Over the years and role changes I’ve used a variety of different VLEs. From Blackboard to FutureLearn, and from custom in-house developed VLE to customised large-scale MOOC platform. So, how important is familiarity when working, designing and developing on these platforms?

Firstly, are we talking about the familiarity I need to navigate the multitude of features and processes to get the course built and delivered? Or do we mean the familiarity the learner needs in order to have a smooth and tangible learning experience, whether they sit down and structure their learning or dip in as and when they can? Let’s try and deal with both.

Explain everything

  • For me: If you’re new to the platform it’s good to write notes to yourself as you do something new, work out how a feature works, etc. This is also a great resource for you or the rest of the team to open discussion around the how and why of particular approach to presenting a learning resource. Keep ideas, plans, design/colour schemes, times, asset library, etc. all in one place for easy reference. 
  • For the learner: Accept that the learner may not have read your carefully scripted course page or expensive course promo video and repeat it at the beginning of the course. The odds are that you put a lot of effort into that content so make sure it’s of use at the start of the course. It will need to be modified, you don’t need the marketing/promotional terminology here, so make sure it reads like the rest of the course (the ‘voice’ of the learning). Carry this approach to the whole course, not just the start: explain why you’ve included a video to watch and what the learner should think about while they watch it. Explain the structure of the course and what it means for their journey, and how the journey ends. And what happens after that. 

Structure and navigation

  • For me: A new platform will mean a lot of different, well, everything! Who hosts, manages or supports the platform? Who are they, where are they, when are they available? Make them your new BFF and ask for help as well as providing a fresh pair of eyes and offer feedback from your own experience on other platforms to see if you can provide efficiencies or development to improve. Always ask questions and always explain why, as well as showing them your results. 
  • For the learner: A consistent structure and navigation to the course will help the learner feel more comfortable and relaxed, therefore are more likely to retain the knowledge you’re presenting them with. As with the previous item, explain how the structure works, explain how to use the navigation, and above all keep the consistency of design that you’ve worked hard to develop. If you use colour of font size as a code of activity or resource identification, use it every time (you’ d be surprised how often I’ve seen inconsistencies, usually across courses rather than within the same course).

Example: FutureLearn navigation, Warwick’s ‘Leadership for healthcare improvement and innovation’.


  • For me: Personally I hate templates or a forced way of working, but the method and structure they offer are hard to ignore. There’s a reason why templates work and that, as I mentioned previously, provides a consistency across courses, programmes, and team members. if you’re working in isolation, then the template probably doesn’t make sense to you as you already know what you’re doing. If you working a part of a larger team then the template provides the working structure you all need to adhere to to get that consistency I talked about.
  • For the learner: The template should not be something the learner ever really notices. The template is there to provide a consistent learning experience for the learner. If it works they wont notice it. If it fails they’ll complain of not understanding what they should be doing, or when, or how, or why. The template will provide familiarity and structure.

Text and images

  • For me: Nothing bores me more than a course full of pages and pages of text, no visual cue at all as to what’s happening. If nothing else a well placed image showing the general theme or topic helps bring the page to life. While some subjects are clearly more visual than others, there’s no excuse for not using some Creative Commons or licensed images, a YouTube video also explaining the subject, concept, interview with an expert, educator, practitioner, etc. While we try and accommodate as many styles of presenting learning materials, and those materials often reach us from the educator in text form, we would not be doing our job if we didn’t try and find a visual solution to break the text blocks up, even if it’s only a different way of presenting the text.
  • For the learner: if the learner wanted to read a textbook to gain the knowledge and qualification from the course, they’d that. Often what one learner likes is not what another likes. While one person can read book after book and retain the knowledge easily many cant, me being one of them. The inclusion of different sorts of activities helps, but so do different approaches to presenting the learning materials: image, charts, photos, infographics, video interviews, to-camera teaching presentations, video case studies, high-profile documentaries (check the ownership and originality if you’re using these from YouTube), etc. There’s always a way to bring something visual to the course.

Example: Documentary – DHL International Supply Chain, loaded to YouTube by DHL.

… now make an activity out of it, introduce some questions that the video can help with but requires the learner to go further afield to find answers and more resources for. Make the image or video part of the learning, not the learning itself.


  • For me: If the whole team uses the term ‘page’ or ‘step’ to indicate a different element of a learning package, then be sure you all use that term. By using a variety of different terms to mean the same thing you will forever be translating instructions from one source to another for different things. Something will always get lost in the translation, mistakes will be made no matter how hard you try, and there will be more work down the line when you have to unravel the mess. Be sure the terms you use within the team are consistent (that word again) and appropriate. If you work with a new educator who’s used to different terms and ways of working then open the dialogue and work out what’s best – do they change to accommodate you and your team, or do you change your processes to accommodate them? Decide early on and stick to it! 
  • For the learner: No one wants to read a course that is heavy in jargon, acronyms, complicated academic terminology or badly presented materials. No one. Even if you’re writing for advanced Masters level students you should still use appropriate language, explain an acronym, and avoid jargon. You obviously don’t want to dumb the language down so it sounds like you’re being condescending to them, but there is a level that is acceptable. Find it, stick to it, and test it!

Familiarity in learning has always been about consistency – consistency in the approach to design and present the materials, consistency in language appropriate to the level of the course and the intended audience, consistency in quality of photos or images or videos, consistency in length of pages or steps. By being consistent in what you do and how you do it your course will also offer a consistency the learner will become accustomed to, which will bread familiarity and comfort with. From here it will be easier to follow the learning and complete the course.

Image source: Pete Birkinshaw (CC BY 2.0)

What’s next for MOOCs?

I’m not going to get in to the detail of whether MOOCs have been the disruptive element for learning as many opined four or five years ago, many have written much more eloquently on this than I ever could. For more just search for related terms or read this and this and this and this.

I will, however, pass a few words and a little judgement on one aspect of some of the developments I’ve been following for ‘online learning’ – accreditation. 

Firstly, has anyone else noticed that the original MOOC platforms don’t refer to the courses that are offered through them as MOOCs anymore? Even the platform that pushed ‘free online learning’ at every opportunity has dropped the ‘free’ from nearly all pages and courses. Obviously the ‘free’ business model was never going last long once the platforms realised that they had massive overheads to cover (staff, hosting, support, development, etc.), and that doesn’t cover the costs incurred by partners to develop the courses either.

For me online learning, whether it’s an degree awarded from an established College or University or a ‘free’ MOOC-esque course, has always been about the value the course is able to offer the student taking it. That value is both about the actual content and subject as well as the value the new knowledge has to the individual who has taken (and presumably passed) the course.

This value could be the

  1. personal satisfaction in gaining new or further knowledge,
  2. learning about a new skill or subject that has semi-professional interest (a subject at the periphery of the individual’s profession, but is not essential to it) or
  3. something that is specifically relevant to the individual’s immediate role or career progression.

Learning is but one side of the reason someone will invest time and effort into learning. The learning needs a purpose – undertake a course on Shakespeare because you’ve always like his plays and want to know more about the plays and playwright. A family member is diagnosed with dementia and you want to know and understand more about the condition, etc. This is all well and good, but people who take courses for these reasons are unlikely to buy any kind of certificate or further learning opportunity from it. They are likely to go on and take other related courses, again to further their understanding.

People who take online courses who are doing it for a professional purpose (changing job or role, career progression, professional interest, etc.) are more likely to purchase some form of certificate, but it’s still not guaranteed. I’ve taken (well, started!) a few MOOCs related to my job and interests, and finished one (the #EDCMOOC)! 

For me, the future of this kind of learning is what the course can really offer those people who complete it. A certificate is not enough – being able to show I completed 75% or 95% or another arbitrary number of the steps and all test questions means next to nothing. The certificate does not give any indication to whoever I show it to about what I had to do to get those steps completed or whether the test were 5 questions or 50. Did the course have an active educator or was it facilitated by an academic (not the course creator) or student from the partner institution? Was it facilitated at all, or just a click-next learning journey with a few tests or discussion points?. No, for me, if I’m going to pay for the course ‘certificate’ it needs to show something much much more. It needs to show how valuable it is to the industry I work in. Sometimes even the institution that created course isn’t enough pull for the certificate to mean anything.

A medical MOOC certificate would mean so much more if it was accredited by the International Council of Nurses, a marketing course accredited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, etc. Not only could / should the course offer the opportunity to earn valuable CPD points but the accredited course outcome should be something a current or future employer would look at and immediately see the value to them; that this candidate is coming to work here with a good resumé, has shown initiative by taking further learning opportunities and is showing the skills to find and evaluate the courses that will offer them the best opportunity to further themselves.

I don’t think the way forward for MOOCs is for degree-credits either but it’s a popular route, probably as it’s easier to sell to the University partners than anything else. Only time will tell. 

Adapting a MOOC for Research

Written by my colleague, Rachael Hodge, this article is a summary of our experience in identifying and developing research activities within the University of Warwick’s MOOC Literature and Mental Health.

The University of Warwick’s FutureLearn MOOC Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing, which began its first presentation February 2016, was identified as an opportunity to conduct some research into the course subject area, ‘reading for wellbeing’ or ‘bibliotherapy’. Since 2013, a substantial body of literature has emerged in the field of MOOC-related research, with the MOOC becoming both the subject of and vehicle for research. The research approach adopted in Literature and Mental Health was influenced by other, recent research studies conducted within MOOCs, and particularly by the first presentation of Monash University’s Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance FutureLearn MOOC, which distributed a stress survey to its learners in the first and final weeks of the course, to assess the efficacy of the course’s mindfulness practices. 

A number of reasons for trialling the use of this MOOC as a research tool were identified at the project’s outset. MOOCs give researchers access to large numbers of possible research participants, making MOOC research an attractive prospect, while the opportunity to gather valuable, potentially publishable data from free online courses may help to justify the time and resources expended during the production of new MOOCs. Several additional benefits of in-MOOC research were discovered during the process, including the potential for research activities to enrich the learner experience. However, a number of challenges and limitations were also encountered during the development of the study; the inevitable self-selection bias among MOOC learners, and the difficulty of establishing a control group within the MOOC activities, posed impediments to the gathering of useful, publishable data. 

Although we were aware of other MOOCs which had been used as vehicles for research, the process of adapting Literature and Mental Health for this research study was nonetheless an illuminating and instructive experience. The purpose of this paper is to reflect on that experience, and to consider the lessons learned during the process which may be useful in informing future research studies conducted via Massive Open Online Courses.

Hodge, R., (2016). Adapting a MOOC for Research: Lessons Learned from the First Presentation of Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing. Journal of Interactive Media in Education. 2016(1), p.19. DOI:http://doi.org/10.5334/jime.428

Image source: Judy Dean (CC BY 2.0)

Heuristic Learning & Shakespeare

I used to write about apps I used or liked as part of my work, or at least I recognised could aid me in my work, but have been remiss on this front for a while. So, with the urging of a few peeps on Twitter (thank you) I’ll start it up again.

This new app I’ve installed actually covers two loves – learning/reading and technology. In my role as eLearning Consultant at Warwick Business School I am responsible for the University of Warwick’s Shakespeare and His World MOOC. My involvement with this course and Professor Jonathan Bate has kick started my love of reading – I studied English Literature A-level. So here we have an app that’ll help me understand the use of technology (and see a fantastic new approach to tech that can aid learning) as well as the understand the Bard’s language.

Back in 2011 I wrote this post about how ebooks, even apps, could be used to greatly enhance the learning experience beyond just the basic text-and-note features the early e-readers offered. It seems it’s coming true (I wish the images in that post had survived a server & hosting service migration)?

Heuristic Shakespeare - The TempestHeuristic Shakespeare – The Tempest (iPad): Like many I find Shakespeare difficult to understand, sometimes just plain obscure. Through the MOOC mentioned above I have learned a lot more about Shakespeare’s influences in the time he wrote the plays (literary, cultural, personal, etc.) as well as the subtleties of his jokes and digs(and careful similarities) to the establishment. This app, therefore brings everything together and makes this one play, The Tempest, so much easier to understand, read, watch, and like.

“The Tempest from Heuristic Shakespeare is the first in a collection of thirty-seven separate apps. Each app is a tool for demystifying one of Shakespeare’s plays and making it more accessible to a modern audience. Sir Ian McKellen and Professor Sir Jonathan Bate take us on journey of discovery using the world-famous Arden Shakespeare texts and their extensive essays and notes. The apps function is to provide an essential aid to understanding and enjoying the plays in the theatre or on the screen.”

Heuristic Shakespeare – The Tempest $5.99 / £4.49

From the outset it is clear this app brings the very best of the internet (small ‘i’ these days) and learning. Not least the range of names and successful Shakespearean actors and scholars like Sir Ian McKellen and Prof Sir Jonathan Bate (both of who I worked with on another MOOC), but the way in which multimedia has been used to enhance the text, not replace it.

For those studying Shakespeare for any level of exam or are just an avid reader or Shakespeare lover this App is as good as any book or cheat-sheet note … if not better! If you ignore the videos where the actors read/act the play for you (a massive boost to my understanding – let the actors handle the difficulty of getting the pace, language and emphasis right, I can concentrate on the words and their meanings) the rest of the features are worth getting the app on their own – Shakespeare’s timeline, productions of the play, a copy of the First Folio pages, etc.

Note: I wont review each of the subsequent 36 apps, if indeed they do get round to them all, but suffice to say this approach is a quality one, offering everything I could ever have wanted when I was 16-18 and studying Shakespeare myself.

Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest 1  Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest 4

Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest 5

Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest 2  Heuristic Shakespeare The Tempest 3

Now on to the actually purpose of the App .. and it being called ‘heuristic’. For me a ‘heuristic’ learning experience is all about having the freedom or opportunity to use my experiences to discover or solve something myself. I may be led to the subject, question, or the problem, but the process of learning and solving or answering the question is for me to work out. I wont use, or even know, the best or most efficient process to use to do this, I’ll no doubt flounder around while i figure out what I need to be doing, but it’ll be my decision, my design process, and my skills that’ll take me through this and towards a solution.

And this is exactly what this App offers … the ability to use/choose what version of the play I want: either the text of the play, the pages from the First Folio, actors performing the words, understanding where the play. This is amazing and there should be more opportunities for people to learn like this, Shakespeare or not.

If you’re an English Literature teacher, or a student who’s used the App please let me know what you think of it? Did it help? What aspect of the App you found most useful, interesting, distracting, good for comprehension, good for revision, etc.?


How ‘long’ is too ‘long’?

For a few years now I’ve been spouting the same lines when it comes to planning a video for an distance learning course or MOOC: “preferably no more than 4 minutes, definitely no more than 6.” Anything more than 6 and we’d consider splitting it at a natural point in the subject, or working with the individual and their content and seeing where a natural break can be made, or other ways to shorten the video.

This has been supported by experience (from distance learning courses I’ve supported at both Bournemouth and Leicester University’s) and the MOOCs I’ve supported and developed while at Warwick, as well as articles like this.

As with everything, there is enough evidence to be found to support and to disprove it.

Yes, I agree that if you have a ‘teaching’ resource, where the academic/teacher is speaking to camera then there is an optimum length that someone will sit and be ‘talked at’, and this is where I see the 6 minute limit coming into play. These kinds of resources are often loaded to a VLE or a MOOC and as part of a set of resources for the topic or week’s subject area.

But there are other approaches to video content where I don’t see this working. What about case studies or mini-documentaries? What about a conversation, when a short 4 minute clip just isn’t enough to get in to the details? Do you still stick to the short-is-best message? In order for these to work you will often need to make it longer so the content and ‘message’ of the case study can be put across.

Let’s not forget, the video is nothing on it’s own. It must always be put into context for the student – why are you presenting the video for them to watch, what do you expect them to think about when they watch it, is there something they need to question as a result of the video (and/or linking it to other resources to build their wider knowledge about the subject area), can they critique the resource and present their findings back to the group, etc.?


Short, teaching video.
Taken from the Big Data course, this short video is a well-liked video of Associate Professor Suzy Moat talking directly to you, the student. It’s a great example of the personal approach you can still achieve from a 4 minute video, carefully planned and edited

Measuring happiness with Twitter and Facebook

Big Data: Measuring happiness with Twitter and Facebook – click to watch on FutureLearn. You can’t see the comments on this step unless you were enrolled on the course (April, 2015)

Long, non-teaching video.
Taken from the Literature and Mental Health MOOC, again from my work at the University of Warwick, this is a 26 minute in-depth conversation between Professor Jonathan Bate and Stephen Fry. No ‘teaching’ takes place here, but a clear and engaging learning resource, in the form of a conversation, where two extremely knowledgable and passionate authors discuss poetic form:

We did try and see what we could edit from this in to a shorter clip for the core materials on the MOOC, whilst making this full version available to those who were interested enough. Then we thought ‘stuff it’, this is excellent as it is, with the ebb and flow of the conversation between them just a pleasure to watch and integral to the learning experience from this resource.

In this example, the students on the MOOC watched the video and reflected on their own interpretation of poetic form, of specific poems, of the love of poetry to relax and ‘meditate’ for their mental wellbeing. The sharing and social aspect of the video, and the strength of camaraderie they shared together on this single resource. This resource, in the first week of the MOOC, had 1,400 comments on it!

Short, non-teaching video.
We have also used a mixture of both the above – taken a long interview and provided a shortened version for the students and the fuller version on YouTube, for those interested in more detail, background, and more depth to the work. In this example we have an interview with Professor Steve Koonin, which was 11 minutes in total, and we produced a more concise 4 minute version and directed the learner to the long version if they were interested.

What happened was that the majority of students who left a comment on the video started by saying to ignore the short one (loaded to FutureLearn) and watch the full version on YouTube instead! There were five of these in total in the course, and each time students referred their colleagues to the longer ones, often saying they’d have loved to have more!

Interview with Professor Steven Koonin

I have heard the argument before, when asking for the context of the video, that you “don’t get that on YouTube” so the students shouldn’t expect it on the VLE. Yes, but YouTube is not a structured learning environment and often, if you’re directing the students to the YouTube video you’d be telling them why. Again, the YouTube video on it’s own is nothing without the purpose of why you’ve given it to the students to watch it … !

For me the length of the video is never the issue. The video should be relevant and to the point, whether it’s an interview, conversation, or presentation, or a teaching style video that needs to get a particular theme or concept across. I will watch, and I realise this is ‘me’, two minutes or 20 minutes of a ‘learning resource’ if I am engaged and I see a purpose to it. If it becomes just waffle or filler or clearly does not have direct relevance to why I’ve been asked (there we are again – context) to watch it, then you’ve lost me and I’m on to something else.

Lecture capture
Lastly, let me cover the subject of lecture capture – I recognise the video approaches above are far higher quality of resource and enterprise that went in to creating them, but the above does not mean there isn’t a place for lecture capture in online and campus based courses because there is.

If a two-hour lecture isn’t stimulating when you sit and watch it at home, then odds are it isn’t for those sitting in the lecture hall itself either. That’s not a fault of lecture capture or the technology; it’s more something the lecturer needs to address. No one would blame students in the lecture that was being filmed for letting their minds wander and for working on something else at some point, so surely it’s fine for those at home to do this too. Those watching the recording have the added benefit of pausing the stream for a break, email, message, etc. and can come back when they’re focussed again. Those watching the archive can re-watch the same section again and again if they like until they’ve understood the section that they couldn’t understand before, or couldn’t hear, or missed due to any other kind of distraction.

There is a place for all these types of video resources, whatever their length. Just so long as it’s relevant. Always relevant.

Image source: David Hopkins (CC BY-NC 2.0)

MOOCs – question on purpose, quality, student retention, feedback, etc.

Ahh, questions around the purpose, quality, value, etc. in and around MOOCs have started again, and justly so.

  • Disclaimer: Like many I have opinions, but not answers.

The recently raised questions, started by Fred Riley on the ALT mailing list, have produced a good set of resources for those of us who are starting to ask these questions, needing a more comprehensive or value-added answer.

Fred’s original query was:

Does anyone on this list know of any recent research and/or articles on the teaching quality of MOOCs? I’m thinking of things such as:

  • student retention, with MOOC drop-out rates being notoriously high (I plead guilty to that myself :( )
  • student surveys and qualitative feedback
  • how many students in a MOOC platform (eg FutureLearn) go on to take further courses in that platform

I’m sure that there are many other indicators of quality – those are just off the top of my head. I’m not in the MOOC game myself as yet, other than as a punter, but I’m looking to get into the development side of things.

In some instances, especially around the data of students/learners taking further courses (across MOOC platform providers as well as within) is difficult, but I hope we can get to a stage where this kind of data is available and open to interrogation (if only for the individual partner to  query their own courses).

Here are some of the resources shared, in response to Fred’s original query:

If you have any further links or resources that would help Fred and the ALT mailing list, please reply to the thread on the mailing list. If you don’t have access then please leave the link or your comment below for everyone to have the opportunity to read.

Yes, OK. Fred’s question also raises the question around the ‘quality’ of a MOOC, the validity in the data of learner retention or ‘steps completed’ as triggers for saying a MOOC is of a certain quality, or the student was ‘successful’ on the course, but these are for another post. Fred answered this quite clearly on the ALT mailing list that, for him “retention is IMO and indicator of quality as perceived by the student – the better retention, the more students are engaged with the course and its materials. If they don’t like a course, they’ll drop out.”

NB: I’ve helped run several runs of the Warwick/FutureLearn ‘Shakespeare and his World’ MOOC and use this as an example I use where the statistics provided for the 10 week course don’t necessarily match the actual experience. Case in point is the number of learners who complete the course, in that they take all the tests and mark at least one step as complete in each of the 10 weeks. We know from the learners themselves, from their comments, feedback, tweets, etc., that they take what they want from the course – one learner may only like Shakespeare’s comedy’s, another likes on his tragedy’s, so they will omit the plays/weeks they don’t like. They should still be viewed as a successful learner, and I’;m sure they think that of themselves, as in their own mind (and in ours!) they got what they wanted from the course, yet did not actually ‘complete’ it.

If there is one question for 2016 and MOOCs, it’s whether there is any way to really truly, honestly, understand the ‘value’ of a MOOC?

Image source: State Library Victoria (CC BY-NC 2.0)

MOOCs and ‘facilitation’

What are your thoughts on this – moderation and/or facilitation of MOOCs?

Considering the time, effort, and cost of developing these free courses (more information is available here or here or here, among other sources), what are your thoughts on how we manage the course, the comments and discussion during the run, and the subsequent comments and discussion during re-runs?

Do you have support, from technical and/or academic backgrounds monitoring the course to keep comments on track and answer pertinent questions? Are these paid positions or part of their role? Do you actively check the comments? If so, what for, why, and what do you do?

Do you design-in an element of real-time collaboration on the course (facilitation of discussion, round-up videos, Google Hangouts, etc.), and if so are these sustainable over multiple runs of the course? If you’ve done these before, but then designed them out of the course for re-runs, why?

All comments and feedback welcome – I’m trying to understand how we move MOOCs forward and maintain institutional ‘control’ where there is little (financial) reward.

Image source: Greg Johnston (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Reading: Open Badge’s and MOOCs #openbadges

Badges continue to interest me, and the development of open badges in online courses and commercial/corporate settings seems to be gaining momentum?

However, the bottom line is that conditions have changed (i.e. progressive mobility worldwide, as well as the increasing need for recognition of migrants’ qualifications). While some authors warn about the risky “inflation of educational credentials” others go even further claiming that “The university has already lost any claim to monopoly over the provision of higher education” (Duke, 1999). The initiatives described here are still in an embryonic stage but at the same time are promising in terms of new possibilities for more flexible tools and, as @daveowhite suggests, they provide new currencies that can redesigning the economy of talent (find more in UNESCO UIL or the EU ESCO).

As I always say, badges will not be suitable for everyone, nor every situation or course, or learning journey(s). But they do have a place in demonstrating acquisition of skills, in a carefully implemented and designed environment, for a specific and define purpose. Whether the display of the badge itself is part of the reason we strive to earn it is part of the value associated with the badge and is something for others to argue (but I am keenly interested in the outcome and arguments).

Image source: Alan Levine (CC BY 2.0)

Reading: Digging Deeper into Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs

One aspect of working on MOOCs is that there is no clear way to measure it’s success. Do you use the stats and logs that indicate clicks and time-on-page, or look at the nature of the conversations and/or comments made?

That’s why this paper loaded to Academia.edu by George Veletsianos piqued my interest – is there something in here that can help me understand the metrics we need to use in order to measure the learning and/or success of a MOOC?

“Digging Deeper into Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs: Participation in social networks outside of MOOCs, Notetaking, and contexts surrounding content consumption.”

Unsurprisingly the authors highlights the lack of literature around MOOCs that look into the metrics of MOOCs that are not captured on the MOOC platform (EdX, Coursera, FutureLearn, etc.), notably the social engagements, note-taking, and content consumption. Something I’d not considered before is the “availability of large-scale data sets appears to have shaped the research questions that are being asked about MOOCs.”  It’s something I’ve wrestled with … are we asking the right questions about a course ‘success’, and do we have the right data to start with? I think not, on both counts. I would love to know more from learners on a MOOC, but the response rate on post-course surveys are typically low, typically completed by the ones who finished the course and enjoyed it. It’s the learners who signed up and didn’t visit the course, those who did visit the first step but then left, and those who dipped in and out that I really want to hear from. They have as much to say about the course, it’s content, it’s delivery, and it’s ‘merit’ as those who completed.

The paper concludes, rather disappointingly, by saying that “researchers need to dig deeper, and use an array of methodological tools to do so. Separately or together, each research method can lead to pragmatic suggestions to improve open teaching and learning through social, pedagogical, or technological approaches.” I shouldn’t be too surprised with the conclusion as there isn’t a good metric to define a MOOC or online courses’ success – it depends on what you define as the success (numbers of learners enrolled, numbers of learners completing, passed assessments, duration of study, post-course questionnaire, course reach, etc.)

Veletsianos, G., Collier, A., & Schneider, E. (2015). Digging Deeper into Learners’ Experiences in MOOCs: Participation in social networks outside of MOOCs, Notetaking, and contexts surrounding content consumption. British Journal of Educational Technology 46 (3), 570-587

Image source: Gabe Rosiak (CC BY 2.0)

What makes a good online learning experience?

Is it possible to define the qualities of what makes a good online learning experience, or a good MOOC? Is there a check list we could have pinned to the wall which we could use as we design and build our courses?

Here’s a few items I think the list needs, feel free to add your own ideas in the comments field below:

Presentation: Is the student able to relate to the subject and the presenter / educator? This is not always easy as the platform (Blackboard, Moodle, FutureLearn, Udacity, etc.) often controls how the materials are ‘presented’. Even with these constraints you do have options on designing your materials and laying them out in ways which make them easy to navigate or interact with. 

Accessible: Yes, there is web accessibility, but there is also ‘how easy is it to find your way around the materials’. Are there signposts in place at different points of the course to extra reading, areas for interaction and engagement, contact details, schedules, assessment points, etc.?

Interaction: You will probably have specific pinch-points in the course where you have designed and expect interactivity, but remember that students may want to interact or comment on other resources as they work their way through your materials. Consider adding functionality to enable students to do this (a dedicated forum for questions,or comments on each step?) and that someone from the course team will monitor these areas and is ready (and able?) to reply where necessary.

Connection: Remember that your students are not only geographically dispersed, but will have a range of learning styles, backgrounds, and availability. Not everyone can join your online chat or webinar at a certain time every week (it’s likely they work and have family commitments that take priority), just like they may not be able to access materials due to firewall issues. Distance learning students often say they don’t feel connected or part of the University or course because of these distances, so think about including some getting-to-know-you or group activities, give them opportunities to meet each other (virtually) and grow their own learning network (PLN).

Build for online: Re-using the same materials and design for an online course that you teach face-to-face will probably not work. Your existing materials and activities are designed with you as a focal point, where you can introduce, explain, highlight, and support students in a real-time environment. Online, things are different. Students will access and interact with the materials and each other asynchronously, therefore there will be delays between posts, requests, etc. of days or even weeks. Providing a link to a resource (PDF, PPT, etc.) should not be done even with face-to-face students (contextualise it, explain what it is and why they need it) and it’s even worse for learners at a distance: introduce each step and resources, explain what it is and why the student needs it, and provide an action to it (read, discuss, critique, analyse, share, etc.) to give it meaning.

Platform: Know what functionality your platform has (Blackboard, Moodle, FutureLearn, Udacity, etc.) and what you can use, where, and why. Consider each tool you’ll use to present materials as well as ask for engagement, and be sure the students have adequate instruction to use them if they’re new. Don’t use every tool in the box for the sake of making the course seem ‘modern’ or ‘interactive’ if there is no reason to do so. At the same time don’t ignore the tools available to you, just because you don’t know what they do – go find your Learning Technologist (or equivalent) and work with them during the process of designing your course – they’ll help you think about different tools or techniques available, explain what benefits they can offer you and your students, and help you implement and support them.

Value: For some this will be value of resources, for others it’ll be quality of videos produced and used. Consider each stage of the course, each resources you’ve included (core or recommended) and think about whether it is adding value to the learning experience, or not. If it’s going to cause a distraction, drop it. if it’s interesting but tangental to the learning journey, then consider moving to an area that students can go if they want more information.

Visual elements: Don’t forget that images or diagrams  (infographics?) can help showcase an idea, concept, or theory just as much as words can. Not everything need an image, but something that could link or help structure the course materials may well aid students and their understanding of the subject.

Journey: The learning journey should not just be about getting from the start to the assessment (and passing). There should be goals set at different pinch points where students can show understanding or critical evaluation of themselves and the materials. I prefer courses that don’t have exams (that’s because I always did badly under exam conditions) and alternative ways of assessment should be explored. Admittedly there are restrictions on what you can and can’t do with assessments that are possibly based on the platform, programme, or QAA (Quality Assurance Agency), but we shouldn’t stop thinking about improving and enhancing the learning journey and learning experience with different assessment methods.

Time: Do you make resources and materials available all at once or release them over a published time frame? Do you allow students to work ahead of the rest or keep them back so they engage at the same time as everyone else? Do you have objectives or webinars that require synchronous learning; what do you do if these don’t meet with individual and personal schedules? Do you provide alternatives?

Testing: Never underestimate how much time testing your course should take, and always get someone who has not worked on it to try it out. Test links, embedded media, tools, logins, interactions, assessments, etc. from both the view of how the students will view and interact with them, and how the course team (academic and administrative) will support your students.

What makes a good online course?

Image source: Kristina Alexanderson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)