What makes a great MOOC? Lessons from the EUN Academy

Over the past year, European Schoolnet has been embarking on the production of MOOCs for teachers under the umbrella of the European Schoolnet Academy (www.eunacademy.eu). Given that teachers are usually very busy and have little flexibility on the organization of their workdays, MOOCs lend themselves especially well as a professional development tool for teachers. But while the results of the Academy vindicate this statement (see here), we quickly learned that producing a high quality course is no easy feat and easily underestimated. I would therefore like to share with you in this post some key lessons I have learned from our MOOC production about what makes a great MOOC and what are the key challenges.

I should add that this post does not delve into the discussion about which type of MOOC (cMOOC or xMOOC) is better or truly deserves the MOOC label. Rather, this post offers some practical insights which should be helpful for any kind of open online course involving large numbers of participants.

A great MOOC is first and foremost a learning experience that displays the same characteristics as any well-constructed course. It features good pedagogical practices such as clear learning objectives, clarity of progression for students, engaging teachers, as well as meaningful content and assessment practices. However, due to the nature of MOOCs, there are some elements which are more specific to designing a great MOOC compared to simply designing a great course. The following three points, very briefly, identify three key elements that make a great MOOC:

Instructor presence: Due to the large numbers of participants and conversely opinions, ideas, and comments presented on a MOOC, participants can easily get lost and feel isolated from the discussion. It is therefore essential that the instructor(s) is visible with a clear presence on the course, not just via the videos. A great MOOC will include an active instructor (teacher or assistants) on the forums and social media, ensuring that content as well as organisational questions are answered. Furthermore, the instructor(s) should recognise and identify students’ contributions, either in the forum, in course emails, blog posts, or video summaries, thereby providing less confident students some guidance and structure to understand the discussions as well as motivating students to participate.[1] While instructor presence is essential, it should not dominate course discussions, leaving participants sufficient space to develop their own ideas and answers.

Effective use of video: Most MOOCs rely heavily on the use of video to communicate course content. Video can be a powerful medium to communicate ideas, concepts and theories, if used correctly. A great MOOC will use short videos (less than 6 minutes) and a diversity of formats (animations, interviews, observations, case studies, etc.), both which can substantially increase participant engagement.[2] While of relevance in all teaching contexts, the enthusiasm and engagement of the speaker is even more paramount in a MOOC, given that participants can easily stop the speaker and move on at any time. The above points do not mean a great MOOC requires professional video production, rather, it requires personality and diversity in style.

Acknowledging & utilising diversity: One of the key challenges of MOOCs is how to address the diversity of its participants. A great MOOC not only acknowledges diversity through its course design, it also utilizes it as a key learning mechanism. For example, if a MOOC offers its participants different learning paths, depending on their experience, background and aims, including differentiated forms of support, it can increase the sense of purpose for students and thereby have a positive impact on engagement, participation and retention.[3] Furthermore, if a MOOC utilises the diversity of backgrounds in its activities and assignments, for example by asking students to report about the situation in their country/profession/etc., it turns this diversity into an asset that can contribute to the learning of the participants.

While the above points outline some key elements of a great MOOC, I would argue that there is not one correct way of creating a great MOOC, rather, the style, approach and organisation of a great MOOC depends significantly on the content, instructor and context of delivery of the MOOC.

[1]See https://class.coursera.org/atc21s-001 for an example

[2]Guo P., Kim J., Rubin R., (2014). How Video Production Affects Student Engagement: An Empirical Study of MOOC Videos. Proceedings of the first ACM conference on Learning @ scale conference, pgs 41-50, New York, accessible at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2556325.2566239

[3]See https://iversity.org/my/courses/mathe-mooc-mathematisch-denken–2/lesson_units for an example

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