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Digital Education team blog


Ideas and reflections from UCL's Digital Education team


What’s the benefit of MOOCs?

Matt Jenner25 March 2014

Many institutions, and countries, the world over have subscribed to MOOC-mania. There are now millions of registered users, thousands of past and upcoming courses all available from hundreds of partners/providers. But why are they all active in this area? An initial motivator for early adopters was to gain momentum from the MOOC-train, it was a way of actively responding to a new ‘game-changer’ in education. The raising of institutional profiles and reputation might have been enough for some to get involved. As the MOOC landscape has become more crowded, pure marketing benefits may be diminishing. There still remains the fact that running a MOOC transpired to be more than a marketing device, instead a range of additional or ‘collateral’ benefits arose for institutions. Luckily this isn’t just for those who were actively creating courses, observers also gained benefits from the presence of MOOCs.

As the very large numbers of learners reported by early US MOOCs are unlikely to be repeated there also seems to be a trend towards more targeting of courses to e.g. specific professional or demographic groups. It’s also possible the traditional delivery format of courses has been undermined with MOOCs, as lurkers are in the majority, perhaps this is a sign of disengagement, or the classic early-warning signal that MOOC providers can read data left by lurkers to create new patterns for access to learning?

Either way, we’ve been keeping up with MOOCs and their associated benefits for institutions who provide them. The table below presents a summary of these benefits from being an active MOOC institution. Data was obtained from top-tier US and European HEIs and we are confident it is not the full picture.

We’ve also broken it into chunks for this blog post:

  1. Reputation
  2. Innovation
  3. Delivery
  4. Infrastructure
  5. Student outcomes

And each are provided with a one-liner to give some background or justification for how/why they made it into this selection.


The reputational benefits for an institution who is involved in running a MOOC

The reputational benefits for an institution who is involved in running a MOOC

1.1 Encouraging engagement

MOOCs don’t just put institution’s names into people’s heads, they actively encourage the staff and students of that institution to interact with the wider public, and visa-versa. Now you could argue the philosophy of a course, and the lack/quality of teacher-learner interaction in some courses but generally speaking, they provide a chance for a learner to engage with that institution/academic/subject/other learners. This is generally considered a good-thing in educational terms, engagement leads to interaction which can lead to some good learning.

1.2 Targeting alumni

Alumni can get involved with MOOCs, be it teaching in a course and leading a group with their experience, or simply remaining in touch with the institution by taking some free courses after they graduate. You could argue it’s a unique hook for some institutions as they may find Alumni contact more enriching if they can offer further opportunities to connect with their prior university via the medium of a MOOC. Those who have completed a MOOC, or ‘MOOC Alum’ may themselves return in the next occurrence to facilitate the course or migrate from Lurker to active learner (or the other way around).

1.3 Outreach

MOOCs provide a chance for institutions to reach out to a wider audience, potentially a group who may never have the chance to link with it in any other form. Disadvantaged groups, or those located half-way around the world are offered a chance, even if thinly veiled, to connect with otherwise unavailable institutions.

1.4 Marketing gains

Obviously this is still an attractive and possible benefit – that hundreds or thousands of people will see your brands and identity. Once registered learners arrive, there’s opportunities to turn them ‘into business’. Not necessarily direct cash, however, which has so far proven to not really materialise from MOOCs.

1.5 Media coverage

The hyped-up tsunami! Oh, the humanity! But really, the media seem to be fixated on MOOCs and have somewhat not really presented a great image of what was happening. Either way, if you’re in MOOC-world you’re likely to get some kind of coverage, ideally international media. There’s a downside; if you mess up, people hear about it. Luckily tomorrow’s hype will override this quite quickly. Call me a cynic if you like but this benefit is low down the list.

1.6 Modern approach

Not every institution in the world has adapted to online learning and many may be slightly behind the technological benchmarks set by others. Many argue that online learning environments such as Moodle are behind the times, or non-intuitive in how they work. Luckily, to some extent, these new platforms and approaches are offering a new lens in which to support education. They come with some teething issues, but these modern approaches are filtering into traditional approaches and hopefully are creating new in-roads in some new areas.


Innovation within higher education allows experiments to reverberate back into traditional learning and teaching approaches

Innovation within higher education allows experiments to reverberate back into traditional learning and teaching approaches

2.1 Inform diversification strategies

What? This is all about discovering new ways to do old things. One example is media creation: MOOCs can require a new way to think about an old problem; capture the academic (tip: use a net). Another example is student recruitment, where MOOCs provide a whole new platform for capturing the hearts and minds for potential students. Lastly, they can provide a space to experiment with teaching approaches, for example flipped lectures or the use of OERs. These might all sound normal to you, or implausible – but the general idea is ‘space to play’ and then opportunities to learn, for the institution.

2.2 Create new capabilities

How can you facilitate a discussion forum about learning with tens of thousands of people? We’re slowly working this out now, thanks to MOOCs. Or, how can we create high-quality media while retaining academic autonomy? There are some difficult questions for those who have run MOOCs, but thanks to their experiments, new models are emerging which others can learn from.

2.3 Educational research

This is one of the primary motivators for MOOC-ing for some universities, to create original research into how people learn. Linked to 4.3 – Creating meaning from analytics, this research is uncovering aspects about online learners that might have been harder to measure in smaller numbers.

2.4 Enriched online resources

Making high-quality content for a MOOC means it can be reused for other purposes. Most likely internally, for example raising the offering for blended learning, but also as OERs – where institutions can chose to give all their MOOC content away for free, forever. Creative Commons is playing well here, but some platforms are less friendly about OER. Hopefully time will change on this…

2.5 Interdisciplinary courses

Courses can always break beyond the traditional boundaries, but the level of interdisciplinary MOOCs is quite varied. Firstly students in one institution could use a MOOC as an alternative source of learning (or materials/community engagement). Or, courses themselves can quite openly mix up two subjects without the restrictions of how they may fit into a credit-bearing system of an institution. Lastly a course in one subject, but being open to anyone, may attract others who wish to audit or take part in the course, this mix of people can be a catalyst for some interesting experiments, mixing groups up, or asking for their views from within their own specific contexts.

2.6 Student recruitment

Perhaps not directly, although some have seen direct conversion from MOOC > paid courses they are in the minority. Learners could start using MOOCs as a place to see how that institution really works but we are uncertain they offer a true reflection of learning and teaching from that institution. Can they be used to tempt/lure potential enrolments? Maybe is the closest answer we have right now, but it’s a possible looming benefit.


The delivery of a MOOC required a well constructed course and that's not necessarily an easy task.

The delivery of a MOOC required a well constructed course and that’s not necessarily an easy task.

3.1 International collaboration

Being online, MOOCs are available to a [mostly] global community. Some have been locked out of a few select countries due to export laws and related issues – but generally speaking MOOCs are international. Moving also into other languages, and not all being English in the first place, means the chances for international collaboration soon come into play. While currently limiting to discussion-heavy courses and some basic wiki’s it’s likely that this area may mature, and take advantage of linking up a large[ish] group of interested learners all in the same environment.

3.2 Widening participation

Not everyone can get into university, many don’t want to and some have too many other pressures (or barriers) to even start the application process. These reasons, among others, can be soothed with MOOCs. By enabling a ‘slide of life’ via the MOOC, they are opening up pockets of institutions to wider audiences. Still a space for growth and a possibility that monetization will be a blockers, but here’s hoping the majority remains open, free and available to the widest group possible. Vocational courses are another bug growth area for some.

3.3 Beyond traditional markets

UCL is a London university with global ambition, but we’re not going to build a campus in every country (probably). We can, however, consider how online environments enable us to expand digitally into new markets. And this isn’t a land grab either, it’s just a phrase that for us means we can connect to people otherwise physically inaccessible. In some areas, this is a huge development and opens doors that could never previously could be unlocked.

3.4 Pioneering platforms

Much like 1.6 Modern Approach – there are providers out there (you know their names) which are adding to the expanding selection of technological platforms for online learning. They all bring innovation to the table and have been built with large capital investments. This is generally a good thing, as their disruption may echo similar innovation in other areas too, i.e. Moodle. They are also looking to solve big issues, such as how do learning environments scale for big numbers of registered users. These technological stand-offs hold back some other platforms, as some are open source, the wider [tech] community may learn a thing or two.

3.5 New sources of revenue

Perhaps not directly as student enrolments, but MOOCs can generate money. The issue now is they tend to cost more to make than they’ll earn back, so it’s not a sustainable financial model right now. Paying a small fee to pass a course may increase in desirability for some, as it offers a chance to do professional or personal development at an otherwise unobtainable/unavailable institution. Many of the big providers recognise that CPD-esk MOOCs (or Small Private Online Courses – SPOCs) are another way to make some moulah. Luckily there are some other benefits to consider as otherwise MOOCs may not be a ‘thing’ already.

3.6 Translation of resource

International reach comes in-hand with multilingual support. One easy way forward for a course which is heavily based on media and peer-led activities is they translate well into other languages. The lack of Professor Famous doing anything hands-on with the learners, means his captures can be converted to another language with only minimal load. However, inter-cultural adaption of translated courses may not be so simple, and there’s a few more things to learn here before all courses are just translated into other languages and assumed they’ll work ‘out of the box’. But progress is being made, and these things shouldn’t just be for English speakers.


If we build it - they will come. Unlikely.

If we build it – they will come. Unlikely.

4.1 Encouraging open education

The best, and most terrifying component – should it all be free and open? Perhaps one day we’ll look back and laugh when institutions were holding their cards close to their chest while others were running ‘Wikipedia-a-thons’ to release as much content as quickly as possible. In the end, it’ll all be out there. But it’s OK because content isn’t king! If it was, institutions would not exist. Education is slowly opening up, one piece of content here, one open course there, a digital learning object somewhere else. Opening up is a strength, it shows character and quality like no other.

4.2 Effective service disaggregation

One of those titles that sounds great, then you forget what it means. In short; the opportunities to unbundle some of the work. Presume you can’t make a MOOC platform, instead of worrying about it, you lean on an existing one. You get benefits too, an established community struggled with ‘that thing’ before you, the registered users flock to see a new upcoming course and the brand can help push you into new domains.

4.3 Creating meaning from analytics

Learning analytics is broadly described as using data collected from learners and using it to better inform their learning experience and/or to improve systems. So far it’s been a nice term, but with a muddy output. Some MOOC platforms have made a conscious effect to integrate the capturing and reporting of data as a priority. This means learner engagement, or activity, can be recorded and used to build models. Linking it to assessments starts to show links between activity and ‘results’. It’s a developing area, and each MOOC learner is a bit of a Guinea Pig running the wheel for a short time.

4.4 Pedagogical experimentation

MOOCs offer a low-ish arena to experiment in. Institutions who have run a few courses have learned a lot about approaches to teaching that can directly inform the next massive course, or bring it back into their traditional teaching. One example is the flipped lecture, which in some institutions is becoming quite normal, but for others it’s a real pedagogical innovation that’s stemmed from MOOCs. My view is these institutions make less use of online learning, and therefore they are leaping forward when going to flipped lectures. Blended learning has been a big offshoot for some US institutions, using their MOOC materials and approaches, back in their credit-bearing teaching.

4.5 Expanded media capacity

Few teaching staff are immediately comfortable with being captured on video, but they are a large component of many MOOCs. Institutions have had a chance to practice creating and presenting media to convey their subject to a wide and diverse group. Additional functionality such as interactive transcripts or playback speed have added further benefits to media delivery on these courses.

4.6 Copyright skills/knowledge

Can you image the shock when that 5 year old PowerPoint with many noncredited  images from ‘not sure, Google?’ was not allowed to go online? Open, publicly accessible content is reducing the perhaps flagrant use of other people’s work as masquerading it as one’s own. Another positive tick.

Student outcomes

What's in it for the learners? Quite a lot, I hope

What’s in it for the learners? Quite a lot, I hope

5.1 Digital literacies

A hot topic on UCL’s agenda, among others, is that of digital literacies – and it’s not just for our learners. The notion that someone, perhaps a young person, is digitally equipped by default is a dangerous and alienating assumption to hold. MOOCs offer a chance for individuals to learn more about the digital form for learning and teaching, it may be becoming more comfortable posting in a discussion forum – or being on live video to a group of thousands of people. Either way, MOOCs may provide some additional benefits for some in this area.

5.2 International experience and globalisation

How does a learner get to understand what the true make-up of the world beholds? Perhaps one answer is to encourage them to interact via a massive online open course. Just open discussion forums alone, wrapped around a particular topic such as Health or Law, could open up new international perspectives for an individual they may have never had before. Potential inter-cultural exchanges could bring real value to such courses, and it’s possible that this remains a growth area for many.

5.3 International communities

Certainly related to 5.2 is the idea of linking up communities from across the globe in the context of a MOOC. There are many types of communities than can spawn from, or join into, a MOOC. Communities of Practice include a collection of people who share a niche interest or professional domain, one that to bring them together physically would be a real challenge. By gathering online, they can share their views on a particular topic and potentially expand their understanding by sharing all they know with others. It could also be more of a social community, where those who share a similar interest can simply join in and be a part of something. Once again, this may be an area of real promise – one to not overlook.

5.4 Mixing internal and external cohorts

How could you get your students to understand the wider issues without bringing it directly to the classroom? One way might be to subscribe them into a MOOC. Previous courses have had their enrolled (credit-bearing) students leading discussions, moderating content, creating learning materials and overseeing MOOCs with thousands of registered learners. This kind of interaction could lead to some progressive pedagogical models of learners teaching learners, creating unique opportunities and developing personal qualities along the way.

5.5 Accreditation and [micro] credentialing

Certificates and badges spring to life in MOOCs. Badges can be awarded for participation and provide a catalyst for further exploration of a theme or learning tool, for example Bronze, Silver and Gold badges for contributions to discussion forums, or marking assignments. They can even be used to ‘gamify’ the learning, used as markers or rewards as the learner’s progress. Certificates are a little more boring, but sometimes people want to have evidence for their learning, and these can do that – they may also make a little money.

5.6 Cross/co-curricular opportunities

Much like 2.5 Interdisciplinary courses – MOOCs provide opportunities for a more casual or flexible approach to learning. One could sign up for a series of MOOCs, pick the bits they like the most and ditch the rest – no-one will question your approach. If anything, platforms will arrive to support it and develop personalised learning journeys for you. This is one example, and as we’re near the end, I presume you get the idea.


MOOCS are not about making money, getting thousands of learners gawping through your wrought iron gates or dreaming of Professor Famous giving them a high grade. Instead we’ve began to uncover the raft of added value, bonus material or ‘known unknowns’ as some might say. The collective weighing of these should cast a huge shadow of ‘money in = money out’ and instead show that they’re another tool in an expanding and richer toolkit for learning and teaching. It remains a good idea to run a MOOC, or ten, and if you can design your approach to try and benefit from some other bits along the way, then I hope you’ll get a richer and more valued experience from it.

I am also confident we missed a load more out, so if you have some more – or want to argue a point, please go ahead in the comments or on #moocbenefits

Chronogogy – time-led learning design for online education

Matt Jenner13 November 2013

If analytic data suggests there is a ‘heartbeat’ of online activity should this inform learning design?


Planning for f2f teaching is largely led by institutional limitations and personal habits. Rooms are booked in 1-hour slots and sessions can only be so-many-hours long. As people can’t stand and talk for hours plus few would sit there and listen for the same period. There’s also only so much time in the day, especially ‘core working hours’. Time for education gets murkier when considering flexible learning, say clinicians who must be in practice between certain times or evening-study students.

Chrono-based design is as old as time itself

Chrono-based design is as old as time itself

In all walks of education, from homework to dissertations, teachers set activities to be completed in student’s own time. Time planning for f2f education is often based on teaching time, set in rooms, schedules, people, slots. Time for learning has to fit into this schedule and is otherwise completed out of these normal hours. Students are expected to complete a substantial amount of personal learning hours – often tied to readings or assessment activities.

Programmes at higher education institutions are increasingly moving into online environments, many of which are still taught in traditional ways. There remains a large focus on face to face teaching and learning activities such as lecture, seminar, lab & essay led teaching. An increasing number are using online learning environments to provide some supportive or supplementary educational value. Some are ‘blended learning’ where elements of the course must be completed online by the learners. Contact time is altered where some is face to face and an amount is also online.  A smaller number are fully online, where the online environment is driving the course, delivering a structured programme of study via resources and activities.

Building for these environments is often a process which involves a significant amount of investment for the teachers and learners.


  • Often going alone, designing what works best for their teaching style, their students and making best use of their knowledge of the available tools .
  • Sometimes they may ask for support or advice on best practices, examples, tips and tricks and other approaches improve their original ideas.
  • Some invest additional resource to make larger changes.
  • Courses will always be refreshed over the years, often this comes with a partnership of moving more content online and reworking the existing online content to improve it.


  • Need to adapt to different approaches of teaching. One part of their course may be very traditional, others may be more online.
  • Method of delivery may influence enrolment decisions.
  • Work/life/study balance & looking for flexibility built into courses.
  • Increasingly using online environments in their daily life.
  • There’s a digital divide between some individuals, some generations and their digital literacies.

Through the techtonic [sic] shifts in education the definition of ‘how people learn’ and ‘good teaching’ remains quite similar to that of 50 or 2000 years ago, and yet still quite hard to define. Many have tried, such as Bloom, Dewey, Paiget, Vygotsky, etc & we should embrace their work. However, it remain somewhat marred by the findings and the reality that most teachers are significantly impacted in how they were taught, and would still reflect this back in their own teaching. (Which is an opportunity for the expansion of innovation, if good teachers influence more good teachers.)

Technology in education has looked at converting the ‘sage on the stage’ to the ‘guide on the side’ for some time. If a good educational experience is about providing agency for individuals to become the best learners they can be, then we need to also reflect that in the design for learning.

Interaction and engagement are often driving factors

The design of online teaching and e-learning is often reserved for academic developers, educational technologists and teachers. Designs often cover what will be taught, intended learning outcomes, design of activities, overall structure & any resources required. Design is often overlooked, and many go directly past the planning phase in favour of the building/development phase. This is perfectly acceptable, especially if on a path over a number of years, increasingly using the affordances of e-learning tools to complement their teaching and learning.

Often skipped, or under-resourced are the steps within the planning phase for a blended or fully online course. This may have more substantial repercussions as skipping design can lead to greater issues later on, which may need to be revisited. Luckily, cyclic design methodologies (whether intentional, or not) are no bad thing. It’s a little chicken & egg and the lack of planning is often due to lack of time across the sector/universe.

Designing a good structure for the course is often one of the first tasks needed. The rest of the course should hang off the back of a good structure:

  • The structure will, particularly with a fully online course, define what needs doing, and when.
  • This is the guide for the students, the stick, the planner, the measure of success and the motivator to stay on track.
  • When thinking of how much time students will spend on tasks, and when they do the task may have been overlooked.
  • A course overview/week-by-week structure is often where the planning of the chronology of the course starts, stops and the rhythm within.

Learning design to incorporate time as a critical factor?

Not factoring in when a learner will engage in an online environment could increasingly become a bigger issue. In an attempt to identify the importance of this issue, this blog post was written.


  • Chrono – time
  • Gogy – lead
  • Pedagogy – to lead the child
  • Chronogogy /  chronogogical – to lead by the time, time-led

I felt that this might have significance, and anything of that nature would require promotion within the relevant fields for others to rip it apar, to build retaliating endurance into the concept. After looking for time-influenced learning design in conference proceedings, journals and blogs I found nothing on the subject of time-based instructional/learning design or impact. I had to put a term down to then build upon. Sorry if you don’t like it.

Using captured analytic data to measure ‘visit’ hits & drawing crazy ideas off the back of it

Learning analytics is an emerging field within education where data is used to inform the success, design and evaluation of online learning. In a simplistic model used here, we have taken Google analytics visitor data for one month to attempt and identify if we can see any trends with correlation to learning design. It’s a crude example, but the whole post is based on answering my ‘is this a thing?’ question (it’s bothered me for around six months).

Visits per day, as percentages, over three educatioal websites for February 2013
  • Website 1 – Learning Circuits – an interactive educational resource for 8-10 year old children (I made this a decade ago, still going)
  • Website 2 – UCL Moodle – an institutional online teaching and learning environment
  • Website 3 – UCL.ac.uk – the main UCL website, hosting information about the university.

These data show a regular path of activity for the number of visits to websites across the February time period. The websites are all of an educational nature, but differ in their intended target audiences. Y-axis shows the percentage of the monthly number of visits for that day. X-axis shows the day of the month. The chart clearly shows a rhythm in visits, going up and down in a pattern.

The websites were selected for two reasons

  1. This is an educational observation (but it may be of interest to others if it rung true on other domains)
  2. These websites were the ones the author had access to for analytical information
We can study these data and make several observations across all three domains:
  • There is a distinct shape in visits.

    M-shape of activity

    M-shape of activity

  • There is a regular drop in the weekend, both days seeing less than half of the weekday visits
  • Saturday is the lowest point every week. Sunday is rarely much higher.
  • There is a slight drop on Wednesdays.
  • This month shows a heartbeat shape to the number of visits.
  • There is a slight shaping of an M over the weeks, where single websites, or all together, still create this rough M-shape (shown best in blue)
    • Sunday is the beginning point
    • Monday/Tuesday is the first highest
    • Wednesday shows some drop
    • Thursday marks the second peak
    • Friday is often slightly lower that a Monday or Tuesday counter-part, but still holds up the M-shape
    • Saturday is the lowest point of the week.

Repeating in other months?

February was chosen as a month in the year as it showed steady visits across three educational, but different sites. Each site has a different busy period, as shown below:

Overview of the number of users for UCL Moodle and activity over the year.

Overview of the number of users for UCL Moodle and activity over the year

Overview of the number of users for UCL Moodle and activity over the year

Overview of the number of users for Learning Circuits and activity over the year

Overview of the number of users for Learning Circuits and activity over the year

Overview of the number of users for Learning Circuits and activity over the year

 (Sorry no raw data for UCL.ac.uk)
Note: the M-shape persists across these charts. 

Sticking with February we looked at the same month for the past five years:

Average of visits, as a percentage, for each day, over five years across three sites

Average of visits, as a percentage, for each day, over five years across three sites

This chart shows the percentage of the visits per day of the week, for three websites, over a five year period. The purpose of this chart is to see if the data shown in the first chart, for February 2013, would be repeated over a longer period. The chart is done by day, and not date & the chart runs over fewer days as the first Monday of February would fall on different days, thus shortening the timeframe to evaluate.  The chart shows Saturday having the lowest number of visits over the week, with Sunday resulting in a similar number. The M-shape is less common with Wednesday gaining more visits over a longer time period. The heartbeat over the week, with peaks around Monday/Tuesday and Thursday/Friday remain to show the highest number of visits, especially when compared to weekends.

Out of Winter, across the year

Look across a whole year, in this example 2012, we can see if the data is true across all months and not just February.

One year of daily visits, as percentages, to UCL Moodle

One year of daily visits, as percentages, to UCL Moodle

And for Learning Circuits

One year of daily visits, as percentages, to Learning Circuits

One year of daily visits, as percentages, to Learning Circuits

These two charts show the average (as red) of the percentage of visits over the week. There is no longer an M-shape but do continue to show Saturday and Sunday as the lowest number of visits during the week. Wednesday becomes an increasingly common day over the year for number of visits and for Learning Circuits becomes the most popular day. (This might not have been helped by using Mean numbers and a handful of disproportional and high plots in around week 40 in the year.) UCL Moodle has a similar pattern, with one result much higher above than all others – this is the first week of term in September where the average for the month is very low initially, so on comparison that week is substantially higher. No chart exists for UCL.ac.uk – sorry.

Each of these two charts show the number of visits across two of the sites over a one year period (2012). The intention here is to primarily show that the ‘heartbeat’ of online activity is regular across the year. There are low and high points, but when matched up to the charts above, showing each week’s average, they show that the data analysis, in particular Saturday and Sunday being quiet days, remains true across the year for both domains.

Quantitative vs qualitative

I wonder how long you’ve been thinking ‘he’s not measuring this data very well’. Firstly, I accept all contributions to this. Secondly, this is a desk-based observation, not a research proposal. Any next step would be to review a longitudinal study with an online course, proper data analysis and a real methodology. This is just an idea-incubated post I’m afraid.

Discussion point

Much like the National Grid boost up the power networks when an advertisement break is coming in the nation’s favourite soap operas, could the same be said for a course designer planning their online learning? Perhaps not providing a boost, but instead being aware, and planning for, peaks of online activity?

IF, for example, I were planning an asynchronous activity for my learners would I want to set it for Friday and hope it’s completed by Monday? When would be the best time to plan this?

Most at the moment just set up a week-based activity and hope learners can manage their time effectively around this. However, if the data above can be read into, then more people will be online during the week rather than the weekend. Therefore, it would be best planned over the week, but does this depend on the type of task? What about synchronous activities?

I appreciate this is half-baked but I wanted to share a few simply observations:

  1. Activity online is clearly displayed in analytical review of web access logs
  2. This activity seems to indicate a pattern of peaks and troughs, of a ‘heartbeat’ of online visitor activity (measured in days)
  3. Has time-led instructional design (I like the terms chronogogy of learning design, chronogogical instructional design or chronogogically informed teaching and learning) been undervalued/overlooked in past learning design models for online education?
  4. Does this have a wider impact for online education, including distance learning and MOOCs?

Next steps

I’ve got a few ideas:

  • Talk to fellow educators, technical and less so, ask them if this really has an impact
  • Review course design, basic principles, feed into them the idea of time-based / chronogogical learning design
  • Expand upon this. We have a ‘Moodle archive’ – find a course with an activity like discussion forums and try to match up stored data with analytics information. Does anything correlate? 
  • Build it into a platform and measure the data points over a period of time, for a selection of courses
  • Fester in a basement for six years completing a part-time research project and slowly lose my mind over a somewhat trivial matter.


If analytic data suggests there is a ‘heartbeat’ of online activity should this inform learning design? I’d like to hear your feedback, as I think should. I’m going to keep looking into it, I just wanted to share some early thoughts with the internet and its people.

edit: sorry, a grammatically-correct friend provided me some advice on lead vs led. People are reading at least!

Second time round – making a MOOC better

Rod Digges6 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/

Not MOOCing? Well LOLwtfBBQ #fail

Matt Jenner3 December 2012

or how I stopped worrying and started to love the MOOCs.

Education ’12 is like a blasting rocket. Millions invested, calculated risks, people’s futures at stake, target in sight, whole load of discovery on the way and yet it still fires away from the homestead looking a little wobbly and aiming towards the sky with a slow but determined path ahead. Also, it’s likely the funding will be cut any moment. Meanwhile, people powerlessly hope it keeps going onwards. I like rockets, they are both childish and extremely complicated. But why the metaphor? Maybe I should’ve chosen Icarus, flying around and having a good ole’ time – but that story doesn’t end so well.

In the long (and largely unchanged) history of education many huge revolutions have come by and affected teaching and learning. I’m afraid I did not study either politics, the classics, philosophy, economics or enough psychology to truly add multiple dimensions, so I must focus on the engineering; the technological developments across the ages (just for a second) that ignites that rocket.

Throughout historical technological developments pesky free-thinkers will break, rebuild, reuse and sometimes just destroy things – just to see what was possible. Technology can be plentiful, customisable, personal and omnipresent. And this is where we get to MOOCs.

Massive online open courses are the edu-buzzword of 2012. Despite ancient web cookie crumb forensic experts identifying their existence since 2007 no mass media frenzy really tackled the constructivist approaches. Any academic reading the latest in the Journal of Distance Education, or, BBC News will have heard the headlines. ‘All universities offer all courses for free to everyone. Problems = Solved’ etc. Obviously the media are having a good time but this is real news – universities are offering courses for free, to anyone.  Sure, the range is limited and some universities have clandestine motives behind this. Some are doing it to be in the club, others for marketing, most just want to experiment and others may be all three, or all over the place.

This is ok – remember that research part of a rounded institution? We can research in education too, and that involves some risk, mixed methodology and unknown outcomes. MOOCs are a phase, no university can afford, given current income streams, to offer all courses for free to everyone. But, they may consider niche, perhaps inaccessible courses to wider audiences, include the general public in open activities, widen participation within non-traditional groups or something totally wild. Surely this is the cool thing about MOOCs – if anything the fact that most academics will have heard of MOOCs in some form is a good thing. Why? Well they challenge a lot of norms about education, and they rely on technology and willing experimenters to function. This is the rocket; technology and fuel waiting to blast. Brilliant.

The world has got to a point where a tablet computer can be bought for $30 and DIY desktop base components as little as $25. If you don’t like how it works, you can learn how to code and build your own thingamabob. Or, if you’re resourceful you’ll find one that’s close, uses Open Source and make it your own. Mix this with education and you’ve got the outline for the rocket, it’s all undefined, hard to describe and largely in some crazy imaginative state. Now you just need fuel.

For students

There are some excellent academics out there; you know the ones I mean. They will lead this eduvolution. Go and find one, they’re the ones where you’ve been in a lecture and they fizzed in your brain during and after.  They led that discussion where you dug deeper than ever before. Or that tutorial where your knowledge gap made you feel so far behind from the group. That academic challenged you and now you’re miles ahead.

For academics

There are some excellent students out there; you know the ones I mean. There will lead this eduvolution. Go and find one, they’re the ones where you’ve been lecturing and they don’t stop asking questions, making your brain fizzing during and after. They dominated that discussion where you worried you’ll run out of answers. Or that tutorial where they came in looking flummoxed about a topic you’ve never considered and kept your cool while you reassured them they’re doing ok. That student challenged you and now you’re miles ahead.

(As an aside, I also have a strong admiration for support staff but they didn’t quite fit in. Sorry.)

It’s these free-thinkers, the challengers, those difficult people who break all the rules and have no interest of what the rules even were. They will redefine the boundaries of education. Our technological world is driven by this antinomy. To fail is to win, black is white, bees can fly upside down etc. It’s hard to grasp.

When the NYT reports ‘Saying no to College’ this article was automatically generated from excited and fuelled fingers (*ahem*). Being plugged into start-up culture probably helps to understand, but essentially we’re in a world where the lucky few cannot attend school and instead chase their ideas, sometimes finding rewarding reality. In this context, it means building or hacking their way into business. For the sake of this conversation, the business is education.

If you search the internet for MOOCs you’ll find a few providers offering a wide range of courses. If you read about MOOCs you’ll end up finding the growing subculture of people who are trying to redefine education with tech-innovation. It’s gone well beyond help for writing that essay, the internet is brewing cultures of learners who are not tied to institutions, but instead to one another or learning networks. They’ll probably need some academic direction, but if MegaHyperGlobalUniCorp realise how to break this market, I give it 12 months before we see real Online Universities challenging that of traditional institutions. They say employers want to see qualified certification, but if the employers are millionaire college dropouts will they care?

The past 20 years in opening or transforming education are being recorded in the Archive for future generations to say ‘@middleagedperson #remember when Old School was old’s cool?? #haha’. We’re currently experimenting but we’re also laying the foundations of tomorrow’s advanced learning networks.

The year 2012 marks a point where moocs became a word. I don’t think the term will last that long, but the aftershocks might. Already we’re thinking that certain aspects are not quite right, such as massive – why so prescriptive to large sizes? The challenge is to see how they mature and we align ourselves with the priorities.

For E-Learning Environments, one big change is that of the Public E-Learning Portal (PELP) project, which you may start hearing more and more about. Since day 2 of launch (ish) we have had wonderful reasons for ‘opening up Moodle’ to wider audiences. The simple concept is people can’t just register for Moodle access, and if we did allow this (it’s technically really easy) it means all of UCL’s internal e-learning stuff becomes far more open. We don’t want this, it wasn’t setup for that and even if we changed it, there’s a few too many risks. Instead, we’ve got support to develop that ‘open Moodle’. Designed for premium courses in professional development, we feel the scope for it is wider than this – although we’re excited to see UCL opening up to the professional market too – it’s not just money spinning, you know?

The project is slowly entering its pilot phase and we expect it’ll grow in popularity over the coming year, with modest expected numbers using the platform. Over the coming year PELP will be renamed (suggestions welcomed…), expanded, launched and will serve a variety of courses from all UCL schools. It’ll provide a base for opening up courses to the wider community. It could be used as a promotion platform, a space to inspire, facilitate global collaboration, free thinking and new approaches. It’s not UmooCL (geddit?), but it’s not strapped to a rocket a million miles away either.

This was bought to you by the inner ramblings of UCL’s Distance Learning Facilitator who spends too much free time on his day job. 


Live blog as an edX CS50x student – Part 2

Matt Jenner11 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)


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

Matt Jenner27 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