MOOCs and (online) learning design

Yesterday I had the privilege to hear Daphne Koller speak at the Said business School, University of Oxford.  Daphne is one of the co-founders of Coursera.  This talk comes hot on the heels of my, frankly pathetic attempt to engage with the Open University’s OLDS MOOC on learning design.  At several points Daphne reminds us how new the MOOC phenomena is, with Coursera having just marked its first birthday on January 15th, and the first Coursera MOOCS came online in April 2012.  OCLSD’s own MOOC, First Steps in Learning in Teaching ran in May- June 2012, making it one of the first of this new generation of online courses.

As Daphne explains and illustrates the student experience on a Corsera MOOC, I’m struck by how different it is from both FSLT and the OLDS MOOC.  She is driven not only by a mission to build capacity in our sector such that all those who want access to higher education can have it, but also to improve the efficacy of our traditional online AND face to face courses.

As an educational developer, I found nothing new in Daphne’s summary of what makes for effective learning: good assignment rubrics, peer grading, building community, multiple attempts to practise, and interactive lecturing. The video lectures are short and interactive, and the courses are structured by multiple requirements to complete autograded and/or peer assessed assignments before proceeding. The Coursera MOOCS are underpinned by notions of active learning and mastery learning, with the aim of creating personalized learning experiences for each individual which will increase their chances of performing highly in course assessments.

Although the educational ideas are familiar to me, Coursera is doing two things differently.  First, they are taking the opportunity to bring the work of Benjamin Bloom and other educationalists to a massive audience. Discussions of Coursera MOOCs will provoke discussions about how students learn well, and that is of benefit to us all.  Daphne hopes educating this generation of teachers will make their f2f classes more active and interactive as well. Interestingly, the responsibility for learning design is placed firmly with staff, with Coursera providing a range of authoring tools for academics. This is the model we have favoured at Oxford Brookes for our blended and online course developments (instead of e.g. using instructional designers) so I’m interested to see what support Coursera find that their authors need.

Second, Coursera are monitoring student behaviors and using the data gathered to ‘provide a new window into human learning’.  For those following the learner analytics field, this is fascinating. Coursera are asking questions about everything. Should the instructor appear in the instructional video? (Yes).  Does sending students an email saying the deadline is tomorrow help retention? (It depends what’s in the email). At the moment this data is not being released publicly but it is given to the institutional course providers -so watch this space to see what else is revealed about how students interact with these courses.

Daphne started and finished the talk by explaining that MOOCs have been able to transform education because of two things that have come together at the same time. On the one hand there is a huge worldwide demand for access to a higher education system with limited capacity (she cited the stampede at course registration at the University of Johannesburg, where one woman died in her attempt to get her son a place). On the other hand, we finally have technology which is making access to higher education possible. Perhaps the growth of Coursera has been so dramatic because of the involvement of highly skilled technical developers who have been inspired to write code to eg allow students to vote on useful comments to bring them to the top of a discussion board for 100,000 students. They are now developing systems to authenticate assessments using webcams and biometrics.  The scientists and computer programmers who developed the first MOOCs for MIT understand what the technology can do in a way that educationalists don’t.

So what’s the future for Coursera? Daphne is looking for partner universities that teach in languages other than English, so that education can truly be accessible globally. Then there’s the financial question. Coursera are currently supported by venture capitalists. One revenue stream they are exploring for is licensing a Coursera course for an institution to run for its own students, probably in its own closed space. If that happens Coursera will have achieved far more than opening up education, it will have changed the experience of online learning for all university students, where their personalized learning designs made for massive courses will take us one step closer to individual tutoring for all.


Bloom, B.S. (1984) The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring, Educational Researcher, 13, 6

About the author

Rhona Sharpe

Rhona is Head of the Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development at Oxford Brookes University. Her interests are around developing and tutoring online courses, developing learners for a digital age, and  pedagogic research. Rhona is one of the co-founders of ELESIG (Evaluation of Learners’ Experiences of e-learning Special Interest Group), a Senior Fellow of the Staff and Educational Development Association, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and a National Teaching Fellow. She is Editor of the Brookes eJournal for Learning and Teaching.

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