Normal is hard to define, and silly to aspire to.  As my sister-in-law puts it “normal is a setting on the dishwasher”.

Let me take you back to last year.  I met with one of our blind students ….and together we did-battle-with-Blackboard.  Armed with JAWS our goal was to work out some strategies to enable Sue (not her real name) to easily access the course content. Those of you who are AT savvy will know that this will have involved setting some placemarkers, and remembering  a load of tab sequences. It was complicated, but we got there, not helped by the fact that the graphical icons indicating whether something was Panopto or Powerpoint were completely silent.  Relieved that we had won, Sue apologised about the need to rush off: pulled out an iPhone, instructed Siri to ring a local taxi company and then, without fuss,  arranged a cab for outside the university library.    “Normal” here involved using voice recognition to drive a mobile, listen to text to speech to validate that the instruction was heard, and then initiate the call.

Now, wind back to 1991, voice recognition is so rubbish that it was only a GOOD-THING if you needed another way of typing at 10 words a minute.  Aka, you had to be disabled or a complete technophile to be bothered using it. Yet, here we are today commanding our phones and cars to do things without a second thought.

What’s normal has changed, what would have been considered “assistive technology” is just a different way of doing things. Maybe it’s because you’re up to your elbows in flour (maybe too much Great British Bakeoff), or because you need to be eyes free as you drive up the M6 and want to address your phone or satnav (“situationally disabled”).  Similarly, the on-screen keyboard on your smartphone used to be an amazing concept for those who couldn’t handle the joys of a 102 key QWERTY.   All things mobile have forced us to redefine what are normal input/output devices.

Now for a little leap.  Lets have a chuckle about the phrase “computer mediated communications” prevalent in the academic literature around the embryonic practices of online learning.  CMC has morphed, changed, evolved – we now have the ability to connect using so many channels (I am perhaps a little poverty stricken in that I only do Facebook, email/Lync, Skype, Hangouts, Twitter, Instagram and the odd bit of WordPress/Feedly.)  If “conversation” is a key component of learning in the modern age then by definition technology enabled conversation has to be key in distance learning where we don’t have the luxury of those easy face to face conversations, nuanced by gestures, pauses and shrugs.

Just as AT (Assistive Technology) has become “normal”; it is my belief that some of the triple toe loops and double Salcho approaches currently being refined in distance learning and the MOOC-osphere will inevitably find their way into blended contexts. Workable approaches forged in these challenging contexts will find their way into the everyday, and in doing so, change our perceptions of normal. The online crucible is complementary.

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Valuing Disengagement

If we only measure the obvious we  fail to capture value…


I’ve been reflecting on this as I’ve been casting an eye over graphs and stats for our nclmoocs – considering how my own activity would be measured. For me this last year could define me as a MOOC dropout.  Those analysing my activity would see: 3 weeks of Data to Insights good scores, then nothing; sporadic access to Udacity’s Data Analysis with R, engagement with tests but no predictable signs of ever reaching the end … and of course, because I haven’t got to the end of it I haven’t filled out any form of post course survey.

The data defines me as a dropout who has lost interest or time or both.  The reality is hugely different, I’ve found both of these courses to be extremely well thought out, hugely interesting and very useful.  Indeed, part of the reason for my slow progress has been the way they have stimulated me to think differently and come up with ideas for meaningful representations.  Rather than moving on to the next exercise I have been using what I have learned for real.  In this respect my engagement (learning) should surely in the “success” box.

But, there is absolutely no way for the course designer to capture this, especially as my reflections come months after any formal evaluation would be penned. And here is the rub: these courses have a set of learning outcomes  and curriculum (whether explicit or implicit);  but is it really hard to find out what my learning goals were and how they changed. Viewing my apparent disengagement as failure completely misses the value that I would place on these courses.

Hurrah for MOOCS I love learning!

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ex-Loft Dweller


For me the best thing about my OU study journey has been the great bunch of practitioners that I’ve journeyed with; from UK, Eire, Germany, Spain, Australia, Africa, Switzerland.  Each module brought a different group together and each person generously gave of their insight, struggles, support and humour – egging each other on the journey.  I had no idea at the outset how rich and interesting online learning could be, nor the degree to which you could get sucked into near-residency of online learning spaces.

Some clever assignments have caused me to think much more deeply about things than my self-directed efforts would have ever taken me. Very little of it has been dull, my main problem being the nature of cramming study around full time work.  The last assignment of H809 went in early this week, so I am now freed from the weekly studying to-do-list.

Time to leave the desk in the loft, find those walking boots, oil that bike and hang out with mates!



Posted in H809

Blobby Thoughts on MOOCs


Of late I have been pondering how different learning communities behave and about valid ways of describing their dimensions and attributes.  Here’s this morning’s idea, refined over lunch time chips with ever patient colleagues.

Here’s my question: is a MOOC more like a Community of Interest or Formal Learning Module.  As ever, “it depends” on the MOOC and the learner!  There are many brilliant online communities based around knitting, coding, money saving tips – these are organic, with transient qualities (you can come and go as you please), and really the only thing that keeps you there are your intrinsic motivation and the social ties you may establish.

MOOCs have similar dimensions regarding intrinsic motivation (and the well reported drop off rates show that engagement lasts as long as interests and life circumstances permit), so I’ve placed cMOOCs right next door, noting that some of them even develop into long-lasting communities.

Then to formal courses: the best ones present opportunities for motivated students to tap into their interests and to develop their subject enthusiasm.  But the demands of curriculum, standards and time can obliterate this at times.  And what of the structured, step by step, platform based MOOC?  Take  Exploratory Data Analysis as an example.  I’m happy to follow the carefully thought out learning journey and am enjoying going through this getting help from previous students, and with the odd detour to experiment.  So this lands close to it’s formal learning compatriot and I’ve allowed a bit of it to creep into “extrinsic”, just in case I get sucked into the need for a certificate!

Posted in MOOC

Forum fatigue

A very rainy day today so a great excuse not to go out and engage instead with some Sofa browsing.  I am supposed to be finishing off week 11 of an MA module.  You can imagine the format (read this 5000 word academic paper, categorise it, critique it, take notes on a 20 minute podcast….. total study time 11 hours).  Our cohort of students have been invited to share thoughts in a module wide forum, but no one has taken up the challenge -It’s  easter and we are a bit weary.  In spite of the fact that I do believe in social constructivism, I’ve adopted strategic view: engage to understand and get through the content with an eye for the next assignment.  

The other thing is I have been really distracted by Udacity’s EDA course and I’ve been dipping in to a few Futurelearn courses and enjoying the banter. I love the fact that even without a call to action the courses I am on will have 200+ comments, and when a discussion question is posed you see 1000 posts, skipping to those most liked gives an insight into what’s going on and the learning.  The contrast is sharp,  my 30 credit OU journey can be likened to boot camp, with regular long distance runs and pressure to keep up. Meanwhile there’s a joyful freedom about learning about things you are interested in, at your pace with others who are there for the fun.  I’m looking forward to returning to being a self directed learner. Two months, two essays and I am done!

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Learning Life 2014 begins

And we’re off…this week has seen for me the start of 2 study adventures “Practice Based Research in Educational Technology” (30 OU Masters Credits) and the first week and a half of Coursera’s “Future of (mostly) Higher Education“.  My head is rather full, and this post is an attempt bring a bit of order to overstimulated synapses.

FutureEd week 1

First of all to Coursera:  Cathy Davidson has framed #FutureEd with the words of Alvin Toffler “the illiterate of the 21C will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”  Week 1 took us on a tour of the four information ages: Writing, Moveable Type, Mass printing and Internet. Cathy’s short and engaging video lectures detailed how each of these ages were associated with fears.  The things that jumped out to me were:

  • the similarity in fears associated with each “age” – I was particularly amused by Socrates’s worries about writing stifling dialogue.
  • The way that Wikipedia (rightly) brings a global perspective to history
  • That Cathy’s discourse on the Internet Age didn’t include Sir Tim!
  • That HASTAC’s collaborative “Bill of Rights” for learners is worth revisiting
  • The course’s big question: What is the purpose of education? “to prepare the current generation for their future, or to maintain the status quo?”
  • How easy it was to pass the end of week 1 quiz – but Cathy’s view on this being formative was enlightening  (see comments on Sukaina’s blog).

Peer Review

The end of Week1 brought a challenge to detail an area of “unlearning” which would be peer assessed. The intention was that each submission (<500 words) would be posted to the forums so I chose something that wasn’t too personal ( you can’t snowplow turn down a red run), rattled off 300 words and posted it off. Oh Dear! the course team appear to have come in for a bit of flack on this and the auto-posting is binned.  Given that the platform is closed to Coursera users I’m not too sure I see the big issue, but clearly it had been a concern for others.  Now, of course, I have the joy of a bit of peer review:  5 discourses on unlearning to “mark” – did they meet the three criteria, justify why they did.  I fear my “review” may have been a bit insubstantial, let’s face it I could only give a maximum of 3 marks and most of the time when justifying scores I wrote a not quite complete sentence.  But, then I was doing this in a spare 40 mins, on an android tablet before running out for the evening.  Of course I enjoyed reading the submissions and for me there was value in this,  I consciously tried to say something encouraging, but the setting, size of submission and rigour didn’t really warrant anything that would get beyond what I have termed the “fluffy threshold.”

Apart from the video lectures, peer review and a dip into Twitter I’ve not really got that stuck into making connections.

OU Life

In comparison, we’ve had a fun week on H809 doing introductions in our tutor group of 15ish.  I’m looking forward to developing some critical skills (pertaining to research) and have an awesome tutor group with some many rich perspectives to offer.

Putting aside the trauma of writing 4 essays in the next 20 weeks I know I will enjoy the journey.  Apart from intros this week we’ve been asked to have a go at reading Hiltz and Meinke’s 1989 paper “Teaching Sociology in  a virtual classroom“.  We all get to ponder it this week, before participating in a critique next week – our discourse is *most* unlikely to be fluffy!  At the moment though I am permitted to entertain positive thoughts:

  • what clever people to be risking on-line learning in 1989 when the connected world was running on VT100 terminals and “e-moderating” was in it’s infancy.
  • Why didn’t anybody tell Thrun about this 15 year old insight? –  “Students lacking the necessary basic skills and self-discipline tend to do better in a traditionally delivered course.”

19 weeks to go!

[Picture by Paul A Rizer]

Posted in H809, MOOC | 1 Comment

Across the Steep – of MOOCs and Skiing


I’ve enjoyed a most excellent time in Morzine skiing.  My long-suffering-friends have endured me waxing lyrically over vin chaud, as I didn’t quite manage to leave my education hat at Uni.  

I couldn’t help but draw analogies between learning in a ski play-park and a good MOOC.

  • Ultimately, skiiing is about my leisure time.  I can choose to take (and pay for) lessons, if they help me.  As a relative novice, this extra support was well worth-while ..for my lesson fee I got lots of encouragement, quality coaching, an expert guide of the area, and easy connections with my ski-school buddies.  It is doubtful that I would have made such good progress with my technique without our lovely ESF instructor.  But, more experienced holiday-making friends were able to perfect their skiing and exploring together without the need of this support package.
  • My goals as a holiday maker and learner were central.   I had two goals: enjoy going down a red run and ski to Switzerland, so I practiced from our morning instruction and adventured with a friend on the uncharted (to us) lifts and routes to squander some Swiss Francs.
  • The ski-zone: it’s lifts, runs and occupants provide the backdrop to my learning adventure – just as in a MOOC there are chance meetings, conversations, words of advice, great ideas shared: on the hoof, off the cuff.  Top tips on “getting to Switzerland” interspersed with advice on the best  Apres Ski.   These conversations spice up the adventure and add to learning, but they are only possible because we are in together in the same “let’s share our enjoyment of skiing” space.
  • Limited absolutes –  individual goals reign:  It would be stupid to set a goal for 30 hours of skiiing to  “get everyone to ESF level 3”  because, everyone starts at a different point, there is no entry standard, and, let’s face it some may be more interested in the apres than the ski!  Instead I am free to set my own goals, to finish each day when I am “full” and to take personal satisfaction from setting and reaching my own goals.  Hey – it is my leisure time! – while someone else can challenge me to aim higher, they have no right to steal my joy by defining success in terms of absolute standards that I won’t reach.
  • Falling over is such a normal part of being a beginner, everybody has been there!  You just dust off the snow, put your skis back on and have another go – it’s part of learning.  Great learning communities remember life as a beginner, provide encouragement and celebrate success.  But, just as ESF put people of similar levels together in ski-school, so good MOOCs provide the opportunity to connect with those running at the same level ( operating in similar ZPD). You don’t have to connect with everyone, just enough to be able to learn from and with each other.

You know, I’m not sure that I have learned all that I need to, maybe I should go again next year?

Posted in MOOC