An open source education on the rise

Written by Alex Livingstone
The University of Reddit is a unique contender in the world of online education

The University of Reddit presents a unique approach to online education

In an ever increasing digital world, even the tertiary education system seems to be moving towards living in the online realm. With a proposed increase in university fees, the University of Reddit presents a unique education model — one where the content is created, consumed, and voted on by ordinary users and is all completely free.

A recently released in-depth report on Australia’s higher education system by the Grattan institute, a government funded public policy think tank, has suggested that the average university student should be paying more out of their own pocket for their education.

With many students already doing it tough with the way university payments are structured at the moment, what does this hold for the future of our education system? If this increased cost for education is considered too much by some, a push towards online education may be the answer.

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) are becoming the most popular form of online education, and the leaders of this movement are websites such as Udacity and Coursera, which offer free courses in subjects such as computer science and statistics, taught by accredited lecturers.

“Coursera allowed me to further my interest in fields that aren’t covered by my degree in the spare time I had,” said science student Angus Jackson. “I became interested in finance and all it took was a couple of clicks and I was enrolled.”

One of more interesting results of the movement towards more online-based education is not the highly polished, venture capital funded organisations such as Coursera, but rather an idea that spawned from the popular social news website reddit.

It all started with a simple post in the AskReddit section, where users submit questions, hoping to incite discussion in the comments section between readers. The idea was this; a free online organisation where users go to either learn more about a topic, or teach others about a topic they are classically well-educated about. From this simple post, it has been fleshed out into what is now known as the University of Reddit (UReddit).

“As soon as I learned of the project, I bought hosting, created the website, and quickly took on a leading role,” says Anastas Stoyanovsky, one of the integral people in the growth of the website and its current head. “I thought the ideals upon which it was founded and could be developed around were of immense value, and that it could grow into a beautiful community.”

The website is structured around the basic idea that drives reddit.com, arguably the largest social news site in the world — users submit content (in this case course plans), and other users of the website can vote (up vote or down vote) as to whether they think the content is worth seeing. This provides vital feedback to the course creator as to whether it is popular enough to warrant teaching.

The site currently has grown to around 55,000 users, more recently with the help of a blog post by reddit administrators that reached the front page of reddit.com, which is seen by millions of people every day. UReddit contains courses ranging from Fine Art Theory 101 to Beginning to Knit: The Basics, and is completely open source, meaning anyone can take a look at the coding behind the website and suggest improvements.

However, there are some problems with the completely open model UReddit uses.

“I signed up to teach a course and had around 200 interested students. I was really excited, wrote up a syllabus and some small assignments and it got a lot of great buzz,” says Erik Christensen, a UReddit user. “But that was all I got. 2 out of 200 people complete the assignments and I only got a couple of hits on the blog I set up. There were no comments on the discussions I submitted and I ended up ending the course early.”

This seems to be the number one concern with the website in its current form — early abandonment by students and lecturers. There is no incentive for either to continue to completion like there is on other, funded websites such as Coursera (where lecturers get paid and students get a signed certificate of competition), other than the pursuit of knowledge.

“These problems have significantly declined in frequency as the community has grown,” reasssures Stoyanovsky. “Increasing the class size increases the engagement proportionately. Similarly, as the catalog grows, inexperienced teachers are more likely to realise what they are in for by looking through examples.”

Despite these drawbacks, the concept of UReddit has been embraced by the community, but is still largely unknown to the rest of the education system. However, two professors at the University of South Florida are using the system to open the courses they are teaching to the public. The courses “Arts and Humanities: What Does It Mean to Live Well?” and “Forums for a Future” are two examples of what the education system could be moving towards in the future — collaborations with existing institutions to provide their courses to both on and off-campus students.

The question that lingers, however, is how are these online systems going to intertwine with the existing brick and mortar institutions? Are sandstone universities going to become a thing of the past or will online be more streamlined into regular tertiary education?

“Traditional institutions have too much inertia, in my opinion, to be toppled so easily, nor should they be abolished altogether,” says Stoyanovsky. “For example, how could one run an organic chemistry lab at home without significant expense and risk of harm?”

“I see no reason that two should be necessarily pitted against one another when they can cooperate towards at least somewhat common goals,” he continues. “Fundamentally, it is likely impossible to predict and characterise the complex interplay that will inevitably play out between traditional and contemporary institutions, but that won’t stop us from pursuing this experiment and hoping for its success. We believe in this project and its possible role — and, of course, in the worth of pursuing those, especially since we remain unique.”

Mr Stoyanovsky and his team hope to continue their growth into the future, and are working on improvements from the influx of suggestions they have received from their community.


Video created by the UReddit team describing how to teach a course through the website.

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