Category Archives: MOOC

Nodal University – where your learning evolves around you! #FutureEd

So the final task for the #FutureEd mooc made you the Vice Chancellor for a new educational establishment and you had to write the mission statement design the structure and decide what you institution was for.  Below is my attempt, I would be very interested in what others think of it

 (please watch video for Vice Chancellors welcome speech: I deliberately made it using only free technology – youtube – as a contrast to the professionally produced videos that most VCs have done for them)

Create, Share, Collaborate – are the 3 pillars on which our university stands

We want creators, of Art, of Science, of Humanities.  Making objects, thoughts, reports, procedures and performances

Share is about more than the “share button” its about how, what and to who and what not to share.  Our sharers are digitally literate students experimenting with different mediums and methods of sharing what they create or curate

Collaborate – working together, learning together, helping each other.  We help our students to be both leaders and followers the kind of person you would follow anywhere and the kind you can rely on to use their intelligence to make your project succeed.

There were some buzzwords, but I think a place where you create wonderful things share them with the world and work with interesting people on things that excite them – is a place I would like to learn at.

Our Academic staff – we recruit the best we can find, but only those who are happy with our way of working.  How do we work? well it will be a limited form of “Open Allocation” more on this later.

Who are the students? Much like how we recruit our staff the students we admit will be the best we can find who want to learn and study in our environment.  Because a diverse group of students provides a richer learning environment the recruitment process will favor selecting students from a variety of backgrounds so we select the best student cohort rather than just the best individual students.

Our admissions criteria: For a degree excellent a level results, however we have a foundation year for those with lower grades or non-traditional and mature students

Who pays and how much £9000 by students via student loans, this is pretty much standard in the UK (although in an ideal world Government would pay a significant % via general taxation)

How do the courses meet? Varies

What are the assessments? Projects will make up the majority of assessments, it will vary depending on the units that you select but you will be marked on what you produce and what your contribution was to the groups that you worked with. ePortfolios and personal blogs will contribute to overall grades.

What constitutes mastery of content? Performance and understanding of concepts as evidenced through personal blogs.  Exams will be uncommon and only used for Units where there is no practical alternative.

Are there diplomas? Yes! Most students will be aiming for a 3 year bachelor’s degree although we do aim to offer some postgraduate qualifications

With the invention of the internet education changed, it is no longer necessary to memorise facts and it is possible to communicate with experts around the world.  To take advantage of this all staff and students should have an internet enabled device with them most of the time (and there will be bursaries as part of the hardship fund for those students unable to afford them).

Staff design and chose the units they want to teach (with a few compulsory units always running). Students chose which units they want to study (in addition to the compulsory units they have to take).  Every unit will have a core of material/skills that staff feel is essential the students learn, beyond that the information and learning will be curated and created by the student cohort with students taking a lead in their education.  A large part of each unit will be project based with students working to make (in its widest sense) something that contributes to their subject.  Students will be responsible for creating and maintaining ePortfolios of their work and publishing a personal blog throughout their degree – it is important that our learners both evidence and reflect on their learning.

All learning materials will be online (with exceptions for disabled students who need alternative arrangements) and the content of a unit will be delivered via video, readings and other online materials.  Contact time with staff will not be in lecture format but will be devoted to seminar and project work – staff will record short videos to cover key points for students (see flipped classroom for details).  Staff will be encouraged to involve students with their research to both increase their productivity and to give students a deeper understanding of the subject.

Learning with loose boundaries – we wish to encourage cross disciplinary work and wide collaboration between students (and staff) as such working with students who are not studying the same unit as you will be supported and you can include evidence of what you have achieved with others in your portfolio of work for the Units you are taking along with explanations of why it is relevant.  Similarly students will be allowed to take units from other disciplines if they have the preliminary skills required by the Unit.

Teaching with loose boundaries – as part of our open allocation policy for staff, staff will be hired to work in their specific discipline and will chose the majority of their work within this area.  They will however be encouraged to work with and co teach with staff from other disciplines.  Career progression will be

  • “Mentee Lecturer” – new lecturer who is helped and supported in their teaching and research by experienced staff
  • “Lecturer”  – member of staff fully responsible for own workload who works with other staff
  • “Mentor Lecturer” – responsible for own workload and guiding a number of Mentee Lecturers with theirs.

Support staff will be hired to support various essential functions but will also be encouraged to work across boundaries and will have a similar career structure to academics.

Alumni and the wider world – students and staff will be encouraged to take advantage of the internet to extend the boundaries of the classroom and work with people from around the world.  Our alumni will be a key resource in this with students being strongly encouraged to connect with alumni, and alumni encouraged to pass real world problems to staff for students to solve as part of their units.  Alumni will also have the option to enrol on individual units to keep their skills current.


Every Problem needs ?

So I am mooc-ing again doing the History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education mooc over at Coursera – and the first task was to write about “Unlearning” something.

When I first saw this question I struggled to think of something I had unlearned, I have always considered education as a building on and refining of prior knowledge.  I might find out that something I had learned was incorrect or that there was a better model to describe something than the one that I knew, but I didn’t unlearn the original information I just incorporated the correct information into what I already knew.

What I had to Unlearn

Im a Learning Technologist solving problems is a large part of my job and I am very good at it, no matter what a Teacher is trying to do I will have some advice (often involving technology) that will help them achieve it.  Similarly my degree was a scientific one and most of my education could be loosely described as identifying problems and finding solutions.

By andrea silva from santiago (HEART!) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By andrea silva from santiago (HEART!) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

When I was at university I had a friend called Monica, who was bubbly and cute and really fancied the barman who worked at the student bar.  She asked my advice, I suggested she buy a round and ask him out but she didn’t.  Over the next few weeks I heard repeatedly about the object of her affections and my solutions grew more detailed.  I think at one point I went so far as to draw up a 12 point plan with diagrams and things to say, sadly she never took my advice and her love remained unrequited.

A few years back a friend was having problems at work, I suggested a number of things they could do but nothing really did the trick.  When I got home I complained to my wife that he had refused all my solutions, my wife (who is much smarter than me) said “He didn’t want solutions, he just wanted to tell someone his problems”

My Unlearning lesson

Sometimes people don’t want a solution, they just want you to listen and show that you care about their problem.

What Successes experienced after the Unlearning

Well apart from in social situations one area this has helped in is getting staff to adopt online marking.  You see whenever a group of staff are asked to adopt online marking there is always a significant percentage who really dislike the process no matter how straightforward you try to make it.  However marking is hard work, time consuming and most staff are overstretched during the marking period so its not particularly the online they dislike its the marking itself.  Now instead of spending time and effort further effort optimising an online process that is probably as optimised as it is going to get, instead you make sure that staff have a chance to express their opinions and that they are aware technical support in on hand should they need it.  In one school (that for complicated reasons) went to online marking, stopped, then started again we have had some staff expressing relief at returning to online.

Tower of Dreams #cicmooc

In the first week of our creativity mooc we were challenged to build the tallest tower from a single sheet of A4 paper.  The idea being to try, fail, try, fail etc until we had a good solution.

Here is my process

Told about challenge by a classmate, thought of cutting into strips and making into tubes held together with sellotape.  Then sellotaping the tubes together with maybe 3 tubes at bottom in tripod to give stability. Realised I could get more height by making the tripod a single tube cut into 3 pieces

Failed – actually watched video, realised was only allowed to use paper – no sellotape!

Rolled paper into tube and cut to make another tube, balanced one loose spiral ontop of another.  2X paper height not stable and top one falls off.

Made cuts in paper a slotted into bottom one. Stable.  Tried cutting one into 2 strips and slotting onto top. 3X paper height – 2cm for slots, stood for about 3 seconds before falling.

Decided to continue experiments in evening!


Curled paper – 2 times paper height

That evening I had a few attempts, see here for full set of pictures.

At the end of the evening I had a tower reaching 88cm, but I thought I could do better!  More later this week.

You might also like this video “Tower of Dreams, first floor

Well I said there would be more later in the week and in an update, my next tower reached 117 cm (46 inches).



Mess is often creative!

Mess is often creative!

I strongly suspect that this will be as tall as I manage to make my tower, although someone with real patience should be able to manage more.

Here is another video (made with a different piece of software)  “Tower of Dreams, top floor?

What I did to achieve this was tear the paper into 16 equally sized strips and fold each one in 1/2.

Pictures and video here

5 strips made up a 3 pillared frame (3 legs is the minimum for a stable tower).  The top and bottom strips gave some rigidity to the frame.

3 frames on top of each other and a single strip attached to the top frame.  When top strip was straightened it was 117 cm.  It was stable enough to stand for 6 hours (overnight) but when someone entered the room and then shut the door the draft blew it over.


#ocTel is over, I am now brilliant – just don’t ask me to prove it

In the final week of #octel we looked at evaluation and feedback and this was also a chance to look back at the course and see what we had learnt and if we had answered our big question.

Looking back over my Blog posts I feel that I have learnt a fair amount and have crystallised a few thoughts that I was playing around with, however looking back over the course materials I am not sure that what I learnt was always what the course had planned to teach me.

My question is – is that particularly a bad thing?  and then with brilliant timing John Graves posted to the octel g+ group this speech from Stephen Downes, which reassures me that no its probably not a bad thing.

Looking back to my Big Question – “How do we get staff to engage with and create a culture of TEL that improves learning” have I come up with an answer?  Well no I haven’t but I would be surprised if I did, I expect that question is likely to be my life’s work.  I do however think I have a few more fragments of the answer, so I will take that as a success.


As for evaluating the octel course itself, was it a success?  What about MOOCs in general how can their success be measured.   We were given a nice ocTEL badge to say how brilliant we are, but was that what I took the course for?

I wonder if there is a danger in mistaking the qualification for the learning?

notapipeThis is not so serious when its a course taken for interest such as ocTEL, but for a lot of education the stakes are much higher, as you will see from this article Riot after Chinese teachers try to stop pupils cheating, valuing the results much more than the process can cause problems.  This article by Professor Sugata Mitra about Allowing the internet in exams would sidestep some of the cheating issues and is more likely to measure what students can do (as a result of their learning).  So is the success the network – going back to the Downes speech earlier, I would say it probably is.  In which case ocTEL was successful for those that engaged, we formed a community and learnt a bit and then moved on (some brief engagement and brief learning, some longer engagement and more learning – most with some level of success).

This is a fairly rambling post, but that is because I had a number of ideas bouncing around left over from the course – and that (to me) is probably the most important success.

Sometimes you have got to take the risk of failing #octel

“The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”
― Michelangelo Buonarroti

As you have probably guessed I have gone “off piste” again this week.  The #octel mooc is looking at project work, success/failures and risk management and how particularly when technology is involved you need to plan and plan well.  Now I must admit that if you are unfamiliar with project planning then this will be really helpful to you – however at my University we are all over this topic, I do this stuff all the time.

In fact as an institution we are reaching the stage where our requirements and committees and approval routes are having a negative effect on our ability to be “Agile” and move at the speed required to keep current with modern technology as well as raising the cost of our projects.

So I am going to put the opposite argument and say we should put our effort into doing more things and expect some things to fail.  Rather than putting so much effort into avoiding failure that we can only deliver a few things.

This TED talk explains why that is now the correct way to do this.

Crazy Guy

Oh – you should still do some project planing, so you know what it is you are trying to achieve!  Also this is Education and thus affects peoples future, so if what you are doing is going to get people killed or cause them to fail the course – do avoid those risks!  But if its a risk like a lesson going wrong – do it, Jump!

I should point out this is not a criticism of my institution – all institutions that are like us (big, existed a long time, successful, good reputation) will have similar problems.  In fact we are taking steps to avoid the problem with an innovation fund so that we can just do stuff because it looks like a good idea.  I want to call it the “It might fail, fund” but sadly a more sensible name will probably be chosen.

So they asked me to put my course on-line, now they’ve sacked me! #octel

Warning run away

I was looking at the #octel video on the Saylor Foundation and my first thought was – oh there are no lecturers at all.

This made me realise that a fear that academics have been telling me about for years has finally happened.  To learn more we conducted this interview with a frightened academic …

We had to write “elements of the …  approach that you think could be applicable”  and “problems you might anticipate with the approach” now I am a learning technologist and for the things I actually teach then Sue has already written an excellent post.

So instead I am going to think about how the approach would work for academics at the University I work for.  To simply offer what Saylor offer; a well designed course of materials with no academic contact would not be acceptable to our students (particularly with no certification).

However used as part of a course I think the approach has potential.  A well designed course which uses open content where possible that students can work their way through would work well with the flipped classroom model.  Our students could study the readings and then discuss them and work on problems in lecture time (see Eric Mazur for an idea of how this works).  Putting it online and sharing “CC by” would also be good for sharing, the academic community and the reputation of the University (I would have to check how happy the Uni would be with this approach!).

The value added of a University is the contact with brilliant minds (the lecturers and other students) how much better is that contact if it is a conversation rather than a boring monologue.  Content can clearly be found on the net for free, so simply providing content will not be sufficient (even if the person providing it is brilliant – because there is also brilliant stuff for free on the net).

Finding resources, making resources? – I don’t have time! #octel

Your standard academic is overworked and time poor, they would like to provide high quality additional resources to help their students study but if finding them is a problem they may not have time, quality checking takes more time.  Creating new resources yourself can take time – loads of time if you have to learn a new tool to do it.

So how do we solve this?

Last week on the #octel mooc was all about resources, finding ones that other people have made and making them yourself.  I was really busy last week and so had literally no evenings free and so I didn’t even found time for the “Try to find one resource you can use” activity.

However I found this post by Jim Pettiward “Ramblings of an ocTEL junkie (Week 4)” and that and my thoughts about not having time myself kicked off this post.

How do I find it? The first and possibly the largest problem is finding something on the topic you want, you need to know A) Places to look for things and B) how to search.  For #octel we were given a number of sites and repositories to search, the most comprehensive evaluation I found was this post “iTunesU – you need to learn how to search it…” (which despite the title had searched everything!).

However even when you know where and how to search it still takes times so…

Get others to do the work – either by having a good PLE (as Helen Crump suggests in this interesting post) or by getting your students to do it! (its not hard – ask your students to all go away and find one good resource/explanation/reading on the topic.  They all add the links to a google doc then get them to evaluate which are the best 5 and why, you can then check 5 items and you will both have some good resources and an idea of if your students have a good understanding – next year you can use the resources)

How do I use it? Even when you have found something its not always clear how it was intended to be used, now its not that much of a problem for a experienced educator to weave it into their session or materials but it would be nice if people started adding a “here is how I used it” file when they put stuff online (TED Ed is a brilliant example of how this can be done).

Well its good but its not quite what I want (this can be particularly true for Big OER – for a discussion of Big Vs little OER try this from Wane Barry).  Sometimes it doesnt quite fit or covers something you dont want to cover or worse it has something that is wrong.  So you go to tweak it and you find they have only uploaded the finished product not the working files (for a simple idea of this imagine a document that you wanted to change a single picture in.  If its a pdf you cant edit it so you have to copy and paste all the words into a word doc, then save each picture and then import them into the word doc and then change the picture. If its a word doc (the working files) you simply change the picture and export to pdf).

So ideally people should upload the working files and finished product but even then you run into the problem of the tools they have used and how difficult it can be to learn a new tool set.  So you need to download the tool, learn to use it, then make your change.

At this stage some staff have reached the “Right I will make it myself” stage.

Danger Educators

Interestingly I was looking for CC image of someone making a wheel, after 10mins of searching I gave up and made this instead. Sometimes its quicker to make your own

More than a powerpoint takes skill/training – if we are assuming that the lecturer wants to do something more than a powerpoint then they need to learn new tools or system, for some this is not a problem (and I would advocate all staff at least having some creation skills).  However for some things its just not worth the time it would take to get staff upskilled.

For example a few years back a colleague of mine went out and shot a short video for a member of staff, gave the footage a quick edit and put it onto the VLE for them.  It took him all afternoon, I said he will be back every time he wants a video – could you have trained him instead?  My colleague responded, If I had trained him we would still be discussing lighting and framing the shot, I would spend 2 days training him and he wouldn’t then do another video for a year at which point I would have to train him again.

For simple things, train the staff.  For more complicated source an expert.

eFactory – at City of Bristol College, just before I left for another job they set up a team called the eFactory, the idea being that academic staff could pop in a discuss what they wanted created with a Learning Technologist, who would then mock it up, get it approved by the academic then create it and add to the VLE.  They have created a lot of materials from the highbrow to the sock puppet level.

So I guess if your institution sets up one of these then your problems are over yes?  Well not quite, when I checked back with my old colleagues they said they still have problems getting academic staff to engage with them, because the academics still dont have time!

Time, Money and Moocs – so we come back to the original problem, in this time of information abundance it still takes time and effort to find or create and then assemble materials into a coherent structure (course, lesson?).  If the course has run before then the chances are some materials already exist which means, if staff dont have the time, there is a danger that the existing materials (a tired old powerpoint?) are all the students will get.

Worse – if the course has already successfully run then the institution that provides the course will be very unlikely to understand the need for paid academic time to rework/reassemble materials.  So there is unlikely to be any money available to buy staff time to do this or even to buy staff time to spend with Learning Technologists who will then do the work.

However there is a new type of course emerging – the MOOC.  A lot of institutions are trying these out and because these are “open” everyone can see them, so institutions want them to be good and are prepared to spend money.  A number of the Universities rushing to create a MOOC have set aside the budget to buy staff time to build/run them and sometimes time for Learning Technologists as well.

So maybe institutions will start to comprehend that improving/updating a course takes time and money.  Maybe that time/money will actually be forthcoming if/when students start wondering – “If the free course is fantastic, why is my paid course just powerpoints?”

(*Important note – I am not saying that existing University education is not fantastic, large sections of it are, what I am saying is that there is potential to be better – in some cases much much better)

#octel Active learning session


Ok so I am going to borrow/rework an idea from someone I did some teacher training with a few years back (cheers Rob Hawkins!).
In the original, Rob told his A level students “you work for a university and have just landed a big research grant to look into stem cells” the students had to go off research, plan and record on their phones a 5 minute radio interview explaining to the public what their research was and what they hope to achieve/find out. When the students had finished they bluetooth’d the recordings to Robs phone. Oh and if you ask a bunch of A level students to work in groups of 4 you can pretty much guarantee that they have at least 1 smartphone.

So lets try to do this in an online environment.
I am assuming all your students know of the common webspace to go to (vle, mooc home page, class website etc). I am also going to use google docs and hangouts but you could use wikis and other conferencing software (skype)

My question will be research into the effect of neonicotinoids on bees (it has been in the news recently so is topical and fits my “env chem” background). Obviously you should choose something from your curriculum if you decide to try this.

So I will put up a bit of preliminary reading on the question and some initial links to news stories.
You need some way to split your students up into groups of 4, if control is important to you then most vles allow you to create groups and assign students to them.
I am going to be a bit more flexible and have a place where students can post that they are starting a group and comment that they would like to join. This will allow students to form their own groups.

The first task for the students will be to research the subject and to share any useful links on a google doc shared with the group.
Next they will have to plan out/script the 5 minute “interview”. Again this should be done on the google doc but it would also be good if the group used a google hangout so they can do some face2face planning.

The final stage will be to use a published hangout to do the interview and record it to youtube

The finished youtube video should then be posted on the course site OR sent to the lecturer. I will get my students to post it so they can see the work of the other groups.

There we are one active learning experience and I even have anecdotal evidence it works (thanks Rob)