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.

Webmaking in the UK, and face-to-face events

One of this week’s conversations was with Nesta, about Webmaker usage within the UK and whether or not we have data to support the theory that face-t0-face events have an impact getting people involved in making on the web. These are two topics that interest me greatly.

I’m basically copying some of my notes into blog form so that the conversation isn’t confined to a few in-boxes.

And the TL;DR is our data represents what we’ve done, rather than any universal truth.

Our current data would support the hypothesis that face-to-face time is important for learning, but that would simply be because that’s how our program has been designed to date. In other words, our Webmaker tools were designed primarily for use in face-to-face events, which meant that adoption by ‘self-learners’ online is low because their is little guidance or motivation to play with our tools on your own. This year we’re making a stronger push on developing tools that can be used remotely, alongside our work on volunteer led face-to-face events. This will lead to a less biased overall data set in the future where we can begin to properly explore the impact on making and learning for people who do or don’t attend face-to-face events at various stages in their learning experience. In particular I’m keen to understand what factors help people transition from learners, to mentoring and supporting their peers.

I also took a quick look at the aggregate Google Analytics location data for the UK audience which I hadn’t done before and which re-enforces the point above.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.14.29

Above: Traffic to Webmaker (loosely indicating an interest in the topic) is roughly distributed like a population map of the UK. This is what I expect to see of most location data.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 11.17.25

Above: However, if you look at the locations of visitors who make something, there are lots of clusters around the UK and London is equaled by many other cities.

To-date, usage of the Webmaker tools has been driven by those who are using the tools to teach the web (i.e. Webmaker Mentors). But we also know there are large numbers of people who find Webmaker outside of the face-to-face event scenarios who need a better route into Webmaker’s offering.

The good news is that this year’s plans look after both sets of potential learners.

#DALMOOC structure

I hesitantly post this, as I’m spending the evening looking at DALMOOC and hope to take part, but know I’m short on free time right now (what with a new baby and trying to buy a house) and starting the course late.

This is either the first in a series of blog posts about this course, or, we shall never talk about this again.

The course encourages open and distributed publishing of work and assessments, which makes answering this first ‘warm-up’ task feel like more of a commitment to the course than I can really make. But here goes…

Competency 0.1: Describe and navigate the distributed structure of DALMOOC, different ways to engage with peers and various technologies to manage and share personal learning.

DALMOOC offers and encourages learning experiences that span many online products from many providers but which all connect back to a core curriculum hosted on the edX platform. This ranges from learning to use 3rd party tools and software to interacting with peers on commercial social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Learners can pick the tools and engagement best suited to them, including an option to follow just the core curriculum within edX if they prefer to do so.

It actually feels a lot like how we work at Mozilla, which is overwhelming and disorientating at first but empowering in the long run.

Writing this publically, however lazily, has forced me to engage with the task much more actively than I might have just sitting back and watching a lecture and answering a quiz.

But I suspect that a fear of the web, and a lack of experience ‘working open’ would make this a terrifying experience for many people. The DALMOOC topic probably pre-selects for people with a higher than average disposition to work this way though, which helps.

Learning about Learning Analytics @ #Mozfest

If I find a moment, I’ll write about many of the fun and inspiring things I saw at Mozfest this weekend, but this post is about a single session I had the pleasure of hosting alongside Andrew, Doug and Simon; Learning Analytics for Good in the Age of Big Data.

We had an hour, no idea if anyone else would be interested, or what angle people would come to the session from. And given that, I think it worked out pretty well.

la_session

We had about 20 participants, and broke into four groups to talk about Learning Analytics from roughly 3 starting points (though all the discussions overlapped):

  1. Practical solutions to measuring learning as it happens online
  2. The ethical complications of tracking (even when you want to optimise for something positive – e.g. Learning)
  3. The research opportunities for publishing and connecting learning data

But, did anyone learn anything in our Learning Analytics session?

Well, I know for sure the answer is yes… as I personally learned things. But did anyone else?

I spoke to people later in the day who told me they learned things. Is that good enough?

As I watched the group during the session I saw conversations that bounced back and forth in a way that rarely happens without people learning something. But how does anyone else who wasn’t there know if our session had an impact?

How much did people learn?

This is essentially the challenge of Learning Analytics. And I did give this some thought before the session…

IMG_0184

As a meta-exercise, everyone who attended the session had a question to answer at the start and end. We also gave them a place to write their email address and to link their ‘learning data’ to them in an identifiable way. It was a little bit silly, but it was something to think about.

This isn’t good science, but it tells a story. And I hope it was a useful cue for the people joining the session.

Response rate:

  • We had about 20 participants
  • 10 returned the survey (i.e. opted in to ‘tracking’), by answering question 1
  • 5 of those answered question 2
  • 5 gave their email address (not exactly the same 5 who answered both questions)

Here is our Learning Analytics data from our session

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 13.53.26

Is that demonstrable impact?

Even though this wasn’t a serious exercise. I think we can confidently argue that some people did learn, in much the same way certain newspapers can make a headline out of two data points…

What, and how much they learned, and if it will be useful later in their life is another matter.

Even with the deliberate choice of question which was almost impossible to not show improvement from start to end of the session, one respondent claims to be less sure what the session was about after attending (but let’s not dwell on that!).

Post-it notes and scribbles

If you were at the session, and want to jog your memory about what we talked about. I kind-of documented the various things we captured on paper.

Screen Shot 2014-10-30 at 14.40.57
Click for gallery of bigger images

Into 2015

I’m looking forward to exploring Learning Analytics in the context of Webmaker much more in 2015.

And to think that this was just one hour in a weekend full of the kinds of conversations that repeat in your mind all the way until next Mozfest. It’s exhausting in the best possible way.

The immediate value of working in the open

I’m both excited and a tiny bit nervous about how “open” Mozilla are about the way they work.

As I’m getting to know the Foundation, and the projects and priorities, and to make sense of what exactly I’ll be doing here I’ve been reading lots of Etherpads. If you don’t know what an Etherpad is, it’s a bit like a Google Doc (the ‘word doc’ variety) but less slick and more open. If you give someone a link to an Etherpad, the barrier to them contributing to the document is almost non-existent.

Anyway, the value of this open working process somewhat blew my mind today. While lots of these docs have been useful in a general sense, today I read the documents from the initial planning around MoFo metrics that led to recruiting for my role (so it was pretty relevant!). The final document is a fine and very useful thing, like most summary documents, but what was really useful was the option to ‘replay’ the creation of the doc.

As I watched it being outlined, revised and then shared for comment I was able to see many of my new colleagues jump in to add the points they care most about and to challenge and contribute to the rest of the document.  Better than just seeing the final document is seeing how it started and where it changed direction and who was involved.

Even watching the hesitations and re-phrasing of particular sentences tells you something about where the subtleties and complications in the process exist.

I probably spent 15-20 minutes watching the replay of the writing of this document, and think I got more indirect information than I would otherwise pick up in even two-weeks of introduction meetings.

There is so much information in the history of that document that would be lost in any closed system. If for example, that document was a PDF on an intranet behind a password, the value I would have gotten from it as a new employee today would have be greatly reduced.

As ready as I’m going to be

Tomorrow is the first day in my new role at the Mozilla Foundation, and I’m getting the new job nerves and excitement now.

Between wrapping up at WWF, preparing for Christmas, house hunting, and finishing off my next study assignment (a screenplay involving time-travel and a bus), I’ve been squeezing in a little bit of prep for the new job too.

This post is basically a note about some of the things I’ve been looking at in the last couple of weeks.

I thought it would be useful to jump through various bits of tech used in a number of MoFo projects, some of which I’d been wanting to play with anyway. This is not deep learning by any means, but it’s enough hands-on experience to speed up some things in the future.

I setup a little node.js app locally and had a look at Express. That’s all very nice, and I liked the basic app structures. Working with a package manager is a lovely part of the workflow, even if it sometimes feels a bit too magic to be real. I also had a look at MongoDB, Mongoose and MERS as a potential data model/store solution for another little app thing I want to build at some point. I didn’t take this far, but got the basic data model working over the MERS API.

I’d used Git a little bit already, but wanted a better grasp of the process for contributing ‘nicely’ to bigger projects (where you’re not also talking directly to the other people involved). Reading the Pro Git book was great for that, and a lighter read than I expected. It falls into the ‘why didn’t I do that months ago?’ category.

Sysadmin-esque work is one of my weak points so the next project was more of a stretch. I setup an Amazon EC2 instance and installed a copy of Graphite. The documentation for Graphite is on the sparse side for people who don’t know their way around a Linux command prompt well, but that probably taught me more than if I’d just been following a series of commands from a tutorial. I think I’ll be spending a lot more time on the metrics end of Graphite, so getting a grasp of the underlying architecture will hopefully help.

Then, for the last couple of days I’ve been working through Data Analysis With Open Source Tools at a slightly superficial level (i.e. skipping some of the Maths), but it’s been a good warm-up for the work ahead.

And that’s it for now.

I’m really looking forward to meeting many new people, problems and possibilities in 2014.

Happy New Year!

Took my son to an "Alien Invasion" exhibition and got to play a little Space Invaders
Took my son to an “Alien Invasion” exhibition and got to play a few minutes of Space Invaders

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

Evening coding

With lots of interesting client work on at the moment, I’ve decided to spend some evening time moving along the next version of Done by When. This is nothing too stressful, but the project is getting really interesting now. I think I’m over the initial conceptual learning curve and now I’m making proper progress.

Where the launch version of Done by When was primarily a working proof of concept, this next version is about attention to detail and responsiveness (that’s the speed of interactions as opposed to the adaptive layout stuff that’s already in place).

I feel like I’m properly upgrading something when I’m spending as much time removing code as I am writing it new.

More updates soon.

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.

 

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.