Friday, 28 June 2013

A review of Open2Study

Open2Study is a MOOC platform launched in April 2013 by Open Universities Australia, a twenty-year-old online education collaborative of several Australian universities.

The specificities of Open2Study:

The courses are sourced from the Australian universities involved with the Open Universities consortium but also from corporate partners such as Enterprise Architects (architecture professional services firm) and Stamford Interactive (a user experience consultancy).
The 19 courses being offered are all in a similar format:

- 4 weeks long
- 8 to 10 videos (5-10 minutes)
- a single question after each video to test comprehension
- weekly quizzes

Compared to edX and Coursera, Open2Study seems more focused toward concrete career skills rather than core academic subjects.

Open2Study’s strong points:

Open2Study offers synchronous courses with a start date, a finish date and weekly assignments but all assignment can be submitted up to the last day of the course.
This simple approach has most of the advantages of synchronous courses without the drawbacks.

Open2Study offers free certificates of completion (and grade report) for all of its courses.

  • Gamification

When it comes to gamification, Open2Study has clearly taken a page from Codecademy’s book. Numerous badges are to be won all along the course.

Open2Study’s not so strong points:

Compared to other MOOC platforms, Open2Study’s courses are not interactive.
Open2Study’s forums are not quite as active as forums on other MOOC platforms.

  • Less advanced platform

Open2Study’s platform lacks some features commonly used by MOOCs on Coursera or edX (peer assessment, hangouts, etc.).

  • No curriculum

Open2Study is offering diverse and interesting courses but is yet to organise coherent curriculums.

  • No corporate backers

Even though some of its courses are almost vocational in nature, Open2Study hasn’t made seeking corporate backing for its courses a priority.

A newcomer in the MOOC ecosystem, Open2Study is obviously not as mature as rivals Udacity, edX or Coursera.
It is not a “me too” platform hower. It has an interesting approach to online learning and some of its initial courses are very much worth taking.

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Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Are MOOCs becoming "just online courses"?

In the short video below, Dave Cormier who coined the term Massive Open Online Course, explains what the term meant to him at the end of 2010:

Clearly MOOCs have moved away from being exclusively connectivist. Dave Cormier describes an open environment where students learn primarily from each other.

The overwhelming majority of MOOCs offered nowadays are replicating more closely the traditional lecture based higher education environment.

Is that a good or a bad thing? To paraphrase Dave Cormier: are MOOCs becoming “just online courses”?

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Monday, 24 June 2013

Meet the pioneers - An interview with Peter Chapman

Udacity’s most popular course so far, CS101, is also the world’s most popular MOOC by enrolment.
The Good MOOC interviews Peter Chapman, Udacity's original assistant instructor for CS 101: Introduction to Computer Science and CS 262: Programming Languages.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I grew up in northern Virginia and attended the University of Virginia where I graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in Computer Science and Cognitive Science. I was an early employee at Udacity and notably the first assistant instructor for CS 101: Introduction to Computer Science and CS 262: Programming Languages. I now attend Carnegie Mellon University as a PhD student in the Computer Science Department working on software security. Although I've moved on from Udacity, I still try to stay involved with online education most recently as the technical lead for the largest hacking competition ever held, picoCTF 2013.

  • How did you get involved with Udacity?

At the University of Virginia I worked with David Evans on web security and applied cryptography. By the end of my third year I had finished the vast majority of my course requirements and began eagerly anticipating a relaxing semester wrapping up my undergraduate thesis and visiting potential graduate schools. David had been contacted by the nascent Udacity to be one of the first instructors; knowing my plans, he invited me to join him in Silicon Valley. Three days later I signed the offer letter and a month later I was in California working on CS 101. I was still enrolled at UVa for the next four months and even found the time to finish my thesis and visit schools.
Looking back, the timing was perfect.

  • How did you feel at the time, and how do you feel now about having been TA on the most popular MOOC yet?

As we prepared the course through January and February, our sole focus was on the launch deadline. I never had time to think about the impact the course was going to have; it didn't exist yet! But once we launched, I personally felt the success in the forums. We had new questions and comments coming in every few seconds. The course had a life of its own. For the first couple of weeks I regularly stayed up to 3-4 AM answering questions and fixing bugs all while preparing next week's lesson and homework. It was quite a crunch, but as a company we got a pipeline down and started getting sleep. Everyone celebrated their "First Saturday Off" after launch. I think mine was around week 5.

However, it wasn't until after the course ended that I got a true sense for the scale and impact of what we had created. I spent an afternoon reading through every survey response we received. I realized that we fostered an educational community (inside jokes and all) that taught more people how to program in a few weeks than I could ever teach in my lifetime. It's amazing.

I now go most days without thinking about the course, but periodically I'll see a news article or get recognized on the street and remember that CS 101 and Udacity are still teaching students valuable skills every day.

  • How do you see MOOCs and higher education going in the future?

(Disclaimer: These views are strictly my own.)

I believe close cooperation with universities will dominate the MOOC ecosystem for the next couple of years. The recognition and legitimacy an established institution supplies to a MOOC is very valuable. Unfortunately, universities tend to be slow and the courses and degrees take months to complete. Due to their nature, it will be years before we can really gauge the success of these joint ventures. For that reason, I think we'll see less innovation in the fundamental format of the MOOC as they integrate with university programs and requirements. However, I do hope to see lots of new technology to better allow students to connect, discuss, and study together in MOOCs. I've seen small-scale experiments with in-person meetups and video-based study sessions, but I would like to see something better integrated into the courses.

That being said, I believe the long-term future is less about certificates and degrees, and more about creating a skillset and portfolio. The Udacity Showcase and Mozilla's Open Badges are a start. I personally had a lot of fun working on picoCTF, which is quite different than the standard lecture-based MOOCs. It is a mash-up between a web-based video game and online competition designed to teach very difficult and technical skills without a lecturer.

  • Have you taken MOOCs yourself?

Although I did do a few sections of every course Udacity had offered while I was there, the only MOOC course I've finished is Udacity's CS 387 Applied Cryptography.

  • Which were your favourites?

My favorite course is definitely Udacity's PH 100 Introduction to Physics. It's tons of fun and Andy is a great teacher, but I'm pretty biased since Andy and I are good friends.

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Friday, 21 June 2013

A review of Coursera's Vaccines

Coursera’s Massive Open Online Course on vaccines from the University of Pennsylvania is starting on the 25th of June 2013.
Is it worth registering?
The Good MOOC reviews last year’s offering of this course:

  • Pedagogy

The goal of the course is unashamedly to encourage vaccination by dissipating the controversy surrounding it.
For this purpose, the professor goes over the history of vaccines, explains how different families of vaccines work, and covers in details vaccine exemption and the treatment vaccines get in the media.
The course is mostly made up of 15 to 20 minutes video segments of the instructor with some pauses for ‘in lecture quizzes’.
The end of lecture quizzes are often focused on details rather than on ensuring the main messages has got across.

  • Professor’s aura

Paul Offit is a pediatrician, a professor of vaccinology and pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania and is Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. He is also co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine and has published numerous research papers on vaccines safety.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

Unlike some MOOCs were a lot of learning happens by engaging with peers and assistant instructors in the forums, the vaccines class seems to mainly encourage passive learning.

  • Academic rigor

The passing grade for the certificate of completion is 90%. The assessment is entirely based on automatically graded quizzes but contained very detailed oriented questions.

  • Student body

Students in the course seemed mainly passive rather than actively engaged in discussions in the forums.

  • Corporate sponsors

The aim of the course was really about educating the general public about the benefits of vaccines rather than training future professionals.

  • Interactivity

This course has very low interactivity (no office hours, low engagement in the forums, no peer grading, etc.).

  • Technical platform

Coursera’s platform, although not used to its full potential was user friendly and reliable.

  • Production value

The video classes consist of shots of the professor looking straight into the camera and delivering the content with the help of a few slides. Basic but effective.

Coursera’s Vaccines class is clearly designed with the general public in mind. The instructor’s goal is to educate young parents about how safe vaccines are and how dangerous foregoing vaccination can be.

Despite this, quizzes are often made up of tricky questions focusing on obscure and minor details of the lectures which can throw off casual learners.

The lecturer is engaging, clearly knows his subject inside out and does a good job making a complex subject understandable. However, most enrollee will probably want to audit the course and not bother with obtaining a certificate.

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Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Power of Data in MOOCs

In the short video below, Daphne Koller co-founder of the MOOC platform Coursera, discusses the new opportunities lying in the data generated by MOOCs.

MOOCs are by definition massive. A huge amount of data about student behavior can be collected and exploited for increased pedagogical effectiveness and efficiency:

  • Analysis of data logs:

When you watch a lecture video on Coursera, every pause, rewind or fast forward is analysed to identify areas in need of improvement.
When you get a quiz question wrong, what you do on the site before getting it right the second time around also helps show Coursera what information students find useful.

  • A/B testing:

A slightly different version of the course can be offered to a small (but statistically significant) proportion of the class. If better results are obtained, the improvement can be rolled out to everyone.

To conclude, a significant part of the MOOCs revolution lies in this new ability brought about by the power of data. It is now possible to be objective about what works or not in a course and rationalise pedagogical decisions.

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Monday, 17 June 2013

Meet the researchers - An interview with Manuela Milani

The ongoing MOOC revolution is sparking interest from researcher all over the world. Today The Good MOOC interviews one such researcher, Manuela Milani.

  • Can you introduce yourself?

I'm Manuela, 44 years old, single mother of Edoardo, 3 years and a half.

I'm an instructional designer at CTU - eLearning Centre of the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy and I'm a PhD student at the Université Cergy-Pontoise in France.

My PhD research is about cultural differences in online designing and teaching.

  • Can you further describe your research?

My main interest is in understanding how cultural differences impact online designing and teaching, mainly in an academic context.

The final part of my thesis will be about MOOCs, going back always to my main focus: culture and cultural differences (I do not adopt a definition of culture as a synonymous of nation but I'm using a larger articulation of the definition, including also disciplinary culture, institutional culture and so on).

For this purpose, I am carrying out a survey to collect information from teachers, tutors, instructional designers and any other educational actors who have been involved with MOOCs.

  • What do you hope to accomplish by carrying out this research?

To quote my PhD project thesis: “What did academics, who were experienced in the development and delivery of online units, regard as cultures and cultural diversity? How did cultures and cultural diversity manifest themselves in the teaching online process? Only answering these questions, articulating the concept of culture into different dimensions, could allow accommodating cultural diversity in an online learning environment, including MOOCs.”

  • Where does your interest in MOOCs comes from?

My interest in MOOCs comes from two different sides: my research activity and my professional activity. In this second case the interest is focused on understanding if and how a european university could be part of the MOOC movement, defining first of all its strengths and risks.  

  • Have you taken MOOCs yourself?

  • Which were your favourites and why?

I would say that a good MOOC is a MOOC where the learning objectives are made clear at the start and the workload is realistic (true for any good course for that matter).

  • How do you see MOOCs evolving in the future?

Obviously, this is a tough one.
Things will probably become clearer during the upcoming year about this “wave” of MOOCs.
I think we can identify two different sides to the  MOOCs phenomenon, the US side and the EU side.
Looking at the MOOCs from the US side there is a regular increase of interest, of the number of courses and of the number of course partners.

On the EU side, it seems to me that the decision to be part of a MOOC platform or to offer a MOOC is mainly a "marketing" decision. At the same time the administrative and political decisions on credits recognition will play a relevant part in the acceptance of MOOCs in EU, where ECTS (European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System) took so many years to be implemented.

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Friday, 14 June 2013

A review of Udacity's CS253 - Web Development

Following on from Udacity’s successful CS101 course, CS253 - Web development starts from the basics of how the web works and goes through everything necessary to build a blog and scale it to support large numbers of users.

  • Pedagogy

The goal of the course is explicit right from the start and CS253 delivers on it. From hashing passwords to secure logins and cookies, you learn to make a fully-functional blog using Google App Engine.
The pedagogy is very ‘hands-on’ and pure Udacity. The course is mostly made up of short video segments of the instructor scribbling on screen or introducing some directly on a computer terminal with frequent quizzes and programming assignments.

  • Professor’s aura

Steve Huffman is the co-founder of Reddit and Hipmunk. Enough said.

  • Quality and availability of teaching staff

CS253 was Steve Huffman’s first experience teaching a course and it sometimes showed. The office hours were often used to go back over points that had been slightly overlooked during the video lectures.
As usual, Udacity’s teaching assistant are a very dedicated and energetic bunch.

  • Academic rigor

As with all Udacity courses, CS253 is asynchronous and exams can be re-taken at will. However, some assignments were really challenging and unlike with other MOOCs (CS101 included), there is a strong expectation that students will use the resources available on the internet to complete information given in class.
Different certificates of completion are available depending on students’ achievements (certificate of accomplishment, certificate of accomplishment with distinction and certificate of accomplishment with highest distinction).

  • Student body

Large is the first thing that comes to mind. With thousands of active students, there is always somebody in the forums coming up with an unexpected approach.

  • Corporate sponsors

Although CS253 does not have corporate sponsors as such, the course ends with a ‘field trip’, where Steve Huffman shares in more details his experience at Reddit.
The last section of the course also includes interviews with Reddit lead engineer Neil Williams and Udacity engineer Chris Chew (Udacity runs on the same technical platform as the blog built as part of the course).

  • Interactivity

Even though the course is asynchronous, a teaching assistant is still devoted to it. Besides, the size of the class should ensure that there remain sufficient activity in the forums to answer any questions.

  • Technical platform

The recommended method for putting the blog online is Google App Engine. While this can certainly be a challenge for beginners, its graphical user interface is much more intuitive than Heroku or other such services.

  • Production value

In keeping with Udacity’s style.

Udacity’s CS253 - Web Development is a very good course but will pose a significant challenge to students whose sole computer science background is Udacity’s CS101.

On the other hand, CS253 teaches very little about template engines, CSS and JavaScript so a follow up course would be welcome.

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