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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.
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.
At 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.
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.
Is this the perfect ‘Set’?
Serendipity has me at the home of my 91 year old father-in-law. Considerably less active than he once was, he still spends his day either reading from an iPad, or, with considerable difficulty, writing and reading emails. (He is blind in one eye with severely limited peripheral vision in the other). Reading only from a screen about 7 or 8 words fill the screen. A young granddaughter is researching a piece about being a ‘war child’. Zbigniew Pelczynski was 13 1/2 when the Germans invaded Poland. He revealed something about learning that I had not heard before.
You’ll soon understand the relevance to learning and the relevance of posting it here: I interviewed Dr Pelczynski on the Oxbridge Tutorial system in relation to learning and the Master of Arts: Open and Distance Education. He is a former Oxford Philosophy Tutor (Hegel) … and East European Politics, and the founder of ‘The Schools for Leaders’ in Poland and other East European countries. Has he retired? Probably. He published his last book four or five years ago and made his last trip to Poland about three years ago.
One of his grandchildren, just started secondary school, had the following questions for him.
1). How old were you and your brother at the beginning of the war?
The war began 1st September 1939. I was then 13 1/2, and my brother was 12.
2). How did the war change everyday life e.g. did shops close?
Shops did not close and in many way life went on as before, however, with time food became more and more scarce and expensive. People who were poor had a very hard time.
3). What did you do for family entertainment?
(I have read that in Poland things like cinema and football clubs were banned)
Well, entertainment was very much limited to the family and especially to birthday, christmas and Easters which in Poland are celebrated in a very big way. Cinemas were open, but the films were controlled so that one was only able to see that the occupiers, the Germans, wanted us to see. There were some interesting German films, but most of them were propaganda. I remember Jude Ze. about a a cruel Jew in the middle ages who caught children who cheated everybody and murdered children for blood. There was a tail that the Jews used the blood of Christian children for Jewish feasts. This was meant to make us feel very hostile to the Jews who were being greatly persecuted by the Germans at the time, put into Ghettos and later sent to extermination camps.
(The film he refers to is ‘The Eternal Jew’ )
There was no theatre, just light music entertainment, but only for the German soldiers who were stationed there and German officials. There were however some concerts in cafés, specially on Sunday at lunchtime which were very popular.
Sport. The Germans didn’t allow any sport. All football pitches, running tracks and swimming pools were taken over by the Germans and used by their own soldiers or recovering soldiers.
You were allowed to play handball or netball at home in your yard. Not allowed to play at school. Not allowed to kick a football about a schoolyard. So the only thing we did was play pingpong at school. In the school there were long corridors in there were several tables and you’d sign up to be allowed to play and there would be competitions. There was the Vistula in Warsaw, where we went swimming or canoeing or in a small sailing boat.
4. Did you have rationing coupons for food & clothes?
There were no clothes coupons, but there were certainly rationing coupons for food. They would change from year to year, even month to mont and they kept being cut again and gain. Each family was registered in a particular greengrocers shop and you went to buy your rations once a week. However illegally food was imported from the countryside and sold under the counter in the same shops or others shops or in open market, but the price was very high compared to the official regulated price of the rations.
Things were particularly during holidays when it was very difficult to get the various delicacies, for example ham for easter, or chicken or goose for Christmas.
5. How did things change for children in primary school?
There was virtually no change. Some of the text books were banned as they were thought to be too patriotic of ante-German.
6. How did things change for children in secondary school?
This was changed. The Germans did not allow any education whatsoever after the age of 16. And only if the secondary education was combined with ‘Fachschulen’ (specialist schools) – that is a ‘trades school’. I, for example, went to a school that was supposed to train electricians, one of my friends went to carpentry school and another went to gardening school. But very little time was spent on these trades, say a day a week, the other days were much similar to what we had before the war. The exceptions, no foreign language was allowed except German, Latin was banned, Polish history was banned. However, very early in the war, the teachers started organising secret courses called ‘sets’ where five children and one teacher taught Latin, French and Polish history. After age 16, moving to the equivalent of A’Levels there was no school education at all in the ordinary way. Those who continued with these sets of 5+1, would say meet on a Tuesday, and have 3 hours being taught Polish language and Geography, then another teacher would come and teach say Physics … so in this way, instead of studying in large classes, we had what you might call seminars. It was possible, the atmosphere was very informal, made it possible to ask question and disagree. This education was illegal. If the Germans had discovered these the teacher would have been arrested and sent to prison.
I went on like this until 1943 when I was 17 1/2. The Polish Secondary education was modelled on the French and German with four or more subject examination, I did Polish Language, German Language, Latin and Trigonometry. I passed this examination.
7. What age did you start going to school in secret, tell me about what it was like.
8. How did children help in the war effort?
It very much depended on your age. Children who were very young did not participate at all, expect perhaps taking secret newspapers from one family to another. The Polish Secret army told their story of what was happening in the world, otherwise we were limited to German propaganda. Later on you could join a secret scout movement. You were trained in what was known as ‘little sabotage’ for example, painting slogans on public places, ‘Hitler Kaput’ meaning ‘Hitler is finished’. On one occasion we went to church on Easter morning very early, and the whole of Warsaw was covered in these ante-German slogans and symbols of the Polish Resistance (a symbol of hope).
Most Poles are Catholic. During the war people went to church for services and holidays and the Germans didn’t interfere with that. Some of the priests when they preached sermons put in some references to Poland was not free, but the time would come when it would be free again. If caught as there could be spies in the congregation they would be arrested and sent to a concentration camp.
I and my younger brother joined the Resistance Movement in 1943. Even before that he decided to help some friends in the resistance: the people who formed little units in the forests and attacked the Germans, and stole their weapons, and blew up their cars. Kazik had a friend who was very active, and this friend wanted to store submachine guns somewhere so Kazik agreed and would store them in our grand piano which was never used because neither he nor I played. I got suspicious because this friend would come and visit with a violin case. One day, this friend came, and Kazik locked himself in the sitting room, and I listen and realised they were putting something in the piano. I looked and there was a brand new Sten-gun in the grand piano.
When I was older, 18 1/2 I joined the Resistance Movement and trained as a soldier. We were often asked to store hand-grenades and rifles. We would attach a rifle to a small fruit tree and put straw around it.
9. What age did children join the Home Army?
There was some military training in the Scout Movement, at 14 or so, maybe 12. Then first of all they were involved in ‘small sabotages’; and then given military training so in 1944 they were involved.
You joined the underground, the secret Military movement, when you were 16. When the uprising broke, out and the young people were the bravest of all. One friend of mine, who was 16, was awarded two medals.
Distributing leaflets and illegal leaflets.
Training in the home army, we must in five + one, Meet in someone’s house, once a week, and a military instructor would come and tell us how to use a gun, or blew up houses.
Once a month there was a trip to the nearest forest. It was easy to go for the weekend. Military training was much more serious here, you played at setting an ambush, or crawling under barbed wire or attacking a position. Amazing that the Germans never discovered what was going on.
The point that had me wake in the dead of night having mulled this over was the importance to him of ‘the set’, or seminar, what in fact became for him the lifelong love for an commitment to the ‘tutorial’ : not a seminar, a class of students, but a small group, relaxed with tea, coffee (or sherry), reading over each other’s essays for the week, being able to falter, make mistakes, received praise and correction.
This works. I believe it works online too. I have had plenty of experiences of it on OU modules where from my tutor group a small ‘break-out’ group forms. These are never exclusive, but rathe a handful of people usually three or four, who form an affinity and begin to confer, converse and meet regularly online to discuss the course and its progres.
I recommend it. Blog, Use Facebook or LinkedIn or Google HangOuts. Make use of platforms offered by The OU. Be part of a group. Form a group, or what I will now call a ‘Set’ or perhaps, in Polish ‘Zestaw’.
Here’s his biography.
Fig.1 Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ for e-learning
How can you assess what makes an online course from something so complex and varied?
The answer is to think through the components that are likely to be there, or need to be there, in every session, or phase of the learning.
During the Master of Arts Open and Distance Education (MAODE) that I took through The Open University (entirely online), we often created and used flowcharts of various forms. This appealed to me. Keep it simple.
Gilly Salmon was the star of the moment. For a while she was the queen of all things ‘e’ from e-learning to e-moderators and her eponymous’e-tivities’. That was a few years ago. As I predicted when I started the MAODE in 2010 the expression ‘e-learning’ would soon be reduced to ‘learning’ – out context is digital in 2016, is mobile too – it is learning whether done at a desk with a book, in a class face to face, or on your smart phone during the daily commute.
Gilly Salmon has a system called ‘The Five phases’ delightfully explained in a Blue Style presented video from Swinburne University.
I love it. Though in one of her books or papers, I forget which, she did liken learning online to building not with Lego, but with Lego ‘Technics’. In this video she uses kids’ coloured wooden building blocks.
I’ve gone along with this so that the system can be moderated and applied to the online learning that I am always doing: currently on Search Engine Optimisation (Coursera), Photography (Coursera) and French (Rosetta Stone). As well as the MAODE, and two further MAODE modules I did ‘to complete the set’, I have done some 27 other courses on Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs, First World War history, Climate Change, Arts in Medicine and much, more much.
Each course is made with familiar ingredients, though the recipe and outcome is always different. Some do it better than others. Some are poor. All could be better. Most will improve as the science behind learning online informs the educators where they are doing wrong. This is particularly the case I have found with Coursera who are on missions to analyse, research, share and improve every course that they offer.
Fig 2. Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ simplified.
This is how Gilly Salmon’s model looks laid out left to right. A softly softly opening with human intervention leads to every so slightly more involved learning and ends with a test or assignment of some kind.
Fig 3. How the building blocks are used. I would go further and give each shape meaning too.
The blue row represents people, an associate lecturer at the Open University, or a moderator. This, though ‘distance learning’ is more akin to ‘blended learning’ – this component of human involvement from the course tutors limits its scalability. Increasingly this blue row is fulfilled by the green row. The green row represents the technical side of things: the learning management system, the design and other digital support, easiest with copious and user-friendly ‘frequently asked questions’ (FAQs).
My own take on this is different.
This I take from the numerous online courses I have taken: starting in fact with one of the original Master of Arts Open and Distance Learning (MAODL) courses from the OU in 2001. I have taken multiple courses with FutureLearn, with Coursera, a few from Open Learn, specialist one-offs on MOOCs from various providers and language learning with Rosetta Stone (French and Spanish).
Fig 4. My own version of the ‘ideal’ e-learning or online course
Here, I have followed the same patterns and approach to suggest what I understand to be best practice for a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in 2016. For a start, the blue row should not be thought of as a person. The course design, the platform, ought to be intuitive enough and easy enough to follow without the need, for all the support and education benefits, of anyone from the course design team. How could a senior lecturer or professor engage with 10,000 or more students in any case. Far better to have the means for students to engage with each other. And where ‘constructed learning’ through collaboration is required maybe have self-selected and vetted student moderators taking an active role moderating forums and discussion threads: seeding conversations, acting as a catalyst for discussion and debate …
Of significant difference, from a learning design point of view, I introduce testing almost immediately. Simple testing, with a well-designed multiple-choice quiz for example, sets the tone for later, gets students engaged, and will build knowledge and familiarity with one assessment approach that should become a regular feature, and increasingly challenging as the module progresses. At Coursera learners are expected to gain an 80% grade in the formal assessments or not progress. You can, and have to repeat these, sometimes multiple times, going back over course materials three or four times even – this is what learning is about: not progressing until you have the concept in your head.
There’s a new row or column that needs to be added to this: monetization. In most cases these courses need to pay for two reasons: from a learning point of view people who pay for their course upfront are more likely to completed; from a funding perspective the creators of these platforms need to show a return. There are ample ways to make a course available free to the worthy.
Here’s some detail on each of these phases:
My aim is to develop a system to analyse online courses I do or have done.
I’m not looking for a ‘magic formula’ but rather simple indicators that can be shared with educators during the design phase, or when appraising a course after its first ‘presentation’ so that faults can be understood and fixed, strengths developed and repeated.
Ideas that are encouraged to fester mature at the most inconvenient of times
Often I find that I am up in early and keen to put my thinking into practice
Currently I am trying to develop a simple notation to show, share, explain and develop online courses. During the MAODE I completed in 2013 we often used flowcharts, one with an OU software package – these could become a bit tricksy. My answer was to set up plans of MDF shelving in the garden and get out a chess set to try and show the relationships between the required components.
Common thinking is that there are three parts to creating online learning: technical, human support and, of course, us students. Technical means the platform, its ease of access and intuitive use; human support means, in the case of The OU, the course chair, associate lecturer and us student (those who are familiar with the setup and the subject matter are encouraged to, and enable to help newcomers to the ways things are done, and to the subject when you get stuck).
Prof Gilly Salmon talks us through ‘the building blocks’ of an online course
Of note is a short, charming and engaging presentation made by former OU Business School Senior Lecturer, and now Prof Gilly Salmon at Swinburne University in New South Wales. Here, like a Blue Peter presenter, she uses a set of kid’s coloured building bricks to talk us through the components required to make an online course (OU style) that works.
How Gilly Salmon uses green, yellow, blue and red building blocks to show how to plan an online course.
Green = Technical
Yellow = The students or ‘learners’
Blue = Human support (i.e. in OU Land the ‘associate lecturer’)
Red = Assessment
As I am trying to develop a shorthand, language or ‘notation’ to be able to compare and create online course, I invested in my own set of building bricks. Once again I set up a length of MDF in the garden to play around with ways to communicate the nature and order in which these components appear.
The results have been enlightening.
It is extraordinary what happens when you start to get stuff out of your head, and especially valuable not to be confined by the parameters of a piece of software: it is so easy, and so necessary, when thinking things through to be able to play around with the pieces.
Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ revisited
Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ for e-learning using the bricks she used in her seminal video
For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that this ‘Five Stage Model’ is for a five week module from the OU.
The bottom row of green bricks represents the Learning Management System (LMS) on which the learning appears. The technical side of things includes accessibility, web usability, reliability and good ‘design architecture’ i.e. it works well, is clear, intuitive, reliable and follows the most common user behaviours for anyone online in 2016.
The middle row of yellow bricks (and one red one) represents learner activities, from a gentle introduction to the platform to engaging in activities, which typically includes nothing more complex that watching a video, reading text and doing research or doing a multiple choice quiz. The red brick represents formal assessment: at The OU, this would be a Tutor Marked Assignment (TMA) or End of Module Assignment (EMA).
The top row of blue bricks represents the human interface between the students and the education institution, in this case The OU. Here, typically, we are talking about live and as live contact via various platforms, though it can include phonecalls, ‘online hangouts’ and even a residential component to the course. At The OU there is an assigned Tutor or Associate Lecture who ‘handles’ a group of 8-12 students. It is this practice that is impossible to scale when it comes to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). You cannot employ 2,000 tutors to manage 16,000 to 24,000 students. Some MOOCs of many more participants than this!
It is this component too that is increasingly blended into, or comes out of the technical side of things, or from the students themselves. Firstly, increasingly detailed and easy to use Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) answer typical enquiries that students have, increasingly the ease of use of a platform is such that little to no support from the ‘team’ or ‘Technical Help Desk’ is required. At the same time, students are formally enrolled to conduct ‘peer review’ and when several do this for each submitted assignment a grade is come to in this way. The degree of student interaction, and the benefits of collaborative knowledge construction through this, is far harder to get going and sustain without the proactive role of the tutor or a moderator. When ‘classes’ are smaller, MA and PhD students are sometimes given a role to act as a catalyst for engagement and to answer enquiries and deal with some problems.
My own take on the ‘lay-out’ of a ‘typical’ MOOC is pedagogically different.
I believe that ‘assessment’, of the micro-quiz and multiple choice variety, is a crucial component of e-learning. This is engagement that obliges participants to think, even to struggle and repeat parts of the content, until the knowledge that matters begins to stick. Gilly Salmon’s model is one for ‘distance learning’ while today, especially the MOOCs coming from Coursera, test you from the start. This might be as simple as interrupting a six minute video piece with a two question ‘quiz’. I liken this to a teacher in class pausing, putting a question then taking an answer from one of the raised hands, or picking someone out. It makes you aware that you need to listen. You want to get these questions right even if they don’t count towards anything. It is a form of light gamification, while also preparing you for an 8 or 10 or more part set of questions at the end of a component of the learning where the answers need to be right, and are based on these earlier interjections. It matters that these are a genuine challenge, that the pass mark is 80%. An easy ride isn’t one that leaves you with much recollection of what you have been studying. A tough ride, as I find, and applaud, however frustrating, requires you to do a the week (typically a couple of hours) over, and sometimes over again … until you can pass.
Jonathan Vernon’s take on phases of the ideal ‘Massive Open Online Course’ where constant assessment is key
Here, drawing on the wide variety of online courses I have done: creative writing, photography, web science, language learning, history, psychology, medicine and the arts, climate change and more, I have tried to envisage an ideal format. Of course, subject matter, subject level and other criteria would immediately causes adjustments to this.
My five phases are:
Technically the platform needs to be solid. This technical side now encroaches on student support, not just from FAQs, but other ways the content and technology can step in to do what a person would have done in the past (and still does in blended courses). There might be video, there might even be some kind of AI to nurture some of the many thousands of students taking a MOOC. There is some kind of testing from the start. This might be nothing more than a check that students have understood some components of the introduction, but it gives them a taste of things to come; they will be doing these ‘quizzes’ regularly. If interaction between students can be encouraged then here, as early as possible, they need to be online in a ‘social’ like environment.
The second phase gentle eases students into learning proper. The technology is a solid ‘bridge’ into the content. Support is done through the platform for the most part rather than needing to call on a person. With many thousands on a course in many times zones around the globe how can a call centre of technical people be expected to be available?
The second phase repeats the second with more learning: the yellow brick. And a touch more testing.
With phase three we are up and running: support for activities, which can be as inventive as the course creators want and the technology and budget permits. Content is delivered in a variety of ways and testing continues in a style and manner that by now, if not a little later, will be formal, requiring an 80% pass rate.
Phase five, which segues into a phase six of sorts, is crunch time: formal assessment with a tough, longer quiz that has built on previous ones and a peer reviewed written assignment too. These need to be constructed with extraordinary skill and care given that students will be marking each other’s work, and where many, if not most, will not have English as their first language. As well as testing there should be a chance here to gather one’s thoughts, to reflect and even go over some of the learning in the course.This might also be the time for those who have become friends during the course to pick up the conversation on Facebook or in a LinkedIn group. It may also be the moment when you buy ‘the book’ on which the course was based, or sign up for the next module in the series.
In future posts I will use this approach to ‘strip down’ and re-assemble a number of MOOCs. For example, ‘Learning How to Learn’ from Coursera written and presented by Barb Oakley. I should also look on MOOCs I have done on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), on Photography and a variety of other subjects.
I feel that I have been challenged by the latest Coursera SEO Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) that I have done.
I was carefully taken through the detail of what I needed to know by the host Rebekah May from the University of California Davis, earlier quizzes had tested my knowledge as we went along and when it came to the formal quizzes (the ones that count towards your final grade and being able to continue the course) – there was no easy way to pass.
Twice in the module I had to go back a second, or a third time to make sure I had understood something before I could pass the ‘multiple choice questions. This was straightforward: I could listen and watch through all the video content – around two hours worth. Or try to identify the segment of 6 minutes or so that might give me the answer.
I took notes throughout this Coursera MOOC on SEO.
I am an active listener. These are sometimes enough to help me pass the quiz.
In this course the ‘Multiple Choice Questions’ and answers were carefully written and planned. They were a learning experience in themselves. They made you think. It made the learning stick.
For the last part of this module on Search Engine Optimisation I went back five or six times and was forced to concentrate, obliged to properly look at the extra reading and only then did I pass with the requisite 80%. You need to focus. You need to clear your head of other distractions.
Putting demands on the online learner in an online course, such is this MOOC from Coursera, is crucial
I’ve done online courses where 40% is acceptable as a pass mark and doing only 50% of the course is enough to count. This diminishes the learning experience and value.
Finally, the end of module assignment, probably far tougher than had been planned for, really did need the 8 hours as suggested to complete.
Once again, knowing my peer group, I knew that I would not be let off easily so I took my time, took care, did a draft, ‘slept on it’, added to it, checked again, then did my utmost to follow the requirements to the letter to make it easier for others to assess it. How I learn is informed by another Coursera Course from Barb Oakley: Learning How to Learn! I know that effort, that ‘time out’, that not understanding is part of the learning process … you just have to persevere.
Still reflecting on two days of intensive listening, discussing and brainstorming the future of education at the Coursera Partners’ Conference at The Hague, The Netherlands I conclude that education is becoming a branch of medicine: there is a science to education through neuroscience and psychology. Digital learning, which draws a mass attendance and participation through ‘Massive Open Online Courses‘ can be analysed, duplicated, shared, repeated, improved and gradually made universal. Might ‘fixing math’ or even reading across millions be akin to a Polio vaccination? Ways are being found to educate ‘on mass’ and to deliver to millions a common level of achievement.
Coursera, and organisations like it, are educating the world: anyone, any time, any where.
Only access is getting in the way: a broadband link or opportunity to stream or download content, take part in discussions and submit assignments; money to purchase the gadget – increasingly as smartphone over a tablet or laptop; time away from the daily task of staying alive: fetching water, gathering and preparing food, raising a family, working and completing chores; cultural objection to some receiving an education … freedom from oppression in the home, community and the politics of the region or country. Otherwise ‘the world’ can join in; hundreds of thousands take part in MOOCs. Coursera has over 18 million learners. FutureLearn, starting a year later, is catching up with 3 million. Coursera thinks of itself as a movement; some of its educators, such as Barb Oakley, are becoming its prophets. She has a readership, a following and fans.
There are early and late adopters: those who jump at innovation and others who shy away from it.
A study of ‘The Diffusion of Innovations‘ would be of value.
Why do some academics embrace learning online, the opportunity of sharing knowledge, ideas and thinking with hundreds of thousands rather than a handful of students at a time? Are they the ones who stuck with the horse and carriage when the motorcar came along? Are they the ones who use a fountain pen on lined paper rather than a wordpressor? Should be picture them as medieval knights with armoured helmets designed not to protect the head from blows from outside, but to keep the contents of their brain contained? Will they join the party?
What are the barriers to MOOCS from the most traditional educational establishments and their educational practices?
Can, for example, the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ be taught online?
I put this question to a gathering of Coursera staff and Coursera Partners at the 5th Coursera Partners’ Conference. The question I posed became the focus of the brainstorming session: in groups we scribbled as many reasons for resistance on Post Its which were duly adhered to a conference room wall, pondered over, grouped and categorised. Looking at some of the reasons it was felt that some institutions, faculties and individual academics simply feared the new and its disruptive force:
Learning Online, or ‘e-learning‘ despite its universal presence on campus through networks and WiFi is a practice or behaviour that may appear interesting in theory, and is used vicariously by all in practice where content and research online blurs the boundary between library and online resources, but it ‘isn’t for them’; they ‘don’t do online’ – something they say with sorrow in their eyes, not unlike when people say they ‘don’t do Facebook’ or ‘don’t have a TV’ – some people prefer to avoid change, or leave it to others. Is it an age thing? Are younger academics more in tune with the new ways?
The connectedness of social media dilutes the tutor-student relationship. A student may have their feet on campus, but their head ‘in the cloud’. Why shouldn’t they take a free online course from another institution while they attend lectures, seminars and tutorials at yours. Already they will draw papers and publications onto their laptop from digitised libraries rather than needing to wait in line to call something up from the stacks.
I fear that some educational institutions, those with a history of 750 years to hold them back, will suffer the way EMI has in the music industry. Perhaps one day neither academics, nor the students who follow them, will need these institutions. They’ll become museums; after all, they are already a tourist honeypot. Colleges at best will reinvent themselves and through the likes of AirBnB rooms will be let out on a rolling basis to a vast, shifting body of students at different stages of their education pass through all year around. Instead of the annual crush to fill examination halls, these rooms too will be used the year round as no other close scrutiny of student learning than the written examination can be found or relied upon.
Knowing academics, more so in research than teaching, they can operate in silos and cliques.
They cherish the privacy of their study and doing everything alone. The problem for them with this new way of learning is the feeling that only they could instigate and produce what they see as an exchange of knowledge that needs to pass from their heads to those of their select few students. Not having worked ‘in the real world’ of collaborative corporate teams they don’t understand the need for partners and facilitators to get their content into a consumable online, digital form. Perhaps they don’t know how easy it can be. Perhaps, it wouldn’t be surprising, they are perfectionists. They look at what is online and find it flawed or trivial. Often they don’t understand it. They know their subject, but beyond the paper, lecture or tutorial they haven’t used a mutable, interactive, connected, mass medium of knowledge transfer such as the MOOC. At best they confess that it is ‘not for them’ but invite you to talk to their younger colleagues. Or the American in the faculty. Where lies the answer: they should and could turn to their colleagues, the PhD students and undergraduates.
The idea that bureaucracy gets in the way is not unusual for any institution or organisation facing change. No matter the size some organisations find change easier than others. There has often been good reason why in the past change has taken time. Better to get it right and take a few years over it, that rush in early and get it wrong. There have been casualties in the race to put educational content online. A blended learning environment of sorts exists whether institutions and academics want it or not; students will communicate and share online, important collections, papers and books have been digitised. It may be a tough call to expect an outsider to instigate change. Some educational establishments are like the Vatican, a walled city of ceremony, hierarchy and procedure.
If we think of Oxford, my alma mater was Balliol College, and Cambridge by default, the examples of ‘traditional’ institutions that on a global scale hold top ranking faculties across many subjects still are these collegiate, federal institutions encumbered by the buildings from which they operate? Colleges, quads, studies and staircases, common rooms and dining halls, libraries and chapel? Are they encumbered by the times they keep: short, intense terms with a pattern that sees written examinations taken annually? Or does the digital ocean wash through them regardless? It is ironic that the Oxford Internet Institution, founded in 2001 encourages and even embraces multi-disciplinary, cross-faculty collaboration and learning, yet there are no MOOCs of its own that it can study. Education has become part of the science of the Web. Or can Oxford bide its time? Watch others succeed or fail then in good time leap frog the early adopters? It has the resources: the manpower and financial backing. Why then did Harvard not produce its own learning platform?
Some learning online gives it a bad name. In time institutions such as Oxford will have the evidence to make up their minds. What works and what does not. What will find a fit with Oxford, and what will not. Academics will work with learning designers and programmers, they will have analysts picking through performance and results, stars will be born and great minds discovered.
In the context of this brainstorming sessions ‘replication’ came to mean the transferability or otherwise of current education practices to the online environment. In particular the discussions was around assessment and grading. Institutions have different models and practices of course, with attendance mattering to many, and course work the way, whilst at Oxford and Cambridge the end of year and final exams remain the focus of academic effort and probity. Replication of what we do offline and putting it online doesn’t always work. Our ‘desktop’ on our computers does not have to look like a desk – though for a while in the 1990s some did. Some tests can be conducted online and identity proved. It isn’t so hard, The Open University has found, to identify someone who has been a student of theirs. Coursera, in the various courses, quizzes and assessments I have submitted want a screengrab of your face – cheats could overcome this for now, but the level of ID match, as passport control services in international airports are showing, can be hugely improved. Recreating the ‘Oxford Tutorial‘ will be the subject of another post. While the intimacy of a tutor to student one to one each week is hard to scale up to cater for hundreds of thousands at a time, there are qualities to forums and online discussions that are akin to this. FutureLearn has found a way to manage threaded discussions that run into a thousand posts or more: you can pick out a handful of commentators to follow, and therefore create your own bespoke ‘study group’ for example. A senior academic may ‘drop by’ in person, though more likely PhD and MA students will take part for the learning benefits to them to have a surrogate teaching and support role.
Time is money. Intimacy is costly. The tutorial system, where a senior academic for several hours a week sits with a small group of undergraduates, say two or three at most, requires time, space and place. Often these tutorials are one to one. The student isn’t charged £100 or £200 an hour, but if a figure were to be put on it, accounts might want to add an hour. They may not be lawyers, but the advice and support they give to an individual student could be charged in six minute increments. How do you scale it up? Artificial Intelligence? If anyone could or will do it, might a virtual Stephen Hawking one day take multiple physics tutorials where you the student interact with an avatar?
It all comes down to money.
For most of the seven centuries of its existence the students resident in Balliol College where there through privilege: they had the time and money to indulge a higher education. For a few decades it was free. In England a grant took you through your first degree, and if you wanted to take a second you often could. This indulgence, in England at least, is over. Oxbridge, like other universities in England (it differs in Wales and Scotland) can charge £9,000 per academic year – a fraction of the real cost, and nothing like the $45,000 a year in might cost for a student in the US. In much of ‘continental’ Europe higher education is still state, or department funded.
There is understandable resistance to put online and in theory give away for free, what others are paying for – whether that is the individual, or the government or region through grants or subsidised loans.
However, where we are citing Oxford and Cambridge, compared to many educational establishments they are both wealthy and able to call for donations from wealthy individuals and organisations. Cost should not be a barrier to an Oxbridge MOOC. Though, looking at MOOCs from Harvard, one has to wonder if money, and the perception it brings in production values, is off putting? If you ask 200,000 wannabe engineering students from around the world if they’d like to study at Oxford, Harvard or Cambridge how many might say ‘no’ ? It is interesting that the MOOC ‘Learning How To Learn’ by Barb Oakley of the University of Michigan, ‘shot’ in her basement and produced for around $5,000 could have more students enroll than ALL Harvard’s MOOCs combined. With simplicity and authenticity comes psychological accessibility. Barb Oakley is approachable, perhaps these ‘elite’ institutions are not? It has taken Oxford, for example, nearly 40 years to address the gender imbalance and imbalance of ‘private’ to ‘state’ educated students. For too many, the perception of the ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford is one of exclusion, academic snobbery and inaccessibility.
So does it all come down to ‘the brand’. Ironica that in a discussion on concerns that elite educational institutions have over change that such a modern, marketing term should be used. If Oxford can be brand savvy, then surely it is savvy enough about all other corproate practices and can, or is embracing change? But will it, or a faculty, or a professor with one strand be the first on the Coursera platform? Or will they use Edx or FutureLearn? Will they mix it up … or will they, or are they, creating their very own, exclusive, platform for ‘massive, open online courses’?
Finally, when is a MOOC not a MOOC?
For all this talk on the MOOC as some kind of immutable way forward for learning, while the ‘masssive’ cannot be denied with hundreds of thousands enrolling and tens of thousands completing such courses, how do you define ‘open’ when parts of MOOCs being closed to those who can pay a few to be assessed, or pay a fee for access to certain parts of a course? And is it ‘online’ if it can be downloaded? As soon as you have it on your device it is potentially as unconnected to the outside world as a book.
We are all learning how to learn online.