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Definitely HandsOn … December 2, 2014

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, research.
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hands on

creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by Building Unity 1000 Families: http://flickr.com/photos/buildingunity/303497031

This post might go some way towards explaining why (once again!) posts have lost their regularity recently. For the last five weeks I’ve been participating in the 3rd edition of the HandsOnICT MOOC and it’s rather sucked up my time. I’m not a ‘serial MOOC dropout‘ who visits to get a flavour of the content, the practice or the community; if the topic being covered will address a need for me, then I’m in and will do my utmost to see it through. And so it proved with HandsOn – Design Studio for ICT-based Learning Activities (DS4ICTL); I committed to the full five weeks … and full-on it proved!

This was no gentle stroll through a few interesting creative exercises or discursive mental conundrums. No watching a few talking heads, then answering a few auto-marked questions or writing a reflective post or two. DS4ICTL is delivered through a Moodle implementation, (supported by ILDE) consists of five modules of study, each with several activities including peer mentoring, facilitated by a group of experienced online tutors, in seven language streams and using Open Badges to credential the learning. Phew! I was attracted to learning about the design-based approach when creating online/elearning activities. There seemed to be plenty in there that might prove both fresh and useful in supporting me in my role in school. Additionally I’d be working on a project I needed to undertake as part of my work schedule. Good authentic, grounded learning then.

During the first week, the activities sought to familiarise us with the work environments, discussion and reflection areas and introduce us to our peers. Then over subsequent weeks we chose a project, explored the context within which it would be developed and brought some of the principles of design into realising our resource. Many of these principles were new to me and required some degree of persistence to become more comfortable with them. Perhaps that’s what contributed to the time it required each week to work through the activities? I’d decided I was prepared to allow five-ish hours a week, but actually it often transpired to be more. This was a MOOC; there was no compunction for me to do that, but somehow this was different. It mattered. It felt … professional. (And I mean that in several ways)

Given the amount of time it required, one would hope I gained something from the experience and of that, I have no doubt:

  • It extended my learning – I became more familiar with how to use design principles in creating learning activities; about using personas, scenarios and prototyping; heuristic evaluation; andragogy and heutagogy.
  • It extended my personal learning network – despite the large numbers in the MOOC, there were fewer in the English language stream and only a handful who were clearly out to complete in the scheduled time. Since we were often exchanging views and ideas with the same people, it allowed a greater degree of familiarity than we might usually expect in a MOOC.
  • It developed my skills – we worked in several environments for different aspects of the course, thereby gaining a breadth, if not depth, of experience in new workspaces.

I was impressed by how quickly issues were resolved, either by the tutors who were clearly committed to the course, or by peers, who were clearly switched on. As a result, I now have the framework within which to build a resource I’ve been meaning to produce for some while. It’s sufficiently developed (and hopefully robustly designed!) and ready to deploy, so that colleagues will hopefully be enjoying the benefits in the very near future.

In addition to the demanding time commitment, there were other aspects of the course I found tough:

  • Maintaining station within the course timeline. I found that when I slipped slightly behind, despite the notion that participants could work at their own pace, I floundered. This was because I felt out of place; uncomfortable commenting on the posts of those further forward and less in touch with those following behind. Furthermore, committing to supporting and learning from those at the same point in the course with you meant you had less time to devote to those further back on the timeline; those who might in fact benefit from a little extra encouragement.
  • Peer mentoring. Commenting on people’s posts in discussions is fine; I’m used to that, but providing the formal feedback using a scoring rubric was much harder. Applying the rubrics were fine, but trying to offer supportive feedback when criteria hadn’t been met, especially when you’re dealing with fellow professionals who you don’t know, isn’t easy. There’s the temptation to be more lenient than perhaps we might with our students; after all it’s only a MOOC that someone’s taking part in out of interest. It’s hardly a high-stakes environment. On one shoulder I had the hard-nut angel that was my professional integrity and on the other the sweet angel who sees no value in upsetting someone for no reason. Who won? Well you’ll have ask those whose contributions I evaluated. I’d also add here the frustration I’d sometimes feel if an assessment had asked the learner to provide links to ‘a’ and ‘b,’ but the learner only provided ‘b’ with no explanation why ‘a’ was missing. Obviously there’s no compulsion to complete everything or even anything within the MOOC, but when a peer is relying on you being clear in order to fulfil their own obligations … well, like I said, frustrating.
  • Pitching responses appropriately. Linked with feedback I also found it harder than usual knowing how to pitch responses to people’s comments. When someone participates in a course in a language which is not their first, I have nothing but admiration, though that naturally demands more thought when responding to their contributions, so as not to offend. (Good experience and useful practice though, given the increasing number of students we’re welcoming from overseas).
  • Navigating the different environments. It wasn’t that I couldn’t cope with this, so much as finding it frustrating flipping from one back to the other … especially when the navigation didn’t ease those transfers (due to technical reasons arising caused by having to have different language streams). Although I managed, I suspect a MOOC novice, or someone less confident with online learning could find it rather overwhelming or intimidating.

In summary then, DS4ICTL proved to be a valuable experience; perhaps the most useful MOOC I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. It was well designed, well organised and well supported. All credit to the designers and facilitators; it must have been a mammoth undertaking. I’d suggest either reducing the content slightly, or spreading it out over an extra week, just to reduce the weekly demand. If the demographic of potential participants is those who are reasonably well along the digital literacy continuum, then it’s probably pitched well, but it’s a little too complex for novice learners I’d argue. If there was another HandsOn MOOC on a different topic, I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up.

The badges earned through the course can be viewed here. As with all digital badges, they have metadata attached enabling a viewer to establish who the issuer was and under what circumstances. Might have been helpful if the learning outcomes for each award could also be listed and even some of the evidence? Most of the badges also transferred across to my Backpack.

MOOCs aren’t at all bad … or is that damning with faint praise? June 3, 2012

Posted by IaninSheffield in CPD, Resources.
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computer science

cc licensed ( BY NC SD ) flickr photo by derrickting: http://flickr.com/photos/derrickding/323213337/

The six weeks are up and I’ve successfully reached the end of CS101 on Coursera, my first MOOC. Although I’m not entirely sure how many students were enrolled on the course, there was clearly a good international spread, with the age spectrum well represented too. (If their submissions were to be believed, the youngest was 11 and the oldest 82)

Before I reflect on how things worked out, it might be wise to return to my motivations for embarking on this course of study. I was hoping to explore:

  • an example of the new learning environments known as MOOCs
  • my attitude to learning through this medium
  • introductory computer science.

I guess on all three fronts I succeeded, however that’s not to say the experience was entirely fulfilling. I certainly had a good look around the Coursera environment which offered a clear, well-structured, robust platform with course materials laid out and accessible intuitively ( at least for someone who is familiar with online learning environments). Providing the learning materials as short (10-20min) videos in lecture-style format, supported by course notes was perfectly acceptable, especially as the videos could be downloaded for offline viewing. I often find streaming an unsatisfying experience due to inevitable buffering, but here I could download the videos and watch them from the comfort of the sofa on the larger screen of my TV … and with a cuppa close to hand. The ‘test area’ coding environment for those parts of the course was a sensible move, but I didn’t find the need to use it much (more later).The assessment exercises were largely trivial, given the need to have them auto-marked; it wouldn’t have been difficult to include a few more multi-choice questions with an increasing level of demand perhaps. But then again, the assessments aren’t really there to differentiate one learner from another, nor to provide some element of summative grade; they’re just a mechanism by which the learner can check his/her understanding … though perhaps they didn’t really do that too well either.

To address the potentially missing social, interactive aspects of studying online, a forum environment was provided and whilst some participants were clearly enthusiastic contributors, I found the majority of threads either a little too trivial or far too long and wandering. Perhaps this was simply because the course contents didn’t offer sufficient demand that I had issues I needed to resolve through discussion with others or maybe in just a six week course I just didn’t feel the imperative to fully commit and begin to forge relationships.

I suspect that choosing computer science was my main mistake, though for the best intentions. With the current debate surrounding its reinvigoration in the UK school curriculum, it seemed like an appropriate topic to visit. Unfortunately an introductory course aimed at people with no prior experience of CS inevitably meant that there was insufficient challenge for me. Which is not to say I came away having learned nothing; quite the contrary in fact. The problem was more that I never needed to step away from the content to process it further or more deeply, either because it didn’t challenge me or I felt no imperative to push myself to take things further. To be fair I couldn’t really expect any more than that from a six week introductory course. The consequence however was that I never became fully immersed in the course, whether due to my attitude to the subject matter, course contents or the open nature (i.e. no commitment either personally or financially).

In the end I suspect my feelings were far less skeptical than Joshua Kim’s and at a similar (though not for the same reasons) level to those of Audrey Waters. Would I do another? Absolutely! In fact in order to evaluate MOOCs more rigorously, I need to do another; one in which I move beyond my comfort zone and into an area that fully challenges me. Are MOOCs suitable for everyone? Of course not! But that’s not because the technological environment might not suit all (which is indeed true), but that you have to have a determined and committed approach to your learning, recognising that the locus of that learning must come from within. Would I recommend it to someone else! Probably. There’s certainly nothing inherently weak in the principle or the practise, but I would advise them that progress and success will depend largely on their predisposition. Let’s keep a sense of perspective – these are free (arguably!), well-structured, well-resourced courses which provide learning opportunities for anyone with an Internet connection. They have to be worth a shot surely?