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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. 

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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 how to communicate the key components of a Massive Open Online Course

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).

 

GillySalmon5StageModel

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 5 Phase Flowchart

Gilly Salmon 5 Phase Flowchart

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.

JFV Supported MOOC 5 Phase Flowchart

JFV Supported MOOC 5 Phase Flowchart

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.

Why the Coursera Online Course on SEO works

CourseraSEO

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.

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