MOOC Design Lessons From The Trenches

Trench dug in a grassy area near some trees.

Duke University and its faculty have taken the initiative to explore the potential of massive, open, online courses (MOOCs) across a wide range of course topics. While supporting the faculty in developing their visions for these courses, I have learned a number of lessons I would like to summarize here. Although all of these have been reinforced while working on MOOCs, many will be familiar to anyone creating a new course of any kind.

Preparation & Planning

Course development is frequently a time-consuming endeavor, particularly for the first offering of a course. It will come as no surprise that MOOCs follow this pattern. The best MOOCs involve extensive planning before the first video gets recorded.

“MOOCs are to on-campus classroom teaching what a trans-Atlantic voyage is to whitewater rafting.”

By way of analogy, MOOCs are to on-campus classroom teaching what a trans-Atlantic voyage is to whitewater rafting. There are often many more people involved in preparing a MOOC than on-campus courses, and an instructor’s teaching experience and adaptability are harder to bring to bear in MOOCs than on campus. Fortunately, a well-planned MOOC should require very little investment in revisions for future sessions of the course.

Here are some corollary lessons about preparation and planning:

  • Start early (earlier than you think!). Expect several hundred to a couple thousand person-hours of working time per course, including roughly 10 hours of instructor time (planning the lesson and its place within the course, preparing materials like slides, transcripts, and in-video questions, recording the videos, and providing feedback for video edits) per hour of finished video. A minimum of two weeks development time per week of course content is strongly recommended.
  • Stay focused. Use learning objectives and make sure the assessments and videos are focused on those goals; resist the urge to record video that strays from the plan — students respond well to clarity of purpose in the material you present to them.
  • Practice! Many course-building activities need time set aside for new participants (including faculty!) to reach a good comfort level necessary for producing quality content, including video recording, educational video editing, online course site design, peer review rubric design, quiz design centered on repeated attempts and variations, and more.

Clear Communication

Designing a course for the large, diverse audiences that are typical of MOOCs is an exercise in clear communication in both written and video formats. We recommend removing as many idioms, cultural references, and slang from student communication as possible, because they often lead to confusion for at least some students and contribute to a sense that the course content is not intended for them.

“We recommend removing as many idioms, cultural references, and slang from student communication as possible, because they often lead to confusion for at least some students and contribute to a sense that the course content is not intended for them.”

Assumptions about a student’s knowledge or background should be examined carefully, too. MOOC students are usually far more diverse than those on a college campus. They stretch across large ranges in age (preteens to retirees), ethnicity (every group in the world), primary language (and English fluency), and educational background and subject expertise (doctorates in the field and experienced amateur practitioners to complete novices).

Another positive approach is to offer multiple routes to key information. Mentioning the learning objectives for a course or module both in text form and in the appropriate video recording helps to reinforce the importance of the information and is likely to capture the attention of a greater fraction of the audience. 

Good communication within your course development team is crucial, too! It can be very useful to have a digital storage space that is accessible to all the team members, where documents, videos, and assessments can all be shared, reviewed, and polished in a way that is visible to the whole team.

Quality Quizzes

Quiz! written in chalk on a green board.

Quizzes in online courses can sometimes be under-appreciated or under-utilized. Students have access to a different set of resources when taking a quiz for an online course, and instructors have a different set of resources, too. Most clearly, both instructors and students typically have a connection to the internet, which can have a huge impact on the nature of effective quiz questions.

“Most clearly, both instructors and students typically have a connection to the internet, which can have a huge impact on the nature of effective quiz questions.”

Instructors gain the easy ability to include text, images, and perhaps videos inside the quiz, the opportunity to offer variations of questions that can keep a quiz fresh for many attempts, and the feasibility of offering some question formats that would be impossible in face-to-face classes. Instructors could also have access to informative data about how their students are responding to online quizzes that they could leverage to improve question quality and identify weak points in student understanding. Explanatory feedback can be offered in online quizzes, based on the answer choice offered by the student, which can either guide the student to the location in the instructional material where the concept was presented, or can offer a direct explanation about the reasons the selected answer was correct or incorrect.

Frequent Forum Interactions

Icons of seven figures having a conversation

Whether supported by the instructor of a course, a teaching assistant, or another staff person at your institution, forums are the pulse measuring the liveliness of your MOOC and should be monitored regularly.

  • Student Benefits. Many questions in forums for MOOCs are answered by fellow students, which helps support the scale of students involved. In an active MOOC, the forums will form the center of the course community and may expand beyond the original vision of the course. Students who otherwise would never have a chance to interact directly with a knowledgeable instructor or enthusiastic peers love MOOC forums and the valued opportunities it represents for them.
  • Institutional Benefits. Being engaged as an instructor in the forums gives students a positive impression of instructor and the university by association as an institution that values teaching and learning.
  • Instructor Benefits. In MOOCs, a little interaction goes a long way. Most students understand that an instructor cannot answer every one of their questions directly.  However, instructors have also found valuable benefits to engaging with MOOC students in the forums, such as a better understanding of how students interact with their course materials, opportunities for deeper discussions with other interested experts on their subject, and very positive feelings about impact of course on students around the world.

Share Your Thoughts And Experiences About MOOCs

Many of you may now have had experience either producing or taking a MOOC; what are your thoughts? Do the comments above match your experience? Do you have an insight that has been missed here? Please share them in the comment section below.

Justin Johnsen

Author: Justin Johnsen

Justin supervises CIT's Online Course Builders as they assist Duke faculty to develop massive open online courses (MOOCs). The team maintains a deep knowledge of the features of the implemented platforms and can also offer suggestions on how to use online tools to achieve teaching goals. Justin is the primary technical liaison for Duke with the Coursera company, and he keeps up to date on the latest platform features and issues to share with our CIT staff and Duke faculty. He has previously worked closely on 'Introduction to Genetics and Evolution', 'Introduction to Astronomy', 'Medical Neuroscience', '9/11 and Its Aftermath -- Part I', 'Marine Megafauna | An Introduction to Marine Science and Conservation', 'Understanding 9/11', and 'Tropical Parasitology' offered by Duke and Coursera.