An Unique Approach to a xMOOC — Learner-Centric Course Design


Applied Sustainability” Fanshawe College

Not all MOOCs are created equal. I know of one, Applied Sustainability, delivered by a community college in Ontario, Canada that defies what many have come to expect from a Massive Open Online Course offered through a university-sponsored platform such as Coursera, Open2Study or edX. What makes Applied Sustainability offered by Fanshawe College unique?  It’s the learner-centric course design that makes it different, where the focus is on students and their learning. This approach contrasts with an instructor-centric design—an approach which emphasizes content delivered by faculty with a learning strategy that follows accordingly. Though both formats are applicable in given learning situations, few student-centric course designs in xMOOCs exist, which is what motivated me to share a learner-centric design example with readers. It’s a worthy endeavor for educators to explore and consider different approaches to course design for MOOCs, to improve upon what already exists, and bring xMOOCs to the next level.

How Fanshawe’s MOOC is Unique:  Fanshawe’s MOOC takes the form of an educative journey that engages students in the learning process with active, and practical learning assignments that make learning meaningful, relevant and specific to each student.

The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.”  MOOCs at Fanshawe

This approach contrasts significantly with the course design model that the majority of MOOCs delivered on university platforms feature.  The pedagogical methods used in xMOOCs  are remarkably similar to the traditional classroom format—course content delivered via the subject matter expert. xMOOCs typically are associated with top-tier higher education institutions, and are led by faculty members, sometimes referred to as ‘super professors‘, or ‘talking heads’, labeled (not so kindly) by MOOC skeptics. The instructors deliver content that mirrors the classroom method quite closely, but without the accessibility and feedback capability that instructors offer. Fanshawe’s format is closer to the original version of MOOCs as its co-creators [Downes and Siemens] introduced in 2008, where the focus was on learning within a network where knowledge is co-created, not from one expert i.e. the super-professor, but from many sources including the learners within the course.

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.25.07 AM

Image from Presentation Slide featuring student project, posted during Webinar with Contact North, with Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

“For the students, the most significant benefits they reported on the first offering of this MOOC were the changes they made in their thinking, behaviour, and habits concerning sustainability – for some it was truly life changing.The wide range of students from around the world appreciated the truly applied nature of the course.”

Course Description: Applied Sustainability: The course is designed to emphasize the practical and the personal elements of sustainability, with each of the six modules featuring on-site video interviews in locations and with experts involved with different aspects of sustainability. The themes of the modules focus on: water, waste and wastefulness; homes; streets and neighbourhoods; cities and regions; policies and certifications; and a final section on our community, your community. Applied Sustainability, Desire2Learn

Below is a brief outline the characteristics of Fanshawe’s MOOC that make it unique. For readers interested in learning more, the Pockets of Innovation series on Contact North’s website provides further background and description—Designing and Offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Fanshawe College.

Characteristics of the Learner-Centric Design

1) Diffusion of subject matter expertise: Rather than one subject-matter expert leading the course, there is an interviewer who travels to visit numerous subject matter experts in the field. The interviewer acts as the ‘host’ of the course, going on exploratory journey along with the students to learn about applied sustainability by conducting interviews with experts in the field.

“Three short videos (8 to 10 minutes) highlight three specific themes through visits to facilities directly related to waste and water such as the Greenway Wastewater Plant and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (pictured below). Staff interviews, facilities tours, and demonstrations of their ongoing work are presented.  The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.  Topic-related links are provided to articles, report summaries, videos, TED talks, and other resources.”

Screen Shot 2014-03-26 at 7.22.07 AM

Presentation Slide posted during Webinar with Contact North, featuring Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

2) Reliance on open resources, with a collection of curated resources. Students accessed content on the course topic (sustainability) primarily from the experts in the field, on the field trips with interviewer, and by exploring list of curated resources provided on the course site. The resources are from a variety of sources, with very few coming from scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

3) Customization of learning experience. The Fanshawe MOOC provided options for students to customize their learning by offering four options for course participation. The four levels of achievement—Green, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

“… At the Silver level, students take part in weekly discussion on such topics as the use of rain barrels and antibiotics in agriculture.  The Gold level involves completion of a weekly task, such as undertaking a three-day waste audit at home, posting a photo of the accumulated waste, and reflecting on personal consumption and disposal habits. The Platinum level of achievement requires the completion of one project over the length of the course, assisted by a project manager from Fanshawe. The project-options include creating a Green Gaming Journal by using a blog, Tumblr, YouTube, or a podcast to comment on the green elements of a video game with ecological themes, such as SimCity. Another choice involves using QGIS, an open source geographic mapping system, to map a neighbourhood and analyze issues such as park vs residential space usage.”

We can credit MOOCs for generating discussions among educators and stakeholders about technological advancements and education, specifically how technology can be used to improve access, quality and cost. Yet we need to move discussions about online education forward, and one dimension which needs attention is how to create learning experiences for students that are relevant and meaningful. The current format of most xMOOCs are not much different from the traditional instructor-focused model, yet student-centered course design is a viable option very worthy of our time and energy.

Update: After this post went live, two other institutions reached out to share MOOC, learner-center models.  Open2Study, customizes courses for the MOOC format; you can read more from the comment posted. Another, Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning is developing a ‘flex-MOOC’ framework, which appears to have much potential.

Further Reading:

12 thoughts on “An Unique Approach to a xMOOC — Learner-Centric Course Design

  1. Pingback: Fanshawe College Online Courses - Colleges & Universities

  2. Pingback: Megatrends in MOOCs: #1 Adoption at Corporate Universities [Nielson]

  3. kpeck2014

    Thanks for sharing your reactions to the sustainability MOOC. Student-centered approaches will prove to be important in realizing the promise of open learning.

    The MOOC you describe has several elements in common with a type of MOOC some of us are working toward at Penn State. We’re calling it a “flex-MOOC.” You can read about it here:

    Thanks again.


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      The Flex-MOOC as outlined in the post, is indeed an exciting and an innovative approach to course development. It appears to be the step that’s needed to move the MOOC concept forward. I would be very interested, (as would readers) in learning more about the format as it develops. Please keep me posted! My email is debbiemorrison505 [@]

      Thank you Kyle for sharing your work with readers and posting the link with further details. Much appreciated!


      PS My oldest son is a Penn State grad. He graduated in 2012 with an Engineering degree. GO Penn State!


  4. The Open2Study Team

    Hi Debbie,
    Thank you for highlighting the important of student-centred learning in the online environment. We are so proud that Open2Study was the first MOOC designed, from scratch, with the student in mind. Our classrooms are managed by social learning facilitators, rather than industry experts, who learn alongside the students and post questions to prompt thought and investigation into the students’ own lives. We ensure that all resources are available via the platform, from free, open sources. We encourage students to discuss their ideas with each other, to further build their understanding. In some courses, we employ interviews with experts, multiple presenters and simulations, to ensure students have the broadest viewpoint possible in a four-week short course. Most importantly, we make sure that our learning designers and production team coach our presenters (who come from academic and industry backgrounds) in the best ways to speak to the students, rather than at them.
    Online learning offers us a wonderful opportunity to create a level, student-centred educational environment and the whole team at Open2Study is really proud to be part of that.
    So, thanks again for highlighting the important distinction between a broadcast lecture from an academic and a truly student-centric, purpose-built online learning environment.
    All the best,
    The Open2Study Team


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Thank you for bringing Open2Study’s learning design approach to readers’ attention. This is an important distinction–the customized approach to course design with the focus on the learner, which differs significantly from the model that many other MOOCs adhere to. I will write a feature post about Open2Study in the future, and will incorporate your comments made here. Thank you! Debbie


  5. Peter J. Taylor

    Our c-MOOC, currently underway (but far from “massive”), “Science in a Changing World,” is a course even more “learner-centric.” It is based on real-world scenarios or cases that invite participants to shape their own directions of inquiry about scientific and political change and develop their skills as investigators and teachers (in the broadest sense of the word) — see


  6. basdenleco

    A fascinating article as I am involved in undertaking two relatively small MOOC’s for the first time and they are as different as chalk and cheese.
    Thank you for the reference to who came up with the idea and rationales re MOOC’s.
    I have learnt something :>) without having to Google…
    Also the supplied links interesting and intriguing.



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