Instructional Design Lessons Learned from the Land of MOOCs

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Instructional Design Lessons Learned from the Land of MOOCs

Connected computers representing the MOOC global classroom

This fall, I joined thousands of people around the world in Coursera to learn about 1) online gaming and 2) emotional intelligence. These were my first MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) experiences.

Connected computers representing the MOOC global classroom

While the student part of me enjoyed learning from professors at Vanderbilt University and Case Western Reserve, the instructional designer part was fascinated by the learning design. As I worked through the video lectures, readings, discussion forums, quizzes, and assignments, I wondered about the structure and thinking behind this learning experience. How was it engaging me and encouraging me to learn? What would I be able to learn in such a large “classroom”? And just what is it about MOOCs that draws such enviably large audiences?

Stepping into the student role is a great way to learn more about instructional design. Here are some of my key lessons learned from the MOOCs.

1. Keep It Simple. I don’t know about the other MOOCs, but Coursera has definitely mastered the simple interface. It’s not beautiful, but it’s easy to use. Everything I need for the course is in one simple left-column menu.

Typical MOOC interface--Coursera

The Syllabus lays out exactly what I have to do. For the most part, I can access readings and other assignments right from it, although I always have the course menu, if needed.

MOOC Syllabus--Coursera

2. Meet Learners Where They Are. I didn’t have to go looking for the learning; it came to me. On the first day of the course, I received an email with detailed instructions and a link to the course wiki. I received a similar email each week when a new module started. Those emails kept the course on my radar, so I didn’t forget about it.

3. Video Is Powerful. I have to admit to a negative bias against talking heads. I never saw the value in seeing a person talk, when I could just listen or, even better—that is, faster, read the words. So it was a revelation to discover how compelling I found the video lectures. They helped me to get to know the professors. The relationship is similar to the one you have with the professor in a large lecture hall—only I could see his face more clearly.

Both professors used some creative approaches in their videos. In addition to video lectures, the Vanderbilt professor had video study groups, featuring discussions among six students and himself. I found it compelling to listen in on the discussions, and I began to identify with some of the students, much as I do with characters in movies or on TV. Sometimes, I would feel as if I were right there at the table with them, agreeing with one or arguing with another. I actually began to care about these students, and even wondered about them when they missed a class.

The Case Western Reserve professor embedded activities into his video to help us connect to his topic. For example, when discussing the qualities of great leadership, he asked us to pause the video and think about a great boss and his/her characteristics, as well as a bad boss and his/her characteristics. When I restarted the video, the professor uncannily validated the conclusions I’d just drawn and explained the relevant research.

4. Offer Flexibility through Different Levels of Learning. Both courses offered different tracks, depending on how deeply you wanted to study. The free “Standard” track had basic requirements, whereas the paid “Distinctive” track was more rigorous. Learners pick their track based on how much time and effort they can expend, as well as their level of interest. I really wish I had played the Lord of the Rings game during the online gaming course, as my Distinctive Track colleagues did, but I just didn’t have the time. So I was glad that I could still be exposed to some interesting ideas and lovely literature through the readings and video lectures. Likewise, in the Emotional Intelligence course, I went with the Standard track to gain some basic insights through readings, video lectures, the personal journal, and discussions, while others were doing more advanced projects. This flexibility allows all students to learn in the way that’s most effective and appropriate for their situation, needs, and interests.

5. Discussion Forums Support Deep Thinking. In corporate training, I’ve found that learners don’t really like the online discussion activities and won’t do them unless required to. Discussions require more effort than a simple quiz. You have to think and write, and that’s hard work. But isn’t that the point—to make you think about what you’ve read and heard and create your own meaning and learning from that? Discussions are the online equivalent of the essay question, with added benefits. I can read what others have written and learn from my classmates. And they can read and comment on what I’ve written. In this way, the forums transform essays into robust discussions within a global student body.

In the MOOCs, the discussions are vibrant and abundant. Required discussions may have close to a thousand responses. And enthusiastic learners often start their own discussions. It can seem overwhelming, but it is an efficient way to get varied perspectives on a topic.

6. Quizzes Help Emphasize Key Points. Each module ends with a knowledge quiz. These quizzes highlight what the professor thinks are the most important points from that module. Sometimes I’m surprised by a seemingly esoteric or peripheral question. But generally, the quizzes help me to focus on what’s important. And when I answer incorrectly, the feedback offers a detailed explanation of the correct answer.

7. Online Courses Transform Learning from an Event to a Process. Instead of attending a “one and done” event, I engage with the material regularly over time, which is ultimately more effective than the day-long workshop or other one-time class. Each week, the topic unfolds with new readings, new lectures, new discussions, and new assignments. I can complete the activities when I have spare time, doing a reading at lunch, responding to a discussion in the evening, making observations in my personal journal on the weekend, taking the quiz just before the Sunday night deadline. In this way, I keep thinking about what I’m learning and I can apply it before I forget it.

More To Explore
I’ve found the MOOC to be a satisfying and rewarding learning experience, giving me free and open access to great thinking and great content. But MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon, with widespread participation starting only in 2011. So, their effectiveness is still in question. Some argue that MOOCs will dumb down our educational system. Others insist that MOOCs will open up opportunities to those who can’t afford to go to an MIT or a Stanford.

I wonder how they will evolve, how they’ll be improved. I noticed that neither of my Coursera courses stated course objectives, the way a corporate training program would. Is that an issue? Honestly, I’m not sure yet.

What are your experiences with MOOCs? How do you think the MOOC learning experience can be improved?

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