Monday, May 02, 2011

A Course is not a Pizza

Pizza & course materials can be delivered. Courses cannot. Even online. "Delivery" denies interaction.
In a course, learners have some meaningful access to at least one faculty member and that faculty member has some meaningful access to the learners, too.
Faculty and students who are misled to believe that in most courses, access to course materials is equivalent to course participation, end up delivering and receiving a diluted education.

The MIT OpenCourseWare project, one of the first and best known sources of "open education resources" distinguishes quite clearly between course resources and courses:  "MIT OpenCourseWare is intended as a publication of MIT course materials, not as an interactive experience with MIT faculty. MIT OpenCourseWare does not offer users the opportunity for direct contact with MIT faculty. It provides the content of - but is not a substitute for - an MIT education."  More... Also see:

I'll bet that most MIT faculty believe that what they are doing today in their own courses is always a step beyond what they made available yesterday on the Web – and that they are right. Further, the valuable interaction between faculty members and students that may be instigated by use of the course materials changes constantly – and what happens in and subsequent to those interactions can powerfully alter the learning of those involved. The unique human relationships that may develop among faculty and students can also be an important dimension of the experience, and one that is not captured in course materials.

Many kinds of course materials can be delivered
, like pizza, anywhere, anytime.  Most kinds of courses cannot. 

Even courses that can be “delivered” cannot be digested effortlessly.  Learning requires work. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

Should any pizza be eaten quickly and thoughtlessly?

Most traditional courses cannot be transformed into fully equivalent entirely online courses – especially not by merely digitizing those course materials that may be easily digitizable. Online and traditional classroom versions of the “same course” will always be different in some ways. Each version is likely to be better in some ways and worse in others, and in different ways for different learners and different teachers.

Confusing “courses” with “course materials” runs the risk of ignoring the value of other dimensions of a course – especially the value of interaction between faculty members and students, and the value of interaction among students. Essential opportunities for meaningful interaction may be eliminated or severely reduced if people (wrongly) believe that everything important in most courses can be “delivered,” and that learners can get most of what they really need from access to those kinds of course materials that can be “delivered” easily.

It has become tempting to refer to adapting some course materials from a traditional course in which learners and teachers meet face-to-face as “putting a course online”. It has become common to refer to what teachers do as “delivering” a course – even if that is leading a discussion.

As more colleges and universities explore options for offering courses entirely or partially via the Web (entirely online vs. hybrid or blended), it becomes more important to be clear about the difference between a course and the materials used within that course. Perhaps the simplest difference is that in a course, learners have access to at least one faculty member in some way and that the faculty member has some kind of access to the learners, too. On the contrary, when someone only obtains course materials, they do not expect to be able to interact at all with the author or with any faculty member.
I'll bet that most MIT faculty who have contributed their course materials to OCW are proud of what they are now sharing via the Web with colleagues all over the world, and equally proud that what they are providing to their own current students is even better.

The nature of the OCW implies that MIT, as an institution, is committed to the idea that each course is a uniquely valuable contribution of the faculty member(s) and other staff involved. Further, that faculty modify and amplify what they use so often and well, that sharing “course materials” – those that even CAN be reproduced in a format accessible on the Web – is not giving away courses, not giving away the classes.

The same is true at most colleges and universities and for most faculty who share some of their course materials with colleagues via the Web or in other ways that were available for decades.

The danger of confusing courses with course materials affects both the faculty who have developed the courses and other faculty who might want to use the underlying course materials. Anything that permits people to (WRONGLY!) infer that by “putting their course materials on the Web” that they are “putting their course online” is contributing to faculty fears. Too many faculty already fear that they are being encouraged to take steps that will eliminate their jobs, or that quality education can be too easily reduced to digitally available materials.

So, we should avoid this confusion by respecting the differences between “courses” and “course materials.” (Similarly, we should not describe what teachers do as “delivering,” nor think about what students do as “receiving,” except for those instances of education where that is exactly what is happening!) Through this more accurate labeling, we can help a little to diminish two important and growing problems:

1. Slowing educational improvement: Faculty avoid, resist, or resent making some of their course materials accessible via the Web because they fear they are giving up their courses. Many courses that could be improved by sharing course materials via the Web are not – or are too slowly.

2. Accepting inferior education: Faculty and students who are misled to believe that in most courses, access to course materials is equivalent to participation, end up delivering and receiving a diluted education.

Let’s not reduce too much of education to commoditized pieces that can be “delivered” – what we might call the “Domino’s theory of education”: call up, order, have it delivered anywhere, anytime, eat it alone by the slice or the pie.

NOTE: This is NOT an argument against selecting and assembling small learning/teaching modules WITHIN a course! That is a very old, very valuable practice that is being dramatically, perhaps overwhelmingly, enriched by MERLOT, the MIT OCW project, and many other new ways of sharing instructional materials. This is not even an argument against creating and delivering an entire course composed of such items, BUT ONLY UNDER SOME CONDITIONS. Identifying and articulating these conditions is a worthy challenge and well beyond the scope of this article.

We began to explore this issue within the “Dangerous Discussions” initiative and considered questions such as “What is a course?” and “Who owns a course?” In a moment of whimsy, I offered a slightly facetious and “artistic” comment. See:]

Steven W. Gilbert, The TLT Group, October 21, 2005, Rev. May 2, 2011


  1. Great analogy, Steve. I'll use it in my work with staff (faculty).

    Rob Phillips

  2. Enjoyed this post, Steve. I've also been a bit turned off by the idea of "delivery" when we talk about courses, teaching and learning. The ideas you've shared have given voice to that in an interesting thank you.

    Let me play with the metaphor a bit...

    I also like pizza (open course materials?)...and there are plenty of flavors and styles out there for folks to openly access. With this kind of unprecedented access, we are beginning to see that learners can self-organize their own pizza parties around common interests...and in a wider variety of settings.

    This seems to represent a morphing of what we see as traditional "course-based" learning opportunities. Perhaps we are seeing the early stages of what Randy Bass has termed the "post-course era" (

    Do you have any thoughts about that?

    I don't expect courses to disappear soon or rapidly. However, the changes in the boundary between "auto-didacts" and others might be accelerating. Haven't librarians, especially, been providing "learning materials" to lots of people who want to learn on their own for a very long time? What is changing fast is the VARIETY of such resources available. However, I believe that most humans prefer or NEED something like the structure and group interaction of courses for some kinds of learning. Hence, the key question becomes (acutally remains) "Who will learn what alone?


What do you think?