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.

Is Learning Online ‘Cool’?

What’s the ‘cool factor’ for Online Learning?  As educators, teachers and instructional designers should we even care?  The answer is unequivocally yes.  But, the problem goes beyond the ‘cool factor’ – online learning has an image problem, a big problem. As educators I think it’s time to figure out what to do about it. How is online learning perceived?  In K12 education, higher education and in corporations, I’ve heard these words expressed that capture the impressions collectively – ‘sub-standard’, ‘ineffective’, ‘not social’ or how about this one – ‘boring’.  I’m sure you’ve heard all of these and probably more, whether from the students’ perspective, faculty, or potential learner. What we can do about this image problem? How can can we change perceptions and even make online learning seem ‘cool. I have a few ideas:

Online education and Financial Aid
Image via Wikipedia

Some facts: online learning
Let’s frame the problem. According to Sloan Consortium the growth rate for online enrollment is slowing, even plateauing (I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2011). In fact  the growth of online enrolments in degree granting instructions fell from 21% in 2009 to 10.1% in 2011 {this surprised me}. In contrast, there were 845 million active Facebook users at the end of February 2012 [400 million in 2010], and 50 million Twitter users, of which over half log on each day. Granted Facebook and such platforms are not directly related to online learning, but there are significant parallels; the delivery method, the Internet, now accessible 24/7 given the proliferation of mobile devices, and the asynchronous aspect (not in real-time) are the same.  Why is online learning with its ability to connect learners with learning 24/7 at a place and time that is convenient for the learner not experiencing the same growth?  Hold that thought, we’ll come back to it.

How do college age students perceive online learning
I found this interesting – several research reports showed that though students like the flexibility of online learning, they still aren’t completely convinced online learning is at least as good as face-to-face learning. One paper, Students Perceptions of Distance Learning, Online Learning and the Traditional Classroom (O’Malley), drew this conclusion,

“Our research indicates that students perceive that OL has a significant relative advantage to traditional methodologies. These advantages include saving them time, fitting in better with their schedules, and enabling students to take more courses. They do not believe that they learn more in OL courses and have concerns related to being able to contribute to class discussions. Interestingly, the students seem to be ambiguous when comparing OL to traditional methodologies. They prefer traditional courses to OL courses although they want more OL courses.”

Students aren’t the only ones who are still apprehensive about online learning. Though acceptance is increasing, faculty at higher education institutions are still wary. In 2011, faculty acceptance rates are as follows: 56.5 % have neutral feelings about online instruction, 11.5% disagree with it, and 32.4% agree with online instruction (I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, 2011). We still have some work to do.

Why the ‘bad image’?
Looking back to early programs of online learning we can determine where the problem began. Early attempts at online instruction for most institutions were simply adaptations of classroom-based courses. Content was uploaded to a learning management platform  and professors checked in every once in a while, and hoped for the best. Gradually institutions began to see that this method does not work – pedagogical principles that worked in the classroom do not translate well to the online delivery method – and [fortunately] institutions are realizing that the development and delivery of online education is complex and requires a different and unique skill set.

What we can do?
There are obvious answers including improving the quality of the instructional design process, addressing the uniqueness of the teaching method, and educating instructors in the skills necessary for this ‘new’ environment.  Though we need to move beyond the basics, and begin to address the image of online learning and discuss where online learning fits into the educational strategy within our organizations.

Fortunately, there are some great examples of what higher education institutions and K12 are doing in an effort to change the image of online learning. Below are a few [impressive] examples.

1) The Wall of Cool (Celebrating Outstanding Online Learning) : Created by the Cal Poly Ponoma Faculty  – this awesome website is designed to a promote e-learning and showcase successful instructors and best practices. Faculty are featured in brief video clips sharing their successes and strategies. The site is ‘cool’ – and worthy of a visit.

2) Cool School: Online Content Management site: A Canadian organization, COOL School specializes in the development of  web-based resources to be used in learning management platforms like Moodle and Blackboard.  I like how this organization puts great effort into making learning resources that are engaging for the student and recognizes the uniqueness of, and embraces the online format.

3) The Manifesto for Teaching Online
The idea for writing this post came to me after reading this post about a manifesto for teaching online. Created by students and scholars at the University of Edinburgh the goal (besides as a learning assignment for a student) is to challenge educators to think differently about online education, assessment methods, development, and “In short, we’re trying to contribute to a conversation about what a generative and exciting vision of online education should be.” There has been some criticism, and much discussion since the manifesto hit the web. Worth a quick click to check it out for yourself.

To wrap up, I hope I’ve left you thinking about the image you have of online learning, and perhaps what you might be able to do to challenge and take online learning to the next level.  I really like the idea of marketing the image of online learning – even presenting an image of ‘cool’ to the under 25 learner. Seeing what other schools and organizations are doing to differentiate their online learning programs has expanded my views on what can be done to promote online learning, and to present a program in its best light – one that is vibrant, high quality with tremendous potential for a rich  learning experience (and maybe even a little bit cool).

Keep Learning 🙂

I. Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman. Going the distance – Online education in the United States, 2011. (2011), Babson Survey Research Group and Quahog Research Group, LLC.