A ‘free’ online learning experience

2862656849_f0fa5c78bf_oI’ve blogged about various experiences of online learning I’ve taken part in over the years and wanted to reflect on the most recent one. Coursera’s three week Introduction to Ableton Live.

Learning more about learning is one of my personal goals this year. And I find writing out loud to be useful tool in thinking. So that’s mostly the point of this.

I take these courses mostly because I like learning new things, but also because I’m interested in online learning more generally. How do you most effectively transfer knowledge, skills and motivation via the web, and/or about the web? That question is often on my mind.

Almost all of the projects I work on at Mozilla are somewhere in the education space; directly with Webmaker or Mozilla Learning Networks and tangentially in the topic of volunteer contribution. Contributing to an open source project as complex and distributed as Mozilla is a learning experience in itself, and sometimes requires specific training to even make it possible.

To further frame this particular brain dump, I’m also interested generally in the economics of the web and how this shapes user experiences, and I have strong feelings about the impact of advertising’s underlying messaging and what this does over-time when it dominates a person’s daily content intake. I’m generally wary of the word “Free”. This all gets complex when you work on the web, and even directly on advertising at times. Most of my paycheques have had some pretty direct link to the advertising world, except maybe when I was serving school dinners to very rich children – but that wasn’t my favourite job, despite it’s lack of direct societal quandaries.

Now, to the content…

If you’re like me, you will tend to read notes about a topic like ‘commerce in education’ and react negatively to some of these observations because there are many cases where those two things should be kept as far apart as possible. But I’m actually not trying to say anything negative here. These are just observations.


All roads lead to… $

$ Coursera

My online experience within the Coursera site was regularly interrupted with a modal (think popup) screen asking if I wanted to pay to enrol in the ‘Signature Track’, and get a more official certification. This is Coursera’s business model and understandably their interest. It wasn’t at all relevant to me in my life situation, as I was taking a course about how to play with fun music software in my free time. I don’t often check my own qualifications before I let myself hobby. Not that anyone checked my qualifications before they let me work either, but I digress. Coursera’s tagline says ‘free’, but they want you to pay.

$ Blend.io

All assignments for the course had to be published to Blend for peer-evalutation, Blend is like Github but for raw audio production tracks rather than source-code. I didn’t know about Blend before the course, and really like it as a concept and how it’s executed and for what it could do for collaborative music making. But I note, it is a business. This course funnels tens of thousands of new users into that business over the course of a few days. There might not be any direct financial trade here (between companies for example), but users are capital in start-up land. And I now receive emails from Blend with advertisements for commercial audio production tools. My eyeballs, like yours, have a value.

$ Berklee College of Music

While hosted on Coursera, the content of this course is by Berklee College of Music. The content they ‘give away’ would traditionally only have been available to paying students. Berklee’s business is selling seats in classes. This course isn’t given away as an act of kindness, it’s marketing. Three weeks is short and therefore the content is ‘light’. Lighter than I was expecting (not that I’m entitled). But halfway through, we receive a promotional email about Berklee’s own online education platform where you could create an account to get access to further ‘free’ videos to supplement the Coursera materials. I found these supplementary videos more useful, and they lead to offers to sign-up for extended paid courses with Berklee Online. For Berklee, this whole excercise is a marketing funnel. Quite possibly it’s the most fun and least offensive marketing funnel you can be dropped into, but it exists to do that job.

$ Erin Barra – Course professor and artist

Now, I write this with genuine sympathy, as I’ve walked the floor at countless venues trying to sell enough music and merch to cover the petrol costs of playing a gig. But this is a commercial element of this learning experience, so I will note it. At many points throughout the three weeks, we had opportunities to buy Erin’s music, t-shirts, and audio production stems (these are like a layer file of an original recording) for consumption and or remixing. I know you have to hustle if you’re making music for a living, but the observation here is that the students of this course are also a marketable audience. Perhaps only because they arrive en-mass and end up slightly faceless. I’m sure it would be weird for most teachers to sell t-shirts in a class-room. It wasn’t particularly weird online, where we’re desensitised to being constantly sold things. And I may have only noticed this because I’m interested in how all these things fit together.

$ Ableton

The course was about learning Ableton Live. A commercial audio production tool. So at some point, the cost of Ableton had to be considered. Ableton offers a free 30 day trial, which works for this course and they kindly (or sensibly) agreed to let people taking the course start a new trial even if they’d used their 30 days already. Good manners like those are good for business. Anyway, I already owned Live 9 Intro (aka the cheap version), and for a three week intro course it does more than enough to learn the basics (I guess that’s why it’s called Intro?). But the course taught and encouraged the use of Live 9 Suite (the EUR599 rather than the EUR79 version). Until some people complained, the use of features in Suite was required to complete the final assignment. Reading between the lines, I doubt there was any deliberate commercial discussion around this planning, but the planning definitely didn’t stem from the question: ‘how can we keep the cost down for these beginners?’. At the end of the course there were discount codes to get 15% off purchasing anything from Ableton. I didn’t use Suite during the course, but I’m playing with it now on my own time and terms, and may end up spending money on it soon.


It’s wonderful, but it’s not Wikipedia. The course opened a lot of doors, but mostly into places where I could spend money, which I am cautious about as a model for learning. It was valuable to me and prompted me to learn more about Ableton Live than I would have done in those three weeks without it. So I’m grateful for it. But I can’t in my heart think of this as a ‘shared public resource’.

For my own learning, I like deadlines. Preferably arbitrary. The fact that these Coursera courses are only available at certain times during the year, really works for me. But I struggle with the logic of this when I think about how best to provide learning material online to as many people as possible. The only MOOC style courses I have finished have been time-bound. I don’t know how many people this is true for though.

People will learn X to earn Y. For me this course was a form of hobby or entertainment, but much learning has a direct commercial interest for students as well as educators. Whether it’s for professional skills development, or building some perceived CV value.

There is no ‘free’ education, even if it says “free” on the homepage. There is always a cost, financial or otherwise. Sometimes the cost is borne by the educator, and sometimes the student. Both models have a place, but I get uncomfortable when one tries to look like the other. And if the world could only have one of these models for all of education I know which one I’d choose. Marketing fills enough of our daily content and claims enough brainprint as it is.


I thought I might find some conclusions in writing this, but that doesn’t always happen. There are a lot of interesting threads here.

So instead of a conclusion, you can have the song I submitted for my course assignment. It was fun to make. And I have this free-but-not-free course to thank for getting it done.

Available hours in a year for personal projects

While planning ahead to finish my Open University studies, I’ve been testing how well I can study in my available free time; and my recent study with Coursera has provided a pretty good simulation.

It’s important to be realistic with yourself about how much time you actually have to do these things, on a sustainable basis, for a significant period of time. Especially with the tuition fees being as expensive as they are and if you’re making a commitment for a whole year of your free time.

My thinking has gone like this…

First I account for my time being a husband and dad, then my working hours, then sleep, then a few hours for getting/keeping fit and I’m left with around two hours per day, or 14 hours a week of ‘free’ time. For a couple of weeks at a time, it is possible to fill those 14 hours completely with study or to make progress on a project, but it’s exhausting, and over a longer period like a year, it just won’t work. In those 14 free hours I need some downtime. I need at least a couple of nights off to watch a film, kill some aliens in a computer game or enjoy a good single malt. If you don’t plan for downtime, you’re not being realistic and you will be less effective.

This is not an issue of direction, but of how much fuel is in the tank.

After my tests and calculations, what I’m left with is about nine hours each week for stretching myself with new things (there are new things to do in my working hours too, but that’s not quite the same).

I have many many lists of things I want to build, write, make, test, learn and do, so coming to terms with the finite number of hours available in a week, and therefore a year, is always a battle with myself. But it’s an important battle and I’m in one my more realistic planning phases right now.

Bringing this thought back to my studies, finishing my degree has become more complex than I first expected because my route to this current point doesn’t fit into the standard institutional boxes, which now excludes me from a student loan. I also need to choose modules that work with the time I can commit so I’ve been working through a few spreadsheets to make sense of my options. We’ll see what happens, but it might be I can’t afford a degree ‘with honours’, but I can live with that. It’ll still be a BSc, largely in computer science with a chunk of something random at the end. It suits me quite well.

My study will start again proper in October, so I have nine weeks left to fit in a final personal project for this year. All other ideas must be put on ice until late 2014.

Nine weeks is about 81 hours.

I had been toying with the idea of building a game of some sort, as my recent messing about was enjoyable, but after watching Indie Game The Movie (I recommend it by the way), I realise how much of an overcommitment that would be for 81 hours. Even a simple game would be unachievable in that time given the number of new tools I’d be learning in the process. All game ideas are frozen.

So I have another idea, one that should fit in the time.

But I’ll give it some more thought before talking about it here.

One parting thought for this evening.

Nine hours a week might not sound like much, but it adds up.

468 hours in a year is about the equivalent of three months of full-time work. That’s a useful reference point when planning what you want to get done in the next year.

You need a process to work effectively with so many small chunks of time, but think of what you could do with a quarter of a year of working time.

If you have an idea.

If you think you could do it in three months of regular working hours.

Get making.

This isn’t so scary:

3 x 2hr weeknight sessions
1 x 3hr weekend session

Concept Game – Simple Evolutionary Model

I’ve spent enough time on this now to submit it, even if it’s still a bit rough around the edges. I’ve included a bit of a write up below. This demo will run best in Chrome or Opera. Click to play.

I’ve built a simple ‘game’ called Digital Husbandry. It’s more of a time killer as it doesn’t have any serious game mechanics, but there is a visual reward to keep the user engaged.

It’s based on the idea of simulating progressive evolution through selective breeding. Much as generations of farmers have done with livestock. The player brings together critters on the screen based on visual qualities that appeal to them, and produces offspring that drive the overall appearance of the group closer to those qualities selected by the player. The ‘critters’ die when they reach the ‘deadzone’ at the bottom of the screen, freeing up space for new critters in the population. So choosing which critters to sacrifice is as important as choosing which ones to breed.

The critters are recursively drawn from a simplified ‘genetic’ code. This allows the game to have millions of possible variations of critters, and the longer you play, the more varied the critters will appear.

I ‘composed’ some music in http://www.beepbox.co (which is a hugely fun distraction from fixing bugs in code). The music gets more layered and complex in line with the number of critters in the population. The audio tracks aren’t perfectly synced, but I’m happy enough with the effect for now.

NOTE: I ran into problems publishing the sketch with audio and I’ve run out of time to do any more work on this, so I’ve had to submit this version without sound.

A quick review of the Coursera Creative Programming Course, and using Processing for this kind work:

  • It was nice to write some code that isn’t about capturing web form data or sanitizing user input!
  • The format of the course, and the challenge I set myself were a good way to revise some of the classic programming concepts I don’t actually have to use much these days
  • I was jumping between Java and JavaScript quite a bit – which is a good study exercise, especially when porting code from one to the other. My basic Java knowledge is rustier than I thought, but I got there in the end.
  • Processing isn’t quite right (yet) to take a project like this and polish it into a publishable product (which is partly why I haven’t worried too much about the finer details of this ‘game’)
  • Processing is excellent for teaching creative programming
  • It was a shame to loose the sound, I had a slightly mental retro game tune going by the end. This was the base tune, which built in complexity with each additional critter.
  • I wouldn’t want to put this project through a code review! But it does the job for this assignment.


Degrees of done

With life in a reasonably calm and sensible place right now, it seems like a good time to finish up something I started some time ago.

About 10 years ago, when I finished art college I came to the conclusion that going to university would lead to a big old pile of debt, and that I could find a better way to navigate the requirements of professional life.

My studies were in fine art which was a useful exercise in creative and critical thinking, but was never going to pay the bills. And I’m not planning to die a starving artist. Alongside my studies, I’d been building websites (and earning a few pounds doing it). I’d learned enough about writing code that I wanted to study computer science (CS) more formally, but even a distinction in fine art wouldn’t get me into any regular university courses in computer science.

Academically, and even now with professional job opportunities, the venn diagram of visual art and computer science rarely overlaps. I think this needs to change, and probably will. Code and composition are just tools and the more closely they work together the better.

So anyway, the solution I found to my dilemma of not being ‘qualified’ to study for the qualification I wanted, and not being happy with the cost of getting it either, was to study computer science with the Open University (OU).

I was an edge-case OU applicant back then, as very few people at ‘standard’ university age considered the OU as an option. Their students were typically older working professionals or the recently retired. The choice for my peers was typically between a bricks-and-mortar university or to start work. Via the OU I was able to study and start work, avoid any debt and get some significant professional experience at the same time. And by typical graduation age, I had been happily employed for some time. Sometimes I’d get up at 4am to study, other times I’d work through the night on weekends, but I enjoyed it.

And all in all, I’m still very pleased with the choice that the young me made.

Over four years of studying while working, I completed two thirds of a CS degree, mostly using coding skills I’d actually been learning on the job, and then in 2008 I decided to take a year off. In that year-off from study I took a new job working at WWF and have had enough personal projects and general life things to keep me busy in the five years since. The degree is unfinished business, and I’m thinking about finishing it now.

The thing is, I don’t need this degree to get a job (I have a dream job already), but I don’t like leaving it undone. And it’s been bugging me.

So I’ve been looking at what courses are left to finish my degree and I discovered a couple of things.

  1. The OU have swapped around the modules for their courses while I’ve been absent, so I no longer have two thirds of a CS degree. I instead have about a sixth of many of their new CS based degrees. I do not want to do another five sixths of a CS degree. It’s not bugging me that much.
  2. Dave and Nick have been screwing around, and the last third of my degree is going to cost 50% more than the first two thirds of my degree combined. Damn you Dave and Nick.

But there is some good news. For now at least, the OU offer a slightly unusual degree called simply an Open Degree. You can study modules in any topic so long as you have the right number of credits from each level of study to add up to a regular honours degree’s worth of qualification (either BSc or BA). So while my original CS degree has gone out the window, I still have two thirds of an Open Degree.

My plan now is to complete a few more modules in the next couple of years and finish off my degree, even if it’s not the one I started. The “openness” of the Open Degree also allows me to diversify my study a bit, rather than repeat the skills I already use professionally, and that makes it more interesting. I’m particularly looking forward to a course on modeling ecosystems.

The downside to this plan is that the recent increases in UK tuition fees may now require me to look into a student loan after all. Again, damn you Dave and Nick. This is going to be an expensive itch to scratch.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I’ll be doing some studying later this year.

Saying that, I’m doing some studying now so that’s not really news. And on the aforementioned issue of the computer science and visual art venn diagram, the overlap is captured wonderfully in this Coursera course that’s currently running:  “Creative Programming for Digital Media & Mobile Apps” https://www.coursera.org/course/digitalmedia

This course has been so enjoyable, that it’s partly to blame for the expensive year now ahead. Damn no, thank you Coursera. Damn you Dave and Nick.

Learning Backbone.js and Single Page Applications

Following up my post about the backbone.js book I downloaded, I’ve been playing, testing and learning as much as I can. So much so that I’ve neglected my Coursera design course, though I think this is a better use of my time in the long run. This particular Coursera course was mainly to test out the MOOC process first-hand, and it’s pretty cool on the whole. I’ll still be taking part in the Game Theory course that’s coming up, and I’d give Coursera a big thumbs up overall.

I’ve studied design previously, so the content in the course (while very good) was mostly a re-hashing of old stuff for me, whereas delving into the world of Backbone.js and Single Page Applications has been a great way to challenge my existing approach to web design and development. It’s been a real brain stretch at times, but every new step in the learning process is rewarding, and you can never afford to stop learning if you work with the internet.

I’ve hacked about with Backbone enough now, that I’m starting to apply the learnings to Done by When, and though this equates to almost an entire re-write of the website front-end it’s going to make the app so much more responsive that I’m desperate to get it live. The demos I’ve put together already feel like so much more like software than web pages.

I’m not making any promises for a release date at this point as client work takes priority but I may be able to share something within a couple of weeks.

Also, though I’ve bailed on the Coursera course, I won’t give up on the menu planner, or my intentions to open source this.

I’ll keep you posted.

Menu Planner: Sequence of user needs

Here’s the next instalment from my Coursera project notes:


Decomposition of the problem/gap by sequence of user needs

This has been an interesting exercise but I’m looking forward to doing some actual design and prototyping work soon.

I’ve also been thinking about how much more flexible software design can be than physical product design; especially hosted auto-updating software like a web app.

A simple and flexible meal planning system

Following on from my post about stealing ideas, here’s the first instalment from my Coursera design project. I’ll share this work as I go along and then I’ll open source the project properly once the course is over (in seven weeks).

Design problem definition:

I am developing a simple and flexible meal planning system that generates a shopping list to help people reduce their food bill and cut down on food waste.

A list of  user needs derived from interviews and observation

Exclamation points indicate potentially latent needs using the Kano Model. These are basically the things users may want, but may not realise they may want; a chance to over-deliver and delight.

The planner and shopping list is flexible

  • The planner and shopping list is suitable for a weekly food shop
  • The planner and shopping list is suitable for a fortnightly food shop
  • The planner and shopping list lets me count breakfast, lunch and dinners separately
  • The planner and shopping list doesn’t make me chose which meal to eat on each day
  • The planner and shopping list is adaptable if I see something on special offer at the shop
  • ! The planner and shopping list can be changed after the shop if something was out of stock
  • The planner and shopping list works if I only want to plan for a few days
  • The planner and shopping list let me add items that are not part of my recipes, like washing liquid

The planner and shopping list is helpful

  • ! The planner and shopping list reminds me of meals I like to cook
  • ! The planner and shopping list learns from my behavior
  • The planner and shopping list estimates how much my shop is going to cost
  • The planner and shopping list helps me review the cost of my food shop
  • The planner and shopping list helps me reduce my food bill
  • The planner and shopping list helps me reduce waste
  • ! The planner and shopping list gives me ideas for things to make this week
  • ! The planner and shopping list lets me review the things I eat most often
  • The planner and shopping list can be reordered to group things as they appear in the shop
  • The planner and shopping list reminds me of meals I haven’t made in a while

The planner and shopping list is practical

  • The planner and shopping list has a list of meals and a list of ingredients
  • The planner and shopping list can be cross-checked with the contents of my cupboards before I shop
  • The planner and shopping list lets me add things as I think of them during the week
  • The planner and shopping list lets me tick off items as I’m doing my food shop
  • The planner and shopping list organizes enough meals until my next food shop
  • The planner and shopping list lets me cross of meals as I make them
  • ! The planner and shopping list can be printed and crossed off as I use it

The planner and shopping list is suitable

  • The planner and shopping list affordable
  • The planner and shopping list works on my laptop, iPad and husband’s Android phone
  • ! The planner and shopping list works even if my phone or iPad is offline
  • The planner and shopping list is saved so I don’t lose it like my paper shopping list
  • The planner and shopping list works as I’m walking around the supermarket
  • The planner and shopping list can be shared with my husband
  • The planner and shopping list can be used in the kitchen, living room and at the supermarket
  • The planner and shopping list lets me prepare list and give it to my partner
  • The planner and shopping list works on my computer but can also be printed

The planner and shopping list is simple

  • The planner and shopping list is easy to use while I’m shopping with my children
  • The planner and shopping list is easy for me to use
  • The planner and shopping list is better than my scraps of paper
  • The planner and shopping list is preferable to writing a list on paper
  • The planner and shopping list is secure but easy to access
  • The planner and shopping list is not complex or confusing
  • ! The planner and shopping list is fun to use

On stealing my ideas

So, as part of this Coursera design course, I’m learning a lot about how people value their own ideas. One of the discussions among the students is about “how to avoid people stealing your ideas”.

Firstly, I should point out that each discreet chunk of your work is reviewed by five of your peers and you review the work of five random peers, meaning you don’t actually see the whole of someone’s project, just random bits of random projects. And with over 30,000 people taking the course,  the risk of someone nicking your idea, if you’re really worried about it, is limited.

But some of the discussions are entertaining. Including a few people who are “only going to design something a bit rubbish so they don’t give away their really good ideas”.

This all seems to overlook the fact that nothing is truly original and we always build on the work of those who come before us.

So rather than worry that someone will steal my ideas, I thought it better to take a leaf out of the open source book and publish my work on this blog as I go. Then, not only can people steal it, they can improve on it, or join me in making things better.

The best online page turning book/magazine

I’ve seen a lot a shiny, fancy and useless online page turner book things, and typically hate them for their reliance on flash, the difficulty of reading them and the fact that we’re combining the worst of digital and non-digital technologies mainly to impress the people responsible for publishing the content rather than the people who are meant to read it.

This one was great though:


The key difference being the link on the left: “Download the MOBI file directly”.

I can flick through the book as I would at a shop, get a feel for the content, and then if it’s worth it, email the file straight to my Kindle for a proper reading experience.

That’s more like it now.

Specific thoughts on the @Coursera experience

First, I’d like to say a massive thank you. I really value the chance to study this excellent material at zero financial cost, and more importantly I love the opportunity you provide to people all around the world who don’t have the finances or the circumstances to otherwise consider such an education.

I also know what it’s like to maintain and develop a complex online system while supporting active users, so this feedback is by no means an accusation of negligence. You will have thought about much of this already I’m sure, and if it’s already on a project roadmap somewhere then please excuse me.

In short, this is not a letter from a grumpy customer; I just thought it may be useful to hear some specific feedback and ideas that could help with the online experience:

When viewing and submitting assignments

  • Include some visual indicator as to which ones you’ve already submitted. A tick would be plenty.
  • Likewise for showing which assignments you have completed your peer-reviews for. If you forget, you have to click into each item to check what you have and haven’t done. Even then it’s confusing to remember.
  • The general visual hierarchy on this page is confusing. Those blue buttons jump out way more than the text you really want people to read (i.e. the assignment titles)
  • Indicate the assignments where the existing submission deadlines are closed (I’m only in week 2 so maybe this happens after week 1 evaluation is done, but currently its an effort to digest what my next steps are and how much I have to do before Sunday night)

Class Homepage

  • Bubbling up some top level stats on assignments due/completed to the homepage would be useful

Syllabus page

  • Ability to mark-off each item you have watched/completed would be nice. Like the assignments, if you’re doing this in the evenings after working, and you’re already tired, every little helps. I found myself relying on visited link colour, and that’s not a very cross-platform solution :)
In summary, the simpler you can explain what’s expected of people (and by when), the more enjoyable the learning experience will become. Let them focus on the learning, rather than the admin (unless of course you’re secretly trying to teach personal admin skills).

That’s it for now, as I have homework to do!

I hope that’s useful in some way, and thanks again.