Tag Archives: MOOCs

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.