MOOC Design Challenges

Yishay Mor has been promoting a survey from the MOOC Design patterns project asking for MOOC design challenges ( It was a simple bit of work to reverse engineer the recommendations Allison and I had developed last year for our PL-MOOC study.

Here are the design challenges i came up with.

1. Personalisation: how can we ensure learners get what they want from a MOOC

The rigid syllabus and structure of many MOOCs provides a somewhat take it or leave it option for MOOC content. But adult learners are different to learners in formal education: they come with different levels of starting knowledge (e.g. compared to students doing a second level biology class, all of whom will have done a first level science class) and different expectations and goals. Imposing goals on them (‘read or view this content’) can be demotivating. It would be better for MOOCs to scaffold self-directed and individual and collaborative learning within a loose framework. in this way, learners can personalise their learning, making it serve their specific aspirations. This is especially true in professional contexts, where MOOCs provide opportunities to bring learners with complementary expertise together, who may learn more from their peers than the course content. Even in non-professional domains, learners could be encouraged to personalise their experience by bringing their own content – choose a book or poem that means something to them, as part of an English course, explore their locale for courses about geography and the natural world.

2. Lasting : how can we ensure that learners effort in learning on a MOOC has some ongoing benefit for them.

I suppose the answer is we can’t, in that learners ultimately have to take responsibility for this themselves. But course designs should encourage learners to articulate and share action plans for using their new knowledge as a way of helping learners think about the value of what they are learning and to get them to engage deeply with the course content that is being delivered. MOOCs should also be designed so that on completion a learner has evidence that they have learned – something they have created, not just a certificate as evidence that they have participated.

3. Capitalise on the diversity of motivation, expectation, prior knowledge and experience that is inherent within all MOOC cohorts.

By their very nature, MOOCs attract a broad range of learners. These learners may differ in their motivation (e.g. learning for fun, or to address a specific learning need, or to gain accreditation), expectation (e.g. that the learner will gain access to high quality learning materials, or broaden their network) and prior knowledge and experience (ranging from those who have strong theoretical knowledge but no practical experience to those who have no formal knowledge but a wealth of experience). All these different types of learners cannot remain motivated and engaged within a rigid curriculum with fixed content. Instead, course designs should encourage learners to determine how they interact with others, supporting learners who need support while affording self‐regulated learners the freedom and flexibility to interact as they wish. From a course design perspective, some learner interactions could be scaffolded, for example by matching learners with similar intentions (Milligan et al, 2015). Flexible design could extend to certification, with achievement being linked to personal goals and progress where possible.

Adult learners bring a wealth of experience to their learning. Designing tasks which capitalise on this by encouraging the learners to build on existing knowledge (where possible and appropriate) and share their experience can enrich the learning experience for all by exposing learners to real world experience and new practices. Engaging with real world examples can be motivating and provides learners with evidence that they can use for their own personal development.

4. Integration: MOOCs don’t exist in isolation from a learner’s other activity. Help learners to break the boundaries between the course and the rest of their life by encouraging them to discuss ideas from the course with their external network.

Discussion with peers about learning is high value as it is localised and contextualised, and there is a pre-existing trust relationship. Interaction with an external network encourages breakdown of barriers between learning and other areas of life where that learning may be applied. To complement this (and to support learners who do not have external networks or who seek specifically to broaden their network), course designers should encourage focused communities to develop. Communities could emerge around language (mooc participants can lack confidence to engage when they are not confident about expressing themselves in a second language), or role (e.g. school teachers and university lecturers in parallel communities) or motivation.

These challenges are adapted from 6 recommendations that Allison Littlejohn and I drew up at the conclusion of our Professional Learning in MOOCs project )( The recommendations can be found on figshare at:


Author: Colin Milligan

Learning researcher based at Glasgow Caledonian University, and living in beautiful West Stirlingshire.

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