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Online Learning Revisited

It won’t get me a job as a learning technologist (aka technician) but I’ve said it (in a presentation interview online) and will repeat it now and develop the argument, that the best learning experience a student can have is you in the room with them; if this cannot happen, then it is you LIVE, online, talking them through a topic, guiding them and praising them, correcting them and challenging them, responding to their individual stops and starts. Of course, one to one is not scalable. Nor is it sexy tech. So there have to be compromises.

In my five years completing a Masters in Open and Distance Education (MAODE) with the Open University, taking the five required modules, and in due course another two or three to complete the ‘set’ I can recall two positive modules and equally positive experiences – and outstanding results. No longer the 42/53 and odd 70 I got in other (and admittedly earlier modules), but 92/93 – If I’d retaken the entire MAODE I guess I might have gained a Distinction. Though I am certain I would have needed the kind of support these tutors provided, but they only provided that support on their modules.

This was all online, ‘at a distance’ and very little of it was live. Rather we were ‘as live’ as much as anything putting content into a common OU Student Blog that our tutor and fellow students could dip into. I know that one or two students did outstandingly well and barely interacted at all … but I’m a social learner, I like the praise, I like to be ticked off and corrected too – and to put awkward questions, and to ask ‘why?’ over and over again. I don’t mean to be annoying but when I don’t ‘get it’ I just don’t and it takes a new angle, a new link, something else to read, a chance comment, an analogy or visualisation to get me over the line. Then once I understand it, I really understand it ūüôā I wear it on my sleeve, it is tattooed into my brain.

So where does this leave online learning?

It requires engagement, it requires responsiveness to the individual, even tailor-made – it requires direct engagement from the tutor – ideally the course chair, and where not that someone highly qualified in the subject – NOT a ‘nanny’ moderator who knows f*** all on the topic. Expertise matures over time, it is not last year’s PhD student or this years MA student, it is ideally a professor, or a senior lecture, who lives and breathes their subject.

But how can this be scaled up to teach hundreds, even thousands?

When I last checked there were over 223 million young people around the world hoping to go into tertiary education. There aren’t the professors and senior lecturers to teach them. So we have to create learning, create learning, gamify it, modulerise it, make it ‘smart’ and compromise. AI will do a better job that some tutors and mentors in due course – what is the point of a jobsworth mentor/tutor who restricts their engagement with you to a couple of hours on a Thursday evening – because, they tell you, they are only paid X to do X hours. This is where you need people who teach as a vocation, whatever the risk is to exploitation. This is for their line manager to protect them from, their union to negotiate or challenge if it goes wrong. Can a Chatbot behave like someone whose vocation it is to teach? To experience students finding and developing their strengths?

You have to make the time. And where time is limited you have to use Tech to make more time available – but it is always diluted. Online learning needs to be simple and effective for very particular tasks – I love the determined simplicity of the language learning platform LingVist for example. Involved tangentially in the development of a language learning platform in 2000/2001 I have followed developments closely, tried many apps and approaches (including failed attempts at an A’ Level, and even a undergraduate degree).

In conclusion

Online learning in the form of a course or module must be offered in a multitude of ways to provide a complete experience which includes live/as live, interaction, solo study, old fashioned reading and essay writing, lectures too, as well as smarter IT elements to ingrain specific necessary elements which are suited to a Tech approach.

G Suite for Education launched at The OU

 

G Suite Collage

This surely spells the end of some of their own clunkier, often experimental, though always engaging platforms and tools. These are tools I first used in 2001 and picked up a decade later. The OU were in the vanguard of putting education online. Sadly the recent news from The OU is deeply worrying as the level of ‘disruption’, not least with Google For Education and Google per se, but the colossal Coursera.

As an alumnus, forever a potential future student I am still registered and active on my OU Student Blog which I started eight years ago,

G Suite for Education is on my personal Google account, and in my day job where I am well through training to be a Google Educator Level 1 (Certified).

This is above my account – activated 9 days. I have been Google since the start, transferring to Docs, Slides and Sheets to rid my life of hideous Word, PowerPoint and Excel. It has grown gently from a basic and easy to use set of Apps, to a suite of simple to use, intuitive and connected tools that create the most versatile of learning set-ups.

Anyone can sign up for it. Just move your online life over to Google and ditch Microsoft everything for ever.

Get connected, collaborate, use ‘live’ docs and Classroom. Build interactive assignments and share to your students and follow their progress until they submit work for grading …

 

Will The OU ever be like other universities ? That’s how to compete

Positivity

This is both a reminder to me, and a suggestion to others. I find that far more is achieved by being positive and ‘can do’ without being overly enthusiastic to the point of being unreasonable. I am prone to say ‘yes’ to any request I get from people to do a thing. I was brought up where all request were met with a firm ‘no’ before I had even finished my sentence … It’s taken a few decades to get over that one.

Meanwhile, as I emerge from a temporary ‘blank’ where I went off radar with viral bronchitis that turned into bacterial bronchitis I am starting to feel refreshed and even re-invigorated.

The world of e-Learning is my future and at last I have a stake in it as a ‘Learning Technologist’.

Many years ago I opted to get into TV from the bottom, not as a trainee producer. I got to make coffee, type up scripts, prepare budgets, organise presenters and actors … and in time to liase with agents, to edit, to write scripts and direct.

I would have loved an apprenticeship, even an old fashioned ‘Technical College’ to my academic training at Oxford, even, to some degree to the mixed academic/hands on experience of the Open University MA in Open and Distance Education. ‘Getting Your Hands’ dirty as soon as possible matters.

Think of working online as more like learning to cook or garden. You will never learn to garden or cook simply by reading books, attending lectures and seminars, researching and writing essays: you must do.

I would also hope and encourage people who study part-time to be ‘in the business’ they are studying – I was too tangential to it and so lacked the insight of a practising teacher (in primary, tertiary, or secondary).

Meanwhile, good luck Open University in a world where every university is rapidly offering distance learning online ala OU. Their mistake was to launch FutureLearn instead of developing this as an in-house project. Their need is to compete with other universities by having a residential campus for undergraduates and graduates – beat the new players at their own game with far better, and established online and blended learning.

As I expressed here six years ago, one day every university will be like the OU, but will the OU ever be like other universities and have 10,000 campus based undergraduates and postgraduates on site?

How to read an online course

Gilly Salmon Five Phases

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.

Gilly Salmon 5 Phase Flowchart

Gilly Salmon 5 Phase Flowchart

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.

Model of Phase OneFig 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).

Ideal Supported 6 Phase Flowchart

Ideal Supported 6 Phase Flowchart

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 Рthis 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:

JFV Phase One MAX

Learning Online Phase Two JFV

Learning Online Phase Two JFV

Online Learning Phase Three JFV

Online Learning Phase Four JFV

Online Learning Phase Four JFV

Phase Five Online Learning

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.

5 Free Online Courses on the First World War from FutureLearn

From WW1 FL Memorials

Fig.1 The Response, Newcastle

There are several ways to enter thinking relating to the First World War courtesy of Open University subsidiary FutureLearn. Each of the First World War courses takes a different tack: aviation, Paris Treaty, idea of heroism and coming up soon, through one hundred personal stories.

During the recent course on heroism we were asked to share images of out favourite First World War Memorials.

Born and raised in Newcastle my late mother went to the Art School on the other side of the road, then King’s College, Durham. She often talked of this memorial, knew its history and had done studies of it as a student.

From WW1 FL Memorials

Fig.2. Lewes War Memorial

I know Lewes War Memorial as I have lived here for nearly 15 years. As a member of a bonfire society we stop at the memorial every 5th November … so whether there is a centenary or not, we make a lot of fuss about it. This memorial features online where Steve George has pinned every name to an address in the town. This make for very painful viewing as you realise how many households lost husbands and sons to the war.

From WW1 FL Memorials

Fig.3 My late mother and grandfather at the Tynecot Cemetery marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres).

If I were to add a couple of other memorials it would be the extraordinary First World War memorial to mariners at Tower Hill with sumptuous stone carvings around the miniature garden where it is set, and the oddly incongruous memorial to the Machine Gun Corps at Hyde Park Corner which shows the figure of Boy David. I was a standard barer at a memorial to the 75th anniversary of the formation of the Machine Gun Corps in which my late grandfather had served … he was there too, age 94.

From WW1 FL Memorials

Fig.4. The Tower Hills memorial to mariners of the First World War

And most recently, at my daughter and son’s school, I came across this extraordinary mural that fills the assembly hall of the old Grammar School. Surely this achieves its goal of creating a lasting memory amongst students?

Fig. 5 Brighton Grammar School First World War commemoration mural

My First World War Future Learn (MOOCs) … online courses:

Coming up:

World War 1: History in a 100 Stories Follow at #FLww1stories  Starts 13th April. Duration Five Weeks. Study time: Four hours a week.

Completed with repeat dates:

World War 1: Trauma and Memory Follow at #FLTrauma15  Starts 25th May. Duration Three Weeks. Study time: Two hours a week.

World War 1: A New World Order (The Paris Treaty of 1919) Follow at #FLtreaty Starts 22 June. Duration Three Weeks. Study time: Five hours a week.

World War 1: Aviation Follow at #FLaviation Starts 13th July. Duration Three Weeks, Study time: Three hours a week.

World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism Follow at  TBA. Duration Three Weeks. Study time: Four hours a week.

Having completed all but World War 1: History in a 100 Stories my sincere suggestion would be to set aside seven hours a week. I aim to do an hour a day during the week and complete on Friday. I generally achieve this unless I get deeply engrosses in the conversation, or have to go over a point a few times to understand it. Maybe 45 minutes every day then. Skip the discussions and these are easily done: then it becomes akin to watching a bit of TV and reading a few leaflets Рnot the same as testing your thoughts, and having your ideas tested, turned around, built upon and altered.

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‚Äôt 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‚Äôt try to be something you are not. Is it ‚Äėmade‚Äô for an online course, rather than shoe-horned from a regular, traditional ‚Äėclassroom‚Äô 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.

4. Audience

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?

5. Champions

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?

6. Objectives

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.

8. Assessment

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.

9. Connectedness

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?

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.

1,783,027 words, 1,879 entries over 5,091 pages if printed off. 

This how I left my first blog. Jonathan.Diaryland.com

It barely scratches the surface of the memories a brain can recreate. I tried. I have in there repeated efforts to recall the very first things I could ever feasibly have formed as viable memories: or were they words and images put into my head by my mother much later? I also noticed that in the comments I have two years of conversations with the now published author Catherine Valente and, would that I could verify it, a short exchange with Norman Mailer.

This diary is on ‘Diaryland;’ started in September 1999, finally ended in March 2006.

It feels like landfill: there’s so much stuff in there rotting away. Though it doesn’t, it’s digital. Closed because while I don’t give a monkey’s about writing on everything I have done, thought about or think where people can be identified it could cause embarrassment and offence. It took me a few years to realise that if I was receiving 200+ views an hour some of these people might know me.

No one I knew ever, ever said they were there. Not for a long time.

Perhaps they knew I’d close it down if they let on? I tried to obscure names and locations but that just got very confusing. I held a mirror along the Pennines and set everything that had taken place in Northumberland in Cumbria and vice versa. For people’s names I tried initials, so taking ¬†‘JV,’ for me is a giveaway, so I ‘cleverly’ decided to change names by one letter in the alphabet, so ‘JV’ became¬†‘KW’ and I’d go by he name ‘Ken,’ for example. I knew a lot of Sallys who all became ‘Tamsin’ or ‘Tabatha’ which threw my head as it immediately had me constructing different fictional personas for them – just as well? That’s what writing fiction is about, embellishment? ‘Ken and Tabatha’ sounds like the relationship between a Barbie doll and a Sasha doll.

There were a lot of ‘Js’ too for both boys and girls from the 1970s and there is a limited choice of ‘Ks’ to go with.

Only a few years later bumping into old friends from home and school have they said they knew all about ‘X’, and ‘Y’ or looked at the drawings I did of ‘K’ and the photo of ‘T.’ The greatest shock was getting into a conversation with my ‘petite amie’ from my school French Exchange when I was 17 – 33 years after we’d last seen each other (two years ago). I’d posted a teen sketch I did of her and wrote up in detail how we had behaved.

This content is¬†of far greater value to me not ‘cleaned up.’ I keep it closed though I’m drawing upon it constantly as it contains a substantial part of the diary, verbatim, that I kept from the age of 13 to 28 and a great deal of stories that I wrote drawing on some of those experiences. These are finding life once again thanks to the OU’s FutureLearn course ‘Start Writing Fiction’ and, once again, a close writer/editor relationship that has formed. It is, should I ever get published, a sound example of the value of keeping a ‘notebook’ as that diary, even as I conceived it age 13 is a substantial ‘writer’s journal’ that follows life through the eyes of a boy growing into manhood, taking an healthy interest in the opposite sex and after some pain and love, finding and marrying ‘the one’ – and now celebrating 20 years married and soon to celebrate 25 years together.

What I find touching, then and again today, is that supportive friendships form with fellow writers or readers or editors that is enormously encouraging and guiding; people want my words. I feel like a stand up comic who loses¬†his audience from time to time, then gets hit by a soft ¬†‘carrot’ or a bendy ‘stick’ and subsequently re-adjusts his ‘voice’ to the one they want to hear.¬†

Marking five years since I started my OU degree and an OU Student blog almost coincided with a logical, deserving step into the legitimate world of e-learning as I completed an ‘in-tray’ exercise ahead of a second interview. As I prepared to mark this ‘Five Years’ (a totemic time period for any David Bowie fan) I thought I could be announcing this literal step onto a ‘platform’.

Though I also had in mind my response to it not happening:

  • no more job applications
  • no more OU courses
  • back to writing with a renewed vengeance and determination. (I feel the Start Writing Fiction course on FutureLearn has refuelled me. I’ve been a petrol engine trying to run on diesel all y life and they fixed that)
  • once again give a substantial body of unpublished work (manuscripts for novels, screenplays, TV series, radio plays) their chance. (I have made and found the time and was for a couple of years indulged by an agent and producers enough to get interviews to discuss treatments and first scenes. On reflection I was a chef who appeared to promise something delicious but kept serving the thing up either cold or over spiced. SWF has been like a short course in Cordon Blue cookery; I may not be there yet, but at least what I’m now producing is edible).
  • and commit to a two month sailing trip later in the year: the Atlantic via the Canaries and Cape Verde to Bermuda.
  • Meanwhile I have picked out one manuscript, something I dated March 2006 when I boxed it away, that runs to around 100,000 words and 42 chapters. I am revisiting, rewriting and posting this in little bits. It’ll take at least six months working 14 hours+ a day.
  • eight hours a week ‘work’ fails to keep the wolf from the door. I could do with at least 20.¬†

I didn’t get the job.

Life has moved on.

I am writing with fury and loving it. My only regret? The need to sleep. 

Writing fiction at:

http://www.startwritingfiction.wordpress.com = password protected

Diaryland at:

http://www.jonathan.diaryland.com = password protected

How online courses are changing forever the way we learn

Fig.1 A publicity still from my own short film ‘Listening In.’ Did you catch it on Channel 4? I know seven people who did smile

Marshall McLuhan had a lot to say about the medium being the message when TV came along in the 1960s.

I always put the message first and with online courses (MOOCs by another name?) I would liken them to books or TV programmes … there are many as you can imagine for every kind of audience, by educational attainment, and subject. I agree that learning is inherently social.

Having got kids who could touch type before they could handwrite and use the Internet before they could use the telephone I have witnessed them learn, collectively, online in various ‘online’ activities – almost always with the very same people they are seeing during the day in class.

Platforms, such as FutureLearn are tailored for this – EdX, by way of contrast is not.

Learning outcomes must be an important raison d’etre for MOOCs, but I don’t see this at all as being the only reason institutions are producing them. They are seeking to attract students to courses that are either taught on campus or online at a distance. If a MOOC on Aviation Comes of Age in the First World War attracts 5000 and 500 finish the course 50 buy certificates and 5 sign up for the MA then they have doubled their student intake to a niche subject. I’m making a wild stab at the numbers: I don’t know what they were. I can hazard a guess by the activity in the discussions. They are producing them to learn from the experience, gain the in-house knowledge and support their educators and producing online content for their regular courses too.

The numbers I do know are for the FutureLearn course ‘Start Writing Fiction’ which had 23,000 students to start with and bucked the trend by having 25,000 in week two. I can only guess at the numbers who made it through to the end based on the crude stats we have for ‘MOOCs’ to date. A new outcome for this course is that nearly two months after it officially ended people are still starting and still completing the course: I know this as I set up both LinkedIn and WordPress groups to support them and actively return to the course myself to refresh ideas and contribute to reviews of work submitted and discussions with those there.

By way of comparison, the University of Southampton WebScience MOOC is aimed at PhD candidates: I should now as I was one of those candidates and interview to study a PhD. I had no answer for my not having a medical degree or having done a randomised control trial before.

The ‘Oxbridge Tutorial‘ is commonly used in the UK and is a tutorial system used at Oxford Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and LSE I believe. Is it also the Socratic Method?

The method of knowledge transfer may be the same but numbers are lower 1:1, or 1:3 max. A MOOC experience that works, at this level includes both Socratic and Madras approaches, for better or worse. Worse according to Oxford’s Internet Institute (Rebecca Eynon) where cliques form around the leading student educators that appear to block out others.

PhD students may have to study on their own, but do they want to? MA students don’t.

The Educators I know at university want to teach too.

Digital literacy, like any kind of literacy matters. I engage those who have been online for a decade and those that are newcomers. They pick it up pretty fasts if helped by others.

Other MOOCs I’ve looked at are aimed at those at school (High School in England) to help them with university entrance and preparation, I’ve mentioned an MA even PhD level MOOC while the Exploring Filmmaking would have been on TV in the past.

EdX won’t let you in without paying.

Udemy is getting a dreadful reputation.

Lumesse is a corporate platform a bit like FutureLearn.

A gem of a Free Course from FutureLearn that has just started is ‘Exploring Filmmaking’ with the National Film and Television School. As you’d expect the value are top notch. A great mix. Bitesize learning. Great discussions. 90 mins to 2 hours a week – a lot more if you get deeply engaged.

The Oxbridge tutorial is open to all online in a MOOC from FutureLearn

Fig.1 The intimate qualities of the Oxbridge tutorial are now experience in massive open online courses

I have been studying full-time for a year – an MA in a traditional university with lectures, book lists and online completing eight MOOCs and even trying to start a module with the OU.

My goal hasn’t been simply to gain yet further qualifications in subjects I love, but to experience first hand the variety of approaches to learning that exist.

Back to the classroom while learning online.

The MOOCs I’ve done on FutureLearn are highly ‘connected’ – I believe the way huge threaded discussions are managed and can be managed successfully recreates what some consider to be the Holy Grail of learning in HE, the ‘Oxbridge tutorial’ where a subject expert sits one to one or at most one to three to discuss a topic, set each other straight, and then return every week, or twice a week to do the same.

MOOCS completed or underway include:

Start Writing Fiction

How to read a mind

Climate Change

World War One: Trauma and Memory

World War One: Aviation Comes of Age

World War One: Paris 1919

How to succeed at: writing applications

Experience and research shows that even in a MOOC with 25,000 starters, in a threaded discussion that has 3000 posts, that groups of learners form – typically a mix of experts, keen learners with some knowledge and complete beginners. These groups can last the duration of a two month course and spill out into other platforms and meeting up face to face. John Seely Brown called this a couple of decades ago ‘learning from the periphery’, where new, keen learners gravitate from the edges to the centre. It is learning vicariously, as we do in our day to day lives. But it is more intimate than a community of practice: two or three people learning together in real-time or in a quasi-synchronous platform is like an Oxbridge tutorial. I had the privilege of attending these as an undergraduate and my father in law is one of these career Oxford fellows who taught in this way for several decades and has gone to great lengths to explain the unique qualities of the method, how and why it works. It now works online. You don’t have to be communicating directly with the lead academics – though you may do in a MOOC, but you can gravitate, with ease, if you like to the many experts who are in and contributing to these forums. I can cite examples of both types: the extraordinary care and fluency of the PhD contributors to WW1: Aviation for example, or in the massive (25,000 participants) threads of Start Writing Fiction.

This is ‘transitional education.’ Not a revolution, just building on the best of what has gone before and gradually taking others along with it.

I like that after 700 years of keeping the approach to themselves that the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ as a way to learn is, online at least, open to anyone.

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