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.

#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.

Panda Swap: New year, new job.

Giant Panda 02

Red Panda Pensive

After almost five years working for the black and white panda, I’ll be moving to the red panda in the new year. Well, kind of… and that’s close enough to the truth to justify the cute pictures in this blog post.

As of January, I’ll be working for the Mozilla Foundation as their new Metrics Lead, which is about the most exciting job I could possibly dream up.

I owe the web pretty much everything, so the chance give something back and push something forward is both an honor and a privilege.

Mozilla work in the open, which means this blog will hook up a bit more directly with my day-to-day work in the future and I’ll be able to share some of the successes and challenges I face with you here on a more regular basis.

In other news, my Open University study has me spending my evenings writing a screenplay which is a completely new challenge for me. Though the OU is more open than most, I can’t share any coursework publicly until the course is finished. So that work will not be done in the open.

I’m a person who likes to solve problems, and writing drama is mostly an exercise in creating characters you care about and then making them suffer as much as you plausibly can instead of solving their problems. It’s a strange thing when you think about it, but it’s also fun unpicking what makes a story tick and stick.

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.

 

Critters Sketch in Processing

If your browser is up to scratch, here’s a little JavaScript based sketch from a current personal project…


This is some early code for a simple game I’m working on for the Coursera Creative Programming course (it’s my first time building a game rather than regular software).

These shapes are generated from a limited range of numbers, which can later be turned into a simple genetic code to define these critters.

I’ve hosted this on OpenProcessing.org, so you can get to the source-code etc.

http://www.openprocessing.org/sketch/103410

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.