10 Secrets of Online Course Design from Award-Winning MOOCs

If you want to see engaging, transformative online course design in action, add a little poetry to your life. An online Coursera course, Modern American Poetry, aka ModPo, is one of the 50 most popular MOOCs of all time. It’s taught by Professor Al Filreis of the University of Pennsylvania who received Coursera’s 2016 Transformation Award for helping 140,000 students transform their lives.

Typically, a MOOC features a course syllabus, in this case, a ten-week lesson plan with assigned reading (poems), instructor-created video content, discussion forum, peer-reviewed writing assignments, and quizzes. But Filreis and his merry band of teaching assistants (TAs) turbo-charged the usual MOOC formula.

One of the TAs, David Poplar, wrote about the pedagogical concepts behind their approach in Educause Review. Here are some of the ways ModPo took a dry poetry lecture and turned it into an experience students raved about all over the Internet.

#1 - Build community in advance

Before ModPo begins, students receive a series of emails introducing them to the Coursera platform and setting the stage for the work (and fun) ahead. They’re encouraged to follow the ModPo Twitter account and join the ModPo Facebook group—a group originally created by a ModPo student.

Filreis and his TAs periodically participate in Facebook discussions. Social media participation is not required, but it helps students feel like they’re learning together as part of a poetry community, not just an online course. In both the Facebook group and the course’s online community, students discuss the assigned poets and poems and share links to other resources.

#2 - Customize the educational journey

Coursera’s 2017 Innovation Award was given to the instructors of Learning to Teach Online, Dr. Simon McIntyre and Dr. Negin Mirriahi of the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia. At the start of the course, students take an online survey that helps them assess their understanding and interest in different online teaching practices. They receive a personalized reading list based on their survey results. The eight-week curriculum is flexible enough that students can choose their own learning pathway based on individual goals.

#3 - Feature unscripted video group discussions

Most online courses feature videos of instructors giving a lecture, but that’s not what you get in ModPo. Each week’s class features several videos of Filreis and several teaching assistants (TAs) discussing the assigned poems. Their discussion is based on an unscripted “close reading” of each poem, breaking it down line by line while providing context for the students.

Students hear not only the instructor’s point of view, but also the different viewpoints of the TAs along with lots of “aha” moments. The videos are filmed with a handheld camera that follows the conversation from person to person. You feel like you’re sitting on the other side of the table enjoying a lively discussion.

online course design - unscripted video group discussions

#4 - Let personalities emerge

Because of the easy-going nature of these video group discussions, the personalities (and humor) of each of the instructors (Filreis and his TAs) emerge. You see the same people each week, and when one of the TAs is absent, you notice. This approach makes the instruction seem more personal. This isn’t a distant instructor, these are people you’re getting to know and respect.

#5 - Require instructor participation beyond the syllabus

Poplar said their goal is to “break down the virtual wall separating students from teacher.” The TAs and Filreis also participate in discussion forums, and the TAs hold regularly scheduled “office hours” chat sessions.

Once a week, Filreis and the TAs participate in a live webcast from the Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus. Some of the poets discussed in the course participate in these discussions.

Filreis or one of the TAs sends out weekly audio updates in which they talk about some of the most active forum discussions. McIntyre and Mirriahi at UNSW create weekly videos in response to popular forum questions. These MOOC instructors model the level of engagement they hope to see in their students.

#6 - Encourage students to become active learners

In ModPo, students don’t passively receive information from Filreis and his TAs. They actively contribute and learn together in the online community, Facebook group, and in student-organized local Meetup groups. They’re also responsible for reviewing the writing assignments of their peers—a requirement for course completion.

Students can participate in the live webcasts. They can ask questions or contribute comments by calling in, emailing, or posting to Twitter, Facebook, or the online community. Students who live nearby are encouraged to attend the webcasts in person. When they do, the instructors make a point of including them in the discussion.

#7 - Create a "sense of place"

The Kelly Writers House becomes a familiar setting for ModPo students since all videos and webcasts are filmed there. Every week, students see the familiar room, table, faces, and coffee cups in their “classroom.” Poplar said, “Virtually speaking, students can be in that classroom at the other end of the monitor, rather than just monitoring it.”

online course design - create a sense of place

#8 - Chunk content

Nearly 1,200,000 students have taken the most popular MOOC of all time: Learning How to Learn: Powerful Mental Tools to Help You Master Tough Subjects taught by Dr. Barbara Oakley of UC San Diego. She believes in the pedagogical power of chunking content. Her videos are about five minutes long—perfect for mobile learning.

#9 - Film creative and engaging videos

Oakley is also known for her compelling, attention-holding videos. She encourages instructors to become more adept at videography. “Video editing has become so straightforward that anyone can do it if they just devote a little time to grasping the basics,” she said.

“I am not just showing a static picture to explain a concept—I’m walking into moving imagery, illustrating key ideas by standing full-body beside them and pointing out what’s going on. Unexpected motion—like me sliding up from below—helps capture students’ attention.”

She builds questions and pauses into the videos so students can reflect, recall concepts, and test their knowledge.

Oakley uses scripts and a teleprompter so not a second is wasted. She also uses green screen technology—and explains how to do that in another one of her courses, Mindshift: Break through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential.

“STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) instructors often don’t realize that there is great value in using metaphors to more rapidly ‘on board’ learners into difficult-to-grasp topics. Metaphors can be easily made more real and memorable using green screen technology.”

#10 - Provide options for deeper exploration

After a few successful course cycles, Filreis and his team filmed 30 new discussions called ModPoPlus for alumni who wanted to take ModPo again. The content in ModPoPlus is not part of the regular course requirements, but it gives students an option to explore poetry more deeply.

Students who are especially active in forum discussions are invited back to serve as Community TAs. Alumni are also encouraged to continue participating in the ModPo Facebook group.

Not every MOOC is successful, in fact, many fall short of providing an effective, never mind transformational, learning experience. But these instructors are willing to try new ideas and take advantage of technology. If you’re looking for instructional inspiration, why not give modern poetry a try?


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