The Impact of Open Source Learning


The title of this week’s application topic seems to belie the actual nature of the assignment, being to evaluate an open course available on the internet based on the standards and guidelines prepared for institutional distance learning courses. Superficially, this does not seem to be related to the impact of open source learning in general. Upon further reflection, however, open source learning has the potential to change education from outside the institution by creating an innovative disruption, providing learning to persons who would otherwise not have access due to financial, time, or other constraints. Further, open source learning is the beginning of putting knowledge in the hands of the learners where it truly belongs. How this occurs, open source learning as it currently exists and its future potential are discussed herein.

Open Source Learning

An open course is by definition an educational course available to the public without cost, typically delivered through audio, video and/or an internet interface. The primary purpose of providing open courses is to provide learning opportunities to the public. In fact, there are several major educational institutions offering courses such as Yale, MIT, Stanford and Berkeley. The available courses range from introductory information courses to more advanced and/or specific technical courses. But, there is a catch. At this point in time, the participant receives no academic credit for participation and/or learning. The learners participate voluntarily, purely for the sake of expanding their own knowledge.

Distance Learners and Design Guidelines

Moore (1999) posits “those needs, ‘what all distant learners want, and deserve’ include:

  • Content that they feel is relevant to their needs
  • Clear directions for what they should do at every stage of the course
  • As much control of the pace of learning as possible
  • A means of drawing attention to individual concerns
  • A way of testing their progress and getting feedback from their instructors
  • Materials that are useful, active and interesting” (as cited in Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 151).

In addition, there are several “fundamentals of teaching online” (Simonson et al., 2009, 248):

  • Avoid ‘dumping’ a face-to-face course onto the web;
  • Organize the course and make the organization and requirements clear to students;
  • Keep students informed constantly;
  • Think about course outcomes;
  • Test applications, not rote memory;
  • Integrate the power of the web into the course;
  • Apply adult learning principles with nontraditional students;
  • Extend course readings beyond the text (or to replace the text);
  • Train students to use the course website” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 248-251).

Open Course Examples

The first course selected for evaluation is offered by Yale and can be accessed at The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food (Open Yale courses website, 2011). It was chosen based on my own interests in those fields. I selected Yale because it is a prestigious university and I believed any course offered there would have substantial value. The format of the course presents as fairly simple. There are six links along the left side of the page beginning with the course title: “The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food, Syllabus, Class Sessions, downloads, survey and books” (Open Yale courses website, 2011, p. 1) The course is actually a video/audio recording of traditional instructor lectures that met twice a week for 75 minutes each in 2008. The professor lectured, the students read, took copious notes, completed assignments, and took exams. The assignments were fairly engaging and interactive requiring a deeper level of cognition than simple worksheet homework; however, the exams were not discussed in great detail.

It is clear this course was not designed according to distance learning guidelines in any respect. For example, it is impossible to know the current participating learners as the course was videotaped in 2008. Also, the course was not designed for multiple learning styles either at the time of the actual lecture series, or now, as it exists in an entirely teacher-centered format. There is some concession to modality if only in the offering of the information in audio, video or transcript format. There is no consideration for learner ability with technology, consideration given to media utilized or even material delivery. The class session link takes the learner to a page with 23 lecture title links to audio/video and/or transcript downloads. The download link also takes the learner to a video download link for each class session. The site offers no tutorials or even links to tutorials on how to download information, audio/video or transcript. The books link takes the learner to another website where the text is available to order for a price. Other materials and/or readings are provided, but the learner has to look them up, and they generally require a subscription or fee through the professional journal site. Also, there are no tutorials explaining how to search scientific journals for the articles recommended. This particular class is an excellent example of “shovelware” described as the process of transferring “course handouts and selected discussion topics” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 248) online and clearly violates the very first guideline for distance learning course design. The information presented in the traditional format is quite valuable and a very motivated, self-directed learner could possibly force themselves through the entire series, learning a great deal in the process. But, this type of open course is not the best open course available by any stretch of the imagination.

In light of my disappointment with the first open course I selected another to evaluate as well. This open course is offered by the University of Washington and is available at Energy, Diet and Weight (UW Education Outreach, University of Washington website, 2011). This course is slightly better and worse than the Yale course. First, in order to begin the class the learner has to register, providing name, address, and email address. Second, once past the registration, the learner is again presented with a simplified link/tab system on the left side of the screen: “Introduction, Part One: What’s True about Nutrition, Part Two: Calories, Carbohydrates, Fiber and Fat, Part Three: Proteins, Vitamins and Minerals, Part Four: Nutrition and Weight Loss, Conclusion.”(UW, 2011, p. 1) The introduction link/tab sends the learner to a page that provides an overview of the course, objectives for the course, a link for ordering the book (at a cost), and an offer to take the course for full credit by enrolling at the University. Each of the parts is broken down into subparts consisting of 3 pages of textual information, followed with a quiz testing the learner on the information presented. The conclusion tab sends the learner to a summary of the course and a final summary quiz. Once again the learner is offered the option to take the full-length course for credit through the university.

This course was also a little disappointing in that although it does provide information to the public, it is not really designed according to distance learning guidelines. There is no consideration for technological facility, learning styles, or learning modalities. The only option is text information. The one aspect of the course that I really appreciated was the quiz at the end of each section. However, I was disappointed that the course was not in and of itself a full-length course, but more like a teaser course to entice a learner to enroll with the university. Again, a self-directed, motivated individual could easily move through this material rather quickly and learn some basic information regarding health, nutrition and supplements. But, I am still searching for a better version of an open course available to the public that lives up to my vision of open source learning.

Open Source Learning Potential

Despite the examples provided, open source learning does have potential. There are four (4) cycles of e-learning adoption: (1) “Cycle 1: Enhancements to traditional course/program configurations; (2) Cycle 2. Course Management Systems; (3) Cycle 3. Imported course objects; and (4) Cycle 4. New course/program configurations” (Simonson, et al., p. 247). The courses reviewed are within Cycle 1 and 2; however, there must be better designed online open courses. Second, one of my favorite articles The World is My School: Welcome to the Era of Personalized Learning describes potential possibilities of personalized learning that could conceivably begin with open source learning (Andersen, 2011). Specifically, Anderson discusses possible educational scenarios wherein the learner picks and chooses the knowledge they want to learn. In addition, rather than completing a staid course program of various classes put together by an administrator, the individual chooses the courses to put together they believe will best suit their educational and/or career goals. Rather than being certified or receive a degree upon completion of a program, the individual must provide sufficient proof of mastery through applied examinations. Perhaps, this type of exam would be somewhat akin to the State Bar exam taken by prospective lawyers or the Physician exams taking by prospective doctors, both of which are typically followed by an internship and/or apprenticeship of gradually increasing responsibility as skills and knowledge are continuously proven and expanded. In simple terms, what this means is that if I want to be an expert in genetics I would select a variety of genetics related courses to take. I would take them, study the information, and participate in learning communities regarding this topic. When I felt ready to provide evidence of my mastery I would take the appropriate test designed by experts within genetics deemed by them as essential to the field and including in-depth application scenarios. This may be followed by mandatory apprenticeship with a company or internship program wherein my work provides continued evidence of my mastery. The reality of this possible future puts the learner in the driver’s seat of their educational choices, motivations, and achievements.


If I were to believe that the two open courses I reviewed were the only possibilities available, I would have to say the impact of open source learning is and will continue to be fairly minimal. However, I am more inclined to believe that the majority of adopters are not fully on the wagon of innovation as of yet. In fact, according to the Gartner Hype Cycle there are five distinct stages: (1) “Technology Trigger; (2) Peak of inflated expectations; (3) Trough of disillusionment; (4) Slope of Enlightenment; and (5) Plateau of productivity” (Simonson et al., 2009, p. 257). It would appear that our society is in the middle of disillusionment, possibly headed toward slope of enlightenment. As technology progresses and more and more people take control of their learning, there will be additional opportunities for open source learning. It is also important to note, the offerings by these two universities was to the general public for free. I am quite certain that their offerings to paying students are far more inclusive, including tutorials, additional activities, perhaps different learning modalities, etc. That these institutions have offered any course of value to the general public is in and of itself a giant first step towards the future of eLearning and its potential expansion.



Andersen, M. (2011). The world is my school: Welcome to the era of personalized learning. The Futurist, 45(1), 12–17. Retrieved from en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:The+World+Is+My+School+:+Welcome+to+the+Era+of+Personalized+Learning#0

Open Yale courses website. (2011).

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education. (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

UW Education Outreach, University of Washington website. (2011).


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