Monday, 14 October 2013

Open2Study: MOOC... or MOOC-lite

Open2Study is one of the lesser known learning platforms based, for once, not in the US but in Australia. It is backed by Open Universities Australia who are providers of accredited online and distance qualifications. So, what has Open2Study to offer that differentiates it from the major players like Coursera or edX?

Open2Study currently offers around thirty courses and is growing this total slowly but steadily, adding a few more each month. The courses have a slightly different focus to those offered by the big US players with more attention to vocational topics and less paralleling of existing university programmes. The distinctive feature of Open2Study is the highly structured nature of its courses; every course is the same length, shares the same internal structure and even appears to have had its videos shot in the same studio. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this approach, as we shall see.

All Open2Study courses are four weeks long. While this makes them accessible to more potential students it also imposes a tremendous limitation on how much material can be covered. Most of the courses are clearly intended to be introductory but four weeks can be rather short even to meet that ambition. Courses repeat on a five week cycle with all courses starting on the same date. 

Each course has the same structure of a weekly series of 8-9 video lectures, each around 5 minutes in length. This gives about 45 minutes of lecture time per week and, as few courses have any other elements, that's it for learning. There is a single multiple choice question "Pop Quiz" after each segment (other than the last) and then a module assessment consisting of five similarly styled questions. The pass mark is 60% average across the four assessments but, in truth, most students should be getting 100%. Assessments can be repeated if you want to improve your score (or learning). Assessments open at the start of each week but can be taken at any time up to the end of course.

The videos all appear to have been produced in the same studio with the speakers usually appearing against a black background and being shot from a two camera set up. I find this a little distracting as the producers have a tendency to use far too many shots from camera two which is at an angle to the speaker showing them in a semi-profile talking to the main camera. 

Most videos also make use of a clear screen 'whiteboard' with the presenter writing from behind the panel and the image being flipped horizontally so the writing is not mirror-imaged. This has the side-effect of making most presenters appear left-handed but possibly only those with my nit-picking nature would notice that! While it makes a change from the usual run of Powerpoint presentations, I wish they would buy some new markers as the speakers struggle from time to time to write clearly with fading pens! A quick mention should be made hear of the anonymous young lady who provides many of the illustrations drawn in 'real time' on the same board; she is clearly a very skilled artist and should have some credit.

I should also mention the course forums. The set up does not really encourage participation (in my view). The forums seem to be very fragmented and visible only while you are completing a particular module so, having made a comment and moved on to a later section, it is unlikely that posters will see responses or follow up on the discussions. In practice it is unusual to see a discussion getting past one or two responses. This is, in part, down to the relatively low numbers participating (500-1000 registered students seems typical) but the forum design also plays a part. In fact, it is possible to access earlier discussions but the site doesn't tempt you to do so. Instructors do not interact on the forums although there are some 'Learning Facilitators' who drop in mainly to address technical and administrative issues.

There are some advantages to the fixed design of courses: it is easy to find your way around, once you've completed your first course; scheduling is straightforward as they all run for four weeks; there is less scope (from the operator's side) for technical issues and it should be more straightforward to roll out platform improvements. The disadvantages are equally unsurprising: the four week courses are very short; there is no scope for additional activities such as peer assessed writing or programming exercises; assessments are pretty unchallenging.

Courses are quite variable in quality of content, despite the uniform production, but the short length means that there is little reason not to complete the courses, once started. Certificate's of Achievement are issued (as pdf files) to those who reach the 60% threshold and, unusually, show the percentages gained on each assessment (on a second page). There is clear signposting from the course page to (paid) accredited courses offered by Open Universities Australia - although I wonder how many will be interested in following up on those.

An additional progress indicator is offered through the use of 'badges'. These seem to be popular in some quarters--although they seem rather juvenile to me--and reward participation in social aspects as well as study activities. The badges are not (yet) integrated with any external badging such as Mozilla OpenBadges although I understand they are planning to address this in the future.

Overall, some interesting areas of study--I've not seen an introduction to nursing offered elsewhere--but all at a very superficial level. If you want a very brief introduction that will neither take too much time nor tax you too much then take a look. It makes a change to hear a different accent but, to be honest, some of the speakers really aren't that good. Open2Study needs to think about offering longer courses or having multi-part courses as the four week pattern is very restrictive. They should also consider introducing more active learning activities beyond simply watching videos and they really need to rethink the forum design.

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