Do you ever start something new and find yourself thinking ‘I should have been doing this for ages’? I had a very strong case of that this week as I began a new Coursera course called ‘E Learning and Digital Cultures‘ online.
Last year I watched a fascinating TED talk by Daphne Koller, one of the founders of Coursera. I could identify with a lot of the learnings she spoke about. They were similar to conclusions I had reached from the initial forays into e learning I had been making at YouthNet using Moodle. These included ideas around the improved experience online learning can provide (particularly for a range of differently abled and variably focused students), the importance of a community of learners and the potential of using peer grading to scale feedback. I wrote a blog post about these ideas and how we had been putting them into action when developing our online training in support skills at YouthNet. But at the time I didn’t explore the possibility of doing a Coursera course myself.
I’m lucky to have had really inspiring colleagues – and in this case it was Helen Williams (@nellsberry – also blogging about the course) who told me about this particular Coursera course. It sounded enormously interesting and relevant so I leapt on board as well. And luckily, with Coursera, it’s pretty easy to leap on board. The course is a MOOC (standing for Massive Open Online Course) which means there are literally thousands of participants. While it opens and closes at a particular time and there are deadlines for our final assignment, individuals all over the world can choose when they read, watch and comment on the weekly papers, articles and films.
This course explores teaching and learning in the digital age, but from a very wide angle – starting this week with an exploration of utopian and dystopian representations of technology in our culture – with a view to understanding how our perspectives on technology and human interaction with technology can influence how we view and develop online learning.
An exploration of e learning, being presented through e learning, gives an interesting ‘meta’ element to the whole course. As well as an enormous level of discussion about the content itself, there is a lot of dialogue about the way the course is being presented and taught.
Even before I had actually engaged with any of the content, I found myself making notes about the experience.
I liked the way that there were loads of conversations going on about the course at once on different platforms – but felt that it was a bit overwhelming and I could have benefited from more guidance around how to manage and get the most out of these. It got me thinking about our volunteers and how we can improve their experience of familiarising themselves with our online learning platform.
I liked the way that a twitter stream down the side of the page gave a real time buzz to the course and went a long way towards making the experience of e learning at my computer at home more social. But I found it distracting when I was trying to focus on understanding the initial readings and would have preferred to be able to turn it off until I was ready to engage in discussion about the piece.
I really liked the level of peer engagement and reflection that was encouraged. Not only is the final assignment peer graded, but participants were encouraged to write a reflective piece about their thoughts on a platform of their choice each week – and share it with other participants. This has already inspired me to make some changes in the e learning courses I’m working on at YouthNet. I’ve added some forums encouraging our trainees to reflect on their own experience of completing a topic and asking them to identify some of the work of their peers which they found useful and relevant. Given that they are being trained in skills for giving online support, (something which is by no means an exact science) discussion and sharing of perspectives is immensely valuable. It was good to get a new take on how to encourage this further and will be interesting to see how and if it works in practice.
Participants in the Coursera course are also encouraged to share their learning externally by blogging – and as a result I’ve already seen people who are not actually participating in the course benefitting from and taking part in the discussions – and providing some brilliant insight. We’ve always heard from volunteers that the skills they learn with us – effective listening, writing supportively, giving emotional support, clarifying and reflecting on difficult issues – are really valuable to them in the rest of their lives. Helen and I have started to wonder if a good addition to some of the training would be to encourage our volunteers to think in more depth about how their learning might be helpful to others – and how they could pass this on. Doing this might help make their understanding of the nature of the skills they are developing much richer and more varied.
So, lots to think about already – and I haven’t even done all of the reading for this week. Next time I blog about this course, I hope it will be less ‘meta’ and more theory. But the great thing about this course is it’s providing both.