Accessible online courses

Warning – hurried, disorganised thoughts. I will very likely add to and tidy this up later!

I’ve started running a TidalCycles online course. I’m not a trained pedagogue or education researcher, but have run a lot of workshops over the years, and it seems to be going OK, with around 300 people signed up, as accessible as I could make it, while being financially sustainable for me. It’s felt a lot like setting up a space for a community – lots of micro-decisions that add up to the whole. Here’s what I’ve done, from a technical, financial and community perspective.

Firstly, I got people to register interest via this google form. To start with, this was just to collect information, to help me make the course as accessible as possible, work out how to structure it, and decide how much to charge.

I asked about barriers to entry, and the biggies were:

  • (Human) language barrier – lots of people not fluent in English, worrying about that. In response I’ve edited subtitles for all my videos, as many people find reading easier than listening, and (as opposed to automatic transcription) the automatic translation seems usable if people want to read in their own language. I also set up automatic translation in the course forum.
  • Time (working/caring responsibilities, formal education, timezone) – the amount of time commitment really varies, and people have joined from all around the world.. So a ‘live’ course wouldn’t work. Instead I’m making pre-prepared videos (which again allows decent subtitling), worksheets, and asking questions on the forum. I will have live q+a sessions, at different times to reach across timezones.
  • Internet speed – A few worried about this and I haven’t thought enough about it. Probably trimming Tidal’s large library of default samples would make it accessible (actually someone also gave lack of disk space as a barrier). It’s also probably another argument for not relying on live video.
  • Money – I live in the UK, which puts a large part of the world at a huge disadvantage in terms of exchange rate. I do need to get paid, though. Rather than a paywall, I settled on a Pay(-as-you-feel-)wall. I could have made it a student discount etc, or cheaper for certain countries, but there’s no real way to codify people’s ability to pay.. So I left it up to them, with the following guide, for a four week block of lessons:
    • £0 – for those who wouldn’t be able to participate otherwise
    • £12 (£3 per week) – standard
    • £24 (£6 per week) – those with extra cash to spare
    • £40+ (£10 per week) – those with institutional backing
  • Installation worries – Tidal installation can go wrong in a way that is difficult to recover from. I allowed myself plenty time to walk people through the process on the forum. This has worked fairly well, and we now have a forum full of problems and solutions, that I need to organise for greater good!

It was a struggle to find a pay-as-you-feel system that let people name their own price. Crowdfunding platforms like patreon are really geared towards squeezing as much money as possible out of people, with tiers etc. I needed to give everyone the same access but leave it up to them to decide how much to pay, from £0 up. Eventually I used wordpress, with the woocommerce plugin to take payments (via paypal and stripe), “product open pricing” to add pay-as-you-feel functionality (including support for £0), and “advanced order export” to allow export of orders into a csv for import into the course forum. WordPress plugins either seem to be free, or super expensive with a recurring charge.. I’m doing just fine with the free functionality of these. I have my own virtual server for hosting them.

I looked around for e-courseware that could help host the course, but couldn’t find anything suitable. I’ve had nightmares with things like Moodle in the past, and have the feeling that they’re all based around assessment more than anything. Instead I went for a general purpose discourse forum, which I’ve grown to love. It’s free/open source, widely used, has loads of plugins etc available, and is thoughtfully designed around healthy community discussion. Again, I’m self-hosting it.

Having a PAYFwall has some unexpected results. I hardly had to promote it at all to fill it up. Actually with the PAYFwall I feel motivated not to promote it, because it creates a really delicate balance. I’ve noticed this before, with the (in-person) tidal “summer school” weekend course we’ve also run on a PAYF basis. The more I promote, the more ‘semi-interested’ people I seem to reach, and the average payment goes down.. Therefore making the whole thing less viable. At the same time, I’m really happy that people who can’t spare £3 a week (I’ve been there) don’t miss out on the course, or on essentials for them or their families. As things stand, the kind people who are able to pay extra mostly cover those who can’t pay, and it all works out. I’m not going to ‘repay’ the years of work I’ve put into Tidal, but that’s not my aim.. It does look like a serious contribution towards properly funding my ongoing work on Tidal though, maybe its development but definitely its documentation.

Because I don’t know how long it’ll take to get through everything, I’ve just done PAYF for the first four weeks. I think it’ll probably be around twelve weeks in total. I’m expecting some drop-off in participation and PAYF income later four-week cycles, it’ll be interesting to see what happens.. I’ll survey people at four weeks to see how things are going, anyway.

The forum seems to be working well. I’m aware that as ever there is strong “presence privilege” at hand.. For example overall participants seem fairly gender balanced, but men seem to be posting a lot more than others. This is a familiar story with online forums, I’ll have to think about how to keep the culture healthy (ideas welcome!). I also need to work out how to make the course materials easier to find. Currently they might be getting a bit lost in the threads – I think this is just a case of getting around the discourse software, which is nicely configurable.

I have absolute beginners in mind, but a lot of people have joined who have already being self-teaching themselves Tidal. I think they’re happy asking more advanced questions, and picking up on previously under-documented features as I get everyone up to speed.

In terms of the videos, I did have in mind to edit them down with youtuber-style ‘jump cuts’, maybe paying a pro to edit hem. Through feedback I’ve decided not to bother – people seem to like “ums” and “ahs”, giving them time to take in information. So I’m just recording them ‘as live’ with OBS, uploading to youtube, then hand-editing youtube’s automatic transcription.. Then adding a worksheet to match the video for people to go through hands-on. I’ll be working on reference material too. The videos are fairly unscripted, I might write out what I want to say, to think it through, but I don’t then read from that as a script. I’ve found that recording once to get things straight in my head, and re-recording it from scratch makes the result snappier and more logical.. and for a 6-10 minute video, doing a couple of ‘takes’ is a time-efficient way to do things, rather than agonising over a script. I also use a green screen I bought on ebay a while ago, so I can superimpose myself in the corner of my screen.

To give you an idea, here’s a general “intro to live coding” video I did for the Sheffield creative guild, just before starting work on the course videos:

I think an important thing at some point will be involving more instructors, to give different perspectives on using Tidal. I’ve been talking to Lucy Cheesman (aka Heavy Lifting) about this, we worked on the last Tidal Summerschool together and from the post-workshop survey the participants clearly appreciated her teaching skills (as someone who, unlike me, has actually learned Tidal herself!) and alternative point of view.

The final question I have to think about is what happens after. My default position is releasing everything as creative commons, and I certainly want everyone on the course to always have access to the material.. But this is something I have to think about. I will likely either re-run the course, or let people go through in their own time. I’ll probably make everything creative commons (cc-by), but keeping the PAYFwall up, to help sustain documentation and development into the future.. and eventually turn the material into a reference book.

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