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How to read an online course
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.
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).
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.
Why the Coursera Online Course on SEO works
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.
Education is becoming a branch of medicine
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.
Development of the digital ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’
Prof. Gilly Salmon at a Coursera Event in The Hague, The Netherlands
Cousera has ‘more than’ 18 million learners. In her keynote at a the recent Coursera Partners Conference, Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said that Cousera is “so much more than a platform, it is movement”.
It is this very quality that is already recreating the ‘Oxbridge tutorial‘ online because where hundreds of mentors come forward, or are recruited ‘pro them’ to contribute and to take part in discussion, and to view assignments and even ‘buddy up’ with newcomers, part of the joint, collective outcome is ‘tutorial like’. This is possible even where several or even many different people are playing the role of the tutor as they are, as part of a common ‘movement’ ‘speaking with the same voice’.
Understanding how ‘movements’ come about, from the informality of a nebulous Zeitgeist to common political views, lifestyle choices and behaviours and religions would all help to recognise this. Having taken a Masters degree online and completed or taken part in well over 30 MOOCs my experience is that of the insider; as a learner, a lurker and ‘wannabe’ course creator. I have studied online with The Open University, Oxford Brookes University and through many universities on the Coursera, FutureLearn, Edx and Udacity platforms. What’s more, I have being sharing and learning online since 1999 and working in the world of ‘corporate training’ – I’ve been immersed in it for long enough to feel I have some sense of where it has come from and where new developments are founded. Perhaps this experience, knowledge and studying of online learning makes me better able than many to see and imagine where it could be headed.
Mobile is missing from the term ‘Massive Open Online Course‘, yet I’d argue that this too is enabling the recreation of the ‘tutorial’ because it is at the same time ‘intimate’ – two people in an exchange and shared – there are other ears in on the discussion. In ‘micro moments’ throughout the day we carry on multiple conversations through the devices we have in our pockets and bags. I have been part of collaborative groups of four to six people or so who over weeks from our locations on different continents around the world having tackled a problem and even become friends ‘of sorts’. I’d even say we from time to time, like students on campus, ‘broke out’ did our own thing and were disruptive.
I am privileged, for sure, to have experienced the ‘Oxford Tutorial’ first hand as an undergraduate studying Geography – my first degree in the 1980s. In a model Gilly Salmon uses to imply that education has been Education 1.0 (one point zero) and struggles to become Education 2.0 let alone to achieve the goals across nine criteria of Education 3.0′ yet I can argue and provide ample evidence that the collegiate, tutorial system, that has been the Oxford model for centuries (my college, Balliol, was founded in the 13th century) delivers Education 2.0 as its standard. It does this through ‘intimacy’ you are a small cohort, niche in terms of subject, housed in a college of a few hundred that includes the academics: lecturers, senior lecturers and the tenured professors.
It makes me realise too that when it comes to harnessing the power of learning through exchange between two, or a few people the Oxford I know – a model matched at Cambridge and Durham I believe in England, provides much more than just a professor and two or through students sitting in his or her study for an hour per week per topic.
Oxford fosters and nurtures making mistakes, through forming your own opinion rather than regurgitating and quoting back those of others, and in casual and formal debate you ‘construct’ meaning of your own.
‘Collegiate’ rather than campus, staircase rather than corridor in a hall of residence, eating together and ‘doing’ together is all part of this: you don’t just study together in a ‘tutor group’ but you may row, act or be in any of many other groups or associations – it’s the whole package that makes the tutorial possible.
The MA ODE that I did, I am a ‘Master of Arts: Open and Distance Education’ was, like many Open University courses based around a ‘tutor group’. The OU, founded in the 1960s as ‘the university of the airwaves’ to exploit radio and television as platforms for offering higher education ‘to all’ is a distance learning specialist, using course books too, and DVDs, though quickly online, as early as 1992 putting an MBA module online. I personally did a Masters level module entirely online with The OU in 2001. I only returned to complete my MA though in 2010-13. A cohort of 60 in five tutor groups of 12 or so study together for a ‘module’. There might be five modules you need over three to seven years to earn a degree with in my case seven only to pick through (though I have since ensured that I have done all seven). In theory I am on my way to earning an MEd too. It isn’t scalable in the sense of ‘massive’ – some tutors struggle with a handful of students and in the time they are paid to spend with students and marking three or four formally submitted assignments only a few can and want to take on the ‘tutor role’ as mentor and lead educator too.
All of these experiences though, the good and the bad, indicate to me what is possible and what is likely to happen. The nature of MOOCs and their attractiveness to all kinds of learner, from the ‘newbie’ to the Masters student wishing to refresh their knowledge means that ‘the community’ can, like globules forming and breaking apart in a lava-lamp, support multiple tutor groups. Indeed, FutureLearn, does this as they have addressed the problem of massive forums or discussion threads. How do you tame a thread then runs to over a thousand contributions from many hundreds of people? The answer is to support people to ‘edit’ down by their choice those they converse with, enable the picking out of replies personally to you and encouraging a mindset that dips in and out selectively rather than ever trying to follow every word of ‘the crowd’.
Aren’t tutorials one of the most natural human conditions? Is that not what, in part, parenting is? The knowledgeable parent passes on their experience and behaviour to the ’empty’ mind?
Bringing the power of the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ to MOOCs.
How can we recreate and therefore exploit the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial‘ – a powerful, weekly get together between professor and 1 or 2 learners traditionally used in the collegiate universities of Oxford and Cambridge, England, in a Massive Open Online Course? (MOOC).
Outrageously ambitious, audacious and naive I have been wondering of the qualities of the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ could be taken online and made ‘massive’ – i.e. delivered to 1,000, or 10,000 or more at a time. Putting this thought to an academic while discussing their ‘poster’ on a paper they had published I was pointed towards an online course on Coursera; Business Model Canvas. Overnight I did a week’s worth of modules and have no posted my challenge.
I’ve had the extraordinary privilege to recently meet two people in person under whom I have only studied online (or in a book): Barb Oakley of ‘Learning How to Learn’ ‘fame’ and Gilly Salmon who coined the terms ‘e-tivities’ and ‘e-mentors’. Things they both said, or revealed has me wondering if this challenge I have set is counterproductive or even irrelevant: that these ‘elites’ such as Harvard, Cambridge and Oxford are by their nature exclusive and therefore too daunting and off putting to ever be ‘massive’.
Barb Oakley’s MOOC has had more students than ALL the students who have ever done all of the Harvard MOOCs combined! Gilly Salmon using a model that suggests a matrix that is or could shift from Education 1.0 (one point zero) to 3.0 considered how much Coursera has achieved so far – I think the prompt from her interviewer was meant to have her waving the orange, blue and white flag of educational revolution, but she didn’t, in fact she felt that as far as e way we learn she felt that ‘Coursera’ we’re so far only getting 1 or 2 things right.
She’s right to be cautious. She knows her history when it comes to innovation and change and may well have studied it and taught it during her tenure at the Open University Business School.
The truth is these MOOCs still look, sound and feel like traditional learning. While the platform will be a ‘Coursera’ and others in the market for MOOCs, and others that are yet to be created – or exist already (don’t forget the power of YouTube), I put my ‘money’ on the ‘little guy’ – the modest, authentic, DIYer who has a skill or putting ideas across in a way that is memorable, makes sense and is academically ‘sound’. I think of Barb Oakley, rather incongruously as a kind of ‘Joan of Arc’ too: followers and gatherers turn their heads when they hear the ‘truth’ spoken from the more unlikely candidate. She’s an engineer, not from education. Let’s have an artist teach anatomy, a business Prof teach poetry, a mathematician teach sports science, a data scientist teach graphic design, a geographer teach Spanish.
Gilly Salmon wants those of us who hanker about teaching online to be ‘e-minators’ (read her books, she loves putting e- in front of things). Pronounce this ’emanator’. By this she is trying to get away from anything that has the teacher as the ‘font of all knowledge’ trying to unzip their head and pour the content into your head, the old paradigm of ‘knowledge transfer’. Rather educators should be enablers or catalysts. Let students do and find out more for themselves in their own way.
Returning therefore to this concept of the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial‘ – the 5,000 ‘elite’ educators in the world, if there are so many, cannot go 1 to 1, or even 1 to 3 with the 80m or more hankering after a university education. We have to compromise and expand to include ‘associate lecturers’ or ‘teaching assistants’ as well as ‘mentors’ even ‘learning buddies’. Creating an Artificial Intelligence ‘AI’ professor is surely not the solution either: it won’t turn out like that just as we don’t see robot mechanics looking like men assembling cars in automated factories. Maybe they’ll be a voice and then thought activated implant in our brains? Or might a tutor try to run a huge ‘stable’ of students by using data capture, grading metrics and the like from a hub, like a Grand Master in chess playing 27 simultaneous games our ‘blog-jockey prof’ running as many tutorials simultaneously around the world as their students wake up, go online and share a thought. Might typed text in these interactions be ‘data mined’ and analysed automatically to some degree?
Coursera Partners Conference 2016
The City Centre, The Hague, The Netherlands
Gumption and enthusiasm has me attending the Fourth Annual Global Coursera Partner Conference at The World Forum, The Hague, The Netherlands … The World, I feel like adding.
Four years ago I will have been in my final modules of the Master of Arts: Open and Distance Education and wowing Daphne Koller’s TED lecture on the future of learning. She went on to co-found Coursera.
Well, I’ve sat behind her in conference, brushed passed her in various meetings, breakouts and hallways and all in all behaved like a shy fan. I’ll introduce myself to her: everyone does, I’ve met so many of her team. I’d be wrong to compare it to being at ‘Court’ and trying to gravitate towards the ‘centre of power’ – there’s no snobbery at all, just a preponderance of Americans with laid-back California shuffling up against the perceived formalities of Europe.
I’m here, in The Hague, (first time to The Netherlands) because of an online discussion at the conclusion of the Coursera MOOC ‘Learning How to Learn’ a few days ago. Dr Barbara Oakley invited her online students to come to the Marriot Hotel on Sunday night for a ‘meet up’.
I realise now that this was a ‘reach out’ to some of the 14,000, or was it 140,000 students who did this short online course in January this year. I made it 30 minutes late to the meet-up having flown in on the EasyJet flight from Gatwick. It was like fans at a book signing (books were signed).
Registered to attend the 4th annual Coursera Partner Conference.
I had convinced the organisers that I was responsible, genuine, interested and willing to contribute, and come out for three days.
And yes, I met Barbara Oakley, the course chair, author and presenter of ‘Learning How to Learn’. She spotted me looking sheepish and us Brits are (and do), came over, must have recognised me from a profile photo (the one above that I use everywhere) and made me feel welcome, acknowledging a short email exchange we’d had that morning that had given me the green light with the organisers.
Two hours of ‘networking’ with Barb’s other students who had come in from within 50 miles of the Marriot Hotel, The Hague and my first moments of the conference are done.
Yesterday the 4th Coursera Partner Conference started at 6.00am.
I was out of the hotel door at 7.00am and making small talk with other delegates ten minutes later. The very first person I met, from California, turned out to have ‘gotten’ into the Coursera Conference under the same pretext as me: a ‘student’ of online learning, a ‘student’ of ‘Learning How to Learn’ not an official ‘partner’ … and soon keen to hear all about the MAODE, which I ‘sold’ to her.
Just over 12 hours later I was trying to leave the conference, after keynotes, breakouts, workshops, poster pitches, creative brainstorming, and friendly banter and networking at every coffee and meal break. I say ‘trying’ because I realised that as I left the World Forum (a vast, to my eyes ‘Commonwealth’ like UN edifice) that I was taking a mental break from it all by ‘looking for a picture’ and photographing some colourful chairs in the entrance lobby.
I say ‘trying’ as a delegate, one of the 550 or the 600 I had not yet met, offered to take my picture thinking I was itching to do a selfie and we soon got talking about the conference, and because she is Dutch, the wonders of The Netherlands and The Hague. She thought I’d have been better off staying in a hotel in the city Centre, a 10 mins tram ride up the road. She recommended which museums I could fit into my 1/2 day I have given myself on Wednesday.
Ironically, I was taking photographs as part of another Coursera course I am doing” ‘Photography: Basics and Beyond’, a hobbyist one.
I got back to the hotel and even found the energy to do 30 mins of that: I know from experience never to get behind with studying – a little bit everyday is the only answer.
Writing up a day that packed in a week’s worth of experience
I’d like to think I have a couple of weeks of thinking and writing to sort through it all. I realise now I ought to have recorded the ’30 second pitches’ of all the ‘Posters’ I stood beside (these are infographic summaries printed onto A1 sheets of academic papers – in this case on studies into e-learning, and of Coursera MOOCs in particular).
The content I share from the 4th Coursera Partner Conference will be written with the respect it deserves. Some information is under a press embargo for another week. I met people who use competitive platforms, such as EdEx and Udacity, so a degree of ‘openness’ is apparent. I haven’t met anyone yet who uses The OU offshoot ‘FutureLearn’ as a platform.
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.
9 ways to create the perfect online course
Fig.1 Mosaic by featured in the University of Cape Town FutureLearn course ‘Medicine and the Arts’
Don’t call MOOCs MOOCs, they are ‘courses.’
Don’t even call them online courses. I suppose therefore, don’t call it e-learning either or even online learning … it is simply ‘learning’. I am on my eighth or ninth course with FutureLearn. I may have three or four open at any one time and complete two of these at least. I love ‘Medicine and the Arts’ from the University of Cape Town while I am both maddened and intrigued by ‘The Mind if Flat’ from Nick Chater. I’m certain that online courses longer than a couple of weeks should not be treated like books or TV programmes. What works best, as the University of Cape Town shows, is to get the entire team involved. They have a lead host and presenter who each week introduces several colleagues, something like four to six each week. It is stimulating and necessary to hear from so many different voices.
1. The Platform Provider
Brand and technical aspects. Think of this as the channel. It has both technical and brand qualities. Is it smart? Is it current? Does it all work faultlessly? Is it intuitive? Is it simple? I’ve done many FutureLearn courses but struggle every time with Coursera and EdX. Feedback on Udacity is dire from both suppliers and users.
2. Funding/Cost or Cost Benefit
You can’t make a movie in $125,000 dollars. If a 30 point 16 week distance learning course from the OU costs £1.5m to produce should a 3 week MOOC cost up to £300k? It’s a poor comparison is the cash cost may be a fraction of this: a university team’s job is to plan a programme of teaching anyhow. What matters is how a budget is spent. The learning designer for an online course is like the scriptwriter for a movie: they provide the blueprint. Is the investment worth it?
3. The Subject Matter
Are you true to your subject? Don’t try to be something you are not. Is it ‘made’ for an online course, rather than shoe-horned from a regular, traditional ‘classroom’ lesson plan? Would it be better served on a different platform in a different way? Can you teach sports coaches or movie directors online? Or rather, what can you, and what can you not teach them? Are you fully exploiting the affordances of the platform and easily linked to alternatives on the Internet.
Who do you attract and is this the same as who you get? Who do you attract by level of education, age, gender, culture and location. Are you getting the audience you want as participants? The contribution participants make is crucial. Are there enough active voices to sustain this? Be aware of the extreme differences in digital literacy skills and competences. Do you know your audience? How do you relate to those who start the course? Do you try to appeal to multiple ‘personas’ – a dozen student character types, as the Open University does, or do you appeal to one person only, as an author would do?
One advocate over more than a couple of weeks will tire. It will feel like an ego trip any way. How good is the mix of contributors? Both in what they have to saw and show, and their levels of and variety of experience. An online course is not necessarily akin to a TV documentary that can be carried by a single presenter. Is it a one man show or a team effort?
What are the hidden and implicit goals? To attract students, to build reputation, for the good of mankind? To make money? To massage an ego? What do results say in terms of those completing a course? Doing assignments and getting to the end then singing the praises of the team? Another guide can be whether as a production fulfils the initial Creative Brief. Both qualitative and quantitative research is required to provide answers.
7. Brand and creation/production values
Is is possible to stay true to your own brand, even have a distinct image, when on someone else’s platform? Are the values of the design, creation and delivery consistent with the standards and image of your institution? If not publishing, and not TV what is it? It cannot be a lecture series with a reading list and essay put online. It has to pick the strengths from individual media platforms to succeed in this multimedia setting.
These must never be taken lightly. There are examples of trite, ill-thought through multiple-choice quizzes: these are a learning opportunity. A good quiz makes you think, challenges your knowledge, and provides feedback whether you get it right or wrong. Bravely ‘Medicine and the Arts’ has both quizzes and a regular written assignments. These are not onerous yet some participants are scared by a 300 to 500 word piece of writing. They oblige you to read back through the week’s activities before replying.
How ‘sticky’ is the content? Has it got people talking to each other, not simply replying to the headline. Are people connecting as ‘friends?’ Are they continuing this relationship beyond the ‘walled garden’ of the ‘open’ learning site? Does interest in the subject, in the presenters and the institution ‘have legs’ – does it last for the years before a person may make the time, and raise the funds, to take a formal course?