sign uplog in

What Can Courses Be?

By Brendan | 2020-07-12

Language of Learning

What do we talk about when we talk about learning?

Language matters, and words can be slippery and imprecise. There are many terms for learning experiences — class, workshop, seminar, and so on — and the most common, particularly for online learning, is "course".

What is a "course"? And more importantly: what more can a course be?

In Common Language

Both on- and offline, "course" carries certain connotations. When we think of a traditional course, we think of trimesters or semesters. We think of hundreds of students in a lecture hall, or perhaps a dozen students in a classroom for more seminar-style learning.

Online courses tend to be based around linear playlists of videos, along with associated readings and other activities. These often look like university courses filmed and translated more or less directly to online form. More internet native courses tend to be shorter and more focused, but still just as linear and video-centric.

We use the term "course" because it's common, easy to understand, and to be honest, because there aren't many good alternatives! But when we talk about "courses", we have some different things in mind.

We think of a course as a way for a community to collaborate on learning something within a predetermined structure. That's a pretty broad definition, but there are a couple key elements we feel are often overlooked:

  • First, that a course requires collaboration within a community of people. The more diverse the set of perspectives you can learn from, and the more deeply you engage, the more interesting and well-rounded your world becomes.
  • Second, that a course follows a clear structure. This by itself isn't a revolutionary idea — but the learning structures most commonly available to us (lecture, video playlists) just aren't that interesting. Building course structures is a creative venture. Courses should be experimental, iterative, and forever changing to better serve learning.

We don't currently see enough high quality courses, both because they're difficult to do well, and because we largely lack the infrastructure to support their creation and maintenance. We're building Hyperlink to meet those needs.

Elements of Courses

Some of the structural elements most courses will likely include:

  • Topic: a course is about something specific, a particular project, question, or area of inquiry to explore.
  • Curriculum: a course has a well-defined structure; clear definition and constraints. This structure may (indeed should!) look very different between courses.
  • Learners: a course has participants, usually one fixed group (cohort) at a time.
  • Facilitators: a course has one or more leaders, guiding the process of learning and exploration. Facilitators don't have to be experts in the topic — they can be learners too!
  • Community: a course fits within a broader community over time: maintainers, alumni, wider conversations in its field.

Course Archetypes

Taking these basic elements as starting point, here are some visions for course archetypes — a variety of starting points for imagining and shaping what a course can be:

Course as bounded exploration of a topic

A more or less "traditional" course that likely has readings, discussions, and a project or evaluation at the end. In this type of course, designed to organize and convey a certain subset of knowledge, a good syllabus is paramount.

For example: Metacademy; any great online syllabus designed for self-guided learning

Course as community onboarding

A one-time lesson or sequence of lessons that introduces you to a community, and may grant you ongoing access to it. It may give you access to a particular space, for example art equipment that requires training to use.

For example: introductory letterpress workshop

Course as project propulsion

A course directed towards a specific tangible outcome. This often takes the form of a concrete project or achievement, like building a personal website or completing a difficult book.

For example: Crafter's Box; Creative Live

Course as community of practice

A course focused on experiential learning, where the goal is to participate in an activity and learn by doing. It may be a creative practice-focused course that runs regularly, where you can drop in anytime and get to know the community.

For example: professional community; creative writing group

Course as generative learning event

A course organized around collaborative exploration, bounded in time but with an emergent direction. This may be a working group with a longer term goal, or a sort of unconference or short term event designed to explore a particular set of questions.

For example: Antidisciplinarathon; collaborative research projects

Course as (transformation?) framework

A course meant to reorient you, introduce some kind of new paradigm or perspective, unlock a personal or professional transformation, more so than produce a tangible artifact.

For example: altMBA; coaching or mastermind programs

Course as introduction or teaser

A course designed to be short and simple, free or inexpensive, more a taste than a full meal. It may serve as on-ramp to a more comprehensive learning experience.

For example: a course with a more intensive (and expensive) older sibling ;)

A Course, of Course

All the above are — of course! — simply starting points. Depending on your course topic, goals, expected participants, and other constraints, there are near-infinite possibilities.

We hope the above elements and archetypes are useful for taking a more expansive view on what a course can be, and perhaps sparking some specific directions you may like to explore with a course!

We're constantly experimenting on Hyperlink, and using what we learn to improve the platform so that future courses can be even better. As part of this, we regularly run the Meta Course — a free workshop for going from idea to full-fledged curriculum, together with a small group of other course creators.

If you have a course seedling you'd like help cultivating, we'd love to hear from you: contact@hyperlink.academy