Any course is composed of many different parts. E-learning courses are just the same but this post is not specifically about e-learning – it could apply to any course. A course can be split into a number of layers, each layer building on the one below.
The “foundations” are the course content and documents, the parts learners will use to encounter knowledge that is new to them. If course content was all that mattered then people could learn most things from the web. Some do.
But most people appreciate the next layer. This is the scaffolding that a subject expert can provide to give a course structure, to move from simple to complex, to offer challenges to test understanding, to provide illuminating examples. This can often be achieved in a good textbook, or by a tutor in a classroom, or in an on-line course.
The next layer that builds on these bottom two layers is where learners apply what they are learning. This could involve laboratory experiments, analysis of original sources, essay or report writing, debate or tutorial discussion, interactionn with computer models. Critically important at this stage is the ability to identify misconceptions, recognise how they have arisen and offer guidance that is tailored to each learner’s specific needs. Learning has been achieved when this stage is succesfully completed.
But there is still a further layer at the top for many courses. It is often necessary not only to learn but to demonstrate to others what has been learned. This is usually done by undertaking some form of formal assessment by an organisation that is recognised as an authority in the field. If that organisation is willing to certify your learning then others will also recognise your achievement.
How can we put a value on each of these layers? Is their value related to their volume in the pyramid? Or are they all equally valuable? I would argue that to indicate value the pyramid should be inverted.
The definition of “value” that I am using is what people consider worth paying for. To be realistic this is perceived value rather than actual value but this is the basis on which many of us make choices.
The bottom two layers are where we find textbooks, ebooks, open educational resources (OERs) and MOOCs. These lower layers are useful, even essential, but require no great individual outlay. Part of the perceived lack of value at these levels may be due to the level of granularity. Each resource is itself not very significant. However, if someone could harvest massive numbers of available resources and structure them based on subject and educational level, and relate them to each other to offer structured pathways, then that collection may be valued.
The upper two layers, however, offer significant perceived value. Traditional universities argue that it is the provision of the second top layer that differentiates them from MOOCs. The top layer differentiates “Ivy League” or “Russell Group” universities from the majority of other universities. One might ask whether a Harvard or Cambridge degree is worth much more because the learning activites are much better or because a degree with the right “brand” is more valuable. It is, nevertheless, true that the biggest value differentiators are at the top of this pyramid.