Tag Archives: learning

On MOOCs, and the purpose of going to class

As reported a few weeks ago, in September I began a MOOC from the University of Pennsylvania via the Coursera platform.  This week, I have to admit to failure.  I’d been planning on documenting my progress; writing about how amazing it was for this huge, disparate group of scholars to be learning together from an Ivy League US university; and how much I enjoyed the freedom of watching lectures from the comfort of my sofa (office/kitchen/library/etc)… but it hasn’t worked out quite like that, and I’ve been trying to work out why.

I launched into the project full of enthusiasm.  I thought it was great that the presentation had obviously not been through UPenn’s PR department – there were spelling errors, the slides were basic comic sans and ended up scribbled all over anyway as the lecturer enjoyed underlining as he spoke.  I generally watched the sections at the weekend and did the corresponding test immediately afterwards (the deadline for each section being every Monday).

However, four weeks (of six) in, I’m afraid I’ve given up.  Sitting down to watch the lectures had become a chore, something I needed to do to get the tests done every week, despite the inherent interest in the topic and relevance to the other work I was doing. 

The appeal of MOOCs such as this one is partly selling the prestige of an institution I wouldn’t travel halfway round the world to attend once a week; and in this case, it just wasn’t sold as an aspirational experience.  The presentation didn’t help – I wanted to feel inspired by not only the content, but a polished delivery reflecting the status of the institution (I know, call me shallow…), and getting something out of it that I couldn’t get elsewhere.  The content was generally good and I do genuinely feel like I’ve learnt some useful stuff, but stuff that I will follow up by seeking some “real-life” instruction.

If this had been a six-week physical class, the method of presentation of the material would barely have mattered: the very act of going to a lecture hall, sitting with friends, colleagues, strangers, has value.   If I’d stopped attending, someone would have noticed.  Equally, it would have been rude of me to ask the lecturer if they wouldn’t mind hanging on for a minute while I put the kettle on, answered the phone, sprayed hobnob crumbs all over them; and the ability to do this online does devalue the experience.  The accountability generated from being physically present creates the expectation of participation and engagement that is simply not there when the relationship is mediated by a laptop screen.

It is easy to understand the current MOOC enthusiasm, not only for the university in terms of cost-efficiency (relatively little running cost after initial setup), but also in terms of responding to a need for flexible course provision and delivery across the globe, with interesting implications for the sense of place in a physical collegiate environment, and the nature of the pedagogic relationship between a teacher and student who never physically meet.  It is not just for “doing the work” that students gather in classes at a university.  Extra-curricular activities aside, the importance of social connections in motivating students is well-established and having a “good year” – a cohort of high-achievers – will mean that weaker members of the cohort will do better than they would have with a different peer group.  The type of immediate and frequent feedback gained from a well-directed debate significantly improves learning.  For all the enthusiasm around connecting via discussion forums and social networks, it just doesn’t work online.

Gary King wrote in a working paper earlier this year: “if your ancestors were to walk into a classroom today, they’d know where to sit, what to do, and how to act.”  The delivery modes of university teaching have changed little in centuries and there is arguably a place for the “if it ain’t broke” attitude.  However modern technology is connecting the academic world, it will only ever be a complement to the kind of learning our ancestors would recognise.


I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s had a similar or opposite experience – leave a comment or click on Contact.   Proper references are available if you are interested!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin on Twitter.


Top Ten Tips: Preparing to Publish

There’s a ton of advice out there for PhD students and ECRs on getting published, from choosing a journal to improving your academic writing.  Here are my top tips for useful things to do BEFORE you start writing; so if you’ve got half an idea that you think could turn into something publishable, here goes:

1.       Pick your journal. Decide where you want to balance between highly prestigious, wide-ranging journals, and smaller ones that focus on a particular sub-field.  Try looking at the e-journal collections or using the articles that you’ve been reading that by definition are in the right area – where are they published?  Use impact factors if they’re relevant to your field.

2.       Read your target journal.  Common sense, perhaps, but it’s a good idea to look at a WHOLE issue of your journal to get a feel for its tone.  Does it have a quant/qual focus?  Is it mostly theoretical or empirical?  Is there a special issue coming up on something relevant?  Sign up for email notifications that will let you know about these.

3.       Decide on the type of article…  Look at the type of work that is published – for example, Work, Employment and Society publishes full articles, Research Notes, Debates and Controversies, On The Front Line (a section for research participants to have their say) and Book Reviews.  Behavioral Sciences and Law differentiates between Research Reports and Research Articles.  Music Analysis has a Critical Forum as well as publishing original research.  Which style best fits your idea?  Or, which would you feel better able to write?

4.       …And read some of those articles.  Look at the content and structure of published pieces: are there any common features that it would be a good idea to include?  Do they go Intro-Methods-Results-Discussion?  Is there usually a historical perspective?  Are there diagrams, illustrations, links to external content?  Do they usually end with a firm conclusion or ideas for further work?  A bit of time spent studying here will give you enormously valuable information you can really use.

5.       Consider co-authors.  If you’ve got a brilliant idea that would benefit from an additional angle, consider asking a colleague with particular expertise for their input.  Establish roles and the division of work early on and decide on the order your names will appear on the paper before you start.

6.       Follow the Author Guidelines for the journal.  Writing 101.  Each journal’s guide is available online and contains various info on how to construct your article; from referencing style to word limits, formatting diagrams and what to include on a cover sheet.  Not following the instructions is a really easy way to get your article rejected without even making it to the review stage, so take note and keep checking.

7.       Write your article!  Pitch it to the journal you are writing for, taking into account all the info you’ve gathered so far.  Put it away at least overnight, sleep on it, re-edit; lather, rinse, repeat.

8.       Make the abstract brilliant.  Make sure it does genuinely summarise, rather than introduce, your article.  Get the key points in loud and clear – remember that the editors and reviewers may not be experts in the specific topic you are writing about, and see many, many submissions, so make sure it’s right there at the start.

9.       Include a short note to the Editor when you submit.  Editors have jobs too, so don’t waffle on!  A brief note including why you are submitting your article to that particular journal is useful, but don’t rewrite your abstract (or the whole paper, or your CV…).

10.   Aim high.  Despite lower acceptance rates, an advantage of submitting to some of the higher-ranked journals is that you’re quite likely to get some useful feedback, even if your article is rejected.  Use it, learn from it, revise your article and get ready for submission to the next journal – have a big cup of coffee, and restart from point 2.

Any tips to add?  Leave a comment…

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin.

Top Ten Ideas for starting points for Social Science seminars

It’s pretty much impossible to start a debate with “Topic X.  Discuss.”  An interesting, controversial or downright unusual source is a great way of getting things going – introduce it at the beginning, show it on screen or pass copies round, get everyone in the class to note down anything about it that strikes them, and away you go: who has written down the same thing? Who agrees/disagrees?  Why?  Who might have a different point of view?  A good source should provoke a response – either positive or negative – and serve as a starting point for marshalling opinions.  Here are my Top Ten ideas for discussion-starters to get you thinking:

1. Crime maps.  These are amazingly detailed and available online from the police website.  Put in a postcode and you’ll get the crime stats for the area on the right – click on “Crime and outcomes in this area” for detailed maps and a breakdown by type of crime.  Look at the stats for your local area and ask why certain types of crime occur in different areas?  Where are the “hotspots”?  Why?  Look at the types of crime listed – what occurs where?  What constitutes “anti-social behaviour”?  According to whom? Why has it become a policy priority?  Compare different parts of your town, different towns, urban/rural, university locale vs rest of city, what happens where students live?  Look at the historical data – what is going up/down?  Where does this data come from?  How reliable is it as a source?  Good for: Criminology, Environment, Social Policy.

2. Census records and the national archives.  The census records for every 10 years beginning in 1841 are online.  There’s a 100-year embargo so the most recent available is 1911.  Although most commonly used for tracing family histories, there’s a wealth of social information contained in them, particularly after the late 1800s ones when more detail was recorded.  You need to register (and pay!) to view the original copies but you can get samples for free – just do an image search for “example census page” and there’ll be material you can use.  What is recorded on each page?  Why was this data captured?  Discuss privacy and personal data.  Look at the family structure at each address – what do you notice?  How does it compare with the modern family?  Look at a few from different censuses – what is different?  Look at the employment column – what does it tell you?  How is this linked to the area lived in?  Are there regions today which are associated with a particular type of work?  Why?  Link this with the “where born” column – who moved where?  Why?  Does this still happen?  Look at the last column – for example, the 1901 census asks if the person is “(1) deaf-and-dumb, (2) blind, (3) lunatic, or (4) imbecile, feeble-minded.”  Huge amounts of mileage there for a discussion on attitudes to illness and mental health, why was this recorded, what health information is taken in modern censuses? Why?   Good for: Health/Medical Sociology, Work, Families, Education, Migration.

3. News stories.  There are vast amounts online – start with the BBC and newspaper sites, look at local newspapers, local radio, student publications, it’s easy to link to a video clip to start a seminar.  Compare coverage of a news story in different media, whose angle is it?  Are they for or against?  Why?  Is the news source impartial or does it have an underlying ideology informing its news coverage?  Who is producing/writing the story?  How reliable are news sources as factual data?  Will the story influence the behaviour of those viewing it?  How/why?  Don’t restrict yourself to UK news sources – everything is online, so see how a foreign newspaper has covered a British story, compare and contrast – especially if you’re teaching a comparative policy course.  Good for: All social science branches, Media.

4. Government departments.  All departments produce vast numbers of publications, reports, papers, press releases, etc, etc.   You can use most of it for something!  Assess both the content and the presentation: evaluate who the perceived audience is for the material, who wrote it, for what purpose?  How is the material being presented and why?  Is it successful?  Look at any statistics – are they reliable?  How do you know?  Again, what is being portrayed and why?  There’s too much to cover in much detail here (maybe a future blog post!) but a few examples of bits I’ve used are:  the Government Art Collection (How much should be spent on public art?  What is its value? How does it contribute to British culture?); weekly A&E statistics (Who sets the targets? Are they meaningful? How are they used/abused?);  Dept for Education advice on drugs (whose responsibility is it to teach young people about illegal drugs? Is the advice valid? Useful? Appropriate? How would/should it translate into the classroom? How involved should schools be in the home lives of their pupils?).  You get the idea.  Good for:  All social science branches.

5. University publicity material.  Gather prospectuses, brochures, flyers, website screenshots.  It’s instantly relatable but harder to critically assess from an objective viewpoint.  How is the University’s publicity department trying to portray itself?  What pictures are used?  Did the class use such material in deciding to apply?  Was it effective?  Does the material convey a sense of place?  Community?  How?  What language is used?  What is its effect?  How would you design publicity material to convey the campus culture?  Good for: Environment, Culture, Identity, Visual methods.

6. Mass observation material, searchable here.  Again, vast amounts of material are available here so pick one or two items and use them to start a discussion.  Try a section of personal diary from the 1930s, one of the “panel” day observations or questionnaire responses.  An interesting subsection is the Worktown Collection, a special study of Blackpool and Bolton.  Beware the website, once you get into it there’s a real risk you won’t be seen for days…  Use for a historical perspective on contemporary topics around daily life.  Find a modern cohort study and compare the methods and data generated.  Good for: Work and employment, Culture, Politics.

7. Non-news magazines.  This will cost you a few pounds and may involve slight embarrassment if you are doing the buying (Nuts magazine, anyone?), but works really well in seminars.  Buy a selection of magazines, compare and contrast.  For example, to look at sources of health advice – Men’s Health, Women’s Health, the aforementioned Nuts, Saga magazine, a fashion magazine, a teen magazine, a sports magazine.  Evaluate differences in content and presentation between Men’s and Women’s Health, look at health and wellbeing content of different magazines – who is the audience? Who is the author? Why is this material being presented? Does it work?  Good for: Health/Medical, Media, Gender.

8. Wikipedia (bear with me), here.   Not so much the content of the site, but the way in which it is constructed.  Look at a relevant topic and evaluate it in terms of content and layout.  Use the Wikipedia principle to construct an informative handout on a different topic – where does one person start in writing it?  How is it edited?  Who agrees?  Who has control over online publishing?  Who is responsible for fact-checking?  Does it work?  What about other user-editable sites (eg Wikileaks)?   What are the implications for incorrect information entering the public domain?  Good for: Most topics, Media, Education.

9. British Social Attitudes survey, hereA great resource for all sorts of data on everything from health and welfare to crime and transport.  Pick a statistic and go with it – ask Why?  Says who?  So what?  Can you identify problematisation? Look at the methods section and analyse how the survey is carried out.  What can it be used for?  How would you improve it?  Good for: Most topics, Research Methods.

10. British Library’s sound archive, searchable here.  Again, this is a website you can disappear into and not surface until your coffee alarm goes off.  Use the Accents & Dialects section to start a discussion on place and identity; use the Sound Maps to debate representations of environment and culture; use the Oral Histories on any topic you can find – this a rich source, there’s everything from a collection of children’s songs to a history of the common cold.  Go explore.  Good for: Pretty much anything.

Have you tried anything similar?  How did it go?  Any more ideas to add?  Leave a comment!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy, and Assistant Lecturer in Health Policy at the University of Kent, with interests in clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions. She blogs about her research and HE topics at www.hcperrin.wordpress.com; or follow @HCPerrin.

Top Ten Tips for PhDs starting to teach

If you’re new to it, standing in front of your first seminar class can be a terrifying prospect.  As a new PhD student last year, I was thrown in at the deep end with two seminar groups a week on a topic tangentially related to my PhD, and I don’t mind admitting it took me a while to find my feet.  It’s easy to recognise one’s (many) mistakes with hindsight, so here is the benefit of, oh, a whole year’s experience: my Top Tips for those finding themselves in the same situation this September.

  1. Preparation.  It’s all about balance – have an overall plan, but allow for interesting deviations.  Always have a couple of “last five minute” activities up your sleeve in case your session runs out of steam (one of the simplest is to ask, “if we were going to investigate this empirically, how could we do it?”).  However, the converse… don’t spend so long on preparing a one-hour session that you neglect your PhD (note to self, must take own advice).
  2. Learn your students’ names.  If you’re not automatically sent it, ask your department office for your university’s version of the “mugshot sheet” – a printout of your group’s student ID photos with their names and email addresses underneath.  You can use the register to get to know your students.  You should have one (because we’re all keeping tabs on our overseas student attendance, now, aren’t we?) but even if you’re only required to pass it round, doing an informal version of the traditional roll call will help put names to faces.  It helps to do a quick layout of who’s sitting where that you can refer to if you want to call on individual students for contributions (which I generally find works better than asking a question of the whole class, who then look at the floor…).
  3. Watch others teach.  Even if you’re not enrolled in a PGCHE or some kind of teacher training programme, observation of others’ seminars is a great way of picking up tips (good and bad!).  As a new PG, it’s probable that you’re not long out of being on the receiving end, so use that experience – who inspired you?  How did they do it?  What was it about their classes you enjoyed?  This is one case where plagiarism should be positively encouraged.
  4. Get feedback.  Generally, the formal feedback mechanisms will only kick in at the end of the term/year, when it’s too late to change anything.  Try a post-it note “last-five-minutes” exercise – on red, yellow and green, ask for anonymous suggestions for “I don’t understand/enjoy…”, “Why don’t we try…” and “I enjoy/find useful…” relating to the course.  You might get a few blunt comments, but with any luck they’ll be outweighed by positive suggestions, and maybe even a compliment or two that will make your flippin’ week.
  5. Relate your material to the outside world.  As a seminar leader, your job is most likely not to actually deliver content, but to situate it in a real-life context, discuss its applications, debate its worth.  Use news stories and current events, give examples of actual uses, find people doing jobs actually using the topics on your syllabus.
  6. Keep copies of essay feedback.  It helps you keep track of what you’ve said to who (particularly if a student subsequently asks you about it); and you can see whether your advice was acted on for subsequent work.  If the same mistakes reappear, you’ll have to come up with something else.
  7. Be positive with feedback.  The old adage of “criticise the action, not the person” applies.  Don’t shy away from pointing out substandard work, but do offer suggestions for how it could have been improved, particularly if a mark is just below a class boundary – what would have put it over?
  8. Don’t beat yourself up if it isn’t perfect at the start.  It’s easy to feel a certain amount of guilt if you don’t have a great seminar – after all, you are responsible for delivering the session, your students are paying for the privilege, etc; and it’s easy to have unrealistically high expectations – images of enthusiastic, inspiring debates can seem a long way from your first teaching experiences.  Learn from what didn’t work, change it, move on; and don’t be afraid to ask for advice.  Your university will have a teaching support unit – find it, and get as much training as you can.
  9. Communicate your enthusiasm.  You are (presumably) teaching a subject you’re interested in enough to dedicate three years of your life to, so explain/demonstrate just what it is that you find so fascinating.  If I had a pound for every time I used the phrase “…and I think this is REALLY COOL because…” in my classes, well, I wouldn’t need to be teaching.
  10. Take your own board pens.  Nobody tells you this.

Got any of your own top tips?  Any of my mistakes sound familiar (tell me I’m not the only one…)?  Leave your comments below!

Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy at the University of Kent with interests in health professions, clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions.  She twitters on about her research @HCPerrin.

Networked Life MOOC – Week One

Week one is just getting us started with four videos totalling just over an hour of lecture.  The format is surprisingly similar to the traditional lecture – slides on the screen, and the lecturer’s voice accompanying note-writing.  It feels strangely out-of-touch – it’s odd to think that the person speaking is a genuine professor (you can look him up at UPenn!) and that there are actual students taking the course in an actual lecture hall (as part of a degree in Market and Social Systems Engineering, in case you’re interested).  There are also a few pond differences – no lecturer has ever started off with “greetings and salutations”, as far as I can recall, and there’s something uncomfortably American-Idol-ish about the opening “I’m Michael Kearns, and this… (dramatic pause) …is Networked Life”.  I expect sequinned backing singers and dry ice any moment now.

Once we get into it, however, I’m rather impressed.  The distracting font aside (Comic sans?  Really?), the content is well-presented and engaging, with just the right balance of theory and demonstrations (modelling the spread of a forest fire, then explaining how to “mathematise”, sorry, “mathematize” the pattern of spread).  I particularly like the directions to empirical work and other applications – for example, the mathematicians’ Erdos Number (how many links via co-authored papers to the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos – the lower the number, the higher the prestige –  getting harder as he died in 1996); or a six-degrees-of-separation experiment from the pre-email 1960s where participants had to get a letter to a named but unknown-to-them recipient via the fewest intermediaries.  Terrific stuff.

These examples were by way of explanation of the “navigation problem” – in an increasingly networked world, how to we gain an introduction to, for example, a particular expert without direct contact?  We know our immediate colleagues but colleagues-of-colleagues become increasingly distant and, without a view of the whole network, it is impossible to know who knows who, if you see what I mean.  Imagine an endless line of requests for retweets, hoping that the target person will eventually see the message but not knowing how it will get there.

There’s a reasonable amount of maths but if you can read the phrase “let p represent the proportion of area that is forested” without coming out in a rash, you’ll cope.  The quizzes at the end of each section of video do require a surprising amount of application – it helps if you’ve taken notes from the lectures – as you’re asked to apply your new-found knowledge to a set of problems.  The technology has the occasional hiccup – for example, the audio continues with a few seconds of freeze on the video – but nothing that gets in your way.  The lecturer also seems to have some kind of pointer/drawing tool which occasionally whizzes around the screen and does some etch-a-sketch-style additions to the slides – mostly underlining and the occasional slightly wonky arrow to reinforce a point.

Overall, I have two A4 pages of notes from week one, a smug quiz score of 31/31, and a feeling that although I’ve spent much of the afternoon watching internet videos, it’s all been rather worthwhile.

Experience with MOOCs – Week One

There’s been a fair amount of interest in the rise of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – in the HE ether recently, debating whether such online courses – where thousands of students can register, and participate via video lectures and online assignments – add something valuable to the higher education sphere.  As part of my PGCHE I’m looking at innovative delivery modes for higher education courses, so thought the best way to find out about the MOOC phenomenon was to sign up, and document the experience, hoping to compare both the content and format with a traditional course taken at my own institution.

MOOC number one is Networked Life from the University of Pennsylvania, via the Coursera platform.  I’ve chosen this one (along with Social Network Analysis from the University of Michigan) as my PhD will involve some analysis of support network diagrams and thought it might be useful, as well as seeing how effective the online format is.  I can see the appeal – I can sit here at home in front of the computer, coffee in hand, a heartfelt rendition of Unchained Melody wafting over from next door’s builders… here we go.

The first thing I have to do is agree to an “Honor Code” stating that I won’t plagiarise in any form, either by claiming others’ work or disseminating course materials as my own.  Feeling like an American highschooler pledging allegiance, I click OK and voila, the course page.  It’s rather snazzy but no different really to any other VLE – we use Moodle at Kent – so I have the Announcements, Quizzes, Video Lectures, Discussion Forums, Reading Lists, etc that I was expecting, and it’s easy to navigate.  The course only opened yesterday and the forums are already buzzing with activity – people are checking in from Colombia, Trinidad, Iran, Toronto, Moscow, Melbourne, Sao Paolo, Seoul, Mauritius, Dubai… and offline study groups are being formed based on geography and native language, as well as international Skype meets.  I introduce myself as Hannah from Canterbury, Kent, get a friendly welcome from those who think I’m in Ohio (hello, Kent State, USA) or New Zealand (hello, University of Canterbury, Christchurch, NZ), and an even friendlier one once it’s established I’m British (hello, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK).  This is a truly global thing.

An interesting discovery is that the MOOC runs alongside the same “physical” course at UPenn – although the lectures are already recorded, additional material will be posted at we go along, and I wonder how much contact there will be between the two.  I’m slightly afraid of the quiz topics (Contagion in Social Networks?  The Erdos Renyi Model?) so am hoping all will become clear.  Wish me luck…


Hannah Perrin is an ESRC DTC Scholar and PhD student in Social Policy at the University of Kent with interests in health professions, clinical education and training, occupational socialisation and work transitions.  She twitters on about her research @HCPerrin.