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:

PL-MOOC study reflection



We’ve now reached the end of the funding period for PL-MOOC and, while there is still some analysis to conduct and some papers and outputs to write, the final report is written and the main findings synthesised. Allison and I have tweeted about the recommendations and the main findings but I thought i would take an opportunity to reflect more broadly on the study over here.

Professional Learning
Our research interest at the Caledonian Academy is in professional learning – the learning for work that an individual undertakes to support their practice. We’re interested in the increasing responsibility that professional learners must take for their learning, monitoring their learning needs continually to maintain his or her expertise. Our focus is primarily on informal learning, and the learning networks that professionals maintain. We tend to ignore more formal learning activities but we understand that formal learning has a role to play and indeed how formal learning fits with organisational systems within which professional learners are operating. In her writing on ‘Integrative Pedagogy’, Tynjälä has described four different types of knowledge that make up professional practice – the formal theoretical knowledge you can get from books; the practical knowledge you get from doing the job, the socio-cultural knowledge you get from being part of a community of professionals, and finally the self-regulative knowledge you use to keep on top of the continual learning you have to do. A critical element of each professional’s self-regulated learning is to assimilate learning of all four types of knowledge through an ‘integrative pedagogy’

We’ve seen the rise in popularity of MOOCs over the past few years and thought a lot about how MOOCs might serve professional learners: they provide an excellent mechanism to bring learners with common interests together, they are flexible and open, providing opportunities for close integration with practice. But can they support professional learning. While our previous study ‘SRL-MOOC‘ looked at learning in a cMOOC (Change 11), for this study we focused on an xMOOC, the format favoured by the major mooc providers (EdX, Coursera, Futurelearn). We explored the learning behaviours of health professionals studying the ‘Fundamentals of Clinical Trials’ MOOC. The MOOC was designed by Harvard Medical School, Harvard School of Public Health, and Harvard Catalyst, The Harvard Clinical and Translational Science Center and offered through the edX initiative founded jointly between Harvard University and MIT. Our reason for selecting this MOOC was because a) the course was likely to attract a high number of participants working in the health domain, allowing us to examine how professionals learn and b) the course design was typical of the so-called ‘xMOOCs’.

Its probably best to read the report and formal summaries to get a full picture of the findings, but in a nutshell, we didn’t see much evidence of professional learning occurring in the Fundamentals of Clinical Trials MOOC. There was little in the way of integration of theory and practice that is essential for effective professional learning to occur. Activities not central to the course (discussing in the forum,or elsewhere) were given less priority than viewing videos and completing assessments. Evidence of impact on practice was limited. Now we should point out that the Fundamentals of clinical trials course doesn’t claim to offer professional learning, and the course participants overwhelmingly like the course. But somethings going on here. Health professionals signed up for the course … so there seems to be a demand for learning from the community. We asked professionals about their expectations/motivations and can demonstrate that these were articulated in terms of practice – meeting professional learning needs. Yet when we asked about goals (4 weeks into the course), these were articulated not in terms of practice, or even in terms of the learning content, but instead were articulated in terms of consuming content, passing assessments and completing the course. I think the design of the course shaped their expectations.

But if there is a demand for professional learning, can xMOOCs (Downes is right, we’re not talking about cMOOCs, which  would more naturally support it – though our study of change11 suggests that it is not so simple) be designed to support it. Building on the recommendations provides some pointers:

  1. MOOCs bring together learners with a great diversity of motivation, expectation, and prior knowledge and experience. Don’t expect everyone to start from the same point – nor indeed finish at the same point. Even if the course is content focused, you should allow your learners to personalise their learning to ensure that they are focusing their attention on what they need and want to learn. Personalising learning (and goals) also enables the learners to clearly link their learning to practice.
  2. Help your learners to find others to learn alongside – they might want to find people who speak the same language, or who work in similar contexts, or who have a similar level of experience. In our studies we have  learners expressing frustration at not finding peers (of each of these types and others) to learn alongside, often because they don’t have the confidence to look for them themselves – in a MOOC they are probably there.
  3. Capitalise on the real world experience that professionals bring to their learning by getting them to specify problems and provide solutions. Get learners to create content and contribute it back to the course as resources for other learners (now and in the future).
  4. As well as fostering networks within the course, remember the pre-existing networks that the learners already have outside the course. In our study of Change 11 we saw that some learners kept their internal and external networks separate – seeing Change 11 as a course, while others linked their networks, recognising that the course cohort was merely an extension of their existing network.

We’ve put our findings and ideas out there, but of course the study was by its nature limited and more work needs to be done, not least trying to put them in practice. We welcome responses and reactions to the recommendations we formulated, and hope others can take the instruments we developed and use and refine them.

I really enjoyed working on this study, the compressed timescale meant that we had to make decisions quickly, and work through challenges. Thanks to Allison for the many discussions we had throughout the last 9 months, to Obiagele Ukadike from Harvard for being our contact within the course team, and to Lou McGill for conducting the interviews.

This study was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as part of the MOOC Research initiative led by George Siemens. Thanks.

And of course a special thanks to the participants of the course for answering our survey, and agreeing to be interviewed.

For a readable summary of Integrative Pedagogy, try Tynjälä, P. & Gijbels, D. (2012) Changing World: Changing Pedagogy. In P. Tynjälä , Stenström, M-L and Saarnivaara, M. (eds.), Transitions and Transformations in Learning and Education. pp 205-222. Dordrecht, Springer.


Productive MOOCs


One of my frustrations with MOOCs is that while they provide value for the individual, their (lack of) collective value is a missed opportunity. Although I’ve had a blog post in the works for almost a year, I could never work out how to write it concisely. A recent post by Rachel Harris of Inspire Research  provided a slightly different angle to address the issue.

Rachel is evaluating the ALT ocTEL MOOC and one of her evaluation questions is ‘Can new knowledge be generated via critical discourse in a MOOC?’. With our other research interests here at the Caledonian Academy we are really interested in knowledge creation and collective knowledge. So,  in the comments I said:

I’m firmly of the belief that knowledge creation is a key component of learning, and successful MOOC learners will (through writing and responding to blog posts) create new knowledge and advance their thinking.

Of course I am talking about cMOOCs here (xMOOCs will have to wait for another day, but Dave Cormier has a related post from last weekend which explores similar issues). My comment continued with this observation (from participation in cMOOcs, and from researching Change11)

But one of my concerns in observing other MOOCs is that while each individual might advance their knowledge, there is little in the way of collective knowledge advancement. What this means in practice is that there is lot of duplicated knowledge produced during the MOOC.

Wouldn’t it be great if cMOOcs could be made more ‘productive’ – instead of advancing many people’s knowledge a little by re-creating the same (or similar) new knowledge again and again, can MOOCs be structured to stimulate the creation of new knowledge in a more coordinated way. Can you bring the learners together to produce something entirely novel as they learn? This is in the true spirit of connectivism.

Aside from my desire to see new knowledge created, there is actually an important learning observation here. As I went on to say in the comment on Rachel’s post:

 To the active participants, this can be frustrating as the consequence is that there is too much ‘noise’ in the system.

You might read a number of blog posts by your fellow participants, each making the same point. In the Change11 MOOC, some participants found this boring, others (particularly the less confident) decided not to articulate their own view because they thought it had already been presented and didn’t want to ‘just repeat’. But articulating what you have learned is important so this is a missed learning opportunity.

On a more positive note, the emergence of self-organised spaces in the Chage 11 MOOC (the facebook group, the One Change a Day group) showed that co-creation could succeed, but it was only a minority of participants who managed to engage in this coordinated way.

Solutions. I’m not sure I have any,  but here is one idea**: Can MOOCs be used to encourage interdisciplinarity? An interdisciplinary*MOOC could bring together experts from different fields to explore a topic from different perspectives and adopting each other’s methods etc. The ultimate product could be the new knowledge created as a result, perhaps a series of working papers. The immediate flaw in this is that it doesn’t seem very massive (or at least the productive element might be the result just of the collaboration of the instructors), but if you can structure the MOOC participants as disciplinary ‘tribes’ then you can focus groups on creation of specific knowledge – e.g. initially discipline sub-groups could cooperate to co-create a disciplinary view, then be re-assorted into inter-disciplinary groups to explore the overlaps and tensions. oriented towards a more specific goal that matches their existing knowledge and motivation,  they can work together to co-create something that can be contributed back to the group. A structure such as this might also help counter the tension/imbalance between homophily and heterophily that I think is inherent in MOOCs.

* by interdisciplinarity, I mean ‘integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches’ – taken from which in turn is from a paper by Stember (1990)

**I’ll dig out the notes for the original blog post and write more at a later date.

LCL: The maps of My Childhood


The activity for session two of the LCL course is to read the forward to Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms (1980) entitled The Gears of My Childhood and ‘write about an object from your childhood that interested and influenced you‘.

My object is an Atlas. I have been fascinated by maps for as long as I can remember and though I didn’t follow a career path focused on geography, or become an explorer, that early and constant love of maps has provided a framework on which I have hung so much other knowledge in my life.

The atlas was only the centrepiece of an obsession with maps and flags which extended to jigsaws of maps, road atlases, the Ordnance Survey (see the picture of my wall in my old flat above) and the maps form the National Geographic. As a young child (of 7 or 8, see later in the post why I can be sure) I used to take the Atlas, and a table lamp and trace outlines of countries and continents on a glass coffee table we had. I’d then colour in each country with the corresponding flag. Different continents lent themselves to this activity to different degrees: Europe was a bit rubbish, as all the countries were small; Africa much more pleasing with lots of big countries; North America too boring with only 3 countries and South America good, but with the nearly insurmountable problem of fitting the flag of Chile.

This is a nice innocent activity, a good way for a not very artistic child to be creative. But the real value of the activity was that the constant repetition (I must have done each continent dozens of times in my pursuit of perfection) cemented in the positions and names of countries (along with lots of incidental detail) along with their flags. Having this knowledge of maps helped me begin to understand world events – I’ve got a strong memory of following the Angolan Civil War (1975 – so when I was 7 or 8), and recognising the Communist/Marxist imagery (a cog representing workers, the sickle representing the land, etc). These symbols, repeated across Africa in the flags of the other countries such as Mozambique and Zaire, gave me an awareness of the role which armed struggle had played in these countries’ emergence from colonialism (and that while much of the map was pink – British empire – large swathes of Africa had been Portuguese or Spanish. I also saw patterns in the use of Red, Yellow and Green in the swathe of countries further north, and how these were similar to those of many nations in the West Indies and surrounding the Caribbean  and how these in turn gave way to a different palette and set of symbols in the Muslim countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

From the combination of maps and flags I got a framework to hang new knowledge on but also a ‘way in’ to the political and historical changes that had occured not just in Africa but across the whole world – without ever reading a formal textbook or history book.

Learning Creative Learning: kindergarten learning


The first week of learning creative learning ( is almost over. The course content consisted of just one paper and a google hangout, so not much to take in. I’ve not had time to watch the hangout: the format doesn’t really suit me, so i’ll probably miss it most weeks. I found some visual notes via twitter update from @ikbenjulie – From this, it looks like the hangout talks through the paper and introduced the course.

Anyway, onto the paper: Mitchel Resnick (2007). All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten. ACM Creativity & Cognition conference. [PDF]. I liked this paper, nice and simple, and thought provoking. The core idea of the paper is that the learning we encourage in kindergarten promotes exploration and creativity, but subsequent learning environments, at school and beyond are too focused on facts and measurement. Resnick argues that promoting learning approaches which focus on creativity should be extend to all ages, a simple cycle is presented: imagine, create, play, share and reflect, before a new cycle of imagine … begins.

Resnick then presents a couple of technologies which MIT medialab have designed to promote different aspects of the cycle. Crickets (physical programmable devices) and scratch (a programming toolkit) take a modular approach to promoting the type of free play and creation in kindergarten learning.

Some years ago I was involved in a project/ company / consultancy developing a software toolkit for producing educational simulations (some of the simulations are available from The idea behind the toolkit was to separate the model from its visualisation: so a single model calculating the position of the sun in the sky could be used as the basis to create an interface to help architects decide what blinds to specify for windows (based on how much sunlight might shine through them at what time of day) or a simulation to allow young children to explore how day length varies at different times of year (see the java simulations at The jelsim tools focused on empowering the teacher (to tailor simulations to educational need), but we recognised the ultimate aim of empowering the learner to create their own simulations: supporting true exploratory learning where a learner could build an interface to test a hypothesise. If we had reached that goal, the JeLSIM tools would have been a good example of kindergarten learning.

Learning Creative Learning: Goals

I’ve signed up for the MIT media lab course learning creative learning ( The course started this week and as an initial task, I thought I would define some goals for myself.

    First and foremost, I hope to learn about an area that I know little about. I’d like to learn about early years learning: although I am a workplace learning researcher, I don’t have a traditional education background, so have never read the core literature, or considered some of the fundamentals. On the plus side, having a child at nursery means I have some first hand experience to relate what I am reading to
    2. I’d like to take something back to my own work. I’m not sure I can predict if there’ll be anything specific (ideas about creativity perhaps) or whether it will be something more general (a broader appreciation of a range of learning theory).
    3. Having studied moocs and participated in some of the early connectivist moocs, I’d like to reflect on my participation in a mooc that’s not filled with people primarily interested in the process, but instead interested in the content. I’ll hopefully be one of the latter.
    4. Finally. I’d like to enjoy it.

SRL MOOC Study Update and Background


Many of you will remember that the Caledonian Academy planned to conduct some research on the Change11 MOOC which ran some months ago.  There is some background to the study here. It’s taken a while (there have been other priorities like our Mock REF and various papers) but we’re now making good progress with the data analysis. We always said we would be open with the results we produced and in preparation for a series of blog posts to be posted over the next few weeks, I thought I would put up a quick post today describing some of the details of the study.

The study (given Ethical approval by an internal GCU Research Ethics Committee) comprised two components. First, participants were asked to complete a survey which asked them to respond to a number of statements regarding how they learn and plan their learning. Second, participants were invited to take part in a semi-structured interview exploring their participation in the Change11 mooc and their learning practices within it.

  • A version of the SRL survey instrument is available on dropbox: here.
  • The interview script for the semi-structured interview is available on dropbox: here.

We managed to recruit 35 participants for the study, and conducted interviews with 27 of these. The sample seems robust – with representation from many countries, different education sectors (and beyond) and different motivation for participation. We have 26 hours of interviews (394 pages of text)

Posts over the coming weeks will concentrate on: the srl profiles, emerging themes from the interviews, what these results tell us about moocs, what we can say about srl within moocs and many more things. Please get in touch if you want to know anything about the study or its findings and I will try to include it in a forthcoming blog post. Of course we also plan to publish the studues once we have done more extensive analysis.