Lessons Learned: Revising Course Design Recommendations for Faculty Teaching MOOCs

Duke University’s Center for Instructional Technology has updated its faculty guide for building a MOOC.

When Duke agreed to begin offering MOOCs through Coursera in July of 2012, we joined just a handful of universities that had chosen to extend their educational offerings to the world via this emerging medium.  As a result, we quickly found that there was not a lot of information available within the educational community that addressed how to go about creating MOOCs.

In order to provide the best possible support to the intrepid group of instructors who agreed to join us in plunging head-first into this new educational arena, all of the Duke stakeholders involved in this great experiment worked together to develop a set of processes to guide the huge undertaking of building an effective, high-quality course.  Randy Riddle detailed the resulting large and collaborative process in his excellent and thorough post, “What does it take to prepare a Duke Coursera course?”

To streamline our part of the process here in the Center for Instructional Technology, we formed three working groups: a Programmatic group, a Technical group, and a Pedagogical group.  The Programmatic group dealt with administrative matters such as developing a policy for course completion certificates and handling media and PR, while the Technical group examined tasks such as working out procedural details for video creation and using the Coursera platform.

The Pedagogical group focused primarily on course design and planning.  Broadly speaking, the question that this group aimed to answer was: How, exactly, does one design a pedagogically effective course for, say, a hundred thousand students?  The group recognized that, just as there was no canonical set of rules and processes for schools to follow in order to build a MOOC, there were not really any course design resources available within the academic community to support faculty who wished to teach a MOOC.  So, the group resolved to create one.  We decided that the document should:

  • serve as an “instruction manual” for faculty designing a MOOC.
  • provide procedures and recommendations for general course design, assessment techniques, and matters related to faculty/student and student/student communication.
  • be useful for instructors who teach a variety of subjects and employ a wide range of teaching styles in the “traditional” classroom.
  • include guidelines and best practices that help instructors meet the unique challenges, and harness the unique opportunities, presented by the large number and wide geographic and cultural diversity of students taking the class.

To help us develop this document, we turned to a number of existing course design resources that focused on “traditional” face-to-face or online classes, and tried to determine how to apply time-tested principles to a MOOC.

The resulting document, which attempted to cover all of the aforementioned bases in just two short pages (you’ll see that we needed a little extra), can be found in its first form here.

While we’ve been working with instructors on the first 11 Duke MOOCs, we have recognized that it is time to upgrade the guide to “version 2.”  While our original document was indeed a helpful tool for faculty members teaching these courses, it could now be revised to reflect experience gained directly from creating and teaching MOOCs.

A few of the bigger “lessons learned” that led to changes in the document are detailed below, and the second version of the guide can be found at http://bit.ly/dukecoursera.

Additionally, our changes acknowledged recent enhancements to the Coursera platform, such as the inclusion of the Peer Assessment tool.  We also tweaked the formatting and wording in order to clarify the intent of the document.  Overall, we feel that the guide has been successful in providing a starting point for faculty teaching MOOCs.  We consider the document to be a “living” one, and we will continue to update its content as we learn from our current and future experiences.

Lessons Learned

High Impact of Forums

We may not have underemphasized instructor involvement in the forums as much as OVERemphasized the concept that instructors in this type of massive online course have the greatest influence on student learning through pre-created materials and course organization.  We knew that instructors would want to keep track of what was happening in the forums, and perhaps offer “just-in-time” type videos on occasion to address issues that came up in forum discussions or to offer new ideas.  But, we also assumed that it would be a huge challenge for instructors to actively participate on a regular basis because of the sheer scale of the class.  This goes back to our initial goal of letting professors know how important it is to set expectations for students in the class. We thought:  Well, if an instructor begins to interact with some students via a forum post, then all of the students in the class will expect personal replies and individual attention.

The truth is that students, for the most part, appear to understand that the course is large, and are willing to accept and respect guidelines and expectations that the instructor provides.

For example, we have some instructors who have recruited individuals, sometimes former students from their actual Duke classes, to be their eyes and ears in the class.  These delegates read through the forums and let the instructor know what’s happening.  More frequently, though, our instructors have chosen to spend a lot of time in the forums reading what their students are saying and replying quite often.  In fact, one instructor told us that he is spending four times as much time as he expected each day inside the class reading and posting.  He referred to the practice of actively participating with his students in forum discussions as “addictive.”  This has worked for him because he told his students up front: “I will be in in the forums, and I will sometimes post in the forums…but please understand that not every post will get a reply from me.”  Students understood that.

Also, instructors are using the forums in ways that we didn’t foresee, including using them to drive assignments.  Walter Sinott-Armstrong and Ram Neta used the forum to deliver an assignment in their class Think Again: How to Reason and Argue.  They had students post short arguments that they had constructed to a forum, then asked the class to rate each others’ arguments (using the Coursera forums’ built-in ability to rate posts “up or down”).  After a set period of time, the instructors took the top ten arguments that rose to the top through that voting process and recorded short videos where they personally deconstructed and reacted to those arguments.  So, in this particular case, the forum actually played a direct role in driving instruction.

Possibilities for Face-to-Face Contact with Students

The idea of creating any sort of live interaction between students and the instructor in a class of this size didn’t seem practical when we started putting the guide together.  But, over time, we saw several of our instructors begin to use Google Hangouts to offer a limited face-to-face experience to their students.  Some of our courses began to set up Hangouts that included the instructor, the TA, and several students.  Instructors chose which students would participate in a number of ways, including first-come-first-served and rewarding students who participated heavily in forum discussions.  The hangout was broadcast live to allow non-participating students to watch, and, in many cases, recorded and posted inside the course site for those students who couldn’t watch it live to view at a later time.  Here is a YouTube video of one of Mohamed Noor‘s Hangouts from the Genetics and Evolution class.

Some Hangouts also attempted to engage a larger number of students by accepting questions and comments sent in via chat or e-mail while the Hangout was underway.  Instructors found that this was difficult to manage while maintaining direct involvement in the live discussion.  One way to manage this might be to employ an unseen “moderator,” or a person in a similar role.

Range of Roles for Teaching Assistants

Most of the courses to date have had TAs, and the role that they play is pretty important.  We initially assumed that the TA would be highly involved in running the class, but would play a quiet supporting role, serving as a delegate who was the “eyes and ears” of the instructor.  In those courses where the instructors are unable to engage in a lot of direct interaction with students in the forums, the TAs have ended up filling that role, and students are quite happy to accept that.

In fact, we’ve had one TA who has assisted in two courses (to date), and the students in his first course loved him so much that a number of them “followed” him and enrolled in the second course, which, incidentally, was in a completely different subject area.


Seth Anderson

Author: Seth Anderson

Seth works with faculty in the Humanities in order to help them improve pedagogy and enhance meaningful student learning. His interests include active learning techniques, the educational use of mobile devices (phones, tablets, etc.), wearable technology, online course development and delivery, digital video and imagery, virtual and augmented reality, and Web-based educational tools.