So, here's the thing about the video in my Coursera course

I’m taking a Coursera course, and the primary content delivery tool being used is video. Talking head video of the instructor switching to voice over PowerPoint lectures with bullet point slides and diagrams.

Now, I wish I could leave my first impressions aside, but can’t (because I’m a bit shallow and judgmental this way and first impressions count), but I am staring at PowerPoint slides primarily composed of bullet points of text (bad) in FREAKIN’ COMIC SANS.  I mean, bullet points of texts are bad enough in terms of adding nothing to my understanding of what is being said, but it’s FREAKIN’ COMIC SANS. I am in a kindergarten class.

Anyway, where was I. Oh yeah. Video.

So, a little technical & pedagogical note about using video as a content delivery method. Web video can be great in that it allows students to interact with the video. Learners can pause, rewind, fast forward and otherwise move through video at their own pace. Going back to review content they may be fuzzy on. As  Zhang, Zhou, Biggs and Nunamaker noted in their 2005 research study Assessing the impact of interactive video on learning effectiveness (pdf) , the interactive nature of web video – this ability to stop, rewind and replay – is one of the prime pedagogical affordances of web video .

Results of the experiment showed that the value of video for learning effectiveness was contingent upon the provision of interactivity. Students in the e-learning environment that provided interactive video achieved significantly better learning performance and a higher level of learner satisfaction than those in other settings

Now, for me, if you are going to make video your primary content delivery platform and take advantage of that pedagogical affordance of video – this ability for learners to manipulate the timeline – then the video should be a true streaming experience. Coursera videos are not.

What does that mean? Well, there are 2 ways you can deliver video on the internet: progressive download and streaming. I won’t get into the technical details of each (you can read for yourself a bit more if you like), but one of the major differences between the two methods of video delivery is how quickly you can move thru the timeline. Progressive download buffers the video, meaning when you move the timeline, you get the hourglass for a few seconds while the video buffers and then restarts. Whereas in streaming video, you get no buffering. You move your cursor on the timeline and the video starts at that point instantaneously.

Imagine this (and I am sure you have experienced it yourself). You are a student and you are trying to find a specific spot on a video, how frustrating is the progressive method? You move the cursor back. Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). The video plays. Whoops, wrong spot. You move the video back a few more seconds. Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Wait (buffer). Hmmm. Too far. Move the cursor forward. Wait (buffer). wait (buffer)….you get the picture.

Knowledge is created in instants. When you are on the verge of connecting concepts, these little delays matter. You want to find the spot you need, not give your mind even that extra couple of seconds to wander or worse, get frustrated interacting with technology.

On the plus side for Coursera videos, the videos appear to be short (less than 6 minutes), so shuffling back and forth and buffering to find an exact spot is reduced as there isn’t much of a timeline to slide through. And you do have the option to play at slower or faster speeds – great if you want to review a 5 minute video in 3, or slow down the pace to catch concepts. But, if you are going to make video your pedagogical tool of choice for content delivery, and the primary pedagogical advantage of video is the ability to move thru the timeline and review what you saw, then it is worth it to invest the extra dollars and make the video true streaming video for a seamless user experience where the technology gets out of the way and not in the way.


How do you do Moodle upgrades at your institution?

Looking for a bit of feedback from the Moodle community with this post, so please add any comments. Actually, looking for feedback from any community that uses an LMS, not just Moodle.

We’re struggling a bit right now with an upgrade strategy for Moodle. Recently, Moodle has implemented a regular release schedule, releasing a new, major release twice a year (December/June) with minor releases 6 times a year. While I am a generally fan of the Agile “release early/release often” development philosophy, it is quickly becoming obvious that this is going to be operationally challenging to keep up. In my understanding of the release early/release often philosophy, the changes in each release are meant to be incremental improvements and not feature driven. The problem I am seeing with Moodle right now is that the changes are not incremental. Some of them are downright massive.

Our story is that we have just finished launching Moodle 2.1. We did not upgrade from Moodle 1.95 to 2.1, opting to have 2 learning platforms running to minimize disruption for the students as the two platforms are quite different. So, we have bit the bullet internally and are phasing in Moodle 2.1. New students in new programs are in 2.1, existing students finish their programs in 1.9.

The 2.1 project took us over a year to plan and deploy, partially because we had so heavily customized the 1.9 platform that it took a lot of code rewriting to make sure 2.1 would do what we wanted it to do. We went from over 400 customizations in Moodle 1.95 to less than 10 in Moodle 2.1. We abstracted those customizations and have now redeployed most as modules or plugins. All this was done in the hopes that future upgrades would be more nimble. There was (and still is) a weariness with doing “mega” upgrade projects that take over a year of intensive resources to plan and deploy. We wanted to be able to roll out quick updates a few times a year as close to the Moodle schedule as possible. That was the theory.

In practice this is much more difficult, mostly because the pace of change coming out of Moodle core development is massive. We have just launched 2.1, but now find ourselves 2 versions behind. By December with the release of 2.4, we will be 3.

Now, going from 2.1 to 2.2 will be pretty invisible for our end users as the changes are not that different, and don’t touch some of our customizations. But going to 2.3 means quite major changes at there are overhauls of some key features of the LMS that touch many of our users (navigation, a complete rewrite of assignments, new activity and file picker, key places where our users interact with the LMS). 2.4 looks to be bigger still, with the addition of team assignments, which is one of our key customizations. So, do we wait until 2.4 is out in December, setting our upgrade schedule back to the summer , or do we rewrite our team assignment customization to work with 2.3 knowing that it will be useless in the future? Our work becomes redundant next year.

All this is to say, even these dot upgrades (which we thought would be fairly minor and easy to keep up with) are becoming what we hoped they wouldn’t be – mega-upgrade projects. But now they happen yearly instead of every few years. We are looking ahead and trying to figure out, do we live in perpetual Moodle upgrade land to the point where we operationalize Moodle upgrades each year, or do we stop and sit where we are?

Technically, it takes massive resources for us to do these upgrades, primarily because customizations need to be examined and tested against the code changes. But we have good coders, and they can do the work. The bigger issue is prepping our users and supporting faculty through a constant change cycle. Now, change is good, but when you find yourself in a situation where you are expending huge resources to manage change well, you kinda go is it worth it?

We’re feeling a bit frustrated right now and find ourselves at a high level crossroads. Is this constant upgrade cycle becoming our new reality? It’s becoming obvious that we underestimated the changes each dot release of Moodle is bringing. We were expecting smaller, incremental changes that would have a fairly minor effect on our end users or customizations, not entire rewrites of core components or massive UI changes.

So, my question to you, if you have stuck with me this far (thank you) is how are you managing your Moodle upgrades with the new Moodle release schedule? Do you have regular upgrades scheduled, or is your strategy to sit and wait awhile?

Any insight into your situation and how you manage the upgrade cycle is appreciated.


My Coursera profile

I’m taking a Coursera course this fall called Networked Life and blogging my reflections/experience about both the content and the format.

A brand new (August 30th, 2012) feature of Coursera is the ability to create a profile on the Coursera site – a good thing as it makes it easier for students to find and connect with each other. Here’s mine.

The bit I really like about the profile is that Coursera has given you the ability to make your profile open to the world.

As a networked learner, I believe being open to the world is an important principle and core networked learning concept. Open to the world as the default is the first step that enables learning connections beyond the institution – something that I want.

Now, giving me the option to make my profile open to the world doesn’t guarantee that those connections will happen, but I can tell you that without having the option, they won’t. So, I think Coursera has done a good thing by including the “open to the world” option.

The profile also gives you the opportunity to add in links to a personal website, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or G+ account, and (reflecting that Coursera was born out of computing science) a GitHub account, again enabling connections to happen outside the institution; connections that can carry on long after the course is finished.



Taking a Coursera course: Step 1 signing up

One of my goals for this fall was to enroll in a Coursera MOOC to both get a better understanding of how they work, and to learn some new stuff.

The course I decided on is called Networked Life, offered by Dr. Michael Kearns at Penn State. The description looked intriguing as network theory is something I have wanted to dig a bit deeper into for awhile.

Networked Life looks at how our world is connected — socially, strategically and technologically — and why it matters.

  • What science underlies companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google?
  • How does your position in a social network (dis)advantage you?
  • What do game theory and the Paris subway have to do with Internet routing?
  • How might a social network influence election outcomes?
  • What are the economics of email spam?
  • How does Google find what you’re looking for… and exactly how do they make money doing so?

First thing I did was Google Dr. Kearns, hoping to find a Twitter account where I could connect and follow him. But the best I could find was a group Twitter account from his department at Penn State.

Sign up process was pretty straightforward and asked for the bare minimum of information: name, email and password.

As soon as you sign up you get the ability to share that info with your network.

Now, no doubt a large part of the intent here from Coursera is to increase enrollment. But it was also good to see not only an acknowledgement that a learning network was going to be an important piece in ensuring that you, the student, will be successful, but an actual prompt to begin developing your own network so that;

You will be able to discuss and work on material together.

This is where having an already established network of people begins to (hopefully) pay off for students. I was able to send a tweet, post on FB and post on G+ that I was not only taking the course, but also looking for others to come along and learn with me (and help me learn as well).

A few minutes later, I got an email welcoming me into the course.

Dear Clint Lalonde,
Thank you for signing up for Networked Life!
We look forward to seeing you in class, and we’ll notify you again when the class is about to start. Stay tuned!
Prof. Michael Kearns

For this interested in the PKM mechanics of how I am going to organize the info during this course, step one was creating a label in Gmail that automatically filters Coursera email and adds a colour code to those emails so I notice them in my already cluttered inbox. I have also created a Twitter list and any other students who I come across on Twitter that are also enrolled in this course will be added to this list. My other plan is to blog as much as I can about not only the mechanics of the course, but about the contents as well. So, if I can stick to it for 10 weeks, expect a few blog posts about networks in the coming weeks.

The Honour Code

I read over the honour code (thanks for keeping it short and sweet Coursera), which seems fine and fair, although this little bit in section 3 (my emphasis) does make me pause for a second:

I will not make solutions to homework, quizzes or exams available to anyone else. This includes both solutions written by me, as well as any official solutions provided by the course staff.

Quizzes and exams – okay, fair enough. But my own homework? Heck, getting feedback on my homework from THE WORLD is something that I want to happen. I want to be able to post my homework online and have others take a look at, respond to, critique, agree/disagree with and otherwise hack at ‘er. I want to share my homework, not for the benefit of someone else (although that may happen) but for the benefit of myself and my learning.

Mind you, if most of the homework I get is more cut and dry answer-10-multiple-choice-questions-that-will-then-be-graded-by-a-machine (which I suspect will be the case), then my homework may be more like a quiz than some kind of long form piece of writing that might be more conducive to open discussion among peers. We’ll see.

The ToS and Privacy Policy

On to the Terms of Service, which includes this line:

Neither the User Content (as defined below) on these Sites, nor any links to other websites, are screened, moderated, approved, reviewed or endorsed by Coursera or its participating institutions.

I read this as a) fair warning that the forums could be a free range for all kinds of opinions, some good and some bad and b) there will probably be little instructor presence in the interactive bits of the course (ie forums), which I’d expect when there are thousands of people in the course contributing.

There is also this bit in the terms of service where I grant Coursera the right to use whatever content I post in the course:

With respect to User Content you submit or otherwise make available in connection with your use of the Site, and subject to the Privacy Policy, you grant Coursera and the Participating Institutions a fully transferable, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free and non-exclusive license to use, distribute, sublicense, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such User Content.

Well, at least it doesn’t say “sell”. But I did pop down to take a look at the Privacy Policy and found this bit that makes me wonder exactly what a “business partner” is:

We may share your Personally Identifiable Information with business partners of Coursera to receive communications from such parties that you have opted in to.

Not sure who that might be or what that might mean. Free may have a bit of a price.

Finally, this bit in the Terms makes it clear that Coursera MOOC’s are an ongoing experiment, and we, the students, are the data providing subjects:

Records of your participation in Online Courses may be used for researching online education. In the interests of this research, you may be exposed to slight variations in the course materials that will not substantially alter your learning experience. All research findings will be reported at the aggregate level and will not expose your personal identity.

Hopefully, there is some research work going on behind the scenes and that work gets published so that we all benefit from understanding how (and if) this model works, and how it can be refined and improved.

Okay, on to learning new stuff!