Observations on the pacing of online courses.


Used under licence - http://www.flickr.com/photos/fortwainwright/7217286298/

On the OLDS MOOC course I have been interested to observe how I am tackling the issue of keeping up with the prescribed pace.

OLDS MOOC is a 9 week course in which students are expected to progress in lockstep and the pace is quite minutely prescribed with daily tasks.

Some tutors provide estimated time commitments, others don’t and sometimes tutors provide short routes (e.g. in week 3 there is a “2+ hours route” comprising  only 4 of the 10 activities).

Perhaps we should have an example of a weekly schedule, so I’ll add week 3’s  schedule below, though I am not saying it is typical or representative as I haven’t checked this. However, it is typical in that it provides different tasks each day.  We know the topic will change in the following week so there is pressure to complete these tasks before the new tasks for the new topic arrive.

So an example week…

  • Week 3, Day 1, Activity 1 = 15 mins
  • Week 3, Day1, Activity 2 = 30 mins
  • Week3, Day1, Activity 3 = 30 mins
  • Week3, Day2, Activity 4  = 15 mins
  • Week 3, Day 2, Activity 5 = 30 – 60 mins
  • Week 3, Day 3/4/5, Activity 6 = 60-90 mins
  • Week 3, Day 3/4/5, Activity 7 = 15 mins
  • Week 3, Day 6, Activity 8 = 15-20 mins
  • Week 3, Day 7, Activity 9 = 60 mins
  • Week 3, Day 7, Activity 10 = 13-30 mins

Lockstep for collaboration.

Image used with permission - http://tinyurl.com/b5mxee9

Working in lockstep is important when you want participants (students and tutors) to work together – for students to collaborate and have tutors coming into the course for particular parts.  These are both features of OLDS MOOC – students are supposed to be working in groups on projects and there are different tutors for each week.

I’ve taught on, and been a student on, courses that have tried to get students to work together online and at a distance. It’s difficult; people are always waiting on others.  You try to organise synchronous meetings but it’s always difficult getting everyone together – one of the reasons they’ve chosen to work online is probably because they are looking for flexibility in this area.

Lockstep for contracting tutors.

Tutors too need to have lines drawn as to when they are expected to engage with the course and when not.  It’s excellent for students to have the input from a number of different experts in their field (as is the case with OLDS MOOC) but I guess those tutors who taught in week 2 will not be paid to monitor and engage in week 2 discussions in week 8 or later when the course has finished.  I am surprised by the high level of online activity of some of the tutors on OLDS MOOC but put this down to it also being their research. I’m not sure this is what we can expect on a typical course and certainly isn’t the experience of many people I know of ‘regular’ OU online courses.

Personal experience – readiness for next steps.

So, back to my observations about how I am pacing myself…  Let’s consider weeks 2 and 3.  I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the contents of weeks 2 and 3 – easily equal to the amount of time expected of me by the course designers. However, I did not do the activities they wanted me to do.  I’ve talked about experiential vs didactic learning before in this blog so won’t do so again. However, having taken on board the theories and read around the subjects a little I am now, in week 5, ready to start putting things into practice.  In other words It’s taken me a few weeks to be ready to turn theory into practice. However, I am behind in the course – behind my peers who did that practice two weeks ago (or did they? Some did but did some slip away quietly I wonder?).

I’ve spent the last couple of days revisiting week 2.  There was far more there than I realised at the time.  CloudWorks for me is a complete mess of an information source – full of resources and conversations and links but with no clear structure. This perception is undoubtedly due to my own expectations and my own lack of familiarity with the resource. However, I like to think I am highly digitally literate and keen to explore new web-based environments so if I have struggled I am quite sure others have done so too and this also comes back to the time issue. How much time can students be expected to devote to learning the tools?  In OLDS MOOC we did have week 1 to do this but in retrospect it was not enough time or else there were too many tools.

A course should save me time not waste my time.

I think that one thing I seek in a course is a course through the material, a course that will result in knowledge.  The web is full of material.  I’ll sign up for (and sometimes pay for) a course if it provides me with an efficient way of assimilating the material. In other words, a way of saving me time.  Cloudworks sometimes seems to me just another unstructured web.  Nothing wrong with that expect when I have signed up for guidance – a course to follow.  I find myself completely at sea in Cloudworks going from link to link and back again around and around in circles.

I said Cloudworks contained a wealth of interesting resources and conversations – more than I had found in week 2.  This is true; there were more things there then than I had realised but now, two weeks later, after students and tutors have posted up project work, thoughts, links, ideas etc , there is even more there!  So the problem of catching up has become greater.  Perhaps “catching up” is the wrong expression. I’m not motivated to catch up, I’m motivated to find out more to explore the subject at greater depth and also, oddly, I find myself now ready to put things into practice. Of course I can’t easily do this with others because that is what they did a few weeks ago. They’ve moved on now.

Each additional online environment costs time.

used with permission http://www.flickr.com/photos/opendemocracy/523438942/

I’ve  complained about the multitude of online spaces on this MOOC before but will raise the issue again here as I think it is relevant to any discussion on time allocation.  Not only do I find it inconvenient to have to check various different systems for information and updates, I find it time consuming.  Time consuming in the sense of finding myself constantly searching for things.  I saw something back in week 3, now where is it? CloudWordks?  The website?  The forum? Which forum?   I’m not talking about individuals’ blogs or websites – I normally bookmark them if they look interesting, I’m talking about course materials and course information.

Some tutors seem to favour Cloudworks and some seem to favour the Google Forum as a place for students to discuss things. Some tutors don’t mind which you use and some say use either.  The problem is that discussions are fragmented.  I know the arguments for allowing this, but it is time consuming sometimes to find the right conversations. Also, I suspect that adding comments to some Clouds in Cloudworks is not very useful. Who will read them and respond? Especially in a later week to the one that signposts the students to it? Especially if the tutor for that week has disengaged from the mooc?  I would have preferred conversations to be in one place – in a forum that can be search and ordered and filtered and on which all participants have their eyes.

The Google Forum used in OLD MOOCS.

The Google Forum.  Let me say a word or two about this in the context of time on task.  I have wasted a considerable amount of time on this forum and am more than surprised by this as it is a Google product and not some little piece of software knocked up by a university (that sounds bad but I’ll let it stand).  Before OLDS MOOC I hadn’t used a Google Forum much so coming to it new involved a little time familiarising myself with the interface.  THE OLDS MOOC design team made this slightly more difficult than it needed to be because, as with many of their online spaces, they embed them into pages.  Mashups are cool and useful but I do find mashups that involve interactive elements often cause issues.  If we look at the Open Forum we can see that its deployment could be made more efficient thus saving the student time.

Embedding content.

On the course home page http://www.olds.ac.uk/ there is a link in the navigation to the Open Forum.  However, the link doesn’t take you to the forum it takes you to another page in which the forum is embedded – http://www.olds.ac.uk/mooc-environment/open-discussion.  Sure, there is a link to the forum but it appears that you are already there.  The problem is that the search box does not work in the same way as it does on the real forum, here https://groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/olds-mooc-open  and much of the filtering functionality is not present. Just this confusion caused me some wasted time (I blogged about it here).

Time spent on technology reduces time spent on content.

used with permission http://www.flickr.com/photos/spikenzie/5904882743/

The forum itself has also caused me some wasted time as messages I have posted have not been published.  From my end it appears that they were flagged as spam and the tutor needed to click a link to have them approved but apparently they were not in the “moderation queue”.   Why it wasted my time was that I spent time searching for the messages (and isn’t it odd you cannot order the messages by date?), looking at my Google membership privacy settings, reposting them and trying to alert others (via twitter) to the issue. I was also frustrated by the lack of an OLDS MOOC  IT help desk.  I’m not merely having another moan here, I’m saying that spending time on the technology reduces the available time I have to spend engaging with the course material and other course participants.  It’s certainly made me think twice about using external systems on my courses as opposed to our VLE.  This is not of course an option in a MOOC but I had considered it a good move to help students increase their digital literacy skills.

In week 3 we looked at ways of representing time spent on activities though not really (as far as I have understood) ways of calculating this.  What my experience has shown me is that it is extremely difficult for the designer to estimate times on tasks.

Key Information Sets – time spent on activities.

Used with permission  http://www.flickr.com/photos/telstar/3303367343/

In my job I am currently thinking about the HESA’s (Higher Education Statistics Agency) Key Information Sets (KIS).  We need to tell students in advance how much time they will spend on modules and how this time is broken down.  We need to say how many hours will be spent on “scheduled learning activities”, how many on “independent learning activities” and how many on assessment, and the HESA defines each category – http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_studrec&task=show_file&Itemid=233&mnl=12061&href=calculations_methods.html

We started week 1 of OLDS MOOC considering what learning design was and recognising that the Higher Education learning environment in the 21st century is very different from that half a century ago.  Now the information is out there already, available for free.  When we design online courses we design courses (i.e. routes) through the information that results in knowledge and we also have to design in assessment and accreditation – things students cannot get for free.  When a student looks at our courses and considers whether they are value for money he/she will look at time on task and consider very carefully paying for courses with an abundance of independent study.  My own son has just finished a degree in economics and divided his total tuition fees by the number of contact hours he was offered.  He totally ignored everything else.  Now of course we can factor in institutional fixed costs (quality office, registry, exams & assessments office, estates, etc.). We might also ask the student to factor in research time for his tutors.  However, we don’t present the costs in this way, we say the course comprises X hours of which Y hours are for scheduled learning activities and Z hours are for independent learning time.  The challenge for us in HE is to make this look good value. Being able to calculate, explain and justify time on tasks in online courses is very important.  I don’t have any answers, I am just aware of the problem.

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