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.)
Content
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.
WEEK 1: WHAT IS WEB SCIENCE?
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.
WEEK 2: NETWORKS
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.
WEEK 3: CRIME AND SECURITY
Enjoyed much of this, but a little idiosyncratic and far too focused on Southampton research students’ work. The case studies were good.
WEEK 4: DEMOCRACY
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.
WEEK 5: ECONOMY
The Big Data section was superb but when it came to social media and business it was shallow.
WEEK 6: WHAT NEXT FOR THE WEB?
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.
Video
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.
Text
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.
Questions
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!
Conclusion
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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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Moses issues 10 Commandments on eLearning (on tablets)

Hot news. Moses has had enough of all of these bibles (print), preaching (teaching) and sermons (lectures). 
However, he’s really pissed at all of those evangelists who use technology in learning. 
Didn’t Adam, in Genesis, have a bad experience with Apple? So now that everyone has a tablet, he’s decided to issue a new set of commandments:
1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me except ‘courses’.
2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven stock images that vaguely reflect the block of text next to them on the screen.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain and ask stupid MC questions that place any of his many names next to obviously false Gods.
4. Remember the sabbath summative test, to keep it holy. Six modules shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh is the summative test that relies simply on short-term memory to recall knowledge, so is soon forgotten.
5. Honour thy father and thy mother by stating the paternal and maternal objectives of your course up front, thereby boring your learners to death on the first screen.
6. Thou shalt not kill Kirkpatrick, even though it is a useless method of evaluation and nobody gets near Level 4 as they’re too busy designing happy sheets.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery and use methods of eLearning other than endless screens of text and graphics.
8. Thou shalt not steal stuff from various sources, call it curation, and bash it out on screen after screen until the learner loses the will to live.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor and claim that your eLearning is special, because it has ‘simulations’ (cartoons with speech bubbles), works on all mobile devices (it won’t), has adaptive learning (try again on MC questions) or deep learning (supplementary PDFs and links to Wikipedia pages).

10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s mouse, and pretend to do eLearning by clicking through and using that time to do things on your mobile phone. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’s answers, nor his manservant’s answers, nor his maidservant’s answers, nor his ox, nor his ass (especially not his ass as he may react badly).

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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Why Facebook bought Oculus Rift? World at its feet, now has worlds on its head

Even Zuckerberg says that Facebook will expand the product into new territory. "We're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home." Zuckerberg equates Oculus to "a new communication platform".
I’ve played around with the Oculus for some time now – played games, roared around several roller-coasters, had my head chopped off by a guillotine, walked around on the floor of the ocean looking up at a whale and shark, floated around the International Space Station using my rocket pack.
Why do I think it matters? It’s possible, just possible, that this device, or one like it, will change the world we know forever. It will certainly revolutionise the world of entertainment. Flat screen TVs have got as big and sharp as they can get. It is clear that most people do want that big, panoramic experience but there’s a limit with 2D. Climb into that screen, which is what the Oculus allows you to do and you can look around, upwards, over your shoulder. You can them move around, do things and things can be done to you. It’s mind blowing.

The problem that Oculus has is getting to market quickly. Kickstarter was fine, for starting. Sony is right on their shoulder with project Morpheus. With this money they can accelerate R&D, have a massive marketing push and keep the price right.
Presence
First, they have to deliver real ‘presence’. They’re close but the fact that they haven’t announced a release date, shows it’s still some time off. Real ‘presence’, without motion sickness, is seriously difficult as it needs a whole ensemble of technical problems to be solved:
1.     High resolution – at least 1080p HD, preferably better
2.     Wide field of view – 80 degrees minimum, preferably wider
3.     Rock solid tracking – prevents motion sickness
4.     Low pixel persistence – prevents motion sickness
5.     High refresh rate - prevents motion sickness
6.     Low latency – right image at right time - prevents motion sickness
7.     Great optics and optic calibration
Oculus are close but it still needs to be turned into a high-volume, low-cost product.
Enhancements
We must remember that this can only be done on a headset, anything else is too expensive and can’t deliver the technical data and refresh rates that ‘presence’ demands. So expect, wifi to free the headset from being tethered with an awkward wire. Expect 3D audio. Expect lots of haptic devices, body-tracking and good input devices. Expect multiplayer. This is what the Facebook money can bring.
Entertainment
The first raft of games will be horror, as imagine something like the Paranormal series, only ten times scarier. You can already wander through a dark wood, choosing where to go with only a torch which shines where you point it, or travel through subterranean dungeons or sit in a house and be terrorised. Then there’s the shoot ‘em up games and every other genre.
Wondrous experience will be possible in terms of travel or experiencing other worlds. It will be relaxing, exciting, thrilling whatever mood you want. For opera you can be in La Scala, for music in Carnegie hall, for theatre, in the Globe. It’s literally out of this world and into another of your choice.
Learning
I wrote about Oculus Rift possibilities in learning sometime back, on safe failure, soft skills, attitudinal training and skils acquisition. It wil take learn by doing to new levels. In education, you will be able to do what is impossible in real life. At the macro-level, you will be able to travel to the bottom of the ocean in space. I have already done this in an Oculus. At the micro-level, you will be able to examine and manipulate atomic and sub-atomic particles. In the middle ground there’s no end of practical skills you can acquire in immersive, simulated environments. Again, doing the impossible becomes possible, whether its military, medical or manufacturing skills.
Conclusion
This is not only a ‘game’ changer, it’s an experience changer. It will change the way we spend our time, expand our experience and acquire skills. I’ve seen the effect it has with children, teenagers, adults and pensioners. It’s an experience, even at low resolution that can change your life, as you know, when you’ve tried it that it’s coming and when it comes it will be all-embracing. Facebook already has the world at its feet with 1.5 billion users, it now has the world on its head.


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