Author Archive

Awards season

Thursday, June 19th, 2014


It is that time of year where Trinity (ok summer) term is drawing to an end, and thoughts turn to Awards ceremonies.   Yesterday at Oxford University we apparently had two sets in one night.  I am sure the other awards were fabulous, but of course we attended OxTALENT, Oxford’s awards for teaching and learning enhanced with technology.

As usual it was great chance to find out about cool things going on in the University with IT, teaching and learning, from academic staff, librarians, support staff, students and more.   Some interesting themes emerged – clearly physicists are the best podcasters here in Oxford (and  if you want to study a course co-written by one of the winners check out our fabulous  Exploring the Universe course). There is also a lot of really great work being done to facilitate transition to university.  The Maths Bridging course we developed with MPLS was a runner up in this category, an indication of strong field with some excellent work from the Bodleian Libraries.

The day after that event it is worth noting Oxford is also doing well in external awards, with a Hoey Lee winning a grant as part of the JISC Summer of Student Innovation for his project to develop a University Proofreading Exchange. That this entered and won, is  no surprise when you see the quality of work in all the student categories at OxTALENT – so congratulations to everyone and I look forward to meeting the winners at future OxTALENT committee meetings.


Psychology and Modern Architecture

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

This term we are launch two great courses, Psychology: an introduction and Western Architecture: The Modern Era.

Psychology is probably the most requested new online course topic for the Department so we are really excited to have our first course in this subject area.  This is a really great introduction if you know nothing about the subject, but also lets you explore topics in more depth if you are really interested.  Any course with units titled, “Why do we conform and whom do we obey?” and “Why do fools fall in love?” has to be worth some of your time.

However if psychology is not your thing I would also recommend our new course in Modern Architecture. This amazingly visual course lets you explore all the architects you would expect from Le Cobusier, Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright to those you may not have heard of such as Philip Johnson and Rober Venturi.  I promise after studying this you will never look at the (modern) buildings around you in quite the same way again.

So if you want to step into spring with new opinions on everything from Brutalism to theories of reward and punishment you could not come to a better place.


Glorious Art for the New Year

Thursday, November 14th, 2013
La station art nouveau de la porte Dauphine (Hector Guimard)

La station art nouveau de la porte Dauphine (Hector Guimard)

This term I am really excited to let you know about two of our most gorgeous new courses ever, Art Nouveau Across Europe and The Impressionists: Painting Modern Life, launching in Hillary term (January)  2014.  Both these courses are full of wonderful images and a chance to immerse yourself in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century world from which they emerged. In each case you are given a chance to explore the topic in depth, engaging with contemporary sources as well as more recent  academic debate. Find out everything you ever wanted to know about  Gaudi, Horta, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and come to your own conclusion on the strange death of Art Nouveau.  Alternatively explore the world of Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Cassat from the origins of the Impressionism  to its evolution with Gaugin and Van Gogh. In either case you  will be stimulated intellectually (as in all our courses) and  especially visually.

Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago

Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago: Monet


Image credits:La station art nouveau de la porte Dauphine (Hector Guimard) / /by/2.0/ and Impressionism at the Art Institute of Chicago /

Climate modelling for a global audience

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

As the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Assessment Report is released, it is a good time to find out more about the science behind it. Over the last few years we have developed two courses through a project in conjunction with the Met Office Precis team and climate scientists here in Oxford, that gaims to encourage the sharing of high quality information about climate science, modelling and the interpretation of climate change modelling experiments.  This project has used online learning explicitly to target students in the developing world, aiming to reach areas where face to face training has not been able to make a widespread impact – although being online they are available to anyone anywhere so everyone can benefit.

To do this we developed a free course ‘An introduction to the science of climate and climate change‘  so far this has see just under 4000 students enrol, and this number is growing all the time. When last analysed we had students from 171 different countries and about 45%  of these were from the developing world.  This has been followed up by a second course ‘Constructing and Applying High Resolution Climate Scenarios‘ which enables small cohorts of fee paying students to learn more advanced content in small groups supported by a tutor. This again has achieved a truly global audience with students from Eritrea to Nepal, definitely reaching people who could never come to Oxford for a face to face course.  With so much of the scientific understanding on climate based around modelling, understanding how this actually works is information everyone can benefit from – and with our second course due to run next  on the 28th October, there is still time to sign up.

Social Anthropology and World Religions

Friday, July 19th, 2013

This Michaelmas term (as well as offering well over 60 courses you have had a chance to study already) we launch two totally new courses, Social Anthropology: an introduction and Introduction to World Religions.

Boys taking part in a ritual to mark the transition to manhood, Malawi Licensed by Steve Evans under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence

Boys taking part in a ritual to mark the transition to manhood, Malawi
Licensed by Steve Evans under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence

The titles of the units in the social anthropology course alone are enough to make anyone with an enquiring mind consider studying it.  Among them – “Kinship: given or made?” “Witchcraft: is a belief in science any more rational than a belief in witches?” “Gift exchange: is there such a thing as a free gift?” “Ethnicity and globalisation: understanding hyperdiversity”.  I am not sure you will ever see the world in the same way again once you have been exposed to thinking anthropologically.

Our world religions course introduces you to a subject where even the term “world religions” can be controversial. Looking at the major faiths of both the east and west it will help you understand both insider and outsider perspectives and the ways that religions have adapted and changed to meet the challenges of the modern world.

Both courses have some great resources and activities which will really stimulate you, challenging you to work out what you believe and why – if from very different perspectives!


Maths Bridging

Thursday, July 4th, 2013
Mathematical Bridge, Iffley Lock, Oxford

Mathematical Bridge, Iffley Lock, Oxford

We are currently working on a new course with Oxford’s MPLS division to help students coming to Oxford to study Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences and Materials ensure their maths is up to scratch.

This has been an interesting project for us in many ways, pushing the boundaries of our expertise in many directions, from Moodle’s handling of maths notation, to online assessment design, to embedding of externally hosted cc licensed videos in our materials.

We have updated our handling of mathematical equation rendering, enabling MathJax in Moodle 2.5 which allows us to include maths notation without rendering all maths formula as inaccessible images or requiring our students to download special plugins to use MathMl. This is a big win for us, as in the past pretty much every option for handling this kind of notation had significant downsides.

In terms of assessment design we have finally included some really useful feedback loops between diagnostic, formative tests, basic course materials and reinforcement and extension materials.  Depending on a student’s answer to individual questions they are directed to materials that should give them a basic overview of a concept, help them study it in more depth, and if they want to, explore the topic beyond the basic requirements.  Each section also finishes with  a short quiz so students can check their mastery and again revisit content if need be. Crucially this supports students who need lots of help, but also lets those who don’t establish they are up to speed and ready to begin their course, without requiring them to sit through lots of unnecessary material. This has been possible due to the excellent efforts of our author in MPLS who has done an amazing job writing content and authoring questions and, more significantly, feedback for the quizzes.  This is not a revolutionary approach, and we have had elements of this in our courses before, but the consistent and thorough application of this across all the materials is really gratifying and something that should result in a much more personalised and targeted learning experience for the students.

Lastly this is also a project that has benefited hugely from OER, in particular the wonderful resource sets developed by mathcentre and mathtutor. These have allowed us to produce a much richer course than we would have otherwise managed, by giving students choices about how they study specific concepts while removing the burden from a single author of writing multiple alternative explanations for each topic.  We are also able to present materials in a wider  mixture of formats than we have the resource to develop alone,  e.g. video, text etc so that students can choose the type they prefer.

From a learning design/OER research  perspective this has been a particularly gratifying experience as it has taken concepts we have discussed and modeled in theory for years, such as diagnostic testing with content linked to results and using  OER to enable greater personalisation for students, and actually implemented them in practice. Which I guess means we had better start measuring impact!

Image: bridge /

Are we living in an employee owned universe?

Friday, February 15th, 2013


We have just finished launching our courses for Hilary term (well we are Oxford), which has seen over 1500 students take 60+ courses.  Now we can start thinking about Trinity, for which we have a fantastic selection of online courses for you to enjoy, with two new courses to tell you about here.

For those of you who are interested in economics and business you may want to explore our new course Employee Ownership for the 21st Century which will help you explore the concept of employee ownership or cooperative businesses, and decide for yourself whether the Employee Owned Company is the most significant development in corporate life for 150 years and offers the chance to address the destabilising ills of capitalism?  This course takes a truly global perspective with contributions from leaders in the field from the Netherlands,  Australia, and the USA and in developing it we were certainly convinced it is a contender!

For those of you who want to look even further away then our new course Exploring the Universe should satisfy your requirements.  Co-authored by Chris Lintott from The Sky at Night, this course aims to answer the questions How old is the Universe? How unusual is the Solar System? How will it all end? and so much more.  By the end you will be able to talk confidently about Goldilocks planets and will have plenty of chances to participate in real astronomical discovery by engaging with projects from and more.

As with all our courses,these give you a chance to study with a small cohort of students, supported by an expert tutor, with access to the best information and resources to be found across the  web, books, journals and more, making for a rich and engaging online learning experiences wherever you are in the world.

MOOCs and why VLEs were so exciting in the first place

Wednesday, January 16th, 2013

Having worked in online distance learning for 15 years, one of the intriguing things about MOOCs is watching their role as a vehicle for the wider world to “discover”  things that are common knowledge to those of us in the field.  This is happening across the board (the latest example from California is something for another day), but at the moment it is the technical issues that are feeling a bit groundhog day.

Admittedly technical shenanigans are more likely to happen in platform independent MOOCs rather than the more commoditised Coursera versions,  but  the technical teething troubles around many MOOCs are giving me flashbacks to the early 2000’s when the technology you used was regularly flaky and just getting people online and enrolled in the multiple tools we stitched together to make a “learning environment” (with extra bonus multiple different passwords and user names) was half the challenge of delivering online learning.  When the first VLEs emerged offering one password into  a coherently presented (OK not always) set of tools, with the functionality you need to develop a course it seemed like a small miracle.

Now I know VLEs often don’t have all the tools you want and there are learning benefits in their own right in asking students to engage with various open web tools, however I think it is easy to forget just how intimidating this can be for learners – yes still.  I tend to characterise it to academics as “you want your students to spend their mental energy on your subject not on the technology”, we know badly integrated, hard to use technology was a major factor in students’ bad experiences of online learning for years, something we have largely eradicated – do we really want to go back?

Technology for online learning is an area where I think you need to be prescriptive to make it work – because  if you can manage minimal cognitive overhead with the learning tools, that’s when you can start to reasonably expect students to engage in more challenging learning activities, and the fun really starts.

Image: Groundhog Day / AlicePopkorn2 / CC BY-ND 2.0


New courses for 2013

Tuesday, December 18th, 2012

Image :student laptop / zen Sutherland / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Next term we are launching  five new courses in the online short course programme: Climate Change: Science, Leadership and Action, The Making of Modern Britain, History of Economic Thought, Civil War and Revolution: Britain Divided, 1640-60, and Middle English Literature.

Our history portfolio is expanding rapidly, with The Making of Modern Britain covering topics from Adam Smith and the enlightenment to CND marches.  This course gives you a chance to explore many of the historical trends that have shaped our modern world, but also provides a grounding in the basic historical skills that you need to seriously study history.   You also get to engage with Adam Smith in our new course on the History of Economic Thought, but I am most excited about the fact it also covers Indian and Chinese traditions for a more global perspective.

Back to history, all I need to tell you about our Civil War and Revolution: Britain Divided, 1640-60, course is that it has a unit titled “The return of the sword” and “A time of shaking forum”,  surely you want to know more now.  Middle English Literature. is the natural successor to our ever popular Ancestral Voices: The Earliest English Literature course and is also written by the amazing Sandie Byrne, one of our most popular course authors and tutors, if you have ever felt you should understand Chaucer and the other literature of this time better, this course is for you. Lastly our new course Climate Change: Science, Leadership and Action, not only teaches you more about climate change, but also helps you explore your leadership potential.

Currently there are still places available on all of these courses, but they are filling up fast.  Between them they offer something for all interests – or if you really think you want more choice visit our full online course catalogue, with 60 courses starting in January there really is plenty to choose from.



First world war archaeology maps to help the world…

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Remembering the Forgotten Front (…is my best attempt to link our four new online courses this term, we are nothing if not diverse.

We are the in the middle of our course launch period once again, but there there still places in loads of fabulous online courses if you are interested.  In particular I should mention our four new courses for this term, The First World War in Perspective, Archaeology in Practice, Social Entrepreneurship, and Introducing Mapping, Spatial Data & GIS.

The former two are from our mainstream humanities strand.  Archaeology in Practice fills  the gap in our Archaeology programme for an introduction to the subject, so is the place to start if you have not studied archaeology before.  The First World War in Perspective course is monumental  – and provides the best overview to the subject you could imagine in 10 weeks.  In particular this is a visually stunning course with loads of great resources and images.  I also think our author has done a great job of showing the bigger picture of the war, rather than a UK centric view.

Our GIS and Social entrepreneurship courses come from our growing range of more applied subjects.  Introducing Mapping, Spatial Data & GIS is a great hands on introduction to what GIS can do accross a swathe of subjects, with guidance on using freely available tools to complete your own real life project – it has given me loads of ideas I would love to follow up.  Lastly our Social Entrepreneurship course introduces this fascinating topic and helps you explore how you could become more engaged in this area.

As usual all are taught by our expert tutors and put you in a global classroom with students from everywhere, giving you a perspective  on the subject you could never get in a locally based course. So investigate if you are interested in any of these or anything else from our portfolio.

Image: Remembrance Day 2009 – The Forgotten Front 1918 / Cross Duck / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0