Ideas for Creating a MOOC

What do MOOCs look like now?

Two predominant pedagogical approaches underly most MOOCs currently offerred.

The first is essentially a repackaging of an existing lecture-based course: videotaped presentations that are broken up into shorter segments, course readings are selected, forum discussion prompts written, problem sets and quizzes are created, etc. Some MOOCs following this approach use peer-evaluation as a means of including writing assignments in the course. Discussion forums provide an opportunity for students to ask questions, debate notions raised in the course, and seek help with completing assignments. In most MOOCs, answers to questions, guidance on assignments, etc. is provided by fellow students, not professors. Some MOOCs (edX) employ teaching assistants to interact with students, but most do not.

Interestingly, many MOOCs have sparked so-called "meet-ups", students who live in the same city or geographic area and have self-organized study and discussion groups. While this was not part of the initial course design of early MOOCs, it is now being actively encouraged as a way to increase course-related interaction.

The second popular pedagogical approach uses more of an interactive tutorial model. Professors illustrate and explain concepts in a video capture of virtual whiteboard or drawing tablet. The style of this presentation resembles the experience of a student visiting a professor during office hours and receiving a tutorial on a given topic. In order to sustain students' attention and gauge progress in understanding the concepts being taught, the video pauses frequently and students are prompted with a couple multiple-choice questions including corrective feedback before the video continues. If students have failed to grasp something, they can review that segment of the video. Courses using this model also typically include many of the same techniques as lecture-based MOOCs, including discussion forums and meet-ups to promote student interaction.

What might something better look like? 

While some MOOCs and MOOC platforms offer some innovative solutions to the challenge of teaching tens of thousands of students, many MOOCs are uninspiring. One promising approach might be to transform collaborative research projects into MOOCs.

The MOOC being designed by faculty at the University of Nebraska is a compelling example. The idea is to turn the History Harvest project into a MOOC. The goal of the History Harvest project is to create "the people's history" where people share artifacts and stories with student researchers who document and digitize these materials and add them to an online repository.

Here at Amherst, a tool developed to support the (Re)Inventing Tokyo course taught by Professors Sam Morse and Trent Maxey, has evolved into the Cityscapes Project. We can imagine a project in the form of a MOOC started in commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation, where maps of known routes and stops along the Underground Railroad are loaded into the Cityscapes tool and students in the course are tasked with conducting research in local archives, collecting stories and artifacts from families along the route whose history intersected with slavery, and contributing those data to the map-based online repository. 

Citizen science projects may also be a productive model for a MOOC. Zooniverse is a website that hosts a dozen projects, including in the Humanities, where researchers seek the help of interested citizens in analyzing data and in some cases, co-authoring publications reporting research findings. In Botany, Ecology, Astronomy, and Climate Science, just to name a few, many researchers already rely on interested citizens to assist in data collection and analysis. Transforming or extending such projects to include a MOOC could constitute productive means for Amherst faculty to enhance their research, provide additional research opportunities for Amherst students, and recruit the participation of thousands of individuals who already have an academic interest in a given research area and would relish the chance to engage more deeply on the topic.

The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia provides numerous examples of "digital humanities" projects, which could serve as inspirations for MOOCS. Launched in 1992, the IATH has supported 49 humanities projects that involve the creation of repositories and analysis of primary source materials on a wide array of topics in art, history, literature, and architecture.