Friday, December 20, 2013

FutureLearn Web Science MOOC

This was the first MOOC that I have taken on the Futurelearn MOOC platform.  I commented on the platform itself in my previous post, here I want to look at the course itself, and how it worked within the platform.

There was much interesting material in web science course, which looked at both the technical and the social aspects of the web, as it was led by professors Les Carr and Susan Halford.  I have known Les for some years, which may colour my view of the course.  

It was a shortish MOOC, six weeks, with each week looking at a different aspect of web science:

  • The History of the web, in part looking at different types of history (techno-rational or socio-technical) as well as some of the key events and processes; asking questions like was it inevitable that the web emerged looking the way it does? and arguing that the free, open nature of the web (Tim Berners-Lee "gave it away") was vital to its success.
  • Using analytics to understand what is happening on the web, and the limits that analytics imposes (as well as some other methods such as anthropology).
  • Security and crime. 
  • The web in democracy - how important, for instance, was the web in the Arab Spring of 2011 or the earlier revolt in Iran for instance.  I reviewed the book on Revolution 2.0 mentioned in the course.  This also raises questions of surveillance (barely addresses and as far as I could see not widely commented on in the discussion.  Also looking at open data and new ways in which data can be used once it is available to hold governments to account.
  • "Digital economy" which looked at big data (how the web provides huge amounts of data and access to data that used to be effectively inaccessible (such as government data), the web in recruitment (how might your profile affect your success in seeking jobs) and retail.
  • The future of the web, and especially the semantic web.

Each week started with an introduction by Carr and Halford , which was mostly helpful, though by week six I was tired of hearing that Les Carr was proud to be the first professor of web science at Southampton University.  The weeks also closed with a "discussion" between professors Wendy Hall and Nigel Shadbolt; the discussion is in quotes as it seemed to be cutting between two completely separate presentations rather than an actual discussion, which meant that they were not really building on each others ideas.  While these discussions were interesting a real discussion would have been much more so.

In between these where a variety of chunks which included videos, readings, discussions and a couple of exercises presented by a wide variety of people including lecturers and PhD students.  

I think that the course content had been well thought through, but the course structure less so.  How much this was a result of what FutureLearn could do (when the course was being built) and how much of this was down to the course leaders I cannot tell.  However, the course was extremely linear (start at chunk 1 and work your way straight through to the finish).  This may in part be down to the FutureLearn, as at the bottom of each unit there is next / previous; if you want to go elsewhere then scroll to the top, go back to the course menu and choose another chunk.  That is, it is possible to do them in a different order but it is not what the structure offers.  Also, apart from during the multiple choice tests at the end of the modules there was very little cross referencing (within or between weeks), and little encouragement to return to earlier discussions.

I feel that the return to earlier discussions is almost discouraged, as at the end of each chunk you mark it as completed (ie it is suggesting that there is no need to return). 

The other great weakness was the discussion, but I think this is due to the weakness of the tool.  You can make postings, and you can comment on the postings of others, but unless you go back to the discussions and trawl through them to find your postings it is impossible to see if they have been commented in.  There is no notification that someone has commented on your posting, which makes discussion very difficult though some of us did try.

However, in spite of the limitations of FutureLearn I enjoyed the course, and will try some others; though not many more until the discussion forum is improved.

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