Fragment: On Online Courses….

Rehashing something I posted to an internal forum because I haven’t posted here for what feels like aaagggeeessss….

I think our mode of delivery — narrative based courses presented primarily as written texts, interspersed with other forms of media, as well as dialog in the form self-test/supported open learning/tutor at your side SAQs and exercises — is an engaging and powerful one.

I personally think that a medium that supports embedded rich media and interactive activities provides many opportunities for us as educators to engage learners with more than just a static written text (although such activities may or may not actually make a positive impact on learning, and may affect it negatively, either directly, because the activities are not supportive of the learning, or because the material around the interactive is geared towards the activity creating an opportunity cost against using that material for other purposes).

Michel mentions platforms like Codio and (the new to me) Stepik, which in many ways are just an evolution of platforms that allow you to easily create and publish quite traditional e-learning (remember that?!) quizzes. It’s not too hard to roll your own course, either: was a single person’s DIY effort, but it’s also produced a framework from which you can create your own course.

Something I’m noticing more and more are pages that embed read/write interactions as well as presenting the document as a whole via a personal read/write web style interface. You could argue these are just an iteration on a personal wiki, but I think calling them cell based, notebook style interfaces is more apposite. (OpenCreate was a cell based authoring environment, at least in the iteration I saw.)

The spacy course provides one example of inlining free text editable areas in a course. (The course also mixes linear text with slideshow expositions, which I thinks work nicely. It would be even more powerful if there were an area beneath the slide show where you could enter, and save, your own notes / commentary.)

Applications like Observeable provide you with in-browser documents editable at the cell level (click on the vertical ellipsis in the sidebar of a cell to make it editable). These interfaces also support code-based activities fully supported within the browser. (The spacy course executes code against a remote code environment; Observeable allows js code editing that is executed within the browser; Iodide is a similar, but more generic, framework from Mozilla; here’s a demo document; you can click the Explore button in the top right corner to edit, and preview, the source code. Another part of the same project,  Pyodide, brings a fully blown scientific Python stack into the browser using Webkit. is a very new (also solo) project demoing inline editing of docs that make use of Pyodide; click on a cell tool icon (in the toolbar at the right side of each cell) to edit the cell).

Something that I think these new read/write interfaces offer is the opportunity for students to take ownership of these documents and make marks on them, much as they might write comments or underlines on a print study guide. (Yes, I know about OU Annotate, but it’s not the nicest of experiences…)

Annotated documents can then be saved to personal file spaces. In the case of, it wasn’t working yet when I tried yesterday (which is not to say that it might not have already been fixed today), but the model seems to be that you log in with something like Github and it saves the file there… This means that the site publisher: a) doesn’t really have to worry about managing user accounts, perhaps other than in a very simple, account secret token keeping, way; b) doesn’t “own” your document, it just hosts the editor; c) doesn’t have to pay for any storage for files edited using the editor. This pattern seems to be becoming more and more prevalent; you log in to a service with credentials and permissions that allow the service you are logging in to to store and retrieve stuff using the service whose credentials you logged in with. It’s becoming popular because me as a service provider can create a web app with minimal resource – not much more than hosting for a single page web app.

Just by the by, making annotations on top of documents is also becoming easier. eg the RISE slideshow in Jupyter notebooks, which lets you specify certain cells in a notebook to use as part of a presentation, also supports the ability to draw over a slide .  Things like Jupyter graffiti also go a bit further in terms of allowing you to create not-really screencasts that are actually replays over a live notebook with support for free annotation over the top (the replay element means the user can step into the “screencast” and take over control of the notebook themselves and go off in a different direction from the screenplay). At the moment Jupyter Graffiti is intended for instructors to make tutorials over the top of notebooks, but I wonder how elements of it might be tweaked or co-opted as an annotation tool for students…

One thing to note about the above is that the tech is starting to get there, but the understanding of how to use it, let alone a culture of using it, is still some way away.

Things like Noteable are fine, but they provide a base experience. An argument we keep having in TM351 is the extent to which we provide students with a vanilla notebook experience, or a rich environment built on Jupyter with loads of extensions and loads of exploitation of those extensions in the way we write the notebooks. Another way might be to find extensions that students can use to enrich their experience of our vanilla notebooks, but that requires skilling up the students so that they can make most effective use of the medium on their own terms.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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