On June 15th, Begin Robotics began – the second massive open online course (MOOC) from Systems Engineering running on the FutureLearn platform. One of its aims is to interest potential students in the areas of robotics, cybernetics, artificial intelligence and electronic engineering – following the success of Begin Programming, which we know has attracted students to do Computer Science at Reading.

A key novel feature of Begin Robotics is its use of interactive web pages both as exercises and to illustrate key principles – such as how a signal from a computer which can have a high or a low state only, can be used to set any integer speed from -40 to +40 using so called pulse width modulation. These pages build on work I have done and reported on the GRASS project blog:


There are two exercise pages each week, and those in the first week have proved to be very popular: for instance, Ed Ashby posted : “I thought the simulations were a fantastic way for distance learning, great to see instant results from our control inputs.” and  Ann-Kristin Abel commented : “Great course so far! Loved the simulations, as they really help me understand the movement of a robot. Looking forward to next week.”

In the first exercise, the participants are shown a simulation of a two wheeled robot and have to enter the speeds of the motors driving each wheel. They then experiment with these working out how to make the robot move forward or turn at different speeds.

In the second exercise, they have to define what the speeds should be for each of four actions: going forward, turning to the left, to the right and going backwards, and they then command the robot to do each action, watching the robot move around the arena provided. Having done so, they select a race track in place of the arena, and have to steer the robot round it as quickly as possible.


Second Exercise with the Race Track shown
Second Exercise with the Race Track shown








To prepare for these exercises, I recorded screencasts explaining the tasks, demonstrating the web pages and for instance showing me steering the robot round the track in around 15 seconds.

There have been many enthusiastic posts responding to these web pages. These included one learner commenting that he had steered the robot round the track in about 12 seconds, but his six year old grandson had, after just three attempts, done it in only 7 seconds!

In addition, a teacher doing the course asked if these simulations could be made available outside the FutureLearn platform as he thought they would be useful for his key stage 3 and 4 students. This we are doing, so for instance the two exercises are available at



The demonstration of pulse width modulation is at


Interactive page demonstrating pulse width modulation
Interactive page demonstrating pulse width modulation





Although it has required much effort to first produce these web pages, and then to make them compatible with the FutureLearn platform, the very positive reaction to them from learners and FutureLearn is very encouraging, so the concept could be utilised both in other MOOCs as well as in other teaching.

The two Systems Engineering MOOCs, which are both running in June 2015, and which will run again later this year associated with the BBC’s Make it Digital campaign this summer, can be found at














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