Monday, January 27, 2014

MOOCs: Futurelearn 4 pluses & 4 minuses

Good to see Futurelearn launch with 26 partners and add another platform and community to the growing MOOC landscape. Mike Sharples gave a clear, and honest, report on progress so far, at BETT. “We can’t compete on technology, so we must compete on the learning experience” said Mike and outlined the platform’s pedagogical approach in detail.
PLUS 1: Social constructivism squared
To be clear, I am NOT a social constructivist (see my 9 reasons why), then again neither are most of the people I hear utter the phrase, as they have rarely read any of the background theory and often parrot the two words as if just uttering them is enough to confer deep meaning. It’s always astonishing to hear people who largely ‘lecture’ for a living, express strong beliefs around social constructivist pedagogy. However, Futurelearn has people like Mike who know their stuff and do have complete belief in social constructivist theories of learning. In their case, there is a genione effort at applying social constructivist theory to the learning process through discussion opportunties on every screen. There are also mentors who ‘moderate’ the discussions, looking for hot stuff.
PLUS 2: Cohorts and peer review
A second plus is the activity groups, segmented into say 20 learners, who fill up the bus to go on a group learning journey, then the next group of learners wait on the next bus and so on. Peer review and peer assessment are also there for assignments. Your assignment goes into a pool and you get six pieces of feedback, while you also assess other assignments. This is all good stuff and I look forward to seeing how effective this ‘social layering’ has been in learning. The danger is that the 'social constructivist' approach trumps or overwhelms the quality of the content. 
PLUS 3: New player welcome
The doomsayers warned us of a world dominated by one massive MOOC player. Far from being a market dominated by one platform, the MOOCosphere has a range of platforms (see analysis here) on a range of technologies offering a range of pedagogic models from adaptive and algorithmic through social constructivist to direct instruction. The MOOC moaners are usually those who haven’t persevered with a MOOC or, as I’ve found at two major conferences (WISE & Online Educa), where the so-called ‘experts’ on the panels hadn’t taken a single MOOC. It was like listening to schoolchildren struggle through a conversation because they hadn’t done their homework, as they had little idea about the functionality that supports different pedagogic models.
PLUS 4: Partners
One can quibble about the courses but some of the University partners are excellent, I spoke in detail to Hugh Davis of the University of Southampton, who was positive, level-headed and proceeding as one should in such projects, with a sense of realism combined with genuine curiosity about experimenting looking for what works and doesn’t work in MOOCs. Fascinatingly, they’re recruiting student volunteers from the first MOOC to mentor on subsequent MOOCs. That’s the spirit of innovation I like to see. The partners are the people who will make this work and so the relationships between the OU private company and the partners are important. Edinburgh, for example, has MOOCs on both Coursera and Futurelearn. I hope the OU will be as generous as Edinburgh were on their data.
MINUS 1: Not ‘open’ on finances
Once again I asked where the funding had come from for the first batch of MOOCs and once again Mike ducked the question. I asked Simon Nelson (CEO) the same question and he declined to answer. This, in my opinion, is unnecessary. We know that this has taken at least £2 million of start-up taxpayers’ money, so why not be honest and tell us? It’s our money. I know how much Coursera, Udacity and EdX have raised. The fact that it’s priming a private company is a bit worrying for many (not for me) but I think, given the disastrous IT projects and forays into other markets (US) that the BBC and Open University have tried, being ‘open’ would have been welcome. The trick now, as they will almost certainly have chewed through their original cash with expensive BBC contractors, is how they sustain the company? Mike gave a good account of the possibilities but this is achievable but only if they have some savvy business people in the camp.
A great play is made of the ‘best of the UKs software talent (from the BBC)’ being used on the project. This hyperbole may come back to haunt them. The platform is nothing special. Indeed, in terms of functionality it is quite basic with no real innovations. This is not a problem, because the underlying pedagogy doesn’t need it. But the very idea that the BBC, who recently had to abandon a £100 million Digital Media Initiative having achieved nothing, makes this a rather laughable claim, as does the £75 million squandered on BBC Jam, their last major online learning project, that collapsed without a single piece of content being released. The BBC, far from being added-value, is, I suspect an expensive and ultimately unnecessary resource.
MINUS 3: Infrequent and odd courses
First thing to note is how infrequent the courses are. There’s a substantial list of courses but many are not in this month and many not until five or six months in the future. Two don’t have start dates at all – this looks very odd - don’t they have production deadlines? Then there’s the uninspiring nature of the catalogue. It looks more like a cobbled together evening list than an inspiring set of courses. To be fair it’s the universities who chose the courses, not the OU, so this is really a OU platform, not an OU offering.
MINUS 4: Design free zone.
My last worry, and this is something summed up nicely by Graham Brown-Martin, when he described Futurelearn as a ‘Skoda-level’ designed LMS. He has a point, as the branding, screens and presentation are so deathly dull. It’s like watching an unfinished, wire-frame demo. Again. To be fair, it’s early days.

I applaud Martin Bean and the OU for this initiative but do think it would have been a much stronger offering without the opacity on the finances and cost and baggage that the BBC bring. Nobody believes that the BBC is a world-leading software house and it’s ljust palin odd that a part-timer, someone from Radio, was chosen to lead the project. I adore the OU and see Futurelearn as a genuinely moral attempt to be ‘Open’ in HE and encourage us all to take at least one of their courses.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

7 curious uses of SnapChat in learning

What is SnapChat?
A photo messaging service that allows you to send an image that only lasts for 15 seconds on the other person’s device. 450 million are sent a day (70% users are female)! It was invented to avoid the whole archiving of your every communicated text and social media post. It has been phenomenally successful. Be aware that, although the image is deleted, and it is difficult to screen grab (the sender knows if you try) but someone can still take an image of the screen using another phone.

1.     Massive use. The main users are 13-23 – which coincides almost exactly with post primary education group.
2.     Selfie learning. Famous for encouraging ‘selfies’ it can be used to snap anything in a learning task and encourages quick feedback from tutors or peers.
3.     Failure is fine. As it’s not saved and archived, it is suited to tasks where failure is part of the learning process and as the learner knows that the evidence will disappear, encourages evidence of failure.
4.     Add text & drawings. You can add text (up to about 40 characters) and drawings (can also be used to scribble questions) to annotate or make extra points on tasks.
5.     Group questions & answers. Group feature means tutor can send questions to groups and ask for quick answers as video (by student). Just write a question on papaer, snap and send. I like the idea of a spoken video reply. Note that this 15 second limit forces the student to think and then be succinct. There may also be ways to use it for authentication - is the student really who and wgere they say there they are?
6.     Group spaced practice. Group feature means tutor can send spaced practice reinforcement points to groups, again asking for quick replies on video (up to 15 seconds) to make sure the student has thought about the point.
7.     SnapChat Stories. These stories allow users to record a number of images and videos, up to 10 seconds, giving you longer, sequences of Snaps. It remains for 24 hours, when you can view it repeatedly and is then deleted. This can be used for more substantial learning tasks.

Ok, maybe this is a stretch but I’ve been trying it, and I think it works. New, mass adopted consumer services should always be considered for learning. This is not to say that they are always appropriate or will always work but SnapChat is worth a try, if only because it’s quick, fun and easy. The difficulty is in getting people to use something that’s used only for fun, for learning. Or we can make learning, fun?

Monday, January 13, 2014

20 fantastic uses of YouTube in learning - rise of images

Over the last few years we’ve seen the rise of the image over the word. This is a significant cultural phenomenon and no doubt the traditionalists will beat their spectacles against their breasts, crying over lost readers and libraries. I’d rather celebrate the inventiveness and creativity of film and video.
YouTube as platform
At the forefront of this rise in the creation and use of visual content is YouTube. Note that YouTube is now a platform. This is important, as most people think YouTube is just a huge bunch of videos. This fact, that it’s a platform, makes it an interesting new ‘learning’ platform. It’s far more than a repository as it has a number of techniques and tools that make it a real channel for learning.
How to videos
YouTube is the world’s largest repositories of 'how to' videos. It is used by ordinary people when they want to know how to fix things or find out how things work. It is used by professionals who need to do something they haven't done before. It is increasingly being used by teachers, tutors, instructors and lecturers as a method of recording their expertise, talks and so on. Even more exciting is the fact that YouTube is increasingly becoming the default search engine for young people and learners, who want visual answers to questions. If you want to work out how to use a software feature, play a game, tie a neck-tie, expert views whatever - YouTube usually has the answer.
So how do you use YouTube for learning?
1. Reuse existing videos
Here’s the good news. The scope of good videos on standards subjects such as maths and science through to clips for use in English and every possible taught subject is phenomenal. Before you think about creating content, you should check out YouTube to see if good existing stuff is already there. Think Khan Academy and the like, not just for maths. Note that you can embed your videos as full screens.
2. Use your own
Upload your own videos to a YouTube Channel (this is the Ufi Charitable Trust channel with learning technology videos) for use both by learners in other contexts and of the channel itself. Creating a YouTube channel is simple and uploading videos is straightforward. All you need is a Google Account and you’re off. YouTube accepts almost any format, so that’s one worry out of the way. You can also upload directly from mobile devices.
3. Social media alerts
Market your course and videos through sharing and social media (useful alerts for learners). Note that you can pay to get your videos marketed and choose your campaign budget and whether you want to have in-display (on recommended column of videos on the right hand side) or in-stream (ads on the front of other videos).
4. Thumbnails (custom)
To put a title frame on your graphic that will appear as your thumbnail, you need to make sure your account is ‘verified’. This happens when you fully complete your account creation. Then go through the process and verify – normally through a mobile text.
5. Private or public access
You can upload videos that can only be seen by you and your selected group. You simply choose between Unlisted (only people who have the hyperlink you send them), private (they need an account and permission from you to view), public (everyone).
6. Licensing options
Choose between several licensing options – YouTube Standrad and Creative Commons.
7. Editing tool
There’s an editing tool that allows you to edit an uploaded video, add audio, also can pan, zoom, slow mo and many other effects. However, you’re likely to want to use a proper video editor for quality product, such as Final Cut.
8. Picture enhancement tool
Fix lighting so that your videos are brighter, darker, add colour saturation, increase contrast, even turn it into black and white. There’s filters such as pixelate and many others. You can blur faces to hide identity. You can even stabilise the camera. If you don’t know what’s best, you can simply autofix.
9. Audio enhancement tool
Add copyright free music from over 150,000 tracks.
10. Text on videos
Five different types of annotations; title, labels (mouseover activated), notes (text box), speech bubbles, spotlight (link to other video).
11. In-video programming
Have a featured video or playlist that pops up recommending another video for your learners to move them forward in the course.
12. Watermarks
Add an in-video watermark for channel branding which is automatically added to all of your channels videos. This could be your institution, company or course brand.
13. External annotations
You can put annotations to other YouTube videos or, if you have a verified account, to any other external URL.
14. Playlists
Create structured playlists on your YouTube Channel to structure your content for learners. This can be used to modularize your course.
15. Questions
Did you know that the TestTube has experimental YouTube features, such as adding questions to videos? How cool is that.
16. Linear navigation
You can put end-screens that allow the learner to go back or forward in a linear set of videos.
17. Interactive video
Watch this piano playing video gives you an idea of the sophistication of possible branching within a video to different points within the same video.
18. Branched navigation
You can branch to other videos to create more complex learning designs and simulations. See this card trick example.
19. Analytics
With all this talk of Big data, remember that YouTube spews out lots of interesting data on views, subscribers, how long things have been watched, demographics, click through on annotations and so on.
20. Partner programme
This is the big prize. You can make money and get all sorts of extra services such as live events and paid subscriptions.
All of this is interesting but what really matters is good content. No amount of editing, effects, annotations and branching will turn dirt into gold dust. For me this means looking at what really successful YouTubers do. First they keep their videos short, second they entertain. If you want to see a YouTube master at work, watch Vsauce, or Michael Stevens, who has 6.5 million subscribers. All of his videos are answers to questions. He’s described how he got to this position on this TEDx video. As he says, “The trick to education is to teach people in such a way that they only realise they’re learning when it is too late. Start well, with a fun statement. Everything is related in someway to something your viewers are interested in.”

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

7 most annoying ‘learning’ words of 2013

When Samuel Johnson wrote his famous Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, he included many tongue-in-cheek definitions of the newer terms of the day. Here’s a few tired terms I’ve culled from 2013. I’ve tried to keep my definitions to less than 30 words.
Tries to make out that management is somehow heroic. It’s not. It’s just difficult. Usually taught by enthusiastic people who wing it, having never led anyone, anywhere on anything.
Talent management
Like leadership, talent management tries to turn something that is complex into the sale of expensive, enterprise software. Makes HR people think they’re all Svengalis or Simon Cowells.
Means the ‘science of teaching’ but usually espoused as an excuse for not doing anything different. Often used by pedagogues who like to lecture, and hand out the occasional essay.
Teachers are not foremen in a factory, so why label something designed to open young minds as ‘work’? Get your work done. Have you handed your work in? Turns learning into a chore.
C- words
Education and training is obsessed with alliterative C-words; collaboration, communication, community…. Beware of slides where all words start with ‘C’, a sure sign they haven’t thought it through.

Learners learn but the act of learning is not the same as a lesson, especially when used in the plural, as 'learnings'. (Thanks to Margaret E Ward).
Life coaching
Get a life, not a coach!
The language of learning is so often pompous, misguided or downright lazy. My last word is again from the great Samuel Johnson - "People have now-a-days got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do so much as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shewn. You may teach chemistry by lectures:-- You might teach the making of shoes by lectures!"