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?

Student Progression: Smartcard Bursaries and the Students FIRST Project

Photo of a brass compassThe JISC funded Students FIRST Project has been improving the use of bursary schemes for purchasing learning materials and other services at the University of East London and Anglia Ruskin University, in conjunction with AMOSSHE and John Smith’s Booksellers.


The Students FIRST project pulled together a group of technologies – financial information app, bursary on a smarcard, and social messaging tools (texting) – to help improve progression and retention. However, there were some challenges in this approach:

  • technologies, such as smartcard or mobile apps, may be used in a “scattergun” approach and need to be part of a strategic service delivery
  • staff can be unwilling to engage with new technologies; for example, because they don’t want to remember additional logins
  • staff must be trained in the use of any new technologies, but it can be difficult to find the resource to do so.


Access to the bursary is staggered according to student progression; i.e. a student must progress to the second year of their studies in order to receive the second installment. Students can then purchase from a list of products specified by their institution, such as books, art materials, nursery fees, campus accommodation, etc. Almost 74% of students surveyed at one university found that the bursary was beneficial. Other benefits include:

  • establishing a clear link between the spend on books and academic achievement
  • a targeted bursary encourages students to achieve and progress
  • such a bursary also equalises opportunity across the student body; for example, one student said “I have access to books that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to own and progress further”.


A collaborative approach to this project was taken with a mix of educational and commercial providers and this gave the project team the opportunity to draw up guidance materials on working across different sectors. Recommendations include:

  • taking a service design approach can help you to understand student needs, expose failpoints in service delivery, and build collaborative relationships between departments/institutions and providers
  • sharing data between institutions can be a cause for concern, so consider alternatives such as using separate hard drives to store data
  • actively engage with technologies with which students are familiar, such as mobile apps, to encourage engagement.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Student Dashboard at University of Southampton

Photo of a brass compassThe JISC funded Southampton Student Dashboard Project at the University of Southampton has been aggregating data from across a number of systems and presenting it in a single place, so that pastoral tutors can provide better informed support for students.


Data held by institutions is not always easy to access. For example:

  • data held across a number of systems only offers a partial or disjointed view of information that may be relevant to staff and students
  • multiple systems require multiple log-ins; for example, Student Services at Southampton need to switch between four different applications in order to amalgamate student information
  • selecting the data that tutors might need to see on a dashboard can be contentious; for example information from Finance or Student Counselling services.


In common with other projects that have focussed on using data to identify “at risk” students, the project team identified the following benefits:

  • providing a complete view of an institution’s student data enables staff to identify any early signs of problems and possible non-progression
  • improving access to data can encourage the organisational culture to be more innovative and transparent
  • by allowing a small set of data to be shown to pastoral tutors, it is expected that this will generate requests for more data to be included.


Encouraging people to open up access to data can be challenging. Issues of data access and organisational culture can be difficult to handle, so try to:

  • manage change carefully to ensure that all stakeholders are engaged, especially those who have power to implement change and those who have influence over opinion in the institution
  • identify champions in each group of stakeholders, who will help drive through changes
  • find out what data is held by each stakeholder and how it is accessed (some of it may be paper-based) as this can help determine how that data could be accessed in a dashboard; it can also expose information that some stakeholders didn’t even know existed.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Mental Health at the University of Sheffield

Photo of a brass compassThe DCSMH (Digital Communication and Student Mental Health) project at the University of Sheffield has created a website, Well Connected, which provides a library of self-help resources, a self-check facility, and social media functions for supporting students with mental health difficulties.


Many HE (Higher Education) institutions are facing increased demand from students for mental health services. There are increasing numbers of students with complex difficulties, so the institution needs to be able to promote mental health support effectively. The challenges include:

  • students with mild difficulties may not be prioritised for face-to-face support whilst those with more severe difficulties do not always access the services provided
  • the area of mental health can be a sensitive topic for the institution, staff and students, which needs careful handling
  • increased demand for mental health services means that traditional face-to-face support is becoming severely stretched.


The Well Connected website, which was co-created with students, has provided benefits for both staff and students:

  • non-clinical student support and academic staff feel more confident in their response to students with mental health difficulties
  • the site includes a validated online self-check or referral tool which may help students wary of contacting mental health support services to make the first step to getting help
  • using digital communications to keep students informed can relieve pressure on physical support services and provide a channel for communication messages of wellbeing, especially at particular times of the academic year.


During the project, feedback from students has shown that they favour digital media for finding out about mental health issues. However,

  • don’t underestimate the strength of institutional branding and authority; for example because the Well Connected website has the University’s stamp of approval, students feel that they can rely on it and that it can be trusted
  • ensure that training is put in place for support staff in the use of any online resources
  • although online support resources can relieve some of the pressure on face-to-face support staff, remember that there will be additional work required in the support and maintenance of an online resource and in managing communication campaigns.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Project fulCRM at Roehampton University

Photo of a brass compassProject fulCRM, funded by JISC, at Roehampton University has brought together two existing processes, one technical and one manual, in order to reduce the number of students leaving their course early.


The initial challenges faced by the project team included:

  • over 2000 mitigating circumstances requests were made each year by students in the University, which were all handled manually
  • lack of consistency in the way in which mitigating circumstances were handled, which was a cause for student concern
  • data formats that are not designed to integrate with other applications.


Two existing processes (a spreadsheet-based Early Warning System of lack of attendance and other indicators and the manual process of applying for mitigating circumstances) have been improved by taking a technological approach. This has resulted in a number of benefits for staff and students alike, including:

  • improved communication by ensuring that students are kept informed via e-mail of the progress of the mitigating circumstances process
  • flagging up of students who need additional support
  • automated data collection which has replaced complex and time-consuming activities and reduced staff workload.


Students now feel that the technological improvements provide them with a safety net and they will also be able to view their performance alongside their tutor. However, arriving at this stage has not been easy and the following suggestions may help:

  • in order to gain acceptance across a number of disparate Departments, ensure that any system can cater for the creation of different student performance indicators
  • if data (such as data relating to the number of times a student accesses a VLE) is held in the cloud, accessing that data and moving it across to private university servers may pose a security risk, therefore additional servers with secure links direct to the VLE may need to be built
  • do not underestimate the amount of manipulation required to access complex data which is often housed in various disparate systems.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Support for All Project at North Glasgow College

Photo of a brass compassThe JISC funded Support for All project at North Glasgow College has been trying to improve access to learner support, both on and off-campus. This project is based at an FE (Further Education) College, which tends to face different issues fro those faced by HE (Higher Education) colleagues.


The project team team has tried to formalise the thought processes and relationships regarding provision of support and identified a number of challenges, including:

  • developments in the real-world can get ahead of institutional strategy; e.g. there are issues around allowing the College to use Facebook
  • the lack of strategy around the introduction of new technologies, such as iPads
  • changes in personnel can affect any improvements being made.


The project team established several new approaches to improve access to student support, including:

  • a structured and auditable “pipeline of support” through which learners can move; the ten steps in this process can be used as a checklist for performance evaluation of the support offered
  • a Blackboard mobile app was implemented, alongside access to iPads, in order to extend access to support. This not only gives students access to learning content but also allows the learner to submit medical self-certification forms electronically
  • these improvements should lead to increased student confidence, performance and retention.


When tackling improvements at a time when resources are scarce, it can be helpful to:

  • give staff responsible for delivering a service the chance to take ownership of any activities leading to process improvement
  • encourage staff to complete bite-sized activities so that they are not taken away from day-to-day operations, as this may reduce resentment to any new methods of working
  • make small improvements, even if resources are scarce. For example, whilst social media services, such as Facebook, were seen as positive ways to interact with support services by students, staff resources weren’t available at the College to manage this. The project team addressed this issue by designing postcards with QR codes, so that students can get immediate access via their smartphone to the support team’s e-mail.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

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.

Student Retention: Learner Analytics at Loughborough University

Photo of a brass compassThe JISC funded Pedestal for Progression project at Loughborough University has focussed on bringing together information from their in-house Co-Tutor dashboard and other systems to help tutors be pro-active in their response to “at risk” students.


The project team found that having access to the data is not enough, there needs to be a balance between automated and human interventions, for example:

  • educational data mining is complex and will be unsuccessful if used solely to identify “at risk” students without human intervention processes being designed
  • incorporating more student-centred approaches into the development of exisiting systems (such as VLEs, student data systems, attendance recording systems etc) can be challenging
  • changes in processes and the introduction of new software systems can be seen as threatening to staff.


The project team looked at both staff and student needs by:

  • using service design techniques to help identify learner needs, such as flexibility of study, planning of deadlines for coursework, and employability, for example
  • providing more and better quality learner information to help a tutor be more active in identifying and supporting “at risk” students; for example teaching sessions where attendance is taken electronically are designated as being “critical” or not, so e-mails are sent only to students missing “critical” sessions
  • developing a standardised process for managing placements across three departments in order to reduce student anxiety around the process.


The relationships that students have with staff are vital to the enhancement of the student experience, but the relationships that staff have within in the organisation are also important. For example:

  • provide staff with access to learner data to help them identify any human interventions that need to be made
  • use the student voice to influence improvements
  • sincere management buy-in is critical, otherwise an institution’s organisational structure will remain a barrier no matter what improvements are suggested.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help:

Student Retention: Engagement Analytics at University of Derby

Photo of a brass compassThe University of Derby has been scoping early indicators (engagement analytics) for spotting students at risk of withdrawing in their SETL (Student Experience Traffic Lighting) project.


Institutions generally hold a vast array of data about students, often in different systems which are not always interoperable. The data challenges experienced in this project include:

  • predisposing factors, such as responsibility as a carer, means that students are more likely to withdraw from their studies, however it’s not always possible to capture this type of data as it’s not generally held in any IT system
  • there is little interoperability between different data systems; for example, the data required to populate an engagement dashboard is held in at least seven different systems at the University
  • each student is an individual who brings with them individual challenges to succeeding at and engaging with higher education


Scoping out the type of data to be included in a dashboard of core engagement data:

  • means that staff would be able to view a student’s level of engagement with the institution; for example, linking data on absences, access to the library and the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) could help a tutor see if the student was still engaging in the course, even if they were absent due to illness
  • has produced a change of thinking in the way students at risk of withdrawing will be supported at the University; i.e. it will be more proactive than reactive
  • has helped staff identify key points in the student lifecycle where students are most likely to be at risk of withdrawal.


Engagement analytics goes beyond the hard data recorded in learning analytics, because:

  • it’s dangerous to make decisions about student engagement based solely on a set of data, as understanding the context of the data is important and developing the relationship between the tutor and student is essential
  • both staff and students find it useful to have their own customisable engagement dashboards
  • soft data that can’t always be found on institutional systems should also be recorded and considered.

Further Information

If you would like to find out more about this project, the following resources may help: