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Computer Free

Gone is the computer. Here is a fountain pen and paper. It is easier to spread out, easier to gather up ideas in bundles … better for brain? This has the makings of a dissertation.

Familiarity and mastery

Your head gets into a place it never wants to leave. You take command of a subject and want to build on it.

Or should do. I resist mastery in favour of novelty.

So I have to find ways to keep everything fresh. To seek out the challenge.


The new role of ‘Learning Facilitator’ at Coursera

According to Coursera, the 'learning facilitator', a new role that they are developing and will wear several different hats: managerial, technical, social, and pedagogical.

Coursera goes on to say that "effective facilitators must know how to guide learners in their learning journey, provide formative feedback, offer technical guidance, foster community, and communicate in a way that encourages learners to construct knowledge together".

This 'facilitator' role is somewhat more demanding than the current Coursera 'moderator' who is there simply to nudge things along. This Facilitator role sounds more like the Open University 'Associate Lecturer' (AL) – a practitioner, a graduate of the course they support, and typically someone at PhD or PhD candidate levels. The Coursera moderator is merely someone who recently took the course on which they plan to moderate and gained a score of over 82% and have done the Coursera E-Moderator MOOC.

The development of the Coursera Facilitator is in line with their move increasingly towards developing undergraduate and postgraduate degree courses.

Where Coursera will struggle is expecting facilitators to have enough technical knowledge to do much more than answer the most basic technical questions: they need to know where they can turn. Also those who have invested so much to gain this greater academic knowledge required to be a facilitator will expect to be paid. Coursera will be charging, as they do increasingly as they move away from the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

Typical Learning Curve for Newly Learned Information

Developed by Hermann Ebbinghaus some 150 years ago while the hypothesis is sound the results are representative rather than an individual’s response. How might e-learning respond to the different capacities and inclinations of each learner to retain or lose the knowledge they pick up? 

A number of platforms have tried to address this, the most successful coming out of Harvard Medical school 6 years ago and more recently rebranded and commercialised for sakes training for the pharmaceutical industry under the name QStream.

Trained and experienced educators will know that they are constantly faced by the challenge of getting what they teach or facilitate to stick . How can these techniques be supported online? How do you educate a class of many thousands? Coursera are determined to crack it. As a Coursera Mentor it feels as if their technical team is responsive on a weekly basis to making improvements – improvements that increasingly come from the 1,900 volunteer mentors they have recruited and trained in the last two years, all of us completing a Coursera Community Mentor’s course before we are permitted to interact directly with students on a course we have already successfully completed.

It feels like being part of an educational movement and a pleasure to be in touch every day: you gradually see patterns in where people get stuck, where they need a hand, where the technology may trip them up, or the content could be improved. Everything can be refined so Coursera take the view that nothing stands still. 

These are the benefits educators commuting their content to Coursera get – opportunities to refine, and improve the ‘knowledge transfer’ part (the lecture typically) so that once ‘flipped’ they can give, in small groups by rotation something akin to the personal attention of the Oxbridge Tutorial. 

Tough Love

How we learn in an ideal realisation of constant growth expressed as riding a thermal

The Learning Thermal

Every day, as a Coursera Mentor, I receive notification from them in the form of an email indicating which student queries in the common forum require a response; every day I respond to one or two and in due course I get feedback. It is always a pleasure that my reassurance, prompt or suggestion is welcome. Having done this for 7 months I recognise a pattern: students (as I did) worry about assignments, which are of two types: peer reviews of submitted work and graded quizzes (typically around 12-16 carefully crafted questions). Both are tightly controlled: as a student you must review three pieces of work submitted by others (selected or offered from a rolling list as your cohort moves through the course) and to pass the course in its entirety, the quiz grade required, individually and collectively is high, certainly over 60%. 

Having done four courses, each with several increasingly demanding parts, I know how much anxiety these can cause, more so where I have paid a fee to be part of the assessed cohort so that I get the most learning out of it and gain a certificate too. We don’t like being judged or criticised, so peer reviews need to be done with sensitivity and completely fairly. The instructions  for assignments are specific: whether an essay, proposal or project write up, or another piece of submitted work such as a photograph, the factors that will result in marks being awarded and carefully spelled out. The student must then trust his or her work to a fellow student. Being a global and open platform Coursera attracts everybody who has access to the Internet: young, old, English a second or third language, at High School or a post-grad (even doctoral research students boosting their ego or doing a refresher). Some people take the peer review more seriously than others: you’d be unlucky if more than one student gave no more than a cursory review and worse, if they marked your work down on a trivial technicality (or plainly get their review wrong). On the better courses, and all I have experienced on five different Coursera courses (each having between One and Five substantial parts) the multiple-choice quizzes are well written and thought through; what is more, when you redo the quiz if your score is too low you will at least find the questions are in a different order, and nay find some questions are even different – you can’t ‘game it’ by repeating the test over and over trying different combinations of responses. Students new to this kind of learning experience and to opening their minds (and to some their soul) to strangers, get agitated: they panic, they fret, they even become inpatient and angry. The educators who ‘wrote’ the course or the platform itself can come in for a lot of Schtick. 
Standing back from it all, were I advising a group of educators about to embark on the creation of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), I’d advise ‘tough love’ – some educators, through experience, and by their nature, might be like this anyhow. It does no one any favours to produce a course where any component may be deemed at best ‘edutainment’ and at w0rst ‘amateurish’ or plain wrong.

‘Tough love’ gets results and in the longer term is what the student and educator wants. In a different field, coaching swimmers, something that grew out of helping out at a club where my kids were learning to swim competively, it has taken me a while (over ten years) through training and experience, to deliver ‘tough love’ whether the swimmer is 8 or 18. Unlike in an online course, in these live situations I can respond to strengths and weaknesses, spot failings and go back. Crucially where something isn’t getting the results I need I can call upon a collection of approaches. They cannot progress until they can do a thing correctly. Likewise, online, the smarter courses, blocking the way to advancing, will send a student back to review a part of the programme that ought to help them with an answer they are failing to get right. Better still the student is offered a different way of seeing the problem; the better courses providing more than just a reading list – they link to a specific paper, or book, or video. 

A few times, taking a series of courses on ‘Search Engine Optimisation’ I became stuck and had to go back over two weeks of material and find a different person giving a different explanation before the ‘penny would drop’ – it really was a moment of enlightenment, and getting the quiz score from something like 4/16 to 11/16 gave me such a great sense of achievement that I persevered until I settled for 15/16. I have to trust the designers and writers of the course than 16/16 is possible : students can get online and blame the course, not themselves, for being unable to ‘meet the grade’. Shame on the educators if they have made a mistake. Best practice is, in any case, to use information on any sticking point and go and fix it. It was one of the earliest findings shared by Daphne Keller in her TED lecture on the first course offered on Coursera that with tens of thousands of students the data would identify spots where the educators weren’t teaching something very well – too many students were making the same error to blame them so they went in and fixed it.

 I like the idea of building a course as best you can and then using the learning stats and student experience to go back and fix problems and make improvements: you build an obstacle course for the brain, but it is no good if too many people fail where they shouldn’t. Nor is it of any value to make it so easy to render the course worthless. I know Courses, entire platforms, that are educationally valueless ‘edutainment’, PR for the educational institution –  a taster of a campus based course. learning is not viewing: a timeline that indicates that you have clicked through 50% of the material is not worthy of a pass. Being flippant with a formative quiz is not funny; I’ve seen ‘educational’ quizzes where, like in a TV gambit aimed to get tens of thousands of punters wasting £1 on a punt the right answer is blindingly obvious from a choice of three. And paying to study at postgraduate level where 40% is the pass rate is so indulgent as to be diminishing of the institution.

The ‘toughest love’ is the examination hall; the ‘toughest test’ the real world. Would you want to be seen by a doctor whose course work in training repeatedly only scrapped above a 40% grade? And if the ‘learning’ was so easy did much go in and stick? 

At school, and since, the educators I have most admired were always the toughest: their demands and expectations were high. However ignorant you were, if you stuck at it and showed willing they got you over the bar, they’d never lower it. 

Watching TV you sit back and let it wash over you; you may even fall asleep. Learning on an interactive platform, as you should do in a lecture or tutorial, and certainly when writing an essay or sitting an exam, you ‘lean forward’ – you engage the brain – the harder you are made to think, the greater the struggle, the more likely you have learnt something lasting and of value on which you can build.

Learning at the speed of desire


This is a simple expression of over six years of formal study and a couple of decades working in or around ‘technology enhanced learning’ of some kind, whether in ‘Corporate Training’ or in education.

This image sums up the best courses every time; its is obvious really: you build on experience and crank up the level of difficulty. To be achieved in ‘machine learning’, something that ‘gamification’ does deliver, is learning that is responsive to the individual learner. This is being offered piecemeal, for example, by being able to ‘restart’ a Coursera course every week, joining a new cohort where you left off each time – hardly conducive to creating any kind of collaborative learning though. It is also offered in fact-based, first year undergraduate courses where smart, well-researched and written ‘multiple-choice’ questions are part of the learning experience: the best not only guide the student to points in their course content where the answers they are seeking can be found, but the questions are shuffled each time you do them (better still would be to reword them). Some multiple choice ‘activities’ can be dire: full of double-negatives, too vague about the answer, or offering unfunny and stupid answers (the kind you have interrupting TV talent shows and morning breakfast TV).

One of the best at the multiple-choice question are QStream. Developed at Harvard Medical School and beginning life as ‘SpacedEd’ here heavy-weight courses, sent by email to your phone, helped medical students gain the knowledge they have to have.

I have many learning platform favourites: Rosetta Stone for languages, Youscian for guitar, Coursera for Photography, FutureLearn for Writing Fiction.

They’ll all get better. Lessons will be learnt and shared. I enjoyed the attending the Coursera Partners’ Conference last year where some 18 or more universities from around the world present, via ‘Posters’ papers they had researched and written on various aspects of ‘e-learning’. These shared insights will improve everything from use of multiple choice questions, and student forums, peer reviews and grading, to best-practice use of video.

More learning needs to be put through the kind of research labs they have at the Open University. I have been a tester here, and had a website tested. It helps enormously to study and observe, like an anthropologist, just how your site or learning experience is used. It reveals its strengths and weaknesses in a way that can be brutal and thrilling.


Ways to see learning

img_1900At a presentation in The Hague during the 5th Coursera Partners’ Conferemce  Gilly Salmon introduced this vision of learning. In any institution or faculty you can pick something that will indicate how far they have or have not taken it – recognising that  different subjects require a different approach. I’ve annotated and commented on this at length elsewhere. I know universities that are achieving Education 2.0 and corporate learning that is in the Education 3.0 space.




Are you drowning in coffee?

Fig.1. Drowning in coffee


  • Kings College Overdose
  • Caffeine DSM-5

What’s the best policy regarding students ‘switching’ to a later ‘presentation’ during a MOOC?

Completion rates for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) bug their creators because of the massive fall-out. Like the half-life of something in a pond at Sellafield the figures can half in a week, and half again in another couple of weeks and at the end of a 12 week course there are 50 people left out of the original 15,000.
The excuses and reasons for this drop-out are multivarious: many never planned to start the course – it is too easy to sign up to something that is free; an early poor experience puts people off: it is not for them, too hard, too boring, irrelevant or time consuming. They can have a technical melt down too: the learning platform is pants, or their kit and connection isn’t up to it. A course can over promise and under deliver; there is a terribly fine balance and on the side of the creators ignorance of their students who can and will be ‘anyone’ : digitally literate or not, English their first language or not, lect school young with no qualifications or a professor nosing in on something that is their expertise …

Reasons that people stick include: they’ve paid for it, it should enhance their job prospects or working life (it has practical worth), they ‘like’ the educator(s), they ‘like’ their fellow students and/or ‘enjoy’ the platform, its functionality and experience. The intrinsic rather than the extrinsic motivators work best.

A responsive ‘platform’ by which I mean the educational establishment or organisation (The OU, Coursera, FutureLearn, EDx) will identify and fix sticking points: a flood of people quit after the third multiplechoice assessment – you fix it; the 12th too-long to camera talking head of the same person and you jazz them up, get someonelse or look for alternative approaches; and you acknowledge that everyone studying ‘at a distance’ and ‘online’ probably never had the time to set aside to study your course in the first time so will need time to adjust – to make time. And life is fickle, they may have setbacks. Great therefore if on a 3, or 5 or even a 12 week course or module that they can ‘elect’ at any stage to ‘switch’ to the next ‘presentation’ – so they pick it up in a few weeks.

With switching I wonder if there could be a way to discourage multiple switching though. I fear that what can happen is that having switched once out of expediency, then a second time ‘because you can’ then the third time there is some kind of behavioural pattern established and the person will never complete the course. Were a student physically attending class an aware supervisor would cause the student to think twice on the second ‘default’ switching and may put ‘soft’ barriers in the way of the third – after all, the hidden agenda here is about ‘completion rates’: one indicator of a successful course is the percentage whi make it to the end.

By not having switching, rather like having students paying a fee, you force their hand – gently, and sometimes of necessity. You have to face up to the genuine challenges of learning: you face and overcome obstacles whether they occur in your real home or professional life or because you are struggling ‘in class’. Either you have, or develop resilience; you seek help and advice and get it.

The graphic (actually an ‘installation’) featured at the top of the page is by American Lawrence Weiner whose work I first saw at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Barcelona. His career has been spent trying to visualise something amorphous: how we communicate and share ideas. My take on this ‘Nine pieces in a brown bag’ might have been the odd title, relates to my view on the power of two people making a better job of problem so,bing or creation than a person on their own, or, it could represent the interface between an educational institution and students. It means what you want it to mean. I have often resorted to using basic shapes in primary colours in a sequence to represent concepts or ideas. In a learning context Gilly Salomn famously uses kids building blocks to explain her ‘five phases’ of ‘e-learning’ : learning design for course writers in effect.

When he was my age my grandpa was fighting in the Warsaw Uprising … and other stories.

Zoe and Z.A.P : Granddaughter and professor, veteran, leader, OBE, British citizen, Polish hero … 

From the introduction to the Polish documentary on Zbigniew Alexandri Pelcyznski. (see below for computer translation)

Bohaterem filmu jest prof. Zbigniew A. Pełczyński, w młodości żołnierz powstania warszawskiego, dziś filozof polityczny, emerytowany naukowiec i działacz społeczny lub – jak to sam określa – “przedsiębiorca społeczny”. Dwukrotnie ranny w walkach w stolicy w 1944 r., na krótko przed upadkiem powstania dostał się do niewoli i trafił do obozu jenieckiego koło Bremy. Siedem miesięcy później, pod koniec kwietnia 1945 r., obóz został wyzwolony przez Amerykanów. Młody Pełczyński wstąpił do brytyjskiej armii, by dalej walczyć. Pragnął też studiować. Miał szczęście: wraz z kilkoma innymi kolegami z AK trafił na uniwersytet St. Andrews w Szkocji. Specjalizował się w filozofii politycznej, w 1951 r. przyjął brytyjskie obywatelstwo i otrzymał etat naukowy na uniwersytecie w Oksfordzie. Dobrze czuł się w Wielkiej Brytanii, cenił i lubił tamtejsze obyczaje, kulturę, ludzi. Wrósł w swoją drugą ojczyznę. Jak powiada, “zrepolonizowała” go dopiero “Solidarność”. W początkach III Rzeczpospolitej był doradcą Sejmu i URM, ale nie odniósł na tym polu wielkich sukcesów. W 1994 r. zakończyła się więc jego kariera doradcy, lecz po kilku latach intensywnej działalności w Polsce nie chciał wracać do spokojnego życia emerytowanego wykładowcy i swego domu na angielskiej wsi. Zainicjował współpracę między uczelnią w Oksfordzie i Uniwersytetem Warszawskim, stworzył system stypendialny dla studentów z Polski. W 1994 r. założył też Szkołę Liderów, która w ciągu 10 lat funkcjonowania przekroczyła granice Polski: w jej zajęciach coraz liczniej uczestniczą bowiem także młodzi ludzie z Ukrainy czy Gruzji. Celem szkoły jest kształtowanie postaw i stanu świadomości charakterystycznych dla otwartego społeczeństwa obywatelskiego, przygotowywanie młodych kadr zdolnych rządzić krajem, lokalnymi społecznościami, dużymi firmami – ludzi otwartych, kreatywnych, elastycznych, umiejących korzystać z cudzych doświadczeń. Opowieść o prof. Zbigniewie Pełczyńskim nie jest typowym filmem biograficznym, choć wiele w niej szczegółów z życiorysu bohatera, wyjaśniających, jakie wydarzenia i czynniki kształtowały jego postawę życiową, wpływały na jego wybory, skłoniły go do podjęcia określonych działań. To raczej filmowy esej, w którym losy tytułowego “lidera” stanowią punkt wyjścia do refleksji zarówno historycznych nad postawami powstańczego pokolenia, jak i tych całkowicie współczesnych, dotyczących reformy oświaty, a zwłaszcza szkolnictwa wyższego, możliwości kształtowania liderów społecznych i intelektualnych. Licznym stypendystom z Polski uniwersytet oksfordzki stworzył warunki, jakich nie był w stanie zapewnić im rodzimy uniwersytet. Losy i działalność prof. Zbigniewa Pełczyńskiego poznajemy z jego relacji, a także z wypowiedzi ludzi, którzy go znają prywatnie lub współpracują z nim: prof. Leszka Kołakowskiego, prof. Jerzego Kłoczowskiego, Bolesława Taborskiego, Timothy’ego Gartona Asha, Elizabeth Frazer, Johna Adaira, prof. Jana Krzysztofa Bieleckiego. Z kolei polscy stypendyści Oksordu i zatrudnieni na tej prestiżowej uczelni młodzi naukowcy z Polski, dr Marcin Walecki, dr Grzegorz Plebanek, dr Wiktor Maciejewski, Piotr Drag, Agnieszka Grodzińska czy Witold Czartoryski mówią o pozytywnych stronach systemu stypendialnego stworzonego przez prof. Pełczyńskiego, i ogromnych możliwościach, jakie otworzyły się przed nimi wraz z przyjazdem do Oksfordu. Absolwenci Szkoły Liderów, tacy jak Adam Krzanowski z Krosna, swoją pracą na rzecz miasta i jego mieszkańców, dowodzą natomiast praktycznej przydatności takich kursów. [TVP]

Courtesy of Google Translate:

The protagonist is prof. Zbigniew A. Pełczyński, in his youth a soldier of the Warsaw Uprising, today, political philosopher, a retired scientist and social activist or – as he describes – “social entrepreneur.” Twice wounded in the fighting in the capital in 1944., Shortly before the fall of the uprising he was captured and was sent to a POW camp near Bremen. Seven months later, in late April 1945., The camp was liberated by the Americans. Young Pełczyński joined the British army to continue fighting. Also he wanted to study. He was lucky: along with several other colleagues from AK went to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He specialized in political philosophy in 1951. Adopted British citizenship, and received time researcher at the University of Oxford. Well felt in the UK, valued and liked rustic customs, culture and people. He has grown into his second motherland. As he says, “zrepolonizowała” it with “Solidarity”. At the beginning of the Third Republic was an advisor to the Sejm and the URM, but did not comment on this area of great success. In 1994. So he ended his career counselors, but after several years of intense activity in Poland does not want to return to the quiet life of a retired teacher and his home in the English countryside. Initiated the cooperation between the university at Oxford and the University of Warsaw, he created a system of scholarships for students from Polish. In 1994. He founded the School of Leaders, who during 10 years of operation exceeded the limits Polish: in her classes growing numbers participate because the young people of Ukraine or Georgia. The aim of the school is to shape attitudes and awareness characteristic of an open civil society, preparation of young talent able to govern the country, local communities, large companies – open-minded, creative, flexible, able to benefit from other people’s experiences. The story of a professor. Zbigniew Pełczyński is not a typical biopic, although many of the details from the biography of the hero, explaining what events and factors shaped his attitude in life, influenced his choices led him to take certain actions. It is rather a film essay, in which the fate of the title “leader” constitute a starting point for reflection on the attitudes of both the historical insurgent generation, as well as those completely contemporary, for the reform of education, especially higher education opportunities to shape social and intellectual leaders.

Numerous Polish fellows of Oxford University has created the conditions under which he was not able to provide them with native university. Fate and activity prof. Zbigniew Pełczyński know of his relationship, as well as the statements of people who know him privately or cooperate with it: prof. Leszek Kolakowski, prof. George Kłoczowski, Boleslaw Taborski, Timothy Garton Ash, Elizabeth Fraser, John Adair, prof. Jan Krzysztof Bielecki. On the other hand, Polish scholars Oksordu and employed in this prestigious university, young scientists from Polish, among others Dr. Marcin Walecki, Dr. Gregory Plebanek, Dr. Victor Maciejewski, Piotr Drag, Agnieszka Grodzińska whether Witold Czartoryski talk about the positive sides of the scholarship system developed by prof. Pełczyńskiego, and huge possibilities opened up before them, with the arrival to Oxford. Graduates of the School of Leaders, such as Adam Krzanowski from Krosno, his work for the city and its inhabitants, demonstrate while the practical usefulness of such courses. [TVP]

I have just fallen in love with Héloïse Letissier.


Chance had me discussing dreams today and I remembered that last night I had fallen in love. I had to explain it a bit further: I was on a studio set, as a writer or director or producer, or creative instigator of some kind. There were some 30 people, half performers half crew. During the course of the day or evening I fell in love with this girl. I’m 30 again. It was a delicious feeling. I could have drawn her face.

Chance had me trying out Amazon Music and my ‘Modern Folk’ choices had me listening to ‘Christine and the Queens’ who I immediately recognised.

Which is when I realised that I had seen her performing on Jools Hooland’s New Year’s Eve Hootennany and my mind had simply grabbed her from there and superimposed her as ‘the love interest’ in a sweet-dream romance.

Christine and the Queens


The Héloïse Letissier interview


Performing on the Graham Norton Show


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