Reflections upon completing a MOOC

I am currently working on a project researching the use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) so I thought it would be useful to try one for myself to find out what they can be like for a learner. I chose an open course from one of the major providers on a subject of personal interest to me (photography). Here are a few of my early thoughts.

Before I go any further it is probably best to define a MOOC. It can be a very vague term but the key features of a MOOC appear to be:

  • It is online
  • It can incorporate short videos and activities
  • Learners can access help via an online forum
  • It can include peer mentoring and assessment

I think the crucial aspect of a MOOC is the opportunity it offers dispersed learners to work together to meet their learning needs. This is the Massive part. It is the end-user interaction that is important as it gives the learner to opportunity to learn from the content but also from their peers.

End-user interaction is a crucial characteristic of a MOOC
The earliest MOOCs were developed in conjunction with large academic institutions and were open to all. More recently there has been a move towards creating MOOCs for corporations and other closed institutions. The course I took was one of the former run in conjunction with MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art. It was for personal use (the subject was the art of photography) so unlike a professional course there may be different issues surrounding motivation and completion (typically only 4% of participants complete a public MOOC). Having said that the organisers of the event had many efforts to keep the participants engaged both before the programme and throughout.

These included a welcome email which apart from offering practical information on accessing the course, also helped build anticipation so encouraging the learner to buy into the course and retain their motivation. The welcome email included useful information on how to stay the course such as inviting a friend to complete it with you, and sharing your progress on social media. Secondly, the course itself was relatively short (six weeks) and really only required about an hour’s commitment each week. Having said that, there was additional reading the learner to uncover more about the subject. Finally there was a good mix of materials to keep the learner engaged such as videos, podcasts and a live webchat.

The programme consisted of three parts: the actual content which included text, videos and slide shows; a discussion forum; and assessments.

The content could be viewed on different devices and the videos could be downloaded to my iPad. However different technology was needed to make some of the content work – there was a mobile and desktop friendly versions of the slideshows (and the former didn’t always work).

The first week of the discussion forum was an opportunity for the participants to introduce themselves. It was a bit intimidating on day one to view the empty discussion forum (there was no input from the moderator at this point) and wonder what I should say. Eventually someone else beat me to it. In later weeks the discussion was more directed with a specific question being asked. I noted that there appeared to be less interaction between the participants at this stage. The questions could encourage lengthy responses and it was possible that others found it difficult to reply in an appropriate manner.

The third part of the programme was the assessment. Whilst participation in the weekly discussions was optional the learner could not proceed without completing each week’s assessment. The programme included a process to identify the learner completing the assessment, in this case using my webcam and keyboard strokes. The questions themselves were very often little more than a memory test so I quite quickly got into the habit of going straight to the assessment, printing the screen and having it by my side as I worked through the rest of the content.

So the key things I got out of the programme (apart from new perspectives on looking at photographs) was that:

  • There needs to be a process of building anticipation beforehand to encourage motivation.
  • Some means of accountability needs to be encouraged to maximise completion. In this case it was about doing the course with a friend. In an educational or work environmental this could equate to fellow students or work colleagues.
  • The content needs to work across different platforms successfully.
    The purpose of discussion forums needs to be considered carefully. In week one they were a chat facility – in later weeks they were more a means of submitting short essays.
  • If multiple choice questions are used the wording of the questions needs to be thought about to avoid them simply being a memory test

Tell me or let me learn for myself

Which works best?

One of my earlier postings was all about trying to create interactive training whether the learner is encouraged to uncover the information themselves, rather than simply having it presented to them. This is a conversation I have regularly with some of the people I have worked with. My inclination is to go with the higher levels of interaction but is it worth going to all that trouble to create something where they have to complete an activity when you could have just told them? I thought I would reflect upon the pros and cons of each approach.

It’s worth pointing out right at the start that an effective e-learning module can (and probably should) contain a mix of the two but what should the proportions be like?

Let’s begin by looking at presenting the learning.

My first question would be how well can the information be retained.

The answer is dependent upon how well the information has been presented. Masses of text is likely to slide off the eye balls, but perhaps if it is presented in a more engaging manner; a video, for example; and a script that has been well-written then it is more likely to work.

The second question I would ask myself is how well can it meet an actionable objective.

If the training requires the learner to be able to do something differently afterwards, telling them might not be enough. It might be necessary to in some way replicate the activity. This is not just the case for task based training; it is also appropriate for when trying to change behaviours or attitudes. An exhortation, if well presented, might work but allowing the learner to experience (as far as possible) why they should change their behaviour or attitude would be much more effective.

To present information effectively, the subject needs to be presented in a simple and engaging way and it needs to primarily relate to information awareness objectives (“I know…”, “I have been told…”).

Has the instructional designer fully engaged with the content?

One other risk is that sometimes just presenting the information might mean the instructional designer has not fully engaged with the content; they are doing little more than a simple copy and paste job.  No-one reading this will have produced such material themselves but I am sure we have all experienced examples of e-learning where the interactions seem to consist of clicking on multiple buttons to display pop-ups, the sole purpose of which is to cram as much text as possible on the screen (with the occasional bit of clip art thrown in).

So what about interactive? Is it better? Well, it can take a long time to develop and can be technically demanding but then so can a high quality video or animation. The ID needs to really engage with the content provided by the SME – not simply re-present in a truncated form – in order to repurpose it for exercises or games but a good quality ID will do that anyway.

Are learners more likely to retain information they have found out for themselves?

Surely the learner is more likely to retain something they have had to uncover for themselves rather than simply be told it? You would think so but the jury is out on this one. One of my favourite books at the moment, “Urban Myths about Learning and Education” devotes a whole chapter to the subject and suggests that it might not always be the case. Sometimes the learner is so busy doing the exercise they fail to take it in.

If you want to change behaviours simply telling them might not be enough.

An activity can be more easily mapped to actionable objectives. “I can…”, “I am able to…”. Arguably this is what training in a corporate environment is all about. Your job as a trainer is change how people do things so it affects the bottom line of the business whether this is to sell more products or services, or do something in a more efficient manner. If you’re trying to get people to do something differently simply telling them might not be enough; it might be better to create an activity that puts them in the situation.

As an example I can, as a former cycle instructor,  tell you that the safest place to ride a bicycle on a road with no high quality segregated cycle facilities is the middle of the road, right in the eye line of the driver behind you. In my experience most people’s reaction is to disbelieve it. However, have a look at this. It was a simple online game I created for a cycle training company. You may not still be convinced but you may now be more open to the possibility. (Note it was published in Flash).

Keep the presentation short and sweet

So upon reflection, both have their place and to create training that is exclusively one or the other would not be effective. However, when presenting information, it should be done in an engaging manner and it should not be a short cut for the instructional designer to avoid engaging with the subject. And it should be kept as short as possible. Most of you are probably fully aware of Cathy Moore’s contention that the information should be the minimum required for the learner to be able to successfully complete an activity which matches their real world experiences.  And finally, make sure the approach is appropriate to the subject and the objective; if the learners just need to be aware of something there is really no point creating an activity (although a part of me wonders if all the objectives are simply awareness raising whether that is a job for a department other than learning and development) but if they need to be able to do something then an activity would be the best solution.

Systems training – dealing with the systems owner

Last time I introduced Jayne, a new joiner to the company, to understand the end-user’s take on systems training. This time, meet Georgie. She is in charge of one of the systems the business uses. She has worked with it over many years and has got to know the ins and outs of it very well, including some of its little foibles.

Your job, as the instructional designer, is to somehow get all of that information out of her head and translate it into e-learning that will help people like Jayne use the system more effectively.

Here are my top ten suggestions for how to do just that.

Get the system owner to focus on what people really need to know

Ask the systems owner to focus on what people really need to do and try to keep the explanations as simple as possible. Sometimes they have spent so much time with the system they know it inside out and they may forget others are less familiar with it. They can get carried away with all its intricacies and want to tell you all about it when the end users might need to know the basics.

Ask them to sell the system to you!

Encourage them to provide you with an introductory overview of the system. Get them to sell it to you!  This content could be included in a short and punchy animation or similar at the start of the training.

Talk storytelling with the systems owner

Storytelling is a great way to engage learners and there is usually a story to be told with most systems. There is a process that needs to be completed. Discuss scenarios with the systems owner to put the training in the context of the user such as Jayne. These scenarios could be used for the final training.

Have meaningful data.

In which case you will need to make sure there is relevant and meaningful dummy data. It will make it easier for the learner if the data appears relevant

Can you create just-in-time demos to go with the training?

Consider creating demos for “just-in-time” training as well as for the e-learning module. This will minimise the need to go into too much detail in the formal training. This shouldn’t need the ‘story-telling’ context learning where the learner’s own need creates the context and relevance. You will need to consider where it will sit, though.

How will you capture the steps of the process?

Consider how you will capture the steps of the process with the systems owner. At the very least take screenshots of each step and include copious notes. If you have screen recording software such as Captivate or Camtasia that’s even better although bear in mind that these could be the rough shots and might not be appropriate for the final output – you might need to re-record them when you have a finalised script.

Take lots of notes!

Whether you use screenshots or recordings make sure you include copious notes so that you know not only what button to press but why.

Are you recording from the most up to date version?

Make sure that you have an up-to-date version of the system. You might be able to get away with slight differences such as a paler shade of green on the menu but not if buttons have a different name.

Give realistic timings for the project

Designing and developing systems training is not a quick process (although the time required will depend on the complexity of the system). Let the systems owner know how lengthy the process of going through the steps and reviewing them all could be.

Make sure you have an easy way for the systems owner (and others) to review the training

Consider how the review process is handled. One way is to create short demos (rushes?) of the steps and share these with the system owners and other stakeholders, possibly in conjunction with a Word document listing all the steps.


If you have any comments, feel free to add them below.