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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.

23 ways to an e-learning fix

Fig.1 Grab from a BBC Horizon programme on the brain. 2014.

The courses I’ve done with FutureLearn over the last 18 months.

  1. World War 1: A history in 100 Stories: Monash University
  2. Medicine and the Arts: The University of Cape Town 
  3. The Mind is Flat: University of Warwick 
  4. Understanding Drugs and Addiction. King’s College, London 
  5. World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism. University of Leeds
  6. Explore Filmmaking: National Film and Television School 
  7. How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham
  8. Start Writing Fiction: Fall 2014. The Open University
  9. Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: The Open University 
  10. World War 1: Aviation Comes of Age: University of Birmingham 
  11. World War 1: Paris 1919 – A New World: University of Glasgow 
  12. How to Succeed at: Writing Applications: The University of Sheffield 
  13. Introduction to Forensic Science: University of Strathclyde, Glasgow 
  14. Shakespeare’s Hamlet: University of Birmingham
  15. Climate Change: Challenges and Solution. University of Exeter
  16. Managing my Money: The Open University
  17. Community Journalism: Cardiff University
  18. Developing Your Research Project: University of Southampton

Those I’m on or have pending

  1. World War 1: A 100 Stories: Monash University
  2. Start Writing Fiction: Spring 2015: The Open University
  3. Monitoring Climate From Space: European Space Agency
  4. Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum: University of Leicester
  5. Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales:  The Hans Christian Andersen Centre

My love of learning thrilled by some of the online courses with FutureLearn

Fig.1 Medicine and the arts. The University of Cape Town. FutureLearn 2015. Mosaic by Lovell Freidman.

I’ve completed many online courses because of an insatiable delight in learning; without any hesitation of the 12 courses thus far done with FutureLearn and five years studying formally online … and before that in a regular university and at college, the course ‘Medicine and that Arts’ from the University of Cape Town has been one of the most professional, comprehensive, insightful and dare I say it even ‘entertaining’ pieces of online learning I have done. It will repeat every year, so do watch out for its next presentation.

Fig.2 Medicine and the arts. The University of Cape Town. FutureLearn 2015. Mosaic by Lovell Freidman.

Great videos, and graphics, a balance of views, a variety of approaches (video, text, audio, quizzes and assignments) engaging conversations with fellow participants, an extraordinary wealth of speakers, moments of magic, and shock, and inspiration. I will return for more … and to get my 89% completion up to 100%.

Fig.3 Medicine and the arts. The University of Cape Town. FutureLearn 2015. 

The course creators at the University of Cape Town and the support they will have had from FutureLearn should make them deservedly hugely proud. I would not be surprised to find several awards coming to this course: it is one all involved in learning, and especially learning online, should come and view and do then emulate.

How we create fictional characters in our mind.

How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham [Two Weeks] (3 hours pw)

100% completed

Aimed at undergraduate academics of English Literature, possibly even third year or masters level. I have had to spend more time with the reading than I expected in order to grasp the main thesis relating to ‘Theory of Mind’. It is proving complementary to ‘Start Writing Fiction’ as it shows how we conceive of, and follow imagined and real characters in a world, in our heads, that is always part factual, part fictional.

Where to learn about drugs and addiction

Understanding Drugs and Addiction. King’s College, London [SIx Weeks] (4 hours pw)
91% completed

A serious subject covered comprehensively through short pieces to camera by a team of experts. The rich conversations with every activity feed off some important lessons on addiction in relation, specifically to tobacco, heroin, cannabis and alcohol. The quizzes complement the course: masterfully written to test and reinforce the lessons. With just enough further reader.

Why the mind is flat … in 100 lessons, in 30 hours over six weeks!

The Mind is Flat: University of Warwick [Six Weeks] (5 hours pw)

67% 

A challenge in many ways. As Nick Chater carries the entire course, with aplomb, one feels as if you are in the presence of Socrates: there is a dominant voice – his. Perhaps because he is the expert in this niche. That said, there are many interviews, which although he may conduct are carried substantially by the interviewee. The subject matter is mind boggling and breathtaking. If you’re not familiar with the subject it can take a few reads of the transcript to get on top of it. The weekly roundups and better than anything I’ve come across: a comprehensive, reasoned selection of the key ideas and the thinking behind them. The ‘experiments’ are exceptionally good – a treasure to indulge and a surprise always with the results. The FutureLearn quizzes are used less well: too much like multi guess, that multi-choice.

Why I’m loving learning about medicine and the arts

Medicine and the Arts: The University of Cape Town [Six Weeks] (3 hours pw) 68% completed

A couple of weeks to go. I’ve been on track and usually with fellow participants on this exciting, invigorating, inventive and important course. I would hold this up as the standard to copy: a team of contributors, the most senior and influence academics, and many other vibrant educators, health staff, performers and creatives. Most if not all the FutureLearn learning tools are used, so activities include short videos, all professionally shot and modest in length, micro-assignments of 350 that are peer reviewed, well-thought through multiple-choice quizzes, additional reading and of course rich, insightful discussions with fellow participants. The icing on the cake are the glorious mosaic graphics: photographs of a huge mural on the University of Cape Town campus.

WORLD WAR 1: A HISTORY IN 100 STORIES

WORLD WAR 1: A HISTORY IN 100 STORIES: Monash University [Six Weeks] (4 hours pw)
6% [Just started]

With its heart in Australia and the experience of ANZAC combatants and families this course has a rich variety of contributors and approaches. There are the mandatory short ‘pieces to camera’ by academics and contributors, but also short films, further reading to follow and a modest written assignment – to write an epitaph.

Reading and writing with fresh eyes

From Writing

Fig.1. Philip Pirrip is confronted by the ‘fearful man, all in course gray … ‘

Start Writing Fiction is a FutureLearn Course. Its content makes up part of an OpenLearn Course. It is a thread in the Creative Writing Course here at the OU.Three months on having completed the course it is about to repeat. I’ll be there.

From E-Learning IV

Fig.2. How we learn in the 21st century. J F Vernon E-learning (2011)

We learn through repetition; not simply learning by rote.

We learn through passing through the same loop over and over again. There is nothing so special about graduation, gaining an MA, a PhD or achieving the lofty status of ‘professor’ so long as you are willing to climb, as if on a thermal, one focused ever ascending loop seeing the same thing over and over again in new light, until, through insight or height from the ground you see something new and have something new to say.

There are some key lessons to learn from ‘Start Writing Fiction; (SWF)’ though it is never the whole story – for that you need to sign up to a graduate course on Creative Writing. There’s plenty to work with though. I look forward to being reminded what matters. It kicks off again on 27th April and runs for three months.

Reading matters as much as writing.

The precocious child who read copious volumes and gets into literature in their early teens has an advantage. I was slow to read and reluctant to read. The only novels I may have read as a child were forced on me through school. Even in my teens as I read ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Silas Marner’ for O’ Levels and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ for A’ Levels I did say like a parrot: If I picked up an ‘B’ grade at both levels it was only because I regurgitated precisely what I had been tutored to put down.

Over three decades later, 33/35 years later to be exact if I check my diary from that time, I am reading Dickens with fresh eyes.

My late mother bought me a second hand edition of all the Dickens novels. I never read one. I now have ‘Great Expectations’ for free courtesy of ‘Project Guttenberg’ on my Kindle. I am reading it with lessons from ‘Start Writing Fiction’ in the front of my mind. SWF concentrates on the key, though not only component, of good writing: character. I am chewing over every line of Dickens with a rye smile on my face: I see what he’s doing with Pip, with the escaped convict from the hulk, his older sister and her husband Joe the Blacksmith, with Miss Haversham and Estella. If ‘character is plot’ then the plot moves, in a series of steps, over the heads of each character. We are carried by Pip with repeated moments of laugh out loud insights to a child’s perception and feelings for the world. How had I not see this before?

For the umpteenth time I am doing what doesn’t come naturally to me: I should be painting, not writing.

Intellectually I feel like the child who is left handed who had than arm tied behind his back as a child to force him to write against his will with his right. I have managed well enough, but it is against character and it is too late to correct? I need to work with words as the text that describes what I see. Text has other values too of course. It can carry a story beyond a single canvas.

A creative writing tutor, editor and author – former opera singer and opera director – Susannah Waters in reviewing my writing on a retreat last September gave me more than SWF can do on its own. An A4 sheet torn in half offers the following tips on ‘Scene Building:’

  • Who am I?
  • Stay in the person’s head
  • Put me in the place

She expands on these.

Every line of ‘Great Expectations’ is in Pip’s voice, written as autobiography much later in life, in the moment, capturing for now, his wonder, fear, feelings and hopes. It helps me enormously as I try to construct a story of my own set  in the couple of decades 1966 to 1986, rather than 1820 to 1860. Characters don’t change, technology and society does. It helps me to contain my imagination and fears as I feel it falling apart. Character will hold it together; each character needs to surprise.

I wish I could find the link to the BBC Radio 4 programme in which an author, Michael Morpurgo or Alexander McCall Smith talks about writing; it was on over the last three weeks. Or was it on TV?! Tips and devices were spoken of, but what had most resonance for me was the idea that an authors wonder at even the most mundane creates interest for the reader.

I used to discount Dickens as old fashioned; I now feel that I am reading Dickens with the same wonder of someone who has broken through the fog of a new language and is becoming fluent. Can I now translate this into my own writing? For now the juggling game I am playing is my writing in one hand, Dickens in the other.

Sharing where I stand matters hugely. Knowing that others are following my journey and are supportive matters: it keeps me going. Being online matters. It is the next best thing to standing on a soapbox in the local park and reading passages from my efforts. Feedback matters as it guides you.

On this retreat last September we read out our work, actually Susannah read my piece for me as I wanted to hear it from a different voice. We were around an open fire in a cottage in Devon. Telling stories around a fire takes you back to the origins of storytelling; what must you say to hold their attention, to keep them entertained, to make them cry (I did with that one), to make them laugh, fear, hope, clap, get angry … and ponder, even panic over the outcome. In that story I had a soldier in the First World War slowly sinking into mud, up to his chest and neck … screaming for life.

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