Too many MOOCs

I have been over enthusiastic in my desire to learn. Because I am now retired, I have plenty of free time on my hands. I am fortunate in many ways to be retired at a time such as the present where many of the great higher education establishments of the world are offering courses for free (MOOCs).

I have, in the last year, taken courses on Creative Learning from the Digital Media Lab at M.I.T., Mathematical Education from Stanford University, the major threats facing our planet from the University of Illinois, Psychology from Birmingham University, Jazz Appreciation from the University of Austin, Texas, P2PU courses on the open web and Deeper Learning, and Web Science from Southampton University!

I am currently engaged on the repeat (year 2) of the M.I.T. Media Lab Course on Creative Learning as well as doing a Creativity Course from Stanford University.

My head is literally spinning from trying to keep up with expectations, readings, assignments not to mention watching the videos and listening to the podcasts! I have, on top of this, taken on a role as a mentor for the M.I.T. course which involves a weekly, online, team “hangout”.

Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoy the Learning, the interaction with others, the brilliant chat on the community forums, but it is time consuming.

My wife made a good point the other day when she said that, as a retired person, wasn’t I supposed to get some leisure time to read a book, catch up with a video of a T.V. programme that I’d missed, take up bowls or just take a walk by the local, beautiful riverside?

The more I have thought about this, the more I feel that she is right. I have overindulged in MOOCs because they are interesting and because they are free! Would I have taken as many (or indeed any) if they came at a cost? I doubt it.

I have decided that, from now on I will ration my MOOC study, read some good books, go bowling and take a few lovely country walks. I will enjoy my study then, be able to really dig deep into areas of interest and genuinely enjoy being retired!

Creative answers to test questions

I was reading a Facebook post today that took me to this wonderful collection of children’s original answers to test questions.
Many of these answers have done the rounds on the internet and you will no doubt have seen them before.
The interesting thing to me is the creativity shown in these answers which was obviously spotted by the teachers who made them public.
Yes, they are funny, but they do contain some real information about children’s dread of tests and how they can be pushed to protest or just put in anything that comes to mind under the time pressures and the expectations that they are labouring under.
Two of my favourites are these:



A creative space

There is an arts and craft centre that has started in our town. It is on the site of an old motel.

The aim of the charity that runs it is to encourage the local community to participate in exhibition of art and craft work. There are lots of examples on sale. They also run art and craft sessions, both taught and collective.

Besides this there are craftsmen who work on the site. One of these is  John Carter who makes and repairs stringed instruments.
The only thing that is missing at the moment is a dedicated technology area for making especially for young people, but that will be the next step for the charity!

To see more about the Centre see their website at

Below are some photographs that I took of John’s workspace and the Centre. Oh I almost forgot, they have also made a great old-fashioned English tearoom that they have called “Totty Teas”. If you’re in the area pop in and have some homemade cake!





My life album playlist

As part of my creativity MOOC (mentioned in yesterdays’  post) we were asked to make up a 10 song playlist that would go with our album cover:


Here is my list, along with the accompanying sleeve notes:

1. “Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner” Flanagan and Allen
        An old, classic “Cockney” song about the great city I was born and grew up in.

2. “Waterloo Sunset” The Kinks

          A song the reminds me of the great commute to the centre of the city. The great music that was around in “Swinging London” in the 1960′s when Carnaby Street was world famous and everything exciting seemed to be happening there. A great time to be a Londoner and to be alive.

3.   “Streets of London” Ralph McTell

            This song resonated with me as portraying the darker side of homelessness in the city. It was often sung by the children in assemblies when I became a primary school teacher.

4.   “London Calling” The Clash

            My final years in London were in the 70′s. The optimism of the 60′s had disappeared. The Vietnam War and the student uprisings along with assassinations of the Kennedys and The Reverend Martin Luther King left a sour end to the decade. The punk movement started in London as a reaction to the fun songs of the early 60′s which led to the “acid trip” of so many artists by the late part of the decade. This song is hard in beat and lyric and is so different from the early London songs in the album.

5.   “Another Brick in The Wall” Pink Floyd

       The 70′s saw my transition from Grammar School Boy to University (to study politics) and by the end of the decade to become a trainee teacher. This song was personal in a number of ways. My secondary school was just down from New North Road, Islington and Roger Walters used to live there at the time it was being recorded with the help of children from Islington Green School. I remember seeing Walters, guitar in hand, at the top of his steep front steps on a hot sunny day in the late 60′s when I was walking home from my school!

6.   “The Hackney Gentrification Song” Robin Grey.

Never heard of the song? Well look it up on YouTube. A great indictment of how Hackney changed from run down inner city working class area to the upwardly mobile and expensive area it became.

7.   “Southend-on-Sea Mark Eitzel

I moved to Essex in 1975 and we settled in Southend. It took an American to look at the complexities of a seaside resort that had been overtaken by events that had not reinvented itself and in many ways still hasn’t.
Here are a few of the lyrics:

You said to me
“You’re from California
And you’re as dumb as can be”
You said to me
“Are you the Scarecrow, the Tin Man
Or are you Dorothy?”
You said to me
“I’m beginning to think that you’re
A part of the enemy”
You said to me
“If I was drowning would you save me
From Southend-on-Sea?”

8.   “Billericay  Dickie” Ian Drury and the Blockheads

A great punk Essex song that sums up the good and bad about living in the county with its fake tans and jack-the-lads.

9.   “School’s Out” Alice Cooper.

In December 2011 I retired from being a Primary Mathematics Consultant, following  a career of 32 years as a teacher and headteacher (Principal). School was out for me but learning had really just begun.

10.  “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” The Korgis

A great song. I am enjoying being a lifelong learner, writing my blog and learning to be as creative as I can possibly be.

My album cover design


I am doing a creativity MOOC from Stanford University called “Creativity: Music To My Ears“.
Every week we will be given a creative task. This first week we were asked to design an album cover about our lives.
I started with working out the main theme of my design. I decided it should cover the two parts of the U.K. that I have lived in almost all my life, namely the great city of London where I was born, raised, went to school and left for good at the age of 22. I then lived most of the next 38 years of my life in various locations in the much maligned and misunderstood county of Essex.
I had to find relevant photos to express the essence of each place. The title ” London Boy, Essex Man” was fairly simple to think about but required a download of an Android App for poster design.
I used another Android App, Pixir Express, to arrange the “collage” that would constitute my album cover.
I played around with the sizing and presentation of each section and took out a few pictures that didn’t fit in well to the effect I was looking for.
I am pleased with the final effect and now have to think up what music (actual or original ) I would actually put on the album!
As an exercise in creativity it was thoroughly worthwhile.

The Computer Clubhouse


As part of our MOOC “Learning Creative Learning”, we have looked at the role that passion plays in creativity and education.

We were taken on a video tour of the ” Computer Clubhouse” in Boston, which gives an opportunity for children to explore their creative potential in a laid back environment.

I noticed that the adults interact with the children to support not direct, that there is plenty of peer guidance and that, unlike most schools, it allows for children of any age to freely mix with each other.

In many ways it reminded me of the Sudbury Valley School which I have been reading about in a book by Peter Gray called “Free to Learn”.

The atmosphere is great, the resources are available, there is no set curriculum and it is all interest-driven and allows for collaboration and experiential learning. In fact it is a long long way away from the structured, test-driven predominantly single-age-group environments that the children have to put up with in their often under-resourced schools.

The video can be seen here: Enjoy.

My Scratch Project

I am in week 2 of the “Learning Creative Learning 2″ MOOC from the MIT Media Lab.
our assignment this week was to use the “Scratch” program to cover our interest/interests.
Scratch is a brilliant computer program that allows you to create sophisticated media presentations, or create games very easily. It is basically a multimedia platform that introduces computer coding in a user-friendly manner.
For our project this week we had a video introduction by Professor Mitch Resnick of the Media Lab that gives you a great idea about the power and potential of Scratch.
I had done a similar Scratch project in the first Learning Creative Learning course a year ago. I decided that I would update it. I looked at the programming which was fairly simple. It combined a use of captions and pictures from this blog, the writing of which was the main focus ( my interest ) and I recorded a short commentary at the end.
I decided that I would add to the commentary. I recorded a new commentary reflecting on my experience in creating the original programming and a reflection on the power and potential of Scratch Programming for education.
The “slotting in” of the new commentary required some problem-solving. I initially “attached” the new commentary to the old ( pieces of Scratch action attach to each other like Lego bricks which they have connections to). The result when I ran the programming was that I heard the two commentaries together! I had a bug that I needed to fix.
I tried a “Wait 2 Seconds” instruction and had almost the same as effect! ( with a two second delay).
I therefore worked out that the “Wait” command needed to be the length of commentary 1 (1 main 27 Secs) and on trying a new wait of this length found that I had the continuity that I was seeking.
This was deeply satisfying and shows how Scratch allows play with multimedia, using powerful computer concepts and allows for debugging that can clearly be seen ( or heard). It has the ” low floor, high ceiling” that Seymour Papert talked about when he developed the ancestor of Scratch, LOGO.
To see my humble effort goto

The toy typewriter


I have been asked as my first assignment for the MIT Media Lab MOOC “Learning Creative Learning” to write about an object that I encountered in my childhood which transformed my life.
My object was a toy typewriter.

I wrote a blog post about my love of writing and written communication that can be seen here.

Here are the relevant parts relating to my fortune in getting this object in the first place:

“He remembered the first time that he encountered something different. One Christmas, when presents were being distributed as they always were. He had been given a Meccano set. His brother has been given a toy typewriter. He had never really enjoyed making things out of nothing, his brother had an aversion to writing   but loved creating things from string and sticks or getting some construction kit and making a model from what seemed like little bits of an impossible jigsaw.

Later, when he had settled into his new Digital land, he would find out about a man, Sir Ken Robinson, who would write a book that told about finding your “element”. He knew that his element was not in construction and his brother did not like writing. In an inspired moment worthy of the judgement of Solomon, his parents decided to swop the gifts around.

He faced the typewriter which worked very slowly and laboriously to put letter after letter onto a piece of typing paper. It was magical to him. He found that he could write and that with his writing came communication to others. It all came so easily.”

I went on to describe my later discovery of an Amstrad electronic word-processor. This machine made my mechanical experience of a machine that can make my ideas with words come alive into an easier experience.

This led me to a fascination with the power and potential of the fast developing world of digital technology that has led me to my second year as an LCL student.

As I type these words for my assignment on my Nexus 7 tablet, I can see a direct line of interest in writing and technology that derived from that first sight of a small toy typewriter!

My teacher is an app turning me into a robot

I have just been listening to the excellent series on technology in education on BBC Radio 4 called “My Teacher Is an App”.

It was extremely balanced in showing the growing commercialisation of technology in schools and in particular pointing out the possible perils of having students doing programmed lessons that supposedly lead to higher achievement levels in standardised tests.

I was particularly impressed by the teacher from the Waldorf School in Palo Alto, California, otherwise known as “Silicon Valley“, the home of the great microtechnology innovations, who stated the reasons that Google and Apple employees were sending their children to a school that eschewed the use of technology by their pupils until they were 13 years of age! To  read more about the school see this informative article from the New York Times.

The reasoning of the tech people was that many schools using the commercialised programs with their students were effectively “programming” the children to become good at taking tests. They were concerned about the lack of creativity and how the products of these schools could become human “robots” capable of doing a narrow range of activities very well but not equipped to cope with the  ever-changing global economy that we live in and capable of tackling the many problems that our world is beset with in regards to global warming, poverty, political destabilisation and growing urbanisation.

Perhaps the greatest problem in relation to the growth of this educational technology is the new players on the scene. The likes of Rupert Murdoch and Pearson were mentioned as huge commercial interests that have seen education as a growth area for making huge profits. Their influence has grown in the last few years and they have brought their “robot making” machines into schools. This is particularly seen in the poorer areas of the United States where Government money has been spent to create charter schools sponsored and supplied by these commercial giants. The growing threat to teachers of this commercialisation was covered extremely well in a blog article by Will Richardson in 2011, also called “My Teacher Is an App“.

There was also an interview with Salman Khan the founder of the “Khan Academy” whose video lessons have supposedly transformed education leading to the popular idea of the “flipped classroom”. No mention was made about the quality or accuracy of many of these video lessons which have been found to contain inaccuracies and which, in respect of the style used, present a “show, tell, lecture” approach that is all about filling empty minds with supposed important knowledge.

I think they key point to this very worthwhile discussion is to get us to realise the huge conflict that is happening within the world of education between those who are concerned with testing and standardisation and want a return to the values of the past and are backed by huge commercial interests that are able to pressurise Governments into using their “technology”. The other side is fighting for an education system that uses the technology to promote the 21st century skills of “creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking.”

Technology is not, in itself, an answer. We should all be involved in the debate about the use of technology in education. I am so pleased that the BBC has taken this subject seriously and has made such an interesting and well-balanced series of programmes which I would commend you all to listen to in order to work out where you stand in the debate.



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Ways of looking at a problem

A friend posted this “IQ” problem on Facebook.


Now I have always had my doubts about the validity of the questions on an IQ Test.

I started to try and solve the problem using algebra. I was taught at school to transfer a term to the other side of the equals sign.
I tried this and got myself immersed in combinations of 76 + 38 or 76- 38, which yielded meaningless answers when I considered the third  division problem to solve.

I therefore decided to completely revise my thinking. I ignored the top of the problem that said IQ test, I slowed down and I thought about things carefully and with no pressure of time.

I will not give away the answer because I felt I would leave it to my readers to try it themselves or maybe (if you teach) with students.
It does though raise a number of things that concern me about IQ tests in particular and tests generally.

(1) The pressure of time is a problem. Whenever we are forced to hurry in order to finish we induce a “fight or flight” reaction in our brain that can often lead to mental shutdown, that “can’t think of a thing” moment.

(2) We often use taught techniques that can be misleading or just plain wrong.

(3) We see the problem as important only for the answer and the mark for correctness as the end of the process.

(4) The “mark” we get can determine our position in school, possibly  chance of a job.

I have always hated (and done quite poorly) at IQ Tests. They have never really measured intelligence but have always measured test preparation and taking ability. If we can continue to let them  dominate our student’s futures we will suffer from holding back the potential of so many who may, if given the chance, be great contributors to our society.

The real shame of the question above is the potential it has to be a basis for group discussion and problem solving. Just take away the opening “IQ TEST” and give the students time to think and explore and this becomes a useful learning process not a timed torture!


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