Futurelearn Progressive: building a platform

So, FutureLearn, the new MOOC platform begotten of the Open University, has ‘gone live’ and opened the doors for people to sign up for beta courses.*

I’m impressed: they have gone from ‘good idea’ to ‘people can actually use it’ in just 9 months. That was by no means certain: it’s not unknown for high-stakes IT projects like this to run a teensy bit late, or even crash and burn completely before delivering anything. (Also in the news today is the prospect that the final bill for the disastrous NHS National Programme for IT will top £10bn – with nothing substantial to show for it.**)

More impressively, they have lined up contributions from 20 universities at launch, with more in the pipeline. The work involved in getting academics to do anything is considerable, and getting them to do something they’ve never done before is even harder. The partners have worked really hard to get some great-looking courses up there. Most of the feedback I’ve heard so far (noon on launch day, 18 September 2013) has been interest in the topics of the courses – which is as it should be.

I’m going to ignore the sexy content and look at the underlying stuff.

They’ve jumped two of the biggest hurdles: getting something live, and getting some decent stuff there. When it was announced, I said it was well worth a try. They’ve tried. In fact, it looks like they’ve tried really hard. They’ve delivered something. But how good is it?

I think it’s too early to tell.***

The most important question isn’t whether what they’ve done so far is good (though it has to be good enough): it’s whether what they’ve done so far can be developed to be really really good.

Early Aircraft

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MOOCs: Fail better

So another week, another high profile MOOC story.

A course on Coursera has had technical problems, which drew attention to shortcomings in the design of the course, which led to a lot of negative comment, and has culminated in the course being suspended. As many have noted, one of the big risks of working in the open is that everybody sees when you get it wrong. (Coverage in Inside Higher Ed, one participant’s account, and another overview of what happened with some interesting discussion in the comments. George Siemens has some interesting stuff to say, as ever.)

If that’s not bad enough, the subject of the course in question is “Fundamentals of Online Education“. Oh dear. Cue much mocking from the I-knew-MOOCs-were-rubbish camp, and wryly raised eyebrows from others.

Is this the end of MOOCs?

Of course not.

Firstly, there are plenty of other MOOCs, particularly on this subject. There’s the Open Learning Design Studio MOOC #oldsmooc, which runs until 13th March, or #ETMOOC, on Educational Technology and Media, which runs until 30 March. There will be more.

And secondly, failing isn’t a problem in and of itself. Everyone fails – or if they don’t, they’re probably not trying hard enough.* That’s particularly true of something like MOOCs where the whole point is to do things that haven’t been fully tried before. If you never get anything wrong, you’re being too conservative in what you’re trying to do.

No, the difficult bit is what you do when you fail. Coursera has taken the first step here: they’ve admitted there is a problem.

What they do next is what really matters, and will be the real indicator of their quality and potential. If they learn, and get better, the chances are they’ll keep doing that until they’re really very good.

As Samuel Beckett put it “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I do feel sorry for Fatima Worth, from Georgia Tech, about whom some rather unpleasant things have been said. The ghastly maxim “success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan” seems appropriate. Sure, she made some mistakes which with hindsight look obvious and glaring – but I don’t think they were quite *that* obvious and glaring beforehand. What applies to Coursera applies to her as an individual too: failing is not a disaster. What happens next determines whether or not it turns out to be a disaster. I hope she moves on and in ten years can open keynotes by using this as a self-deprecating anecdote of a hiccup from the early pioneering MOOC days.

At the time of writing (Tue 5 Feb 9.30am GMT), the course is listed with the next session ‘Date to be announced’.

I still think MOOCs Are A Good Thing.**

* Or they work in a safety-critical field, such as the nuclear industry or aviation, where learning-by-failing would entail unacceptable losses. Those fields have their own disciplines and techniques for wringing the maximum learning out of what failings or near-failings do occur, and these are indeed excellent. But they are also very expensive – too expensive for fields where nobody dies if you mess up.

** I’ve decided that to be more effective in communication, I should reduce my thoughts on major issues in my field to pithy oversimplistic slogans, which I will repeat frequently. I’ve already got “It’s Not A Power Law (Probably)”, and I hereby nominate “MOOCs Are A Good Thing” as another. I might also add “Here Comes Private HE”, although that’s a bit UK-centric, and it’s coming a little slower than I expected.

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Futurelearn may or may not succeed but is well worth a try

So there’s a new kid on the MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) block: Futurelearn. (Or FutureLearn or FUTURE/LEARN – I daresay the capitalisation question is one that’ll be answered fairly straightforwardly, at least in letters terms.) I’ll assume you’re already familiar with the basic idea from the press release and related news stories. (If not, Tony Hirst has an excellent roundup. )

The first thing to say is that this is a PR and organisational coup. Hats off to Martin Bean (the OU Vice Chancellor) and all involved (which must’ve been at least a small group) to get this organised and agreed between so many partners. (As an aside, I chatted to the folks setting up to record his latest video message to staff (OU only, sorry) and they said they couldn’t let me see the transcript or they’d be shot. I was slightly surprised – huge secrecy isn’t a usual part of his management style – but now I understand why: his message talks about Futurelearn!)

The second thing to say is that I think this is a great thing for the OU to be doing. As I’ve argued before (https://dougclow.org/2012/11/12/moocs-oer-and-wikipedia-for-great-justice/), MOOCs could open the doors to higher education much more widely, and are therefore a Good Thing. The OU has a track record in this sort of stuff.

I’m not at all sure whether Futurelearn will be a huge success or a flash in the pan, same as I’m not sure whether MOOCs in general will be a huge success or a flash in the pan. But I am increasingly sure that it’s a great idea for the OU to pursue this wholeheartedly. If someone’s going to be doing it, I’d rather it was the OU, with its 40-year tradition and commitment to opening access to higher education, than a venture capitalist with a commitment only to making money.

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I’ve been reading Clay Shirky’s latest essay. He takes the usual Clay Shirky line: technological change, in the transformatory shape of the internet, is evidently about to profoundly disrupt a large sector, and the current incumbents are not going to be able to do much about it. But the good news is that more people are going to get more of what they want than before, and for a lot less money. He’s ridden this line over the last ten years, with classic essays like “Help, the price of information has fallen and it can’t get up” which analyse – usually presciently – the disruption that’s happening to industries like music, books, newspapers, TV, video, film.

In this latest essay, the industry facing change that is almost literally inconceivable to the incumbents is higher education, and the current shape of change is the MOOC. His prognosis?

“We’re probably going to screw this up as badly as the music people did.”

He’s a better essayist than me, so really, in all honesty you’d be better stopping now and reading his writing instead.

Android invasion

Continue reading “MOOCs, OER and Wikipedia FOR GREAT JUSTICE”