Reading club as course model?

As John has already mentioned, a couple of weeks ago I worked with him and Doug on a kind of online reading club experiment. This came out of some research money our Centre for Professional Development obtained for examining different ways in which higher education could support professional development.

At the OU we have an occasional book club group, where influential books are taken by an academic and in an extended session we explore these. John has done Benkler's Wealth of Networks, Zittrain's The Future of the Internet and I've done Everything is Miscellaneous. So the idea was to attempt this online, a sort of 'extended reading club' where we take difficult, and significant works, and both explain them and add to the discussion.

There were three sessions which were run in Elluminate with a small group of attendees. Because it was part of a project, they weren't open, but it strikes me this is a possible model that can combine some of a university's need to actually take fees, and also fulfill on its openness remit: The actual, live sessions are small, with fee paying students who get to interact, have support, certificate of attendance etc. The sessions are then recorded and made open to everyone. I wonder if this 'book club' model would work on a larger scale as an alternative to the conventional course?

The sessions worked well I think (I'm not evaluating them, so only going on my perspective as the presenter for one session). We had good discussions, plenty of questions and the 'students' ('readers?') went away I think with a deeper understanding of the book in question and the issues around the internet structure, privacy, security, control, etc. You could imagine augmenting the book club model with a wide range of university and other resources on these topics also, so you have the book at the hub of a range of topics which people can explore as they see fit.

I'll put some thoughts about the book in another post.


  1. I think a book club is a great model. I talk about that a bit here:
    But the point about how this might mesh with the strengths and needs of a university is also well taken. A university is a community hub which does have a core competency in pulling individuals of similar interests together, and organizing events projects, and experiences around those shared interests. We coordinate intellectual projects and experiences.
    If we could realize that is the *core* of what we do, and that providing access to experts is only one part of that, we’d get so much further so much faster.

  2. Laura says:

    Giselle and I ran something similar about a year or so ago using FlashMeeting. The results should be up on OpenLearn soon.

  3. Andy Lane says:

    The Learning Clubs on OpenLearn are also based on and can be used as asynchronous book clubs. Few have done so yet but the Creative Writers are doing so with their own work at

  4. Martin says:

    @Mike – yes, your thoughts on cohort are similar to some I’ve had. It is one of the ‘services’ higher education provides – a ready-made social group to study with. But social media means we have other ways of creating this now. Coming together round a book might be a good way to have that cohort for a short-term.
    @Laura and @Andy – thanks for this. I think the reading club model gets at something we can do in academia – provide expertise, insight, background, support, etc. but in a timely way, rather than the ‘create a course’ approach. If a company came to us wanting staff development in X, it’s difficult to create a new course in a week, but we could do a reading club in that time.

  5. Philip Terry says:

    We run multiple phone-based reading groups at the Reading Odyssey – a nonprofit dedicated to reigniting the intellectual curiosity of adults –
    Our focus is on great books through history and we have run groups on everything from Homer and Herodotus to Darwin and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.”
    These are not asynchronous (though people can follow asynchronously by reading the questions on the website and downloading the mp3 later after each month’s discussion).
    – How does it work?
    The phone and web-based intensive tutorials that we run take a small group of readers through a reading experience over a 3-6 months period.  Tutorials typically involve 30 readers each and a moderator comfortable with the topic and passionate about helping mainstream adults begin learning and thinking again. Listening skills and socratic questioning are key to the success of a Reading Odyssey phone-based moderator (note: moderators are typically a professor, a teacher with a PhD or a PhD candidate).
    – What’s the role of the moderator exactly?
    The moderator prepares each session by sending reading questions out to the members 3 weeks before the call. Then one week before the call, the moderator assigns each of the 5 or so questions to members and asks each one to be prepared to be called upon to start the discussion on that question. The moderator manages the phone technology (provided by Reading Odyssey – primarily conference call numbers and recordings) and sends reminders to each reading group before each call. During the 90 minute call, the moderator facilitates discussion using a “Socratic” or question-driven method designed to help nonacademics and those who may be intimidated understand that they too can participate in and discuss great ideas.

  6. Martin says:

    @Philip – thanks for this Philip, it sounds fascinating. We (well, okay I) often overlook simple technologies like the phone. I think this is a great example of what expertise/knowledge brings to the discussion – they help frame and support the discussion, but they don’t need to provide the content (in this case, the books). This is exactly what higher ed is good at and should focus on. Thanks for sharing.

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