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.

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.

Reflections

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.

Conclusion

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.

Week 4 at Mozilla

I gathered up the output from my many discussions with our teams so far, and I’m proposing a plan for shipping a Mozilla Foundation Contributors Dashboard as quickly as we realistically can. I’ll be presenting this next week, and once I’ve had feedback on it, this can be turned into a proper plan of action and shared more widely.

Next week I’m in Toronto with the Webmaker team for a work-week (a pretty focused gathering on getting things done), which I’ve been busily preparing for.

You can see what we’ll be up to here (I’m space-wrangling the Metrics track):
https://wiki.mozilla.org/Webmaker/Workweek

P.S. ‘Space-wrangling’ is official Mozilla terminology, and animated GIFs are our primary means of communication.

Because we work in the open, you can follow live updates on how well we’re shipping our planned output during the work-week:
https://wiki.mozilla.org/Webmaker/Scrumboard

Getting ready for this week involved opening a lot of Bugzilla tickets, so we can track progress during the week. Bugzilla is a bit of a monster (I think it looks like this) but it’s also a good way of getting things done. By the time I’d looked at 20+ tickets my brain was starting to filter out the noise in the interface from fields that don’t get used. I’m sure it will get easier to use with time.

I also learnt this week that there are close to 1 million bugs now logged in that system – which is pretty amazing record of the amount of work done by many many Mozillians over many many years. I reckon as you’re using the internet right now (I hope you haven’t printed this out!), you’re online experience is better as a direct result of at least one of those million bugs.

To wrap this up, I’d like to be about 10 times more prepared for next week, but I think that’s largely the result of not knowing what to expect.

I’m very excited to meet more of my new teammates IRL, but will also miss my wife and our little lunatic, so this picture is my new wallpaper for my travels:

Go work-week!
Go work-week!

My First #Mozfest

Mozfest 2013I have an hour free this morning, so wanted to quickly write up my thoughts on Mozfest before my memory fades too much. This will be a rough, but f*** it, ship it as they say at Mozfest.

I bought a Mozfest ticket in July with next to no expectations and just a little hope that meeting some new people might trigger some new ideas. It’s fair to say that this was a massive under-prediction on my part.

A couple of months later, with about a month to go until Mozfest, my boss (@ade) mentioned some sessions that might be interesting for WWF and my work in fundraising. A couple of introductory emails and a Skype call later and I’d put my name down for a yet-to-be-confirmed session called ‘Pass the App’.

We were going to use a new tool called Appmaker to build a donation app in a three hour session. At this point in time Appmaker didn’t do a lot. It was pre the version that would be called pre-alpha. I looked at Appmaker for a few minutes and worried I’d just agreed to waste the first quarter of Mozfest.

I had some time off and a couple of weeks went by. With two weeks to go, I wanted to get setup with Appmaker in a dev environment before the day so I didn’t waste people’s time with silly questions about configuration when we could be building things. Work was a bit crazier than usual and another week went by before I finally sat down to look at some code.

It was quite astounding how much Appmaker had evolved in those few weeks. The team working on this are incredible. From thinking the morning would be wasted, it now looked like a tool with enough components that with a little imagination you could hook up all sorts of awesome apps. My goal was to add some kind of payment to that.

The components in Appmaker are built with HTML, CSS and JavaScript and looking at a few examples I was happy I could build something by copying and adapting the work that’s already been done. But getting a development environment setup to work with these technologies I know pretty well required diving into a number of technologies that were completely new to me.

The deadline and motivation drove me through some of the initial hurdles and learning, and jumping into the IRC room for Appmaker I received great help and support from the team. I was worried about hassling them for their time while they were busy getting ready for Mozfest, but I was welcomed very warmly. It was a really great experience working with new people.

I guess the lesson here is: If you try and make something new, you cannot help but learn something new. And also that deadlines are amazing, as we’ve discussed before.

There were ten tracks at Mozfest, and at any given time I wanted to be in about eight of them. After the Saturday morning Pass the App session I was planning to alternate between the Open Data and Privacy tracks for lots of interesting things, but it didn’t work out that way. I didn’t actually make it to any other sessions. I got hooked into (and hooked on) making things in our scramble to build a working Pass the App demo, which we did. Here’s a link to the write up. I won’t re-tell that story. I got to work with kind and intelligent people making something valuable and learning a tonne. You can’t ask for more than that from any conference-esque event.

My hour of free time is up now, so I’m going to ship this despite the vast amount of things I was grateful for and wanted to talk about.

And I’ll say a quick hi to the people from the pass the app session,

And the many other lovely people I got to meet for the first time.

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

On my next pet project and @Coursera

My most recent ‘pet project’, Done by When, grew up today.

It’s 3 months to the day since I announced a vague plan to test out an idea that had been floating around my head, and now it’s out of beta, taking payments and I’ve just notice our Mandrill email reputation has crept up to ‘Excellent’. Woohoo.

I’m delighted with where it’s going and all the helpful (positive and negative) feedback I’ve had from the first brave group of testers.

I’ve added some screenshots to my portfolio on Behance, but the interface has progressed even further since then.

Now that Done by When has a “business model” and all that, it will be given a serious amount of time and attention going forwards. But importantly, as it has an active user base I won’t be using it as a playground for new ideas and technology. It will first and foremost serve the needs of the users. Which means it’s no longer a ‘pet project’.

I needed another project/playground so I’ve enrolled (and completed my first week) in Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society with Coursera. I’ve studied design before, so mainly wanted to see what the Coursera experience was like in relation to the Open University courses I took a few years back. I’m more interested in the content of the Game Theory course, but that doesn’t start for a while yet, and all learning is good learning.

So I’ll be writing some posts about the Coursera experience, but more importantly I’ll use this as a framework for my next pet project. There are 7 weeks left to go and I’ve set myself the brief to somehow contribute to dealing with the issue of food waste.

Food is core. If we solve food, we solve most things.

Not that I’ll solve food, but I may contribute something.

I’ll keep you posted.

Announcing ‘Done by When’

I promised to ship a new piece of software today but I haven’t quite made it.

Ironically it’s a tool for managing expectations, and visualizing likely delivery times for a given piece of work. It would have been useful!

I hate making excuses, but it’s been a crazy month with lots of good interruptions (lovely clients with interesting projects) and bad interruptions (family emergencies and so on).

So while it’s not ready for you to use today, I’ll have to settle with announcing the project title today, ‘Done by When‘.

A version of the tool, whether it’s ‘finished’ or not will ship by this time next week.

Thought I didn’t make the deadline this time, it’s been very helpful for focussing the mind.

I’ve set myself a challenge

I’ve had an idea for a piece of software I think would be really useful. And rather than spend months thinking about and scoping it, I’ve set myself a deadline (deadlines are magic).

The first version will ship by the end of this month.

If I’ve not announced this new project on this blog by 31 Aug 2012, feel free to send me abuse.

I’m also going to use this as a chance to learn some new skills. I think I may learn Python.

On the joy of (self-imposed) impossible deadlines – AKA Magic Deadlines

Last year I wrote a novel. Admittedly, a novel I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to re-read for fear of what I may have written, but I wrote a novel all the same. And I managed to do it because of a deadline.

It was an impossible deadline by all accounts of common sense, but impossible is a challenge worth living up to. The goal was to write a novel (50k+ words) in a month, without putting my life on hold or taking any time off work. I’m still not sure how, but I did it. And I wasn’t the only one to do this, I shared this month of madness with 256,618 people around the world who signed up for the same challenge; and that was part of the fun.

This photo looks a bit like writing a novel

To give this some context, I co-founded and built the short story website Bibliofaction, but despite many efforts over many years I have failed to finish writing a single short story, even without a deadline. But, after signing up for Nanowrimo on a whim, and with just a little reminder and a nudge from their excellent staff, I wrote a 50,000 word novel thanks to their magical deadline. I can’t quite put my finger on why this deadline works when so many deadlines fail, but I’m sure it comes from being opt-in, and without any pressure. Maybe the voluntary aspect increases the likelihood of the complete personal buy-in required to push through to the end of a goal when you start losing faith – which was after about 10,000 words in my case.

There are two points I want to note:
– I didn’t choose the deadline, but I did choose to accept it
– The deadline wasn’t set for me in particular

If I’d taken an expensive creative writing course, and given myself a year to write a novel, even taking a year off work to do it, I’m pretty sure I would have failed. I’d still be agonizing over plots right now, and I’d have written and rewritten the first chapter so many times I couldn’t bear to look at it. But somehow, just somehow, Nanowrimo tapped into the magic of an impossible deadline.

What makes a deadline like this magic?

I’m not sure, but something magic happens. With Nanowrimo, I was even losing sleep near the end. I’d get home from work exhausted, eat some dinner, then, when my brain felt like it was about to collapse, open this computer and write and write and write. Even at the point of complete exhaustion I felt compelled to continue creating. Just to do something. To actually do something rather than talk about doing something. Even though no-one would ever chase me on my deadline. Even though it was entirely optional, I kept going. Even when it was painful and I was sure I was writing rubbish. A deadline that can inspire that can of action is magic in my eyes. I can’t write a formula for it, and I think that even if I tried, the closer I’d get to the perfect formula, the weaker the magic would become. Like any living thing, you can only dissect a magic deadline so far before it stops being what it is. So at best I can write around the subject. And that’s what I offer you here.

After the novel was written and safely stored away, I accepted another deadline.

My in-laws were nearly finished with renovating a huge holiday home, but they needed paintings for the many empty walls. Lots and lots of paintings. And I had about a month until they were coming to stay with us, and bringing their car. And while they didn’t ask for anything, and I didn’t offer them anything, I decided I’d try and help. And without knowing it, they’d set the date of my next magic deadline.

It’s worth noting some background here. The in-laws (or imminent-in-laws as they were at the time) were coming to stay because we were getting married, and because we’d only given ourselves three months between our engagement and the big day we were running around a bit at the time. So by all accounts of common sense, it was not the best time to take on a new creative project that dwarfed everything I had tried and failed to do in the past as an artist. Again however, the deadline proved its magic.

Painting in the garden

For context, I used to paint a lot. I studied fine art and even exhibited and sold a few pictures here and there, but my biggest challenge was consistency. If you’ve ever tried this yourself, you’ll know that galleries value consistency almost as much as they do quality. A consistent theme, at least for a distinguishable period of time, defines the artist and in turn the art. Only the artist who revisits a theme often enough is thought to offer any value.

My paintings were anything but consistent. There were images of buildings in decay, political protests, power plants in Constable landscapes, sculptural paintings of sculptures, geometric deconstructions of the patterns found in nature, abstract experiments with colour, and even a few portraits. In essence I was starting from scratch with almost every image I created. Then my working life took over and the time I made to paint dwindled. My beloved basket of oil paints moved from easy access in the spare room into a drawer, then to the back of a cupboard, and finally out to the shed. So by the time I set myself this deadline, I hadn’t picked up a paint brush or a palette knife for at least a couple of years.

I had two weeks to paint as many pictures as I could physically manage. For the observant reader, that’s two weeks rather than a month because oil paints need a fair amount of time to dry, especially if you scrape them on thick with a knife as I like to do.

I needed a theme, but didn’t have time to worry about how the theme would go on to define me as the artist, I just needed something I could work with. So I thought about the context and the icons of the area where the pictures would live, and settled on Cathar Castles. That would offer some visual link for their guests.

Peyrepertuse © Adam Baker

When I was studying art full time and my skills were in regular use, I’d complete a painting a week at best. But with this new deadline, I had to paint quicker than ever before. Some nights I found myself completing as many as three pictures in one session. And like the novel, this was after a full day’s work. In the rush to output quantity instead of perfection I freed up my style of painting and found resources I didn’t know I had. Instinctive reactions replaced artistic ‘decisions’.

Not only did I get through a quantity of images, but the requirement for speed brought certain stylistic traits to the fore. And though castles had never been part of my repertoire, the images quickly brought together the disconnected themes I had painted in the past. There were landscapes, decaying buildings, sculptural applications of paint, semi-abstract-semi-figurative colours and so on. I saw many old ideas fall into place, though that wasn’t my intention.

Paintings of Cathar Castles

I didn’t paint these castles because I was fascinated with them, but by painting these pictures I became fascinated by them – or at least the image of them. To me these castles now tell a story not just of historical society, but more poignantly man’s interaction with nature. They are made from the mountains, and sit on top of the world, but in time they blend back into the rock and the scrub on which they are made. And as the trees take over and the building blocks slowly crumble, it becomes harder to make out where the castles start and the mountains stop. I have a magical deadline to thank for this thought that may otherwise never have come to me; a deadline that focused on quantity over quality. On doing.

Sometimes, all we need to do is do.

In all, I completed about 25 pictures. To put that into perspective, I once had a single picture on my easel for the best part of a year, which eventually went on the wall unfinished. A deadline that inspires 25 finished pictures is magic to me. And it’s even better when the simple act of doing can teach you something about yourself.

I think there is a truth buried somewhere in here that is key to the artistic process. Do not wait for inspiration before you create. Just create. Do. Make. Act. Action. Something. Anything. If your only cost is time, then invest it wildly. There may be a case for careful planning if you wanted to build a teapot from diamonds, but dangerously expensive things are rarely worth the effort.

Inspiration is waiting, within the act of doing.

And to back-up that concluding thought, I should note it wasn’t on my mind when I started writing this. This was meant to be about deadlines. The thoughts about inspiration happened after I started writing, not before.

P.S. For externally imposed impossible deadlines, I’d still fall back on these wise words:

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”
– Douglas Adams