Screenshot of Coursera page for E-learning and Digital Cultures course

MOOC pedagogy: the challenges of developing for Coursera

In the summer of 2012 the team of teachers and researchers associated with the MSc in E-learning programme at the University of Edinburgh began developing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) for the Coursera platform.  Launched only a year earlier, this for-profit company founded by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller has focussed primarily on hosting computer science related courses from big name US institutions.  The recently announced partnership with the University of Edinburgh presented the team with an opportunity to engage and experiment with the much-publicised MOOC format, and foreground issues related to the theory and practice of online education itself.  What follows are some of our perspectives on the planning and development of a large scale open course, what challenges the MOOC presents for delivering a worthwhile educational experience, and what questions this type of course format provokes for a team already teaching and researching in the field of e-learning and technology in higher education.

Designing for MOOCs

Devising a course to utilise the potential educational advantages of the Coursera platform proved, and is still proving, to be a complex undertaking.  The MSc in E-learning programme at the University of Edinburgh has actively pushed the boundaries of what might be possible with digitally-mediated education within the context of more-or-less conventional accredited courses for a number of years.  The team develop and teach fully online courses that already engage with open and collaborative practices, though with class sizes which have never risen above 40. For us, the MOOC format, while foregrounding some long-established debates in e-learning, also provokes what may be new questions about the contemporary project of higher education and its pedagogies.

Firstly there is the issue of digital mimicry.  The Coursera platform, alongside rival Stanford start-up Udacity and the non-profit venture ‘edX’ from Harvard and MIT, currently hosts courses that are broadly conservative in terms of online educational practices.  All of these MOOC platforms appear to justify their status by promoting curricula that are equivalent to campus-based courses, with a strong focus on content delivery and an emphasis on the rigor and formality of their assessment methods.  However, some of the most interesting and innovative practices in online education have emerged by challenging these very ideas; loosening institutional control of learning outcomes and assessment criteria, shifting from a focus on content delivery to a foregrounding of process, community and learning networks, and working with more exploratory assessment methods – digital and multimodal assignments, peer assessment and group assignments, for example.

For a team who are often concerned with questioning the uncritical emulation of conventional offline practices in the digital domain, there seem to be opportunities here to experiment with the Coursera platform to productively challenge prevailing course models.  There are of course precedents for this out there already in the ‘connectivist’ MOOCs, which tend to be driven by a strong commitment to collaboration and by a concern with the nature of learning and how it works online. However, they have tended to be populated by committed e-learning enthusiasts and remain untested as vehicles for delivering alternative, less ‘reflexive’ subject matter.  The promotion of self-assessment and open curricula in the ‘connectivist’ MOOCs, while pedagogically interesting, may not fit so well across other disciplines, and thus it remains on the radical fringes of what the higher education sector might be prepared to more fully endorse.

The question of scale also highlights another core issue we have been concerned with in our conventional online teaching – that of contact and dialogue between tutors and students, and between students themselves. We would hold that this is what drives good online education: contact may be heavily mediated, but it is still there, and it is still the key determinant of generative teaching and high levels of student satisfaction. (Our ‘Manifesto for teaching online’ culminates in this point). How can the notion of ‘contact’ operate with the high enrolment numbers typically participating in MOOC courses?  These huge numbers, often in the region of hundreds of thousands, are publicised enthusiastically by Coursera, Udacity and edX alike.  And despite the reports of low retention rates, many of these MOOCs appear to maintain participant numbers well in excess of even the most popular campus-based courses, or indeed most distance and online programmes.  It seems at present that sustained and personal engagement on the part of tutors with course participants is impossible in such a context, and Coursera themselves recommend an approach that borders on course automation.

Within this scenario, the persona of the course tutor can become more that of a celebrity with an almost talismanic status than a present, real teacher. In our conventional online teaching we’ve worked hard to maintain and build the role of the teacher in the face of a tendency – driven by a sometimes uncritical emphasis on learner-centredness – to push the role into the background. So we are keen to avoid both the over-celebratory fetishizing of the teacher associated with some MOOCs, and the tendency to see the technology as allowing us to write the teacher out of the equation altogether. We want to explore how a MOOC pedagogy might work with a construction of the teacher that has an immediacy that can succeed at scale.

Why do it?

MOOCs have received overwhelming media attention over the last year, and some of the expectations surrounding them are being over-hyped and oversold. But our view is that while MOOCs and the open education movement generally may not achieve everything – the democratisation of education, or the freeing of the world’s knowledge – they can achieve something. They can open up good teaching and interesting curricula to new groups of learners; they can help draw students into higher education who might otherwise not have ventured there; they can engage unprecedented numbers; and they can be a vehicle to continue to push at our collective notions of what constitutes the educational project. These things are important, and can only be explored by engaging with the movement positively.

We also feel it’s an important opportunity to participate in an emerging pedagogical mode that is significantly under-theorised.  The University of Edinburgh’s partnership with Coursera presents us with an opportunity to research the new and sometimes uncomfortable territory that the MOOC foregrounds, a prospect that will allow us to engage meaningfully, critically, and productively with the shifting landscapes of open education.  MOOCs currently have enough devotees to generate a real swell of enthusiasm in academia.  However if they are to develop and mature longer term, they need to be researched and subjected to serious scholarly and analytic work.

While media coverage has tended to fixate on the idea that prestigious universities are giving away their education for free, inferring a radical destabilising of the sector (for example ‘Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?’ by Susan Adams), the precise function of the MOOC within higher education still remains unclear.  If this course format does indeed herald a new era for the university, it may be one of augmentation, rather than substitution, of current institutional activities.  As Jordan Weissmann has commented, Coursera don’t appear to be claiming the role of competitor, but see themselves as offering a platform for the promotion and elevation of reputable education.  While sceptical commentators interpret this as a marketing game, this perspective may be one way to counter some of the criticism that flooded Twitter after Coursera’s recent announcement on 17th July.  Anxieties about the effectiveness of MOOCs, the value of certificates, or indeed their fitness to confront current problems in higher education seem often to assume that that they will somehow replace existing campus-based courses.  However, institutions are to a large extent drawing a clear line between MOOC offerings and current provision (on the issue of university credit, see ‘Without Credit’ by Steve Kolowich).

As a team, we are interested in whether MOOC teaching might take place in conjunction with established teaching practices. For example, we want to explore how MOOC cohorts might actively engage with ‘conventional’ online cohorts, and how boundaries between the two might be productively blurred. The kind of MOOCs offered by Coursera almost certainly have a pedagogical role in universities, but they could be a functional element of a much broader spectrum of online teaching engagement, targeting different types of learners and offering alternative modes of educational contact with academics.

E-learning and digital cultures

Screenshot of Coursera page for E-learning and Digital Cultures course
Screenshot of Coursera page for E-learning and Digital Cultures course

We are interested in experimenting with the MOOC format to design a course that engages people with the intersection of popular culture and education.  The very debates that have swamped e-learning blogs and news channels concerning the institutionalisation of the MOOC are often underpinned by entrenched ideas about the promise or peril of technology, and it is these narratives we’d like to explore.  While many appear devoted to the idea that digital technology holds the key to attaining an educational Shangri-La, for others its systemisation represents a terrifying challenge to our sense of identification with the learning process.  In this sense, our Coursera offering may connect with the MOOC debate itself, but it will also engage with much broader themes, theories and practices in the domain of education and technology.

We are attempting to develop a course which initiates reading, critical viewing of films and structured discussion as the primary pedagogical activities.  Visual artefacts will be generated, and employed as a means of building dialogue and debate around key e-learning themes. We hope to encourage the kinds of spaces that participants can both contribute to and, crucially, take ownership of.  Participatory practices and customs in the wider social web are integral to this approach, and we’re interested in how the pedagogical modes operating within platforms like Coursera can be productively extended to create more open learning spaces, integrating our work with public services and sites beyond the platform.

We are also concerned with exploring whether the visual practices foregrounded in digital media use might challenge the dominance of text, and its associated forms of knowledge, in established academic traditions.  With this in mind, assessing participation is something to which we will take a creative and visual approach, focusing on peer-assessment techniques over the automated MCQ strategies that are most-used in Coursera MOOCs.  One of the real challenges with the MOOC format is the extent to which it can be sensitive towards the kinds of assessment methods that underpin many humanities and social science disciplines.

Online education is a trend-ridden field, and MOOCs might be seen as just another – rather high-profile – piece of ed-tech du jour. However, in their sheer scale, in the rapidity of their rise and in the profound issues they appear to be raising regarding the purposes of higher education and the future of the university, they are clearly something genuinely new, something more than simply modish. For this reason, they are surely worth serious engagement on the part of anyone interested in the digital futures of educational change.

Jeremy Knox, Sian Bayne, Hamish MacLeod, Jen Ross and Christine Sinclair
MSc in E-learning Programme Team
University of Edinburgh

Readers of this article may also be interested in a presentation by Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, “The Online Revolution: Education at Scale” (available with kind permission of the authors) and an article for the JISC by Jeff Haywood “No such thing as a free MOOC“.

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member


  • Hans Roes says:

    Related and interesting a recent TED talk by Coursera’s Daphne Koller: (using the slides referred to above). Also interesting, Tony Bates’ blogpost in response to that TED talk:

    BTW, ‘conventional online learning’ has a funny sound, at least to my ears.

  • Andrew Chambers (@atsc) says:

    I think cMOOCs are the best tool for a range of courses. The types of activities involved suit post graduate adult learners (for example). I can see mini moocs running for a week within a normal course of study (particularly towards the end of a 12-14 week course). Sort of like a virtual MBA get together but instead of going off campus and camping out in a hut somewhere – in the forest to learn leadership, why not instead set up a virtual camp on the internet and then do a range of activities all focused around the weeks topic of learning? No need to walk between the tall perilous cliffs on a rope. Instead walk between web sites gathering treasures and discuss them via twitter, blog, discussion forum etc. Don’t think of Think of MOOCs just as whole courses but specific learning activities. xMOOCs are similar, they too are small bites of learning which make up a larger whole. MOOCS are about to change life long learning forever in ways I don’t think we can yet imagine…

  • Laura Gibbs says:

    I’ve been blogging extensively about my experience with the Coursera Fantasy-Scifi Course here:

    The reading list for the class is excellent, and I admire very much the focus on writing and peer-assessment, instead of quizzing and exams. At the same time, the implementation by Coursera has been really disappointing, fraught with problems, some big, some small. Many of the problems could be taken care of with relatively simple fixes (better broadcast communication, a richer course website, a better discussion board, profile pages for the participants) – but without those fixes, the course is really floundering, at least from my perspective.

    I am intrigued by the questions being set forth for the E-learning and Digital Cultures course, but I’m not sure I feel brave enough to give Coursera another try for at least another year or two. I’d feel more optimistic if feedback were being solicited from the students in this course right now, but feedback is not being collected in any systematic way, and students are leaving the course in droves. If Coursera waits until the last week of class to collect feedback (and why would they wait so long to get any feedback…?), I’m not sure how many people will be left who are actively participating in the class. I would guess that student feedback is absolutely essential: how can Coursera really set about improving a course without it…?

  • e-purser says:

    It’s extremely interesting to read this account of the genesis of the course I’ve just done – not a regular reader of this publication, I just discovered this article from a reference in a paper I read this week by John Daniel [] – which also references your blog, Laura :)

    A small number but wide range of responses to the EDC mooc are appearing here [], and I would change nothing of what I’ve said there, only to add here that hundreds of the EDC mooc’s first cohort are still actively in communication, doing and comparing other Mooc offerings, and continuing to reflect on how liberating the EDC mooc has been.

    Not only was the learning design refreshingly different, so is the educational integrity I see evidenced every time I see or read something from this course’s teaching team – the account I’ve just read here of their thinking in developing their Mooc resonates absolutely with the learning experience I’ve just had.

    The reason I find this liberating is that I entered into my first Mooc with an extremely sceptical attitude, fully expecting such an online experience to be pretty rubbish, but very curious to step out of my regular teaching role and into that of the student. What I have come away with is a powerfully rejuvenated sense of the potential of online education, when conducted in the open, networked space, and a plethora of very good ideas that I’m immediately applying in my own teaching. I’ve learned what it means to be ‘in the open’, and why it’s a good thing.

    There are serious problems with Coursera’s default discussion forum and its peer grading system… in EDC mooc we had the extraordinary opportunity to completely ignore ‘the system’ and do it for ourselves – that was the liberating part. Peer grading remains a major issue, in that reviewers are not held accountable and the same weight is given to reviews that are grossly unfair and uninformed and those that understand and follow the criteria carefully… several of us are currently formulating arguments on how it could be done better.

    But having said that, this Mooc was 99% terrific from my point of view, I think precisely because it’s authors are taking pedagogy and educational research so seriously in their thinking about and enacting of the learning design – a space worth watching!

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