A course is a course of course

Except when it’s a class.

At my college, and in many colleges and universities, a worthwhile distinction is made between a “course” and a “class”.

A “course” is created with a title, rough outline of topics, and various legal requirements. It’s an offering of the institution.

An individual instance of a course is called a “class” or “class section”. It’s offered by a specific instructor in a department.

A “course” is what articulates (transfers) to other colleges. It’s what’s in the catalog. A “class” is in the schedule of classes each semester, taught by different instructors. Within a class, the instructor makes the syllabus and determines which instructional methods will be used in order to fulfill the goals of the course. A course is just the framework on which the instructor builds the class.

In online venues, these terms have gotten confused. People talk about offering open online courses, when they mean classes.

Except that they don’t, necessarily.

Classes differ each time they’re offered. The MOOC called CCK08 is a different class from CCK11. But the model has shifted now to MOOCs offered by for-profit (or for-profit-to-be) institutions, and the shift is away from the class model.

So there is a reason Coursera is not called Classera. A number of the MOOCs invoke their massiveness by acting as large course frameworks, standardized, depersonalized, and marketed. An open online class, by contrast, features the elements that an instructor would include in any class, including presentation and interaction. Presentation can be created by the instructor, the students, or through materials and artifacts that are made available. Interaction is between the students and the material, the students and other students, and the students and the instructor. Even with a constructivist pedagogy, these elements are designed into any class – only the balance differs.

But the last two elements of interaction (student-student and student-instructor) are being left out in large offerings. This problem is not unique to online classes. Large on-site classes may have little interaction among students or between students and the instructor. Interaction may exist when Teaching Assistants provide it, which is the norm at most universities, so the TA may take the place of the instructor and also facilitate interaction among students. But if they didn’t, the class wouldn’t feature student-student or student-instructor interaction. It would just be a course, a framework without a heart.

This is why correspondence courses were called “courses” – a student participated in a course of study, got feedback from an instructor independently, and didn’t interact with other students. Online, these might best be called “tutorials” – you interact with the material yourself, take auto-graded tests, and get a grade. You have taken a course. A class implies colleagues.

If the prof-free, automated, massive model isn’t really a class, one shouldn’t expect class elements from it, nor the satisfaction one might get from talking a class. Many students report that what they like most about classes is not the subject, but the instructor’s approach and their working relationships with their colleagues. This affective evaluation cannot be applied to courses, only to classes.

I realize the distinction is not black and white, but there is a conceptual difference that should be explored by both those offering courses/classes and those taking them.

8 thoughts on “A course is a course of course

  1. Hi Lisa (and others)

    You’ve made a useful distinction here. Although a course (even a Coursera, or other automated course) can provide useful resources and artifacts, they cannot offer the kind of transformational experiences that active engagement with other people (either online or offline) can provide. I think we undervalue the affective domain, because it is so hard to quantify, analyze and, ultimately, understand. Even if I could buy the best turkey dinner with gravy and all the and fixings from a vending machine, it wouldn’t give me the anything like the experience that I can get from sharing pizza with friends around the kitchen table. Food for the soul cannot be mass produced, machine delivered and consumed alone.


  2. Thanks, Lisa, this is such a helpful distinction and worth bookmarking socially and inside my workspace. I agree with Mark that the ‘soul’ food of a well-designed class is what enchanted me about my first connectivist mooc #PLENK2010 and the six others I’ve taken since. The camaraderie has carried forward as some of the moocers resurface in new classes and I get that awesome ‘hey, I know you!’ feeling about their participation and contributions, though I haven’t met them face-to-face to date.


  3. P.S. Am giggling now becuase I didn’t realize until reading your About page that you’re Lisa from my past moocs. I didn’t have to ‘know’ who you were to feel that this post was valuable. 🙂


    1. That’s particularly funny since I also just used your tweet for my most recent post. We had too many Lisas, but not too many brainysmurfs. 🙂


    1. I think the switch to the term Learning Management System, although inspired by the right attitude originally (even if it isn’t accurate), may be seen in future years to have been more about the variety of approaches used within these systems. I have seen the LMS used as class management systems for individual classes, but also as course management systems, particularly by for-profit universities that have one course “taught” by many instructors.


      1. Also, note that MiraCosta’s printed semester schedule is called a “course schedule,” not a “class schedule.”

        For me, the important point here is to beware of misunderstandings arising out of inconsistent use of terminology. But to get everyone at the same institution to use the “correct” terms – let alone people from different institutions – is going to be an exercise in frustration.


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