Friday, 22 March 2013

The ScHARR MOOC Diaries: Part V - The birth of the Sustainable Healthy Diets MOOC

The birth of the Sustainable Healthy Diets MOOC 

Picture the scene: ScHARR common room, on a cold and wet autumnal day in 2012, Michelle
Holdsworth and myself deep in dual brainstorming mode; our conundrum was unique: how could
we reach a wider audience with the essential information on diets which were both healthy and
sustainable? Colleagues at Universities and NGO’s all over the UK and Europe were conducting
exciting research, highlighting new findings every week, but these were mainly being published in
scientific journals, never to be read by ordinary folk. It would take ages, literally years for this info to
be written into policy (if anyone at No. 10 was ever interested!) and even longer for the public to be
able to make changes to their eating habits…….

By KMJ [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0
via Wikimedia Commons
Then, a light bulb moment – “I know” said Michelle, rather excitedly, “we should do a MOOC on a
healthy and sustainable diet!

Excuse me?” I answered, a little confused to say the least, thinking I must have misheard or maybe
Michelle was referring to some scientific term that I had not yet come across.

Yes a MOOC – these new types of courses, stands for ‘Massively Open Online Course’. They have
been done by a few of the American Universities.” Michelle explained a bit more to me and it soon
became apparent that we would at least have to give this a try: it was too good an opportunity to
miss out on.

A few months later and we are about to convene our first MOOC group meeting. Although I am
really excited about getting started, I am also very nervous on a number of fronts!

Firstly, the technological learning curve is going to be very steep for me: reassuringly I am
surrounded by experts, so I’m hoping this should ease the climb!

Secondly, I am concerned about including ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING that needs to be said on
healthy and sustainable diets, as I know the academics and NGO professionals working in this field
are passionate and will not be all that forgiving of any errors or omissions! Therefore I am going to
try to showcase as much of this fantastic work as I can fit, within learning objectives, to ensure that
this doesn’t happen. This should make for some lively debate! Although we will be covering some of
the basics, which may be ‘old hat’ to some, it should be possible to include cutting edge projects and
research too.

Finally, I am hoping to have real engagement from my fellow MOOCsters: that’s any and all who sign
up to take part in the course. Previous MOOC’s have shown a number of ‘lurkers’, and I would like
this MOOC to be engaging and stimulating in order to generate some meaningful output that can be
used for the future, in particular thinking about how we can communicate this information to even
wider audiences!

Please be encouraged to sign up and take part, I promise it will be fun! If you wish to contribute to
any of the content or tell us about what is healthy and sustainable for you, then I would love to hear
from you.

(Posted on behalf of Angie Clonan)

Friday, 15 March 2013

The ScHARR MOOC Diaries: Part IV - Will size matter...?

Will size matter...?  On MOOCs and going 'massive'.

First of all...

I'm excited by our ScHARR MOOCs project, because it is pulling onto centre-stage all sorts of questions about learning - and about what (and who) universities are for - that we often allow to drift away into the wings (or out of the theatre altogether).  In the last few years, my own role vis a vis teaching has increasingly been to lead and manage, more than delivering, and to be the place where the buck stops if something goes wrong.  And now here comes the opportunity to get on with some fresh new thinking about teaching and learning online, without US-style million-dollar investment, but with a huge fund of staff enthusiasm.  And with lots of interesting questions to answer, not least how 'massive' should we plan for our first MOOCs to be? How much will size matter?  Will any kind of innovative, interactive learning techniques survive a context in which there may be thousands or tens of thousands of people logging on? As outlined below, what started as a speculative set of questions and Google searches about size quickly led to other, broader questions.  I have found some useful, reflective articles while browsing - three of which are listed in the comments below. Each, in turn, opens the door to more resources and debates.

Before moving on with those themes, let me welcome the two members of staff who will be joining the team from now on to help get the ScHARR MOOCs up and running:

Angie Clonan:

Angie and Katie will each be working with the MOOCs team half-time, over the spring and summer - and will soon be posting their thoughts and suggestions in the Diaries.

MOOCs: size and other issues - some useful links

A little online browsing quickly tells me that the first MOOC was formally offered in 2008 in Canada, drawing on earlier collaborative online learning initiatives.  Technological innovations don't generally come out of a vacuum: there is always a context, usually populated by various jostling ideas and initiatives.  So MOOCs are not quite the new kid on the block that the current buzz of discussion in UK Higher Education circles might suggest.  For more detail on this point and others raised below, there is a very useful 2012 article here by Sir John Daniel, in the Journal of Interactive Media in Education:

Further browsing quickly brought up a distinction that has some relevance to the 'how massive?' question and related pedagogical themes: "cMOOCs" vs "xMOOCs"...         cMOOCs  emphasising a 'connectivist' and participatory approach, and xMOOCs adopting a more obviously commercial and 'broadcasting'  style and format:

"cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication."
(for the full discussion, see George Siemens' reflections at

My first reaction to this distinction was to reflect that of course I (we?) would much prefer the 'connectivist' emphasis, with its roots in concepts of student-centred and participatory learning.  If  that means being less 'massive' but more 'creative and collaborative' - then good.  Quality rather than quantity.

But as George Siemens points out in the www.elearnspace piece cited above, there are many unresolved issues here.  He comments that learners from contexts and countries where there is little affordable access to high-quality learning materials say they welcome the accessible "xMOOCs" provision, often delivered by high-status US universities with global reputations.  Restricted access to bandwidth can also make the more interactive styles of online learning far less 'open' than we may think.  That thought, of course, immediately raises another question: will MOOCs  just entrench the domination of the big US players, marginalising other perspectives, networks and organisations?  Walmart/Asda/Tesco drives out not only the educational corner shop, but the deli, the butcher, the baker and the wholefoods cooperative too in a familiar pattern?

These points and others are raised in a recent piece on MOOCs published on the Institute of Development Studies website (To MOOC or not to MOOC'... see link after the quotation below) . This Insitute is a charitable organisation based at the University of Sussex. It attracted a comment from a current MOOC user that encourages a more optimistic and less polarised interpretation of MOOCs' potential, though also one that reminds us of the online accessibility issues:

"I live in Liberia and have organized a discussion group for people who are taking Banerjee and Duflo's 'Poor Economics' course online. The course is at have a group of half Liberians, half expatriate development workers. It's really interesting for us and eye-opening for the Liberian students who have never been exposed to cutting-edge, rigorous thinking in development before. It would be fantastic if IDS could do something similar. Bandwidth is a real problem for us, though, so it helps to keep online lectures and audio materials to a minimum, or, if you feel you must be 'multimedia', at least include a transcript of the lecture, and the slides. "

So you may have a genuinely 'massive' MOOC; there may be thousands of people logging on who simply lurk and browse or consume the content without interacting online; and at the same time, there may be local groups who use their individual online learning as a springboard for shared agendas and creative ways of working.

Perhaps, then, we need to relax about the 'size' issue.  We will need to make sure that our MOOCs offer a range of levels of engagement: browsing, lurking, posting responses and course work, engaging in online discussion with peers and tutors, perhaps getting formal credit eventually (for some). We will need to experiment in order to find out what does work for our kinds of topics  on a very large scale, and what kinds of options we can build in for collaborative learning/working within that context.   We'll need to revisit and test that distinction between "cMOOCs" and "xMOOCs" and take our own thinking further. Watch this space.

Friday, 8 March 2013

The ScHARR MOOC Diaries: Part III - What's it like to be a MOOC Student

Image used under a Creative Commons By Attribution Licence  © Claire Beecroft

Time for a bit of reflective practice, four members of ScHARR have just completed the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. The course was hosted on the MOOC behemoth Coursera and was facilitated by Jeremy Knox, Siân Bayne, Hamish Macleod, Jen Ross and Christine Sinclair, all from the University of Edinburgh.
The MOOC looked at the contrasting ideas of utopian and dystopian futures and how technology impacts on learning and culture and the concept of what it means to be human in the modern world.
The course was run over five weeks and was a mixture of synchronise content in the form of Google Hangouts by the course tutors reflecting on the previous week’s materials. While most of the content was delivered as asynchronous learning with the idea of students self-directing their learning. This was mostly formed around a core collection of videos and text, with supplementary reading for students wanting to delve deeper into a topic.

The course had over 41,000 students enroll, although evidence seemed to show that about 20% were active participants; active being that they had communicated using one of the various social platforms associated with the course. The majority had some form of higher education background and were based in the U.S or Western Europe. Communication by the course hosts and students was predominantly via Social Media, in particular Twitter, Google+ and Facebook. More formal communication by course leaders and students occurred within the Coursera discussion forums for the EDC MOOC.
After five weeks, students were expected to submit a digital artefact that captured an idea or concept from the course materials. The artefact could be anything from text to video, from images to audio, including such as YouTube and Prezi as dominant mediums of delivery. Each submission was peer-reviewed by three students, although each student had the option to review more than three artefacts. Each ScHARR participant marked four submissions; the marking system was as such:
0 = does not achieve this, or achieves it only minimally
1 = achieves this in part
2 = achieves this fully or almost fully

Students who got a mark higher than 1.5 received a distinction.

Claire Beecroft @beakybeecroft

I really enjoyed the MOOC and it appealed to the way I like to learn - it was largely video-based and the workload was as heavy or light as you wanted it to be. I aimed to do all the ‘core’ activities, but didn’t manage much of the optional stuff, such as participating in forums and blogging, though I did use the Twitter hashtag and found this very useful - one evening while scanning the tweets I noticed a just-tweeted  tweet about a programme starting on BBC4 about ‘Google and the World Brain’- I tuned into iPlayer just as the programme started and watch all 1.5 hours of it - it was so interesting and eye-opening and frankly, worrying. I’d have never heard about it without that tweet.

I was a little surprised at the initial reaction of many students who complained about feeling ‘overwhelmed’ by the volume and diversity of content being generated by the MOOC - we knew that 40,000 had registered, so I wasn’t really surprised at all - I was happy to take a random/scatty approach and to stick to key platforms (mainly Google+ and Twitter) that I use regularly and like.

I would have like to have hung-out at the Hangouts, but these were timed just as I usually start the Friday-night scramble to get to nursery and after-school club before they fine me and call social services.
Although I did watch a little of them on the recording, I think watching live and being able to participate (or at least try to) would have been much more fun.

What I liked the most was that the course really emphasised theoretical perspectives around e-Learning - anyone hoping to learn ‘skills’ would have been disappointed, but that’s not what I need - I wanted to be forced to use my tired, lazy brain- and I was! I also felt they did a good job of hinting and guiding us towards the links between the videos/readings and online learning, but never spelt them out - that was our job and the ‘digital artefact’ task was our chance to provide some proof that we’d gotten our heads around the theme of the MOOC. I also liked the very loose format of the assessed work, and for me the peer-marking system worked well and seemed reasonably fair- having 3 markers gave most of us a fair hearing from our peers I think (but then I got a 2, so I would say that...).

There is lots that we can learn from how they ran their MOOC, from their canny approach in ‘curating’ rather than ‘creating’ content (they didn’t give away any of their own materials as such, just signposted us to existing web-based resources authored or produced by others), to their assessment methods. I also think they were actually pretty brave to stick their head above the parapet and take on a properly Massive, Open and Online Course - the incident at Georgia Tech, just days after the MOOC started, shows just how wrong a MOOC can go, and how immediate and public the consequences can be.

I worked mostly in the evenings, and almost entirely on my new iPad (I had a problem with my iPad-produced Prezi so I fell at the final hurdle of doing the MOOC entirely on it, dang!) and although it was hard to fit it all in, I’ve signed up for 2 more Coursera MOOCs and I’ve got my eye on an edX one too - I just wish the OU would hurry up and launch Futurelearn- something to look forward to...

Chris Blackmore @chrisblackmore
The size of the cohort was an interesting factor - as a learner, I felt rather anonymous, and unconnected to fellow learners. I made very few postings to the discussion forum, and there was little or no sense of community from the forums, in my experience (there was more of a community from the twitter hashtag #edcmooc). This may have been exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t able to attend the scheduled Google Hangouts. Notably, a group of us set up and attended our own Hangouts to reflect on the course.
The assessment task was to create a digital artefact, which was a wide brief and gave sufficient leeway to create a submission at the last minute! My submission wasn’t as closely related to course materials as it might be, and that was probably a reflection of insufficient time devoted to watching videos and reading texts - I did find it difficult to put in the requisite amount of time to my studies. This is a reflection of the fact that I was primarily doing the MOOC out of curiosity, to see what doing a MOOC felt like, and that I was fitting it in around work and family life.
The peer assessment seemed to work quite well - my own feedback was interesting and informative, and hopefully the feedback I gave was useful. I did find myself being quite generous in my assessments of peers’ submissions.
It was nice to receive confirmation that I had “passed” the MOOC and would receive some kind of official confirmation of this; on reflection, I am not convinced my low level of participation merited a pass, and I presumably wouldn’t have passed a credit-bearing University module with this level of participation. So there are question marks for me on how to monitor the engagement level of students in a valid way and give appropriate feedback and credit.

Angie Rees @angiefelangie
When I signed up for this MOOC it sounded interesting and really relevant to me but I wasn’t at all sure that I had the time for it. However I decided to sign up and see how things went and now I’m very glad I did.

From the first week I liked the format of the course - and the Coursera software it was run in. The format of four weekly videos plus some core and optional reading wasn’t too demanding and the content on the whole was relevant, interesting and often entertaining.

One area of the course which I didn’t make the most of was the social networking side of things. I posted just a few times to twitter, didn’t blog and wasn’t able to make any of the hangouts. I signed up for the facebook page but didn’t really use it. I think this was mainly due to time constraints but also the fact that the huge array of tools people where using to communicate was a bit bewildering and I often didn’t know where to start or what was the ‘right’ place to be participating online. That said within the University we got our own mini network of MOOC-ers going and our online Friday google hangouts where a very useful way of staying connected with at least some of the other participants on the course and getting some sort of feedback and peer comment etc.

I had a huge disaster with the final assignment - I had chosen to do an animation using the online tool Xtranormal. Unfortunately some changes I made to it in the last hour before the deadline failed to render in time and the whole thing was lost. With 12 minutes to go before hand in I frantically created a Prezi using the dialogue from my animation and uploaded it.
The peer comments I received were broadly positive which I was pleased about - especially considering how last-minute the whole thing was. I was delighted to get a distinction but feel it was not quite merited in my case. But hey, I’m not complaining.

My participation in the MOOC was as much about trying out a MOOC as it was about actually learning something - and I think I got a lot out of it on both counts. I’m certainly interested in doing more MOOCs and would love to be involved in designing and teaching one.
The bottom line: a really good learning experience and I would love to do more. 

Andy Tattersall @andy_tattersall
If someone had asked me what to expect from this MOOC in terms of delivery and communication I would have been wide of the mark. I expected there would be an awful lot of communication using Twitter, especially taking into consideration the course material. I certainly didn’t expect that it would be so self driven, and that there would be so many students enrolled. 41,000 is a tremendous number of students, but then again MOOCs are badged as being massive. Even though only a percentage of students were active it still made for a lot of white noise. In amongst all of the Twitter, Google+ and Facebook chatter, there were the discussion forums, which was at times could feel overwhelming if you allowed it to. Add the hundreds of EDC MOOC specific blogs and posts on other blogs it soon became apparent that even the most efficient and time-rich of students would struggle to stay on top of it all.

Nevertheless, conversations did take place and people did respond and retweet some of my communications and thoughts, whilst I found myself Tweeting at fellow students in the live Google Hangouts - these were moments that broke down the non-stop stream of edc consciousness into useful chunks. These moments brought the whole course back to the human/student perspective as we shared ideas and resources. The blog posts were very useful in that some captured the week’s material and ideas in one succinct piece of writing, the only downside is that you were open to ‘Chinese Whispers’ and could misunderstand what was being delivered on the real EDC platform.

The Google Hangouts were very useful as the five course tutors reflected on the previous week in a very informal and friendly manner. It gave a useful dimension to the course in that you got to see and communicate with the course tutors. It lead the four of us in ScHARR - alongside another colleague in Law, Ian Loasby -  to host our own Google Hangouts to chat about the course, and MOOCs in general.

The assessment was interesting, and I really enjoyed creating my digital artefact as it gave me the opportunity to try a new piece of animation software out. I was able to put in experiences and knowledge of my own alongside what I had learned from the MOOC. The artefact took longer than I would have liked, and it was soon evident some students had put greatly varying amounts of time to make their artefact, which again reflects the nature of the course. Unlike a paid for traditional course, there was no obligation to create a large piece of work or any kind of work for that matter, with some creating outstanding artefacts and others not so. The peer review process was interesting and the guidelines to the review process fairly easy to follow, so those who had never assessed academic work were aided somewhat. I was impressed not by what my reviewers had said of my work (although it was mostly very positive) but the standard of the reviewing, I felt like I was being assessed by university teachers.

I found the whole experience a bit of an eye-opener, not just for how the course was run, but how many people participated and how they communicated. From the work I assessed to how I was assessed and how many fellow students I communicated with, I got a real feeling I was studying alongside mostly fellow university staff and students. It left me thinking of the potential of MOOCs as I feel they have yet to breakout beyond the academic firewall, and go far beyond the West geographically. It also had me contemplating the downside of MOOCs, in that the bigger they are, the more potential for noise and a feeling of being overwhelmed. It left me with more questions than answers, but also a feeling of excitement as something great is going to happen. Each MOOC will be different from the next one, to how it is run to how students engage with each other. The range of tools and abilities do not make for a level playing field, but it does allow students to contribute what they like, and that the more you put in the more you should get out, even so you don’t have to feel obliged to put a lot in to get something out - this is no bad thing right now. 

Friday, 1 March 2013

The ScHARR MOOC Diaries: Part II - What platform to use?

What Platform to use?

One of the first challenges we faced in planning the ScHARR MOOCs, was to choose a robust and suitable delivery platform. Of the options available we were constrained by certain requirements which included the need for:

  • an open platform
  • a simple automated sign-up mechanism
  • a gentle learning curve
  • a familiar authoring environment for staff
  • a suite of communication / collaboration tools
  • an established and reliable system
  • scalability to cater for an unknown number of participants

We considered the following platforms:

  1. Moodle hosted on cPanel
  2. Wikispaces + bits
  3. Canvas
  4. Coursesites
  5. FutureLearn
  6. Coursera

And the winner is...

Having considered the merits and drawbacks of each of the platforms above, we decided to use Coursesites (by Blackboard, which also powers ‘MOLE2’ our institutional VLE) as our delivery platform. Coursesites offered several obvious advantages including:

  • Staff at the University of Sheffield are already using MOLE2 (Blackboard Learn) for their online materials and an existing familiarity with this system means they are relatively prepared for using Coursesites
  • Coursesites also provides an easy and automated process for allowing participants to self-enroll on our MOOCs. We were mindful that we didn’t want to introduce an administrative workload here if possible.
  • Pre-existing materials (created using ScHARR’s MOPE tool) some of which would be repurposed in the MOOCs, would be compatible with Coursesites. No need to convert materials
  • Any students who upon completing a MOOC decide to study a ScHARR postgraduate paid taught programme, will arrive equipped with a familiarity of the system and the way we organise and run our online modules.
  • Reading through Coursesites’ terms and conditions and FAQs we were unable to find anything which would be considered a risk factor or detrimental to the successful running of our MOOCs.
  • Coursesites includes a rich suite of collaboration and assessment tools which allow us to create an engaging and interactive learning experience for all participants. This includes Coursesites Live (similar to Collaborate), discussion boards, blogs, wikis, journals, social hub, google docs integration and voice authoring among others.
  • Coursesites offers a fringe benefit in that it is ‘future-facing’ (it showcases all the latest features and tools of Blackboard Learn) and hence provides a useful preview of features likely to appear in MOLE2