Friday, January 31, 2014

FutureLearn Corpus Linguistics course - first thoughts

Check, check. Is this thing on?
Linguistics isn't generally considered a topic, like one of those sexy STEM courses, that everyone talks about when they talk about degrees and fields to study for job related purposes. For this reason we haven't seen a lot of linguistics related MOOCs.  Last year we had the Virtual Linguistics Campus offer three MOOCs using their own approach to teaching MOOCs which seemed more like self-paced eLearning. I didn't complain (much) because it was, after all, courses in linguistics.

This time around, the University of Lancaster is offering a course on Corpus Linguistics, which I have naturally signed up for.  There is at least one colleague from the #rhizo14 MOOC taking this course, so I am curious to see what they think of the course after all is said and done.  In the meantime, I have some initial thoughts on the course itself, as well as the mechanics of the future learn platform, as they are realized through this MOOC.


The first thing that caught my attention was the informational emails that were, and are still, sent out to learners.  They are, in my opinion, a really nice touch, leading up to the course to prepare the learners for what's in store. This also builds up some anticipation and keeps the MOOC in the forefront of people's minds.  I know that there are people who sign up for MOOCs and forget about them.  This happened to me with an edX MOOC on Alexander the Great.  It starts this week (or next week?) but I had completely forgotten that I signed up for it. This week I also got at least one email thanking me for my participation in the discussion forums and encouraged me to keep it up.  I don't know if this was sincere, or if some computer algorithm saw that I posted in a few forums and this was a way to motivate me to continue.

The introductory video by the main course instructor (Tony McEnery) indicated that the course was built for depth, so learners could engage with as much, or as little, of the material as they wanted or needed to.  This is actually pretty cool, from where I stand, because it is only the second time an xMOOC (or a MOOC on an xMOOC platform) had encouraged students to participate as much, or as little, as they want to.  The other course was EDCMOOC on coursera.  That said the future learn platform has a little progress bar under each week that indicates how much you have completed from each module. The module contains basic content, as well as "advanced" content for those who are not new to topic of Corpus Linguistics.  Since this was not new to me, I did complete all topics for the week and I got a full bar under Week 1. For introductory learners, however, if they only engage with the introductory materials, they only get a half-bar.   This is making me wonder how the idea of "completer" of a course will take shape in this course.  What are the criteria that the creators of this course will use to gauge how successful their MOOC was.  I guess one small part will be those completed progress bars.

From a participation perspective, the course facilitators seem to have a presence in the discussion forums and actively encourage people to interact there. The discussion forums on this platform seem unobtrusive, but I don't know how they will pan out in the end. Each article and video has their own forum, which makes topical discussion a bit easier.  Instructors have encouraged people to use forums, both for peer-to-peer support, but also to make issues visible to the tutors of the course so they can intervene if needed. I am curious to see how this works out in the end.  From my part, I don't have a ton of incentive to participate in the forums.  I do think that the fact that forums are immediately accessible on the course content page does encourage me to have a quick peek, and "like" or respond to something really quickly (if it's within my domain of expertise), but it doesn't really encourage me to keep track of a discussion and keep coming back to it within the weekly module.

The thing that I scribbled down yesterday, while thinking about this, is Vygotsky's ZPD, and peer scaffolding.  If my role, in the course, is that of a fellow learners, but my ZPD is perceived to be much higher compared to other course participants, what is the incentive to stick around in the forums and help out, and engage in dialogic learning? At that point, I am a bit like a course tutor, which means that I am not, potentially, getting as much out of the transactional relationship that more novice learners.  Now, if I had more time to focus on just one MOOC, and I werent' doing a whole lot of other things, I would most likely help more novice learners. But, in cases where more advanced learners are in the course, and they don't have as much time to commit, how do you encourage their participation in the course for the benefit of everyone?  This is something I don't have an answer to yet, but I am curious about exploring more.

In addition to videos each week, there are a variety of "articles" which are pages with plain text information about the topic. These serve as additional information, and preliminary information, the the included videos.  This is also where they posted study tips the beginning of the week.  It's good to see course instructors treat this as a course, and  encourage some tried and true ways of keeping track of ones own learning, like keep notes! Course designers also seem to give students a heads up of areas they should focus on if they are novices in the topic, or if they have been exposed to it before.

From a materials perspective, it is nice to have the option to download both transcript and the slides to the lectures. The only logistical issue is that the names of the PDF files are absolute garbage and not descriptive for the most part. The file names do contain some information about the title of the file, but they are fronted with some hexadecimal number that's only good for the storage systems that the file is part of.  On the plus side, they can be used to pipe through a concordancer to do some of the corpus analysis ;). 

As far as the videos are concerned, most videos are great. For instance, I got an opportunity to see, and hear, Geoff Leech, a name I've heard quite a few times as a linguistics student, but never had the opportunity to see him in action so-to-speak.  The videos are not downloadable, which is a shame. I can see these videos being good supplements to materials in our own linguistics program.  The one disappointing thing were the advanced lectures by Richard Xiao.  The lectures were obviously not made for this MOOC, and that is perfectly OK.  My big issue is that they were just voice-over-powerpoint. In cases like these, where the slides are just visual representations of what is already conveyed by the audio channel, I would prefer to have these as an audio podcast to listen to on my way to and from home.  Being stuck at a desk to just listen to something does not seem like a good use of my time.

Finally, from a mechanics perspective, the "Mark complete" marker on each page is a nice reminder to learners what they have, and have not looked at, as far as the materials go.  Reminds me a bit of the coursesites functionality for awarding badges in their MOOCs. I am wondering if there is some sort of alternative credential, like a badge, attached to this course and the "mark complete" toggles.

So, after one week, what is my game plan for this MOOC? Since I had covered the introductory stuff in my APLING 629 course (Structure of the English Language), it seems like I would be going to the more advanced material each week.  I think that I will tackle the introductions to the module on Monday, and tackle 5 sections per day to keep on top of things. I see that, unlike other platforms, the materials for weeks 2-8 are already available, so I think if I have free time, I might just start other modules early.

The final thing, from a pedagogy perspective, for this post is the notion of student centeredness. To me this term seems  to mean whatever people want it to mean.  In #rhizo14 a participant said that in the corpus linguistics MOOC, one of the facilitators said that this course was student centered, and there was obvious disagreement.  The course is very top down, in that materials have been created already, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is not student centered.  I am wondering how others are going through the course, and they are following some perceived critical path, or of they are jumping around modules and exploring as they are going along.  I honestly think we need to define what we mean by "student centered" before we can decide whether this course is, or is not, student centered.

Your thoughts on this MOOC thus far?




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