Tom's Two Cents

CourseFeed + OpenCourseWare = Personal Learning Environment?

CourseFeed + OpenCourseWare = Personal Learning Environment?

Yesterday I spoke to Jayson and Rich from ClassTop about CourseFeed, their Facebook app that connects users to other course members and course content. This includes a shared “course wall” and “course notes,” which can be posted to and tracked via Facebook. And for students enrolled at institutions with a supported Blackboard content management system, CourseFeed provides additional course notifications from within Facebook. It got me thinking about how something like CourseFeed could be a bridge from traditional OpenCourseWare sites to something even better. I’m imagining a Facebook app that could serve as the hub of a Personal Learning Environment (PLE), the part of your social network where you can track discussions and fresh content on subjects that interest you. CourseFeed is not there yet, but I think they are moving in the right direction.

For now CourseFeed seems to be mostly about delivering course notifications for Blackboard users directly into Facebook, and the course community seems limited to students enrolled in the Blackboard course. (I tried the CourseFeed demo, but I couldn’t test it further because my own institution’s Blackboard does not yet support it.) Since CourseFeed is currently designed with an emphasis on Blackboard, the course content is not shareable for many of the reasons Jon Mott pointed out in his OpenEd 2008 presentation: Blackboard is closed, impenetrable, rigid, and ephemeral. Currently CourseFeed invitations are limited to students who are enrolled in the same course at the same institution. Others cannot join the course. And if the Blackboard course is removed at the end of the semester, it gets removed on CourseFeed as well. The students no longer have access to that course.  ClassTop has also had to move to an opt-in agreement with Blackboard institutions — meaning they have to seek institutional approval, school-by-school, before CourseFeed can be enabled on that school’s Blackboard server. I understand why they had to do it this way, but it kind of kills the potential for CourseFeed to go viral. With these kinds of restrictions, it is notable that CourseFeed has nearly 21,000 active monthly users.

Now think about what something like CourseFeed could be if it were designed without all the Blackboard roadblocks. What if ClassTop designed CourseFeed or another app specifically for course content that was already vetted for copyright issues and openly licensed? These courses exist by the thousands on OpenCourseWare (OCW) sites created by prominent institutions all over the world. If CourseFeed were designed as a way to personalize OCW courses, every course could be linked to its own permanent Facebook group. Anyone interested in the course, including students and professors from other institutions, could join and participate in these groups at any time and for as long as they wish. These connections and discussions might ultimately become more valuable to participants than the original course, perhaps even leading to the creation of additional course content or the formation of new OpenCourseWare sites at other institutions. Additional tools and apps could be developed to promote the kind of learning system that Jon Mott described as open, permeable, flexible, permanent, and free.

I believe more and more students will want to track their favorite subjects and study groups, the same way they keep track of other groups and friends on Facebook. Blackboard will never fill this need because their learning experience is both temporary and unshareable by design. (Yes, I understand why… fair use… blah, blah, blah.) But if CourseFeed directed those same Blackboard students to some recommended, related OpenCourseWare courses, they could form learning goups that would still be there after the course was over — even after graduation, when they are (hopefully) trying to apply some of what they learned. The beauty of it is that the content is already there. Thousands of courses. Any takers?

Please Note: When I refer to Facebook, I realize that other, similar sites exist internationally, including many successful clones. PLE applications could be build for any number of social networking sites that support community driven application development. Personally, I think Facebook will continue to lead in this space, both in the US and internationally. They have undertaken an excellent community-driven translation effort, which is another area of interest to me.

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