The brave new world of MOOC design

I’ve been reflecting on MOOCs for a few weeks now ever since the first ever MOOC that I enrolled for imploded after only a couple of days (see it here). Ironically, the course was entitled “Fundamentals of Online Learning” (FOL) – an irony not lost on the hundred or so thousand people who were left without a course when the course co-ordinators were forced to take the course down to look at the design and administration of it. There have been a lot of things written critiquing the handling of the course and how the technology was actually used for it. You can read a very good summary here. What I want to do here is look at what I personally learned about online design from the experience and how pedagogy needs to change to fully utilise the exciting new technologies for collaboration that we now have at our disposal. To do this I’m going to compare the ill-fated Fundamentals course from Coursera to the Santa Fe Institute’s “Introduction to Complexity” (IC) which I started a couple of weeks ago. The experiences have so far been night and day so I’ve tried to categorise some of my comments on the experiences. What I would like to say from the outset is that I harbour no ill-will whatsoever towards the course co-ordinators for FOL. They are, like the rest of us, still learning how to work within this new teaching format. I think that, fundamentally, this is a question of pedagogy and the choices made by the designers.

I’ve grouped my musings into the following areas:

  • Administration and organisation
  • Instructions
  • Technology
  • Pedagogy

Administration and Organisation

From experience with organising large face-to-face events such as lecture programs and conferences, I can say with some authority that the administration and overall level of organisation is critical to a successful event. They same is true, if not moreso, in the online environment. The Coursera FOL offering was organised in that it got off the ground but there were many glitches that should have been ironed out in advance. These will be dealt with in more detail under the headings Instructions and Technology. What I will say is that, as a participant, I found myself wondering many things about the course and having few answers. In contrast to this the SFE IC course was very well organised and clearly articulated. The launch of the course was even delayed by one week to iron out some technical details and was tested before launch (I know some of the testers personally). While I have no idea if the Coursera FOL was tested in this way my experience suggests that it wasn’t and that a lot of trust was placed in the Coursera platform to deliver (an altogether different issue!).


Sigh, ah, sweet clarity. I am not perfect in this regard myself. I often assume that my instructions to participants are self-evident when perhaps they are not. Having said that there was a lot of confusion in the FOL course around what exactly you were meant to do and when. Instructions on how to sign up for a group were unclear and there was no real mention of why we were even meant to sign up for a group. People were deleting other people’s names by accident and generally creating havoc in there. While this would be manageable in a smaller course, when you multiply the participant numbers a few thousand times over you have some grasp of the true chaos that emerged. In contrast the SFI IC course was incredibly clear. While there was no attempt to corral people into small groups for discussions (and it must be said there is a significantly smaller number of participants involved) the course structure was clear and you knew what you needed to do to complete the course. This was facilitated by a couple of introductory videos that set out the course and how it would work – fantastic.

Use of Technology

The Coursera FOL course started to fall apart at the outset by using technology that could not handle the sheer volume of people who needed to access it. The organisers tried to get everyone to access a Google Spreadsheet in order to join these small groups and the spreadsheets crashed almost immediately. Data was getting lost and tempers got frayed. An increasing number of emails came out from the organisers explaining what was going on and what they were doing about it. In the end it was a bit of a free-for-all and the actual course content for week 1 was lost in the middle. There seemed to be a built in assumption that participants could self-organise into groups and that it would all be obvious – it wasn’t. In contrast the SFE IC (which is still running by the way) sits on a purpose built website and used tried and tested technologies. There are short video lectures to watch and some software to download for the assignments but that’s about it. A perfect illustration of the KISS principle.

The first few areas of critique are fairly high level, more annoying than anything and more easily fixed. The area in which I think the FOL MOOC, and indeed MOOCs more generally, fall down is in the area of pedagogy.


The FOL designers made classic pedagogic choices in terms of people working collaboratively in small groups but the problem was that  platform could not cope. I can see where they were coming from. Anyone who works in adult education would tell you that you need to create sharing opportunities between participants to allow for rich discussions to occur. The issue with the MOOC format is the “M” – Massive. I can say from the experience of working for a large retailer that scale adds a new dimension to a learning experience and that compromises must be made. For the learning practitioner there is a choice at this point – embrace the scale and sacrifice some dearly held beliefs about the best pedagogy and look at what works with the scale to get your message across. Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen, this is a compromise that MOOC designers are not keen to make. Interestingly, the Santa Fe Institute IC course is not put together by people who claim to be “professional” learning practitioners in the sense that it is their day job. They are first and foremost scientists who educate. I think this makes for a different learning design which suits the MOOC format. MOOCs are best suited when using a traditional lecture format as universities have done for years.

It’s also always important to consider one’s audience when designing a course. Who is likely to enrol in a MOOC and why? Do these people expect to be engaging in collaborative learning or are they happy with a video lecture and self-paced format? This research still needs to be done but I think it might be safe to say that people who sign up for MOOCs are intrinsically motivated and interested in the content. As such, I believe that they are more likely to engage with a lecture format as they want the content itself. Perhaps I’m generalising but it’s worth thinking about in the context of MOOCs.

At the end of the day I’m not sure about the MOOC format overall. Will it replace us all? I doubt it. There are still issues with assessment and quality that are yet to be resolved. It might encourage more people to continue learning after their time in “formal” learning institutions has ended and I think that can only be a good thing. There are some who take a very pessimistic view and say that MOOCs are already on the way out. I don’t take quite so strong a view. I think that they will evolve and gradually find their place within the broader practice of learning. Just as e-learning programs were touted as replacing the Learning and Development Department before everyone worked out that they were just another tool to be deployed as needed, I think that we will gradually find this for MOOCs. I can see them as being very useful for lifelong learning, for introductory university courses or to supplement a face-to-face tutorial. However they’re used, we need to develop a pedagogy that suits this new format.

What’s the main thing I learned from my experience? There are two things. As a learner I found that I am still as strapped for time as ever and motivation is an eternal struggle (more on this later) and as an educator I learned to keep it simple and think about the needs of the audience and the best way to deliver this within the constraints of the technology and the teaching format.


One thought on “The brave new world of MOOC design

  1. I liked how you organized the assessment of the two MOOCs into the categories. It provides the core issues within these massive courses. I agree with your thoughts on MOOCs and that the pedagogy is uncertain given that the motivations and needs of learners is diverse and unknown by the instructor. Furthermore, what is the motivation for participation? Enrichment, networking, learning? Whatever it is will dictate how involved participants will be, the level in which they engage with the material, or seek out others to study, learn and share with.

    The main difference in a massive course [MOOC] to traditional face-to-face courses, is that the teacher cannot control the course, he or she cannot direct the learners to do certain activities or engage with course content, or peers for that matter. This is why the instructional design of a course is critical, by considering the learner context — what are the motivations of the learners? What skills do they bring in? What is their education background? In a MOOC this is unknown, which means the instructional strategy needs to reflect this diversity.

    I enjoyed your post! Thanks.

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