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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


Second time round – making a MOOC better

By Rod Digges, on 6 March 2013

I’ve just watched Professor Keith Devlin of Stanford and a colleague being interviewed about their first experiences of running a MOOC last September. The interview touched on some of the lessons they’d learned which they’re hoping to use to improve the second iteration of their popular MOOC on mathematical thinking. The second version kicked off a few days ago on the 4th March.
I enjoyed the interview and Professor Devlin’s obvious enthusiasm and humility regarding his role as teacher made it easy to warm to him as a person. Some interesting points are made regarding changes to the course after analysis of the demographic and feedback from students. Much of the discussion revolves around the importance that Professor Devlin places on trying to put a human face to a  ‘dry’ subject made potentially even dryer by it’s mode of delivery.

The interview suggests that the team have succeeded, at least to some extent, in creating a feeling of instructor presence resulting, they think, in students committing more to the course than they otherwise might have. Worth a look for anyone interested in the development of distance learning, but also interesting  perhaps for tutors involved in the teaching of large cohorts of students and also concerned about issues of de-personalisation.

The interview can be viewed at:       https://class.coursera.org/maththink-002/lecture/126

Unfortunately you have to create a Coursera account to view the interview which forms part of the introductory material to the new course – fortunately it’s free!

Professor Devlin is also maintaining  ‘A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor who is about to give his second massively open online course.’   a (probably) unique opportunity to get behind the scenes and see some of the thinking behind the development of this MOOC as it unfolds. To read more got to: http://mooctalk.org/

Live blog as an edX CS50x student – Part 2

By Matt Jenner, on 11 November 2012

This is the second blog post in a series of unknown length! Part 1 can be found here. 

In this post I will summarise [ramble] my next steps into the world of learning via a MOOC (massive online open course to you) from Harvard.

First of all, I am so typical. I came onto edX in a view to being excited, interested and wrapped up in the idea of going back to do computer science. So obviously the next thing that happened was that I went back to my life, and didn’t put enough into my online course. This instantly highlights a few things:

  1. Motivation is key to [my] learning
  2. Time on task is crucial
  3. Procrastination is easy

So, with that said, I’d like to spend a little time working out why I’m struggling to put ‘effort’ into my learning for CS50x…

(tiny update: Problem Set 1  -finished & submitted)


Live blog as a CS50x student (Harvard edX course)

By Matt Jenner, on 16 October 2012

To mark the launch of edX (Harvard and MIT’s joint initiative into the world of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) I am attempting to live blog my journey. Every time I do something (yes, like a real person I’ll be inconsistent) I’ll blog about it here. One of the main reasons for doing this is to show what it’s like to be on one of these courses as a real student. I don’t know much about Computer Science, despite just finishing an MSc so I’ll be sure to cover what and how I’m learning. If I fail, or succeed, I’ll blog about it.

If you’re interested in finding out how I get on, click through the link and read more…


Being a Coursera student and just what is a MOOC anyway?

By Matt Jenner, on 27 August 2012

Massive online open courses, or MOOCs as they are colloquially know as, can best be described as a mixture of distance learning with the addition of thousands of students, new platforms, generally old teaching methods and a lot of media hype. Yet, they are heralded as a tsunami of change coming to education, the future of learning and a firecracker into institutions who fear they are not able to provide such approaches. Most importantly is that they are largely unproven, mainly due to entering rather new (yet trodden) territory. This post covers some of the history of MOOCs and of my recent experience being a student in one of these courses. It’s fair to say that this big distance learning on a big scale, and what it means for UCL, and education in a wider field, is not known by anyone, but it’s very exciting to watch it unfold, and to look for opportunities of alignment.

What is a MOOC?

An open course where fee-paying and free students mix (or it’s just free) which uses an online learning and teaching environment usually backed by a university or a group of individuals, usually led by top academics. Student numbers are generally not paying a fee and range in numbers between 100 and >150,000 at the moment.

How does it work?

Learning activities are generally asynchronous and follow a flexible structure ensures that promotes students contributions as a core to the learning activity. Usually not using systems such as Moodle but instead tools such as blogs and wikis or bespoke software. Teachers are present, but there has been upwards of 50,000 students per staff member (MITx – Circuits course) so student participation plays a significant part. Systems used reflect this, for example Q&A areas have voting mechanisms and collaborative approaches to answering queries.

Who’s doing it?

They are largely driven by Canadian and US Universities, perhaps due to their initial cost or promotion on western-facing media. Originating in Canada in 2008 and made ‘famous’ by Harvard, MIT, Yale and other elite US universities. Less were discovered from other continents but many exist under the more generic ‘open’ banners of education. Big names include: edX (the recently combined MITx and Harvardx), Coursera. Udacity and more.

Why is it significant?

A MOOC opens a course and invites anyone to enter, resulting in a new learning dynamic for collaborative and conversational opportunities for students to gather and discuss the course content. A new pedagogy has been associated entitled Connectivism (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Connectivism) and edX, potentially the largest MOOC identified will use it as a massive educational research tool to benefit the institution’s in-house learning and teaching, among other things.

The downsides?

The non-traditional dynamic of a MOOC may make some students uneasy, particularly those who expect, or thrive, on a high level of interaction with the teacher. Students with no financial stake or educational background in the course may bring a different, potentially disruptive, approach. Teachers must rethink the at least some of the course’s elements to take advantage of a MOOC, giving particular consideration to the technical and structural demands and logistics of running such a course. Learners and academics may oppose this style of learning and teaching and demand more traditional approaches.

Implications for teaching and learning

MOOCs present a new opportunity for an independent, life-long learner. By removing the risk attached to a course, it may encourage participation from those who are less-likely to enrol in the traditional educational methods. “The most significant contribution is the MOOC’s potential to alter the relationship between learner and instructor and between academe and the wider community” – http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7078.pdf

Being a MOOC Student Coursera homepage

Six months ago I blogged about being an MITx student and now I am undertaking a wider programme of study through Corsera – a similar platform founded by two professors from Stanford; Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The course I am taking at the moment is Internet History, Technology and Security. We’re up to week five and it’s going well so far, I think.

The main direct tuition I’ve received has been via recorded videos of either Dr. Chuck (Charles Severance) and other resources, mostly video based. They have a nifty feature whereby as the video progresses it stops to ask  a question – this is clearly indicated on the timeline for the video (see screenshots). After some feedback the video continues. This helps break up the didactics but it’s obvious (even to the founders) that this isn’t directly innovative but it’s a little step forward than just a video. In addition is the ability to control the playback of the video, increasing the speed to 1.75x or 2x of the original.

Videos in Coursera - answering a question


With so many students MOOCs can’t have teaching staff interact directly with the students for all conversations / questions. With this in mind, the discussion forum (much like MITx) employed a rating system where all questions can also be rated (and flagged). There are many students answering one another’s questions, and this is widely encouraged. Additionally there is a wiki, although this is used less. Surprisingly, for an online course, there’s a lot of face to face interaction where students form study groups and meet in cities across the globe. Lastly, with one teacher and over 10,000 students there’s little chance for much else, but Dr. Chuck is still offering contact hours by arranging meetings in coffee shops across America.


So far we have had a quiz most weeks, where 10 MCQ questions can be answered – nothing special to report here. The peer-assessment worked rather well, with the submission of a short essay after week one each student had to use a grading rubric for at least five other students, and give written feedback. After leaving mine for seven students I eventually got my feedback, it was a mixed bunch of reviews of my work, from excellent to rubbish – so I averaged it overall. Needless to say this approach is understandable, but not necessarily meaningful for my learning, especially when considering the potential lack of investment from the students either fiscally or effort-wise.

Personal contribution

I’m not putting much into this MOOC, I know the subject fairly well and it’s more of a learning journey into distance learning / MOOCs than it is about Internet History, Technology and Security. I don’t think it’s a problem how much I put in, as the course is designed to fit with my life, not the other way around. As I am also studying for my masters, I instantly see a difference between this seven week course, and say, a 15-credit module. I’m sure a lot of people are learning a lot more than me from this course, and that is obviously wonderful. It’s early days for MOOCs and these courses are all forming the next steps of what they will evolve into. I am sure during this course the platform is developing, the teachers are learning and the data collected is showing what’s working, and who isn’t (ahem).

The future?

MOOCs are still emerging and somewhat undefinable at this stage. The usual trending phenomena warnings are present, as are the ‘unknown’ opportunities. As the buzz fades and MOOCs evolve the expectations and methods are likely to stabilise, thus making them more consistent and definable. Universities may be ‘too slow’ to realise the potential, or not get caught up in the buzz, potentially wasting significant resource. As the world becomes more connected, and education opens up, there is an echo of this being a permanent and positive change to higher education.

Other choice resources

There’s a whole load of commentary on MOOCs, here’s some of the best so far:

Learning for Free? MOOCs by Mira Vogel, Goldsmiths. Presented at their Future Tense 2012 conference.

The Campus Tsunami by David Brooks, New York Times

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs by Tony Bates, Research Associate, Contact North

MOOC pedagogy: the challenges of developing for Coursera by Jeremy Knox, Sian Bayne, Hamish MacLeod, Jen Ross and Christine Sinclair, MSc in E-learning Programme Team, University of Edinburgh

Being an MIT 6.002x student

By Matt Jenner, on 15 March 2012

Armed with my intrigue for exploring new ways to learn and absolutely no real knowledge on Circuits and Electronics I signed up for MIT’s 6.002x open, public, free course – which started last week. This blog post aims to break down my discoveries of what I learnt so far on this course, and what the experience may lend for UCL’s more open learning initiatives.


Eight years ago I created an online free open educational resource for learning about electronic circuits. The only difference is my course was powered by myself and a University friend building content in Flash and this one is powered by MIT’s soon-to-be open source package for open learning. The other, nearly insurmountable point to note was that mine was for 8-10 year olds studying Key Stage two little scientists and this one is for very real and slightly bigger scientists and engineers.

Starting out

Looking at the homepage of this course I can’t help but feel excited. It’s a clear and crisp platform specifically made for me to get into this course. I can read about the course outline and get to know the teachers more.

Before you log in is a shop-window into the course

Logged in

Now that I’m logged in I am taken to the default Course overview page. This shows me important information about the course such as notices and announcements. There’s some links to a few areas, but really I want to get into the learning and explore this online learning environment.

Logged into the course

Courseware – the resources and materials

The courseware section contains a weekly view into the learning materials offered in this course. Each week contains a series of video lectures which are mostly annotated slides. This feels very different to a recording of a traditional lecture, it feels like someone has specifically made these for this module and gone to some effort in putting it together. Anyone would struggle to just watch videos and feel like their learning but videos are a big component when teaching is delivered online, especially in self-paced areas such as this courseware part. MIT have implemented a couple of tricks to enhance this experience, which is shown in the image below.

The main courseware area - broken down by weeks

Video playback is important, and MIT have all their lectures/recordings hosted on YouTube. In addition, they have overlaid extra video controls on top of the video which allow me to change the playback speed. Studies show that humans can listen (and understand) at a much faster speed than the spoken word, for example you’ll generally read quicker than you talk. For this reason the playback speed controls are fantastic, as they permit a 30 minute video to be played in 15. Realistically this isn’t how it may pan out, being a total novice I paused the videos a lot, went back and tried to understand what was being said. When it was clear I could carry on in 2x speed. On top of the speed controls were closed captions on the side of the video. These highlighted as they were spoken on the video – very helpful when trying to make a note, or attempt a problem.

Course Textbook

Perhaps more popular in American Universities, but still used across educational institutions is the textbook which the course can often follow. For 6.002x the textbook is a part of the system. It’s really just an embedded PDF. Sadly it doesn’t fit well in the screen and I think just downloading it would be easier. I didn’t explore it much, I think we’ve all seen PDFs before and know their strengths and limitations.

The course textbook


On a more interesting angle is the discussion area of the course. Taking the StakeOverflow or Yahoo Answers approach; questions can be asked and then a series of votes and responses from other learners highlights their validity and visibility in this area. There are a lot of students on this course (thousands) and they’ll all have questions. Managing this requires some level of intelligent system, helping to sift the useful from the less so. Questions can also be tagged and there’s a lot of user-customisation here to help the sifting of questions which are of a level you’re not interested in.

The Discussion part contains a space to post, tag, rate and answer questions

Example question

The example below shows a question which has a discussion building on it. This level of engagement for students should (in theory) help the teacher out, as common questions can often be answered by fellow students who know the answer. With enough students moderation can often be self-sustaining, but sometimes a teacher may want to drop in and give a more directed response. Adding to this, peer’s instructing themselves via guided, or totally free, discussion can help the learning process. Students talking in their own language to one another has shown to help generate the understanding of concepts or the building of knowledge – independent of other learning resources or activities.

A sample discussion within the course


This course started with a few wiki sections already set up and a strong encouragement for students to create any new pages they liked. As this is a wiki it also encourages anyone to come and edit existing pages. With all changes saved and marked against the learner it helps ensure that pages generally improve in quality throughout their duration, rather than turning into useless resources. The simple idea of building on initial concepts can clearly be useful for learners as they progress through from understanding concepts to building on their knowledge, learning new things and using their existing knowledge to leverage themselves into new areas.

The Wiki area of the course

As this is an electronic and circuits course, it also comes with a wiki-style circuit builder. This was useful for testing out concepts that I clearly had no understanding of! I have no doubt that the circuit below could kill me or do nothing, if it were real.

The wiki tool comes with a wiki-esk circuit builder


Profile and personalisation

Lastly, on our technical run-down, is the profile space, which encourages you to make the course feel like you are really in it (bar moving to USA, or the internet…)

The really neat part of the profile is it details the progress of the student through the course. This seems like such an obvious option, but seeing map of your learning, even if it’s just the content you have looked at or interacted with, can be really helpful, especially for me as I have no understanding of the materials.

The profile space - personalise the area and view your progress


It’s week two, I haven’t spent enough time in the course to have learnt much but it’s still very exciting (for me anyway). I have previously taken online courses from other institutions only to find the result is a batch of iTunes U videos. Alongside some really innovative ideas of opening up education there still seems to be a real lack of understanding in how people actually learn. I don’t think YouTube Edu, for example, offers much pedagogy independently. Both services, do of course, offer excellent resources for a teacher, or group of learners to reuse and build upon. The Khan Academy is a good step forward as it’s clearer, shorter videos are more instructional and visually more compelling. What seems missing, however, is the interaction with other learners. My impression of 6.002x so far is that it’s really trying to mix the learning material with the learners themselves. The discussions being a very strong part of this course, even though I’d not said a word, yet.

In the future

In a way, this is all heavily Moodle related. By seeing this open course I’ve found another platform which seems to clearly help deliver learning. MIT have stated the platform will be released as Open Source (like Moodle) – this is encouraging as it’ll mean teachers, learners and educational technologists will all have this to play with, remix, adapt and that is always a positive step forwards. What’s coming in the future we don’t yet know, but this is encouraging to see. What’s coming to UCL we still are yet to find out, but the trend is that education is opening up, not closing down.

Guest Post – Dr Mat Disney on using Adobe Connect

By ccaalts, on 21 March 2011

Downtown Chicago, 10/4/2003 in ‘real’ colour (RGB)

Downtown Chicago, 10/4/2003 in ‘real’ colour (RGB) © 2011 GeoEye

from Dr Mat Disney

As a Lecturer in Remote Sensing in the Department of Geography I get to talk to (at?) students on a regular basis, something I enjoy. Over the past few years I’ve looked for opportunities to present my research to school students in a range of environments, something UCL encourages through our partnership with City and Islington Academy for example. I’ve spoken at workshops, schools, the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, as well as running hands-on practical sessions and writing about what I do for school science publications (see SEP’s Catalyst for example). It doesn’t hurt that my research is very visual – satellite images, 3D models and animations, fires, trees and so on.

Recently I had the opportunity to talk about remote sensing to high-school students from under-served communities in Chicago as part of a programme to introduce real-world applications of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) outside their normal curriculum. The students voluntarily attend sessions for three hours on Saturday mornings and interact in real-time via video, interactive whiteboards and instant messaging using Adobe Connect.

Mat Disney using Adobe Connect

Screenshot of the session using Adobe Connect

The Chicago session was co-organised by Ian Usher, a former UCL Geography colleague who is now e-learning co-ordinator for Bucks County Council, and Roxana Hadad in Chicago. I showed the students various satellite images, including some striking high resolution satellite images of downtown Chicago, the Mall in Washington DC showing a large rally that took place in late October, and Stonehenge, and discussed with them what their environmental and scientific applications might be.

I was very impressed with the level of interaction provided by the software – me in my garden office at home, and them in a well-equipped classroom half a world away. I was even more impressed by how enthusiastic and welcoming the students were. They were very quick to work out what they were looking at – for example the dried up river system around Stonehenge, along with the context and significance. They very rapidly arrived at the idea that Stonehenge might be a prehistoric calendar of sorts.

Landsat image of Chicago, 10/4/2003 displayed in false colour (near infrared, red, green)

Chicago, 10/4/2003 in false colour (near infrared, red, green) © 2011 GeoEye

I think the novelty of being able to interact so directly and immediately with students outside their normal sphere like this is a really powerful way of attracting and maintaining interest. The advances in bandwidth and software tools allow for rich two-way interaction which brings the whole process alive (compared to web-based delivery of video for example). It was a very enjoyable experience, and I really look forward to more activities like this – it’s a great way help bring UCL’s expertise to a wider audience.

This is a further follow up to a brief report by UCL News in January