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The Resource Reallocation Function of Web Courselets (下)

"Socrates was not a Content Provider"

David Noble, who made the wry observation about Socrates quoted above, has led the protest against everything that Courselets stand for. His fiery rhetoric is always entertaining and sometimes on target. Along with others, he has performed a valuable service by pointing out the perils of post-Cottage education.

Noble sees a future characterized by "digital diploma mills," in which technology replaces expensive human beings wherever possible and turns the rest, inevitably, into wage slaves. Courselets do, in fact, create just such a possibility. From the faculty perspective, a stand-alone, self-grading course with content tailored to standards and accessible on a 24/7 basis definitely looks threatening. John Henry never beats the steam hammer.

How does it look from the learner#39;s point of view? The idea of an educational system devoid of human interaction and confined to Courselets on a CRT is pretty grim. On the other hand, an educational system consisting primarily of large lecture courses and overworked Graduate Students isn#39;t all that different. Besides, with market forces freely at work for the first time ever in American education, ineffective Courselets might be weeded out, allowing the superior ones to prevail.


The upside for students is obviously convenience, and to some extent, quality. Industrially-produced learning resources can be more costly and sophisticated than cottage industry materials because the development expense can be amortized over a much greater number of students. Typical Courselets available today, for example, contain a significant number of items that are costly to produce, such as animations, or audio and video clips, which are beyond the means of a single faculty member or even most academic departments.

However, critics of distance education, such as John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, Michael Margolis, and Noble would never equate higher production values with quality. Distance and any form of mediation means less human interaction. Learning, in this view, is inherently a social experience, which depends upon immediate collaboration and interaction. To David Noble, Socrates is the perfect exemplification of learning as an active interchange between mentor and student.

The actual information exchanged is not the point of a Socratic dialogue. It is the living experience that matters. Courselets are the opposite. They are content-driven and focus exclusively on the delivery of information.


Awareness

Publishers, faculty and instructional designers all have a crucial role to play if Couselets are to lead to more effective instruction. The pitfalls and dangers are clear. But what is the path that will direct us all toward more engaging learning experiences for students?

As an emerging phenomenon, Courselets need to be properly introduced to University faculty. Rather than heralding them as a way to create an online course in a matter of minutes, they should be represented as a resource to be drawn upon in support of a design already developed by the instructor, perhaps in cooperation with an instructional designer. Furthermore, faculty members need to be made aware of the structures that exist within the University to assist them in making the most out of the Courselets available in their subject area, both for online and traditional face-to-face courses.

Publishers and their representatives also have a role to play in creating awareness. These companies maintain records of textbooks in use at each University, records that can be cross-referenced to courses supported by Courselets. With this information, there is no reason for instructors to be unaware of such additional resources. Universities might even make this process more efficient by inviting multiple publishers to show their Courselets to the entire faculty at annual or semi-annual Technology Expositions.

An event of this nature recently conducted at Utah State University had representatives of seven major publishing companies in attendance for the express purpose of exposing Courselets to faculty members.

Finally, most colleges and Universities have created impressive Faculty Development Centers, meant to empower teachers by training them in the use of technology. As a part of their educational mission, these Centers typically conduct workshops and seminars in the Course Management Software adopted by their University. By adding Courselets as a component of the overall training process, availability and benefits of publisher-supplied materials can be efficiently transmitted to a self-selecting audience that is presumably ready to hear the message.

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