The new homeschool

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  August 31, 2010

Those developments will surely filter down through open-courseware initiatives, which is good for online learners who complain of lack of focus, personalization, and peer interaction.

Of Carnegie Mellon's OLI, Kamenetz writes: "It's what might happen in a classroom under ideal circumstances, with a teacher of infinite patience, undivided attention, and inexhaustible resources of examples and hints."

While many of these initiatives have been funded at least in part by the open-education enthusiasts at the California-based Hewlett Foundation, there's interest on the federal level as well. Open-education resources were specifically allocated $50 million in President Obama's 2009 announcement of increased support for community colleges. Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois has introduced the Open College Textbook Act, which would provide federal funding for efforts to create high-quality open-licensed textbooks for college classes; the bill is unlikely to be addressed until next year.

INDEPENDENT OPEN-LEARNING INITIATIVES like the Peer 2 Peer University (p2pu.org), "an online community of open study groups for short university-level courses."

P2PU launched last year; already about 700 students have taken free, six-week classes like "Digital Journalism" and "Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature." P2PU's founders and "course organizers" are still experimenting with what works, but the basic goal is to provide some structure for learning that goes on outside institutional walls.

"If you're just sitting at home and you'd like to learn something there seems to be something missing," says P2PU co-founder Stian Haklev. P2PU provides some of those things, like peer interaction (through online forums, videoconferencing, and chat rooms), feedback, deadlines, and some type of syllabus or road-map.

So far, the results have been positive both in terms of student feedback and institutional growth.

"As the course went on it was the weekly discussions, which were held in an [Internet relay chat] room, that often felt like the highlight of my week," says Nadeem Shabir, a university graduate who lives in Britain and who took the "Cyberpunk Lit" class last fall. "My peers on the course all had a passion for the subject material and all contributed to the discussions. It was like a really intense book club where no one was afraid of voicing their opinions — or being controversial."

This fall, P2PU is partnering with the Mozilla Foundation (yes, the folks behind Firefox) to offer the School of Webcraft — 15 or so free web-development courses that start in September. With these classes, and for further offerings, P2PU will try out different accreditation and assessment models. Perhaps it will be free to take the class, but if you want formal recognition, you'll have to pay. Perhaps it would be skill-based assessments — "We'd use our reputation to stand behind that," Haklev says.

"We at P2PU are interested in a community reputation that could also offer a viable alternative to the traditional accreditation systems," the P2PU Web site reads. That said, there are ways to finagle academic credit, depending on the institution. Most university-based open-courseware programs make clear from the start that no credit is available (you are not getting a Yale education by going through an OYC course, in other words). The fact that many open-courseware students don't care about getting credit speaks to who this movement comprises, currently — self-motivated learners who already have degrees.

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