Observations on MOOCs and Teaching Styles

I’ve been spending some time in the past year taking MOOC courses. MOOCs, for those not familiar with this recent buzzword in education, are Massive Open Online Courses. They are courses built by universities, taught by university professors, but delivered through the internet to anyone who wants to take them, anywhere. For anyone who just wants to learn the material and go through the exercises, the courses are usually free to take. There are, increasingly, options to pay for the chance to take an exam for university credit or to get a certificate of completion. But if you just want to learn about some subject that you’re curious about at a university level, it is a great option.

University MOOCs are delivered, for the most part, through large consortiums such as Coursera, Udacity, and EdX, but the individual courses themselves are built by the universities themselves, and the universities maintain their own homepages through the consortium sites and maintain some university branding.

One course I took last summer was on Teaching with Moodle, put on by the folks at Moodle. Another one I’m taking now is from Rice University through Coursera on Introduction to Interaction Programming in Python.


This has been an illuminating experience. One of those things that is on my wishlist in terms of projects I would like to work on professionally is to work as an Instructional Designer helping university professors to make MOOCs. And over the past year as a student I’ve learned a few things. I hope to publish a longer post detailing all my observations once I’ve taken a few more courses and seen more variety in terms of how the concept is implemented well, and how it is implemented poorly.

I’d like to take the time now to share a couple of these early observations.

The first key observation is about the general need for buy-in from classroom instructors if you are either relying on them as subject matter experts (SMEs) for self-paced e-Learning or helping them to teach using an online platform, whether through asynchronous pre-recorded videos or a virtual classroom. They are a key stakeholder, and if they’re not comfortably on board, the process is going to be much harder and the results less successful than they could have been. This is the sort of thing they teach you in Educational Technology courses, but the understanding of this became much more concrete and visceral in practice. I learned this basic lesson well earlier in my career while working on a 15 month long project with a handful of courseware developers focusing on converting certain theoretical material in an Instructor Led Training course on maintaining Full Flight Simulators to self-paced e-Learning. This involved working with a number of instructors. One of the big challenges in working with the instructors was getting their full engagement and confidence. Some of them saw it as some sort of potential challenge to their livelihoods. Which is a hard mindset to deal with if you want to encourage them to give of their time.

The second observation is more specifically for Instructional Designers who would find themselves as Online Pedagogical Consultants in universities building MOOC content or helping instructors do so.  We want instructors to be comfortable with MOOCs and not them not as a threat. Rather, we want them to see it as just another media through which they can express themselves. To do this, though, you need to give them space to express their personality in the style of presentation.

The programming course I am taking gave a good chance to see this, as it uses four different Rice University Computer Science professors. The content presentation videos were short, ranging from about five minutes up to a max of about 15 minutes, and these videos were distributed between the different professors. Each of them has their own personal style of presentation. Their individual personalities come through. And as a learner, it was nice. I prefer some of them over others, but nevertheless, I like that it gives some variety. It makes it feel like the mix you see in a university.

This may be a challenge for some of us as Instructional Designers, as our usual instinct in online training is to try to find ways to standardize stylistic aspects of communication across courses. This is usually because we feel some pressure from marketing types with a stake in the programs, wanting to “establish a consistent brand.” There is something to that, and there is an element there where we have to standardize look and feel so that students can get a predictably good experience. This includes the look and controls of video/media players and the overall visual “container” template, e.g. MOOC delivery platform logo and login information, school logo, where the course title is, and where the high level navigation elements of the course are on the page. These are essential visual navigation and control elements that need to be standardized for better learner experience. As well, we do need to take the advantage of our time with the professors to give whatever coaching we can to impart some known tips for better lesson delivery, whether on video or in the classroom. But the point is that it can’t be too homogenized.

There is a value to the students, qualitatively and likely quantitatively too in allowing the professors to express their unique character. It brings the course to life more like a real classroom and makes it much less industrial and sterile. (Which may do something to help with student motivation to complete and help improve the dismal completion rates for MOOCs) There is perhaps sometimes a place for sterile, industrialized training, but I don’t think the university should give up the ghost just yet.