Developing and running a MOOC: some practical considerations

Report from a Centre for Distance Education seminar, University of London, 13 Jan 2014

The University of London’s (UoL) Centre for Distance Education (CDE) provides thought-provoking lunchtime seminars on topics of interest to learning technology practitioners and staff who teach or administer online courses. A recent well-attended seminar on the practicalities of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) included presentations on MOOCs in English Common Law (ECL) and Creative Programming (CP). These were developed and delivered by the University’s International Programmes division using the well-known Coursera platform. Both were launched in June 2013 alongside two further MOOCs from UoL. They were bespoke courses that did not already exist as part of a degree programme, and it was clear that a lot of work was required to get them developed within short timescales.

MOOC Participants

The student demographic reflected the profile reported for other MOOCs, for example the majority of students already held at least a first degree. The ECL MOOC cited the highest qualifications of their students as: undergraduate degree (40%), postgraduate qualification (40%), PhD (9%). Students came primarily from the USA, Spain, India, Brazil and the UK. The majority were between 22 and 40 with the average ages being 31 (CP) and 35 (ECL).

Completion Rates

The completion rates of the two courses differed, with ECL managing a very respectable 18% completion rate.

Course/No. students    Initially registered Started week 1 In final week Completed Completion Rate
English Common Law (ECL) 41,000 14,000 6,400 2,500 18%
Creative Programming (CP)  97,000 38,000 6,600 2,231 6%


English Common Law: Structure and Principles

Pat Lockley presentingPatricia McKellar and Pat Lockley, from the UoL Laws team presented the story of the ECL MOOC. The main drivers for development were the opportunity to experiment with alternative delivery models, freedom from a regulatory framework, curiosity to see who would sign up, and the opportunity to promote the Laws programmes and attract fee-paying students. There were also reputational risks to be considered if things went badly.

The team noted that the Coursera system could be customised to some extent. They had made a significant number of changes to the default template, primarily to make the course more visually engaging. Two hours of video content were required per week. These were not necessarily in a ‘lecture’ format and some videos developed by the MOOC team included scripted scenes with actors. This was an effective way to give participants a feeling of having been present at an event.

Coursera recommended that students should not be required to purchase a textbook to complete the course, although some students did later express a preference for a textbook. In order to make up for the absence of a course text, permission was sought from publishers to digitise book chapters as course readings. Obtaining permissions took time, and more lead in time would have been helpful to integrate the readings into the course more effectively.

A series of discussion forums were provided, each focusing on different types of questions. The platform allowed posts to be rated and those with high ratings ‘floated up’ to the top so they were very likely to be seen. Students began posting in large numbers immediately the course started, demonstrating that they were highly engaged. The team had to put a lot of time into monitoring the forums but also had ‘power users’ mentoring other students. Some commercial posts appeared, as did some ‘concerning’ posts which had to be dealt with. A useful feature used to resolve some of these issues was the option to ‘mute’ a participant so that although they continue to post, others couldn’t see the posts. In addition to the forums, a ‘responding to feedback’ page was added to the course. This provided an issues log and indicated changes the team had made, were planning to make, or might make in the future.

MOOC structureOne of the key takeaway points from the presentation was the value of distributed content on YouTube and other cloud-based services. These create a parallel course existence outside of the original Coursera site and timeframes which means that others can access the course materials, but not the assessment or interaction. A copy of the ECL MOOC materials are available at:

Eighty students who participated in the MOOC have subsequently applied to the UoL Law programme. Time will tell as to how many of these actually start and go on to complete other courses.

Creative Programming for Digital Media & Mobile Apps

Matthew Yee-King from Goldsmiths, University of London presented the CP MOOC which was developed between September 2012 and June 2013. The nature of the subject matter required technical (as well as curriculum) preparation before the team could start recording video lectures. One of the challenges of teaching coding is the need to develop great examples of work that have a strong impact, and yet are not too difficult for the students to learn to create themselves. To address this, the team aimed to provide the students with powerful tools (e.g. a physics engine) which were nevertheless easy to use.

As in the case of the ECL MOOC, the volume of video material needed was a somewhat daunting aspect of teaching in this mode. The video had to be recorded quite rapidly as the course launch approached. During the process a problem emerged. Scripts had specified over-the-shoulder shots of lecturers coding, but shooting in this way did not allow screen text to be sufficiently in focus to be read. Consequently, screen captures of coding had to be recorded and edited into videos later. A further complication was a new release of the platform used for coding just before the MOOC launched, which required additional videos to describe changes and workarounds.

For assessment the team made use of some of the Coursera tools which support ‘massive’ cohort size, such as peer assessment and in-video and weekly quizzes. For the peer assessed tasks there were three phases: submit, peer evaluate and self evaluate, before results could be seen. Deadlines for individuals could not be adjusted, but for the final assessment the deadline was extended for everyone, as many students were running out of time, but keen to complete the course.

The forum rating function made it possible to use discussion forums for voting on issues such as assessment extensions, and generally worked well for identifying priority questions and highlighting useful information. The team anticipated very busy forums in this course and two students were on duty to provide moderation during UK office hours.

The team were impressed by the quality of the student work that was generated. Some participants went from no coding experience to releasing a game on the app store by the end of the course.

Summary: expect the unexpected

This informative seminar gave attendees an insight into the practical concerns of the teams who developed and ran the two MOOCs. Despite the fact that learning and teaching online is, for many, now quite a familiar set of practices, there was a strong sense that when you do a MOOC, you should expect the unexpected.

Further information

The slides and videos from the event have now been made available via the CDE website. In addition UoL have published a report on the four MOOCs run in 2013.

Leo Havemann
Learning Technologist, Birkbeck, University of London @leohavemann
Julie Voce
e-Learning Services Manager, Imperial College London, @julievoce

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