Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Homeschooling Using MOOCs

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can be a great addition to a homeschool programme for a highschool, or potentially even a middle school, student. Over the past year we've enrolled in six MOOCs  – four though Coursera and two via Future Learn. Mostly we've just watched the videos and enjoyed learning on our own terms in a fairly relaxed way, either to supplement an existing course of study or purely for interest. Recently through, Miss 13 enrolled in Animal Behaviour, a Coursera course from the University of Melbourne.  This dovetailed nicely with her passion for birding, so she decided to complete all the assessments and assignments in the hopes of earning a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction, which required a minimum grade of 80%. What follows is based on that particular course, although there is much similarity in the format of all the Coursera courses we've completed.

What You Get
The main component of the course – the guts of it if you like – was a series of videos. These were nothing flashy – just the lecturer talking to the camera , with some simple graphics included – graphs, illustrations, and some written text. However, the lecturers are experts in their field and we found the videos to be well organised and engaging. Many of the studies covered in the lectures related to birds, which was bonus as far as Miss 13 was concerned!  Rather than one long lecture per week, there were several (five to seven) shorter segments of between 7 and 22 minutes each. Once or twice during each video there was a multiple choice question for the student to answer to check their understanding. Multiple attempts were allowed and an explanation was provided. The questions weren't graded and you could simply skip them, but they were a good way to check the material presented was being understood.

We found the video lecture format to be simple yet engaging and effective.

The site featured a variety of  features to help students learn, understand and apply the concepts.
* A glossary – very helpful for checking those tricky technical terms.
* Discussion forums – One for each weeks' lectures, one for the assignments plus others on more general topics. This was a great chance to discuss things with other students, ask questions etc. Teaching Assistants are on the discussion forums to provide guidance as well.We never came across any discourteous comments or behaviour on the forums.  
* Weekly Study Guides – These laid out the key concepts for each week, provided suggestions for how much time each task would take, and provided links to recommended resources.
* List of extension readings – These weren't required for any of the assessments but were really helpful for in depth exploration of those topics we found especially interesting.
* Researcher Meets – Three discussions with active animal behaviour researchers. These were conducted via Google Hangouts so only a limited number of students could directly participate. But it was possible to submit questions beforehand and the chats were on YouTube for later viewing.

The site is easy to navigate. Links to everything you need - lectures, discussion forums, assignment instructions - are on the side bar on the left.

For those who wished there was a 10 question multiple choice quiz most weeks. The first one was a practice quiz and didn't count towards the final grade. The other six were worth 10% of the final grade. A student was allowed three attempts at each quiz and the highest score was the one that counted. I've been really impressed by the quizzes and the way they not only assessed knowledge but also helped in the learning process. Once the quiz was completed it was automatically graded and the student could see what they got right and wrong, along with a brief explanation. The really clever part came if a student decided to resit the quiz. While the topic of each question stayed the same sometimes the question itself varied a little and the possible answers often changed. In other words each quiz was slightly different. To score better on the second and third attempts you really needed to have understood the explanation provided after the first attempt, possibly reviewed your notes and the videos, and been able to apply the concept. You couldn't just memorise the correct answers.

I'm not normally a fan of the multiple choice format but I thought these questions were well designed. Students had to understand and be able to apply the concepts to do well. 

In addition there were two assignments, each worth 20% each. The first involved writing an article of less than 1000 words for a general audience, describing and critiquing discoveries about animal behaviour from a published scientific paper. The second involved observing a wild animal,  and keeping field notes of the observations. Based on those field notes students then has to come up with a question on animal behaviour, formulate a hypothesis, and design (but not actually conduct) an experiment to test the hypothesis. The assignments were peer reviewed. After submitting the assignment each student had to grade (guided by a rubric) the work of three of their course mates. Each rubric had several components and a students final grade was the total of the median grade they received for each individual component.

An extract from Miss 13's field notes assignment.

Pros and Cons
Overall this was a great experience for Miss 13. Initially she felt a little intimidated by the course. Not only was she one of the younger students but many others were far more qualified and experienced. Comments on the forums revealed for instance that one student was about to begin a Masters degree in Zoology and another was working in Africa on a well-funded project and had planes following herds of animals that she could use as the basis of the field work assignment! Definitely in a different league! But her confidence grew as she scored well in all the tests. Grading the assignments of others further proved she was not out of her depth, and this was confirmed by the good grades and positive comments she received on her assignments. The final results have yet to be confirmed but she should easily have achieved her goal of  a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction. The material was challenging at times, but to be able to master it and do well was immensely satisfying and a great confidence boost.

If you were just doing the course for interest there would be a huge amount of flexibility since you could download the videos and watch them whenever you wanted, even after the course itself is over. You could also do as much or as little as you personally wanted. The quizzes had a small amount of flexibility since each student had two late days that they could use to submit a quiz late without incurring a penalty. After that there was a 10% penalty for each day the quiz was late and after the hard deadline (a week after the due date) the quiz grade could not be submitted for credit at all. With the assignments there was no flexibility at all. The sheer numbers of students in the class and the logistics of the peer review process made this impossible. Unlike regular university where you can always make an individual appeal to a lecturer in case of illness or the like. Since we only discovered the course a week after it had started  and Miss 13 was quite unwell for two of the eight weeks we weren't entirely sure she'd be able to complete the assignments to a satisfactory level to submit. She did manage it, but time spent on assignments was time that couldn't be spent on other things such as additional readings and researcher meets. However, even though the course is officially over we have downloaded all that we need to follow up these areas and continue our learning as time permits.

The peer review grading process can also be problematic. Even with a grading rubric Miss 13 sometimes struggled to know whether she was giving a fair grade and also struggled with the extent to which she should follow the rubric. Was it a guideline or a set of hard and fast rules? From the forums it was clear some students used it one way and some another. Some students also felt that had been marked unfairly and there was no appeal process and no way of discussing your grade with the markers (who are all anonymous) to find out exactly what led them to their marking decisions.  In both assignments Miss 13's grades were within the range she felt she deserved (in one case slightly higher but she is fairly tough on herself) but we saw how it could easily have been different. In one assignment she submitted a link to a PDF as allowed. However, one of her markers either didn't realise it was a link or couldn't open it. He or she commented that the assignment was empty and had no content. Therefore the grades from that marker were presumably all zeroes. Since the final mark received was a median of the three markers' grades this didn't unduly affect her overall mark. However, if one of the other two markers made the same mistake she could have ended up with a 0 for the entire assignment, effectively ending her goal of earning a distinction. Some way of flagging or appealing blatantly unfair or incorrect marks would be nice but, given the size of the course (over 20,000 enrolled although I do not know how many actually submitted assignments)  and the fact that the lecturers are not being paid to run these courses, this is probably unrealistic.

Overall, I've found MOOCs - Coursera's especially  -  to be a great addition to our homeschooling programme. They offer a wide range of higher level, high quality content,  best suited to independent learners in my opinion. Coursera courses are entirely free. Although you can pay for a verified certificate, the course content is available to anybody at no cost.  My main caveat would be that there is potential for the grading process to go wrong. If your student is robust enough to deal with this, great. If not just enjoy the learning process but don't necessarily worry about submitting assignments and trying to earn a statement. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fortnight Ending 27 July 2014

It's been an incredibly busy fortnight - didn't even get around to posting last week - but Miss 13 is now officially on holiday. And that means I am too - yah! I was going to say two weeks of nothing to do - but of course there is still trampoline training...not to mention cooking and cleaning etc. But no formal homeschool work to complete sounds wonderful right now. Normally we take a break every nine or ten weeks, but this time it was thirteen weeks and with more work than normal, more challenging work than normal ...and I had a cold as well. On top of that things cropped up involving all four kids - most of it not of their doing and most of it not things we can do anything about , but emotionally draining anyway. Let's just say this break feels long overdue and I'm feeling a strong desire to spend a day in bed with a good book or two and a block of chocolate!

The main work of course has been Miss 13's Animal Behaviour MOOC. Her final assignment was due last week. At times we weren't sure she'd actually get it submitted (starting a week late then being sick for two weeks really put her behind, then we ran into technical difficulties trying to get all her work up on a blog, which was the preferred submission method) but she did. It was such a weight off her shoulders. This week she's been busy reading and marking some of her classmates' assignments. This was much easier than marking the scientific writing assignments a couple of weeks ago. She also finished up the last week of lectures on social insects and completed the final test. Now we just await the marks for the final assignment.

The beginning of Miss 13's field notes blog.

Miss 13 also finished her Future Learn course on Literature of the English Country House. One of the texts discussed was The Importance of Being Earnest, which was a great excuse to rewatch our  DVD version. We all love Wilde's wit. We're going to have so much spare time now all the MOOCs are finished.

In other work she completed a history unit on the switch to agriculture and wrote a short paper considering the advantages and disadvantages of foraging and farming. In science she completed the unit on anatomy and physiology and started the next unit on evolution. She's gone on a Harry Potter kick and is rereading the entire series.  She also finished the French programme she's been using and has decided she's not interested in doing any more formal French for the time being. In Latin she's been doing work with third conjugation verbs and learning the perfect tense. She's nearly finished her current Latin course but is keen to carry on with the language. It makes more sense to her than French apparently. In between all this she has managed to watch some of the Commonwealth Games - a scaled back version of the Olympics for countries that were members of the British Commonwealth. While trampolining isn't a Commonwealth sport, one of the rhythmic gymnasts is a member of the same club as Miss 13. After watching her train it was especially interesting watching her compete.

We managed a couple of birding trips, trying to spot a white-winged black tern, a rare Asian migrant that was seen in the area. Our first trip was unsuccessful and we thought maybe the bird had moved on. But people reported seeing it later that same day. We then realised all sightings of it had been in the afternoon and we'd gone in the morning. So we went out the following afternoon and Miss 13 spotted it before I even stopped the car. We spent a happy half hour watching it fly low over the water hawking for insects.

The White-winged Black Tern.
 The photo is by our friend  Grahame, since he takes much better photos than we do!

The highlight of the fortnight for Mr 16 was passing his restricted licence, meaning he can drive the car without a supervisor. I haven't had to run any errands since then - he's keenly volunteered for every single one! For so long I've been the only driver in the family and now I feel like I need to book the car or else one of the kids will have it.  Mr 16's finished his break and is easing back into a full course load - supplemented by a statistic course that dh thought would be good for him and has managed to convince him to try. He's still busy working on his big Scouting project, but the end is in sight at least.

Mr 21 came around for dinner last weekend - an early celebration for his birthday. It was good to catch up and find out all the things in his life that he has forgotten to tell us about - a quick trip to the United States and winning another research fellowship among them. He didn't think they were a big enough deal to mention!

I did find some time to put some work into Mr 16's transcript and Miss 13's as well. I thought it would be relatively straightforward but it turns out there was a big variation between what we planned for Mr 16 to do some years and what he actually did! Glad I didn't leave it any longer or I may have struggled to remember some of what he'd done. Hopefully having it all written up will help him and us come up with a good plan if he decides to keep homeschooling next year.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Week Ending 13 July 2014

Mr 16 was on a break this week but Miss 13 was still working. Unfortunately it was a disrupted week for her. On Tuesday  we had to be out of the house for the morning so asbestos testing could be carried out. It appears that when our earthquake repairs were being done asbestos may have been released, thus compromising our health. This was an issue in many of the earlier repairs and, two and a half years later, officials have realised this and are retrospectively checking properties.  We opted to go to a cafe and try and get some studying done while the testing was underway. Turns out hot chocolate and a treat go some way towards making maths tolerable!

Wednesday morning we had a bird ramble in the morning (marred by persistent rain sadly) and in the afternoon I was away dropping Mr 16 at camp. Thursday was supposed to be a day full of work. But there was an unexpected car drama so I was out for a lot of the  morning sorting that out. Then in the afternoon  the opportunity arose for Miss 13 to get together with a friend she hardly ever sees so we grabbed the chance. On Friday morning I was out again on an unavoidable errand. Luckily Miss 13 is very good at working when I'm out and is happy to shift work to the nights or weekends (when she normally doesn't schedule bookwork) if it means she can take advantage of opportunities mid week. So, despite the disruptions she managed to get through nearly all the work she needed to this week.

The big focus for her  was the Animal Behaviour MOOC, specifically peer reviewing the writing assignments of three of her course mates. She's never done this before and trying to give a fair and accurate grade according to the grading rubric wasn't as simple as she first thought. There were ten areas to be graded and each had to be given a 0, 1 or 2. The difficulty was feeling that work wasn't good enough for a 2 but only giving it a 1 was too tough. In typical Miss 13 style she wanted to give half marks but that wasn't allowed. The other, bigger,  challenge was actually  reading the three original scientific papers the writing assignments were based on. Some of them were extremely technical and challenging. But she got all the work done and is now free to focus on the field work observations for the next assignment. This is much more enjoyable work.

Over the weekend we got back to our main observation site and spent an hour observing the  Black Swans. We also visited a different area which had a  far larger number of Black Swans, and they exhibited very different behaviour from those we've been regularly observing. As a result Miss 13 is starting to formulate some interesting questions  which is great, since the field work assignment is due in a week and requires a question based on the observations, a hypothesis and an experiment designed to test that hypothesis. Definitely real challenging science happening as a result of this course!

Meanwhile Mr 16 was experiencing real, challenging learning of a different kind  at his Scouting camp. There was lots of hand-on, experiential learning - 6 am runs every morning, designing and helping to prepare a five course meal,  public speaking, a surprise midnight tramp, river crossings,  plus plenty of more advanced outdoor skills. There were lots of theoretical modules too -including legal rights and obligations, life skills, health, preparing a CV and tackling a job interview, and the electoral system.  I understand there were some long days and nights  so I think the second week of his break may well be spent catching up on lost sleep!    


Sunday, July 6, 2014

Week Ending 6 July 2014

This should be the time where I'm looking forward to a two week break from the rigours of homeschooling. School holidays have just begun and, for a variety of reasons, we typically take a break from formal work at the same time. This time Miss 13 does not want to. She is still fully engrossed in her Animal Behaviour MOOC and it has a variety of assessments due in the next two week period. Even if she stopped all her other work she feels she wouldn't get a proper break. So she's opted to carry on with all her regular work for two weeks and then take a break once most of the work for the MOOC is over. Mr 16 meanwhile doesn't want to delay his break - and he has a camp scheduled so he'll be away for some of the time anyway. This means instead of a total two week break I'll get four weeks of half-break. I think I'll take a glass half-full approach and look at this as a good development.

Miss 13's health continued to slowly improve this week and she finally made it back to trampoline training on Saturday . The two week break and the fact she is still not 100% recovered showed but she's confident she'll be back to her best in another week.

Miss 19 sat and passed her full driver's licence this week. She's been on a restricted license, meaning she could drive unsupervised but not between 10 pm and 5 am and she was unable to take passengers, for a year. This could be restricting at times so she's glad to finally  have total independence and flexibility now - so long as the car is not required elsewhere that is!

Many years ago, inspired by the cartoon strip above, Miss 19 promised her younger sister that when she got her full licence she would take her out for an ice-cream. Miss 19 had totally forgotten this promise but Miss 13 had not! In the end Miss 13's sickness meant they had to delay for nearly a week but today they finally went, opting to try frozen yoghurt, which is new to the area.

This was the week of the annual Garden Bird Survey. This was a perfect activity for early in  the week when Miss 13 was still unwell since all she had to do was sit and look out the window. We don't get a great variety of species on our yard but it is interesting none the less. We noted a lot of sparrows on our hanging feeders. Previously they've only eaten on the ground. There were fewer greenfinches this year too. They used to use the feeder a lot so have perhaps been driven out by the sparrows.

The three most common species in our garden - sparrows, greenfinches and silvereyes.

Later in the week we made it to a local reserve where we are observing Black Swans for a field notes assignment for the Animal Behaviour MOOC. Last week when we went Miss 13 was limited to observing from  the car but this time she could actually walk around both ponds. This is the same reserve where we observed a Black Swan family last year and we're pretty sure some of those birds are still there but, since they are not banded it is hard to be sure.

Probably the most exciting development of the week is Miss 13 submitting her Writing About Animal Behaviour assignment. Basically she had to pick one scientific article from a selection provided and write about the research it contained for a more general audience. The good news was one of the articles was on birds; the bad news is that it was a very technical physics based article on flight mechanisms - and physics has been the branch of science Miss 13 has done her best to avoid. I certainly didn't understand all of the original article, but she's persevered and plugged away at it a little at a time. I think she's done a great job. It's a peer graded assignment so it'll be interesting to see what her grades and feedback are like.