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.

The Prestige

© Warner Brothers (mp4 (8MB))

Who needs a teacher when you’ve got Khan Academy?

maxAccording to the strapline at the head of this website, “Any teacher who can be replaced by a machine, should be”. The operative word here is can. The context and threat is the increasing use of video lectures and tutorials in delivering learning. The more paranoid teacher will wake up cold-sweating in the night from dreams of having been replaced by online video, screaming Kirk-like: “KHAN! KHAAAN!”. Worse, of having been assimilated within the technology.

The explosive interest in TED and the like reveals a world-wide hunger to know stuff: to learn new things and to keep up with the latest discoveries. The contemporaneous growth in the availability of broadband internet access has fed this demand and the relative inexpense of hand held and tablet video platforms has fuelled the explosion. The attraction is, of course, that users (I don’t like the term, “consumers” of data) can access a vast range of online material at their own convenience: in video bite-sized chunks in the train, the toilet, the traffic jam. As these slices of opportunity to access video get shorter, they fit in the spaces between all the other activities of the day and night like grains of sand in a jar of peas.

Get with it, man, MOOCs are the future

This proliferation of opportunity has led to the MOOC – the Massively Open Online Course – and the packaging of chunks of online reading and viewing into a complete short course has great appeal, judging by the uptake.

Dear Charles Atlas, I have completed your excellent “he-man” course. I look forward to receiving my muscles.

The problem with moocs, however, is that they are massive and open. The course creators rely on large numbers of participants self-organising around social networks to create “vibrant communities” in a paradigm of students supporting and encouraging each other. The reality I have found in the mooc I am following is that the cacophony of the many drowns out the quality of the few. Thirty thousand voices shouting, “look at me!” over the lone quiet voice whispering, “look at this”. This has been of such concern to one mooc educator that they walked away. As a student, I have found that the contributions of the community do contain incisive, stimulating, funny, challenging and articulate contributions but you have to wade through the other 95% to find these. This has become so frustrating that I am now looking less at other contributions, in favour of concentrating the available time on the course materials alone.

Who needs teachers?

Bad ones? Nobody. Mediocre ones? No, thanks. Give me Khan. A book. Anything else. The ones that bring you to the penny dropping, the light coming on, the rush, the boom, the click, the whatever-happens-in-your-head-when-you-finally-get-it? Now you’re talking.

So what is it about the teacher that cannot be replaced by a machine? What makes them so magical? The clue is in the video clip at the top of this post. The magician knows how to manage expectations, create perceptions and deliver a satisfying climax to a sequence of events. Most importantly, he knows all about the observer’s perspective: the entire sequence is designed to achieve an effect in the audience.

The magical teacher plans, organises, details and delivers the learning with a full and detailed understanding of the student experience and perspective. He or she understands that the stages in the lesson have resonance with the stages of magic described by Michael Cain. The Pledge begins in prior learning and relevant context. The Turn is a hook, perhaps new knowledge or skills, something interesting or engaging, full of promise and misconception. The Prestige is the moment when understanding reveals itself – the flourish, the step from dark into light, the feeling that fills your heart, the satisfaction. It takes place in the Zone of Proximal Development.

We can get The Pledge and the Turn of learning by ourselves, given the resources. The irreplaceable teacher brings us The Prestige.

The Naked Ape

Forty-odd years ago, Desmond Morris brought the study of humans as animals to the common man through his book, The Naked Ape. This work was the first to make me think about what it is to be a human, something which has been exercising many of us in the EDCMOOC this week.

Phaedrus’ Knife

morrisThe advancements in our understanding of the physics, chemistry and biology of living things, in particular of DNA, have allowed us to begin to appreciate that the traditional classifications of living things are in need of revision. We have developed in recent centuries the classification, naming and organisational structures which allow us to understand the connectedness of life on this planet. These have been largely derived from observational field- and laboratory-work and have been almost entirely empirical until Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, the molecule of complexity common to all known life on Earth. The naming and classification of living things has been subject to the same influences as the naming and classification of non-living things.

…an intellectual scalpel so swift and so sharp you sometimes don’t see it moving. You get the illusion that all those parts are just there and are being named as they exist. But they can be named quite differently depending on how the knife moves. . .

Pirsig, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance

The term Human, then, has no meaning for anyone but those using the term. It’s a general description of a group of things with broadly similar characteristics distinct from another group of another name. How you choose to classify and name is – or should be – entirely up you, appropriate to the purpose. There are areas we dare not yet go, however. It is difficult to describe a black man as “a black man” without somebody wailing and shrieking that you’re a racist.

Education is a Dying Art

Steve Fuller’s Tedx talk considers what it is to be “human”. In it, he throws out the phrase, “Education is a Dying Art” in context of being human in terms of Artifice, as if somehow the thing that distinguishes humans is the notion of being something more than just enough to survive. Becoming human here implies gaining skills, knowledge and awareness of the part of the human in the collective of humanity. This is for me, society: this being the analogue of how the fish is part of the school or the ant is part of the colony. Each has a part to play which must be learned or acquired somehow and for the last few hundred years since the Industrial Revolution has become part of the organisation of society. Education has evolved within the society we are building for the purposes of making humans part of the machine that functions to sustain us all. Those who have learned to play their part function within it.

My thoughts on Fuller’s statement about education being a dying art are that formal, state or society-sponsored preparation of people to play their part in the machine of society is changing. New levels of choice are open to many, not just in the First World of post-Industrialisation, but in the new interconnected world in which access to new roles in the emerging Global Society are possible where they have never been before.



The evolution of our society as a life-form collective which has developed the ability to extend its influence beyond that of any individual’s for purposes beyond mere survival and procreation (which is arguably the limit of DNA-mutation evolution) has reached what might be called a tipping point. There are new realisations that the collective impact of our society is potentially threatening to our survival, but these are incapacitated from mutating survival enhancements by properties of the society itself. We are able to sustain and enhance physical potential beyond what would have been possible without intervention – Steven Hawking, and many more like him – but we do so at a cost we have not yet perhaps become fully aware of in any sense that we can do something about it.

At the individual level, however, things are brighter. Those who would, a hundred years ago, have forever been denied the slightest chance of realising their potential to contribute to the collective, are now finding it possible to participate in opportunities to contribute (and benefit themselves and their families) and make a real difference to the development of all of our health and prosperity. This, through the technologies of infrastructure and communication, increasingly at our fingertips and part of us as the new humans.