This review will be a four-in-one.  It’s only fair to review them all together, since I took them all together in less than the time it normally takes for a single MOOC.

Course Title: Learning Online: Learning and Collaborating, Reflecting and Sharing, Managing Your Identity, and Searching and Researching
Provider: University of Leeds via FutureLearn
Price: Free
Level: Introductory
Effort: 3 hours over 2 weeks each, commencing on set date
Prerequisites: None
Completion awards: Certificate of Achievement (£39 + shipping) for completing 90% of course content and 70% on test scores, or Statement of Participation (£19 + shipping) for completing 50% of course content

About the course:

At the beginning of each of these courses, they beg people to keep in mind that the content is directed at 16 to 19 year old students still in compulsory education, on their way into University.  Since the entirety of the second course, Reflecting and Sharing, is devoted to telling students how to use social media, I somehow doubt the veracity of that claim.  The last thing a teenager needs to learn is how to use social media.

There is nearly no information in any of the four modules. The majority of chapters declare that they will teach something, then tell you to visit a website and look at help files, and then claim that they just taught you something.  I didn’t find anything in the combined courses that would be helpful to a teenager or anybody else learning online, but it did offer sage advice to use netiquette generally on the Internet.  But that’s just good advice.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the courses is that they want to crowd-source some collaborative experiences, but they just kind of throw the students in and hope one of them will be first.  The problem is that it then asks the students to evaluate what’s been done so far, when there is no so far.  It’s an empty sheet.  They should have seeded the activity with some starter data to get the ball rolling.

Most of the modules are simply bereft of content, but the third course, Managing Your Identity, has information in it about managing an online image that I simply disagree with.  In fact, all four courses make suggestions like using personal Facebook and Twitter accounts for scholastic and professional endeavours.

The only useful thing I got out of all four of the combined courses was that it motivated me to find Animaker. This is a great cloud app which allows you to create an animated video with all kinds of effects.  During the Reflecting and Sharing course, it was suggested that making and sharing videos of what you’ve learned is helpful.  Note that it didn’t suggest in what way it could possibly be helpful, it just said that it was.  It then told everybody to make a video about a few questions relating to Shakespeare.

Even though I viewed the assignment as pointless, I decided to join in.  (‘Join in’ is perhaps a misnomer, as I’m thus far the only person who’s done it.)  I feel like I should extend my best effort on these MOOCs even if I don’t see the value in it, or any particular step.  I’m glad I did.  While I still can’t imagine it will in any way come up in the course of studying a degree, I had a lot of fun making it, it turned out way better than I thought it might, and it was simple.  Once the course finishes for everybody else, I’ll scrub my personal details from it (despite the suggestions from the Managing Your Identity course), and link it below.

The total time for all four courses combined was about 7 hours, including learning how to create a video on my own.  The total amount of information I got out of the course was … Well, clearly not all Russell Group universities are alike.

2016/07/18 Edit: The course is over, so I’ve scrubbed personal details from the video presentation I did … Sort of.  Anyway, here’s the finished product:


A few weeks ago, I mentioned that I was going to do some preparation for studying at the Open University. It’s a distance learning university, which I’ve struggled with in the past due to poor communications tools before technology improved them.  I’ve been out of formal education for over 20 years, though I have spent a few years employed as a trainer for computer and network troubleshooting.  (I also was assigned one class to train people how to take care of flowers. It was a fun job.)

I initially tried by studying materials for a CCNA in hopes that it would make T216 easier and faster. I made decent progress in learning, but realised that I was only reading the materials. I wasn’t taking active notes, I wasn’t practicing anything hands-on, and while I was absorbing the concepts very well, I wasn’t likely to be able to retain details which would be necessary for the CCNA exam.

So far as my original goal, this was great. Being comfortable with the concepts when I take T216 will indeed make it easier.  But it underscored that my method of study wasn’t going to cut it at university. I realised that I had a golden opportunity between now and the course beginning in October to study how to study, to raise my abilities of learning to get the most I can out of my degree course.

After some doing some online searches, talking to a few people (only online, goodness that would be an awkward conversation for me in person), and heavy doses of self evaluation, here’s my plan for university study preparation:


  • The Good Study Guide by Andrew Northridge, published by the Open University
    • This was the first recommendation to me, specifically to help with writing essays at university level.  I am not reading it as a book; I am using it as a study resource and practically the basis for my own self-taught module. I initially devoted about an hour a night to study with it, and now go back to it as necessary to do some activities and reflection.  Though I started with it, I couldn’t complete it without finding other things to study, because it works best with real examples of your work on courses.  The Open University no longer sells this book, but it’s available through Amazon or other avenues.
  • OpenLearn badged courses
    • After the Good Study Guide stalled because of lack of coursework, I moved to MOOCs. I started with badged OpenLearn courses.  I’ll evaluate these courses at a later date, but they’re of varying quality and usefulness to study preparation.  In general, they’re better for experience than they are for what you actually get out of them.  For example, I was hoping to get some maths refreshers or maybe push myself a bit, but the badged courses for maths are well below university level and can be done fairly easily by anybody who stayed awake through GCSE or high school maths.
  • Other MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) for fun
    • Realising that the experience of the modules were more useful than the knowledge in the modules, I expanded to FutureLearn just to find courses that looked interesting.  I’ll evaluate these later, too.


  • My strategy is to treat what I’m doing as seriously as I can. When I enroled to the Open University, I determined I could set aside about 16 hours a week.  Thanks to The Good Study Guide, I’m now closer to being able to set aside about 24.  During my study preparation, I’m taking half of the initial figure and devoting that to my studies.  For an hour an evening and a couple of extra hours on the weekend, I go to the study space I’ve set up, close the door, and do some serious studying.  Most of the time is on the MOOCs, but I also devote a fair amount to the Good Study Guide so that I’m sure my skills at studying are actually improving.


  • I’ve been extremely pleased with the results of this initiative so far.  Perhaps the best thing to come out of it has been the boatloads of confidence that it’s given me.  I’ve proven that I have at least half the time that I’ve set aside for study, and that I can stick to it at least for a few weeks.  I’ve also learned that I really, really enjoy studying. If I were to cancel my degree course right now, I’d be quite happy to continue to do the MOOCs with the same level of consideration and seriousness.

If anybody is considering going back to learning, I highly recommend this method.  You don’t have to use the Good Study Guide, but I would recommend finding some specific guide, and preferably one that helps you analyse your own strengths and weaknesses in relation to course goals.

I had the mixed experience of using distance learning to obtain my high school diploma after dropping out. I was successful, and it was nice that such an option existed, but to call it a drag on the soul like a million demons trying to yank me into hell would understate it.

Even though it had a positive outcome, it was an overwhelmingly negative experience.  It soured me on distance learning like soaking Tangfastics in pickling vinegar.

I thought advances in technology would change my mind, but after becoming more familiar with the ethos of the Open University, I realised I was wrong. It’s less about the medium of communication, and more about the quality.  And the structure.  And even the intent.  Okay, look, it’s that there is communication.

It’s really not appropriate to say why I chose the Open University, as I wouldn’t be doing this without it.  The Open University convinced me that I could do this.  (Okay, I probably would try it again at some point, as I started in California, but I was dreading it.)

Here’s what helped convince me:

  • Support
    Mostly I mean the tutors. Previously, when I had questions, I basically talked to an administrator who could help insomuch as telling precisely where I could place my study materials.
  • Study Materials
    Look, I don’t care if they’re online or in a book, what I care about is that I don’t have to go around finding them myself, whether at the bookstore, the library, the school’s office, or lost in the post.  People bang on about the quality of the study materials, but I currently don’t know anything about that.  All I know is that they provide all of them.
  • Part Time Student Financing
    Not really anything to do with the Open University, but the UK government allows part-time students to arrange for student loans, now.  Okay, it may have been better a few years ago when the tuition fees were a fraction of what they are now. And yes, I could pay out-of-pocket, the fees are definitely low enough. But it’s nice that I can put it into a manageable payment and eliminate a barrier that would otherwise exist for me, but not an 18 year old.
  • Everything can be done online
    I know a lot of Open University students like that it doesn’t have to be online, that you can go to tutorials and get face-to-face help. But I just want to put my head down and get on with it. I’m pretty anti-social as it is.  As in withdrawn and introverted, not as in ASBO and Stella Artois. But I mean TMA submission and such. Aside from 4 day schools if I choose the networking route, I don’t think anything can’t be done online.
  • Structure!
    Not just structure, but what appears to be a scientifically created one.  Each module has a number of credits (typically 30, 60, or 120), which generally map to 10 hours of study, over 8 months.  So the recommended 60 credits per year at part time study is 600 hours of study over 8 months (or 36-38 weeks), or about 16 hours per week. The module is then mapped out according to these 16 hour weeks to provide for time to study materials, prepare Tutor Marked Assignments, and so on. So you know exactly how far ahead or behind you are at any point in the module.
  • Feedback
    Closing the other end of my biggest problem with distance learning is that you get feedback on any assignments within two weeks. And I’ve seen some examples of the feedback. I’m sure it will often be down to the ability of my tutors to convey, but the structure for the feedback is good. It’s useful.

All of that’s great, but it does (of course) still leave the biggest problem of distance learning up to me to solve: Motivation.  Finding and keeping that is a constant struggle in distance learning. Many future posts I’m sure deal with this.

This is  a record of my journey from start-to-finish in obtaining my BSc (Hons) Computing & IT degree from Open University. I thought it’d be nice to start with how I ended up on this path. Time will tell how far along it I manage to go.

I dropped out of a US high school in the middle of the 11th grade.  That’s a year and a half before graduation for those outside the US.  (Compulsory education laws can vary state-to-state, and are subject to religious freedoms.  Typically, however, it lasts until 16 years of age, even though secondary education lasts to the year students turn 18.)  It’s difficult to discuss, but the short version was that I was depressed.

My next educational stop was admittance to the ‘local’ community college.  (Again, there’s a cultural divide in describing the US education system to some others. An American community college is a public institution of higher education which mainly grants two-year degrees called associate’s degrees, which are primarily a foundation to a four-year bachelor’s degree at a university. They also tend to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degree programmes like universities, or adult education programmes for obtaining diplomas or continuing/further education.) College was great for me emotionally. However, in addition to being expensive, it was also about forty minutes away by car. When I lost my transport, my commute became two 90 minute bus journeys every day, often for a single 30 minute lecture.  It ground me down to the point that I eventually quit that, too, and I entered employment.

My first job was as telephone support for an online service in the days before the World Wide Web. It was a good education in data communications and paid good money, especially for a drop-out.

This led to my next educational stop: distance learning to go back and get my diploma. I was able to do so in short order whilst working, but I despised distance learning at the time. I would buy, collect, or be sent materials, get a sheet of paper telling me what I had to learn, then I showed up for an exam. It was dehumanising, but I was successful.

I thought that was going to be the end of my education. I couldn’t make enough money and have enough time to attend university classes, and I certainly wasn’t going to go back to distance learning.

By 2012 I was married, living in Southern California, and in a great career as a network engineer. I investigated the possibility of distance learning, and found that the Internet had really revolutionised it. It was attractive enough that I thought I’d give it a go again.  I researched my options, and found the programme I wanted to follow.  It was a few months before I finalised my enrolment. (These British spellings are killing me.)

I had been enrolled for all of about a week when our lives were forced to change.  The immigration laws for the UK were being changed rapidly. Soon, it would be a requirement for my wife to be living in the UK and making around £20,000/year for six months before I could move there.  If we left immediately, however, we could use our current earnings as an indication of our earning potential in the UK to prove we wouldn’t need to go on benefits, and we could move together without being separated.  I had promised my British wife that we would move to the UK before we had children old enough to go to school, so we had no choice but to pack up our lives, withdraw from University, and move to a different continent.

A few years later our son did start school, and I finally had time to enroll at university again. This time I was excited to find Open University. Much more discussion is included in subsequent posts, but the short version is that it’s perfect for my life.  My career was already well established over here, even if I was working about 65 hours a week.  I was sure I could talk them into giving me a break for study time.

Between the time I contacted Open University and the time they called me back, my company went out of business.  And didn’t pay me for my last two months of work, taking £6000 of my money with them. At Christmas.

I found employment again quickly, but my path back to education was blocked again, just as quickly.  This time by good news, though; my wife was pregnant with our second son.

He’s still a baby, but we’ve managed to schedule our lives in such a way that I have enough time to finally study a degree at Open University.  Time to give it another go.

As I already know what I want to do with my life, I’m going to get a degree in my current field. I’m studying for the BSc (Hons) Computing and IT (Q62) degree from Open University. Another entry probably holds more details on why.

I suppose the one thing still missing from this entry is why it’s important.  It’s not.  At least not objectively.  I have a great job, make good money, have a home in a great location, am blessed with a truly special family I love to bits … Getting a degree isn’t going to make my life any better. It’s just something that’s of great importance to me personally. Part of it is being an example to my children. Part of it is out of respect to my dad. It’s something that’s been left undone, though. Like my diploma, it’s something I need to go back and finish.