Wednesday, 1 May 2013


Course elements (so far) to foster and encourage learning and engagement on a MOOC

I am currently in the process of working my way through 4 MOOC courses which are all running pretty much simultaneously. I also completed a 5 week MOOC course earlier on this year.

I choose to sign up to them for a number of reasons, curiosity, desire to learn new information, and to gain a deeper understanding of how I can improve the learning experience for the distance students I currently support as a research tutor at the University of Portsmouth.  Research tutor support page.

I also finished my Ph.D in Psychology last year, and so had a 'gap' which I was keen to fill ... ever the student - don't think I will ever tire of learning!

I wanted to share some of my thoughts so far with regards to the aspects of these 5 MOOC courses I have completed or are part way through so far - a collection really of the aspects of each (in my humble opinion) that have really worked well and are therefore are elements I would wish to consider including if was to Design my own MOOC in the future. In case you are interested; I am working on these 4 MOOC courses in my own time around a full time job, (as many many other MOOC learners are too). I would appreciate any feedback on these thoughts so far..... needless to say these elements are not exhaustive, or indeed particularly related to any one particular course, but rather are just my initial thoughts which are likely to change and develop as I process further through these courses.

  1. Frequency of email contact from the course leaders.  I think that with regards to emails, less can often be more. As has been seen with some courses, the frequency of emails can be a turn-off for some. For me personally a weekly email, with clear concise instructions on what is needed for the week ahead is more than enough to be going on with. These weekly emails are vital to enable planning, particular if there are imminent deadlines for exams that count towards the final grade. I have also found it useful to learn from the course leaders information about the number of participants enrolled - which is sometimes as much as 50,000 + for some courses - which is incredible really! but it means students on these very large courses often then start to learn and gain support from each other than waiting for the official line from the course leader (s)/tutors which is great to see.
  2. Amount of tasks for each week. As with the previous email, the number of essential tasks should be kept to a minimum, but with plenty of additional resources and activities for those interested students (with time on their hands) who wish develop their skills beyond those tasks. For example, essential tasks could be a summative weekly homework quiz or a reflective piece of work based on some set material. For me, having clear set tasks (that are automatically graded) really helps focus my time - and give me a sense of achievement when completed -  indeed in some courses progress is tracked in a bar chart which I do like to key an eye on. Of course though, it is hard to quantify all learning in such a quantitative way!
  3. Type of assessments. This relates back in part to section 2. I mentioned there that for me, quizes are a key motivator. I should also add that, the ones that I have really worked hard for are the ones that allow me 1 or 2 maximum tries to answer and are not multiple choice - i.e. you need to do the calculations manually and insert a number correct to 4 decimal places! - no place for guessing there then! On that course there are also summative quizes where you can practice first so you do get a trial run which is not added to your mark.  On another similar course, the summative homeworks are mostly multiple choice questions (which you can retake up to 100 times). This of course sounds a lot nicer- and easier?. The pass mark for that MOOC though is around 80% where as the one with the stricter quizes is only set at 40%. Another form of a MOOC assessment I have done recently is a peer marked assignment (up to 2,000 words) where you have to write a commentary and interpretation of some tables and figures that contain data. This is then peer marked by 5 other students on the course (and you mark 5 other students work). On that course we are still in the peer review stage, so I will come back to how that has gone later - but I really like this idea and can see it has merit for assessing learning that can not simply be reduced down to a numerical value or selection of a multiple choice question.
  4. Tracking engagement & performance. This also links into part 3. I think that in some cases it is helpful to have immediate feedback, but I am also happy to wait for more detailed feedback as in the peer review example in the previous point. With regards to tracking engagement, I really like the idea of having a place on your learning account that keeps tabs of all your postings, comments and other interactions. For me, this is a real motivating factor to want to do more.
  5. Discussion boards.  Discussion boards are a great place for students to ask and answer questions (anonymously if they wish), and as mentioned earlier, a good place to seek or give support. For some of the larger courses however, the discussion boards are a bit out of control - i.e. there are far too many comments to keep track off - and sometimes the comments can get a bit off topic in an unhelpful way. One way to combat this seems to be a regular staff presence (by the course leaders and/or tutors) who can keep an eye of this. e.g. any offensive comments that need to be removed, any errors within the course material, student queries that need a tutor response and so on. A well organised, searchable discussion board with posts organised by key topics seems to work well too.
  6. Social media.  Apologies for the plug, but here is my Twitter Account - Incorporating social media into a learning experience can be really helpful, particularly on courses when peer learning, sharing and discussion is encouraged. For me it just adds another dimension to the learning experience, allows me to make contact with like minded individuals and engage yet even further... I appreciate this is not the case for everyone.. so perhaps Social media engagement should be an optional extra for those who wish to communicate and learn in this way?
  7. Certification and passing grades. Yes I know that learning isn't all about getting the certificate - but it is a nice motivator for many and for me it really has been a driving force in making sure I watch the videos, read the material and achieve a passing mark on the assessments. The last few weeks I have ditched watching TV in the evenings in favour of passing my MOOC weekly assignments, or completing the required tasks ... and this is mainly because I had to do it to be able to pass the weekly course elements which lead to the certificate. I have also enjoyed this study, but I think without the carrot of a certificate, I probably would have done less study and more TV watching! Passing grades for the courses I am registered on range from 30% to 81% (with 1 unknown)  so very variable indeed

That is my comments for now, will update again!
Thanks for reading,



  1. Hello, feedback on your experiences of your MOOC addiction is really helpful. This is my third MOOC and I am also helping colleagues develop a MOOC shortly. There are just two points I tend to diverge from - (5) Discussion Boards - I don't think these should be monitored and almost policed by tutors etc. To me, the whole idea of a MOOC is to see which avenues the learning and ideas goes down. At times this will be a dead end, or a damp squid, but at other times, it will allow creativity, new ideas, thoughts, and sharing of relevant information and knowledge, skills etc, which otherwise would not have happened. This leads to point (6) - I would support the use of social media more strongly than you seem to have done. I think social media platforms/software have really got it sorted in terms of providing ways of easily communicating with lots of people. I have found this great in MOOCs (for example using Facebook).

    As for certification - I'm not convinced by all of this. The original idea of MOOCs was more about learning, rather than any form of assessment. Certainly I think one should be putting MOOCs onto your CV etc.

    I suppose the starting point really is about looking at the initial aim of designing a MOOC and also of taking a MOOC. Clearly they have started to develop a fascinating range of discussions if nothing else.

    thanks again

    1. Hi Roger, many thanks for your comments and feedback, it is good to hear from you!

      I know what you mean about Discussion Boards - I would tend to agree with you in general terms, and perhaps if the boards are set up correctly in the first place then monitoring closely isn't really all that essential. Perhaps then different course types require different levels of monitoring and intervention... in some courses where the learning is more fluid and doesn't necessarily lead to a summative assessment or grade as such then it is likely you can just let the students run with the set topics for the week.. and see what emerges!

      At the other end, in some of the Statistics MOOCs I have been doing there has been the issue of students posting homework answers on the Discussion Boards before the assignment is due... in other cases I have seen some instances of bullying and rather unkind remarks, and so in that regard I think instructor intervention was needed.

      And yes I would also like to advocate more use of Social Media.. I really like the idea of having a number of different platforms to share and discuss ideas... I love the immediacy of it all! This is my first attempt at a Blog, I was inspired to try it out...both because of the ocTEL partipant blogs and from attending a talk by Steve Wheeler last week.

      I think Social Media as a whole is pretty great when it comes to providing a range of communciation channels and sharing information widely and quickly.. With regards to Social Media as a teaching medium I am a bit more cautious. Not all students have personal Facebook and Twitter accounts, and indeed many students may not necessarily wish to mix their academic online presence with their personal one... and so this is something I need to look into and consider more. I do like this Blogging idea though, and Steve Wheeler showed us some examples of this working well in his talk.

      The great thing from all of these MOOCs I am working on, is that I enjoy all of them in different ways, and have learnt something new from all of them - and for that I am grateful to all the instructors who give their time to run them.

      I am starting to notice the impact of this new knowledge and understanding.. it is manifesting in different ways all the time and that is all rather exciting!

      Thanks again,