On MOOCs & Students: What New Instructors Should Know

[In this post, I reproduce the collaborative document that I worked on with my PBL group mate Erik for Topic 2. It was our contribution to the learning blog our group PBL1 developed for Topic 2’s presentation.]

Dear colleague,

I’m glad to hear that you are interested in starting a MOOC at our institution. 
Indeed, there is no denying the potential of such a method for course delivery, in terms of its potential to reach a global audience. According to Shirky (2012) ,

MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system, in the same way phonographs expanded the audience for symphonies to people who couldn’t get to a concert hall, and PCs expanded the users of computing power to people who didn’t work in big companies.

However, there are a few things you will need to think through before you begin, namely the 
benefits and risks to your students with this approach. This article contains some relevant facts,theories and observations from the literature and from our own experiences, which we hope will be helpful to you as you plan your MOOC.

hese are key questions to address, not only for MOOCs but for any course or module:


  • What are the intended learning outcomes?
  • Who will be the primary target audience (what students do you think will join the MOOC)?
  • To what extent will this MOOC be ‘open’, i.e., will it be open to all learners, or will there be basic prerequisites set for enrolment?
  • To what extent are you familiar with the format of MOOCs, in particular its potential to engender improved learning gains amongst your students?


In terms of pedagogical design, it is even more important to think through these questions for MOOCs than for traditional courses, due to the MOOC’s ‘massive’ and ‘open’ nature which“allow an unlimited number of learners to take part in courses at their own pace, providing them with a huge amount of freedom over what to learn and when to learn” (Hadi & Rawson, 2016).While such accessibility and openness offers unprecedented freedom in learning, for educators it also means contending with great diversity among MOOC learners , in terms oft heir levels of maturity and experience (Guàrdia, Maina & Sangrà, 2013). In a poorly designed MOOC, this could result in a failure to maximise their potential, which can lead to low engagement and high dropout rates (Bali, 2014; Ho, Reich, Nesterko, Seaton, Mullaney, Waldo, & Chuang, 2014). According to Khalil and Ebner (2014), these high dropout rates could be due to several factors, including decreased levels of motivation, students feeling lost and isolated while going through the MOOC (perhaps due to the lack of face-to-face communication), or they have insufficient background knowledge in the subject matter.

Other key considerations include having an understanding of your target audience. This would 
encompass having a good understanding of your students’ learning motivations, and their level of digital literacy (Bates, A3). Research has shown that MOOCs are better for some students than for others. Those who benefit the most are the already mature students, and tend to be the ones that will need the least support. To help the weaker students you need to have a clear scaffolding  strategy (Bates, A.6), including feedback , counselling , and peer learning . Your, i.e,, the instructor’s presence as the student sees it, is critical for their success. This is especially true during the offset of the course. For a good start it has been recommended that you push the students to present themselves to each other, and that you monitor their presence.Early dropouts can sometimes be avoided by personal contact.
Good luck!


Bates, A.W. (2015). Teaching in a Digital Age: Guidelines for teaching and learning . Vancouver, BC:Tony Bates Associates Ltd.
Bali, M. (2014). MOOC Pedagogy: Gleaning Good Practice from Existing MOOCsOnline Learning and Teaching, 10 (1), 44-56. 

Guàrdia, L., Maina, M. & Sangrà, A. (2013).
MOOC Design Principles. A Pedagogical Approach from the Learner’s Perspective  . eLearning Papers, 33 , 1-6.
Hadi, S.M. & Rawson, R. (2016). Driving learner engagement and completion within MOOCs: a case for structured learning support Paper presented at the European MOOCs Stakeholder Summit.

Ho, A. D., Reich, J., Nesterko, S., Seaton, D. T., Mullaney, T., Waldo, J., & Chuang, I. (2014).
and MITx: The first year of open online courses. HarvardX and MITx Working Paper No. 1 .

Inamorato dos Santos, A., Punie, Y., & Castaño-Muñoz, J. (2016)
Opening up education: A support framework for higher education institutions . European Commission JRC Science for Policy Report.

Khalil, H. & Ebner, M. (2014).
MOOCs Completion Rates and Possible Methods to Improve Retention – A Literature Review. In Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications 2014 (1236-1244) . Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Petronzi, D. & Hadi, S.M. (2016).
Exploring the factors associated with MOOC engagement, retentionand the wider benefits for learners . EURODL (European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning) ,19 (2), 129-146.

Shirky, C. (2012).
Napster, Udacity and the Academy , accessed 2017.03.15
Weller, M. & Anderson, T. (2013). Digital resilience in higher education. EURODL (European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning), 16(1), 53-66.

What’s a PLN and do I have one?


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