Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a bit of a chimera – they have the head of instructor-led training, the body of traditional e-learning, and the long tail of social media. They also take advantage of many technology-enabled learning tools and platforms. Just as there are myriad types of brick-and-mortar courses, there are many types of MOOCs, each of which has its own goals and implementations. How do we design effective training programs for such an eclectic creature? In a presentation given at the 2013 Sloan-C conference, Jason Mock, instructional designer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, noted that MOOCs do not require completely new models of instructional design, but that problems in MOOCs are by nature much, much bigger than problems in traditional courses. Because of this, sound instructional design is even more essential for MOOCs than for other types of programs.
So what are some main issues corporate trainers need to consider when designing a MOOC?
Audience, Purpose, and Content
All instructional design starts with assessing the needs of the audience and the scope and purpose of the training. Start by asking standard questions for training development, including: “Who will take the training?,” “How much content needs to be delivered?,” and “How complex is the information?” MOOCs require additional questions, such as: “Are the participants located in the same region/time zone or distributed around the country or the world?,” “Do employees have adequate access to the Internet via computers and mobile devices?,” and “Do employees have the necessary technological skills to complete the course?”
The content of the training determines whether a MOOC is the right format in the first place and, if so, what type of MOOC to use. A MOOC is probably not the best choice to disseminate one-off information to a relatively small group of people, like new product sales specs (though you could certainly use some MOOC elements, like a live webinar coupled with a virtual discussion space). The power of the MOOC is in delivering training to large groups of people altogether, rather than repeating it to small groups. MOOCs are well suited to both hard skills and soft skills training, but the type of course may differ. For example, hard skills like typing, using spreadsheets, and data analysis may call for a course with extensive video tutorials, exercises, and quantitative practical assessments. On the other hand, courses for soft skills, such as conflict management, communication, and leadership, may take more advantage of social learning tools, incorporating role playing and collaborative assignments. Ultimately, the MOOC you use will depend on the audience, content, budget, and other factors – the main point is that this format is fully customizable for the organization’s needs.
Structure and Navigation
MOOCs are usually organized into modules, which in higher education generally correspond to weeks. The structure depends on how well the information can be chunked into small learning objects, but typical courses run anywhere from four to twelve weeks, with each week following the same basic structure. A standard week’s activities may include video lectures and/or readings, interaction on discussion forums or other social media platforms, individual knowledge assessments, and group collaborative work. Ideally each week’s content should also include a review of information from the previous weeks. As Bill Cushard over at Mindflash points out, MOOCs (unlike training seminars) are perfect for exploiting the “spacing effect,” in which people learn better when content is repeated over a long time rather than crammed into a short time.
Course navigation is perhaps the most essential design consideration, and confusing course navigation causes by far the most frustration for learners. The course structure, and the way learners should navigate through it, must be not only clear, but absolutely, unmistakably clear. Using a module-based design with each week following a similar structure can go a long way toward helping learners navigate through a course. It is also helpful to have a separate document, easily accessible from the main course page, that clearly lays out the objectives, activities, and expectations for each module.
Assessment and Feedback
The biggest debates around MOOCs in higher education revolve around the issue of assessment. Corporate training largely escapes much of the controversy because the outcomes of the training are more readily measured: Can employees apply the newly learned concepts and skills on the job? Assessments in MOOCs can take many forms, including knowledge assessments (e.g., multiple choice quizzes), practical projects (e.g., data analysis, business writing), and getting feedback from fellow learners (e.g., on presentation skills, public speaking, etc.). The best assessments are directly relevant to employees’ needs – adult learners vastly prefer just-in-time training to just-in-case training – so assignments and projects should give learners the opportunity to apply what they learn each week.
Facilitation and Support
Most MOOCs are facilitated by at least one instructor and a couple of teaching assistants (TAs). The facilitators send announcements, answer questions, and monitor the discussion boards for high-interest topics and recurring technical problems. This facilitation is essential both to help learners keep on task and to enhance the feeling of an individualized learning experience, even in a class of thousands.
Of course, in a class of thousands, the instructors rarely have the opportunity to interact individually with students, so an additional level of support is needed. Results from a study of MIT’s first MOOC showed that the strongest predictor of students’ success was whether or not they worked offline with someone else on the material. It didn’t matter whether that someone else was a subject matter expert or a fellow student – the important thing was some form of in-person support. Coursera has recently launched a program to provide more learning support (though it is still delivered online) – professors teaching a MOOC for a second or third time are encouraged to review the discussion boards from earlier implementations and identify the students who were the most active and the most helpful. These students are invited back to the course as “community TAs.” Corporate training programs offer may options for learner support, including recruiting community TAs and organizing learners into offline groups based on department or physical location. Not only will learning be more effective, but these groups will foster teamwork and cooperation.
As you can see, the design considerations for MOOCs are not inherently different from those for traditional e-learning or even instructor-led training. But because the courses themselves are massive, the effects of even small problems can become greatly amplified. Careful planning and sound course design are the fundamental ingredients of MOOC success.
Copyright 2013 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.
Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– offers 25+ years of training and talent management helping executives, business owners, and top performing sales executives in taking the leap from the ordinary to extraordinary. Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.
Learn more about Bryant at LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/bryantnielson