Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Learning out of place and time

27 February, 2013

The tensions in the course have been between technology as dehumanising or allowing us to create a new humanity, visions of futures in which it is used to control us or offers the opportunities of greater freedom. And I have to say, overall I am on the pro-technology end of these dilemmas. Without the internet, it just would not be possible for a team of educators in Edinburgh to offer a course to students in Nova Scotia, Romania, Spain, Canton, New Mexico, Argentian, Greece, Denmark, and to interact with those students in real time. A face-to-face seminar might be a more intense and intimate experience than a Twitter, but if I missed the seminar, I would have to rely on the (perhaps faulty) memories of my  classmates, not be able to review the conversations myself. Unless (perhaps) someone had thought to video it:

But then, this relies on the use of technology. Which brings me to the main part of my artefact. One of the most striking things about the #edcmooc course has been the interaction beyond the Coursera site. There have been active communities on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, perhaps elsewhere. And, as the course has progressed, it is in the Twitter periphery that I have engaged most actively. This is a distinct contrast to the Cryptography course I had completed previously.

It occurred to me that it would be interesting (and perhaps useful) to archive these tweets. As the course started, the Twitter search API only gave access to Tweets for the past week. Unaware that other people had had the same idea, I started creating a twitter archiving solution on some web space I rent:

Chart of #edcmooc tweets

Requiring no manual intervention, once it had been set up, this technology tirelessly harvested the results for the searches I had given it. Over the past five-and-a-half weeks, the archive has gathered more than 15,000 tweets in the main edcmooc archive, and over 8,000 for the twitter chats – 22,000+ individual tweets* in all, by 3,000+ participants.

Chart of #edcmchat tweets for 23/02/2013

Faced with a course on such an overwhelming scale, it is still possible to form into smaller, more “human-sized” groups. I decided early on that I could not cope with course interaction on more than one social-networking site. Looking more closely at the figures reveals a core group of participants on twitter – out of these 3,000+ users, only a little over 300 contributed more than 10 tweets, and less than 40 contributed over 100, and many of the Twitter usernames became very familiar to me.

In an early course team blog post, Christine Sinclair alluded to a similar issue for the instructors. Just as it took time to learn “how to be” as a student on the course, Christine wrote  “It takes time to work out ‘how to be’ as a lecturer too, when the configuration changes and the teaching repertoire has to be adjusted or supplemented.”

Technology, though, can help. Just as it allows interaction on this scale, so it can bring ways of managing that interaction, and getting an overview of it. My archiving tool was one attempt to do this. Others used ways of analysing the conversations to produce results that are quite beautiful.

Visualisation of Twitter #edcmchat from 23/2/2013

When I started writing my archiving software, one of the drivers behind it was that Twitter only returned search results from the last week. However, a recent update to their API has meant that it is now possible to get search results much older than this, reducing the need for external archives. Things move on.

I have placed the software I used to build the archive under the GNU General Public Licence, and it is available on Github if you would like to check it out.

* Some tweets ended up in both archives.

Libraries and MOOCs

12 February, 2013

I recently attended Library Camp Sheffield. During a session on developing information literacy, the subject of massively open online courses came up, which set me wondering what opportunities these offer for libraries (and particularly public libraries).

Libraries already offer a valuable information and learning resource in the heart of may communities. They provide internet access for people who don’t have a broadband connection at home, and offer a range of learning sessions. Many of these sessions will focus on basic, essential, skills (such as searching the internet or email use) as well as topics like local and family history. MOOCs, however, could enable these sessions to be widened.

Through online platforms such as Udacity, Coursera and P2PU, learners can access specialist instruction in a wide range of courses. The drawback is a lack of one-to-one support, and (for some) access to the computing resources needed to participate. Could libraries fill this gap?

It might be difficult for community libraries to provide subject-specific support in a range of courses which could range from computer science, to genetics, history and physics. However, the library could bring people together, offering space and resources, while the staff play a facilitative role. Obviously, the “student experience” would not be the same as for university students attending seminars led by tutors with high-level qualifications in the relevant subject. However, the opportunity to “attend” online lectures together, with peer support and encouragement, and to discuss the material face-to-face as well as online, could enhance the learning experience. In any such group, there will be some who find the concepts easier than others. These students could act as peer mentors to those who are finding more difficulty.

With this in mind, I was excited to come across an event that OCLC is running on 18-19 March (which will be broadcast live online):

Moocs and Libraries: Massive opportunities or overwhelming challenges

Looking at the outline programme, it engages with some of the challenges for MOOCs, such as “the challenges for licensing and clearing copyright for materials used in courses”. However, it does look like it is focused on academic settings – I hope there will be some consideration of public libraries.

This, of course, is another reason to defend our libraries from closure.

Learning on a local and global scale

30 January, 2013

This is the first week of a new MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) on, E-learning and Digital Cultures (edcmooc) organised by the team who run the MSc on E-learning and distance education at the University of Edinburgh. So far the experience has been stimulating, exciting and just a little overwhelming.

This is also, though, a bit of an experiment in blending online and face-to-face learning. As well as participating online alongside the 40,000 who are enrolled, four of us from my small university will be doing the course together. We are from different departments, and have different roles (lecturing, admissions and widening participation, and IT). Many claims are being made about MOOCs, but they are certainly something with which traditional universities are going to have to engage.

I recently completed another course on the site, Cryptography I designed by Dan Boneh of Stanford. That was an excellent course, very structured with video lectures and regular problem sets and programming assignments. It had active user forums, and encouraged active learning, but was very instructor-led (appropriately, for the subject material), and confined to the Coursera site. Edcmooc is different.

The course started before the course started, with activity on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter. Last Saturday, there was a Twitter chat (#edcmchat) with more than 130 users and over 1,100 tweets sent in an hour. more than 3,600 tweets have now been sent using the course hashtag #edcmooc. I have now given up any attempt to keep up with activity on the other social networking sites, but my email account was being swamped by notifications from the course’s Google+ community, before I turned these off.

On the site, the experience is also different. The course leaders have provided links to online articles and videos illustrating and exploring the main themes (Utopias and Dystopias for the first two weeks, then on to the experience of being human and posthuman). But there are no quizzes, no problem sets. Instead, the instructors kick off discussion, and intervene occasionally. The feel is more virtual unconference than virtual lecture theatre, with participants expected to organise their own learning. Instead of an exam at the end, we are expected to produce a “digital artefact” relevant to some of the themes of the course, and make it available online.

The course overall does feel like a bit of an experiment in ways of doing learning, and inevitably there are some people who “get” it and others who do not. But it is an interesting and worthwhile experiment, I think.

MOOCs and stats, comparing cows and chickens

23 January, 2013

I’ve recently completed my first MOOC (massively open online course) – an introductory Cryptography course on, created by Professor Dan Boneh of Stanford. The course, in general, was excellent. It offered much more than a taster of the subject (for those of us who completed it), and I plan to take part in the follow-up course that is due to start in April.

There are many claims being made about MOOCs, both positive and negative, and of course there are differences between taking a course as a relatively anonymous online user, than the standard experience of enrolling at a college or university. I intend to get around to writing something fuller on these at a later point.

However, I want to address one criticism that keeps on being made – the high “dropout” rate from free online courses. This is a criticism that I believe is invalid, because it is not comparing like with like.

I suppose, before going on, I should come clean and admit that I have been one of these dropouts (on several courses). In one case, I started the course intending to complete it, but decided that I did not have the time to devote to it at that point. In other cases, though, I enrolled simply to get a better idea of what the course was like, and help me decide which course I really wanted to be doing.

I would argue that this is more similar to browsing books in a library or a bookstore, than it is to enrolling on (and dropping out of) a traditional course. Standard university or college courses usually require some commitment (monetary, or in application time), to enroll. For a MOOC, it just takes a few clicks of the mouse. And I think it’s likely that the better idea students have about the level and requirements of a course, the greater probability they will have of completing it successfully when they really do commit.

More fine-grained data is needed about the motivations and circumstances of students signing up for such courses, before any valid comparisons can be made about retention and completion rates. MOOCs are certainly not an educational panacera, but they are a welcome newcomer to the neighbourhood.