Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Impact of Open Source

(this post is submitted as a (late) assignment for a Walden University course, asking that we evaluate a distance course provided by an open course site. We are directed to comment on the course's planned attention to distance learning, its attention to DL recommendations, and its use of activities to maximize learning.)

I chose to examine a course on Lighting Design for the Theatre, provided by MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. I picked the class because I took a very similar course during my sophomore year at Swarthmore, and I thought my experience would allow me to compare and contrast the distance and face-to-face approaches.

Does the course appear to be carefully pre-planned and designed for a distance learning environment? If so, how? If not, in what ways?

In short, the course does not seem to have been designed in any way for a distance learning environment. At best, we might say that the course provides the shell for a web-facilitated course where most instruction was planned for face-to-face classroom meetings. All direct instruction occurs either in face-to-face classes or through readings from textbooks that are not cited by name--leaving distance learners without any means of securing information about the content. There is a course calendar, but it does not contain either dates or ways of finding out specific assignments for most tasks.

The course is delivered through a flat, text-based website using static HTML; as such, it lacks such LMS features as discussion boards, chat rooms, etc. Most pages are simple text, although there are a few images included either in the pages or in linked PDFs. There is no way for learners to contact a professor to ask for help, although in a free open course that hardly seems surprising.

Does the course follow the recommendations for online instruction as listed in your course textbook? Which does it follow? In what ways? Which does it not follow?

Unsurprisingly, the course follows relatively few of the recommendations in our text book, at least insofar as those recommendations pertain specifically to distant learning. The first guideline, "Avoid 'dumping a face-to-face course onto the web (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p. 248)", is almost humorous, since this course seems to epitomize dumping materials onto a website and calling it a distant course. It seems to lack visible organization, and its syllabus is unclear by distance education standards. I don't see any evidence of a means for staying in contact with students, nor does the course integrate many web-based materials. The course materials are heavily focused on textbooks rather than independent readings, and the course offers no training on how to use the (minimal) website. To the extent that those recommendations are "best practices" for distance learning, the course does a poor job.

Where the course does stand up is in its attention to the recommendations for thinking about course outcomes and testing applications rather than rote memorization (Simonson et al., 2009). The course appears to be carefully designed to help students develop both a theoretical understanding of theatrical lighting design and a strong familiarity with the actual practice of working lighting designers. I don't see any evidence that the course focuses on memorization at all, and the example assignments all involve original work solving real-world problems in an authentic context--a very constructivist approach.

Did the course designer implement course activities that maximize active learning for the students?” If yes, in what ways? If not, how is it deficient?

I believe the course designer did implement course activities that maximize active learning. Many of the assignments involve detailed, interesting thought that would force learners to elaborate on new knowledge. Many of the assignments require learners to translate words (or emotional ideas) into visual expressions, either through the use of lighting instruments or by finding images that represent a particular lighting idea. I imagine that classroom debates would focus on the merits of different choices, and I have found that style of learning to be highly effective with artistic topics. The assignments show a deliberate sequencing from easier tasks to more complex ones, and they seem to shepherd learners from simple, guided tasks into independent work.

It might be fair to ask, "can a lighting design class really be taught online?" Yes, I believe it can. There are strong software packages that allow users to simulate different lighting plots on their home computers, without need for a theater. Sites like Youtube make it easy to view videos of theatrical lighting, concerts, and other examples of lighting design--without the constraints of physical proximity. There are certainly some aspects of lighting design that require practical, face-to-face instruction: electrical safety involves developing deeply-ingrained habits, and ultimately learners need to demonstrate their mastery using real lighting instruments. But much of the class seems like a strong candidate for blended learning.

I would encourage MIT to revisit its lighting design class, incorporating a learning management system for student engagement, shifting from textbooks to PDF-based journal articles or resources, using simulation software to enable students to work with lighting problems at home, and linking to videos depicting different kinds of lighting topics. I would recommend that they keep their excellent exercises largely intact, altering them only so as to help them fit in a distance context.


Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.


  1. This is not a direct response to your posting, which I think was on point, but as a requirement for Week 1 assignment of our PM course.

  2. Hollis,

    I'm in your Walden Class, posting to your blog site.


  3. Hey Hollis,

    I'll be following your blog for the PM class.


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