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Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

On September 19, 2012, Vanderbilt announced a new partnership with the digital learning consortium Coursera.  Coursera is an online platform for open-access, non-credit classes, available at no cost to participants.  Such courses have been dubbed “MOOCs,” or massive open online courses. See Vanderbilt’s Digital Learning site for more information on this partnership. And see CFT director Derek Bruff’s blog post for information on the CFT’s role in this initiative.

MOOCs are characterized by their openness, enabling anyone across the world with an Internet connection to participate.  As a result, most MOOCs have thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of participants. An online course with potentially tens of thousands of students is a very different teaching environment than face-to-face courses or even “traditional” online courses.  Teaching strategies practiced in other teaching contexts won’t necessarily translate well to this context. Indeed, the sets of choices regarding learning objectives, content presentation, assessment, and instructor-to-student and student-to-student interaction are still being developed in this emergent teaching environment.

Vanderbilt MOOCs

Vanderbilt is launching five MOOCs in the first round of the Coursera pilot, during the first half of 2013:

Members of the Vanderbilt and Nashville communities enrolled in these courses who want to meet other “Courserians” are encouraged to participate in meet-ups hosted by the courses here on campus. Visit the Vanderbilt/Coursera Meetup site for more information.

Coursera Resource Guide

To help Vanderbilt faculty explore their options for teaching MOOCs on the Coursera platform, the Center for Teaching has developed a Coursera Resource Guide. The guide, co-authored by CFT graduate assistant Katie McEwen, details common (and uncommon) teaching practices on the Coursera platform in the areas of

  • Setting appropriate learning goals,
  • Structuring online lectures,
  • Designing automatically- and peer-graded assessments, and
  • Facilitating (massive) online learning communities.

Future versions of the guide will also address ways to plan scalable, “crowd friendly” learning activities and integrate on-campus students with online courses.

We can’t share “best” practices in these areas yet, since there’s little research to draw upon, but we can point toward choices by Coursera faculty that seem to be effective.  The guide should give Coursera faculty a sense of what their course design choices are as they plan their Coursera offerings. The guide should also be of use to faculty interested in teaching MOOCs on other platforms.

CFT Support for Coursera Faculty

To help Coursera faculty explore their options for teaching in this new setting, Center for Teaching (CFT) senior staff are available for consultation throughout the course design and implementation phases. The CFT is also happy to host conversations among the Coursera faculty in addition to individual consultations. Additionally, the CFT is interested in conducting research on the Coursera student and faculty experience to better understand how digital tools might enhance learning at Vanderbilt, and we welcome collaborations with interested Coursera faculty.

One note on the online lecture component of Vanderbilt’s Coursera courses for 2012-13: CFT consultants can help Coursera faculty determine the best format (screencasts, “talking head” videos, audio narration, and so on) for their particular online content and think through the mapping between course learning objectives and “chunks” of content.  Once these decisions are made, faculty will work with Michael Martin, digital project manager at the Ingram Commons, who will oversee the taping and editing of the content and uploading of the resulting videos to Coursera.

Please note that we’re prepared to extend the same kind of support to any Vanderbilt faculty member teaching MOOCs, regardless of platform.

For more information or to arrange a consultation, contact CFT director Derek Bruff (derek.bruff@vanderbilt.edu, 322-7290).

More on MOOCs

For an introduction to the Coursera platform, see CFT graduate assistant Katie McEwen’s blog series, “Getting to Know Coursera.” Posts have covered topics such as video lectures, video discussions, assessments, peer assessments, and statements of accomplishment.

CFT director Derek Bruff has also been blogging about Coursera in particular and MOOCs in general. See his posts on the CFT blog and his own blog:

See also this timeline of stories about MOOCs from the Chronicle of Higher Education for a chronology of the development of MOOCs.

In September 2012, American RadioWorks premiered a documentary on MOOCs titled “The World Wide U.” This documentary provides a useful introduction and overview to the MOOCs provided by Coursera, as well as other leading platforms Udacity and EdX.


Watch the following two videos for an introduction to the “connectivist” model of MOOCs, pioneered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The first video provides an overview of this model; the second features an interview with Siemens.



The video below was created by CFT director Derek Bruff in August 2012 as part of his participation in MOOCMOOC, a MOOC about MOOCs. The video gives a sense of where MOOCs fit into other learning spaces and argues that instructors designing MOOCs need to strike the right balance of teacher- and learner-centeredness. (For more on this video, see Derek’s blog post.)

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