How (Not) to Design a MOOC: Course Design Scenarios From Four xMOOCs

designThis post examines four MOOCs completed as a student then de-briefed from a course design perspective—I share insights into what worked and what didn’t for the purpose of helping educators create better online learning experiences.

I recently completed two MOOCs on the edX platform that are part of a mini-series on education policy. The courses are great examples of how higher education institutions misuse the MOOC format by using traditional teaching methods that end up falling flat. I debrief the two MOOCs from a course design perspective and share why they were sub par, uninspiring. I also describe two other MOOCs that provided exemplary learning experiences. The two pairs of MOOCs provide instructive examples of contrasting course design approaches.

This post follows “How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better: Using a Case Study of an edX MOOC” the first MOOC of the mini-series “Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education”. I used actual discussion questions from this MOOC’s forums as examples of how not to write questions to foster student discussion. I rewrote the questions, providing better and best formats that would be more likely to encourage meaningful dialogue.

The second edX MOOC, “Saving Schools: History, Politics and Policy in U.S. Education: Teacher Policy” wrapped up this week (December 4). Both MOOCs followed an identical course structure that included: recorded video lectures that relied on the interview format featuring one (sometimes two) faculty member(s), two assigned readings per week (from the same source), one discussion question each week, and a final exam. This format is typical of xMOOCs; one that tries to mimic the in-class experience.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.36.00 AM
Click to enlarge. Screen shot of instructions for the final assignment, a digital artifact, in E-learning and Digital Cultures. At the end of this post my Digital Artifact created for the course assignment

Exemplary MOOCs
The other two MOOCs used a non-traditional design approach. They took advantage of what the MOOC format could offer by acknowledging its uniqueness and providing content from a variety of sources outside the MOOC platform. They also utilized a range of assessment methods, and included social media that encouraged interaction. Both MOOCs, Introduction to Sociology and E-learning and Digital Cultures (from Coursera), inspired and promoted thought. The learner was a viewed as a contributor, not a recipient.

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 11.54.46 AM
Introduction video of Professor Duneier introducing his course on Coursera (2012). Duneier pulled the course from Coursera after concerns over licensing his course for other institutions use.

E-learning and Digital Cultures featured YouTube videos not lecture videos to demonstrate course concepts, along with articles, mostly from academic journals. The learning experience closely resembled a cMOOC experience (the original MOOC format developed by Downes and Siemens)—one that leverages sources on the web, shares student blogs and views students as contributors. Introduction to Sociology featured two video formats; one featuring Professor Duneier, not lecturing, but sitting in an armchair (above) talking, sharing course-related experiences. He acknowledged learners (some by name) and encouraged student interactivity. The other was live (and recorded) using Google’s Hangout platform with eight students and Duneier leading a seminar discussion.

Course Design Shortcomings of the edX MOOCs
The purpose of the following discussion about the edX MOOCs is not to criticize the course designers or faculty, but to consider the MOOCs as learning opportunities. Doing so aligns with one of the goals of edX, to use the platform to advance teaching and learning.

Learning/instructional methods: The MOOCs relied upon mostly traditional methods of instruction—lectures, multiple choice assessments. Content was instructor-centered, limited to lectures (featuring faculty member), textbook readings (from a book written by same faculty member), and articles from one source, Education Next, of which the same faculty member is editor-in-chief.

  • The edX MOOCs would benefit from inclusion of open resources, with links to outside sources showing various perspectives as well as social media platforms where students could engage live with content experts or static content. Also to share content sources, and/or their own content creations (blog posts, etc.)
  • Learning was confined to a virtually, walled classroom—inside the MOOC platform.
Target objectives
MOOCs that provide a focus and structure for students by including goals or focus questions, allow students to shape and customize their own learning accordingly

Course Objectives: There were no learning goals outlined for the MOOCs. There didn’t appear to be a focus for each week, or guiding questions to provide structure. Granted, learners should create their own learning objectives when working within a MOOC, though a stated focus or general goals for the course allows learners to establish and shape their own learning goals. E-learning and Digital Cultures provided an overview of the course which outlined the focus for each unit of study, and each week included focus questions to consider. 

Rigor: Course rigor was low. Disappointing given the institution behind the MOOC was Harvard. It’s worth noting at edX’s launch in 2012, the Provost of MIT at the time L. Rafael Reif emphasized the rigor and quality of courses on ex’s platform ”(edX courses need) not to be considered MIT Lite or Harvard Lite. It’s the same content” (MIT News).  Yet the discussion questions as outlined in my first post, the biased readings, lectures, the application activities for students did not add up to a rigorous learning experience that encouraged critical thinking. Several factors may have contributed. Suffice to say that the course design team would have benefited from someone with a high-level of expertise in effective course design principles, knowledge of learning theories and instructional methods.

Content: As mentioned the majority of the content was limited to the faculty member in the lectures, two or three chapters of a book authored by the same faculty member, and essays from the one source.

  • Biased resources did not contribute to learner’s considering multiple perspectives. Though in the second MOOC there was an effort by course facilitators to incorporate other perspectives in the discussion forums.
  • Lecture videos were long — typically 12 to 15 minutes. Research on MOOC videos suggest ideal length is 4 to 6 minutes (Guo, 2013).
  • Repetitive Content. Content from the readings were also included in the lecture, and frequently two interviews in the same lecture covered the same content.
  • Delivery methods of content were repetitive, uninspiring.
  • Content came across as telling, not interactive.

Application activities: There were few activities for learners to engage in except for discussion forums. Unfortunately the questions in the first MOOC did not encourage robust discussion, though they improved in the second course. There were two or three multiple choice questions after each video. Several questions could be considered common knowledge. I could have answered the majority of them without watching the videos.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 2.20.48 PM
Screen shot of a forum discussion question from the MOOC “Saving Schools: History, Politics and Policy in U.S. Education”. A close-ended question, and one not likely to stimulate thoughtful discussion. In my previous post, “How to Make Bad Discussion Questions Better” I provide examples for more effective questions formats.

The pairs of MOOCs illustrate how varied approaches to MOOC course design significantly impacts engagement levels, perceptions and learning outcomes. The edX MOOCs examined here, typical of the majority of MOOCs, relied upon learning methods that failed to leverage the benefits of an open platform, failed to view as students as knowledge sources and contributors. Over time the MOOC format will no doubt settle into something quite different from what we’re experiencing now. A format that will find it’s purpose, engage learners and build bodies of knowledge that benefit all.

Further Reading:

3 thoughts on “How (Not) to Design a MOOC: Course Design Scenarios From Four xMOOCs

  1. A year ago I searched all over for any sort of MOOC design template and found nothing useful. Thanks for this post, Debbie! While we decided on a design that suits our need, having some templates out for for others to choose from will be a value added to those involved with MOOC design and delivery so they don’t have to start from square one.


      1. Hi Debbie,

        Has anyone came up with the MOOC template, I am part of a team that is designing a MOOC, but I feel like a template would help save a lot of frustrations and time. Thanks


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