MOOCs: More than the Sum of their Parts

I finally got to star in my own MOOC!

Well, a mini-MOOC anyway.  Or a SPOC.  Or whatever you want to call what we previously called “online learning” before the MOOC phenom created a new set of categories with associated acronyms.

My course is actually an internal one for HarvardX that attempts to make the workshops and various lessons on MOOCs and assessment taught and learned during my six-month Fellowship at HX available to any new people who join the team.

The decision to turn that experience into a course on the edX platform was made pretty close to the end of that Fellowship, which meant that we had to make do with what we had (which consisted of some instructional material I wrote and videos of some but not all of the workshops given to the HX team over the last several months).

In other words, this was a MOOC (or whatever you want to call it) that was not planned from an early stage but rather one put together once we realized we had enough material to retro-fit into an online course.

The challenge with any project of this type is to try to pull together content created for different purposes into a coherent whole.  And while the technology allowed us to arrange existing written and video material in any way we liked, it was really the course choreography that made the final product truly more than the sum of its parts.

Fortunately, a written document originally designed as my primarily “leave behind” was pretty comprehensive, which is why we used that to anchor the course.  The alternative – anchoring the course in video lectures – was hampered by the fact that (as noted above) we only had recordings for some but not all of the material covered in the document.

Once we knew what we had, there were different ways to proceed.  We could try to match up chunks of reading with appropriate video lecture content we did have, for example.  But since the document was not an exact transcript of the workshops, this would have created an awkward product in which some reading was accompanied by video and some was not.

So instead we decided to make each “chapter” of the reading its own standalone part of a lesson, with appropriate excepts from existing lecture recordings following along that horizontal strip associated with edX course lessons.  In addition to pushing people towards learning from the most comprehensive component of the course (the reading), this allowed the video to supplement that reading rather than having to parallel it completely.

The HarvardX course lead I worked with also came up with the idea of including a lab at the end of each lesson which paralleled a set of assignments I gave her fellow program managers when the workshops originally ran live.  Combined with a brief final exam, these assignments will give students as much opportunity to put their learning to work as they like (or are told to complete).

It was also important that the course itself reflect the principles being taught.  So, in addition to giving students the opportunity to “strut their stuff” in labs and the final exam, those course components were all built around a set of learning objectives that flow through every course component (reading, video lectures, labs, questions in the final exam).

Those learning objectives are listed at the beginning of each lesson so that students understand up-front what they should be able to do by the end of a lesson.  And since this was a course in how to write quality assessments, the assessment items in the final exam had to reflect the lessons taught, including the rules for writing effective test questions and how to leverage remediation to make assessment part of the learning process.

This might seem like a lot of detail regarding a course most readers of this blog will never see.  But I wanted to highlight how a set of seemingly small decisions over how to organize learning resources not originally designed to serve as the building blocks of an online course can be choreographed to create something comprehensive and course-like.

This is a lesson anyone putting an online course together should keep in mind, including independent course developers working on platforms like Udemy (or whatever) who might not have a video production department and program management staff to fall back on.   For as important as expensive things like quality video might seem, they are no substitute for smart course design that delivers just the right learning components at just the right time.

And given how many of these learning components (reading, quality assessment, thoughtful assignments, etc.) do not require mega-bucks to produce, there is no reason everyone shouldn’t be looking at course choreography as a vital driver of quality.

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