Why Every Teacher Should Make a MOOC

It took me a little longer than usual to think of what I wanted to write about this week for T509.  This week’s readings took us on a deep dive into the MOOC production process and we had several HarvardX and edX folks come and speak to our class about what it’s like to work with faculty to produce one of these online learning experiences.  Going into the class, I had one key question.  According to The Chronicle of Higher Education article, MOOCs have shown very little success in terms of outcomes for students and MOOC professors seem fairly split on whether or not their courses will ever actually be recognized for credit at major institutions.  Yet, the vast majority of MOOC professors reported that they believe MOOCs are “worth the hype.”  I couldn’t help by wonder:  If MOOCs do not seem to hold much promise in progressing student outcomes and lowering barriers to higher education, why in the world do MOOC professors think they are so awesome?

Enter Annie Valva, Associate Director of Instructional Development at HarvardX.  In a matter of minutes of talking to our class, Annie had me at the edge of my seat as she answered a very tough question about HarvardX MOOCs:  Why is Harvard even doing this?  She summed up her response with her “3 R’s:”

Reach – To increase the number of people who have access to courses by prestigious Harvard faculty beyond campus and the USA.

Research – Each MOOC course generates potentially millions of data points about online learning that can help uncover answers to big questions about new education trends.

Recirculation – Professors who make MOOCs take their key learnings and new media resources back to their normal “residential” classes to improve teaching in learning on campus.

As you can tell from the bold, the third “R” was the one that really caught my attention.  Annie herself emphasized the importance of this normally unseen goal.  Annie went on to discuss many anecdotes of notable professors who stated many ways in which MOOCs impacted the way that they think about teaching and learning in all settings, not just online.  Clearly, this got me thinking about why in the world would making a MOOC have that kind of impact on how college professors think about teaching.  I have a few theories:

1.  The MOOC design process requires professors to think deeply about course design.  Annie discussed with us how professors at HarvardX have to go through a rigorous process to outline their course and think about pedagogy before HarvardX will start making their course a reality.  She found that when first asking professors what their learning goals were for the course and how they would measure learner outcomes, many of them responded with a blank stare.  This was the first time for many of these professors in the decades they had been teaching that they were asked to stop and be purposeful about what they were teaching and what they wanted students to learn.  Not only that, but Annie also mentioned that professors were constantly referred back to those goals and outcomes when making small decisions in the process (such as what questions to ask or what to include in a short video).

2.  MOOC professors had the opportunity to work with an diverse interdisciplinary team with innovative resources to make their course a reality.  HarvardX’s team includes software engineers, media producers, film editors, a talent coaches, and many other skill sets to make a professor’s vision come to life.  With this access, a professor actually has a powerful team and set of resources to use to find innovative ways to present materials and measure student outcomes.  They are also supported through the whole process by individuals from various backgrounds to constantly present new ideas and give feedback on course choices.

3.  MOOC professors are designing for a way of learning that they know very little about.  Every teacher at one point has been a student in a classroom, but a much smaller number have ever been a student in an online course with multiple thousands of classmates.  When designing their courses, MOOC professors are thinking about reaching and retaining an audience of learners that they are really unfamiliar with.  It’s amazing to me how such a small shift suddenly leads to choices such as “videos can only be about 10 minutes long” and “we need to include constant formative assessment to see how they’re doing.”  In reality, those teaching choices are not much different than good practices that are frequently ignored in traditional classrooms.  It’s interesting that, by simply making the audience seem unfamiliar, it becomes easier to adopt teaching practices that seem so heavily resisted in familiar environments.

These are only a few of the theories flying around my head, but this brings me to the title of this post:  every teacher should make a MOOC.  Now, clearly I’m not really saying that all teachers in the world should go out and haphazardly attempt to make a class to educate thousands of learners.  There is something going on here, however, that I do not think educators should ignore.

When thinking about issues in our current education system, both higher education and K-12, teacher quality is something that comes up time and time again.  As a young teacher myself, I constantly struggle with finding ways to improve my teaching and turn my classroom into a place where deep learning is happening.  It sounds to me that making a MOOC would be an amazing way for me to develop my teaching skills.  I would love the opportunity to work with a diverse team to develop a course I care about from start to finish and deeply think about how my choices affect student outcomes.  I would love to team up with media specialists to create videos and animations that bring learning to life in the classroom and create learning experiences through technology.  Most of all, I would love to launch my course ideas and see how they work with a “massive” audience.  In a way, that massive size of the audience and the nature of MOOCs would make the whole experience fairly low-stakes.  If my course stinks, none of my learners would not really miss out on anything since MOOC completion currently counts for very little and now I would have a platform to rethink teaching for a more high-stakes audience.  In the process, I would have learned a ton about what innovative teaching practices look like so I can apply them to my classroom practice.

In reality, these elements of deep thinking about course design, interdisciplinary collaboration, and an unfamiliar low-stakes audience seems like an ideal recipe for an amazing teacher preparation course.  These ideas have me thinking not about how MOOCs may change the educational landscape for students, but how they can change it for teachers.

I’ll admit, the idea of scaling the creation of massive education is slightly absurd, but I do think there is something we can learn from MOOC production about how we can start improving teacher quality.  Aside from my small theories developed during my morning T ride, it would be interesting to really take a look at what happens during MOOC production that results in big changes in teacher mindsets about teaching and learning.  We should take advantage of the current hype around MOOCs to answer a new question:  how do we scale a teacher’s experience of scaling education?

One thought on “Why Every Teacher Should Make a MOOC

  1. The point about professors being forced to reevaluate their teaching as they created MOOCs stood out to me, too. It’s a way of making their work visible, not just to more students, but to themselves. I think creating a MOOC is worth it for that alone.


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