Can an online course be a commons?

At my organisation we have developed an online course in research writing and we do two things with it: we run it by ourselves and we help our partner institutions in Africa and Asia take on this course and run it themselves. Having attended the Sloan Commons Patterns Charrette last month, I’m starting to make a link between the second endeavour and the idea of the commons.

The course I’m talking about is the AuthorAID online course in research writing developed by INASP, an international development charity in the UK. When we run this course ourselves, my colleague and I usually lead the course and we have a team of guest facilitators from the AuthorAID network. Over the past two years every offering of this course has been a massive open online course – or MOOC. The course is truly global and we have seen participants from more than 100 countries, most of which are in the developing world. Every MOOC is exciting: the rush of seeing so many participants join the course and the organically generated discussions full of interesting questions and thoughtful answers. Of course there are much bigger, much more global MOOCs.

But sometimes, global doesn’t help: you need local answers to local problems.

Imagine you’re a fisheries researcher. In the course of your work you have to kill some fish at the nearby lake to inspect their organs. You know how to do this in the most humane way possible, but there is no ethics committee at your institution or even in your country to grant you permission. You’ve got to do your research though. Later you get into trouble – your paper is on the verge of being rejected by a journal because you do not have proof of ethical clearance for killing the fish. What do you do?

This was the theme of a discussion in an ongoing AuthorAID course at Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), one of our partner institutions. The course is being run by and for TAFIRI researchers, and this particular discussion was sparked by some of the content about research ethics in the AuthorAID course. Quickly two of the course facilitators shared their experiences of navigating the same tricky situation and a nuanced solution emerged. I am pretty sure no-one other than an experienced fisheries researcher in Tanzania could have responded to the question the way they did.

What does all this have to do with the commons?

A commons, as explained by David Bollier, is made up of three things: a shared resource, a community around the resource, and a set of rules and norms developed by the community for using the resource. Unfortunately, a commons is widely misunderstood to mean just a shared resource. This is the premise of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a phrase that has insidiously entered many minds. However, there is no commons without commoning, to quote Peter Linebaugh.

Consider the AuthorAID online course. The course materials are the resource. The course has been developed for use on Moodle, an open source learning platform, and it is made up of interactive lessons, quizzes, and writing activities that include peer assessment. The entire course can be zipped up and migrated from one Moodle site to another in a few clicks. So it is a shared resource that can be hosted on any Moodle site anywhere in the world.

While it is possible to make the AuthorAID course a self-study sequence with just the content and activities, it comes alive only through facilitation and peer-to-peer interaction. This also leads to better outcomes. In our recent paper on our MOOCs, we found a strong correlation between forum posting and course completion: participants who engaged on the course forums were far more likely to complete the course than those who did not.

So when we hand over the AuthorAID course to a partner institution, we train them on how to facilitate the course. In other words we train people to carry out the ‘commoning’ aspect of the course and prepare them to be stewards of the course in their local context. Our partners come up with creative ways to use the resource – the AuthorAID course materials – as part of larger capacity building initiatives. That is, they develop rules or norms on how they are going to use the resource.

As our partners run the course year after year, they become better at facilitating the course and start innovating. This evolution, I believe, is an important aspect of commoning – the shared resource may be more or less fixed in place but the community around the resource agrees to use it in a way that best fits their current needs while drawing on their experiences. Of course, in the case of an online course commons, unlike a natural resource commons, there is no risk of the resource being overused or depleted! If anything the resource can be adapted and expanded, as any other knowledge commons.

2 thoughts on “Can an online course be a commons?

  1. Good idea, and I would definitely recommend Moodle to create an online course because it provides so many options to develop learning activities.


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