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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 5 Phase Flowchart

Gilly Salmon 5 Phase Flowchart

Gilly Salmon’s ‘Five Stage Model’ for e-learning using the bricks she used in her seminal video

For simplicity’s sake, let’s say that this ‘Five Stage Model’ is for a five week module from the OU.

The bottom row of green bricks represents the Learning Management System (LMS) on which the learning appears. The technical side of things includes accessibility, web usability, reliability and good ‘design architecture’ i.e. it works well, is clear, intuitive, reliable and follows the most common user behaviours for anyone online in 2016.

The middle row of yellow bricks (and one red one) represents learner activities, from a gentle introduction to the platform to engaging in activities, which typically includes nothing more complex that watching a video, reading text and doing research or doing a multiple choice quiz. The red brick represents formal assessment: at The OU, this would be a Tutor Marked Assignment (TMA) or End of Module Assignment (EMA).

The top row of blue bricks represents the human interface between the students and the education institution, in this case The OU. Here, typically, we are talking about live and as live contact via various platforms, though it can include phonecalls, ‘online hangouts’ and even a residential component to the course. At The OU there is an assigned Tutor or Associate Lecture who ‘handles’ a group of 8-12 students. It is this practice that is impossible to scale when it comes to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). You cannot employ 2,000 tutors to manage 16,000 to 24,000 students. Some MOOCs of many more participants than this!

It is this component too that is increasingly blended into, or comes out of the technical side of things, or from the students themselves. Firstly, increasingly detailed and easy to use Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) answer typical enquiries that students have, increasingly the ease of use of a platform is such that little to no support from the ‘team’ or ‘Technical Help Desk’ is required. At the same time, students are formally enrolled to conduct ‘peer review’ and when several do this for each submitted assignment a grade is come to in this way. The degree of student interaction, and the benefits of collaborative knowledge construction through this, is far harder to get going and sustain without the proactive role of the tutor or a moderator. When ‘classes’ are smaller, MA and PhD students are sometimes given a role to act as a catalyst for engagement and to answer enquiries and deal with some problems.

My own take on the ‘lay-out’ of a ‘typical’ MOOC is pedagogically different.

I believe that ‘assessment’, of the micro-quiz and multiple choice variety, is a crucial component of e-learning. This is engagement that obliges participants to think, even to struggle and repeat parts of the content, until the knowledge that matters begins to stick. Gilly Salmon’s model is one for ‘distance learning’ while today, especially the MOOCs coming from Coursera, test you from the start. This might be as simple as interrupting a six minute video piece with a two question ‘quiz’. I liken this to a teacher in class pausing, putting a question then taking an answer from one of the raised hands, or picking someone out. It makes you aware that you need to listen. You want to get these questions right even if they don’t count towards anything. It is a form of light gamification, while also preparing you for an 8 or 10 or more part set of questions at the end of a component of the learning where the answers need to be right, and are based on these earlier interjections. It matters that these are a genuine challenge, that the pass mark is 80%. An easy ride isn’t one that leaves you with much recollection of what you have been studying. A tough ride, as I find, and applaud, however frustrating, requires you to do a the week (typically a couple of hours) over, and sometimes over again … until you can pass.

JFV Supported MOOC 5 Phase Flowchart

JFV Supported MOOC 5 Phase Flowchart

Jonathan Vernon’s take on phases of the ideal ‘Massive Open Online Course’ where constant assessment is key

Here, drawing on the wide variety of online courses I have done: creative writing, photography, web science, language learning, history, psychology, medicine and the arts, climate change and more, I have tried to envisage an ideal format. Of course, subject matter, subject level and other criteria would immediately causes adjustments to this.

My five phases are:

Technically the platform needs to be solid. This technical side now encroaches on student support, not just from FAQs, but other ways the content and technology can step in to do what a person would have done in the past (and still does in blended courses). There might be video, there might even be some kind of AI to nurture some of the many thousands of students taking a MOOC. There is some kind of testing from the start. This might be nothing more than a check that students have understood some components of the introduction, but it gives them a taste of things to come; they will be doing these ‘quizzes’ regularly. If interaction between students can be encouraged then here, as early as possible, they need to be online in a ‘social’ like environment.

The second phase gentle eases students into learning proper. The technology is a solid ‘bridge’ into the content. Support is done through the platform for the most part rather than needing to call on a person. With many thousands on a course in many times zones around the globe how can a call centre of technical people be expected to be available?

The second phase repeats the second with more learning: the yellow brick. And a touch more testing.

With phase three we are up and running: support for activities, which can be as inventive as the course creators want and the technology and budget permits. Content is delivered in a variety of ways and testing continues in a style and manner that by now, if not a little later, will be formal, requiring an 80% pass rate.

Phase five, which segues into a phase six of sorts, is crunch time: formal assessment with a tough, longer quiz that has built on previous ones and a peer reviewed written assignment too. These need to be constructed with extraordinary skill and care given that students will be marking each other’s work, and where many, if not most, will not have English as their first language. As well as testing there should be a chance here to gather one’s thoughts, to reflect and even go over some of the learning in the course.This might also be the time for those who have become friends during the course to pick up the conversation on Facebook or in a LinkedIn group. It may also be the moment when you buy ‘the book’ on which the course was based, or sign up for the next module in the series.

In future posts I will use this approach to ‘strip down’ and re-assemble a number of MOOCs. For example, ‘Learning How to Learn’ from Coursera written and presented by Barb Oakley. I should also look on MOOCs I have done on Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), on Photography and a variety of other subjects.

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.







The future of learning


During my years studying for an MA in Open and Distance Education with the Open University I came to admire and follow the work of Gilly Salmon. I ‘got’ the idea of ‘e-tivities’ and ‘e-moderators’ though then, and certainly now, we are dropping the ‘e’ from learning and everything else. It just is.

This idea of a direct, consequential flow of development of learning from Education 1.0 (One point Zero) onwards to Education 3.0 (Three point Zero) is all a bit 2002. It supposes that digital can enhance learning in a series of step-changes like upgrading software. Software is no longer upgraded in such steps. It has become transitory, ‘in the cloud’ and forever mutable.

The model should be used for debate. I challenge it. Too often I find myself at a presentation where this is shown and the cowed audience are too accepting. This is where and how¬†that mythical ‘Oxbridge tutorial’ comes into its own. Here a professor invites challenge and debate, expects students to form their own ideas rathe than to accept his or hers as Gospel.

I found myself stripping this back through the night. I didn’t feel comfortable challenging the model in public, in front of an audience of hungry ‘worshipers’ amongst whom I would have counted myself a few years ago. I’ve read and done too much since. I am qualified to have an opinion and too often have the reference tickling the back of my mind as I write.

‘Diffusion of Innovations’ for a start. My first module of the MA ODE which I re-activated in 2010 after a 9 year absence. I’d started the MA ODL in 2001.


So here is Gilly Salmon’s table, or model, once more. My challenge would have been intellectual, based on theory as well as practical – experience of the ‘Oxford Tutorial’ which to my mind achieves, and has achieved, much of what Education 2.0 and Education 3.0 sets out to do. The parameter that is missing in this model is to say this is being applied to a mass audience of students. You cannot deliver one to one, or one to three at most ‘tutorials’ on a weekly basis (or more often) to the tens of millions who deserve and crave a graduate level education in 2016.

Let me pick out some points here.

Lifelong Learning. It may be a marketing ploy but at the end of this month I’ll be returning to my old college, Balliol, for a day of lectures and seminars given by alumni. Last year I did something similar with the family. I also attended a lecture from my own faculty, ‘The School of Geography and Environmental Studies’. Content alone with Balliol and the SOGE counts as some ‘life long learning’. Is this only fed or made possible by the nature of quality of ‘connectedness’ we now have courtesy of the Internet?

Academics are students too. Maybe some were less willing that others to put themselves on the same plain as their students, but even more so than their students, if they are conducting research and especially if they are teaching and tutoring they are learning too. To teach is the best way to learn. Tutors feed of the bright, and not so bright, minds in their tutor groups. They are repeatedly challenged to repeat the same reply or to develop a new angle – until they do.

Learning that is ‘constructed and co-constructed’ is exactly what the ‘Oxbridge Tutorial’ achieves. You are given an essay title and some references. You research your answer and right your reply. In a group of two or three someone reads out their essay. Between your fellow students and the tutor you talk it through. Together you construct a fuller, deeper, remembered meaning. One day you get to apply this in a written test. It doesn’t need to wait for ‘Education 3.0’ as Oxbridge has taught this way for some 750 years. What the Internet offers, or should aspire to offer, is some version of this that 85 million can enjoy.

It will need a little bit of tutor engagement, some PhD candidates and MA students too, and peer support and pressure. Perhaps some AI will be thrown into the mix as well, with lessons from gaming.

I see versions of it. There are ‘break out’ meetings whenever you learn online, real people in real or ‘as live’ time having a discussion on a topic. It is thrilling to pick up the thread of a conversation that started in Canada, is picked up in New Zealand, crosses to Japan and the Indian Subcontinent, then Africa before re-emerging in Europe. You do wake up wondering where the conversation is going to go. It is akin to that thing where as a student you sat up late and set the world to rights. You can read through the discussion; you can see where thoughts are going; you can draw your own conclusions.



The future of learning

Between Coursera in The Hague, The Netherlands and today I’ve had a week in the French Alps, sans WiFi or Internet connection. Frustrated by this, at first I took the opportunity to reflect on two extraordinary days at the Coursera Partners’ Conference where my mind was successfully expanded, imploded and blown apart at the what learning online offers.

This is less about learning online, and more about the future of learning.

The Internet, and mobile, access and accessibility are opening up opportunities for tens of millions of learners.

How We Learn

I found myself making graphics such as this one.

‘How we are taught’ is the green pyramid. This is teaching as is, and as was. It is hierarchical and top down. Pupils are taught. Students are the base line, the masses who know nothing and require ‘educating’.

‘How we learn’ is the yellow pentagon. This, in representational form, is my impression of what neuroscience tells us about learning: we gather it in and respond to events and learning experiences in a multitude of ways. This learning ‘penetrates’ or brains from various sides, gathers in a number of hot spots and forms all kinds of unique, personal links that in time develop from shallow to deep learning, memory and even understanding. Which in turn can develop into practical use.

‘What it is turning into’ is the blue scribble. Again, this is simply my impression of it and appears to indicate confusion and complexity rather than understanding. What I mean by this is a greater tolerance, desire and acceptance as learning coming from multiple directions and forming an extraordinary complex array of meaning, value, misunderstanding, feelings and practical application.

It seems to me that learning online and the Internet, and the connectivity, accessibility and immediacy of mobile learning in particular, creates a ‘feeding frenzy’ or learning opportunity. How often have you had a conversation where a question is left unanswered and some one (there is only ever one of them), who is Googling for a response before you have finished your sentence. We are like kids forever asking ‘Why?’ and being indulged. You can find out ‘why’ and ‘what’ and ‘how’ with the speed of a spoken or typed in query to Google.







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.

Can we learn how to learn?



My laptop raised so that I can stand at my desk

Standing at my laptop. A trapped nerve requires it. An old school lectern from a flea market and a book stand do the job. This, or a stool on the kitchen table perhaps?

With apologies to Will with whom I had quite a debate, ongoing as we were sailing the Atlantic together and we were ‘buddied’ up to do between seven and ten hours on the helm in each 24 hours. Some of our antics are covered in the team blog Ximera or my ‘cooking across the Atlantic blog’ Ximera cooks.

Will was adamant that his older brother, my mate, Robbie, ‘learnt how to learn’ during his A’Levels that explains his academic and career success. I argued that, like my father, and few others I know, Robbie has the mindset, not just a ‘photographic’ memory, but an ability to focus and shut out all distractions – this delivers results. I argued that learning ‘methods’ or ‘tricks’ to learn were piffle compared to what genetically we have been given. I argued that all you needed to succeed in a subject as a passion for it. After all, he is now more than capable of being skipper on a yacht crossing the Atlantic. He learns from doing and gives it time. He reads what he wants and needs, rather that what he has to read. And he writes with wit and intelligence.

And then, as I have antennae out for these things, I heard of another online course (free, massive and open and known to academics as a MOOC) on learning.

I now rather think that all of us, indeed all sixth form, college and university students, ought to ‘Learn how to learn’.

You’d imagine having spent long enough studying education to have an OU MA in Open and Distance Education that I’d know something about the learning process, yet over and over again I will read something different or watch something I’ve not done before as the picture has never been either clear or stable.

And then along comes this free online course (MOOC if you will) from Coursera.

‘Learning how to learn’

It’s in week two. I feel as if several significant and disjointed ideas, some I believe I had come to independently, are now being drawn together. I know The OU have, or try to do this somewhere, possibly in Open Learn and historically in a book first published in the 1990s.

‘Learning how to learn’ is if anything reassuring and encouraging to us all. I see too, now that I’m in my 50s, that a few of my old school friends have the title ‘Professor’ in front of their name, or QC at the end of it. It may have taken them 25 years or more to get there, but it was gradual and incremental and with no exceptions I have to reflect ‘who would have believed it’.

Digital First World War Resources: Online Archival Sources

A great place to start and to return as I research the First World War.



For many years I envied the research sources available to my colleagues writing about contemporary defence and strategic issues. The ability to research a project from the comfort of their favorite desk, be this at home or in the office, seemed so much more appealing than exhausting and sometime fruitless searching through dusty old files in far-flung foreign archives. Particularly as I grew older and less enamored of living out of a suitcase, the ability to pick up the phone to interview a source or to download almost all the documents needed for a project seemed a much more alluring way of writing. Now don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the time during my doctoral research in the Bundesarchiv/Militärarchiv in Freiburg and the National Archives in Washington, DC, and even the Public Record Office in Kew. (I am also showing my age and origins…

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