5 things I learned from writing a MOOC

Last year I authored a MOOC (massive open online course) about managing public money for the Open University. It was an interesting and enjoyable project to work on, and I learned an awful lot the production of online courses. Here are five of the lessons I learned.

1. Stay focused

I’m an expert in managing public money and can write about it at length. I know this is true because I wrote a book about it with over 120,000 words. It is tempting, therefore, to write as much as you can in each step of each lesson in order to give the learner as much value as possible (even though the course is free). It is better, though, to keep the lessons focused in order to give the learners only what they need to know. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry put it:

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

2. Variety is important

The MOOC I was writing was destined for the FutureLearn platform. This platform has many different types of webpage that can be used. These include video and audio steps, quizzes and tests, and discussion pages as well as a basic template for formatted text and inline images (much the same as a standard blog template).

I know from my own teaching that learners will soon switch off if I just stand at the front a lecture for 90 minutes straight. Classes need changes to happen every ten minutes or so. The same is true for a MOOC. Each step in the lesson needs to be kept short enough to be completed in under 10 minutes and there should be a variety of steps making up the lesson. This means mixing up text with other media and incorporating activities and discussions along the way. If you don’t do that you are basically writing a book and one of the attractions of an online course is that it is more alive than a book.

3. Stick to the budget

When I first fleshed out my plan for all the steps in each of the four weekly lessons I went crazy with all the options for different kinds of steps. I thought I’d put together a really interesting, exciting lesson for each week. In fact, I had done exactly that. The problem came when it was presented to the producer of the MOOC and she had to tell me that the budget for the course meant I could have no more than two video steps in a lesson and depending on the fees paid for videos from third parties, I would have to limit the amount of images, etc.

I’m an accountant and I know that the budget rules. It was frustrating though. It was also frustrating to discover that the fee for authoring the MOOC was about 5% of the budget. I’d like to think that creating the content is valued more highly than that given that there would be no course without it. I should not have been surprised, really, since it’s much the same with books in terms of author royalties. 

4. Clearance takes a long time

The overall production process was about 20 weeks but only 8 weeks was planned for the writing and editing of the content. The rest of the time was needed for all the other activities like uploading the content to the draft site, building and checking hyperlinks, etc. One thing I had not expected was how long it takes to get permission from third parties to use their material. I had not referenced very many things like this but it still took weeks to get permission. 

I had also specified what I wanted as images to illustrate various steps and there was a fairly long process of findings suitable images, sending them to me to select my favourite, and then acquiring the rights to use the selected images.

There are two particular things I learned. One was that permission is not needed if you are simply putting a hyperlink into your course. This is a useful workaround if you cannot wait any longer for a response to your request for permission (as we did for one step of my course) but the downside is that it takes the learner off to a different website and we all know that runs the risk that they will be distracted by something and not come back to the course immediately.

The second aspect of this is that you can avoid the need to seek permission if you create the content yourself. This can be practical for things like diagrams and even some video material but it also brings back lesson 3 and the budget for the course. For some of the content you can’t create yourself, such as stock photos and videos, you can still look for royalty-free versions. There are lots of sites for these. For photos, I like Unsplash.

5. Leave room for the learners’ voices

It's easy to focus on delivering content to the learners but if you do that the course will be didactic. In a classroom it's always possible to stop talking if you sense someone has a question to ask. A MOOC can't be interactive in that way but it is possible to include a comments feature at the bottom of any of the steps where learners can ask questions, of the author or other learners, as well as make comments. As the author you can go a bit further and include requests in the text for learners to make comments, perhaps sharing their own experience. It is also possible to think of activities that learners can do which require them to report their answers/findings in the comments section. All of these things bring the learners' voices into the MOOC and make it a richer experience for everyone.

I’ve learned these lessons, and more, and I am using them to create  courses at my own online school. I have lots of ideas for courses and some of them are in various stages of production. I have finished one course: 5 questions to ask about your budget. It’s a short course (less than an hour to complete) and it’s completely free. Not only is it free, you also get a copy of my glossary of financial terms as a bonus. You can find the course here.

Image by Philip Veater on Unsplash