Can you get everyone to like your MOOC?

My last post started out as an idea for a compilation of random observations on course design, based on the Introduction to Linguistics MOOC on FutureLearn – a brief digression: I only just realized that the spelling seems to be with a capital L mid-word – but then it turned out to be a sort of introduction to the topic and an overall comment on what it felt like to be doing a course which you’ve joined when it’s practically over (spoiler alert: alone). I feel reasonably confident that this post will achieve what the last one was meant to because I already have a list of observations; I just have to flesh them out.

A bit of context first: this was apparently this MOOC’s first run. It’s a three-week course and the study time estimated per week is three hours, so not very demanding and overall in accordance with the course aims:

On this course, you’ll get an introduction to the main approaches used in linguistic research, including linguistic experiments and discourse analysis. You’ll find out about the key methods used in linguistic descriptions, and some of the everyday ‘myths’ about language. You’ll discover how linguistic researchers turn our ideas about language into linguistic knowledge.

There seemed to be two mentors/moderators – one lead educator and one educator, as FutureLearn calls them (or is it just this course?). Perhaps there were more, but I could only find the lead educator’s bio. They obviously kept an eye out on what was happening on the course, as there were several responses to participant comments; however, I got the impression that most of the commenting was done by the lead educator and am thinking that this is probably an indication that strong moderator involvement had not been planned, which again would be in line with the course aims.

Something to keep in mind as I move on to the observations: some of the features I comment on are present in other FutureLearn courses as well. Also, I should stress that this is in no way meant to be a dissection of the instructional design involved; just thoughts that popped into my head – in no particular order – from the viewpoint of having recently helped coordinate MOOC development.

Photo taken from ELTpics by @mk_elt, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

Videos
  • Most were of the length that ensures you won’t drift off. Only one was around 9 minutes (and another one was 7), which I feel is too long although I have included a screencast of similar length in my own online course. This MOOC is heavily video-based and the videos are only occasionally interspersed with some other activities – for instance, one activity required participants to analyze two similar websites in the context of a theoretical framework presented in the previous step. Possibility: add some readings and tests (T/F, MCQs), but this could make the course appear more heavy going (arguably not in line with the course aims).
  • There were several presenters in the videos and I liked the fact that for the most part they weren’t reading a prepared script – I thought it made them appear more passionate about their subject. Side note: if you read, you reduce the risk of getting mixed up or forgetting something and your delivery is likely to be smoother. I generally read in my own screencasts, but as the focus is not on me – I’m not on camera – I think I don’t sound too wooden.
Transcripts
  • There is a transcript accompanying each video (in addition to subtitles), which is of course necessary for accessibility purposes (screen readers). What I thought wasn’t strictly necessary (but was definitely helpful and I liked it a lot) was that each transcript was broken up into a couple of paragraphs and the time was marked at the beginning of each one so you could navigate it more easily.
  • Transcripts can also be downloaded as PDFs but the download isn’t forced – a pet peeve – so definitely thumbs up for this. Side note: I’m not a fan of transcripts because I find that if I read them, I’ll skip parts. If, on the other hand, I watch the video, I’ll force myself to slow down and focus on what the person is saying. This is also why I like audio books; they force me to adapt to the narrator and relax.
Discussions
  • Each video is followed up by the option to discuss (as are all other activities). I think I like this – as opposed to, for instance, separate forum activities like in Moodle – because you end up with all the comments neatly sorted by activity. However, I did wonder what happens if you have a question or comment that would be better suited to a sort of general housekeeping forum. For example, if you’re wondering what the official starting date of the course was. 🙂 Or if software you were instructed to use in an activity didn’t work.
  • Comments can be sorted by oldest, newest and most liked (my most frequent choice). If I think a comment would be useful to other participants I like it in the hope that this will make it visible to more people. You can also bookmark comments and follow mentors and participants, but I didn’t on this course.
Accessibility
  • External links open in the same window, which I understand is a requirement of guidelines for web content accessibility. I think I will now stop advising people to tick the “open in new window” box – which I have sometimes done unsolicited to ELT bloggers, purely for the reason that I personally don’t like having to click back to return to the page I started from (I prefer to close the new window).
Activity completion
  • Participants can mark each activity as done when they wish to; there are no requirements, for instance, to post a comment before a discussion activity is considered complete. This seems fair because, well, you may not have that much to say about a subject; however, what happens if someone decides to mark all their activities as done without having even looked at them? I wonder if that is any different if you upgrade – because I understand that you are then entitled to a certificate of completion. On the other hand, there are students – I speak from experience here – who have done the F2F equivalent of marking their activities as done with no engagement whatsoever (suffered through the sessions in silence) and they still got the final mark. But they had to take an exam.
Moderators
  • I’ve already noted that as opposed to some MOOCs I’ve done, there wasn’t strong moderator involvement in this one and I assume this was intentional. I liked the way the moderators handled an issue that came up: the participants were asked to analyze a couple of extracts of spoken language. These extracts were almost completely punctuation free. The participants found this confusing and said so in the comments, so a note was added in a prominent place, explaining the thinking behind this. Side note: when I came along, the explanation had already been added, so as soon as I noticed the lack of punctuation I read the explanation and thought it had been there from the start. I found this small detail very helpful and reassuring, as it indicated the moderators’ online presence, even if they were keeping a low profile.
  • The moderators’ responses to the participants’ comments were thoughtful and positive, which wasn’t a surprise. The reason I mention it is because I wonder if there’s some kind of bank with (beginnings of) responses to comments, especially if the participant seems to be upset about something and you’d like to set things right as quickly as possible.
Other activities
  • A couple of activities were described as articles – as opposed to videos or discussions – but they’re a single paragraph in length, so this seems like a slightly odd choice of word.
Participants
  • In already noted this in a response to Marc’s comment on my last post, but thought I would include it here as well because I was quite taken aback by the critical attitude of some of the participants. One of my firmer beliefs – not just related to course design – is that Croatians on the whole are more likely to criticize than offer unsolicited praise. You can imagine my surprise when I saw critical comments directed at some aspects of the course – and they hadn’t been posted by Croatians! I’m sure the course designers and/or moderators did not expect universal agreement and praise but I think disagreement or doubt can be expressed in a neutral tone, leaving room for the possibility that you’ve overlooked something. If nothing else, whoever it is you’re engaging with is more likely to offer a constructive response. (But that’s just me; I don’t have any research evidence to back this up.) For instance, if you notice that there is a spelling error, I think it’s more productive to simply point this out, rather than suggest that no one bothered to check the spelling. (This example from participant contributions has been modified to protect the overly direct). Anyway, I suppose this is my message to all course participants everywhere – if you think something has been overlooked, could’ve been explained more clearly or is unnecessary/incorrect, etc., please try to point this out in a constructive fashion. Thanks from course designers and moderators everywhere. 🙂

That’s it for this run of the course. A final observation I’m going to add is that FutureLearn has a very extensive FAQ bank, so some of the questions that participants may have and aren’t sure where to post them might already have been addressed there.

Although this topic isn’t related to language teaching, I hope it’s still useful to some extent. I’m hoping to be able to do another MOOC via a different provider, and possibly add to the observations here.

I’m curious what your perspective is on MOOC moderation. Are you happy to just get on with things, with only occasional moderator involvement, or do you prefer a stronger moderator presence? Thanks for reading!

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Wandering down empty hallways

This is a very unusual summer for me: it’s August and I haven’t been to the coast yet. As a teacher (and language school owner) I’ve sometimes wondered what it would be like to be able to go on holiday whenever I chose to as opposed to having to go when there were no students willing to pay for classes. Still, I guess because so many people go in August, things are more relaxed if you choose to stay in the office. For one, I finally have time to explore MOOCs a bit. Since part of my job over the past year has involved coordinating MOOC creation, I think I could be justified in thinking of this as work – at least in part.

Photo taken from ELTpics by @ChrisCattaneo, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

I haven’t done many MOOCs because I’m the kind of learner who, if they know they’re about to embark on a structured type of training, wants to do more or less everything the course designer has planned for them, trusting that there must have been sound reasons the course was designed in a particular way. And if I know I’m not going to have enough time to do it properly, I’d rather not even start – I’m still disappointed, for instance, that I wasn’t able to keep up with the TESOL EVO course Teaching Listening: Principles, techniques and technologies earlier this year. The couple of MOOCs I *have* completed I felt I got quite a bit out of – I blogged about the one on corpus linguistics and the one on how to get started with Moodle (tangentially) – so overall my experience with this type of course has been positive.

About two weeks ago I started on Introduction to Linguistics on Futurelearn. The choice of topic was prompted by the idea that I should be vaguely familiar with the content so that I could better focus on how the course was set up and see if I could pick up any tips in terms of course design that I could apply at work.

It was clear that the course had already started by the time I joined, but I couldn’t find info on when that was. Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair; maybe the start date was visible before I joined but subsequently I was unable to find it. My assumption was that it couldn’t have been too long before because otherwise they wouldn’t have kept letting people join.

A few days into the course I came across this interesting EdSurge article on Twitter: A Proposal to Put the ‘M’ Back in MOOCs and with a somewhat sinking feeling read the opening sentence:

MOOCs have evolved over the past five years from a virtual version of a classroom course to an experience that feels more like a Netflix library of teaching videos.

The fact is, since joining I felt a bit like I was wandering through a deserted building (a school, why not), hence the title. The content is predominantly videos. Discussions accompanying each video seemed to be long over, even though people were still posting sporadically, but I feel it’s unlikely they’ll ever get a response from another participant. I feel even more certain they won’t be getting a response from the online mentor (Lead Educator in Futurlearnese) because the course is officially over – although it doesn’t actually say so anywhere.

There is a prominent message every time I log on that the course content will remain available until a certain date, after which I’ll only be able to access it if I upgrade. However, I’m not sure that ensuring access to videos and discussions of other people is tempting enough for me to upgrade. Granted, I can’t guarantee that I would upgrade even if I had started on the course along with everyone else and taken part in the discussions, but that way I would have at least felt partial ownership. This way I feel like I’m entering empty classrooms, leafing through books left on the shelves and occasionally sensing someone else is in the building – not a feeling I would pay to sustain.

My plan was to keep a record of any interesting design features I come across on the course; then it occured to me I could write these up in a post. But as has been known to happen when I haven’t blogged in a while – which is, now I think of it, my customary blogging state – the introduction has turned into a post of its own, so I’ll leave the design observations for another post.

Have you done any MOOCs lately? What was your experience like – have you noticed any differences compared to MOOCs a couple of years ago? I’m especially curious about iTDi courses, which I keep hearing good things about.

It’s been a good (online) year

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Thanks to everyone who was part of this – I couldn’t have done it alone!

Last week I somewhat unexpectedly spent a couple of days in Zagreb. I say unexpectedly because I hadn’t planned on going back before the end of the winter semester, which is in early February at my institution.

Rewind to sometime in September, when I sent in my application form for the Online Course of the Year Award at the University of Zagreb. My students can testify to the fact that I’d been hinting I would do this since last November. Last year’s winter semester was the first time I had taught practically the entire course online, and was so pleased and encouraged at the way it had turned out – the way I’d been able to handle the instructional design and tech-related issues, the way the students had responded – that I thought I might as well apply and see where it would get me (us). At the very least, I figured I would get some useful feedback.

Despite this, I procrastinated with completing the application form to the point of finding myself hunched over my laptop at 1 am on the morning of the deadline. I guess it was probably part procrastination and part trepidation at the thought of someone from the outside going through the course and passing judgment. It’s like being observed, only with a really bright flashlight and a magnifying glass. And for more than 45 minutes.

I was assigned a panel of five judges, who were given login details so they could access the course, and one day in October a webinar was organized whereby I could present the course to the panel and answer their questions. In early November I was notified that Writing in English had won one of the three awards given this year – the one for the use of web 2.0 tools (or social software). To put this into perspective I should note that there were around 3,000 courses registered in Merlin (Zagreb University’s Moodle-based LMS) at the beginning of the current academic year. This may seem like a pretty big number, but either the majority of the course designers/tutors are uninterested in awards, or find the application process a hassle, because only 11 applied. Perhaps they missed the deadline? Anyway, in addition to having your hard work publicly recognized and praised, which is no bad thing, there is also a cash prize – not a sum that means I’ll never have to work again, but not entirely insignificant either.

I was thrilled to learn the good news, but it then turned out that the award ceremony would be held in Zagreb in December, and I was expected to show up. I was also expected to give a short presentation of the course on the day, and to record the presentation so it would be available on the website afterwards. That’s in Croatian, and can be found here.

The ceremony took place at the Zagreb University Rectorate, in a room which looks a bit like I’ve always imagined Dumbledore’s office – lined with portraits of rectors past.

It was all right. I’m not exactly a fan of presenting, but have found that I can create a credible impression of knowing what I am talking about if I write down the text accompanying the slides ahead of time – complete with jokes/anecdotes and functional phrases, just as if I were transcribing my talk – and then rehearse. I never memorize it word for word, of course, but I feel confident enough, which makes all the difference. Plus I find that I don’t keep looking back afterwards, thinking, “Drat, I should have said this and that and the other”.

I’ve been thanking a lot of people over the past couple of weeks. My institution for giving me the opportunity to design and run a Moodle course. The University of Zagreb Computing Centre for helping me solve tech dilemmas. My students for enthusiastically (for the most part) taking part in the activities. My colleagues for their unflagging support. Friends and family ditto. But I realize there’s one group of people I haven’t said thank you to, and I really want to – because they taught me so much about Moodle. I did the first official Moodle MOOC in September 2013. I think a key factor was that it came along at just the right time for me; I wasn’t a complete novice, but knew just enough to feel challenged and not overwhelmed. It was a fantastic experience. The tutors and the more experienced Moodlers who unreservedly shared their tips and advice will never know how much I learned from them – unless they read this, obviously. 🙂 Anyway, they’re running the same MOOC the second time around this coming January and I couldn’t recommend it more highly.

And on that note, I’ll finish off and return to the feedback and grading I’m shamefully behind on, partly as a result of the whole award hoopla. Looking forward to the break, I can tell you.