scholars, doctors, global health experts, environmental scientists, law profs, and students from all those disciplines too, in partnership with professors and students in Haiti.  The other Labs this year are BorderWorks (focusing on refugees and forced migrations, again working across the full range of human and social and natural sciences) and Greater than Games (studying and creating learning games, and including computational scientists as well as those who study narratives and an array of disciplines in the humanities too).   These Labs are structured around world problems and ideas, what NSF calls "Grand Challenges" and they rearrange silo'd knowledge as purposive and bold and a contribution by anyone lucky enough, in this world of grand challenges, to have knowledge that can yield solutions.

(2) new relationships between research and teaching, between teaching and learning--students will be working alongside their profs doing research, publicizing it while it's still in progress, working with extended, distributed research teams elsewhere, and sometimes "crowdsourcing" solutions to key problems by networking across institutions as part of the online learning communities.   Digital study groups and digital research communities will work together, bringing original insights and solutions to problems.   

(3) connected learning, where the subject matter of the course is connected to people who have expertise in that area, needs in that area, insights in that area--whether that is in the Durham community or in Tokyo or in Bangalore--and outside the walls of the classroom and academe.

(4) peer-to-peer pedagogies.   We'll be talking about how students can take charge of their own learning and contribute to it, and working with doctoral students who can invent their own modes of peer instruction to carry on with them into their first professorial jobs or "alt-ac" jobs.   This might include such things as teaching in game or other virtual environments while utilizing new methodologies, new visualization techniques, and other approaches.

(5) assessment.   You cannot have a revolution in teaching and learning and research--and then judge it by the old assessment standards.   This is a lesson that lab scientists learn over and over.   If you don't change the metric of evaluation, you will miss the really new result your experiment produces.   Understanding what assessment is, what it measures, and what it misses--and coming up with plausible, credible, reliable, and better standards of assessment--will be a key mission of the Lab.   (NB:  My bias is against those who think they don't need any form of assessment because they just "know" good from bad.   That's not good enough.  I've written in other places about taking several online courses where the Artificial Intelligence of the system is used to learn how I learn and to actually help me learn from my mistakes by giving me the best kinds of hints to help me learn better:  if only every teacher understood every student that well!   If educators are going to out-perform "the machine," we better be learning from it about how to pay attention with that kind of focus--not to our pontificating selves, but to the learning issues of our students.)


A lot of what we'll be doing next year is experimental.  I'm so excited to be co-directing the Digital Knowledge Lab, an entirely new form of training for doctoral students, so that they can go out into the world with new, fresh ideas to bring to traditional academe and also to "alt ac" ideas.  It's kind of like HASTAC, but materialized as pedagogical and research instruction for future academics.  You can read more about it here:


Meanwhile, I personally hope to really make my classrooms do cartwheels next year by teaming up with students in the undergraduate class I'll be teaching with the noted behavioral economist Dan Ariely (author of the bestseller Predictably Irrational).     Here's the undergraduate course description for English 390-5, "Surprise Endings:  Social Science and Literature":


And I'll also be teaching a doctoral course in the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge (cross-listed in English and Information Science + Information Studies), in which students will work with the undergraduate class as a joint "Lab" (in both directions, or what is known in the field as "vertical integration").  Here's the doctoral course description for English 890S, "21st Century Literacies:  Theories, Methods, and Tools for New Forms of  Digital Research and Teaching":


What happens when you put these three together?  I hope it will open a new door to a new kind of really revolutionary learning, where faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates together "build" a public, online course that is interactive, has a social media element, is connected, and pushes new boundaries of what digitally-enhanced education can look like.  We will be learning openly, in a public forum that the students produce, and will be taking feedback from anyone who connects to us so the course will be an "online" course--but we'll be offering participation and connection and peer learning, not just a computer screen.  A community learning together, in multiple directions at once.


Will we succeed?  If I knew the answer to that question, it wouldn't be an experiment.  You'll have to stay tuned in as we all find out.  Join us! 



Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 9000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, [NYSI cover]






Probably the most radical revolution you're suggesting is putting assessment in the hands of students, with both responsibility and recognition as their rewards. From past posts you may recognize that I've been working with ePortfolios at the grades 6-12 level, in Somerville, a very dense, very multi-cultural (45 languages in the high school), and very changing city that's equidistant from Tufts, MIT and Harvard. Typically, the colleges have done relatively little (except hustle some grants), but the townies have done quite a bit.

Most notably, teachers and students were frustrated their portfolios were only on paper. Students would graduate, get their portfolio, and dump it. There was very little interest in a tool originally designed to balance standardized tests. Their School Council - consisting of teachers, kids, parents and community - decided to computerize those portfolios, to save space, encourage more media literacy, more focus on positive projections, help college and job applications, and to create "time capsules" for the next generation in their high school library. At the same time, they were working - through one of those grants - on a kind of holistic assessment system funded by the Ford Foundation through Harvard. They chose to integrate a "scaffold" of "soft skills" as a checklist in each portfolio. They thereby asked each student to show how or what they might use to prove more "responsibility," "teamwork," "creativity," work across cultures, using technology, etc. It's not coincidental that that same scaffold, designed by Dr. Arnold Packer, formerly Assistant Secretary of Labor, had been funded by Kellogg, through Johns Hopkins, and worked through in another partner agency, HOME, Inc., that taught kids how to produce video.

And so, as one student put it, "I didn't know I really learned anything until I taught it to somebody else."

And taught it she did.

Eventually, their model moved to the school website, but that was only after the students and teachers did a show-and-tell at Harvard's Berkman Center. The Harvard folk thought the kids were all "gifted," but their only academic distinction was that most of the white kids couldn't come because they had jobs. This July, the District has been invited to do a morning's summary to the AAEEBL Annual International Conference, in Boston.

My point is not that this is excellent - that is obvious. My point is that, as one teacher noted, "I won't give a bad grade to a good portfolio," and students are, finally, in charge of their own education. Nobod's "yielded" anything, and yet, in Somerville, teachers teach kids, and, by the way, occasionally use history, English, science or other subjects to meet that priority.

Isn't that what you're talking about? And, with assessment so direct, and so different from a test, the whole thing changes.


Agree completely on assessment, Joe.  The other links lead to more detailed accounts of assessment--including something I do that parallels what you do:  create a "class community assessment" platform where students together determine what kinds of things should and should not count---and, of course, as my infamous "How to Crowdsource Grading" experiment showed, I believe it works for students to evaluate one another, and then evaluate one another's evaluations.  In other words, much as you do in your courses (which sounds wonderful), I make assessment part of the content of the course.






Sounds a lot like "Now You See It," but Alan's new little book, "Who Owns the Learning?",  focuses on project-based learning in a laboratory-like classroom much like you describe here. After all, we teach kids not subjects....


I'll order this new book right now.  Thanks!


Agree. I think it is useful to step back further and re-think what a 'student' is to get the most out of these types of disruptive educational opportunities. If a student is thought of as being a 'co-creator' of their learning, and someone who leads the process, then it not only flips the classroom, but the relationship with the teacher and institution.

The co-creator scenario is different to 'student-centered' learning, which tends to just provide learning in a different way. As a co-creator the student learns how to direct their own learning. This means that the primary learning at an institution is how to become a co-creator and direct both your own learning program and the educators and peers you work with. Your example of students modeling the behaviour by designing public courseware is an example of how it can work. In this scenario, the educator sets up the experience and marks out some intervention points to mark out and discuss the role of a director in course design.

My experience of asking media students to model bahaviours in a course on social and participatory media was surprising. Many students took to it well. Their task was to engage with some sort of community of interest in the public and ask for a contribution to the their [the student's] participatory media piece. To model the type of thing they wanted to get back, the student first offered 'seeding material', which could be a short video, piece of writing or sound recording. The seeding material was designed by the student to show that a contribution could be simple and easy to make. They also modeled the interaction behaviour they wanted to promote, for example: the type of online conversation, or constructuve comments or schedule,etc. 

I haven't done a formal study into this yet, but observations point to it being one method to hand over the process to students and then offer support and resources to make it happen. 


Thanks for these suggestions.  I especially like the idea of "seeding material."   I like the concept, the practice, and the metaphor!


Two items that might apply here:

"Innovation Is About Arguing, Not Brainstorming. Here’s How To Argue Productively" ( - "... the idea behind brainstorming is right. To innovate, we need environments that support imaginative thinking, where we can go through many crazy, tangential, and even bad ideas to come up with good ones. We need to work both collaboratively and individually. We also need a healthy amount of heated discussion, even arguing." (That's where I bring my "participatory deliberation" method to bear.)



"Socrates as entrepreneur (4): philosophy as a tool of war" ( - "If we can figure out how Socrates successfully challenged the cultural paradigm of his time, it may indicate strategies for addressing the political and cultural intransigence of our own times. It could provide insights into how to drive social innovation through unyielding cultures – to be precise, how to change culture by transforming our relationship to truth." "The Greeks had dialectic before Socrates. They knew the general form of dialectical exchange: one person ventures a statement or claim to truth which the other person disputes, each replying to the other in turn until the parties are reconciled or one or other of them concedes defeat. Prior to Socrates, however, dialectical contests were an unruly exchange of verbal (and non-verbal) blows. Socrates insisted on a different way of conversing and discovering the truth. Drawing on the example of wrestling matches and other competitive games, Socrates introduced an element of rigor to dialectical debate and thereby made it a genuine philosophical method." (An "unruly exchange of verbal (and non-verbal) blows" ... sounds like the forums of today, no?



When I'm at my best as a technical communicator I create tools and methods and techniques. (Hyper documentation for avionics R&D? Was doing that in the late 80s, same time Tim BernersLee was coming up with WWW to deal with the same se of problems.) And little inspired me more than the "thought-ware" I saw and used in that decade. (I used "ThinkingCap" by Broderbund.)

But what inspired my thinking most deeply was the system Hesse came up with in his "Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi)"

"The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ."

As courseware? To deploy a system that arrays the best of our knowledge dialectically! (And yes, I have a design. But I'm persona non grata. I don't write papers; I create tools.)

For example, to treat these three artifacts (they just happened to be open tabs in my Firefox) and re-present them in a manner that deconstructs the material, so that each individual proposition or assertion is accessible for comment. ("Granularity"... in situations such as R&D that's paramount.)

Ms. Davidson put it very well:

"... do very little to really tackle the basic assumptions of hierarchical, one-directional, silo'd learning--unconnected intellectually, unconnected to the world and problems around us, unconnected to other learners around the world?"

Johannes Gutenberg was, not PhD Social Psych, but blacksmith, goldsmith, publisher. My point: for something like 70 years after the printing press books had no page numbers, let alone table of contents, or indexes, or footnotes. Those innovations came with time. That, for me, is paradigmatic of technology in the service of civil society. (It's very hard to make things easy. I spent years exploring failed methods, dead end techniques, systems that advanced our project not at all.)

p.s. by way of context, my "Foundational Documents for Participatory Deliberation'". at this very moment there are how many people online in the world discussing courseware? what's the possibility of discovering those artifacts? without systematic aggregation/curation what we have is tsunami or fire hose.