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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.