How to make a MOOC

We are about a month away from launching our two courses, Ideas of the 20th Century and Age of Globalization in the edX platform. My role is a combination cheerleader, advocate, dreamer, learner, fundraiser, marketer, promoter and producer, and sometimes project task master. All of our roles in this venture have been in flux; although we worked very hard to define them in the onset in written form with frequent verbal confirmation. At the center are our faculty, John Hoberman and Daniel Bonevac, who are truly the guiding authors of these courses and who are investing a tremendous amount of themselves in this effort. There are at least a dozen people working on our courses at any given time; with many more giving support from the top down and coming in and out of the picture on a periodic basis. Making a showcase xMOOC is clearly a massive effort.

This past week has been all about file management. If you ever have produced anything on the web, you know how important clear file naming conventions are. When you have multiple people working on a multiple projects, each with literally thousands of digital assets, if you can’t determine what is what and what goes where, you can’t separate the work load in such a way that people can be working on parallel tracks at the same time. In the past, we’ve had much more time to develop online course materials. Because our team at LAITS has been doing this type of work with faculty for over 10 years, we were ready to take on this challenge, even though we weren’t really expecting it.

Each course has an average of 60 9-to-13 minute original instructional videos custom created over the past 5 months. They all need to be shot, edited, enhanced with visuals, and transcribed for captioning. These aren’t lecture capture from a classroom (although both our faculty have been teaching these subjects in the classroom for many years). They’ve been completely re-imagined for this format. There will also be hundreds of quiz questions, in sets of 3 for self-assessment for each video, plus more challenging questions for evaluative assessment. Plus, there are various readings, discussion, and essay questions with rubrics that need to be compiled into the still very new edX learning management platform. And the instructional teams who will be deploying the courses in the Fall need time to get familiar with the content and the software so that they can support the faculty who will be delivering the course.

We’re very much on target to deliver these courses starting September 1. Looking back, there are a few lessons from a pure project point of view that could be learned:

  1. The adjustment for faculty from working independently or with one or two Teaching Assistants to working with a large team of professional instructional technologists is immense. You have to create a very strong atmosphere of trust, and you have to communicate roles, timelines and expectations very clearly, and revisit them frequently.
  2. While we had lots and lots of planning sessions, we would have benefited from more detailed pre-scripting of the content; at least in a project level. It was very important this first time for the professors to have the freedom to rewrite on the fly in the studio and to be involved hands on in the editing process, even though it takes extra time. If they were to do another course in the future, I think we all could better prepare from what we know now.

But of course, these are true of just about any new endeavor. As my personal background includes a lot of emphasis on the creation of new work in the arts, I’m okay with this level of uncertainty in roles. I do think that every project, even our two courses, are completely unique. But change makes some people uncomfortable: like giving actors new lines the day before opening. Still, I feel we have developed shared vision for what is going to make these particularly courses good; for the faculty, it’s for students to understand and apply a certain set of content and concepts that they are presenting in quite original treatments. For us as the production staff, it’s that the material reflects this vision and “works” to keep the students engaged.

Our primary metric of success for these MOOCs is that 15% or more of the students enrolled complete the course. With over 40,000 students already, that would be over 6000 students earning their certificate of completion from edX. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

You could look at this entire project as an empirical experiment. If we achieve our goal, what are the methods and modalities of instruction that contributed to our success? What variables are at play? If we don’t succeed, what might we change to make it better in the future? There is so much data that’s going to be available…

Making a MOOC right now is a lot like making an experimental research study. It seems wise, for the moment, to approach the innovation of technology enhanced teaching in this way.