OpenLearning launches courses

OpenLearning, a new Australian startup, recently announced its first roster of 4 free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): UNSW Computing 1, Observing and Analysing Performance in Sport, and two marketing courses.

UNSW Computing 1, an introductory computer science programming taught by Richard Buckland, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales, is already underway, but enrollment is still open.

Buckland, one of the founders of OpenLearning, is quoted on as saying that his MOOC site differs from other MOOC startups like Coursera and Udacity in being more “collaborative and social.”

OpenLearning’s plan is to offer both free “public” courses, and fee-based courses.

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U.S. social history

For an illuminating view of life in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, check out Richard Candida-Smith’s Fall 2012 UC Berkeley course History 124A: The United States from the Late 19th Century to the Eve of World War II (reading-list, video, iTunes audio).

A few of the topics covered so far:

  • The beginnings of the Jim Crow regime in the American South.
  • The rise of the modern research university.
  • How the United States changed from a “workers republic” to a “middle-class republic.”
  • How philanthropic foundations like the Rockefeller foundation worked to influence public policy.

My favorite knowledge tidbit so far is about how ethnic groups achieved a lock on certain occupations and types of factory work in the late 19th century. Typically a factory would contract with a work boss, who would supply the requisite number of workers, usually from his ethnic community. If a different ethnic community tried to take those jobs, there would often be violent confrontations. Henry Ford was one of the first to break a system when he insisted on hiring workers individually. For more on this topic, check out lecture 12.

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Still time to enroll in ModPo

Coursera’s new course on Modern Poetry (a.k.a. ModPo) is one of the most delightful courses I’ve listened to in a long time. Most of the credit is due to the professor, Al Filreis
of the University of Pennsylvania, who is the kind of dynamic, charismatic teacher we all wish we could have had in school.

Even if you’re not “into” poetry, I encourage you to give ModPo a listen. The format is much more engaging than the usual talking head you get in a lot of online course video. Instead, Filreis is seated at a table with 7 students, and the professor leads a lively discussion about a particular poem. You’ll learn a lot about how reading poetry is different from reading prose, and get tips on how to do the kind of close reading which will enrich any encounter with good literature.

As a special bonus, the course also features a number of live webcast sessions (the next one is scheduled for October 3, 10 AM Eastern time). It’s your opportunity to pose questions on the class’s twitter feed, or attempt to call in with a question or comment. (Only a few lucky students will actually get through to the telephone line, since there are approximately 30,000 students enrolled in the class.)

Last weekend, National Public Radio ran a story on the Free Online Course movement, and featured the ModPo class. Extra bonus if you join ModPo: US Senator Richard Durbin will be one of your classmates.

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When is a course not a course?

Note the spiral coil on the left of this icon.

You may have noticed that iTunesU has a new section on its front page entitled New Courses. And you may also have noticed that some of these courses are not really true university courses, but are instead collections of lectures on a similar topic, for example the group of TED talks entitled Exploring the Evolution of Language.

So, what gives? Are the folks at Apple confused about the meaning of the word “course?”

No – but it turns out that they’ve given the word “course” whole new meaning. In the world of iTunesU, a course is a group of lectures that are bundled together with supplementary material and available as a neat package in Apple’s iTunesU app, which is available on its many idevices. A visual cue that a set of lectures is an iTunesU course is the spiral coil on the left of the course’s icon, making it appear that the course is inside a spiral-bound notebook.

And what about all the courses on iTunesU that don’t have the spiral coil? In Apple’s lingo, they are “collections.”


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Adventures in MOOC-land

To hear Sebastian Thrun tell it, some folks like a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) even better than a real world lecture class. Thrun, the founder of Udacity, discovered that some of his Stanford University students liked the online version of his fall 2011 Artificial Intelligence course even better than the live lecture version.

But what about a MOOC in a non-technical subject? How does it stack up against a real world class?

I’m now into the third week of Coursera’s Fantasy and Science Fiction, a literature course taught by University of Michigan Professor Eric Rabkin, and I’m here to tell you that it’s definitely a rewarding experience. It has actually surpassed my expectations but it’s still not as good as a fine real-world seminar style literature class. Of course it helps that the Professor Rabkin is an enthusiastic teacher with lots of great insights to impart. Furthermore, the comments by fellow students on the class’s discussion boards are often interesting and thought-provoking. It’s also a bit mind blowing to look at the forum dedicated to “meet-ups” and see that students from all over the globe are looking for a chance to get together and discuss the course material.

The one disappointing aspect of the class concerns essay writing and evaluations. As many of you know, a real world literature class is usually as much about writing as it is about reading. Ideally, the student reads carefully, reflects and then writes a clear, well-reasoned essay about his or her experiences with the text. What comes next is then crucial. A teacher or a knowledgeable teaching assistant critiques the essay and offers suggestions for improvement. Without this kind of feedback, it is very difficult for a student to learn how to write better essays.

In the Fantasy and Science Fiction MOOC, the evaluation task has been outsourced to the members of the class. And, judging from my experience, the result is less than satisfactory.

I completed the first assignment, a 250 – 320 word essay on Children’s and Household Tales by the Grimm Brothers. Then I read and critiqued the work of 5 classmates. A couple of the essays were a pleasure to read, a couple were fairly pedestrian, and one was very tough slogging indeed, being almost incoherent. I tried to offer a few tactful suggestions to each student, but I admit that I went through the task quickly – it just wasn’t that interesting. Since I would have no ongoing relationship with these students, I had no way to see how my comments would be received or if improvement would follow. The comments I received on my own essay were curt and generally unhelpful.

So – bottom line – check out the fantasy and science fiction class for a fine professor and some interesting online discussions. But don’t expect much in the way of helpful coaching for your writing.

Posted in Courses, Fantasy, Five-star professors, Literature, MOOC, Writing | Tagged , | 10 Comments

New courses from Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley

More news from the fast moving world of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): University of California at Berkeley has joined the edX consortium of Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the consortium’s first roster of courses is now online.

The seven new courses are heavily weighted toward computer science. In addition to two introductory computer science courses, edX is offering two advanced computer science courses, a chemistry course, an electrical engineering course and a course in biostatistics. Sign-ups are open now, and courses begin in September and October.

Unlike its two largest MOOC competitors, Udacity and Coursera, edX is a not for profit initiative, which will be developing an open source software platform for delivery of online courses. Organizers said they learned a lot from MIT’s pilot course Circuits and Electronics, which went online in the spring. More than 7,000 people completed the course, creating their own study online communities, and contributing additional software to the project.

For more details, check out this article from MIT News.

The MOOCs have landed!

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Fantasy and Science Fiction

In a traditional literature class, students read, discuss and write about their interpretations of literary texts. But can a literature class work as a MOOC — a Massive Open Online Course with thousands of students?

Fantasy and Science Fiction, a new Coursera literature course taught by University of Michigan Professor Eric Rabkin, is going to give this a try. As Rabkin explains in his introductory lectures, students will read the assigned texts and write their compositions. Then, instead of instructors grading the papers, all grading and commenting will be done by fellow students.

I’ve participated in writing workshops where most of the comments and critiques are by fellow students. This process can help both the writer and the student making the comments. It will be interesting to see how this works in a Massive Open virtual classroom.

Here’s the course promo:

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The MOOCs have landed!

What is a MOOC,” you ask.

It’s the newly trendy acronym for Massive Open Online Course – the kind of free online course on offer at startups Coursera and Udacity, and by the non-profit Harvard-MIT-UC Berkeley consortium edX.

MOOCs differ from other free online courses in a number of ways.

  • A MOOC unfolds in real time like a real class.  There is a start-date and an end-date, and **gasp** homework and exams.
  • A MOOC offers opportunities to interact, either with tutor-like software or with other students.
  • Some MOOCs also provide certificates of completion if you do the homework and exams.

Silicon Valley rivals Udacity and Coursera are shaping up to be the Hertz and Avis of MOOC-dom, although it’s still an open question which will be number one. Coursera is way ahead in the number of courses planned or in progress, and this week it announced that 12 more universities were joining its lineup, to make a total of 16 schools represented. Its more than 100 courses include humanities and social science along with math, engineering and science.

Meanwhile, Udacity has a roster of 11 math and science courses, heavily focused on computer science. But Udacity may have the edge with its innovative course delivery software. Taking inspiration from the popular Kahn Academy, Udacity’s courses are built upon a simulated whiteboard, with an instructor’s voice-over. Animations and colorful illustrations add interest, and there are frequent pauses for the student to answer questions and solve problems. To see the software in action, check out Udacity’s Introduction to Statistics, taught by Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun.

Sample screen from Udacity’s Intro to Statistics.

Judging from the courses I sampled, Coursera’s courses are less interactive. Typically, you can answer a question or two after each video segment. But some courses, such as Introduction to Sociology, rely on static videos of the lecturer – not exactly a riveting visual.

Other notable entrants in the new world of MOOCs have been MIT with 6.002x – Circuits and Electronics and Caltech with Learning from Data. For a great directory of ongoing MOOCs, check out Class Central.

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Power Searching with Google

It’s happened to all of us. You open your browser for a quick Google search, but but you find yourself sorting through dozens of useless pages.

So, the folks at Google have a solution: a short online course entitled Power Searching with Google.

You have to sign up to get access to the videos, which are being rolled out this week, along with short quizzes and activities that give you a chance to practice new search techniques. There’s also an online forum for questions and help when you get stuck, and some online chat sessions scheduled with Google search experts.

Even if you consider yourself a champion searcher, you’re likely to learn a new trick or two. And if you don’t want to sit through the videos, you can read text summaries of each lesson.

Note: One of my readers has commented that you can search for “Power Searching with Google” on YouTube.  I tried it, and the materials do not seem to be the same as the current Google videos narrated by Google senior research scientist Daniel Russell.  The online chats are posted here.

Sign-ups for the class are open through July 16.

(Via Lifehacker.)

Posted in Computers, Courses, Tools & Tips, Videos | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Guide to MIT Open Courseware

Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been in the free online course business longer than just about everyone else. Its website is chock full of exciting riches, but navigating the site can be a challenge. While MIT groups the courses by subject area, it can be difficult to discern which courses offer more than bare-bones reading lists.

So, here is a guide to finding the good stuff.

It helps to think of MIT courses as coming in four main varieties, corresponding to different kinds of banana splits. The most basic variety (think naked banana) is a course outline, with a syllabus, a list of readings and maybe some lecture notes. The vast majority of MIT Open Courseware courses are these naked bananas.

If you want ice cream on your banana, you want the courses with audio or video lecture recordings. You’ll find most of these on MIT’s iTunes U page, or you can browse for courses identified with the audio or video icons.

For a convenient list of courses with audio video resources, click here, or look for this link on the left-hand border of the website.

Now, you want chocolate sauce on your ice cream? Check out a special section called OCW Scholar. The 12 enhanced courses in this section (out of a planned total of 20), include video lectures, as well as problem sets, extra explanatory material and links to online study discussion groups. Most of the 12 courses are in math, science and engineering, but you will also find Introduction to Psychology and Principles of Microeconomics.

Finally, are the new MITx courses , which are the banana splits with cherries and sprinkles on top. These courses, just beginning to be rolled out, are MIT’s entry in the exciting new world of Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs. In a MOOC, you sign up in advance, watch online videos, do homework, participate in online study groups and take exams. While you won’t get official MIT credit, if you finish you can get a certificate of completion. MITx has already conducted its first class in Circuits and Electronics. More are planned through its announced partnership with Harvard University called edX.

Stay tuned.

Posted in Academic podcasts, Courses, edX, Math, MOOC, Science | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment