What’s special about specialisations?

Coursera has launched its ‘specialisations‘ program. These are groups of existing courses in the same subject area with signature track options, followed by a two-week ‘capstone exam’ that reviews and then assesses the course materials. All the courses within a specialisation currently come from a single institution. The specialisation certificate does show the institution’s name, but also mentions that the program is non-credit bearing. They could also involve a significant investment in time. The largest specialisation is the data science specialisation, consisting of ten courses (including the capstone exam), each around three to five hours work a week (assuming their estimates are correct) and running in blocks of three.

So my first question is why? What problem is this initiative attempting to solve? Suppose I enrolled as a student. I do the courses, take the capstone exam and get my certificate. Now what?

Educational accreditations can function as a token, as a medium of information exchange. For example, a degree could be thought of as a ‘token’, because institutions, graduates and employers all understand the meaning and intrinsic value of it. Tokens don’t have to be qualifications. Martin Hall describes how silicon valley prefers participation in forums in programming and developer communities online in preference to formal computer science qualifications, and that’s fine. You could argue that someone’s behaviour, code and problem solving in those forums gives a better indication of their potential as an developer than a degree transcript. The community engagement functions as an unconventional token, but its transparent because all sides can see what it represents.

Which brings me back to my fictional specialisations certificate. I can’t see what it offers me other than an extra summative assessment and my results on a single certificate. How would an employer know what that represents? They may be able to see a syllabus on a course information page, but they’re unlikely to be able to see any detail of what the course entails or how rigorous the assessment is. True, they can’t do that with a conventional degree, but they don’t need to, because they have that shared meaning of what the degree, the ‘token’ represents from the systems (such as quality assurance) already in place. That’s all missing with MOOCs.

I like the idea of showing potential students a pathway, a program that allows them to develop their knowledge and skills in an area. I’m just not sure I’d be willing to pay for the privilege, especially when there’s little indication that my investment of time and money would hold value for anyone else.

First Impressions of a Climate Change MOOC – Will the Climate Change?

I’ve just finished the second week of the University of Exeter’s climate change course through Futurelearn, and thought I’d post some reflections. First, the pedagogy. I’m still unsure about the linear nature of the materials. The contents links for the week are presented as a single page, and once you’ve clicked on one and marked it as complete you have the choice of ‘previous’ or ‘next’, with no obvious way back to the contents page. The contents page is broken into blocks by headings, and within each heading the blocks tend to follow a video-article-article-discussion pattern, or a close variant of it. Now, in one way that’s good because the blocks let me plan how to break down the week’s work. On the other hand, it would be really useful if I could jump around the content a little more easily so that I could revisit some underlying concept, or simply because I’d like to study the material in a different order. On a positive note, I’m impressed with the quality of the videos, both in terms of their educational content and in terms of their production values. Complex concepts are explained in simpler terms with high quality and appropriate animations and graphics.

In terms of content, so far we’ve covered the basics of the climate system, some of the feedbacks, and the origins of some of the variability in the climate system. I have noticed some sceptic viewpoints in the discussions, but no outright trolling as such. For example, so far I’ve spotted ‘no climate change since x’, ‘the climate has always changed’, and ‘humans are not changing the climate’, but myself and others have then responded with analogies or further evidence. So far, it seems, the sceptics seem to be true sceptics, perhaps repeating misinformation they’ve heard from other sources, but open to examine the evidence for themselves, at zero cost except for time. And isn’t that one of the opportunities MOOCs offer, for access to education and the opportunity to learn? Personally, I think MOOCs have a place, but remain doubtful they’ll achieve even a fraction of what the hype has predicted for them. Will the climate change? Well, next week we move on to look at the man-made influence on the climate, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens then and how the course team manages.

New year, new MOOC

New year, and yet another MOOC. I’ve started ‘Sustainability, Society and You‘ with Futurelearn. It’s not my first time with Futurelearn – I completed their web science MOOC in December – so it would seem an appropriate time to offer some reflections on the Futurelearn platform. Disclosure: the university I work for has also launched MOOCs on Futurelearn, although I am not involved in those in any way, and these are my thoughts from the student perspective.

Firstly (at least in my limited experience so far), the primary delivery medium is not video. Each week’s topic is split into a number of subtopics. Within each subtopic are the actual content items, some of these are video, and some are text-based. While this arrangement makes the learning process quite linear (each item has a mark as complete button and a next button), it does make it quite easy to plan how to arrange the various tasks throughout the week.

Secondly, the course team’s estimate of the time required has been much more accurate than other MOOCs. If it says five hours work a week then I know I can plan on needing to do around five hours work, plus or minus a margin of error. That’s unlike others I’ve done where the course team’s estimate might have said eight to ten hours, but in reality doubling that estimate put me closer to the real workload. You could argue that perhaps those were courses I wasn’t particularly well prepared for, and yes, you would be right, but I should have been prepared because according to the course team I met the required pre-requisites. The Futurelearn MOOCs I’ve done have set realistic expectations of me before I started the courses, and I think that would really help to keep students engaged and active in the courses. It would be interesting to compare the retention of Futurelearn MOOCs with that of other platforms such as Coursera and Udacity.

I do have some criticisms of the platform. The user interface was not entirely intuitive to me when I first started using it. Clicking on my profile picture at the top right pops up a mini-menu giving me access to a list of my courses and the usual account settings and profile editing options. No surprises there. When I’m in the content pages there’s a tab at the centre top, which pops out the main navigation in a header. Again, nothing unexpected. At the top left is the Futurelearn logo. I clicked on this expecting to go back to some sort of home page, as would normally be the case on a blog for example, but no, I get a pop-out menu with three options: To do, activity and progress. If I hadn’t wanted to jump back to the home page quickly, I could have gone through a large chunk of the course and never found that it existed. There’s also a feedback tab around half-way down the left hand side. This not only allows students to give feedback on the content, but also on the platform, and by clicking through students can suggest and vote on potential improvements for the platform. Incidentally, not only can you vote, but you can give one, two or three votes to a feature request, and each feature request has a status: under review, planned, started, completed or declined.

The platform is orientated towards promoting discussion and the development of a learning community. The forums are embedded on each content item, but are not really forums. In terms of promoting engagement I think that’s a great idea, but the functionality is closer to a basic commenting system of a blog, and that limits what you can do. You can choose to follow people, but it’s difficult to develop a network at the moment because of how the comments are displayed. There is no option to track comments or replies to comments (on the content page), and having a threaded display, perhaps not to the extent of a full blown forum on each page, would help greatly. You can see who’s following you (and who you’re following) and their comments either from the profile page, or via the ‘activity’ option in the menu that appears when you click on the Futurelearn logo. A quick check of the feature requests shows that the top two, both with a status of planned, are ‘break up discussion forums into smaller groups’ and ‘notification on comment’, so I’m not the only person to have spotted these as issues. In some ways, the reduced amount of content compared to many other MOOCs means that you have to engage with the discussions to gain the most from the courses.

Overall, I like Futurelearn. They’ve obviously given a great deal of thought to the learning design of the courses (and I’d expect nothing less from a development that involved the Open University). They are managing the expectations of their students (e.g. the time estimates) and getting them actively involved in a meaningful way with developing the platform further. I’ll be posting more thoughts related to the content of the course as it progesses using the #flsustain hashtag.