Exploring the making of a MOOC

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RMIT recently launched a new Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) partnership (as my colleague Howard previously wrote about on this blog). Academic staff within DSC are now developing two MOOCs for  FutureLearn, the UK-based platform launched by Open Universities in 2013, and I am very fortunate to be the educational developer on these two projects.

MOOCs are a sort of celebrity in online education, which I think contributes to our love-hate relationship with them. They inspire a lot of debate and garner more media attention than your average course or platform. TheNew York Times called 2012 “the year of the MOOC”, and since then they have been described as the future of education (Lapowsky 2014), a failure (Dawson), and “massively obfuscated opportunities for cash” (Wiley 2013). It is true that MOOCs are straying further and further from their roots, moving into a genre that isn’t technically true to their name, nor how they rose to fame. They’re still massive, but they are not universally open. For example, this year Coursera announced a pay-up-front model for students to do the full version of some courses (Straumsheim 2016).

Despite the ongoing debate about MOOCs (or maybe because of it) this is an interesting time to be an educational developer in this space, and here are a few of the reasons for that:

See what others are doing

Even within our own institution it can be difficult to find out how other people are teaching online, let alone to experience these hands-on as a student. MOOCs are an opportunity to see and experience what other people are doing. While there are obvious differences between delivering MOOCs and online higher ed courses, some of the same techniques can be applied across both formats. For example, it’s interesting to see how MOOC academics establish a sense of identity and presence in online courses that they may actually have limited involvement in delivering. Early in the course, a low production value video where an academic shares a personal story can feel more engaging than the glossy, impersonal delivery of a studio-based lecture.

A place to experiment, engineer, evaluate

Second, when it comes to designing and developing MOOCs, the format is flexible and provides an ideal place to experiment on a small scale. At four weeks and five weeks long, the MOOCs we’re developing will require 16 and 20 hours of study time respectively. The approaches in each could be used in a longer format course, but within this condensed format we have the opportunity (and imperative) to carefully engineer every single activity and resource. When we run the course, the platform will provide us with detailed analytics about how people interacted within the system. They’re the sort of analytics we can still only dream about in Blackboard courses, so it will feel a bit like Christmas when we get to do this analysis.

One kind of openness for a massive cohort

As mentioned previously, MOOCs are not as open as their name would suggest. However, in one of our MOOCs we are working on creating a type of openness that will ideally help people create links to like-minded participants outside the course. (While free to complete, FutureLearn courses are contained within their LMS.) As we don’t know yet who those students will be, what their particular interests and motivations will be, or their level of comfort with social media, this is a special kind of challenge. But it is a good one, as it can only improve and sharpen our ability to do this when we are working with a cohort of students that we know, that we have the capacity to get to know individually.

Did you make it to the end?

Finally (yes, it’s almost the end) MOOCs present a particular challenge when thinking about who will be studying them, and how we can encourage, entice or convince them to finish the MOOC. One of my colleagues recently joked that we should evaluate our success based on the percentage of people who complete the MOOCs, knowing full well that typical completion rates hover around 15% (Jordan). But this statistic does form a sort of challenge when building a MOOC. How can we craft a story that will pull the greatest number of people from step to step and from week to week?

That last question brings us to the end of this blog post, but it will be the jumping-off point for a future post. Stay tuned for more information about the two MOOCs we’re developing.

Paparazzi” by Brian Gratwicke is licensed under CC BY 2.0


Dawson, P. (n.d.) The failure of MOOCs. Learning with New Media. Available online: http://newmediaresearch.educ.monash.edu.au/lnm/the-failure-of-moocs/

Jordan, K. (n.d.) MOOC Completion Rates: The Data. Available online: http://www.katyjordan.com/MOOCproject.html

Lapowsky, I. (2014, September 26). Why free online classes are still the future of education. Wired. Available online: https://www.wired.com/2014/09/free-online-classes-still-future-education/

Pappano, L. (2012, November 2). The Year of the MOOC. The New York Times. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/massive-open-online-courses-are-multiplying-at-a-rapid-pace.html?_r=0

Straumsheim, C. (2016, January 29). The Limits of Open. Inside Higher Ed. Available online: https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/01/29/critics-see-mismatch-between-courseras-mission-business-model#.Vqs6JUJViMw.twitter

Wiley, D. (2013, May 9). Redefining MOOC. Iterating Toward Openness. Available online: http://opencontent.org/blog/archives/2846

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