Sunday, March 30, 2014

Futurelearn’s Web Science MOOC - likes, dislikes

I like MOOCs. I’ve taken quite a few, finished some, not all, and that’s the way it should be. I’m a dropin not a dropout and have grown weary of sneers from those who see this as a weakness. 
This is one MOOC – Web Science’ that I finished and these are my impressions of the course. I give these, as the ‘voice’ of MOOC learners is largely absent from the debate, drowned out by the voices of people, who often, it transpires, have never taken, never mind completed one. This is something I’ve witnessed at several conferences and it’s pathetic.
Overall impressions
First up, I really enjoyed the course but found it ‘patchy’. It has its highs and lows. At times it soared, then suddenly it would dip into the ordinary. You know when you’re engaged, reading the content in detail, reflecting on the questions, watching the videos and taking notes (note taking facility would be great – as I often wanted to cut and paste or write notes and comments). Then, you’d find yourself reading the transcripts because the videos were a little dull and, at times, shallow - life’s too short. It needed some serious editing. I did like the ‘Mark as complete’ button, although some of the sections, like introductions to your teachers’ and the dialogue videos were a waste of time.
Didn’t like the drip-feed
For the life of me, I don’t see why there’s a slow release of content. I’d much prefer to have the whole course on tap, asynchronously, to do when it’s convenient for me. Having taken many MOOCs, this drip-feed thing is starting to annoy me. The benefits do not outweigh the nuisance value and I find it slightly patronising – as if you know what’s good for me and will spoon-feed me like a pet chimp. I think it’s a hangover from the institutional view that people have to turn up to lectures on a certain day at a certain time and that courses need to last a term or semester. Don’t copy things that are bad in the real world over into the online world. The whole point of being online, is to free learning from the tyranny of time and location. (By the way this complaint is something I hear time and time again from fellow MOOCers.)
Overall, I enjoyed it, learnt a lot, but quality often faltered and interactivity was too low. They could cull a lot in the course to make it better.
This almost put me off doing the rest of the course as, 1) it was badly presented 2) it didn’t really answer the question. Nevertheless, I persevered.
Network properties, numerical analysis, power and influence. This was excellent and felt like real ‘web science’. It was challenging, informative and relevant. I felt I could take the knowledge and understand concepts like ‘influence’ better.
Enjoyed much of this, but a little idiosyncratic and far too focused on Southampton research students’ work. The case studies were good.
I found this the weakest of the modules (although the activism bits were good) as it lacked depth and reference to the excellent work done elsewhere in academia.
The Big Data section was superb but when it came to social media and business it was shallow.
OK but at times lacked depth and didn’t really do an adequate job on the semantic web. Line’s like ‘it sounds like science fiction’ were maddening (Susan Halford).
At the end I emerged a bit sceptical about ‘Web Science’. It’s the study of the web, a worthy thing, but science it is not. It seems like an uneasy fuel mixture of people who want to adhere to the scientific method, through various grades to much softer commentary and sociology. I have no problem with the cross-disciplinary approach but the title may be misleading.
All of this is the result, perhaps, of not producing an objective ‘course’ but a reflection of the, often idiosyncratic, research within that department at Southampton. I really don’t want to hear from yet to be completed research from postgrads. I want to hear from the best. The lack of a world-class academic and top-class research was worrying.
Futurelearn platform
Good and bad here. The good news is that it’s clean, crisp and consistent. However, this is not difficult when the functionality is so basic. You’re simply moving along a linear set of videos, texts and quizzes. There’s plenty of opportunity to link out to more detailed resources but it’s a linear and flat rail-track of resources.
In short, the platform is very thin. I’d heard all the hype, from Simon Nelson and others, around how the platform was truly innovative as it had been built on social constructivist principles. This is just nonsense. Placing chat at the foot of the screen, a sort of chat/twitter hybrid, comes nowhere near meeting this goal.
Indeed, I found the chat at the foot of the screen, as in most MOOCs, unstructured and felt that the time looking for good posts wasn’t worth the effort. I posted a few things myself but there was no real feeling of intimacy. I can’t for the life of me see how this is a ‘social constructivist’ platform. I’d much prefer to have had the opportunity to blog, and find some way to find the ideas and topics that stimulated me, perhaps really meet and gel with like-minded learners.
When we had real experts delivering solid theory, I found it engaging and useful but too often I was listening to a postgrad student rattle on about their own little piece of research. This I didn’t expect and felt short-changed. The MOOCs I’ve taken from the US tend to avoid this. I want professionals, with proven track records and published work, not trainees.
I’d also take note of the EdX research showing that enthusiasm and a more unscripted, from the heart style, works better than the practiced, prepared, fifth take stuff. To be fair, this is not easy, as academics and researchers are rarely great performers.
One thing I have to say is how annoying I found the Wendy Hall & Nigel Shadbolt dialogue videos. They were unnecessary, usually shallow and at times banal. Just remove them, as it will make the course shorter and better.
Overll good, but a lot of this was overwritten, not really written for the screen and very dry. Get the designers to read Don’t Make Me Think by Krug – shorter, sharper and edit ‘til it bleeds! It cried out for images, photographs, diagrams and graphs. By the way, some links were broken e.g. Module 4 Big data is Dead paper by Tim O’Brian.
I found the interactivity, both questions and assignments, sometimes good, sometimes weak. Six question quizzes are not enough. One question was just factually wrong. A ‘botnet’ is not a ‘network of computers that….’ But a ‘network of programs that….’ All of the questions were multiple choice and there’s no excuse for the schoolboy error of making the longest answer the correct answer – making it easy to guess or having stupid options like ‘Digital tattoo’. You could see the variability in quality across the course. Get a professional interactive designer in the team who can weed out the weak stuff. What I did find, is that there were far too few inductive and deductive questions and the platform doesn’t seem to support anything other than simple, one answer, multiple-choice questions.
300 word assignments, which I submitted and peer reviewed were too short to do anything worthwhile. There’s also that problem of differentials between people submitting and reviewing. Needs better, longer and more challenging assignments.
Summative assessments
Statements of completion or attainment I’m not that bothered about, as I’m there to learn, not for a piece of paper. A Statement of Completion will cost £24, €39 or $39 plus postage and packing. Fair enough – I’d be interested in seeing how many buy.  A Statement of Attainment, by sitting a real exam in a real exam centre will cost £119 and you are directed to Prometric’s website. What’s missing is online assessment and I’m not sure why ProctorU or another supplier is not contracted for this middle option. Again, the web is about convenience and not having web-based assessment seems odd, considering this was a course about, well, the web!
I’ve been quite critical here but let me end with an important caveat. I applaud anyone who is moving in this direction, with a platform and content that is truly open in the sense of being ‘free at the point of delivery’. This is enlightened and exiting. The points I’ve made are in the spirit of critical discussion, so that things can move forward and improvements in quality, pedagogy, length, structure, learning experience and assessment be found. It’s early days and this is the first iteration of the platform.

I have been critical of the choice of leader in Futurelearn (BBC Radio guy) and the approach to the platform build (from scratch with lack of learning platform people), as well as all the nonsense about ‘social constructivism’. Sadly, this first pass confirms my views. However, overall, I enjoyed this MOOC despite, at times, it being a little long-winded. To be fair, this is probably true of many academic undergraduate courses that are padded out to fit a term or semester. Some modules were superb, others OK, some below par. Overall the course was well worth doing – so well done Futurelearn and well done Southampton.

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