Teaching Tips From a Master MOOC-Maker

Teach a MOOC … what are you, crazy? … However, what I learned was that teaching a MOOC has been the purest and most fun form of teaching and learning that I’ve ever done. Maria H. Andersen, Ph.D. (Canvas Network, Sloan Consortium Streamed Session, April 9, 2013)

MP900444382[1]I attended the Sloan Symposium last week as a virtual attendee and participated in several  sessions including Designing a MOOC for Canvas. The above quote comes from the sessions’ leader, Maria Andersen who currently works at Canvas and teaches her own MOOC on Social media through the Canvas Network. The session was insightful, and several readers may find the tips shared helpful, which is the purpose of this post. Strategies shared in the session are applicable to online course design in general and are not exclusive to Canvas.

I’ll include the highlights of the session—an insiders look at MOOCs based on Andersen’s experience supporting thirty MOOCs in her role with Canvas as Director of Learning, and the methods she shared for creating activities that drive learning and sustain student interest. I have no doubt that many readers will find what Anderson has to say instructive and helpful, even more so for to those considering developing a MOOC, and/or planning to teach one in the future.

Andersen has extensive teaching experience, both in face-to-face and online venues, though she much prefers teaching MOOC students, describing them as eager to learn, motivated, and willing to dig deep into content areas of interest for the sake of personal development. In contrast, Andersen describes teaching students of for-credit courses as painful and tedious (Andersen, Designing a MOOC for Canvas). Though I have differing views of traditional students than Andersen, I liked what she had to say about the roles of teachers and learners, and the design methods for online courses.

Design Strategies and Insiders Tips for Teaching a MOOC

Role of the Instructor: Andersen shared sage advice for MOOC instructors. First, that the role of the instructor is profoundly different in a MOOC in comparison to traditional for-credit course. The instructor’s role is one of curator and creator – creator of a learning environment that encourages contributing and sharing. Instructors also need to accept that fact that he or she may not be the only expert in the class. One or more enrolled participants may hold advanced degrees or be an expert in the course subject – her advice, embrace them, use them to guide other learners, perhaps as a teaching assistant or discussion moderator. A UC Irvine professor teaching with Coursera did not follow this advice. He attempted to silence the experts in course, instructing them not to participate in discussion forums. The professor ended up quitting half way through the course. 

Andersen suggests leveraging international perspectives

Other advice included leveraging the international perspectives of students in the class to provide learning depth and diversity. Anderson shared examples from her course where students contributed resources from Asia that gave cultural insight and diverse perspectives on course topics. She encourages her students to contribute and share in the course through blog posts and comments, which she encourages by frequently mentioning or showcasing student work or comments in class messages created for students. Including relevant resources on the course home page that students find and crediting the student is another effective method. In the MOOC e-Learning and Digital Cultures, the professors discussed and read clips of students blog posts during the live bi-weekly Google+ hangout sessions. As a student I found this effective, I felt instructors were involved and present in the course.

Profile of Learners: Anderson shared that the majority of learners in Canvas Network have college degrees, many holding advanced ones—nothing we don’t already know, but the rest of information was original, for instance that most learners attention span, the time students devote to the course is between two to six hours per week, the average falling around four. The ideal length of a massive course appears to be four weeks, anything longer than that becomes a challenge for students to sustain. Though it is possible, but requires specific strategies to keep the course going and learner engaged, for example a featured guest discussing a topic on Google hangout, or engaging in a discussion within a discussion forum.

In the learning community there is much discussion about the rigor of xMOOCs or lack there-of considering the length and time invested by students.  Andersens’ view—less hours invested per week does not mean less rigor but more. With a well-designed course, one that encourages learners to learn actively and create content, she finds learners are intensely focused and engaged.

Tips on Course Design

Excellent advice on course design from Andersen in this section—the principles here also apply to  small, for-credit online classes. Where does one start with MOOC course design if adapting content from a face-to-face class? Create a new syllabus. Do NOT use the same syllabus as used in a face-to-face course. Developing new materials and methods is key to a successful MOOC, or at least adapting content and methods that will be applicable to the different learner and learning contexts.

Include a ‘start here’ page that guides students through the early stages of the course

Below I’ve included key points on course development that Andersen presented as it applies to MOOCs, which is also applicable to small, online for-credit courses.

  • Include a ‘start here’ page on the course site for students to go to when starting the course—similar to an orientation. Students in the first week of an online class are overwhelmed, and don’t know what to do first. An orientation page helps tremendously. Including a welcome video from the course instructor is much appreciated by students.
  • Learning activities and assessments should drive learning with action, students should have to do something.
  • Activities should get students to apply the content and share. An example from Andersen’s social media course— one activity was for students to get 50 new Twitter followers over a two-week time period. Then they had to describe in writing how they went about doing so either in a class forum or blog post.
  • Assessments should provide another opportunity to learn—not to assess whether they have learned. Assessments should benefit the students not the instructor.
  • Assessments [ideally] should drive students to find information and provide opportunity for further learning. Allow students to take assessments as many times as needed to achieve a goal score. An example from Andersen’s class—she developed a quiz that asked specific and detailed questions about a social media platforms user policy [Facebook]. She designed the quiz so that students would not be able to pass the test unless they read the policy in-depth, or even had to research the answers on Google. Either way they would learn something in the process.

Onwards to a MOOC

The advice Andersen provided about MOOCs was helpful. I hope that readers interested in teaching MOOCs found something of value, yet I don’t want to overlook the fact that the role of MOOCs is still unclear, the future of xMOOCs is fuzzy. For that reason, considering the other dimensions that surround MOOCs is recommended, and using what is here as a guide. In an ideal world, [sigh] MOOCs should be developed and taught with a clear purpose that includes expanding and sharing learning with others beyond the walls of the institution.

12 thoughts on “Teaching Tips From a Master MOOC-Maker

  1. Thanks, Debbie. Your list is super useful, always helps to take a step back and evaluate what we want our MOOC to achieve.


  2. Hi, Thank you for the great insight. I’ve been enjoying your blog entries. As a former Coursera drop-out (I was in the infamous course that crashed earlier this year, too) and a current multiple MOOCs taker, it’s been very educating to see many platforms and different course designs/styles, but your bullet points explained it all. Thanks!


  3. This is very insightful. I am on the outside looking in as I am currently using open education to teach myself A-levls sciences. I enrolled on a Coursera calculus course and will be adding to the dropout stats as I won’t be able to finish the course in time to complete the final exams.

    I too am not sure of the direction these courses are headed, but it seems that many people are conscious of possible flaws, which can only be a good thing. Nevertheless, I hope that educators around the world will see this and be inspired to create their own MOOCs.

    I look forward to reading more.


    1. HI Hannah, You are not alone – many students drop out due to time commitments. And as the session leader at Canvas mentioned, the time devoted by MOOC participants is limited due to career and life commitments.

      Thanks for commenting – and glad you found us! It will be interesting to see the how MOOCs continue to develop.


    1. Hi Laura, Yes! I attended several sessions in the symposium, two put on by California State schools (one was UC Irvine) who had put on MOOCs with Coursera, and it was evident that these schools did everything on Maria’s list of what NOT to do! Thanks for commenting!


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