The MOOC just got better!

I’ve just finished Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) MOOC (see my previous post MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student). Personally, I’ve found it a very enjoyable, but challenging experience (due to my lack of skills, but isn’t that the whole point of learning?).

The course tutor rounded off the course with a short video of his reflections. For those of you who like facts and figures:

  • 29,568 students watched at least some of the video lectures
  • 20,443 students did at least one of the automatically marked multiple choice quizzes
  • 3,203 students completed at least one of the assignments
  • 765 students completed all 5 assignments
  • students came from all around the world, with at least 130 countries being represented.

As students, we’ve had ample opportunity to provide feedback to the teaching team about the Coursera platform and the course as a whole. That feedback has been acted on quickly with tweaks being made to class materials or assignments, while students are still working on them. MOOCs therefore offer an agile solution that takes the student’s needs into account.

It hasn’t just been a one-way transaction. As a student, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both the teaching team and my peers. The teaching team has also learnt from the students, who have shared resources, reading lists, articles, etc and helped other students. Taking an online course doesn’t mean that the student is isolated. Many students have held their own meet-ups, either face-to-face or virtually. You could say, using the classic cybernetics term, that they were part of a self-organising system, building up communities to support and help each other long after the course has finished.

Just one year ago, there was no Coursera. So everything I’ve used on the course has been created over a very short period of time. But you wouldn’t know. Aside from a few bugs and minor niggles, the whole thing ran very smoothly. One thing to note is that Stanford doesn’t need to run this course. It already has a great reputation, but that hasn’t stopped the teaching team from working hard to pull together the content and make it freely available to everyone.

And now the MOOC has just got better. I’ve just had an email from Coursera to tell me that it now has a Career Service to help Coursera students find jobs. Should I wish to take part (and I may need to shortly), they will share my details with selected partner companies (likely to be US based). This could be good for me as a student, although it’s not without concerns. In the (probably very near) future, a company could cherry pick the best students from online courses, because they’ll be able to follow students with potential as they submit their coursework. They may even influence the course itself. Coursera will no doubt get its revenue from acting as a matchmaking service. However, this needs to be handled carefully. Issues could include companies bombarding students with advertising, a limited pool of companies being able to select students (but who wouldn’t be flattered to be offered a job by the likes of Google or Apple?), US only companies, companies that only support (financially?) Stanford (or other Coursera universities), etc. It’s not without its potential difficulties. However, from a student point of view, it seems like a great idea.

So did I finish the course? I certainly did and can now quite legitimately say that I have a Distinction from Stanford University!

MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student

Photo of a mortar board hat and scrollThere seems to be a lot of animosity toward MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) at the moment, mostly it seems because they don’t offer the same experience as a traditional on-campus course and because of the issues around assessment.

But I wonder how many of those nay-sayers have actually taken a MOOC? From a student point of view, a MOOC is a wonderful opportunity to try something for free, with no obligation if it doesn’t work out, or if circumstances force a change of mind.

So I’ve taken off my e-learning hat and I’m writing this from a student point of view. I’m currently doing Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) course. As I live in a rural area and work full-time, there is no other way that I would be able to access such a course. I’m not doing it for the “statement of accomplishment”, which if I complete the course, I’ll get at the end (although that carrot does help). I’m doing it for my own personal development, skills upgrading and enjoyment. In any case, I wouldn’t be able to take such a course in my own time at my own institution.

As I said in my previous post, MOOCs and Carrots back in September, the types of students on these courses are not students who would normally be able to study in a campus setting. People seem to be taking such courses to upgrade or complement their existing skills or even just for the challenge. There are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution, unemployed people, etc. Not only that, people can take each week’s module whenever they want, wherever they want. Be it at 9pm at night when the children have gone to bed or on the train on the way to a meeting. These are non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting.

The HCI course is peer-reviewed, which I think is a sticking point for many educationalists. This is not without its challenges from both a student and educationalist perspective as some of the forum posts testify. However, as a student, it enables me to see other students’ work and how they have approached a particular task. The learning comes not just from following the video lectures and attempting each week’s practical assignment, it comes from what my peers say about my work as well as from what I can observe in theirs.

One student asked if the online HCI course was any different to the one that Stanford’s own on-campus students take. Both online and on-campus students have the video lectures (although some are done physically by the on-campus staff), the on-campus students have 10 weeks to complete the course (online students have 9), on-campus students also have an hour’s lab time per week (presumably with some sort of assistance from staff), and of course on-campus students’ work is assessed by teaching staff. In both cases, the content is the same.

Some students do want that (electronic) piece of paper at the end, perhaps for the prestige of successfully completing a Stanford course (the type of statement of accomplishment depends on the student’s average marks for the course) or for demonstrating to their employers that they have completed it. Many other students are completing the course at their own pace (it is quite intensive) and are doing it because they want to learn about HCI in their own time and their own way. For them, a MOOC is a way to facilitate that – they get the guidance and support they need but there is no fear of failing or dropping out, as the course can always be taken again next time or over an extended period of time. For many students, the learning goal is not a piece of paper, but the acquisition of a new skill or undertaking a personal challenge.

Institutions and educationalists should not look at the MOOC as a threat to the sector (at least not yet), because the type of people taking these online classes are generally not able (for whatever reason) to take a traditional on-campus course. It may be some time before the assessment side of things is robust enough to enable students to receive proper accreditation.

MOOCs do fill a need, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many thousands of people flocking to take them (the other course I’m taking has over 34,000 students registered). So before, we look at MOOCs in a negative light, let’s look at it from the student point of view. After all, as educationalists, isn’t that who we’re here to serve?

MOOCs and Carrots

Photo of a bunch of carrots

I’ve just started a free online Coursera course on HCI (Human-Computer Interaction). This is my first time taking an online course and I thought I’d share some of my observations on both the course and on using a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course).

The HCI course is being run by Stanford University and consists of a number of short video lectures, peer-evaluated assignments and online quizzed. There is a student forum, free access to software to help with the course, and lots of text and videos to support the general interaction with the course.

The first thing that struck me about the HCI course itself was how much it will complement my existing work as an e-learning technologist in the accessibility field, as well as there being similarities with the service design approach, which has been part of my Relationship Management work. In fact, there are quite a number of e-learning technologists on the course.

The second thing that really stood out was the wide variety of the types of people from around the world taking the course. Apart from the obvious – students taking this course as a complement to their main study and people in employment upgrading or complementing their existing skills – there are mothers with young children, housebound people, people with disabilities, people who don’t live anywhere near an educational institution that offers such a course, unemployed people, etc. These are very much non-traditional students who would be unable to attend a class in a traditional setting. Perhaps the rise in MOOCs won’t necessarily threaten the current university sector but will complement it by attracting those on the fringes of mainstream education?

There are some differences between attending an educational institution as a real student and as a virtual student. Perhaps the biggest one might be the social and collaborative aspect. If one is motivated to attend class for social reasons (e.g. seeing a different group of people, doing something outside of the normal day-to-day routine, etc), then one may be more likely to continue. However, no-one is going to notice if one hasn’t attended a virtual class! Perhaps one way to encourage attendance in online classes to offer a carrot. In the case of the HCI class, students who successfully complete the course will be awarded a “statement of accomplishment” signed by the tutor and there are grade penalties if you miss assignments or don’t take part in peer evaluation. Not all classes offer this, so it will be interesting to know whether offering a sort of certificate really makes a difference to drop-out rates. If I manage to make it to the end, I’ll let you know!

Carrots photo by vierdrie.

iPad Accessibility

I’ve just had a very quick look at the Apple’s latest and much awaited offering – the iPad. I say, a “quick look”, because I haven’t yet been able to wrestle it from the grasp of its new owner. However, I did manage to request a demo of the accessibility features.

How can something so visual, which relies on accurate touch, be made accessible? The form factor has a lot to do with it. The iPad is much larger than the iPod Touch and iPhone (not quite a sheet of A4) so Apple has more room to play with, which helps. The extra real estate means icons for the apps can be selected with even the largest or most arthritic of fingers unlike the iPod Touch or iPhone, which require almost pianistic dexterity.

There are accessibility settings for text-to-speech and magnification, although you’d probably need someone to set the settings on first use. This changes the gestures required to use the device, e.g. for magnification a three-finger swipe will increase the size, etc. But for me, the way the device works for visually impaired people really caught my attention. By selecting the Voice Over (text-to-speech) setting, every time the user touches the screen anywhere, a box highlights the text and the name of the app is read out. The required app can be selected by tapping. This means that visually impaired users can still navigate and select the various apps on what looks like a completely visual interface.

The iPad comes with a free e-book – Winnie the Pooh – and I was intrigued to see how this would be handled. The book has images and I was pleasantly surprised to hear them described. The descriptions were far more descriptive than alt text. The image of Pooh sitting outside his house was charmingly described, even down to the “childish writing” of the sign saying “Mr Sanders”. OK – I guess it’s down to the publishers of e-books to ensure that their books are accessible (and also to the app developers), but it does show what can be done.

These comments have only been made on the briefest of looks at the iPad and there will no doubt be some accessibility “gotchas”, but I think the size of the device has made a huge difference to the way in which accessibility can be handled.

So now, I’m going to see if I can distract the iPad’s new owner so I can have another quick look, but unless It’s by something equally as innovative, I don’t think I’ll have much of a chance!

Mozilla Labs Design Challenge 2009: Re-inventing Tabs

Whilst this blog generally focusses on all things accessible, this design challenge from Mozilla Labs caught my eye. Sometimes ensuring an application is accessible can be considered as a hindrance rather than an opportunity to show off design skills and develop new ways of working. However, good design can provide benefits to many users, not just those with disabilities.

One of the aims of the Mozilla Labs Design Challenge is to inspire future design directions for Firefox, the Mozilla project, and the Web as a whole. New ideas and mockups for the future of the Web are invited from designers, students and design-focused people. The focus is on finding creative solutions to the question: “Reinventing Tabs in the Browser – How can we create, navigate and manage multiple web sites within the same browser instance?”

The Challenge website states: “Today, 20+ parallel sessions are quite common; the browser is more of an operating system than a data display application; we use it to manage the web as a shared hard drive. However, if you have more than seven or eight tabs open they become pretty much useless. And tabs don’t work well if you use them with heterogeneous information. They’re a good solution to keep the screen tidy for the moment. And that’s just what they should continue doing”.

All you need to is create a mockup of your proposed solution in any format – from a napkin drawing, to a wireframe, to a polished graphic – and create a short video presenting the mockup, explaining your idea and how it works. The submission deadline is 21st June 2009.

Good luck!

Technology and Control: the Designer v. the User

Chapter Two: Framing Conversations about Technology” of “Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart” by Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’Day looks at the differing views of technology from the dystopic to the utopic.  The authors make some interesting comparisons between the technology we have now with the technology of the recent past, as well as some very interesting comments.

Nardi and O’Day have noticed that although the advance of technology is seen as inevitable, people do not critically evaluate the technologies they use, even though they have been designed and chosen by people.  In other words, we accept the technology that is placed before us but we forget that we have a choice as to the type of technology we actually use and the way in which we use it.

The authors compare the differing views of Nicholas Negroponte (technophile and director of the MIT Media Lab) and Clifford Stoll, author of “Silicon’s Snake Oil”, programmer and astronomer.  Interestingly, although their views are remarkably different (one utopic, the other dystopic), they both agree that “the way technology is designed and used is beyond the control of the people who are not technology experts” (Nardi & O’Day).

Nevertheless, people often use technology in ways that are completely different from the way in which the designer intended. For example, Johnny Chung Lee has developed some interesting and unusual uses for the Nintendo Wii controller.  Thinking out of the box can bring control back to the user and it’s probably fair to say that we all (from expert users to newbies) use the technology we have in ways which weren’t even considered by designers, even if it’s just using a CD as a coaster for a coffee mug.

So although technology (hardware and software) designers may only have a limited perspective on the way in which they expect their technology to be used, once it is out in the public domain, alternative uses or ways of working will often be developed and exploited.