A note on content, courses/curricula, and credentials

This note recounts a potted recent history of developments to do with online content and courses and speculates about the future of credentials in respect of the purpose of a university.

When learning management systems (LMS) or virtual learning environments (VLEs) were in their infancy around the turn of the century, faculty opposition to their introduction was sometimes expressed. Two reasons were often given (among others): if I put my lecture notes on the web no one will come to my class; and variations on a personal IPR theme: the students, the university or third party institutions will steal my content. Content was considered “king” and as long as universities and academics “owned” the content, their position was secure

MIT, with the Open Courseware initiative shattered the content-is-king myth. All the content from a leading university was made freely available: curricula, syllabus, reading lists, slide sets and exam papers.

The defensive focus shifted to courses. It wasn’t the content per se that was important. What the faculty and the institution did was select, organise, interpret, analyse and re-present content through curricula presented in courses (or modules, blocks, units, etc): sequenced events of limited duration (often a semester) presented in various modes (face to face and at distance)..

In 2007 groups of academics started to offer open online courses, hosted at universities but not requiring enrolment or a fee. This open online course movement became truly massive (MOOC) in 2011 when Stanford and MIT began to offer open online courses. From these beginnings spin out ventures (Coursera, Udacity, EdX, FutureLearn and others) started offering open online courses to the higher education “market”.

Now academic defensiveness has shifted. It is not the content and it is not the course or the curriculum that are offered uniquely by the university and faculty. It is the credential. Universities can award degrees and the degree, backed up by quality assurance processes is the guarantor of learning quality and the unique proposition which protects the value of the university.

Is it?

There is a movement towards micro-credentialling, or “badges” which I suggest is more important that many faculty and academics allow. I wrote briefly about badges here. I suggest this movement will continue the trend of opening up the university proposition and further challenge the role of the university in society.

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