Thursday, 6 June 2013

Saylor: Close Up on the Courses

As I promised, I'll look in a bit more detail at Saylor's courses this time. We obviously can't go through every unit of every course but I'll try to give a flavour of how learning works in this environment.

Getting started. There's no need to register (although the ePortfolio adds useful functionality), just choose the course you want and start. The courses are all laid out in the same way on screen so once you've found your way around the first course you are set! Each course starts with sections for the Purpose of Course, Course Information, Learning Outcomes and Requirements. You will hopefully have looked at these when deciding whether to take the course. Here you can find the time estimate, which is normally around 100-120 hours, and any pre-requisites. You may also find information about the core texts. Some courses make extensive use of one or two (electronic) texts which it might make sense to download as single complete volumes at the start rather than collecting endless separate chapters and excerpts.

Jumping into the first unit you will find that it is broken down into numbered sections and sub-sections. Click on anything which is blue and it will expand with further information or  instructions and links to resources. You might be told to read certain parts of a linked document, watch a video (in whole or part) or listen to an audio recording. Around about this point you begin to realise that somebody is taking this all very seriously. The work really is at college/university level. 

The materials. One thing you will notice straight away is that the resources used are generally hosted elsewhere and come from a wide range of sources. There are some Saylor originated pieces - mainly introductions, summaries or bridging pieces but the general policy is to use existing freely available resources. This can lead to a bit of a patchwork effect as you swap from book to book, site to site and lecturer to  lecturer. On the other hand it possibly reflects better the nature of  independent study and academic literature reviews at higher levels than would a course built entirely around a single book and a single lecturer (ie the typical undergraduate university pattern). I find it effective and stimulating, others might not like it so much. The quality of the materials is almost perfect; there are a very few pieces which really don't match the overall standard but Saylor are constantly reviewing courses so hopefully these will be improved as time goes by.

Let's look at POLSC101Introduction to Politics. A nice gentle introductory course in the Gen Ed programme... It gets underway with a nine page reading from Jean-Marc Coicard on Political Legitimacy, followed by twenty nine pages of analysis of soft power under Obama then back to the 18th Century for twenty two pages from Jean Jacques Rousseau’s A Discourse on Political Economy followed up by two chapters from Harold D. Lasswell’s 1935 Politics: Who Gets What, When, How?. There are a few more readings and then a rest for an hour while you take in a video lecture. Finish off with two lengthy entries from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and it's time to complete the first assessment. Official 'Time Advisory', 11.5 hours. It took me over twice that although I did get tempted off into some interesting sidetracks.

Assessment activities within a course are generally self-assessed against supplied rubrics or have an answer sheet supplied. There's nobody looking over your shoulder so you can cheat if you like - but it is only yourself you are cheating so why bother. If you can't get to grips with self-assessment or just want some feedback you can try posting on the course forum. I should warn you that these are very quiet at the moment but are seeing more activity as students start to find Saylor. There are auto-graded activities on some courses. It depends what others have prepared and made available. 

The Final Exam is the only assessment which counts for the overall grade. This is a two hour machine-graded multiple choice quiz and, despite all my doubts, they are tough exams which dig into every corner of the courses. Exams are 'open book' but as the questions often require the student to apply the learning rather than just recall answers, this isn't always helpful. The pass mark is 70%. 

Again, to give an example, despite being an experienced teacher, examiner, a normally rapid examinee and despite having been coached by my wife, a doctor, psychology graduate and soon to be Master, I took nearly the whole two hours to get through the PSYCH101 paper and was happy to pass with 78%. That's nearly two and a half minutes per question. I'd normally expect to crash through multiple choice papers at a rate two to four times as rapid.

So what are the courses really like? They are true representations of the academic standards of mainstream universities - so expect to be challenged. You can also expect to spend quite some time on the courses. I've found the time estimates to be pretty good (even if I've taken longer where interests lead me astray) so one hundred hours plus for most courses. As in real life you must get through extensive readings alongside video lectures and other materials. There is a decent amount of variety within courses and they are well put together.

What do I like? I like the challenging standards, the readings (because this is how I learn best) and the fact that the courses are part of an overall structure. I quite like the self-paced nature of the courses although this also leads to temptation... One of the major assets is the staff, both administrative and academic. Queries are usually answered quickly and Professors are prowling the boards on a daily basis.

What don't I like? The place is far too quiet - too many course forums have no postings at all! As you might guess from this blog, I like to talk! The nature of the site means that some resources disappear from time to time (these are highlighted as red text). I've not come across any in my own studies... yet! There are a few rough edges on the system software, such as the sporadic requests to sign in as you move between courses, ePortfolio and forums but nothing too drastic. 

What would I like even more? More courses (how about a Physics or Electrical Engineering major and what about the French, Spanish and Russian language courses that have been 'due shortly' for the last year), more students and more attractive certificates (I know, it's trivial and below me but even so, they look like they were designed in Microsoft Publisher over a coffee break - and they misspell 'verification').

Conclusion. To go back to my comment in the last posting, the courses are great. If you want real learning in a fairly traditional style then get down to and take a look at what they have to offer. Whether you want to sign up for a full four year 'degree' or just pop in to use part of one course then you are free to do so. The academic style may not suit everybody (but that is true of all university study) and the self-paced nature does mean you need more self-discipline but it really is well worth it.

Next time, a quick Five Step Guide to getting started on Saylor. After that I'll move on to some hints and tips for more effective studying whichever platform you choose.


  1. I love that you are trying to spread the word about Saylor Paul! It really is a great community of learners and offers so much to so many! I'm currently taking Introduction to Politics with you (hi! I'm Andrea Nicole!) and we've already discussed how challenging the course is! Thank you for taking the time to write this blog! I do believe I will have to share it on my Facebook if you don't mind!


    1. Hi Andrea, lovely to see you outside of Saylor. Please feel free to share this blog as widely as possible. Saylor is a terribly underused opportunity at the moment but it needs only a few hundred students actively posting on the forums to make all the difference in generating a bit of 'bustle'. I think Saylor's Summer school idea is brilliant, I just hope they promote it widely.

      See you on POLSC101 again soon!

    2. Hi Andrea,nice to meet. I'm yahya Bulle from Kenya. I'm taking the same course from Saylor Academy (polsc101).So far so god,I have completed 84% of the course work. I must congratulate the founders of this brilliant idea out of humanity. I'm very glad to meet with you too. You can find me both in Facebook and Twitter handles.

  2. Good overview. I really enjoy studying the courses on Saylor. Hopefully it will attract a lot more students in the future.
    I agree that the exams are much tougher here than on other MOOC sites. I've 'sat' 5 Saylor exams so far and all of them have been quite challenging, unlike the average coursera exams which are normally quite basic (and give far too many chances).
    Keep up the good blog.

  3. The changes at Saylor have totally wrecked the whole thing. The site is near to impossible to navigate, going between their old site, their new site and Accredible. I think the courses I did there were a total waste of time. My certificates can no longer be downloaded. I'm finished with them.

    1. While it is true that the restructuring in 2015 was not entirely smooth and the loss of nearly two thirds of the courses is disappointing, Saylor are working with limited resources. We might have chosen to focus on different areas but the existing structure simply couldn't be supported.

      The comments you make have been largely addressed once the transitional period passed: certificates for all 'old' courses were migrated to Accredible (from where they can be downloaded or linked), the overall layout is simplified with all active courses now hosted on Moodle and the forums on Discourse. I don't think I ever actually go to the 'main' Saylor site entering instead directly into courses or, more commonly, going first to the forums.

      The biggest loss is the support for 'Majors' other than those in Computer Science and Business. This was a defining feature of Saylor and isn't offered anywhere else. Unfortunately, it needs about 300 courses to fill the slots in the Major programmes and, unless other generous sponsors can be found, the money just doesn't stretch that far.