Coursera: Sit-Up learning killer

The modality of the way a course is presented helps form the experience. I’ve talked about my thoughts on “Downtime Learning” where people choose to use time which might otherwise be spent bored, waiting for something to start/end/arrive/leave and so on. Then there are lean in technologies such as the smart phone and tablets, where we actively stare into glass or lean over it in conversation. The mode that feels the most awkward in today’s culture is “sit-up”, a demand most of us have heard directed towards us in class or in the lecture hall.

Personally I find “sit-up” learning the hardest to do. I get listless in the chair. I can’t decide how far to sit back and I’m constantly making minor adjustments to my focus. The idea sitting at a desk at home, in a study on a computer remains the dominant “vision” in distance education as to modality and physical space.

Additionally, Universities make a point of calling us”external” students just to make sure everyone knows they are expected to “sit up”, by reading endless PDFs or typing essays on Word. It’s almost a sneer about how lazy students probably say home and sit around, too un-motivated to get to campus and sit in a chair properly

I suspect few of these people could imagine the processes and innovations students have created (and shared) towards Downtime and Lean Over Learning practices. Its one thing to judge or espouse “students should or we should” rubbish year after year, but actual learning with ‘ease’ has seen students but become more able than institutions. This can be is evident when we hear high-level talk about MOOCs – the assume its just another LMS to be done at home at a desk. I doubt many have undertaken one. This also goes to the idea that a course is a ‘set’ number of hours in a calendar. Up front, it would be easy to assume a MOOC is 120 hours no one can afford to commit to, and if it’s less, then its not scholarly enough warrant recognition.

The CourseMap application from Coursera is a great example of what I’m describing. I’m enrolled in a fabulous course about games, narrative and Lord of the Rings with Jay Clayton. His pleasant manner, well produced videos clearly demonstrate he is not just a player, but thinks very deeply about the subject. I set this against similar courses I’ve done where the main aim appears to be the brandification of the person talking about gamification.

The interface is simple. Log in, see your course, see your progression and download the content (or stream it). Sit down in a quiet spot, put your feet up and watch. The simple design has a top window (for the video) and a generous note area to tap away why you watch the video (5-10mins) at a time. It’s a perfect environment for the downtime learner – and rather than being a cut down LMS, to me its an innovation on towards literary domestication. When I’ve done, I simply press “send”. In my case I send to EndNote which is then automatically tagged and added to a folder of research notes. I’m lucky here, as I’m exploring MOOCs and my research interest at the same time, in total comfort.

This is the emergent narrative of online learning to me, and it becomes very clear when MOOCs are being discussed that many opinions are based on the preconception that they are an LMS for students who don’t pay and don’t get credit. There’s a clear problem for higher education here. Many of those offering opinions and making decisions about MOOCs have such low levels of experience in this emergent literary culture – they will struggle to understand how fundamentally this mode of learning appeals people. We can’t very well compare 20 years of the LMS to Coursera for the simple reason few LMS’s are designed by people how can’t see past “sit up” learning. In fact the LMS is still designed for the computer. They don’t use responsive layouts, they seem to have no idea about S EO, they have poorly designed “apps” and so on – because there is a central belief that learning (proper learning) requires students (not people) to sit up, not lean back.

Coursera’s lean back app is just a superb piece of design. It’s simple with few option or distractions. When used well, the material dominates the time, not the tool or the personality. I’m learning because it’s interesting, not because of the bubble-gum popstar culture on Twitter that sells books. So I’ve enrolled Miss10 and Mr12 on the next course. I suspect they will breeze through it.