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.

Something I wrote for Engaging Networks

A few weeks ago I received a marketing email from the Engaging Networks team quoting some stats about the possible improvements to website conversion rates that can be achieved with A/B testing.

I was caught off guard (but pretty chuffed) when I realised I was being quoted my own case study from a presentation I had given a couple of years earlier.

I sent a quick reply to the email and was delighted to find it was sent from a real address with a real person at the other end reading the replies (@Rachel_shares).

This turned into a nice discussion about conversion rate testing, and somehow I agreed to write a guest blog post. Which, with some helpful editing from Rachel has now been posted on the Engaging Networks blog.

I thought I should share the link with all two of my readers on this blog, just in case you’re not also reading the EN blog 🙂

The real story behind WWF’s fundraising split test success:

On ‘The Fun Theory’ and Pseudoscience

I’ve had this video sent to me three times this week, which was enough to prompt a reply that I’ll share with you.

On a very basic level, this video is nice. To disrupt the mundane with something that makes people smile is great, but that’s where the good in this video stops. If that was the ultimate aim of this video, I’d give it a big thumbs and share it with enthusiasm, but it’s not as simple as that.

“We believe that the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better is by making it fun to do.”

That’s rubbish, and I’ll explain why.

I’m interested in changing people’s behaviour for the better, so I willingly watched the video and was presented with the ‘conclusion’ that “66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator. Fun can obviously change things for the better.” – at the point in the film where this fact is presented, the soundtrack switches from what sounded unsurprisingly like cats walking along a piano (very annoying) to actual piano music that was pleasant to listen to. And at the end of the film, when the tuneless sound of people walking on a piano has been adequately covered up, the occasional footage of the floor shows how filthy it became after just a single day. There is a reason tube station floors aren’t white.

Why this video is rubbish

If this was an actual experiment in behaviour change, rather than a pseudo-scientific exercise in brand marketing, the following tests would have been important:

  1. What happens after 1 week of piano stairs?
    • Do regular commuters still ‘play’ every day? (I suspect not)
    • What state is the floor in? (I suspect filthy and depressing)
  2. Same questions after 2 weeks, 4 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year
    •  I suspect the results will get continually worse
  3. What happens if this is applied to the stairs at every station
    • Again, I expect decline in use. Possibly below the original baseline.

When a child first discovers a piano, and tries to play, it is endearing to watch. But ask yourself, how long can you listen to that child plonk up and down the keys before it starts to grate. You can try it out now, just loop the video from 0:42 to 1:00, turn up the volume and imagine listening to this on your commute to work, every, single, day. Would it make you more likely to take the stairs? I think it would drive people insane. It wouldn’t be long before the social outrage at the diabolical noise would actually discourage people from taking the stairs. Escalator users would soon be sighing and tutting at the person rushing down the steps to catch their train.

Now imagine yourself using these stairs soon after any of the following:

  1. Bereavement
  2. Redundancy
  3. Divorce

How fun is The Fun Theory sounding right now?

What this video shows is not fun creating change, but the joy of the novel. I’m not opposed to the joy of the novel, and would definitely have taken the piano stairs myself. But as someone who usually takes the stairs, that ‘solution’ is more likely to make me take the escalator in the long run. This is not science, and this is not behaviour change. If anything it’s a new excuse for people who can now blame the mundanity of non-piano stairs each time they take the escalator going forward.

The real goal of this video:

For you to make the subconscious link between the Volkswagen logo and the word Fun. That’s all it is designed to do.

By making the VW logo secondary in the campaign it becomes harder for you to realise you’ve been sent an advert until it is too late and you’ve watched the whole thing, but the clues are there – even the typography adheres to the brand guidelines. As a marketer, I’d say it’s genius. But as a human being, I think this is depressing.

Some words I’d like to see VW live up to:

“This site is dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.”  src

Maybe, just maybe, if VW actually want to show they care about “change for the better”, it would be easier to NOT SPEND MILLIONS OF POUNDS LOBBYING AGAINST COMMITMENTS TO CUT GREENHOUSE GAS EMMISSIONS, than turning some stairs into a piano and presenting it as science.

Further reading:

If you’re interested in VW’s real commitment to change try: vwdarkside.com
If you’re interested in real behaviour change:  valuesandframes.org

If you just like disrupting the mundanity of the day-to-day, it doesn’t need corporate sponsorship:

If graffiti changed anything...

What would I suggest instead of piano stairs?

If I was running an experiment tasked with encouraging people to walk instead of taking the escalator, I’d slow the speed of the escalator down to a quarter of it’s standard speed. Maybe even slower. You could measure walking-rate against speed across a high enough volume of routes for a long enough period of time to find an optimum speed based on robust science. I reckon that would get people walking, and possibly keep them walking too. Either they’d choose the escalator, then walk if it’s too slow for them, or just switch to the stairs altogether. It wouldn’t make a fun video though, so it’s unlikely the Volkswagen marketing budget would be used to encourage the 17 million+ views the piano stairs idea has had.

On avoiding advertising (on TV)

© Tate, London

I like that people try to avoid watching ads while they watch TV, but it’s probably not effective, and definitely not sustainable.

On effectiveness

For years TV stations have increased the volume during ad breaks so you still hear them when you leave the room to make a cup of tea. Now they face the challenge of people recording TV with the option to fast-forward through the ads at a later date. You’d think this would worry advertisers and in turn the broadcasters, but this quote from Sky shows the consideration they have already given this:

“When people are fast forwarding, they are actually paying closer attention because they want to ensure they do not miss the resumption of the TV show.”

Which explains their calmness pretty clearly. I should note that I’ve copied that quote from the Daily Mail (http://bit.ly/fuusIk), and yes, I appreciate the irony of using ad funded mostly despicable media to back up my case against ad funded media. Move on…

Methods for avoiding watching ads are only a temporary fix. Advertisers will adapt, as they are incentivised to do so by the very business model that drives them.

And if the ads stop driving revenue, the broadcasters will intervene, because it’s in their interest too. TV-on-demand suppliers are already pretty skilled at forcing you to watch an ad before you see the content, and doing the same during a Sky+ fast-forward is within feasible technical boundaries already.

But if you still think you can watch TV and avoid advertising (including the times when you think you’re not watching), then read on.

On sustainability

If the content you want to watch is funded by advertising, then it requires enough people to buy the advertised products to sustain the advertising revenue to in turn sustain the content. If no one watches the ads, no one can watch the content.

If you think it’s OK to skip the ads yourself on the grounds that someone less aware of the impact of advertising will buy the product and fund the content on your behalf, that says something about your compassion for our fellow human beings.

In summary

You have two choices about how you pay for your entertainment:

  1. Indirectly, by buying whatever is shown in the ads
  2. Directly, by paying for the content

I prefer to invest in the arts, directly.

On giving up TV, but not moving images

TV bad, but cinema good?

I’ve given up TV for almost all the situations I can control, including those situations where it’s appropriate to excuse myself from watching; that is, with the people who know me well enough not to take offence. But I still watch things you would call films, videos, movies or whatnot. So I thought I’d write a piece about the things I still watch and why I think they are acceptable despite taking a personal stand against television.

The exceptions that define the rule…

iPlayer vs. TV

Long live AD-FREE socially-funded independent broadcasting and entertainment. The Beeb will never be completely free from bias, and it will always attract a certain type of journalist, but on the whole I wouldn’t want to be without it. iPlayer lets you watch quality content on demand. I’m not saying everything on iPlayer is quality, or that you should sit down with the intention of watching something, anything, on iPlayer. But if there’s something good on, then make the most of this very special service. The recent series of Sherlock was well worth watching. I also enjoy Only Connect. And their documentaries are a starting point for learning. With the caveat that if you’ve ever watched a documentary on any subject you know well, you’ll know how lightly they scratch the surface.

On the whole, I’ve no objection to iPlayer and watch it maybe once a week.

Cinema vs. TV

Cinema has socialising built right in. It’s an actual shared experience where the room full of people shape your experience of the story told on screen. You make a communal decision to watch something, which helps break the filter bubble; and sometimes you end watching things you really wouldn’t choose to – like Date Night, damnit! Cinema is better than most TV watching because you choose a particular film, then go to the cinema – in that order.

Most importantly, films are stories. And sharing stories is absolutely fundamental to human nature. Films are a great way to tell exceptional, brilliant, inspiring and challenging stories and while I dislike TV, I’d never be without stories. This differs from TV shows that often begin with a great story, then degrade into the cycle of ever-declining-quality but never-ending-story mode; because the goal of a TV show is to stay on the air to keep selling ad space.

A film worth watching tells a complete story, mostly in one part. But like TV shows, when films are corrupted by advertising or created with the sole purpose of sales, you get the never-ending series of ever-declining-quality; a bit like James Bond, or The Lion King 2. I am certain that The Lion King 2 was not made with the primary purpose of telling a brilliant story.

So cinema is great, because great films are great and cinema makes them better for being social, and prompting active rather than passive consumption. It’s a valid business model to pay the artists without corrupting our minds any more than we have to. And you can always arrive a bit late to miss the ads.

Films on TV are OK, but it’s a mistake to think that films funded by advertising rather than purchase come at no cost. I’d rather pay with my money than my mind.

DVDs vs. TV

See the same points about storytelling described for films above. DVDs are also good for watching the best TV shows on your own timetable without giving your eye-balls to advertisers. Though watch out for the TV shows that deliberately drag out the story with the sole purpose of extending sales. Just because season 1 is excellent doesn’t mean you have to keep watching until season 5. If season 5 is mediocre, stop immediately; life is too short. There are enough truly brilliant films to watch instead.

If storytellers would stick to choosing the format that can best tell their particular story, it would be a better state of affairs than the current situation where stories are fabricated endlessly to fill-out the predetermined format. Today, the 12 episodes of a new season for a TV show will be scheduled with a TV station while the plot is still being written. That’s not storytelling, it’s content marketing. Hopefully the technological developments moving people away from scheduled TV to on-demand viewing will help address this issue, which also applies to pre-scheduled news, but that’s another article for another day…

Streaming Films vs. TV

Sometimes I stream films too. To date I’ve always paid to rent the film rather than paid to download and keep it. All the same arguments used in favour of DVDs apply.

YouTube vs. TV

Sadly, this is a channel destined to be riddled with advertising, which it’s not far off already. But, in comparison with TV, it’s a fascinating social experiment; an almost uncensored somewhat democratic free-for-all where the ideas that would never make it past the committee of common sense not only see the light of day, but take on a life and meaning of their own as they travel around the world.

By all means, watch and forward videos of sneezing pandas. But think twice about sharing adverts, and be conscious of the adverts sent to you by friends; you have make a deliberate mental effort to separate your friend from the advertiser who wants you to make the mental connection between friendship and the product they peddle.

Someone on YouTube taught me how to clean the throttle valve on my car better than my Haynes manual; I’d have been waiting a long time for that to come on TV.

So I still watch things on YouTube, sometimes.

TED (Plus TEDX, The Do Lectures and similar) vs. TV

TED have summed this up succinctly themselves: ‘Riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world’. Pheebs and I have watched a few of these lectures while we eat dinner. I’ve watched a few more on my own at other times. Allow yourself to consider a couple of new ideas and fields you’ve never spent time with. These videos are a springboard to a whole world of ideas that will rarely make it onto scheduled television, because it’s not in the commercial interest of advertisers.

This, for example is a hugely useful piece of knowledge that wouldn’t sit well with advertisers: The paradox of choice.

And this talk is better than anything that will make it onto scheduled TV this year: How the human family can do better.

It doesn’t need HD, surround sound, or 3D glasses. It’s an inspiring story told as urgently as it should be. It would not have been better for a big budget six season TV series, with product placements, celebrity cameos or a special edition DVD box-set. It’s 20 minutes of talking with a few pictures, and it will make you want to be a better person.

More thoughts on TV to follow soon.

On the blurry definition of giving up television

The definition of television is changing so quickly, that although removing the physical device that is a television from our home is somewhat unusual right now, in five years time we may have many homes without traditional TVs, but where as much ‘television’ equivalent is consumed as it is today. So I thought it was worth exploring what it really means to give up TV, and how to stop it creeping back into your life in some shape-shifted form.

Firstly, people interpret giving up TV as losing out on something good, like giving up on their dreams. I think it’s more like giving up smoking. While the physical device itself isn’t the problem, keeping it in your home is like trying to give up smoking and pointing all your furniture at a stack of cigarette cartons.

I don’t have a TV at home anymore, but I still become a zombie when I’m visiting family and friends. I still stare at screens at train stations and in bars. I’d like to think I was immune but I’m really not.

So for me, giving up television is a work in progress, and not a lone activity; my wife makes her own decisions, and still enjoys TV a lot more than I do. But for context, we used to have a TV in every room. Our sitting room was a four-seater sofa pointing at a 42 inch HD fancy-pants LCD TV with Bose surround speakers, Xbox etc. If we were awake, it was on, and everyone in the room sat facing the same direction. When we moved into our first home, we had a TV before we had a bed and for roughly the first four years of our relationship, we slept with a TV on all night as Pheebs needed it to sleep. So we’ve come a long way to where we are now.

Even getting rid of our TV became an ethical dilemma. I took months to decide between sending a perfectly good machine to landfill, and passing along a device that I’d decided was inherently bad to have in our home to another human being. We sold it in the end, to someone who already owned a TV, who was buying a TV anyway. So I only felt 50% guilty.

Now, we have a laptop on which I write things like this, and sometimes we watch DVDs or download films. We sit the laptop on a small chest right in front of the couch. At that distance, the screen fills as much of our field of vision as the 42 inch TV did on the far wall. For some time we rented French language movies from Love Film to help learn some French – but mostly the stories were so good I’d get lost in the subtitles and my French didn’t get any better. Besides that, Pheebs watches iPlayer, 40D etc on her iPad. I tend to avoid this, but I’m not immune.

Now, we have two sofas that face each other, a wood burning stove and a radio. First and foremost, our living room is setup for people to interact with each other, and you’d be amazed at how much this has panicked some of our guests; they honestly don’t know where to look. They get used to it, but it says something about the raising of Generation Y when they struggle to sit in a room with someone face-to-face. Older guests I note, are more immediately comfortable. I’ll get on to write something about TV as a frame of social reference later, but in the home, TVs have become an obstacle to meaningful social interactions. Not an insurmountable obstacle, but an obstacle nonetheless.

So while I’ve rambled somewhat, you may have noticed that my objection with TV is not related to moving pictures – it’s specifically the content delivered on scheduled TV and most importantly, the advertising that funds it. And though it seems hypocritical to some, it is a considered choice to give up television but still watch films and other video based content on other mediums. Removing the physical TV device (then plastering, sanding and painting the holes from your mounting brackets) makes the passive consumption of advertising a less immediate option at the points in the day when you are most susceptible to weakness. And it sets the tone when people come to visit your home.

I’ll leave you with this: Our living room is now setup to welcome to thoughts, opinions, hopes and dreams of our guests. And I like it much more like that, then when we all sat facing the television.