Monday 13 February 2012

FREE. FE Divided By These Things†.

Remarkable things are happening in the world of learning these days. Over a decade ago I put my first exercises, notes and tests on The Studyzone, really just with the idea of making my life easier - instead of taking piles of paper around with me I could access whatever I needed in the classroom. Then I realised that students who either missed a session or wanted to move forward more quickly could do so from home or work and, in a wonderfully new-sounding course at the time, IT2000 had 12 units at levels from beginner to advanced validated by the Open College Network which could be taken on-line with as much or as little communication from me as participants wanted. I also slowly added more and more of the materials and links to official assessment criteria and the like I needed for whatever I happened to be teaching and, as the years progressed, a good range of units built up.

My main purpose, however, remained the provision of easy access to guidance, information and tasks for students rather than expecting anyone to do the whole thing without coming into the classroom at the College where they'd enrolled.

Then, a few years ago, I heard about some interesting developments by the people at Edufire where complete chunks of courses in a whole range of things could be done totally on-line. Just as well, I suppose, as most of the tutors lived miles, if not several thousand miles away! Broadband speeds and technology had begun to permit video to be streamed at a rate that meant stuttering and freezing was becoming less of a problem. People did need to pay for many of these, though, and to join an on-line 'class' at set times. This may have suited quite a few but both aspects would be inclined to limit take-up so, whilst this still is an excellent development, and one where I'm happy to be a tutor too, it's more of a step in the evolution of learning that takes us a little further along the road I'm observing.

Shortly afterwards I was appointed an Associate Lecturer at Middlesex University's Institute of Work Based Learning where all the students were distant learners. The technology involved was pretty basic but the whole of the undergraduate or postgraduate courses were studied and supported on-line, including the viva element of a Masters programme, where, traditionally colleagues would interview the student and discuss various aspects of his or her project over a glass or two of fine wine but now didn't need to share the wine, this not being an obvious facility that Skype offered.

Along came The Khan Academy. well, it had probably been there for ages so I should say 'along came my noticing The Khan Academy!' This blew me away. I thought it was just a few videos of someone chatting while scribbling on a blackboard but I soon saw the extent to which this has grown and now my two sons use the Maths section regularly and are rapidly progressing through the stages and learning lots as they go. Which, of course, is the whole point of all this.

Then some really good universities began to offer courses that could be studied and assessed on-line and, most significantly, students would gain a certificate accrediting their success from that institution or, at least, a department within that institution which was almost as good as the real thing. I have recently published the amazing introductory course being offered by two wonderfully renowned professors operating through Udacity and now find that there is already a massive list of great courses being offered by prominent and well-respected institutions. All free and many with some form of accreditation and certification. There may be better but The Open Culture site, apart from the annoying ads at the top which I plead with you to ignore, seems to have a comprehensive and well-researched list.

The massively impressive Massachusetts Institute of Technology now launch MITx with their free on-line learning offer. They make a point of emphasising that their on-line courses are the same as those delivered in classes in terms of range and scope and that the same assessment standards will apply, making these totally free, totally on-line courses opportunities for students anywhere in the world to achieve an MIT qualification. Well, an MITx qualification. As I said, there have to be some issues to resolve when it comes to assessment still. There are many examples of students' attempts to fool tutors in class as it is through various combinations of Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, using others to complete assignments or just getting a lot more help than they should had they really known what they were talking about. Wise, especially streetwise, tutors can spot these cheats on most occasions but even Turnitin or similar software isn't going to be up to the job of detecting whether someone you don't know did the work or was it someone else you don't know?

I suggested to my class of about 30 students earlier this year that they might be an alternative option to coming in to College and over 50% were interested in the idea of studying at their own pace on-line if they could still achieve a decent qualification at the end of the day. That was when I said there'd have to be a fee which might not be fully covered by grants. Make it free and that percentage can only rise.

This is all happening much more quickly than I'd expected. I had had thoughts just a few months ago of finding a suitable institution and setting up an on-line 'university' where programmes could be delivered at Foundation Degree level and with the idea of competing with FE BTEC-type Level 3 Diploma courses. Now I am beginning to think that there will soon be a range of alternatives at reputable institutions already out there for them. And they'll be free. Once employers start to recognise such programmes and accept them as equal alternatives to the traditional form then whatever troubles FE Colleges think they face now will seem tiny if they don't make substantial changes to how they provide teaching and learning.

E-learning certainly rules. Free could be the beginning of the end of FE as we know it. I think I my just take that offer of Voluntary Redundancy after all.

†For those who didn't do Latin at school, re can mean by these things.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Learn how to program a robotic car. From the Fellow who knows about these things. Free.

How would you like to learn how to buid a search engine, without having any existing knowledge of programming language? In seven weeks? And get a Certificate signed by respected University professors if you get things right? Free!

Image from

Or, for the more advanced, how about learning Programming a Robotic Car? From the Google Fellow (that's Fellow with a capital F) who has been doing some of the work you may have heard about on the news. Free.

There are some wonderful things happening on Google+ these days. I doubt that I would have found out about some remarkable free courses being offered by Udacity. Not the best of names they've chosen there but then I suspect the talents of David Evans and Sebastian Thrun, the guys behind this venture, are better suited to teaching us amazing technology stuff than marketing.

David Evans is a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Virginia where he teaches computer science and leads research in computer security. He is the author of an introductory computer science textbook and has won Virginia's highest award for university faculty. He has PhD, SM, and SB degrees from MIT. 

Sebastian Thrun is a Research Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University, a Google Fellow, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and the German Academy of Sciences. Thrun is best known for his research in robotics and machine learning, specifically hiswork with self-driving cars.

I copied those bits from the Udacity web site. Hope they don't mind but it was easier than trying to add all the useful links myself. So they're pretty expert in their fields. 

There are also a host of other computing courses in the pipeline but the Internet Browser one would be a great place for any students with some interest in this field to start.

You enrol with Udacity and get a series of video sessions where you're taught what to do, with exercises to try in your own time. There's a test at the end too. It's not one of those live series where you have to be on-line at a particular time - just watch and learn at your own pace, similar to the Khan Academy approach that I have been shouting from the College rooftops about for a long time now.

Do take a look at the Udacity site. It's just so great that this is being offered a no cost and they're at the forefront of a whole new movement that I detect of this sort that I think will have a huge impact on the way traditional further education, if not some school learning, is provided in future.

Here is their summary of what the Internet Search Engine course comprises (again copied from their site):
This class will give you an introduction to computing. In seven weeks, you will build your own search engine complete with a web crawler and way of ranking popular pages. You will understand some of the key concepts in computer science, and learn how to write your own computer programs. No previous background in programming is expected.
Week 1: How to get started: your first program
Extracting a link
Week 2: How to repeat
Finding all the links on a page
Week 3: How to manage data
Crawling the web 
Week 4: How to solve problems
Responding to search queries 
Week 5: How programs run
Making things fast 
Week 6: How to have infinite power
Ranking search results 
Week 7: Where to go from here
Exam testing your knowledge
Just sounds great. Do give it a try and let me know how you get on.