Fusion courses: A new twist on lifelong education

By Gregor Kiczales posted on January 16th, 2015

The traditional idea behind lifelong education is that as individuals progress through their lives they continue to return to school in some form to learn. Return can mean go back to campus to take courses, but increasingly it means using online learning of some form. In this way mature students continue to learn from the university.

But a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes a different notion of  lifelong education, in which students of many ages join an online course together, to learn just not some subject matter, but to learn from each other’s different perspectives on that subject matter. Colgate calls these fusion courses, and they open them to current students and alumni. Their first is Karen Harpp’s course called The Advent of the Atomic Bomb.

Ms. Harpp said she wanted to include alumni because “I don’t think there’s really a good way for a 20-year-old or even a 40-year-old to get a good grip on the issues in 1945.” It’s true that “most of the alumni weren’t there” in 1945 either, Ms. Harpp said. But still, she said, “they provide a wide perspective from different ages and from different disciplines.” 

The first offering of Professor Harpp’s course attracted 380 alumni. A second course, called The Great Writers, had about 675 alumni out of 800 students.

Generally, Ms. Harpp said, the younger alumni—those who graduated after 2000—were very interested in having access to the course materials but less interested in engaging with the students. Older alumni—those in the Class of 1980 and earlier—were most excited to talk with current Colgate students, challenging them on their thoughts and opinions on nuclear warfare.

Can this work for other courses? It seems like what is required is a subject matter where student interaction benefits from involving a wider range age group, as well as an interaction design to takes advantage of that. A number of MOOCs already do this. Consider UBC’s three MOOCs that address different sustainability issues—Forests and Livelihoods in Developing Countries, Blue is the New Green, and Climate Literacy: Navigating Climate Change Conversations. Each of these courses starts with a map exercise in which the learners upload some information about their local environment onto a world map. Once everyone has done that the course as a whole has access to a wide diversity of information, for which each element has someone who can speak to it. Of course it would be possible to do the same thing in a small on-campus course, but the greatly increased amount and diversity of information in the MOOC version qualitatively changes the experience the students have working with the map and the data.

The fusion approach could definitely add value to UBC’s introductory programming course.  A lot of good programming practice is rooted in understanding that requirements always change, stakeholders don’t know exactly what they want, employees leave, people always make mistakes, and so on (the vicissitudes and vagaries of a programmer’s life). Older students, even those who have never programmed, have no problem believing these things—they have lived them before in a variety of life experiences. But many 19 year olds are more idealistic about the process of designing and maintaining complex systems. This reduces their ability to understand the motivation for some of what we teach. We see in our MOOC that older learners will engage in discussing these issues with younger learners, based on real examples they have lived, and that this is a powerful experience for the younger learners. It would be great to give our regular students access to those kinds of experiences.

I find this fusion course idea quite exciting. It combines ideas from active learning in which students learn from each other, with breaking down barriers between the school and the outside world. Done well it provides learners of all ages access to a more powerful learning experience. It provides the university with a structural mechanism for engaging the “outside world” in its core education mission. It can give alumni more lifelong value from their alma mater.

Do you think this could work for your course? If you’d like to talk about it, please get in touch. UBC’s new edX platform could be helpful in supporting this kind of experiment.


Gregor Kiczales is a Professor of Computer Science and Provost’s Fellow for Flexible Learning Strategy.

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