And the cow said – MOOOOCS

MOOOOCIn October I decided I would find out first hand exactly what it was like to study online so I joined a MOOC. For those that don’t know what these are, a Massive Open Online Course is a free or at least normally free online course that has the capacity to have thousands of students in the same virtual classroom.

In fact only last month the British Council launched its first MOOC on English language attracting over 100,000 students. In essence a MOOC provides “education” at scale, accessible globally for free, and what could be wrong with that? Well in essence nothing, having a well educated society not only helps with social mobility but as has been well documented adds significant economic value.

Problems with MOOCS

But as you can imagine not everyone is happy, most of the concerns centre around quality.

If MOOCS are so good why is it that despite the large numbers of students enrolling there are very few, around 8% who actually complete the course.

Is this the result of poor instructional design, the fact that some MOOCS have very little student/ teacher engagement and are simply a series of videos linked together with reference to materials available elsewhere on the web. Is it because no one person is accountable for the students, there is no “teacher” to motivate the student if they fall behind. And due to the scale, feedback has to be automated or assessed by peers who are clearly not experts.

Well it might be all of the above and the course completion rate is clearly of concern yet some would argue that having a less teacher centric course is exactly what you need for students to develop a much deeper understanding. This is something *George Siemem’s argues.

Making sense of the chaos is what learning is all about, if teachers plot the route it reduces the value of what is being or could be learned.”

 “The great thing about MOOCS is that the learning does not end when the course ends, because the students have built their own communities, the learning becomes life long.”


People talk about MOOCs in so many different ways, in fact the name itself can be confusing when trying to understand exactly what a MOOC is.

  • Massive – A MOOC works on a platform that enables thousands of students to see and hear the same thing at the same time. The technology behind this is impressive and using one tutor to deliver the course enables the most to be made of the expertise.
  • Open – its open to anyone, there are no prior learning requirements. It is also open in the context of being free, and the learning not being restricted to the views of one person, the community are also teachers.
  • Online – it is online but is not what some would class as an online course. An online course unlike a MOOC would be instructionally designed to ensure the learning is consistent with the learning outcomes and incorporates the latest developments from the field of learning science.
  • Course – It has a cohort, a subject matter and a beginning, middle and end. But as outlined above, at its simplest it could be little more than linked video with no overall instruction and some would argue this is not a course.

A MOOC on one level is the next generation text book

Listen to Anant Agarwas on TED 


It is important to say that as MOOCs are so new, the first ones established around 2011, it is hard to pin them down as they are constantly changing. But if you are interested here is a note of the key providers.

  • Future Learn – owned by Britain’s Open University Offers MOOCs from many UK Universities. The newest of the MOOCs with approximately 750,000 plus users.
  • Coursera has around 10 million users and is by far the biggest, a for-profit founded by two Stanford University Professors.
  • edX  have around 3 million users, a not for profit MOOC founded by MIT and Harvard University.
  • Udacity have around 1.6 million users.  A for -profit backed by Sebastian Thun (co founder) and two Venture capitalist. It is currently repositioning its offering to be more vocational, targeted at professionals. Listen to Peter Norvig early observations in 2012 on TED. Peter taught one of the first classes with Sebastian Thun on artificial intelligence with over 100,000 online.

My MOOC – conclusions


My edX course with MIT

The course I chose was with one of the leading provider’s edX and is called Design and Development of Educational Technology. Okay not for everyone but so far I have found it very impressive.

The course was delivered over 6 weeks. It consisted of video lectures with a designated tutor Professor Eric Kloper introducing many of them himself.

There were links to further reading and sessions requiring a hands on approach, in some instances “playing” with software to find out how it works. In addition there were tasks and projects to complete, all recognised by the awarding of a certificate at the end. And yes it was free. Like my students however I have already fallen behind, but I do plan to complete the programme as so far I have found it both engaging and rewarding.

But what of the future – What we can say is that some MOOCS have responded to the criticisms and are now delivering first class courses to thousands of students, online and for free. But MOOCS are still evolving; blending MOOCs with traditional face to face courses is gaining in popularity for example.

There is however still the big question as to how they are funded, and for me this is about quality. Anyone can put information that is already freely available online in a thoughtless way and leave it for the students to curate. But a well thought through MOOC takes considerable time and skill to design and deliver. This is of course no different to an online or classroom course. A good course needs good people and they cost money. But I see no reason why MOOCs can’t charge, I would gladly have paid for mine. The cost would be low given the volumes, say £1 – £500 but the reach would still be global. And the monies would enable the providers to continually invest in order to deliver the best courses possible.

Bill Gates talks about MOOCS well worth watching, its only 4 minutes “the information has been in the textbook for hundreds of years….online does not enhance knowledge…” 

Ps I promise no more animal pictures next month.

*Author of Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age


Are you taught in the most efficient & effective way? – The flipped classroom

To pass any exam you need to learn in the most efficient and effective way but only part of that is down to you the student, much is about the way in which you are taught.

Little has changed in the way knowledge has been transferred over the years. Initially teaching was one person talking to a few people; let’s call this the Neanderthal approach, the first classroom? Then we had a major innovation the printing press, around 1450, which made it possible for knowledge to flow around the world, all be it slowly, no email in those days. But with the advent of the computer in 1837 (Charles Babbage) or 1942 (first digital computer) or the first PC, IBM 1953, the ability to store and transfer information to the masses was possible. Yet little changed in the way we were taught, until now.

Now we have both online and classroom learning. But what is best way to learn, what is the most efficient and effective way to transfer knowledge?

The lecture

If you think of a traditional lecture, the lecturer stands at the front and talks, the student makes notes and then goes away to read and perhaps actually learn something about the subject.

The online approach

A mass of content is available online, you can watch the very best lecturers from all around the world, stopping and starting the presentation to suite the speed in which you learn. Or perhaps you have a sophisticated e learning course where activities are carefully constructed to explain what you need to know. But this can be lonely and despite the claim that online is the same as being in a classroom, from my experience it is not, it is different.

The blend and the flip

But is the best method to have a blend of both online and Classroom / Lecture Theater. This is the idea behind the blended course. Attend the lecture and then watch some online instruction later in the day perhaps. However much thought needs to be given to how this works, directing students to random You Tube clips is far from ideal. Yet it feels like a move in the right direction.

And now the Flip – The flipped classroom (2004 ish) takes its name from the idea that content has historically been taught in the day and students expected to apply that content in their own time for homework.  But is making notes in class the best use of that face to face time? Should students not watch the lecture on the evening, benefiting from studying at their own pace and then attend class the next day, where they can ask questions? Can we flip the process?

In class the lecturer or teacher can then bring the subject to life using real world examples, answer student questions and deal with individuals on a one to one basis.

It’s not perfect, but it is better

Okay it is far from perfect and it has yet to be proven over time. But it does seem to make a lot of sense and for the first time we may be seeing the power of the PC complementing rather than competing with the classroom.

Oh and it has some powerful supporters Sal Khan & Bill Gates

Watch this for a great explanation why flipping the class is a good idea

Predictions for 2011 – but first 2010

Although the New Year has started without me I thought I might take the opportunity to look back at 2010 and make some predictions as to what might be happening in the world of education and learning in 2011.


First a retrospective

Degrees not free – 2010 will be remembered by most as the year in which a price tag was firmly hung around the neck of Higher Education in England, degrees were no longer free. True they weren’t free before but somehow £3,290 was acceptable or should I say accepted. With the government under pressure to reduce public expenditure and more and more people wanting to study full time, the costs could no longer be hidden and absorbed by all, they should be paid for by those who benefit most, the student.

Books published – On a personal level 2010 saw the publication of my two books. “The E word”, a book about how to pass exams and “A students guide to writing Business Report s” co-written with Zoe Robinson.  A giving birth experience for me I have to say….. 

The E word - published 2010


The E word – This book is a must read for anyone taking exams, especially financial exams. States the obvious but it’s the obvious that you haven’t thought of. Explains how we should revise and why we should revise in a certain way. Just reading this book puts you in the frame of mind to study and gives you a framework to start a study plan.

 The E word – This is an excellent book for anyone taking any exams, from school to university. This is written by a teacher and parent which is most definitely reflected within the book.

Trends and Predictions for 2011

It’s always dangerous making predictions about the future, particularly in print, but here goes.

Innovative ways to study for degrees – Following the rise in tuition fees I believe we will see an increase in universities and the private sector (e.g. Kaplan et al) offering far more intensive and imaginative ways in which you can study. Two year degrees will become more common and eventually the norm, if not in 2011, within the next five years. Equally expect more from employers who may intervene in the market to finance the education of potential employees.

The deal between KPMG and Durham University is a great example of this. Under the scheme KPMG will pay £20,000, all fees and accommodation to budding 18 year olds so that they can study full time.

Live On-line learning – Students will be demanding more flexible and convenient ways to study, and live on-line lectures delivered via the internet will increasingly be used to satisfy this demand. Live on-line (synchronous) training, which should not be confused with pre- recorded (asynchronous). Live on-line is where you log onto your computer and see, hear and interact with your tutor as if you were in the classroom. I believe more content will be delivered using this approach in 2011 than ever before.

Hand held devices – With the explosion of the new generation of mobile phones and slates like the ipad you are never far from a screen or the internet and so able to learn wherever you are. I believe there will be a growth in applications that will help make the most of travel time and offer up material in a way that is suited to the individual as learner.

More Open content – This is a term used to describe material that is freely available on the internet. It is already possible to study many subjects using “free material,” I believe this trend will continue. It will mean that traditional gate keepers of knowledge (Publishers) may have to think carefully as to their role in the next few years. Should they in fact give away their content free, and look for other ways of using their intellectual capital to generate income?

How long before an exam do you start revising – the answer 6 weeks or more

A quick note on the results from the poll I set last October. I asked how long before an exam do you start revising, and with the highest percentage of the vote the answer was 6 weeks or more.  Of course the question was a little unfair because it depends on so many things, how many subjects you are taking, the complexity of the exam, if you are a full time or part time student etc. But to some people starting 6 weeks before an exam may seem mad, but believe me it is not. If you are sitting more than three exams and working during the day just work out how little time you have to revise everything you have learned!

 The next poll is all about how you study when on the move