Another Chink in the Wall: Open Courses

ImageOnline options for education can take many different forms. Therefore, a designer needs to understand who the audience is, why they might be taking such a course, and what the outcome of the course will be. Free open courses are an opportunity for students to study at top institutions, an option Kolowich, (2011) remarks which knocks out some bricks in the walls of elite education.  For many of these open courses, there are no prerequisites, content is the same as what is offered in the physical institution, and it is all free. Do you get what you pay for, or is the open course the opportunity to learn from the finest? How can the course’s quality be measured?

In an effort to take a closer look at an open course, I looked at Yale’s offerings under its Open Yale Courses options. The classes are distributed among twenty-three departments with about twenty-eight courses in all. Since I received my BA in English literature, I decided to check out more detail by looking at what was available in a Milton course (“ENGL 220: Milton,” 2014).

This class appears to be a “craft” course in that it is simply the physical class edition posted online. There are no areas for interaction or collaboration. The student can simply access the lectures, handouts, tests, and audio and “attend” class; beyond that, there is no other interactive options for the online student. As I researched this class, I realized I had a hard time defining what differentiated an open course, a MOOC, an xMOOC from a cMOOC so I researched how to tell them apart. I found the definitions are still vague and still developing. Kernohan, (2013) uses the open course term as an umbrella containing all the different MOOCs; with xMOOC being an open online course that has students correcting each other’s work and offering the possibility of purchasing a certificate, (this is similar to the Stanford course that Kolowich (2011) describes in his article). A cMOOC has more association with the Connectivism theory of learning and is centered on building a social learning community using social media to mimic that classroom environment. The definition of the different types of open courses is important because what the course is offering will determine how it is designed. The Milton course seems to be the more general open course as there is no interaction or collaboration for the class.

As I reviewed the Milton course offered through Open Yale, at first look, it might appear that this course is simply what Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, (2012) refer to as “shovelware”.  All the course pieces were there, but no other avenue for interaction or collaboration were offered in the free version. Open Yale does offer the Milton course as a synchronous, online study option and the student can be awarded a certificate of completion, but the student needs to meet some minor prerequisites and pay a tuition fee.  Assessing how well the open course meets the best practices of an online course design: the student, the appropriateness of the media used, interaction, and some form of evaluation at the end is all missing (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012). However, as this course is designed to provide the learner with an opportunity to audit a Yale course, assessing it with that context in mind makes more sense. The Open Yale course modifies Charles Wedemeyer’s Independent Learning theory: the students can work through the course at their own pace, and they have access to excellent media and handouts; the same the in-class students have. Therefore, the student is an individual leaner and free from the “system” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2012).

Open Yale is designed for independent learners who are interested in expanding their horizons. “The aim of the project is to expand access to educational materials for all who wish to learn” (“Open Yale courses,” 2014). Even though the course is not designed to offer interaction among the learners, Yale’s open courses are another way to remove the bricks from the walls around the ivory tower of elite education. In that context, they succeed in giving everyone who may be interested a way to peek through and learn.



ENGL 220: Milton. (2014). Open Yale courses. [Open Course]. Retrieved from

Kernohan, D. (2013, March 13). MOOCs and open courses: What’s the difference? Jisc. Retrieved from

Kolowich, S. (2011). Open CourseWare 2.0. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Open Yale courses. (2014). Retrieved from, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012).

Technologies, the internet, and distance education. In Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (5th ed., pp. 89–147). Boston: Pearson.




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