Thursday, May 1, 2014

Two Future Learn courses down - some initial thoughts on the design and the platform

This spring semester seemed to be the spring semester for experimentation (then again, there is almost no bad time for experimentation).  I decided, among other things, to really give FutureLearn a try.  FutureLearn is still in Beta, so I guess I haven't missed a lot yet, but one of the things that  I think is really important when evaluating a course design, or even a platform, is picking courses that you, as a learner, are interested in. Thus, you have two hats to put on, the hat of the learner, and the hat of the evaluator.  These roles are mutually in support of one another, so it's a win-win situation.  The two courses that I picked for this platform are Corpus Linguistics, so that I could geek out a bit on one of the subjects I am interested in, and the mind is flat, whose title really caught me.  I think that if it has been labeled as "Psych 101" I would have just kept walking.

Now, it's not possible to judge a platform just on the design of the courses that are offered on it, and it is not possible to judge a course design by itself, because it is so intertwined with the platform accordances. That said, the comments I have about FutureLearn (down the bottom) are just indicative of my experience with these two courses.

Corpus Linguistics

What drew me into this course was really the topic.  When I applied to my Master of Arts programing Applied Linguistics back in 2008 I did not know much about the possibilities of linguistics. I just knew that I liked languages, and that I could get my degree in linguistics (where I can explore languages at a meta level) for almost free.  One of the areas I was exposed to was corpus linguistics, but since it wasn't a core focus of the program, it was just one assignment in one course.  Having the opportunity to undertake an entire course in this topic was something that was really appealing to me. This MOOC was offered by the University of Lancaster.

This MOOC, in terms of design and implementation, did quite a few things well as far as I am concerned.  Granted, it was an xMOOC, so a lot of materials were instructor-sourced, as opposed to a collaborative knowledge building environment which you tend to see in cMOOCs, but I really didn't mind this because the course was just so fantastically done.  Right off the bat there were two "tracks," the introductory track where you had a set of videos that introduced you to the topic, and an advanced track that you could go to if you wanted more, or if you weren't new to the topic and wanted to tackle some more in-depth topics.  The introductory stuff were sometimes things I knew, and sometimes things I did not know.  Having the advanced things to look forward to made the repetition of the known introductory stuff less boring and I treated it more as a "oh yeah...I remember that!" as opposed to "ugh...why am I even here???"  I admit that this is psychological on my part, but it does play a role in the classroom.

The advanced material was a treat, at least for me.  Having interviews with people doing research on cyber bullying, trolling, and corpora with limited amounts of text in them connected with my own interests (i.e. using a twitter corpus to see what's happening in a class, like we did with the MRT last year). It was also fascinating to see and hear people on camera that I had been introduced to when I was doing my linguistics degree, people like Geoff Leech for example. By the end of the course I was surprised to find out that my own department chair (and someone I have taken courses with) actually knows Tony McEnery (in person) and some of the others in the videos.  Small world!

From an assessment perspective, yes, we still had the multiple choice tests, but near for some of them they did something interesting.  They presented you with three essays, which were based on corpus data, and you were asked questions about them.  To answer these questions you needed to go into the corpus to at least run a few queries and see some things for yourself. This way, you couldn't just pick the answer that sounded more right because the answers were quite literally "essay A", "essay B" and "essay C".  Related to this was access to additional materials, such as access to a variety of corpora with which you can play with freely, but you could also answer, or participate, in discussion forum questions.  Some of the questions in later modules were setup in a way that you needed to go an play with the corpus a bit to be able to write something.  This encouraged activity and curiosity (at least for me). There also seemed to be quite a lot of volunteer participants in the forums as well as a notable presence by Tony McEnery himself.  This is a major win as far as I am concerned.

Finally, materials.  This MOOC seems to have shared articles that were behind a paywall. I don't know how they finagled access, but I am glad they did.  I haven't, in earnest, read all of these articles (no time), but I have saved them for summer reading.  I think having access to such readings, that are usually behind a paywall, is something that makes for a better experience in a MOOC. If you are interested in the topic, the MOOC is running again in September if I am not mistaken.

The Mind is Flat

At the end of the Corpus Linguistics MOOC, after a week or so rest, the second FutureLearn MOOC started: The Mind is Flat, a MOOC offered by the University of Warwick. The reason I joined this MOOC was because of the catchy title.  The MOOC is about human behavior both in the lab and in the real world.  I would not normally undertake a course taught by an economist, or something in the field of Psychology, so the catchy title and my own question of "why is the mind flat" pushed me toward signing up.  I recognize that this is my own bias against such courses, but at the conclusion of this couse this week I am more open to courses "outside" my discipline.  This is an odd thing to say considering that I've been thinking that we (in academia) need to be more cross-disciplinary anyway, and our disciplines to connect, influence, and enhance one another.  Anyway, I guess there are more psychology courses down the road for me :)

In comparison to the Corpus Linguistics MOOC, this course has just one track. This isn't bad per se since this topic was new to me so I didn't mind.  Like the Corpus Linguistics MOOC, however, it did have invited guest speakers and invite interviewees that, in my opinion, gave the subject matter a little more of an extended connection with what happens in non laboratory settings. The course materials were interesting, and there did seem to be a presence in the forums, however I did not participate as much in these forums as I did in the Corpus forums.  In the corpus forums there seems to be more of a collegial nature to the interactions between MOOC participants.  There weren't any flame wars (that I saw) in these forums, but I think that many didn't like to be told that the mind is flat (and by extension their mind was flat).  It seemed like an insult to them, and you could see this in the forums. It also didn't help that they had a Banker for one of Britain's banks on as an interviewee. I liked the interviews, but it seemed to me that other UK participants, who know more about the bank, have less positive feelings toward it (and their employees), and this translated to the MOOC.  A shame. I did notice comments, at the end of this week, that others stopped participating in the forums due to this negative nature of the comments.  I think that this is an interesting thing to revisit and continue to research.  The MRT did some initial work on this, but I think that there is much more to research in this area of sentiment analysis and its effect on participation (especially in open courses). On a side note, while I didn't see much presence in the forums from people who were in charge of the course (this is partly because I stopped really going too deeply into the forums after a certain point), it was really nice to have a 20 minute recap at the beginning of each week for what had transpired in the forums in the week prior. Thus, some videos were pre made, while others were done on demand each week.  I think this was a good way to increase the presence of the instructor in the course.

One of the activities, that I liked, were the psych experiments that they had for us each week.  This was pretty nifty because it kept you engaged outside of the discussion forums, and outside of the (now obligatory?) multiple choice quizzes at the end of each module.

The interesting thing that I noticed in this MOOC is that there is an option for a Statement of Attainment for the MOOC if you pass a sit down exam which costs £119 (around $200 USD). This seems quite interesting, but I am wondering if college credit is tied to this.  I am not familiar with how CPD (continuing professional development) works in the UK, but it would be interesting to see a compare and contrast between various countries and how CPD is measured and given value.  Personally I would like a certificate of participation in the MOOC, but I am wondering now how one can do this in a way that is mostly automated and what the criteria are.  For example, if I came into a course and clicked on all the videos and marked them as "read" within 2 days of the opening of the MOOC, and I do well on the quizzes, does this count as having participated in the course?  Is there a level of engagement in the forums needed?  How about the length of time of my involvement?  If I were shown as having been active on the site for six out of six weeks instead of one day out of six weeks?  Good questions to ask fellow instructional designers, learning specialists, and computer programmers!

FutureLearn as a Platform

Finally we have FutureLearn as a platform.  The Corpus MOOC I undertook almost exclusively on the desktop.  Given that there were demonstrations of Corpus tools (for about 1/3 of the course), it was useful to do this on my iMac where I can have the video on side of the monitor, and the corpus tool of the other side of the monitor. Some of the interviews I watched or listened on my iPad while I was shaving. Never waste a learning moment ;-)

The Mind is Flat was intended to be done mostly on my smartphone, and I did manage to get most of it done on my smartphone during my commuting hours.  I did end up viewing some of the materials on my iPad or on my computer. The reason for this is that my phone started complaining that I was going over my 2GB plan.  Luckily T-Mobile does not charge me overage charges for going over the 2GB soft limit on my phone, but it really did get me thinking more about mobile friendly content. This is something at my colleague Christian and I, along with a new acquaintance Jorgen (met at the DML conference this past spring) about mobile friendly content - be it chunkable text that remembers your position when you come back (like amazon's whisper sync), mobile friendly activities, and now videos served at different rates to help conserve bandwidth.  The truth is that talking head videos are nice to some extent, they help you feel a little more connected to the person giving the lecture, or the person interviewed, but at the same time they are more intense on the bandwidth and they don't often add much to offering.

Keeping this in mind, I was actually thinking of ways to try to do some of this multimedia content in a mobile friendly way.  An app for your phone or tablet might be a good idea where you can download content locally when you are at a wifi hotspot, and then access it either in an offline mode, or access the downloaded content while online. This way the heavy duty stuff was previously offloaded onto wifi, and the "light" materials, such as posting to a forum, giving something the thumbs up (aka "like"), or marking something as "read" can be done over mobile networks.

Another possible idea is having some sort of flag for the multimedia where someone can say "offer this as an audio file on demand." This way, if there aren't any obligatory visuals, such as slides or charts, you can either stream the audio (which takes up less bandwidth than video), or you can download the audio onto your podcasting or music player app for later listening.  For the podcast route you can also use enhanced podcasts (granted these seem to be Apple only) where required visuals (charts, images, slides and so on), can be embedded into the podcast.

That said, I think FutureLearn (even though they are still in beta), have done a great job on their platform.  The platform scales well for big screens (computers) and for little screens (smartphones).  I had no navigation problems on a small screen, and the UI was pretty intuitive. The one thing I don't like is the naming scheme for the files.  Initially I thought this was a Corpus MOOC issue, but it seems to be a FutureLearn platform issue.  It seems that each file uploaded to the course has a long identifier string just prior to the actual file name. Maybe this is a way to do version control, I don't know.  From a user interface perspective, however, this seems like a usability issue.  When I donwload a PDF of a trascript, I want to see a name for it, not a file name with hexadecimal number proceeding the file name like this example: b8e90e3be51dabc300dbbf7f2c0f6bbb-b8e90e3be51dabc300dbbf7f2c0f6bbb-6.8_What_is_a_Good_Society.

What are your experience with either MOOC, or with FutureLearn?  What do you think?  I am keeping an eye out for more courses on this platform.  I think it's a breath of fresh air in the MOOC space.
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