Online Learning

Recently there seems to have been an explosion of websites offering online courses or training but, in reality, distance learning is nothing new. The Pitman Method of shorthand writing was taught via mail correspondence back in the 1840s and from the mid-19th Century onwards universities have routinely offered distance learning courses. The Open University in the UK, formed in 1969, is primarily geared towards distance learning and is now the largest academic institution in the country. However the widespread availability of broadband internet has undoubtedly made online learning more popular and the recent Covid pandemic has boosted numbers even further:

  • Coursera – enrolments up 644% up compared to last year, 5 million+ new user registrations post COVID-19
  • Udemy – 400% spike in course enrolments for individuals between February and March 2020

Below are some of my experiences over the years with distance learning together with some comments about their effectiveness. The resources discussed are the ones that I’ve used but inevitably there are many equivalents in each category. I’ve used the online services’ free plans except where noted.

Technical / Programming

Because of the origin of the internet then I suppose that it’s logical that there are many online resources and advice on technical or programming matters. However, like real life, the quality of these vary from the excellent to the completely wrong šŸ™‚ Although I regularly get ad-hoc technical information online I have also done a couple of free courses:

UdacityĀ ” … began as an experiment in online learning, when Stanford instructors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig elected to offer their “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” course online to anyone, for free. Over 160,000 students in more than 190 countries enrolled.”

My aim here was to learn how to produce an app for Android devices. This was partly to give me some background as a software project manager and partly for dabbling in my own time. I did three courses:

  1. How to Use Git and GitHub: This used to be course ud775 which not available now. It’s been replaced by course ud123.
  2. Java Basics: This used to course cs046 which is not available now. It’s been replaced by course ud282
  3. Android Basics: This is a series of courses which forms part of the Android Basics Nanodegree

All courses were free, you only need to pay if you want some actual formal certification. I completed 1 & 2 and stopped 3 after discussion of single page apps as I wasn’t interested in anything more complex. The pace was maybe a little slow in parts but overall it was great. The material was well presented and the comprehensive course notes could be downloaded. The only minor issue was that Google tends to regularly change the user interface of their Android Dev Studio and occasionally the notes hadn’t quite caught up with the latest version but it was fairly easy to work it out.

It may come as a surprise but YouTube is not just for cat videos šŸ™‚ There’s also some rather good technical content.

My aim here was to understand some of the concepts that I kept coming across when reading about photogrammetry. Fortunately The University of Central Florida has uploaded a series of undergraduate lectures on computer vision and these covered the topics that I wanted to learn about. The presentation is fairly basic with a single camera for the lecturer and the slides overlaid on the video. It was a bit of a flashback to sitting in lecture theatres 40 years ago and reminded me of Mortimer J. Adler’s quote:

A lecture has been well described as the process whereby the notes of the teacher become the notes of the student without passing through the mind of either.

However I listened to half a dozen hour long lectures and I picked up enough information to greatly improve my understanding of what’s going on in the photogrammetry process. There was also some course work to go with these lectures and it would have been even more useful if this was available for download.

Interestingly I subsequently found a rather good YouTube channel ( Computerphile ) which explained the Sobel Edge Detection process in less than 8 minutes rather than the hour taken by the UCF lecture ( The first comment on the YouTube video reads “My computer vision professor should be fired…” šŸ™‚ )

Foreign Languages

Despite the regular hand wringing about the lack of foreign language teaching at secondary school I’ve found that evening classes on this subject have always been quite popular. Strangely during the pandemic when travel was restricted language learning also spiked. I’ve attempted a number of languages over the years using a few different methods:

French: After doing various French evening classes I decided to up my game and sit a French AS level. I used a paid-for course from a company called Oxford Open Learning which was a more traditional distance learning course rather than being purely online. The course materials were good and thorough and there was plenty of support from a remote tutor. I made sure that the course used the same exam board as the local school which is where I sat the exam. ( And yes I passed – with an ‘A’ grade thank you šŸ™‚ )

Italian: Following my success with the French I decided to try Italian. For this I used the Open University course – “L195 Andante: Beginners’ Italian” This was a bit of a hybrid with mainly traditional course materials which were very good and some online work using the OU’s audio conferencing software. There were also occasional in person tutorials with the local tutor which were excellent. The exam at the end was done via the audio conferencing system. ( And yes I passed this as well šŸ™‚ )

Both of these needed a lot of self-motivation to complete but were very good and I ended up with actual, useful paper qualifications. ( I had maybe thought of going on and doing a modern languages degree after retirement but for various reasons that didn’t happen. )

Fast forward a few years and we see the rise of the language learning app. Duolingo is one of the popular ones but obviously alternatives are available – there’s an interesting discussion here. All comments below refer to Duolingo’s free version but I think that they should be applicable to the paid plan as well.

German: I’d done some German over the years and I was looking for a revision course to pull together the various different parts. It was easy to get going with the app and there was a good spread of vocabulary subjects. I liked the regular vocabulary testing and the gamification ( daily streak, rewards etc ) was actually quite useful. The downside was that I felt that there was a lack of explanation of grammar. This is not good news for a German course (!) but fortunately I had a few text books that covered the gaps.

Finnish: This was a bit of an experiment as, although we’ve been to Finland a few times, there’s no need to learn Finnish as they all speak good English. Again the app was good for learning and testing vocabulary but it was a bit hopeless for grammar. Unfortunately this is even more important for Finnish than for German and, unsurprisingly, our local library doesn’t stock any suitable textbooks. The other problem was that the course appeared to be run by volunteer admins for whom English was a second language which meant that the English translations were sometimes a little off. The admins were occasionally reluctant, sometimes to the point of obstinacy, to accept alternative suggestions.

Welsh: This was an interesting exercise as it was my wife that was learning Welsh and I could review the app as a native speaker. Again it was generally fine but I had two comments. Firstly most good Welsh courses will specify whether they’re targeted towards North Wales or South Wales Welsh dialects. They’re obviously the same language and understanding one or the other isn’t a problem but there’s sufficient different vocabulary to merit having two different versions of the course. Duolingo seemed to mix the two which will be very confusing for a learner. Secondly Welsh grammar has some very complicated consonant mutations [ 1, 2 ] and you’re never going to work them out without an explanation. Fortunately my wife was doing an evening class with a very good teacher so she could fill in the gaps from that course.

In summary I found Duolingo excellent for revision but had serious shortcomings if you want to just learn using the app. There are grammar notes are available but they’re quite hard to find IMO. However help is at hand and there’s an independent website that hosts all grammar notes – I wish I’d known about this when doing the Finnish course šŸ˜¦


Apps for learning music also seem to be increasing in popularity. Naturally there are lots of different types available but below are two that I’ve tried:

We recently bought a new Yamaha electric piano ( a Clavinova 735 ).Ā  With it came 3 months free subscription to Yamaha’s Flowkey app. I gave it a go and it’s a well thought out and implemented app with a range of exercises and pieces to play. However there are two main problems which put me off and I only used it for a couple of weeks

  1. There’s no traditional sheet music view. There’s only a single line scrolling view which I found difficult to follow. Maybe this wouldn’t be an issue if you’re starting from scratch but I struggled with it.
  2. The “learning” mode pauses the scrolling until you play all the right notes. This is not always the best method of learning music. Often it’s better to get the flow of the whole piece first before worrying about getting all the right notes.

There’s a full review here.

This is similar to Flowkey and it has a paid plan which includes some feedback from actual piano teachers. However the free Pianote YouTube channel videos are excellent, well presented and provide a lot of useful tips along with downloadable sheet music.


In my experience learning anything beyond the basics is hard but some of the resources that I’ve described have certainly helped me get started. I’ve found that, lthough personal learning preferences are important, the key ingredient is motivation. Without this it doesn’t matter how good the course is, it will always be a struggle.

( I’m particularly irritated by YouTube ads showing how easy it is to learn to play the piano. You may be able to learn some pieces by rote but unless you’re really musically talented it’s going to take a lot of dedicated work and practice to be able to just pick up a new piece of music and make a reasonable attempt at it. )

One other point that I’ve noticed is that online video conferencing is still generally quite patchy. There are always issues with the sound, the lighting or the bandwidth making things glitchy. I think there’s plenty of room in this field to produce something a lot better but I suppose that the problem is people don’t want to pay for it.

The Retired Engineer is lurking at the rear right, in the red checked shirt!

In the end though however good you make the video conference it’s just not as good as being there in person. For reasons that I won’t bore you with I’ve ended up running a Welsh learners conversation group. We used to meet in the pub but for the past year have switched to Zoom ( for obvious reasons! ) and it’s just not as good. Roll on the time when we can get back to the pub šŸ™‚


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