In recent years, there has been much talk around Brown, and at other campuses across the country, about the great promise of online education. Indeed, online learning communities such as Wikipedia, Coursera, and MIT Opencourseware, amongst many others, have reshaped the way we produce and exchange knowledge. Online learning has democratized knowledge in an unprecedented way, challenging us as educators and students to radically rethink how we approach teaching and learning.

MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) have received the most attention. Today, anyone with an Internet connection can sit in on lectures by the best professors at the most prestigious schools. This is a significant accomplishment. But, MOOCs also have some significant limitations. Most people – around 93% – who begin MOOCs don’t finish them, and measured learning outcomes are ambiguous at best.

MOOCs extend a line of sight from the traditional classroom into an online environment. We are all familiar with this model; with the professor facing an audience of receptive students, imparting knowledge, the retention of which is occasionally evaluated. The major innovation in these early experiments with MOOCs has been the video document, which once uploaded to the web, serves as a window into the classroom and lecture hall. However, this model tends to be rather didactic in practice, and not as discursive as it could be.

Beyond the MOOC

The next generation of online learning resources, being designed right now, afford not just an opportunity to reimagine the MOOC and the online class. It is an opportunity to reimagine the university itself, and the communities and spaces that constitute it, both virtual and real.

The maker movement, and other open knowledge communities (where knowledge resources and project documentation are freely shared) are models that designers of curricula should be looking to, especially with regard to STEAM pedagogies (Science, Technology, Engineering, ART, and Math) Open software and hardware communities that have developed around Arduino, Processing, and 3D printing, amongst many others, evidence the power of shared knowledge and project documentation.

Brown’s long tradition of an open curriculum – where students are encouraged to cultivate their own creative and intellectual growth – is fertile ground for the development of the next generation of online learning. The Brown/RISD creative community is well positioned to make significant contributions to innovative approaches to online learning, simply by sharing what we create and how we create it.

Project Documentation

A major challenge for online learning has been establishing and sustaining online learning communities.  There are examples of successfully blended online courses, where online and offline experiences complement and enhance each other. From what from what I have been told by students, and from what I have seen in our classes, the Brown/IE  Executive MBA program seems to have gotten something right. They seem to have found a good balance between face-to-face learning and online learning, which makes learning at a distance a meaningful experience. But scaling these learning communities is a challenge, and there is always more that can be done to design learning experiences that are more discursive, interactive, and project based.

The Creative Scholars Project is a space for Brown/RISD students and faculty to imagine and design this next generation of online learning. The Creative Mind Initiative and Brown Continuing Education, amongst others, have been experimenting with ways of moving beyond the MOOC, by capturing teaching and learning at the margins of the university, where interdisciplinary collaboration, project-based learning, and peer-to-peer teaching take place.

The Creative Mind Initiative has been documenting product and process in undergraduate and graduate level studio courses, examples of which can be seen at It has yielded some fascinating insights. This kind of project documentation establishes alternatives to MOOCS. It creates a window into the groundbreaking research that takes place labs across campus, and the extraordinary projects that take shape in the studio. Project documentation serves at least several other important roles:

+ Project documentation is an important pedagogical tool for understanding the arc of the creative process. It gives students insights into a process that generates a product.

+  Project documentation gives student the opportunity to share what they have created with others, especially their peers.  Conversations about projects produced by students give students the opportunity to sharpen their critical engagement with what they have produced. Critiques can also be an alternative measurement of learning outcomes.

+ Project documentation gives students something tangible at the end of the course (which can be an incentive for finishing). Students across disciplines should be graduating with a portfolio – a visual record of projects. This is a major asset in interviews, perhaps as important as a CV. The best portfolios provide an opportunity to present a personal narrative of one’s own creative identity.

+  Integrating project documentation directly into the curriculum not only gives students a critical tool and a valuable asset; in the aggregate, it is also a vast archive of online learning resources. This collection of projects would not only be a record and measurement of what was learned; student-generated content could play an important role in supplementing the current menu of MOOC dominated, online resources universities currently offer. This kind of documentation can provide a window into the classroom, the studio, and the lab. How can we design better learning environments, both online and offline, that effectively share these kinds of resources?

Next Steps

Over the course of the next weeks and months, the Creative Scholars Project will be hosting a series of conversations about designing better online resources for STEAM education. Partnering with Brown University Continuing Education, we will be working to develop courses for the summer of 2014. These courses, and the discussions and experimentation that will precede them, will be a space to experiment with new pedagogies and approaches to project documentation. The Brown/RISD creative community is invited to join these conversations. Join us this Tuesday at 12:00, in the Granoff Center Convivium, when Jesse Schreier and Julia Lazarus from Brown Continuing Education will be the first in a series of guests to facilitate a conversation about translating STEAM curricula online.