15 Nov 2012

Turning E-Learning into Engaged-Learning

Last January I registered for Codeacademy brimming with good intentions and motivation. The first few weeks I was a model student, but after a month or so I started missing the weekly deadlines due to work and other commitments, and shortly afterwards I gave up completely. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but once I fell behind by a couple of weeks it was all too easy to forget about it altogether (I am still getting the weekly reminder emails, which are a constant source of guilt!).

I also signed up for a Coursera course (Computing for Data Analysis) a few months ago, thinking a shorter time frame may be more manageable, but unfortunately the programme commenced at a very busy period for me and I never seemed to find the time to even get started with it. I did make it through Google’s recent Power Searching MOOC (I was primarily interested in seeing what Google view as the key issues and skills), though I admit it was a struggle, and in some cases I played the videos in the background whilst doing other things. Maybe online learning is just not for me?

So I was really interested to see the post-course reflections of Roger Peng, the tutor of the aforementioned Coursera module: Some Thoughts on Teaching R to 50,000 Students (further information on the participation levels and attendance of participants is detailed here). Peng took away several lessons from his initial experience of delivering instruction through MOOC infrastructure including: 

    • 50,000 students is in some ways easier than 50 students.
    • Clarity and specificity are necessary.
    • Modularity is key to overcoming heterogeneity
    • Time and content are more loosely connected

      Peng will also be running the course through his Simply Statistics blog shortly. It will be interesting to compare the feedback and experiences of users across both platforms (read the comments accompanying Peng’s post for feedback from the Coursera participants).

      I don’t believe that truly effective online teaching can ever be a case of simply videoing a face-to-face lecture and uploading it to YouTube, even though I have experienced several examples of this in the past. To do so, is largely missing the point; even if the 'content' needs to be broadly the same, it requires very different packaging. In the same way that active learning strategies are so valuable in the classroom, interaction and participation is just as important (if not more so) with online and asynchronous learning.

      My own lack of success to date as an online student may partly be due to time pressures, but I am a great believer that if something is important enough you will make the time. Maybe I just wasn’t passionate enough about the topic to really push myself to see it through? But surely one of the characteristics of good instructional design involves stimulating interest and encouraging engagement (within reason)? I also get discouraged easily when faced with the prospect of lengthy presentations and videos – in this respect I think Peng’s comments about modularity are key. Personally, I am far more engaged as a learner when presented with a menu of resources each covering a single concept or idea, rather than a single longer presentation. With the former I can select the relevant content I need, achieving an immediate pay-off that motivates me to continue. I can essentially tailor the content specifically to my personal learning needs even within the infrastructure of a generic programme or module. Conversely, with the latter my interest quickly tapers off when presented with less relevant material or aspects I'm already familiar.

      Most recently, I have registered for a Coursera module on Elearning and Digital Cultures starting in January 2013. A pre-course email circulated this week recommends that participants should use a blog to record and share their learning, so depending on my success this time around, you may see my own reflections on the Coursera experience here in the near future.


      1. I really enjoyed your post, Michelle. Very thoughtful analysis of the issues with online learning - particuarly with the growth of video lectures - from a the user's perspective. Motivation is a constant in learning and, as an instructional designer, I'm aware of the difficulties in creating affectively-evocative learning. Very little research has been completed in the area, but interest and active participation are key, which is why long videos can be so hellishly demotivating. You make a key point about attention in your piece: chunking of information is primary. More is less online so conceptual overviews with "dig deeper" style linking tends to over a more engaging and personalised experience. Personally speaking, the most successful online learning experience I've had was with lynda.com. Not only was the stucture, content and personal control of learning excellent, but I HAD to learn the stuff to pass exams for a masters: ready-made motivation!

      2. Thanks a lot for the comment Helena. I completely agree regarding the approach of delivering conceptual overviews rather than focussing on detailed content. The learner can follow up on the latter themselves if needed. I feel that 'flipping the online classroom' would definitely sustain my interest for longer, even if not until the very end! Though I am feeling optimistic about the Coursera #edmooc! :)

      3. Have signed up to same! Coursera though, is nightmare for anyone with lots of interests like yourself - too much to learn, too little time!

      4. I brought my 11 year old to CoderDojo back in April and we have been on Codeacademy since then to help supplement the face to face learning. I tried it before and like yourself, I fell by the wayside. This time I have kept at it, half out of pride and half out of wanting to help. My son provides the enthusiasm while I can help him negotiate the parts where he hits a wall and gets frustrated.
        That kind of learning has always worked well for me. If I can learn while keeping in mind how I can pass on the information, it sinks in deeper.
        A like a little bit of competition is not a bad thing;

      5. Thanks for your input Roy - I'm envious of your success with codeacademy!

      6. I'm also envious of how easy my son picks it up Michelle!

      7. A very nice post describing what users actually feel. That too I came across this after having a discussion with my friend on some issues faced while doing courses via MOOC's. Both of us had tried our luck at coursera offerings earlier and gave up due to two contrasting reasons. My friend had issues with length of videos whereas for me issue was finding time to devote for followup. What both of us agreed on were, the motivation to take the course is derived from:
        a) The relevance of the course with the work that we do at that time.
        b) The number of peers we are able to connect to.

        For e.g. I found the SQL course more interesting due to the fact that I had to use it for a server development activity while a course on Models Thinking was given low priority as I immediately did not require it. Also with SQL course I was able to find more new-bies across several forums and look at multiple problems. I think, in a way this made me passionate about the course and I eked out time from several of my other activities.

        When I got the mail from #edmooc team, I really liked their strategy of building a peer group much before the class started. I think this has made me optimistic about this course.

      8. Thanks a lot for the comment JK. I agree, the difference between 'need to know' and 'nice to know' can often provide the motivation to help you learn, as you see very visible results from implementing your learning in a real project or task.
        See you on the #edmooc course!