Tag: online courses

Udemy for you and me

It seems like every time you blink, another free tool becomes available to help you create online learning resources.

One of them is Udemy – a web-based platform that enables anyone to create and deliver online courses for free. Simply open an account and you are provided with the tools you need to structure your curriculum, upload your content, and publish your course to the world.

Udemy has actually been around since 2010, but I only recently decided to dabble in it. In so doing, I created Audacity Crash Course and The Wide World of MOOCs.

The Wide World of MOOCs landing page

I thoroughly enjoyed using Udemy. I found it to be a simple yet powerful tool.

Having said that, everything has its pro’s and cons, and this was no exception. In case you are considering using Udemy for your own purposes, I will share some of my experience with you now…

Woman making the OK gesture with her fingers.


  • Udemy is incredibly easy to use. Creating lectures, rearranging them and uploading the content is a dream. I jumped straight into it without referring to the instructions, and while I’m familiar with authorware, I expect it’s intuitive enough for Average Joe to work out too. If not, it’s carefully scaffolded each step of the way.
  • The help resources are helpful. When I couldn’t figure out how to delete a lecture, for example, I found the solution via someone else who had raised a similar problem.
  • Every course undergoes a quality review process by the Udemy team. If and when it meets their standards they will add it to the marketplace, which means it will be discoverable by the public. The turnaround time for this process is 3-4 business days, which I consider reasonable.
  • When you publish your course, it is immediately live on the interwebs. That means prior to (and even regardless of) it being accepted into the marketplace, it will have a URL which you can promote to your target audience.
  • The business model enables you to monetise your course by assigning a price to it, of which Udemy claims a 30% cut. This seems reasonable to me, as it is the same cut that Amazon takes via its Kindle Direct Publishing service.
  • A coupon generator allows you create discount coupons at your discretion, empowering you to set the discounted price, the number of coupons, and the deadline. Of course, your cut will then come out of the discounted price rather than the full price. (The algorithm is slightly different for coupon-derived sales.)
  • You can also add your course to the Udemy affiliate program, which makes it available for others to promote for a share of the spoils. Conversely, you can earn a cut by promoting other people’s courses too.

Woman pointing downward with both hands.


  • Udemy assumes that the bulk of your course will be lectures. In fact, one of their standards is that the course contains a minimum of 30 minutes of video content. While I understand why they do this, I also suspect it encourages “padding” and might make the course longer than it ought to be.
  • Another standard maintains that the lectures be 2-15 minutes in length on average “or appropriately long based on the instructional content”. I ran afoul of this one when I published The Wide World of MOOCs because – as you can see on the landing page – most of my lectures are less than 2 minutes each, which I argued was instructionally sound in light of the nature of the content.If Udemy had rejected my argument, I would have had no choice but to consolidate my Q&A videos into one long clip – which not only would have compromised the integrity of the instruction IMHO, but also would have affected the marketing as prospective students would not be able to see the full outline of the contents.Luckily though, the Udemy folk were true to their word and honoured the “or appropriately long based on the instructional content” aspect of the standard.
  • Udemy’s predilection for video presents another unexpected quibble. Leaving aside academic arguments about the pedagogy of lectures – which I think, for the record, depends on the circumstances – the curriculum builder labels every stage of your course a “lecture”. This makes it awkward when, for example, you want to upload a reading list, or web links, or a template. None of these things is a lecture, but they’re called one nonetheless.
  • While Udemy allows you to pick the thumbnail of each video lecture, it offers you only a limited selection. Typically you would want to pick the first frame; otherwise the video appears jumpy as it briefly shows the thumbnail drawn from somewhere midway before autoplaying from the beginning. Unfortunately, though, this first frame is often left out of the selection.
  • The method for deleting a lecture isn’t obvious. Having to click the little pencil first as if you were changing its title doesn’t make sense.
  • While rearranging the lectures is beautifully afforded via dragging and dropping, the same can’t be said of the downloadable materials. Murphy’s Law dictates that you need to make an edit or an update to the file at the top of the list, which means you must delete them all and then re-upload them.
  • You have to send an email to the affiliate team to request them to add your course to the affiliate program. This is a bit clunky, and naturally you want to fire off the request straight away. The problem is, your course can be added to the affiliate program only when it is live in the marketplace – which it won’t be for another 3-4 business days!

Woman with finger in the air.

Suggestions for improvement

In case anyone from the Udemy team is reading this, I respectfully suggest the following improvements…

  • Relax the enforcement of the standards. If a particular course doesn’t technically meet a requirement, the review team should be authorised to make a judgement call on whether to let it slide.
  • Consider labelling each stage of the course a “topic” rather than a “lecture”.
  • Allow the course owner to upload a customised thumbnail like YouTube does. That way, if the system doesn’t automatically pick up the first frame as a thumbnail, the owner can plug it in manually.
  • Place the trash can icon on each lecture’s banner so that it’s obvious how to delete it. A warning message should be sufficient to prevent accidental deletions.
  • Enable the dragging and dropping of the downloadable materials in the curriculum builder for resequencing purposes.
  • Incorporate an option during the publishing process to add the course to the affiliate program. Then, as soon as it is live in the marketplace, it is automatically added to the program.

All in all, though, I must re-emphasise that I thoroughly enjoyed using Udemy. I think it’s an excellent tool.

Not only can you use it to distribute your own expertise, but it’s so easy to use that the SME’s in your organisation can use it to distribute their expertise too.

Anyone interested in leveraging Udemy for workplace training should look into Udemy for Organizations which provides a private, branded portal with exclusive access only for your employees.

UFO might be a viable option for companies that don’t have an LMS, or for others that are seeking an alternative delivery platform.

The moot point of MOOCs

Some people are head-over-heels in love with MOOCs. Or perhaps more accurately, the idea of MOOCs. They believe the new paradigm will democratise – and even revolutionise – education.

Others, however, consider MOOCs a passing fad, an unsustainable business model, yet another a buzzword destined for the scrapheap like so many before it.

I happen to stand somewhere in the middle. I believe MOOCs will democratise education to some extent, and they will revolutionise the delivery of education. Importantly though, I don’t think they will revolutionise the science of education; after all, a MOOC is arguably an extensible version of what we’ve been doing all along – albeit on a massive (and free) scale.

I also think the business model will become sustainable, as soon as the providers adopt a freemium model. By that I mean the content is free, but the formal assessment and certification attracts a premium.

And don’t forget the intangibles of marketing. Perhaps a MOOC is a loss leader, or a branding exercise, or a CSR strategy. The ROI might be more complicated than the profit-and-loss statement suggests.

Piles of books.

So I appreciate the arguments both for and against MOOCs pitched by their proponents and detractors. Nonetheless one aspect of the argument that I don’t grasp is the high dropout rate. Apparently if relatively few participants officially complete the course, then the educational experience must have been be a failure. I just don’t buy it.

Annie Murphy Paul recently blogged about this phenomenon (The Truth About MOOCs: Only 10% Of Students Actually Finish Them), in which she makes the point that…

…for all the hype about making education available for free on the web, we need to work a lot harder to create the psychological conditions that promote persistence, accountability, goal-directedness, responsiveness to instructors’ and classmates’ expectations, and whatever else it is that makes students keep going to class in the real world.

Fair call, but I think there’s more going on beneath the surface, and the post attracted some excellent comments to that effect. For example, Arthur Clarke commented…

…I wonder if we might not overstate the problem. How many unfinished books do you have lying around? If you are like me you have quite a few. Does that mean that I have wasted my time and, puritanically, should castigate myself for being a quitter? Perhaps we need to look at learning differently.

Perhaps we need to look at learning differently indeed.

My reaction to the 10% completion rate for MOOCs is:

Who cares?!

The proponents of informal learning don’t care. Nor do the proponents of constructivist learning. Nor, dare I suggest, do the proponents of social, mobile and blended learning. To these people, the completion rate of a MOOC is a moot point.

The only people who seem to care are the MOOC providers themselves (naturally), the proponents of formal learning, and the ever-present killjoys.

To the MOOC providers I say: Adopt the freemium model already! I’m no accountant, but I expect a 10% completion rate would be financially viable.

To the proponents of formal learning I say: Formal learning certainly has its place, but that doesn’t mean it meets everyone’s needs. One size does not fit all.

To the killjoys I say: Identifying an obstacle does not impress me. Explaining how to overcome it does.

The future of MOOCs

MOOCs get a bad rap. Dismissed as prescriptive, or teacher-centric, or unsocial, or something else, it’s like a badge of honour to espouse why you dislike MOOCs.

Despite their pedagogical flaws, however, MOOCs provide unprecedented access to quality content for millions of learners.

It’s all very well for Apple-owning, organic-buying professionals to cast aspersions, but consider the girl in Pakistan who’s too scared to set foot in a classroom. Consider the teenager in central Australia whose school has only one teacher. Consider the young woman in Indonesia who can’t afford college. Consider the boy in San Francisco whose maths teacher simply doesn’t teach very well.

Don’t all these people deserve a better education? And isn’t content sourced from some of the world’s best providers a giant leap in that direction?

Sure, the pedagogy may not be perfect, but the alternative is much worse.

A child using a laptop.

MOOC proponent George Siemens distinguishes between two types of MOOC: the xMOOC and the cMOOC.

The former is the subject of such disdain. Involving little more than knowledge transmission and perhaps a quiz at the end, the xMOOC is widely seen as replicating old-fashioned lectures and exams.

In contrast, the latter leverages the connectedness of the participants. Seeded with content, the cMOOC empowers – read “expects” – the learner to discuss, debate, discover, share and co-create new knowledge with his or her fellow learners.

The cMOOC’s participant is active whereas the xMOOC’s participant is passive. As Siemens puts it, cMOOCs focus on knowledge creation and generation whereas xMOOCs focus on knowledge duplication.

Despite Siemens’ evangelism though, I don’t think the cMOOC is necessarily better than the xMOOC. (I’ll explain later.) Love them or loathe them, xMOOC or cMOOC, the fact remains: MOOCs have arrived, and they are here to stay.

Moreover, I submit they are yet to wreak their full vengeance on the education industry. When I look into my crystal ball, I foresee that MOOCs will rock our world, and they will do so in 15 ways…

1. Universities will finally accept they are service providers.

As the latest edition of Educause Review indicates, universities are fee-for-service businesses. That means they are subjected to market forces such as competition.

MOOCs beg the question: If I can study at Stanford University for free, why would I pay tens of thousands of dollars to study at your dinky university and subject myself to your arcane rules?

2. The vast majority of students will be overseas.

Countries that currently attract foreign students to their shores will need to brace for the impact on their local economies, as an ever-increasing proportion of students choose to gain an international education without leaving their home country.

3. The pecking order will be reshuffled.

While the world’s most prestigious institutions will enjoy a windfall of new students, those that rely more on age than ability will ultimately fail as the target audience realises how pedestrian they are.

Conversely, some of the smaller, younger institutions will emerge from the shadows as the world sees how good they really are.

4. Research will become a competitive advantage.

There’s nowhere to hide on the global stage, and cutting-edge expertise will be one of the few aspects that a university will have to distinguish itself from the others.

No more lazy professors, no more specious journal articles. Faculty who don’t generate a flow of new knowledge for their students will have their tenure terminated.

5. Universities will flip their classrooms.

Bricks’n’mortar establishments will become expensive relics unless their owners redeploy them. One way to do that is to leverage MOOCs for content delivery and provide value-added instruction (discussion, Q&A, worked examples, role plays etc) to local students – who of course will pay a premium for the privilege.

Studying on campus will become a status symbol.

6. The role of the teacher will evolve.

There’s no point rehashing the same lectures when the world’s best authorities have already recorded them and offered them to the world as OERs. It’s how the teacher uses that content to support learning that will make the difference.

7. The pedagogy of MOOCs will be enriched.

While MOOCs typically comprise video clips and perhaps a quiz, they will inevitably include more instructional devices to assist distance learning (and remain competitive).

Over time, content providers will supplement their core offerings with live webinars, interactive exercises, discussion forums, wikis, social networks etc. Some may even organise real-life meetups at selected sites around the world.

8. Content providers will charge for assessment.

A certificate of completion is good; an official grade is better.

Assessment is one of the ways universities will monetise their MOOCs, and edX is already going one step further by offering proctored exams.

9. Universities will offer credits for MOOCs.

Again, this is already being considered by the American Council on Education.

Of course, a certificate of completion won’t suffice. Ka ching!

10. Online cheating will mushroom.

An ever-present thorn in the side of online education, cheating will be almost impossible to prevent in the MOOC space. But surely we can do better than onsite exams?

11. Academic inflation will skyrocket.

Every man and his dog will have a ream of courses listed on his CV. Employers will consider certificates of completion meaningless, while maintaining a reserved suspicion over assessment scores.

Outcomes-based activities that demonstrate the applicant’s knowledge and skills will become a component of best-practice recruitment.

12. Offshoring will become the rule, not the exception.

Deloitte’s global CLO, Nick van Dam, told me that American firms are using MOOCs to upskill accountants based in India on US accounting practices.

Dental, anyone?

13. MOOCs will target the corporate sector.

Current MOOCs are heavily geared towards school and college audiences. Over time, an increasing number of narrow, specific topics that link to corporate competencies will emerge.

Content providers will wag the long tail.

14. The corporate sector will embrace xMOOCs.

Learners in the workplace are time poor. They don’t have the luxury to explore, discover, and “make sense of the chaos”. They need the knowledge now and they are happy for the expert to transmit it to them.

15. An xcMOOC hybrid will emerge as the third variant.

Sooner or later, the powers that be will remember that an instructivist approach suits novices, while an increasingly constructivist and connectivist approach suits learners as they develop their expertise.

Hence, the MOOC of the future may resemble an xMOOC in its early stages, and morph into a cMOOC in its later stages.

A defence of the “Next” button

The “Next” button doesn’t have many friends in the e-learning community. The humble yet shiny arrow is associated with boring page turners.

Blue neon arrow pointing to the right.

Hell-bent on avoiding the “Next” button, many instructional designers will delinearise the content by creating a course homepage with a raft of topics represented by funky icons. The learner is free to explore and discover the knowledge contained therein at their convenience and – more importantly – at their discretion.

While I broadly agree with the constructivist sentiment of this approach, I can’t help but think it’s a band-aid for a much deeper issue.

Let me explain by rewinding a little…

In my previous post Informal first, I articulated a mindset that prioritises informal learning over formal training. I argued in favour of providing all the necessary learning resources to the target audience in an open, structured format. I had in mind an Informal Learning Environment which would host the bulk of the content and enable peer-to-peer knowledge sharing.

This is constructivist design. It facilitates pull learning at the convenience and discretion of the learner, and moreover it supports on-the-job learning just in time. Its primary focus is not on training, but on performance support.

Having said that, I am the first to agree that sometimes training is necessary. This is where an online course can step in.

By design, an online course is meant to transmit knowledge to the learner. By design, it’s meant to be programmatic in nature. By design, it’s meant to be ruthlessly efficient.

In other words, it’s meant to be linear.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that an online course should be stripped of all constructivist principle. On the contrary, I highly recommend that the learner be empowered to explore and discover the contents of the course as they wish, free of the yoke of forced navigation. However, it is important to note that such freedom is not mutually exclusive with linearity.

What I am suggesting is that the instructional designer who rails against the “Next” button is valiantly (but futilely?) trying to backfill a void in their organisation’s learning architecture. Because open, searchable, browsable, accessible content does not exist, he or she feels compelled to create it. But the LMS is not the place for it!

Open, searchable, browsable, accessible content should be available to the learner all the time on an open, searchable, browsable, accessible platform.

In contrast, an online course should scaffold the learning experience to achieve a pre-defined objective. It should not be played with for hours on end, and it certainly should not be used for ongoing reference.

Neon arrow through the heart.

So whenever you are consumed by the burning desire to deride the “Next” button, ask yourself whether you are assigning guilt by association.

Perhaps the true guilt lay closer to home?


When is an e-book not a book?

I read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore today and I was gobsmacked. The e-book is filled with glorious pictures, marvellous animations and engaging interactivity.


Of course, this isn’t the only title that takes advantage of its medium. For example, Rob Brydon has added audio and video components to his autobiography Small Man in a Book, while the textbooks on the Inkling app include animations, quizzes and social study tools.

Inkling on iPadThe marketing copy for The Fantastic Flying Books calls it “an interactive narrative experience” that “blurs the line between picture books and animated film”.

Inkling “turns paper-based textbooks into engaging, interactive learning experiences while staying compatible with the print book for classroom use”.

All this got me thinking: where do we draw the line?

When is an e-book not a book…?

The definition of a book

To me, a “book” is a collection of written words that together form a story. The text activates the mind and fires the imagination. The process is often assisted by illustrations.

Of course, the definition of a book can no longer be limited to sheets of paper bound together. The relentless march of technology has ushered the concept into an electronic format. Arguably, the introduction of multimedia elements is a continuation of that evolution.

At what point, however, does the nature of a book transform so much that it becomes something else?

Semantics, semantics

If we replace text with an image, we call it a picture.

If we replace it with illustrated motion, we call it an animation.

If we replace it with a recording, we call it audio or video.

If we combine all of the above, do we not call it an online course…?

When you think about it, a media rich e-book is what a pedagogically-sound online course ought to be:

Rose• engaging
• interactive
• learner centered
• logically structured
• founded on storytelling

Sure, it’s linear, but so are many online courses! In fact, authoring tools like Lectora leverage the metaphor of a book – with terms like “pages” and “chapters” – to arrange the content. (Besides, I don’t think linearity is necessarily a bad thing, so long as the learner is empowered to navigate as they please.)

But it may just be semantics after all. In this digital age, when convergence is inevitable, perhaps labels become inconsequential.

As Shakespeare’s Juliet observed, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.