40 Tips for running an Open Online Course or MOOC from those who have experienced them

To coincide with the announcement of a new Learning Design MOOC (now confirmed as starting in January 2013) some of those registering have been invited to tell us about their previous experiences of participating, or helping organise, open online courses. Information about MOOCs can be difficult to come by, so the thirty-five responses we have received so far (which cover 50 separate experiences of 25 different MOOCs) represents a really interesting dataset.

In the survey we asked people about what they had liked and disliked about the MOOCs they had been involved with, what the MOOC did well and not so well, how the issues they had encountered could be resolved and what advice they would give to others planning a MOOC. I’ve taken these responses and attempted to express these as a series of tips – each tip based directly on one or more pieces of advice, suggestions or experiences reported by the survey respondents.

If you would like to add your experiences to those already contributed, please visit the survey. Also, as this survey represents the first stage in a broader schedule of monitoring and evaluation for the MOOC, watch out for further reporting over the next six months.

So here are 40 Tips for running a MOOC (in no particular order)…

1. Be clear about what type of MOOC you are planning  – there is no one way of doing a MOOC for, just like any course, it may draw on constructivism, instructivism,  connectivism etc. (or any combination). Be clear about the pedagogy even if just within your design team.

2. Ensure a balance between the suggested activities (those you have designed) and time allowed for participants to develop/build from them

3. Ensure the course rewards participation – some will be motivated by the promise of awards such as badges or certificates however for others the benefit of an enriching experience, helping others, social interaction over a share interest, or better understanding themselves may be as, if not more, important.

4. Ensure the course mechanics/design focuses on achieving a coalescing or binding together of knowledge  – so as to avoid a spiralling fragmentation of posts, content and participation and generating what one respondent termed ‘too much noise’

5. Consider the expectations and skills of those who will be involved what are the prerequisite skills required? At what point might the degree of difference between participants become an issue?

 6. Provide ‘plenty of structure’ in terms of activities, group working and website organisation/navigation yet also ensure such structure is not a constraint for those who want to go further or to reorganise knowledge in different ways. Consider the negative impact on motivation some feel during scripted courses and, conversely, others feel during very ‘open’ courses

7. Consider future participants as well as current participants will the post, tweets, links etc make sense to someone new visiting the site in 6 months time? Will the course really be ‘open’ across time as well as open geographically at the time it takes place?

8. Expect a high-drop out rate low barriers to entry may also mean low barriers to withdrawal or lower tolerance thresholds). Take the opportunity to reflect on what a drop-out rate of 50% or 90% of registrations would mean for your course, for the participants registering on the course and your own educational mission/purpose in organising it.

9. Create a sense of closure at the end of the coursefor example, as one respondent suggests ‘an assessment, a designed activity or summary podcast’.

10. Build in the potential to scale-up (in terms of numbers), reach further (in terms of accessibility and portability) and be sustained (repeated in future)

11. Keep the pace and depth of topics higher than traditional face to face courses – and in making this change, ensure you recommend or estimate how long tasks should take

12. Determine and communicate a vision for how different forms of knowledge will be handled and privileged within the courseare some forms of knowledge more authoritative? Do anecdotal opinions carry equal weight to empirical published research?

13. Don’t underestimate the preparation required

14. Be clear about your objectivesseveral respondents made this point complaining of objectives that were ‘too broad’, ‘not clearly defined’, ‘esoteric’  or even absent.

15. Balance learning tasksthe OULDI Task Profiler tool uses seven categories: assimilative, information handling, communicating, productive, experiential, adaptive, and assessment. Using it, you can create a bar-chart representation of the balance across your course.

16. Provide opportunities in learning tasks for interactive engagement

17. Adopt a team based approach to design

18. Where possible, communicate to participants what aspects are considered essential and desirablethis practice was found lacking in at least four major MOOCs. Reports of feeling ‘overwhelmed’ are quite common so plan for a hierarchy of engagement – additional resources but only for those who want to ‘opt-in’ and go deeper but also a ‘base’ spine.

19. Expect and plan for Plagiarismsurprisingly, even in courses where learning activities are purely there to help the individual learn, people will copy and paste.

20. Ensure very communicative guides-on-the-side who have good facilitation and motivational skills respondents liked ‘good’, ‘engaging’, ‘charismatic’ and ‘professional’ lecturers and facilitators just as much as they disliked poor ones.

21. Provide feedback and be active and busy during the course respondents value formative and summative feedback (be this individual comments or collective feedback in, for example, a weekly round-up)

22. Expect the participants to expect you to provide support and moderationfor example as regards technical issues, organisational issues and in resolving conflicts.

23. Avoid changing the course mid-flow / Keep deadlines fixedi.e. avoid adjusting assessment deadline in response to only a few people submitting or changing dates for live sessions at short notice.

24. Be clear about what facilitators are expected to dosome facilitators may become overwhelmed or feel ‘responsible for everyone’s wellbeing’ so provide clear guidance about roles and what to do if participants begin to demand too much

25. Keep live/online sessions short – live sessions that last two hours, even one hour, are often considered too long. Greater concentration is required for online sessions and therefore people tire more quickly.

26. Have a clear, stated reason for all synchronous sessionbe clear about the value of having everyone there in person because attending session can be difficult for those in other time-zones, who are working, or who have other commitments.

27. If seeking a global audience, consider offering several synchronous sessions so as to allow for different time zones

28. Advertise sessions well in advanceand make sure participants know where to look on the website for information and updates about them so they can plan their attendance

29. Sessions are able about discovering other people as well as other contentif you’re lucky you may get feedback like this: ‘the chats are really open-minding, educative and give you the opportunity to get to know other people from other countries and get attached to their cultures…’

30. Keep your communication steady and measuredas one respondent said ‘don’t bombard participants with too much [by way of] push emails etc but keep communication to a steady schedule with regularity.’

31. If using groups provide initial groupings and make it easy to self-organise  – there was more than one suggestion from respondents that the course managers should automatically assign groups to those who want to work in one (if group work is part of the course that is). To help participants self-organise it was suggested lists of who is currently ‘actively’ participating could be provided. One respondent suggested the design should allow for the failure of groups or those only able to study my themselves.

32. If using groups, plan for the greater complexity of group working and group dynamics even building and working in a group in the same building can be a challenge. Doing the same for people who have never meet, live thousands of miles apart and potentially have very different expectations or motivations for the course presents additional challenges

33. Think very carefully before using peer gradingif used work out carefully how it will be done and what support is required including whether plagiarism software should be available

34. Be clear where the main home page is this may be especially important if you are using several platforms to run the MOOC

35. Provide a central place where interaction and discussions can easily take place

36. Keep the course schedule up to date

37. Give guidance on how peer support should work and ensure all participants are aware of it also provide guidelines for self-regulation and acceptable behaviour.

38. Provide supports to help participants develop their skills in participating in these new styles of course – ensuring a positive experience for ‘newbies’ was an issue mentioned by several respondents. The OpenED Open Online course provided a number of supports including an introductory module aimed at walking new comers through some of the basics. Also think about how new comers are to be welcomed, how they get involved even once the course has ‘started,’ and if you need examples of the quality of work expected.

39. Don’t assume that all participants are at the same level of understanding of the tools one respondent entreated course organisers to ‘give instructions based on the lowest common denominator’

40. Consider the fact that participants are ‘used to seamless facebook-style integration’whilst unfair, it is perhaps unavoidable that such comparisons will be made. Determine what level of ‘polish’ your audience will tolerate and review what aspects of the site may appear clunky, inaccessible or unprofessional.

3 Responses to 40 Tips for running an Open Online Course or MOOC from those who have experienced them

  1. Simon – these tips are great – should be required reading for course designers. I would add this:

    41. Life is full of tradeoffs (e.g. ‘brilliant course’ vs ‘shipping it soon’): don’t spend so long perfecting your approach to the previous 40 tips that you miss the boat.

    A great example of the ‘do it now and see how it goes’ is personified by Prof Keith Devlin of Stanford who has created a very interesting Mathematics course on Coursera while actively blogging about his trials and tribulations at http://mooctalk.org/ He’s no learning theorist, but that’s precisely the point – his reflections are worth a lot, and he’s having a large impact. Sure, everyone is going to reinvent numerous wheels, but that makes for a great ‘evolutionary stew’!

    FYI I don’t really follow the OER/MOOC literature these days – this was a random ‘dip in the water’ by a longtime/passionate OU evangelist, who has also enrolled in some Coursera courses (very enjoyable).

    Best wishes,


  2. Amy Brown says:

    From the perspective of a MOOC participant, I’d say that if these rules were followed, MOOCing would be better all-round. Here are a few of my extra comments on specific points:

    Number 14, ‘Be clear about your objectives’ is particularly important and it fits with many of the other points, such as 26 ‘Have a clear, stated reason for all synchronous sessions’. There should be a clear reason for everything that is included in the course and the students should be able to clearly see why things are included and why they are doing it.

    In relation to that, I would go further than 31 & 31 (about group work). I think informal group work should be encouraged but I think course designers should think long and hard about whether structured group work (for want of a better name) is really necessary. In my experience, students with similar interests or from similar locations flock together given the space and opportunity to do so. I took a Coursera MOOC, for example, found a group of people from or related to my country in the forum and we all helped each other out and offered support and ideas. There was no official group work in the course but there was lots of it going on because the space was there for it to happen.

    Finally, about the dropout rate (Number 8), there are clearly going to be high-drop out rates when there are such a wide range of people doing low-stakes courses, and in many cases, there will be nothing the course organizers could have done to keep the students on the course. However–please forgive my idealistic teacher voice here–I still think that educators hold a responsibility to think about problems students might meet and to put measures in place to minimise them where possible. For example, if you have people signing up to your course from all over the world, you should probably ask yourself if you are doing enough to make the language accessible for that kind of audience. Are you adding subtitles/providing transcripts for all your video/audio material? Are you avoiding using idiomatic language that is often highly specific to a certain culture? Just like any regular course, you are more likely to keep your students if you have considered who is going to take it and have made efforts to make it as accessible as possible for them.

  3. Pingback: MOOC as disruptive technology | Learner Weblog

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