I spent yesterday with the wonderful community of College Unbound in Providence, RI. Dennis Littky, a 40-year veteran educational innovator, started this program last year and currently has 13 students who are primarily low income and the first in their families to go to college. They are each designing their own curricula around an internship, area of special interest, and/or business they want to start, all while they live together in a learning community that has a strong emphasis on mutual respect and caring. Littky wants to expand the model nationwide and he knows he has to incorporate significant use of technology to get it to scale, bring the cost down, and to meet the learning demands of the 21st century. Meanwhile I wanted to get an audience with varying experience and comfort levels with technology to test some of the sites I’m writing about in the Edupunk’s Guide to a DIY Credential. These students represent the book’s target audience: Savvy individuals without a lot of money who want to design an education that fits their personal needs.

So together we decided to spend the day user testing websites for open courseware & social learning. Here’s some of the student’s comments and reactions.

Open Courseware Sites: The task was to find material relevant to their major/ academic focus, and to compare at least two sites. We worked on this for 45 minutes, did a quick check in, and then dived in for another hour, with everyone reporting back.

Academic Earth –”One of the sites that I really liked was Academic Earth.org,” says Andrea.
“I’m visual and they have all these different videos that people have done. I was researching educational policy, theory & philosophy. I ended up finding tons of videos.”
Creative Commons DiscoverEd search engine / –the consensus was that this site is too buggy to be useful.
Khan Academy- – For students with an interest in math, this site held some appeal.
“Khan Academy sent me to a search engine called Infolink,” said a student named Harry, “Which brought me to more relevant information–I even got a circuit board design I can take right from the Internet and mill out.” Another student, who is interested in starting a business, liked that the site had very basic math on it, but she thinks the videos are better for review rather than learning all-new concepts.

MIT Open Courseware
Open Courseware Consortium
“I used my time to compare and contrast MIT and OCWC because they have a lot of similarities,” said Alex.
“I like MIT more because MIT houses and hosts everything in their own website, and OCW from what I found offers links to other sites. Clicking around to 3 different sites I could get disheartened. I just think as far as quickness and ease goes MIT offers more straightforward coursework. I was able to find an hour long lecture on architecture that I want to watch.”

While OCWCcoonsortium.org was seen as the “most powerful” and “most robust” open courseware website, students found a couple of design tweaks that could make it far more useful. There’s no search bar on the main page–in order to search the courses you have to go to the “Courses” tab, which is a silly barrier to entry. Also, there’s two options for searching–”look for variations of what I type” or “look for exactly what I type”–but those options are not revealed until you get to your first page of web results. Mike McCarthy looked for courses in “epistemology” (his interest is philosophy) and the search engine returned courses in “epidemiology”. Funny evidence of bias against the humanities? Some students filled out the feedback survey so hopefully OCWCconsortium will get the memo on this.

Open Learning Initiative- This site was intriguing to some, but downloading the video software was a cumbersome barrier to entry.
Open University’s OpenLearn- Some students were interested in the course descriptions, but the site’s confusing to navigate between the regular Open University site, and the “Learning Space” chat room areas. Would take some time to really delve in.
Saylor Foundation – “Saylor I felt really had everything kind of right there in front of you,” says Elicia. “I was looking up business management. I found that it gives you all the readings, lectures, final exam, breakdown what the purpose of the course was and whether it was 100% complete on the website or not.”

One student had a great suggestion that could benefit the program as a whole: currently, students design personal learning plans in consultation with an instructor. They’re dependent on that instructor for subject matter expertise. These open courseware sites provide entire suggested courses of study, instantly unlocking the possibilities for what students might want to incorporate within their personal learning plans.

Tomorrow I”ll post about what we did in the afternoon with social learning sites and how we explored some techniques I learned from talking to a star P2PU facilitator.

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