Coursera crash

I’ve been busy the last week with my first MOOC (massive open online course) run by Georgia Tech via Coursera. The course was about the fundamentals of online course design. Ironically, the course management was a lesson in how NOT to organize a course online. Signing up for study groups was naively done via a Google spreadsheet. The numbers of participants were so high that Google’s servers were overloaded. It took me 48 hours before I could enter my name in a cell (Group 57). As anyone who has tried to use Google spreadsheets for this kind of collaborative planning, the biggest flaw is that anyone can rewrite the content, which was promptly done. Every hour or so, the group contents were deleted, and completely overwritten.

The instructor told us just to stick with the group you started with, but many participants felt confused and rejected.

Once on the material, it was often confusing where to go and what to do. After one week it was clear enough, but it took a lot of trial and error on my part.

This morning I saw that the instructor has pulled the plug on the course, and course pages now only show

Sorry, this class site is now closed.

Very frustrating, especially since I’d spent a lot of time on the assignments and had got all my credits for the first week.

For a more detailed analysis of what went wrong with Georgia Tech’s MOOC, see the excellent post and discussion at Online Learning Insights.

Fatal conflict: Teacher 2.0 and Student 1.0


Issue: Incompatible integration of module Teacher 2.0 with multiple versions of Student 1.x

Type: Bug

Priority: Major


Since September I’ve been working with first-year nursing students on a series of language tasks to improve their professional knowledge of English. I used our online platform as an interactive learning space to present new material in the form of texts, videos and audio files, and to practise the target language in a range of interactive activities, including discussion forums, collaborative glossaries and group wikis. Each week, I had four one-hour sessions with four groups of 25 students in order to clarify issues, highlight key learning points and give individual feedback and coaching.

All well and good.

When I reviewed the online analytics, I was often impressed by the amount of activity, especially during times that are typically non-learning moments, that is, after 10 pm and during the weekends. The final language products were generally satisfactory — students showed they had mastered new language and could use it in a realistic setting (presentations, brochures, guides).

However, there was some discontent about having to come to class for the one-hour coaching session. Very few students wanted to come after 3 pm. Their primary concern was to get home earlier. This is a local issue because most students still live at home, and many have to travel over 90 minutes to get to university. This combination means that students are overly concerned with being at home, and university is literally second place; hence the desire to leave for home as soon as possible.

Flipped classroom infographicAs a result of the unpopularity of the “late” afternoon classes from 3 – 5 pm, I accepted a student proposal to have two one-hour plenary sessions from 1 – 3 pm, which would take the form of a traditional lecture, followed by two one-hour coaching sessions, where students would work on the language tasks, following the idea of flipping the classroom (see infographic left).

To make the lecture a little more dynamic, I displayed a tweetstream with a custom hashtag for the session. We started with a short pop quiz to review what they had learned previously. I tweeted on their progress — “Which is the hardest question?”, “Who will get the highest result??” — and watched my own tweets cycle round … in the two hours only one student tweeted, and that was only the hashtag, no text!

I asked how many students actually used twitter — fewer than a third raised a hand. Maybe they don’t associate learning with tweeting?

I wish I had taken a picture of the lecture: one student had her head on the table, another was texting under the table, and three other groups had formed chat circles. Everyone laughed when I pointed this out. At the end of the session, I also highlighted how little interaction there had been: I had spoken directly to maybe ten students, and most of the time it was a short question and answer. How much English had they used in the hour? Almost nothing.

After the lecture I had the first coaching session. Three of the fifty students turned up. One had to resolve an administrative issue due to missing classes last year, and then left immediately, so that she could make the train(!). The other two were pleased to show they had already started work on their language task, but instead of looking at the preparation material — step-by-step building blocks — they had gone straight to the end product. The mindset was still: “What do we have to do to pass the assessment?” Not “How can I learn new language and use it in an authentic situation?”

Empty classroomFor the second coaching session at 4 pm, I was totally alone with Fred, the anatomical dummy (see right).

Does this mean that everyone has just gone home early? Maybe they studied the background reading on the train? Yet according to the online reports, almost half of the students have not even visited the online course this week.

So what’s the problem? On one side we have an educational approach that promotes flexibility in learning time and place; learner-centred activities; authentic materials and realistic outputs; promotion of collaborative projects; and interactive learning tools.

I have the sinking feeling that many students would actually just prefer the old-school approach of a teacher-centred lesson, verb gap-filling exercises, memorizing vocab lists and mock tests.

Just so long as they can get a C grade and be home before 4 pm.




Ria Galleria revamped

After a frustrating few years using PixelPost (I’m slow to frustrate), I finally revamped with WordPress. There’s something so comforting about a fresh WordPress install — it’s so familiar and reliable, but always coming up with neat new surprises (version 3.4 has über-cool live previews).

Ria Galleria relaunch
Ria Galleria relaunch

If only every relationship had that magic mix, just like me and Mr B.

Geek rapture

Honestly, what did nerdy geeks do before browser extensions and apps?

Geek rapture with new font ID extension

Geek rapture with new font ID extension

Ah yes, trainspotting.


Truly this is the time of geek rapture.

Define nitpicky

Of all the Jobs anecdotes doing the rounds from Isaacson’s biography, this one stuck in my mind:


“At one point, the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated,” Isaacson writes:

Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked.

Read more …


Going beyond the anecdotes, the New Yorker article discusses the influence of tweakers over that of more original inventors, citing examples in England to explain why industrialization first took off there rather than elsewhere. (I thought the enclosure Acts were more of a prime cause.)

What is clear, however, is that Jobs was one nitpicking son of a gun. If he or I believed in an afterlife, then he would be sulking or shouting on his iCloud, demanding they change the colour and make it incompatible with all the other clouds.