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  • carlgombrich

Generation Blend

This year on Arts and Sciences BASc at UCL, several students studied MOOCs and used online sources alongside their undergraduate modules at UCL.

I knew anecdotally of around  8-10 students who were doing this so I wrote to them to ask how they had used MOOCs and other online sources to supplement and complement their UCL courses.

This is an unscientific survey and there could be many more students than I know about. I had replies from about 10% of the cohort (those I wrote to directly) but there could be, at a guess, up to about 40% who had similar experiences.

This is a summary of the replies from the students I wrote to.

Courses followed – MOOCS from EdX, Coursera etc

Students followed a wide range of courses including:

  1. Introduction to Philosophy

  2. Introduction to Genetics and Evolution

  3. Introduction to Computer Sciece

  4. Introduction to International Law

  5. Internet History, Technology and Security

  6. The Law of the European Union

  7. Human Physiology

  8. Logic and Proof

  9. Quantum Mechanics

  10. A Guide to Irrational Behaviour

  11. Model Thinking

  12. Microeconomics

Some of these courses were close in subject matter to modules the students were studying at UCL, some were completely different. Some reflect closely courses we offer at UCL, some do not.

Non-MOOCy online material

Code Academy was popular and so was Memrise – for language learning – and, of course KhanAcademy. Some students competed for fun in completing CodeAcademy tasks and more than one pair of students worked together to support each other through the CodeAcademy stages. (Aside: would they have done this if they had not met and become friends in the real, non-virtual world? Perhaps it’s less likely.) One commented, ‘I might not have understood half the stuff in [my UCL course] if I hadn’t done CodeAcademy before. ‘  Another commented that after using CodeAcademy, ‘[For our interdisciplinary lab course at the end of the year], in [one] week we managed to model the London Underground System, design an algorithm that would find the fastest route that links all the Tube stations and visualize our best solution.’

However two students commented that CodeAcademy often crashed and was frustrating and one of these said: ‘Sometimes I found it extremely difficult though to find the right answer and because one can only progress in the course by programming the correct code and because I couldn’t ask anyone for help, I eventually stopped the course.‘

Dropping out and in

On the various MOOC courses our students used the full range of offers and possibilities for involvement. One studied signed up ‘to multiple courses during the term but did not have time to commit to them sufficiently’.  However, another watched all videos and submitted all coursework for more than three MOOCs (‘the computer science took the most time, the philosophy took a lot less time’). This same student also used other MOOC lectures ‘to revise for [UCL] exams’.

One student commented that they struggled quite a lot with a particular social science course at UCL but followed a MOOC in the same subject which helped them considerably. This student then went on to create their own course in this topic at an interactive site – allowing them to build their own online revision materials to share with others. This student is enthusiastically recommending several MOOCs to their friends in their home country who follow the MOOCs in English – not their native language.

One student commented that ‘I discovered [MOOCs this year], and for me it started out as an opportunity to study a course or 2 at a university I had applied to but did not go to. I wanted to really see how those universities were on the inside and so I decided to follow a few courses there. It turned out to be much more than that and I realised that it provided me with the opportunity to study and learn new things outside of UCL on my own terms, while still doing my degree here.’

This student studied a full, demanding computer science module run out of one of the ivy league universities. It greatly helped the student with their UCL studies and, indeed, this student has made the decision to continue in CS at UCL based at least as much on the MOOC learning as his time with us. The structure and weekly deadlines of the best MOOCs helped the student deliver the MOOC work on time alongside the UCL course requirements.

Finally in this section, one student found a course involving game theory which complemented her Quantitative Methods course on Arts and Sciences and the ‘different perspectives’ helped her get a rounder and deeper view of topics covered at UCL. This student only completed one of three MOOCs she signed up for (she dropped out of the philosophy course about half way through when there was an exam) but she ‘found [the course she did complete] particularly useful for my progress and understanding of my UCL module and perception of the world around me in general’.

What did we do with our time as undergraduates?

My first response to much of this feedback was simply, Wow! How did these students fit all this in alongside a demanding undergraduate course? It looked like some of them had done almost two degrees at once. I should add that these are students who are also actively involved in extra-curricular music, theatre, politics and so on – the usual college life.

It would take a much deeper sociological study to understand better this use of time compared to how students of my generation used their time, but I think the efficiencies of having high-quality material on hand (rather than having to wade through many less-than-inspiring books) and the fun aspects of being able to share, meant that fitting in this extra learning was interesting and engaging and not the chore that the phrase ‘extra work’ implies. It is also conceivable that certain aspects of the learning are now ‘accelerated’ as you can find solutions and answers to personal queries quickly – rather than wait for days to have your problems answered in ‘office hours’ by an academic at your institution.

What are the implications of these students’ achievements?

I think there are many, but here are just a few.

  1. Students can use online material to greatly broaden their undergraduate studies. With current online sources this is particularly true at first year level, but more advanced online sources may soon be available. This means that students will be able to join 2nd year univeristy courses without necessarily having the in-house ‘prerequisites’ required by the institution. Universities should facilitate this ‘jumping up a level’ if the student is really adequately prepared.

  2. Students are much better prepared for interdisciplinary learning and, indeed, by being exposed to many courses that do not sit obviously in any traditional department (is Model Thinking psychology, maths, philosophy or something else?) they soon learn to negotiate their own intellectual universe and frame their personal knowledge. This  is something I think we should encourage as soon as is feasible. Such ‘framing’ is also a skill I believe will be important for the high-flyers of the foreseeable future.

  3. (Which is an amalgam of 1 and 2): Successful students will demand greater flexibility of university courses so that they can put their own student diets together using MOOCs and in-house learning. Universities should facilitate this and the universities that do this best, offering the right expert support and supervision, will attract the best students.

  4. Exam results? These were good students, so it is hard to judge whether their exam results at UCL were improved by their blended approach. We know, also, that canny students can use strategic learning to get good exam results in such a way that may reflect no better long-term memory or deep knowledge than other students who score less well on exams. It is obvious to me, however, that this broadening of the knowledge base will lead to deep learning which will have long-term benefits. Of course, simply making the effort to be proactive and selective in one’s learning will also have long-term benefits. ‘Learning to learn’ – and all that. I expect that students who negotiate this sort of blended learning successfully will be more likely to make good researchers as well as being attractive to top employers.

  5. What to do about those who can’t or won’t blend? I think that’s another topic. My concern here is for the high-flyers, those keen to learn and engage. I am delighted for them that they live in an age of such rich learning opportunities. All power to them for seizing hold of them. Universities should be doing their best to support such students.

Final thoughts

Is this really anything new? I mean the Open University and others have been providing superb blended learning opportunities for decades?

It is true that the OU and others have offered such opportunities and many have benefitted from them. However, it was rare that university students used online or remote materials in so flexible and interactive a way. This may be, more than anything, a culture shift for students, but it is a culture shift brought about by many incremental improvements in ease of access, interactivity, quality of design, variety. There is nothing more powerful than a culture shift.

Photo under CC license from Wikimedia

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