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Sharing a response in Week 3 of FutureLearn’s ‘Medicine and the Arts’ from the University of Cape Town.
It has been fascinating as a parent to watch my children growing up. Of particular interest and relevance here are video games and how my son and his friends always sought out cheats and hacks that became part of the play process. Playing ‘Call of Duty’ online with his friends from school my son found a hack that got them in behind the wireframe landscapes. So having tired, or not, the tailored activities and levels of game play they would now make up their own behind the scenes missions in a lawless, often low functioning underworld. Finding the limits, subverting the rules, joining in with your mates and teaching each other what is what, continuing conversations they started in the playground and most importantly often getting into arguments that having a long laugh all made up their play
Susan Levine suggests that modernisation is possibly changing the essence of play. I would argue that whilst the context and tools of play may be different, in essence it is the same thing: our brains and child development haven’t evolved into something different, how could they?
What strikes me as potentially different isn’t to do with comparisons between the modern world and the past, or between levels of development, or specific cultures, it could however come down to communities, and even been confined to the family. Do your parents or carers allow you to play? How controlled and monitored were you formative years? Were you isolated, even in most desperate circumstances confined to a room alone … or to the other extreme were you surrounded by siblings and friends and given considerable freedom to come and go between mealtimes and bedtimes as you wished? The household of the Duke of York, home to the future Kings Edward VIII and George V, was horribly strict with two nurses, an nursery footman, governess and tutor given orders to push the children hard for the later responsibilities they would have. They barely had a moment without strict adult supervision; what they could do was prescribed and closely supervised so play was limited, controlled or even stylised, no wonder both ended so ‘screwed’ up – Edward VIII throwing away the crown in abdication, and George V having to be treated for a severe stamina and painful shyness. It is understandable how, for example, orphaned and mentally ill children in Romania, confined, even chained to cots from a young age, would be so developmentally disadvantaged: at that moment in their development when they needed to socialise and play they could not. Life was a serious business by all accounts in the 1930s depression too. I cannot help but feel some children of that era, in certain parts of the world, were ‘denied a childhood’ and turned out to be rather ‘odd’ adults with particular challenges. Both geographically and historically where children are denied the opportunity to play do they develop an odd, even contrary view of the world?
Reading and writing with fresh eyes
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.
The mind is wobbly … Brain is flat? The brain is unstable? I love this. It’s better than the Thorn Birds.
|From E-Learning VI|
Fig.1. Grab from The mind is flat.
Across FutureLearn videos the name caption always come up right of screen whether or not there are one, two or more people featured. Does this kind of thing bother you? There are no fewer than THREE opportunities to brand this as ‘The University of Warwick’ – one would do, none are necessary. We know that this entire course if from Warwick. See them: Branded watermark in the top right hand corner, on the strapline (the least necessary and most erroneous) and yet again in the video time line … there is a fourth if you include the page this grab came from.
Other amateur antics include surreptitiously reading off notes, glancing away at the camera operator, having a second camera or wobble cam as if this a Jamie Oliver cookery course, that’s before we have to think about the antics of the video editor who wants to prove that they should be cutting pop videos.
Otherwise I love the learning and discussions and the argument for multimedia being ‘good enough’ rather than of TV broadcast quality is largely right: overly produced is just as bad as amateurish. The thinking is gripping, engaging, thought-provoking, mind bend and even funny.
Anything that gets in the way of the message is wrong.
Otherwise the above is perfect: an authentic exchange and share. So, authenticity rules?
Mistakes and all. Speak the language of the fluid internet conversation. Keep it simple. Employ people with experience who know what they are doing.
|From E-Learning VI|
Fig.2. Nick Chater and Jess Whittlestone. Co-stars of ‘The Thorny Birds’.
Does the mind exist? Shouldn’t we be talking about the brain?
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
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
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:
World War One: Trauma and Memory
World War One: Aviation Comes of Age
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.
How do MOOCs compare?
|From E-Learning VI|
Fig.1 Unexpanded mindmap using ‘SimpleMinds’ on ‘How do MOOCs compare’.
There are tens of thousands of Massive Open Online Courses available. Their proliferation increasingly requires some means to differentiate types, to standards, and by review. Undoubtedly branding will have a role to play: it being easier to choose because the subject is delivered on a known and trusted platform, such as Coursera, Udemy or FutureLearn.
What are they brands though? Like a well-known publisher such as Dorling-Kindersely? Or a brand of cornflakes? Courses are often the product of a specific university, but does this help when a course will vary also by faculty, and in particular by the role and lead taken by a subject matter expert.
The variables are considerable.
There are a couple of review sites which aggregate MOOC lists, such as MOOC List and CourseTalk. These, like reviews on Amazon, rely upon participants of a course to come in a post. I think of it as the TripAdvisor for e-learning. How reliable are these? It’ll take years to bed in and impact on the product.
Meanwhile, as I still do several MOOCs in parallel I am trying to think about the kind of criteria:
- The Platform Provider
- The Subject
- Platform (Technical features)
- What next?
1. The Platform Provider
There are too many for one person to consider. And ample complexity requiring parameters. Some are not, or are no longer Massive and Open because they are closed, exclusive and paid for. Udemy has many thousands of short courses online, all with a price for participation, self-paced and lacking a sizable cohort to generate valuable ‘connectedness’ and ‘collaboration’, both important, identified theories of learning that have a significant part to play in e-learning. Funded by venture capital Udemy needs cash flow. EdX comes from Ivy League US universities Harvard, MIT and Berkeley offering undergraduate and postgraduate level, term long courses at a demanding academic level. They have no UK equivalent: neither Oxford or Cambridge have come on board. Although Edinburgh is on both EdX and FutureLearn. Whereas LSE and a few other top UK players are yet to have a presence. FutureLearn is a new, though rapidly expanding player: a wholly owned subsidiary of the Open University with partner institutions from around the globe, typically the UK and Commonwealth Countries, though with three partners from China too. It is the platform I am most familiar with having complete six MOOCs with another four on the boil. They make it look easy and I love learning in conversation with others. The Khan Academy is aimed at schools, while the likes of TED lectures, iTunesU and podcasts are all lectures online in one form or another, rather than complete courses with clear steps towards achieving specific learning objectives.
I am attempting to compare platforms, approaches and institutions by comparing delivery of MOOCs on Climate Change. There are probably a dozen, all variations on a theme, though the science shouldn’t be different, even if the delivery is. They are: Exeter on FutureLearn, Melbourne, San Diego, Penn and British Columbia. I studied geography as an undergraduate so feel better able to form a judgment.
Funding is complex, but it matters because ‘he who pays the piper, plays the tune.’ Largely funded by VC money the US MOOC providers are pressured to take fees, seek donations and sell certificates and other services. To a Brit used to the BBC anything with advertising in it, especially in relation to learning, smells of hogwash. On the other hand, branding and open sponsorship may be a necessary way forward. Even Wikipedia cannot do it for free. Once again, my knowledge is in the first instance at first hand as a ‘participant’ who has studied ‘at a distance’ with the Open University and paid for it, who has taken courses as CPD the traditional way at evening and weekend workshops, though also online by subscription. I have even paid heftily for a formal assessment which gained me a distinction and 10 credits towards a university degree.
There is no ‘free’ learning: it is financed somehow. Learning takes time and therefore to plan, produce, put online and support. Even where the cost is carried internally as the learning is seen to have promotional or reputational value, it is coming from someone’s budget. The relationship between the OU and the BBC, and the BBC and other British institutions is an interesting one as the assets the BBC creates by definition are owned by the tax payer so should UK citizens pay twice for something they have already paid for? The BBC though, like many others, create and provide content for use in learning under a Creative Commons licence.
Funding, in tertiary education, comes from many sources, not least government subsidy, grants for research and sponsorship. Creation of Open Learning meets criteria, especially in relation to research, to publicise and share research findings. The dry academic paper is being superseded by, or at least complemented by, online offerings: a podcast at least an Open Educational Resource (OER) at best.
Who decides on the subjects to ‘publish’ as a MOOC? Publishers and broadcasters make choices for commercial reasons, often based on perceptions or demands of the audience. Are MOOCs create in response to student and participant needs and demands, or the product of individuals and faculties simply wishing to ‘give it a go’ or develop and share their pet subject with others. Is everything suitable for a MOOC? Is the subject, title and delivery considered in the kind of editorial committee that exist in TV, Radio or Print … or is to more piecemeal and fragmented? Individuals and departments in universities traditionally operate in silos, indeed, many chose to be in academia, especially research, in order to focus on their niche interest without undue disturbance or interaction. I can see MOOCs that are championed by an individual, by a faculty and by a university. Inevitably some will be less well received than others. In all media there are hits and misses. Understanding what works, and what does not, is fascinating. Often it is like wondering why, in a small French town, one restaurant is packed, while the others are quiet. Though they are yet to produce them, I would expect and hope for MOOCs on art from St.Martins, MOOCs on sport from Loughborough. I would expect to see a MOOC on the First World War from Niel Ferguson. Why has a world leader, such as the Oxford School of Geography and the Environment, a no.1. faculty in the no.1. university thus far stayed away from MOOCs? They have podcast. They’re on iTunesU. They stream some lectures and seminars. The next step is not so great. Or is it a case of a cautious institution taking careful note of research done on MOOCs. They are no panacea and maybe the step towards something that will have a better fit: exclusive, income generating …
4. The Audience
I resist calling those who do MOOCs students because their profile and behaviour of those I have done and studied is not of students, whether from school, at university or postgraduate. They are older, but not ‘adult learners’, far from needing the education, many have a Masters degree … it is telling that discussions are anything but deferential towards the ‘young’ professors and even younger PhD students who present and moderate many of these MOOCs. Often the MOOC participant, who form the kind of TV audience that sits forward and interacts, is an MA student of the subject who may have ten or twenty years applied experience of the subject in business, government or teaching. For example, the MOOCs I am looking at on Climate Change always have vocal participants who have considerable experience ‘in the field’ for environmental agencies or oil companies. The academics are put on the spot, always rise to the occasion, and will surely learn from the experience as much as we ‘students’ do. Where therefore diversity and access? As TV producers know how in a digital world to cater for audiences of different ages and interests, so educators creating MOOCs will need increasingly to engage media professionals who know better how to target, appeal to and retain specific audiences. Whilst those creating MOOCs may wish to attract potential students to their undergraduate courses, I suspect that it is at best the teachers of such students, rather than A’level students who are getting involved.
Reputations of innovators in e-learning and whose talks go viral in a TED lecture become champions of online learning. Some become a brand that tens of thousands turn to. As free courses proliferate the bluntest and most effective branding is to have a champion, the educator at celebrity. We know that those with a TV profile with a following already will attract the most interest. In TV, even in corporate learning and development, the appeal of the broadcaster or presenter speaking on behalf of the educators is common place. Not all educators are broadcasters. It matters to have someone champion the course. If you want to study, for example ‘Climate Change’ and can choose between a dozen providers of a MOOC, who do you go with?
In formal learning objectives are the goal on which the learning is designed and assessments are undertaken. You are tested on what you are taught, and if you can prove that you have learnt what the material teachers you gain a grade of some kind. This in turn goes towards a qualification, or transferable credits towards a degree or diploma. This may appear clear, but there are other objectives at play: attracting students, even dissuading them if places are hugely oversubscribed. There are obligations to publish research. There are desires to join the ‘e-learning race’ and gain insights through doing even if it is not yet fully understood where the movement is headed. What does the course provider want from a MOOC? More students? Establishing or developing the reputation of an educator or department? Competing with others who are ‘up there’? Because they have the funding? Vanity? Not to miss out?
The digital world is a free for all. It is competitive. Whatever you can imagine, someone is doing it. I was staggered to learn that the MOOC providers couldn’t be named on the fingers of one hand. I think there are over 50 if you’re counting and include various hybrids and anomalies. Many, many more if you venture into MOOCs that are not massive, or open … say content created for internal use across a huge multinational. Sometimes these commercial sites and platforms are the most innovative, and of course, the best funded, for example, in supporting training in investment banking for brokers. Virgin produces e-learning for internal use – it is surely a natural step to create something open and online? The OU, with the BBC and at arms length FutureLearn makes a compelling, reputational sound brand. If anyone knows how to create e-learning that is attractive, appealing and of value this is the team. There are cultural differences though with MOOCs out of North America looking more like a multi-media version of Scientific American to the FutureLearn MOOC that is ‘Look and Learn’ – fun and accessible.
8. Technical aspects of the platform
My expertise does not lie in picking apart and comparing the underlying technologies that support the different platforms. I can however relate to the discussions that have, for example, explained Facebook’s success compared to MySpace … that there were, or still are, underlying technical problems on MySpace that prevented its becoming as attractive as Facebook. I have taken and followed learning online since 2000 – joining the MA in Open and Distance Learning (MAODL) in 2001 while creating online learning through a web agency for commercial, broadcast and government clients. Our understand and aspirations for what was needed or could be achieved fell short of what bandwidths and the technology then could deliver, even if we spoke about ‘stickiness’, collaboration, likeminds and fun.
The OU boasts that a multi-million BBC production such as ‘The Blue Planet’ is the kind of visual extravaganza it can now incorporate into, or complement with distance and online learning, a far cry from the black and white hippy in sandals presenting in front of a whiteboard as lampooned by Smith and Jones in the 1980s. It isn’t as simple as saying costs, like those in the movie business, are divided between creation and distribution, though it is a useful starting point. In this instance the means of distribution is an interactive platform, that has certain affordances because of its underlying architecture and the skills, direction and motivation of the programmers. The content that is made available for, or put into this environment will vary widely based on the experience of the educators, the team they have around them, and how this is structured and led. In TV and print, a producer or publisher is the lead, or chair of such a group … not the ‘creative’ whereas in academia the academic invariably feels they are the lead and should instigate decisions, sometimes without acknowledging that they have no expertise in ‘external communications’ or the platforms and approaches they want to adopt. Money is not set aside to use an external producer or production team, with sometimes, the results being self evident. Fine, perhaps, in a former age, for an internal audience of undergraduate students, but no longer adequate for a far more demanding open audience.
Multimedia, which is what this is, draws on expertise that is a combination of skills that in the past would have been more easily denoted as radio, conference, print and TV. Production values and experience in all of these is required when creating online content because decisions should be taken in the context of the learning materials as to what will work best at different times, for different kinds of content. Also recognising the need for varieties of approach and making these appropriate. I have taken, or tried to take, modules that are back to back presenter to camera, as if listening and note taking for many hours is an adequate or doable learning process. On the other hand, I have been engrossed by an entirely ‘gamified’ Rosetta Stone as an iPad App – rich, complex, repetitive and at times tiresome, but effective as a language learning experience. Not all, or rather few educators, are natural broadcasters. Accepting their strengths in front of a lectern and not taking them out to walk and talk or present on location unless they can clearly do it, requires production skills. There is a language for conducting interviews using a single camera, and for recording multi-camera seminars. If the technician who sets up the kit has no understanding either of framing, or of editing, the result, however good the lighting and sound, will jar. These are all production values that need have to be bought in, or developed to a suitable standard inhouse. Audiences have expectations of certain practices across the media types. Poor practice in use of PowerPoint, for example, is not simply distracting … people will quit a course on a whim.
Increasingly leading players in many fields are coming to see that to offer open learning online is a natural progression from things they have already been doing for a decade: putting content online in websites. delivering short courses face to face, even recording podcasts for release as audio or video. There is less mystery behind how to create content and less need for owning and financing the platform. What we are seeing today, is the same transition that occurred as blogs migrated from do-it-yourself coded webpages in 1999/2000 through the first readymade platforms such as Diaryland and LiveJournal, to the ‘off the shelf’ ease and sophistication of WordPress. Indeed, for MOOCs, the commercial platform Udemy is offering a platform to commercial players.
Institutionally could early adopters trump the laggards? Might the likes of Phoenix and its global reach of associated universities trump traditional hubs of learning like Oxford and Cambridge which are currently proving reticent to engage? Or will inertia, reputation, funding, research and expertise see them grow into e-learning and their substantial foundations?
Whilst it may appear that the Open University was made for the digital age, can a UK institution be a global player? What happens when an Oxford or a Cambridge can do what the OU does? Or don’t they ever want to? Over the last 35 years the percentage of students at Oxford from private schools has shifted from 72/28 to 48/52 …. still not representative of the national split, but moving with determination to being accessible and diverse. Ironic then that staying out of online learning is perceived as necessary to preserve their tradition of tutorial based learning that by its very nature can only be elitist and exclusive.
12. What next?
This is the hardest question and the one everyone wants an answer to. My guess is better than many another’s because I’ve been riding this wave for several decades through linear video-based learning, to interactive and then online. Thanks to the OU over the last five years I now have the language to explain what has gone on and so make a reasonable stab at what comes next. There are several learning theories that can explain the way we learn, but only a few that describe learning approaches that are suited to the online experience: connected and collaborative learning are what makes MOOCs work. Although there are platforms too, such as QStream and Rosetta Stone that are in effect old-fashioned learning by rote or immersion with repetition constructing meaning. There are subjects, such as medicine and languages, which are suited to this approach. There will be increased fragmentation. We are, if you like, where the printed book was five hundred years ago. The book had yet to develop into multiple printed forms from the novel to the pop-up book (!) or diversify across every subject. Though change is far swifter, the variety of forms, by audience, by subject, by approach and duration is yet to flourish into the thousands of types I can envisage until there is a plethora of MOOCs as there are, or have been, magazines in the past. Some affordances are yet to be realised: feedback into FutureLearn, by way of example, is one way to measure and act upon ideas offered ‘by the crowd’. Reasoned responsiveness will see the platform they have now move in regular steps into a different, and different forms. Logic suggests, to suggest an extreme example, that the tools, approaches and affordances of a platform catering to primary school children will be different to one aimed at PhD students. On the other hand, both of these groups find something on TV. With the exception of Ragdoll’s ‘In the night garden’ which is loved by infants and PhD students in equal measure
There will be unforeseen consequences. Will ‘leasure learners’, a stalwart of the OU migrate to MOOCs where there are no fees, just as much learning and a far greater sense of community engagement? Will MOOCs, as the OU does with an MAODE module, be something that runs in parallel with a formal module. In this instance students in the closed learning MAODE being joined by an open MOOC audience for a period of months. I can envisage an enlightened educator using his/her MOOC to support self-directed learning online, while also acting as the backbone for a formally taught series of classes where they use the readily package content of the MOOC to support their delivery.
Those who want and need the kind of learning the MOOCs offered do not make up the bulk of the audience. How will those young people coming out of higher education who crave a university degree learn at this level when they don’t have the funds to attend in person? How, when it comes to assessment, can they afford what remains an expensive process – sitting an exam or submitting a paper for formal scrutiny and grading under stringent criteria relating to potential plagiarism and to sustain standards?
For all their openness and credentials to support access and diversity do MOOCs simply ‘preach to the converted’ – refreshing an interest for those with a degree, or two, already? Where might a degree taught online be achieved instead of a set of A’Levels. Will it become normal to have more than one degree so raising the bar even higher for those who simply wish to get to first base?
Is there, as was in the earliest stage of the Internet, a language bias with most MOOCs invariably delivered in English?
Restricted access. Poor broadband. Lack of resources to run the MOOC. Lack of means, either time or money to do them.
Looking at it another, perhaps more subjective way, I’d like to know about:
- The Wow factor
- Changed Behaviours
- Whether people act upon the learning experience
- Learning Objectives achieved or not
- Stickiness: Are people suitably engaged to stay with it and beyond?
What’s a MOOC from FutureLearn life? It’s as easy as turning the pages of a book
Fig.1 Alice in Wonderland pOp-Up.
FutureLearn MOOCs are as easy and as pleasurable to do as a child turning the pages of pop-up book on Christmas morning surrounded by friends and family.
Engaging. Puts a smile on your face. Teaches you something. Leaves you wanting more. What content is presented and the way it plays out changes things. The interaction with others matters massively.
My interest is e-learning. A decade ago it was web-based learning and before that it was online learning … as compared to ‘offline’ learning on an intranet or in a computer learning centre. Across this period, whether on Laser disc, CD-rom, DVD, or online the key words to describe a successful piece of learning might include: easy to use, intuitive, effective, measurable results, gamified and impressive. ‘Impressive’ for a corporate client has always been important – they want to see how their money is spent. It matters to jazz a thing up, to find a way to deliver exception creative qualities in both the ideas and the execution of these ideas. In H.E. this ‘impressiveness’ has been thin on the ground the experience and view of H.E. that someone talking to camera with a slide show or whiteboard will do the job; it doesn’t, not any more.
At the risk of writing a list I want to think about the ‘enhanced learning’ experiences that have impressed over the last 15 years:
Audi Shop DVD – Gold Award Winner at the IVCA awards. Stunning animated 3D animations of the engine. Like a 3D animated Dorling Kindersley
What are you like? – Gold Award Winner at the IVCA awards. An interactive life and career guide for teenagers done in the style of ‘In Betweeners’ and ‘Some Girls’ – nailed the audience with creative tone and visual effects. This won BAFTAs, the IVCA Grand Prix and NMA Effectiveness Awards.
Ideafisher – first on floppy discs, then a CD. It did in the 1990s what various websites do today by linking vast collections of aggregated ideas and concepts that it filters out and offers up. The closest I’ve felt to AI for creativity.
MMC – online marketing courses. These were, for me, in 2010, an early example of stringing the face to camera lecture together with course notes to create a course. Still more like a self-directed traditional lecture series but the volume of content was admirable and some of the tools to control the viewing and reading experience were innovative.
TED Lectures. Are they learning? Or are they TV? Are they modelled on the BBC’s Annual Reith Lecture series? Top of the Pops for the lecture circuit so tasters and Open Education Resources for grander things.
Pure simplicity. I love these. I gave a year to an intermediate course in French, learnt some grammar and fixed several problems with my pronunciation. Like that game ‘Pairs’ you play as a child: a pack of cards with pairs of images on one side that you pair up. With considered, only sometimes over art-directed photography. Repetitive, always in the language you are learning. The next best thing to being dropped in amongst native speakers as an infant. It just works.
iTunesU – The History of English in One Minute.
Not so much a course as a series of stunning and memorable cartoon pieces that galvanise your interest. The next step is to follow through with a free trial course through OpenLearn and perhaps a nudge then towards a formal course with the Open University proper.
FutureLearn – the entire platform.
As easy as reading a book. I’ve done eight of these and have another three on the go (two for review rather than as a participant). Across the myriad of subjects and offerings there are differences, all gems, but some are more outstanding than others. It is no surprise that those MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) produced by the Open University are some of the very best; it’s what you’d expect with their experience. Other university’s shine through for their confidence with the the platform too, for example, ‘How to read a mind’ from the University of Nottingham.
MOOCs I love enough to repeat:
Start Writing Fiction: From the Open University
I may have been through this a couple of times in full and now dip back into it as I get my head into gear. I’ll do this as often as it takes to get the thinking to stick. It’s working. I read as a writer. I will interrupt a story to pick out how a succinct character description works. I’m also chasing up a myriad of links into further Open University courses and support on creative writing. For example: next steps, creative writing tasters, and audio tasters on iTunes.
MOOCs I may repeat next year … or follow similar topics from these providers:
Word War 1: Trauma and Memory: From the Open University with the BBC
World War 1: Paris 1919 – A New World: From the University of Glasgow with the BBC
MOOCs I admire that target their academic audiences with precision:
How to Read a Mind: The University of Nottingham
Shakespeare’s Hamlet: From the University of Birmingham
Web Science: How the Web is changing: From the University of Southampton
How an image of the where and how my grandfather fought during the First World War has changed over 45 years
Fig. 1. How the six-eight year old me thought a farmhouse in the Ypres Salient looked like during the First World War in October 1917
For 45 years I have dwelt on how the images in my head associated with stories my grandfather told me about the First World War changed from those of a six year old, to an eleven year old, through my thirties and forties … my childhood conception of the imagined world depended on the little I had personally seen and experienced. When my grandfather spoke of keeping his machine gun in a pillbox pointing at a farmhouse held by ‘Jerry’ For three days I at first pictured an intact farm building, the kind I often saw in a rolling and lush Northumbrian landscape, with the heavy stone walls and full deciduous trees I knew from being driven down bouncy country lanes north east of Alnwick heading for Chathill and our fisherman’s holiday cottage in Beadnell.
The pillbox in my imagination would have had to been like those left from the Second World War on the beach that my brother and I played in – and used as a urinal.
Fig.2. The reality of life on the Front Line
Age eleven a few ghastly black and white pictures from the First World War and the title sequence from the BBC Series ‘The Great War’ coloured my imagination: it added a soundtrack, skulls and broken trees, but not the scale, nor the mud, not the rain, the cold, thirst and hunger. Although he could mimmick every shell the sound effects my grandfather made could never get close to the terrifying sound os something large and dangerous approaching and then the almighty bang that followed.
In my twenties I got to the Ypres Salient in summer: it was dry, a new autoroute split and the noise of traffic created a barrier. Several TV efforts at recreating the war failed, not least as my thoughts expended to take in the thoughts of a what it meant to be a young man in those conditions, that you were in and out for a bout of two or three days. The rest of the time if not on fatigues or carrying parties you were looking for things to do.
Fig. 3. The reality. A ‘camouflaged’ pillbox, recently taken while a couple of hundred yards beyond that low, light grey strip is a similar pillbox still in enemy hands.
‘Not a worm could live.” My grandfather would say. He lived, as did the German who in error entered my grandfather’s pillbox and got clobbered for his trouble.
Only now, thoroughly immersed in hundreds of curated photographs and having looked on destroyed, wet massively scarred landscapes from open mining, having smelt rotting flesh – not human, but a dead sheep several days gone, am I starting to develop a true image. With teenage children of my own it is too easy to imagine the horror of sending them to war. Images of what happens to a body when hit by shrapnel or bullets, or blown apart by shells are readily available.
Fig 4. As it was. The dead behind a stone wall. The very same image my grandfather had while he sat it out in the remains of a recently captured ‘Jerry’ strongpoint.
There is little left for my imagination to do, other than to see another drama reconstruction and feel that nothing has done it better than ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ It looks dated, somehow caught in the early 1970s when it was finally made, but ‘Johnny Got His Gun’ leaves you with the desired sense of hopelessness, horror and despair that one ought to have.
Fig.5. Returning to ‘Courage Post’ to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele. Corporal John Arthur Wilson MM recalls too friends who died at his side and that he buried in the rubble never to be found.
75 years after leaving that pillbox with two friends buried my 96 year old grandfather broke down: telling his stories as stories had been his escape from it, but back on the same soil, at the very spot with the light and low landscape just as it had been it once again had become horribly real. He withered away after that as if the reality of the war brought home to him made him whither from the inside out.
I know this part of the world well enough to walk it, step by step from the bivouacs outside Poperinghe, over the Yser Canal, through Langermarck and along the light rail track, then used to move men and matériel, now a cycle path. On towards Houthulst forest and the exact location of his machine gun company’s HQ at ‘Egypt House’ (a three roomed concrete strongpoint built into a farm building) and on another 300 yards to ‘Courage Post’ a pillbox on the edge of the road into the ‘forest’ – then ten thousand shards of broken tree trunks, now, buried in its midst, where they handled, until very recently, and destroyed old munitions from the extensive battlefield.
For all this ‘Jerry’ to me is still a black cartoon cat and the ‘Hun’ something barbaric from the fall of the Romans as a drawing in a Ladybird book. We are our own film directors when it comes to reading; an author is a catalyst to our thoughts that can conjure up anything – which, in part, is the fun of it. We inhabit a world of our own in the orchestra of our minds, the author the composer, as readers we conduct, as listeners or viewers the director injects a piece of their own mind.
Parts of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is more evocative of the conflict of two massive armies than much that I have seen or read – and I have seen and read most of it, including now one divisional history after another, and long out of print obscure autobiographies. It has created an image in my head. Of a screwball world where the daily job was to plan and execute slaughter against the enemy on a massive scale – slaughter than in those days treated men like so many bullets, shells or mules to expend, the only fear being whether or not they could be replaced.
Reflect, Review, Rethink, Redo … the power of repetition
Fig.1. My mash-up from the Start Writing Fiction, OU and FutureLearn MOOC.
Many weeks after the Open University MOOC on Future Learn closed ‘Start Writing Fiction’ I find I am returning to the many activities across the eight weeks to refresh, reflect, and build on my knowledge. As well as doing my bit for that ‘community’ by doing a few reviews (all assignments are peer reviewed). I completed the course in early December.
I return to reflect, to develop ideas, to be reminded of the excellent lessons I have learnt there, and in particular on how we use fact and fiction, whether consciously or not. In pure fantasy writing I find, inevitably, that I ground events in places I know from my youth, or have since researched. I use the hook of reality and my experiences on which to build the fiction. While currently I am embedded in what started as 90/10 fiction to fact I find it is increasingly looking like 95/5 in favour of fact as my imagination is close to the truth about a particular character and his experience of the First World War. All this from a simple exercise in week one called ‘Fact or Fiction?’ where we are asked first of all two write something that contains three factual elements and one fiction, and then to write something that contains three fictional elements and one factual. There are thousands of these now, many very funny, original or captivating. In week one, I’m guessing that around 10,000 got through the week. How many posted? There are 967 comments. This happens. It is an open course. The same applies for most web content: 95:5 is the ratio of readers to writers. Many people prefer not to do what they feel is ‘exposing themselves’ online. Why should they.
Anyway, this gives me reason to argue that it is an excellent idea to keep a blog of your OU studies. All of this can remain private, but at least, as I know have in this blog, when the doors close behind a module you can, months, even years later, return to key activities and assignments and build on the lessons you learnt. More importantly, as we all forget with such ease, we can keep the memory of the lessons fresh.