Ed Bilodeau

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This weblog had moved: http://www.coolweblog.com/bilodeau/

# Notice (Oct 19/05): So ends my stay here on Blogger. This morning Google implemented an anti-spam 'feature' that forces me to answer a challenge phrase when I want to post to my own blog. No notice of the change, nothing. Worse is that it doesn't even work! I type the phrase, submit, "An error occured", post deleted. Damn you, Google. Chances are I will revive my blog somewhere else, sometime soon. I'll post the new coordinates here as soon as they become available. (BTW, I'm unable to post anything to my RSS stream, so I'd appreciate it if readers could spread the word and ask people to take a look at this notice)

Update (Oct 19/05, ~noon): After a frustrating few hours (and not just trying out alternatives to Blogger), I've decided that this is a good time to take a break from all this. A day? A week? Who knows. But I need to step away from it before I pass a heavy magnet over the whole mess.

Update 2: According to this post, the reason I'm seeing the CAPTCHA (challenge phrase) is that Blogger has classified my blog as spam. Thanks. User for five years and now I'm spam. I searched the Blogger site, but there is no mention of how to get the spam flag turned off. There is also no way of contacting anyone at Blogger. Wow. Spam they say I am, so spam I must be. Maybe it is time to take a break.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Auditing classes and open learning systems : I’m not sure how common this is, but McGill has a policy that forbids the auditing of courses. Traditionally, this means the only students registered in the courses are allowed to attend the classes.

Since the classroom lecture is where a lot of learning takes place (…), it makes sense that only those who have paid for the learning should permitted to learn from the class. Even if auditing the course didn’t give you any form of credit, it still wasn’t permitted. There may have been concerns with someone auditing the course, registering for it in the next semester, and using their existing knowledge to do better then they would have otherwise. In large classes there may not be space for people auditing the course. Also, if the person auditing the course doesn’t have the necessary academic and language prerequisites, they could be disruptive if they try to interact with the other students or the instructor.

Whatever the rational, the essence of the policy is that only those registered in the course can participate in the learning process offered by that course.

My question is this: Since McGill’s policy restricts course participation to only those students who have registered for the course, am I as an instructor permitted to use an open learning environment in my course? Could I, for example, use an open system of blogs as part of my course, blogs written by myself and my students, but open to the public? Could I use an open wiki, or an open community site (a la Slashdot) as part of my course?

Looking at MIT’s OpenCourseWare initiative, you can see they only provide the content of the course. No interaction with faculty or students, no assessment, no credit. However, MIT also permits the auditing of courses, so their OpenCourseWare fits into the existing policy nicely.

It isn’t clear to me whether at an institution like McGill, with it’s no-auditing policy, whether I am allowed to make my course materials open to the public, much less allow interactive elements in my course to be public.

I could, of course, point to any number of initiatives that have been undertaken by profs at McGill. Those departments, like computer science, that were early to the Web (i.e. pre-WebCT) have had public course home pages (ugrad, grad). Although some point to private WebCT spaces, most contain a fair amount of content (on par with MIT’s OpenCourseWare). Another example is the Cool project, that provide full lectures of chemistry courses online.

There is a clear precedent at McGill for making content available to the public, and I feel comfortable going forward with a project I have in mind to build a public collection of e-commerce and web development resources. But I think I am better off keeping the interactive elements of my class confined to the classroom and the private WebCT course site.


Are you sure about that policy? Is it a new thing? I recall that it was common for students to sit in on classes, and that in some cases this was encouraged - for instance, for a PhD student working on his/her dissertation to regularly sit in on a seminar to participate and add to the discussion.

In the relatively distant past, "auditing" was a quasi-official status that involved registering for a class without being graded. THAT may be forbidden, but I would be surprised if the more informal version of "auditing" - i.e., just sitting in on a class - are forbidden. As I recall, that was always at the discretion of the professor, and a closely guarded perq of professorship was to invite anyone you want to participate in your classes.

In any case, I think you have to be clearer with your distinctions. MIT Open Courseware does not, in fact, "only provide the content" because the proceedings of lectures and seminars - in person - are just as important, content-wise. They only provide SOME of the content, stripped of context, experience, explanation, and discussion.

Not that it's a bad thing. But it's not all of the content, nor is it the most important content.

There is another point to consider - intellectual property and moral rights. As far as I know, a university might own the copyright to a whole curriculum for a course, but they do not own (obviously) the copyright for each element within the curriculum, including a professor's material. As such, anything short of a complete presentation of all of the course material, with permission, is likely fine as the university would only have a solid claim on the anthology as a whole.
"No auditing" is the official policy of the university, but I don't think it is really enforced. Some professors may allow it, but they are also within their rights to forbid it.

As for the 'content', you are right in that I am using the terms a bit loosely. I'm referring to knowledge that has been articluated, documented, and provided to the students. It is not a complete packaging of all the knowledge that students are exposed to in the course.

As for IP rights, my understanding, at least as far as McGill is concerned, is that the professor maintains the copyright on whatever material they produce, although McGill retains the right to continue to use that material, even if the professor leaves the university. (This issue comes up when I talk with professors who are condering developing an e-learning version of their course, and want to know if they can tur it into a reselaable textbook/cd package.)

My observation is mainly that there is an organizational and cultural bias towards the classroom being closed, and that initiative to make it open will have to overcome both.

For example, at a recent briefing on the next version of course management software that will be implemented at McGill (i.e. WebCT Vista or Ready2Learn), I asked about the ability for instructors to make portions of their courses open by default. The response was that the instructor will be able to create guest accounts, but there is no way to assign different levels of 'openness' to different objects in the system. Better then what we have now, but still far from ideal.

In any case, it does sorta fall within my mandate to experiement with alternative technologies and report back on what I learn in the process. My plan is to implement a wiki for the teachers and students in the e-commerce program, a place for them to share resources that would be of use to anyone studying in the field. We'll see how far I get with that one!
I am a bit confused about what you are afraid of.

If you make everything you prepared available on this web site (or another), I strongly doubt McGill is going to come, notice it, and ask you to shut it down. Very unlikely. And if they do, then you shut it down. It is very highly unlikely you could ever get in trouble for making, say, your lecture notes available on your blog.

The dark area comes in when you don't actually own the material. This could happen in many ways: you use a textbook and are using the corresponding CD-Rom, you use a prof's lecture notes, and so on.

I think it is pretty safe to make your work (I wrote *your* work) available freely. The university won't care.

Attending lectures is something else. You are actually using university resources (think: heating, building maintenance...). I think it is only fair for McGill to think that people should not occupy a chair in a classroom for free. After all, it does cost McGill some money. These people will dirty the floors, they will use the restrooms, they may use some chalk, they may use some of your time, and so on.

This is all very different from course content you prepared, all by yourself, and that you post on a web server the university doesn't pay for.

If McGill pay for the content hosting, then why would they make it freely available? It is their business call.
Daniel, I don't want to speak for Ed but I know if I were actively looking at these issues, there would be two things I'd want to know. 1. Does it work? That's the obvious one, and you're right that in reality there are few policies that practically impinge on figuring it out.

But I think Ed was getting to a second point, and though it isn't practically a block, in the long term it is just as important. That is, (this is #2) how does doing this kind of thing work within the official policy framework AND within professor, student, administration, and other expectations of how things SHOULD be done.

So yeah, for testing purposes or on an experimental basis, it's quite right to say that there's really no problem. But for such tools to be offered routinely, the policy and expectation side is critical. Personally, I find this to be the most difficult side of it to deal with - not the technology issues but the ways the resolution of those have an impact on everything else in the University.
Michael is correct when he points out that the long term viability and scalability of the initiative is part of my concerns. Since this is more of a pilot project, though, I don't want to get totally bogged down in those kinds of issues.

I would add that I cannot see McGill administration every telling instructors that they *had* to use WebCT for their online teaching/course management/etc, since that would probably be seen as a violation of the academic freedom of the instructor to determine how they teach their course.

Regarding Daniel's comments, I'm well aware of the IP issues regarding course content. They apply within the private WebCT space as well. In my case, I don't use a textbook with CD, so I don't have to use my learning environment to enforce right-to-use on behalf of the publishers. All my 'content' is either freely available/open access, available through McGill's libraries (requiring IP-validation), or my own. In any case, my concern is not that McGill would shut down my project because I might violate someone IP rights.

As for attending lectures, I do not believe that McGill's policy of no-auditing has to do with consumption of resources. Most of the costs you list are fixed, so the cost of having one extra person is a classroom is almost zero. If they take the place of a paying student, or take up the time of the instructor, then its another matter. But I don't think that is the main issue.

I believe that policy has more to do with who has a right to access and benefit from the learning environment. That is, only those individuals who have qualified and paid for the right to participate in the learning process should be able to access it. A project that provides a open collection of resource doesn't violate this policy. One that establishes an open collaborative environment might.

Another issue I thought of is one of student privacy: students may not want their learning to be open to the public, available to their peers, family, workers, etc. In fact, I'm pretty sure that either the university's privacy policy or in fact those of the provincial or federal governments require that their identity be kept private. For example, we are not allowed to publish the names of graduates without their permission. If I was to require my students to create a public blog as part of the class, I could run into trouble with the administration. So unless their is some way of keeping student identities hidden, open learning environments can't work.

(If I am able to set up a wiki, students will be able to create accounts anonymously. Participation will also be optional.)

Having said all of that, my original concern regarding policy had to do with the fact that I will have to rely on another group within the university to implement the wiki. I have to use the hosting and expertise of the folks in the Web Communications Group to make this work. Before they allocate resources to my project, they will need to validate my request against both their mandate (to see if it is something they should be doing, which it is) as well as against university policy. Even if I was willing to take the chance with violating university policy, I doubt they would.

So even with this pilot project, I need to take the university's policies into account, or else it might not even get off the ground.
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