An online course in digital skills

This post is about an imaginary digital skills course for teachers. It forms part of the assignments for the Open Learning MOOC, h817open, from the Open University, which I am following, along with about 500 others around the world.

The scenario

Let’s imagine we are constructing a course in digital skills for an identified group of learners (in this case, secondary school teachers). It is a short, online course aimed at providing these learners with a set of resources for developing ‘digital skills’. It runs for five weeks, with a different subject each week, accounting for about six hours study per week.

Course outline

Week 1 – Overview of the course and applications

The first week will provide an orientation for students of the meaning of “digital” in context of the course aims. It will provide examples of the application of digital systems including information storage, service providers, platforms and software. The course teaching channels will be exercised and illustration of productivity tools will be included.

Week 2 – Finding information

This week will consider the public repositories of knowledge and how this information is accessed. Search engine skills will be developed, licensing and copyright briefly addressed, and the issue of using crowdsourced repositories such as Wikipedia will be considered.

Week 3 – Blogging and other forms of publishing to the web

A look at the different ways that publishers of blogs and other material on the web do so. We will look at hosting, domains, tagging and search engine optimisation.

Week 4 – Media production and publishing

Audio podcasting and video methods will be explored including equipment, tools and software to produce both audio and video pieces for publication. An evaluation of some of the available channels will be made.

Week 5 – Getting interactive and a miniproject

The final week will look at video conferencing and collaboration and will include a joint project to produce a multi-channel digital artefact from the school curriculum for pupil use. Students will be expected to plan and produce a homework task for pupils from which pupils may obtain all of the necessary information to complete and digitally submit a short assignment. The task should be available online and should include at least three of text, video, audio or image.

Repository survey and evaluation

The following table identifies how useful each of the six OER repositories seem to be for the above course outline.

Week Topic Ariadne Jorum Merlot MIT OU Rice
1 Overview and applications Bad Good Bad Medium Bad Good
2 Finding information Bad Good Bad Bad Bad Bad
3 Web Publishing Bad Good Bad Bad Bad Bad
4 Using Media Bad Good Bad Medium Good Good
5 Interactive and project Bad Good Medium Bad Good Bad

I used the same search string for each week’s intention, in each of the six providers’ search engines. Notice that this is bit of a blunt instrument to make comparisons about these organisations but for the purpose of this exercise I found that Ariadne and Merlot both reported almost nothing of any use, whereas Jorum reported a rich set of useful results in every search. Ironically, the Jorum results often included materials from the Open University when the OU search drew a blank. The OU, MIT and Rice were a mixed bag.

Clearly there is something worthy of further investigation here, and as an OER user I would expect to spend considerably more time looking into the best way to make use of these repositories in order to find great resources for my online courses.


There is nothing in this exercise that has made me alter the course content, although this is quite broadly defined in my head at the moment. I took the approach of looking out resources within the search results that might provide sufficient appropriate material so as to offer a good learning experience for the intended students when put together in the course. I think that there is the potential for significant time saving in the use of OER within online learning provision and certainly when it is used as extension or support material in more traditional or blended learning environments.

Accessibility should be addressed where demand exists by offering information and guidance on the use of appropriate services. Material formats can be altered where this aids transcoding for, e.g., text-to-audio renderers.

Three key issues in OER

Activity 7 in the h817open mooc on Open Learning from the Open University asks us to read three articles from a suggested reading list and identify three key issues in Open Educational Resources (OER) and how these are being addressed. This post is my response to that task.


The three readings I have chosen from the list are:

  1. Wilson and McAndrew’s Evaluating how five Higher Education Institutions worldwide plan to use and adapt Open Educational Resources (2009)
  2. Harley et al, Use and Users of Digital Resources: A Focus on Undergraduate Education in the Humanities and Social Sciences (2006)
  3. Caswell et al, Open Educational Resources: Enabling universal education (2008)

I selected these because they are fairly recent and seemed to address a range of issues around the use of OER in Higher Education. Because time is quite short, and I am already falling behind with this mooc, I have used the readings to prompt and inform my own thinking about what the issues are with OER so as to identify three issues based on my own experience both as a consumer and provider of OER.

Issue 1: Differentiation

If open resources are used by educators as part of, or to provide additional support for, their own teaching, there is no direct way to know how effectively students have engaged with them. As a consequence of this, the educator has to try to create or select materials for his or her OER which suit the majority of the cohort, perhaps by pitching to the median ability. OER used this way are therefore undifferentiated. More able students may feel patronised whilst students of a lower ability might struggle to realise the benefit.

There are plenty of examples of this, including the present mooc, which has an international student body and yet the readings are presented in English. Not only that but the language of the readings is substantially academic, restricting the richest understanding to those who already are fluent in this dialect.

The mitigation for this issue lies in the community of students following the course. Forums and the unofficial social groups which spring up like camp followers around the course, offer a place for questions to be asked, shared understanding and peer support to be provided.

Issue 2: Cost of production

kipperGood resources, specifically resources which are of a professional-looking production quality, are expected as people get used to the quality of the average YouTube post, for example. Nobody seriously expects the incredible quality of recent BBC science programmes but if OER are to be taken seriously and thereby to be effective as a learning resource, they have to be produced to a reasonably high standard. This costs money and time. The credibility of OER can be weakened by poor or outdated production. I remember roaring with laughter at some of the Open University TV programmes which were used in my degree studies. I had an even harder job of keeping a straight face when I met the presenters in person at summer school.

Fortunately, there are tools increasingly available which make the production of high-quality resources possible, such as VideoScribe, which puts professional-quality video scribing in the hands of just about everyone, or the ubiquitous smartphone with its array of media publishing apps.

Issue 3: Cultural dominance and localisation

I didn’t see this mentioned in the readings I picked for this task but one issue with OER that worries me is the dominance of cultural influence (or worse, bias) in resources that are produced in cultures which are dominant in the production of OER. I see this influence when inexperienced teachers (I teach teachers) use resources within their lesson planning which contain American spellings, phrases or terminology. It’s equally bad when student teachers in Scotland try to use lesson plans from England, which has a different curriculum (and therefore different contexts and assumptions). Without challenge or adaptation, these resources would find their way into the classrooms of Scotland and the important cultural and local distinctions might be eroded or eventually lost. This is no nationalist mantra: there are important and significant differences which must be taken into account – the direction of electric current flow, for example. Scotland uses electron current direction by default, the rest of the world does the other thing.

This issue mitigates against OER’s usefulness in the global sense. There is a limit to the extent that an OER can be globally applicable and localisation will be necessary in almost every case. For video resources for example, this might be by way of captioning (for which, software is fairly readily available) or overdubbing, but the re-usability of OER has at least this as an associated cost if localisation or the avoidance of cultural infiltration is important.

What is a Learning Object and how do you know it’s a good one?

Activity 5 of the h817open mooc is a reading of Stephen Downes’ 2001 paper, Learning Objects: Resources for distance education worldwide. Before I read this, I set out some thoughts from my own experience in the area of instructional design.

The Pacific Western Airlines Boeing 767 Flight Simulator in 1983. That’s me on the left.

Earlier in my career, I was involved in the development and manufacture of training systems which included fully immersive simulation environments which often had associated part-task or mission simulations in partial mock-ups or computer-based training suites. These were usually for pilots but also had application for crew operators, train drivers, and even surgeons. The principle underlying these systems is that mission or procedure training on relatively cheap devices saves many hours of operation in the live environment and for some specialisms, many lives and millions of dollars’ worth of wrecked equipment when the student got it wrong during training. So effective have these systems become, that it is possible that the co-pilot of the aircraft you are flying in (who might be landing it) has never set foot inside that particular type before today. He or she will, however, have many hours in the trainers and simulators before taking the controls of the real thing for the first time.

When costing the design of computer-based training suites, I remember we used ratios of around 20:1, meaning that it would take an instructional designer 20 hours to put together 1 hour of courseware. This courseware wasn’t particularly sophisticated by the standards you might see on your tablet computer today, although there were lesson plans, outcomes and artefacts like images or simple semi-dynamic graphics elements. Sometimes there were efficiency gains to be made by reusing modules and components from other projects but more often than not there would be a lot of adaptation of the models to the specifics of the system being modelled. The development costs of these models were high but the investment was justified by the savings in operational or flight time.

Did we get the models wrong? Almost never. The number of real-world consequences of failures in the training due to bad modelling or design are vanishingly small. Why? Because the training was validated against data from the real environment where it exists. In the case of the B767, for example, it took three months to prove it against hundreds of thousands of data points from the systems we were simulating. Evidence was the key.

Why have I set these ideas out before reading Downes’ paper? Because I wanted to remind myself of my perspectives on the importance of good quality instructional design. Since entering education, I have noticed that there is an acceptance across sectors and national boundaries of a wide range of standards of effectiveness, most of which are in the “we don’t know, we think it’s OK” category. I continue to be surprised that we have educational systems in which no evidence-based analysis of need (e.g. a TNA) or effectiveness exists. Ben Goldacre has recently written about the importance of knowing what works, which means obtaining proper randomised trial-based evidence instead of the usual subjective “evaluation” which pervades teaching. We are encouraged to be reflective practitioners which is not a bad thing, but alone it is certainly not sufficient to inform the development of good system-wide practice.

Right. Now I’m ready to read Downes. The question in my head is, “what is a learning object and how do you know it’s a good one?”.

Activity 4: Identifying priorities for research in Open Education

The activity

“Imagine you are advising a funding organisation that wishes to promote activity and research in the area of open education.
Set out the three main priorities they should address, explaining each one and providing a justification for your list.”

I’ve thought about this for a few days and tried not to peek at what others are writing in response. I’ve drawn substantially on my own experience of open learning for my own set of three priorities.

Priority 1: Is there a correlation between open learning drop-out rates and the level of study skills of initial applicants?

UntitledI left school before completing my A-levels and found myself in my late twenties as a Project Manager with responsibility for multi-million pound budgets and teams of graduate engineers. From experience with these teams, I developed a perspective on how common sense correlated with academic attainment (see graph).

As part of my work, I found myself dealing with contract terms and felt that a law degree might be useful, so I enrolled as an external student on the University of London LLB degree programme. After about two years of struggling with this, I gave it up as a bad job. I tried again with another course from the Open University, which I completed without sitting the exam. Eventually, I figured out how to study and obtained a BSc in Physics and Mathematics, also with the OU.

Recent experience with the Edinburgh University/Coursera MOOC, eLearning and Digital Cultures, showed that of the 43,000 who registered, 2,000 completed the course. I almost wrote “almost completed” but actually, I think 5% is a pretty good conversion rate given the absence of entry requirements.

So my question is this: if all 43,000 of those people had the necessary study skills required to complete the course when they signed up, how many would have completed it? Seeking to identify any correlation might encourage course providers to be clear about the expectations of students before they sign up.

Priority 2: Does open education have to be free?

dollarThe RAF used to make some wonderful posters for school physics departments. Initially, they would provide them for free to any school that asked for them. They discovered that most of these posters finished up in cupboards and back rooms. When they started charging a nominal fee (£15 a set, I think) for them, the posters almost always found their way to the walls of classrooms and corridors.

If education is valuable, surely it has to be given a value? How many of those 43,000 would have signed up if there was a five-dollar registration fee? My own thoughts are that people value things that they pay for. I have often suggested that disruptive pupils would be a lot less so, and their parents much keener on ensuring this, if they handed over a pound every time they crossed the classroom threshold. Would this deny access to education for anyone? In the classroom, those who “can’t afford” to buy a pencil often have £300 mobile devices in their pockets. If you’re signing up for a mooc, you’re doing it on more than a few quid’s worth of computer equipment.

Should there be a registration fee as a matter of course (no pun intended) for all open courses?

Priority 3: How valid is peer assessment?

One of the most interesting things about following the community dialogues in learning communities is that there is rarely anything robustly critical ever said. Sugata Mitra suggests that there is an important place for learners for the “grandmother”, one who offers encouragement and praise to the student when things are produced or the study get hard. Whilst I don’t disagree with him at all (and I’m a big fan of Alfie Kohn and Carol Dweck’s findings that praise should be for effort, not outcome), I wonder if this leads to a false overstatement of the quality of work produced in the context of peer-assessed learning communities?

Within the open learning environment, is peer assessment skewed towards the award of praise, even where none is due? Are we afraid of critical commentary and grading because we’re too polite? As a consequence of this, does open learning that is peer assessed result in a driving down of quality?

Openness in Education – a visual representation (take 2)

OK, I’m sorry it’s a bit hashy but I thought I’d try and make a video scribe thing using just the basics: camera, paper and pen, and iMovie. I’m actually quite pleased with how it turned out – like the freedom that you don’t get with commercial videoscribing software – but it took ages. Like all Saturday afternoon. See the previous post for an explanation as to why I did this activity all over again.

Feedback welcome! Oh, and in case you were sharp enough to miss the bit I cut off the bottom, it should read, “Data mining reveals deeper connections implicit within the semantic web”.

Openness in Education – a visual representation (updated)

Activity 3 in the Open Education mooc is to create a visual representation that defines “Openness in Education” by drawing on some of the concepts in Weller and Anderson. I chose to try a storywriting tool for this task after having struggled to think of a neat way of presenting the ideas without audio. My drawing skills aren’t up to much, so settled on storybird, which uses the work of artists on the site to put together a children’s storybook.

You can play it full screen to make it easier to read the text.

UPDATE: After a few days, the storybird people have pulled my representation from public viewing because “This story seems to be more suited to being published in a CLASS ACCOUNT”. This doesn’t suit my purpose at all, unfortunately, so I have wasted a great deal of time on Storybird for nothing. Yes, I’m annoyed. Watch out for a version 2  of the task shortly.

The story I have put together begins with Harold Wilson’s idea which created the Open University, to whom I am grateful for my degree in Physics and Mathematics, upon which I have built a career, now in education. This career is concerned not only with pedagogy and the subjects I love, but also with the emerging revolution in technology-enabled networks which are bringing education to a massive population who would, in the traditional model of education, be forever condemned to social immobility.

Open Education

OK, so I’m on a roll here, having just completed Edinburgh University’s Coursera EDCMOOC on e-Learning and Digital Cultures. I enjoyed participating in the open and online community that blew up around that mooc. That course helped me to develop my digital skills and deepen my understanding of the issues around being human in a digital age. It was one of my fellow moocers that made me aware of h817open (see below).

h817_b2-course_imageI’m interested in the developments taking place in education at the moment and in particular the move towards blended learning. As I develop the teaching that I am doing, I am beginning to try out the use of additional resources and activities for my students to use outside of the core time for two main reasons. One, I think it enriches the learning experience for the student. Two, it offers better use of face-to-face time. There are other reasons to consider blended learning but these two seem to me to be principal justifications.

To extend my understanding of open learning, I’ve just signed up with the Open University for their mooc on Open Learning, h817open which begins formally on 16th March and runs for about seven weeks. The time commitment seems more realistically stated at about 16 hours per week, which I may or may not manage, but I’ll certainly try to do it justice. I’m interested to see how the Mozilla Open Badges scheme works, too, having had an interest in gamification of learning as a motivator.

Wish me luck.

The Future is Technology? Don’t make me laugh.

The future is technology. So goes the idealistic vision of the future theme of edcmooc and the happy dreams of those who dream of a digital utopia in which our lives are enhanced by amazing geekery and augmented reality.

My world is different. Mine is a world in which technology doesn’t work. It claims to work but forgets to mention the endless hours you will spend trying to get it do what you thought, foolishly, that it would do. Don’t even mention the word “GLOW” in my presence.

I bought a Sony Bravia TV because it had internet connectivity. It does, sort of, but not the way I understood it. It connects to a half-rokuassed clunky version of the internet. It doesn’t, after all, play stuff from the web. I doesn’t let me browse. At all. I discover that I can jigger about with things to make it do that, sort of. I bought a Roku Media Streamer so I can stream digital media from my network to the TV. It does, sort of, but not the way I understood it. It has an interface clunkier than a clunky thing from clunky-land in the far forgotten time of the early nineties. I took it back. boxeeI bought a Boxee Box which according to the manufacturers, does all the things I want it to do. It does, sort of, but not the way I understood it. It falls over a lot. The display is intermittently broken and it switches sound output on and off suddenly, threatening my lovely expensive speakers (which were made in the 1970’s by the way and still work when not rapidly switched on and off by a dodgy boxee). I took it back.

I got an Asus Nexus Google 7 tablet which has had a flickering display fault since the day it arrived and despite being returned to the manufacturer twice, still has the fault. The audio output has never worked. I’m sending it back. Again.

The future may be technology but don’t you rely on it doing what you think it will do. It will, sort of, but not the way you understood it.


Human 3.0

Why 3.0? Let’s characterise the development cycle of the human.

Human 0.2 (Alpha Prototype)

Homo Erectus (Wikimedia Commons)

Homo erectus developed bipedal motion, migrated out of Africa 1.8 million years ago and quickly populated the old world, mastering fire 1.2 million years ago. The lighter and more adaptable variant, Homo sapiens, appeared in Africa 200,000 years ago and was more tolerant of the variation in diet caused by weather fluctuations, spreading to the rest of the world. All humans alive today are descended from a single female who lived in East Africa about 120-150 thousand years ago.

Human 0.9 (Beta)

From the time of this single woman, our most recent common ancestor (there are other ancestors, not common to all of us), expansion displaced the neanderthals, with the last of them dying out as recently as 25,000 years ago. Before about 50,000 years ago, social behaviours in humans were primitive and indistinguishable from the neanderthals. At this time, complex tools began to be developed by H. sapiens, and artwork appeared for the first time, indicating what is called, the Great Leap Forward. By the time we get to 30,000 years ago, there is ample evidence of figurative art, music, trade and burial rites. The evolutionary development of human intelligence is linked with either sexual selection or social competition, according to different models. There is also the not insignificant factor of improved diet leading to more advanced cognitive development. The last non-sapiens species of human, floresiensis, dies out 12,000 years ago.

Human 1.0 (Production)

The relatively modern human history of the past 10,000 years or so has seen the rise and fall of various social and political structures. The competition between these has brought us incredible advances in technology, transport, communication, infrastructure, health and weaponry. Metaphysical development has given us religion, politics, science and economics. The politics of the collective has yielded trade, nationalism, slavery, racism, class and empires in addition to these.

Human 2.0 (Adaptation)

The present revolution, which brings us globalisation, the internet, instant communication and transparency of events, is beginning to give us new expectations. We live much longer than our parents. We don’t care what the skin colour or sexual habits of our facebook friends are. We speak English. We are losing patience with those who would get in the way of our freedom to choose our own path. Our energy and mineral resources are becoming critically precious. We are beginning to seek new economical and political models which will sustain us. We recognise that political groupings need to be educated as children do. This is the current model.

Human 3.0 (Social Evolution)

fsmSo we arrive at my peek at where we go from here, reeking of my own prejudices and hopes. The New Human, physically very similar to our Beta ancestors, is socially and cognitively evolving away from our backward grandparents in another Great Leap Forward, stimulated by information and interaction. We have no need for rituals, religion or quackery. We make better choices to sustain our environment and resources. We manage production and reproduction. We are aware that elsewhere in our Galaxy, we have cousins who are evolving as we are but know that we will never interact with them. We are aware that it could all be Game Over at any moment and that there is nothing we can do about it. We are confident. We are happy.