Friday, 19 April 2013

ScHARR MOOC Diaries - Part VIII: Developing a template for structuring weekly MOOC content

'Where MOOCs and online dating sites collide' by Luke Miller
Last week, members of the ScHARR MOOCs team met to decide on how we could best deliver the content for each of our MOOCs. If you have been fortunate enough to participate in a MOOC already, then the chances are you will be aware of the many differing modes of delivery available (see Jenny’s post for more information on xMOOCs vs cMOOCs).

Traditional formats appear commonplace in the current MOOC offering, for example, having delivered content, the course leader will sit behind a desk and discuss some of the concepts and debates raised by MOOC participants that week. Indeed there are approaches which are even more ‘hands-off ‘ than this!

The MOOC mob all agreed that we wanted to be innovative and offer something that would differ from this traditional approach. We wanted to foster a greater degree of interactivity and engagement. The challenge here of course is that like everyone else we don’t have an unlimited resource of tutor time to plough into it.

Recent discourses in online learning have offered a replacement to the concept of the ‘sage on the stage’, and the notion of a ‘guide on the side’ has emerged as one alternative for the role of the tutor in online distance learning.  Again, this notion didn’t quite capture our vision for the dynamic we were hoping to foster with our MOOC participants. We spent some time playing with words which encapsulated our fresh approach to MOOC hosting, and we have arrived at the following mission statement: 'the architects who project, collect, dissect and connect’

To expand on this:

  • project (broadcasting / presenting content to stimulate the discussion),
  • collect (collating resources, responses and discourse)
  • dissect (unpick the discourse and identify the key issues of importance to the subject and our participants)
  • connect (we are all about connections - building and fostering links with and between participants and areas of interest to further the subject understanding)

The notion of subject expertise is, for many, becoming less widely held. Certainly, having completed four years of research into a particular field, culminating in a thesis , one is likely to have a greater understanding and knowledge of their specific subject than the average person. However in this age of ‘information overload’ it never fails to amaze me just how informed and engaged the ‘average’ person is on food issues – even if sometimes the information obtained is not so accurate. Combine this with the global context of student populations (we have participants enrolling on our MOOC from all corners of the globe), and the often specific cultural focus of academic research and it soon becomes apparent that as course leaders there is the opportunity for vital information exchange. For a subject area like healthy and sustainable diets, this provides a learning experience  for us as course tutors, but also between our MOOC participants, and could enable new links to be forged, providing a platform to connect interested parties for future research projects.Therefore arguably the research field is developed as our global understanding of how scenarios impact on different communities in different ways is built upon through participant discourse.

So back to our meeting. The big question of how we were going to deliver our content loomed and we talked about the different options, the tools at our disposal and the pedagogical benefits or different avenues. We settled upon a template which we could apply to each MOOC’s weekly content. Having such a template would hopefully mean the students would quickly become orientated with the structure and how to study each week. It also meant that staff working on developing the MOOCs had a ready made mould into which they could poor materials and so on. Being the first MOOC offered by the university, we wanted to keep the outline format as simple as possible, and not commit ourselves to anything we wouldn’t be confident in delivering, or which may overburden our participants. We finally settled on a weekly template, shown below:

Our Weekly template:

We will be presenting weekly content in the following format.

1. First of all the week’s intended learning outcomes will be shared with the participants just to formalise what we’re hoping the achieve during the week.

2. We will then provide a short video (approximately 2 minutes) which will take the form of a talking head from one or more of the MOOC leaders. The video will introduce the key course content for each week, and highlight any other significant tasks or exercises so the participants will know exactly the scope of their week’s learning and what is being expected from them.

3. We will then provide a series of pages of content which will be varied and may include one or more of following:

  • Pages of guided reading (either onscreen or by pointing to openly available articles and reports online)
  • Screencasts or videos (pointing to resources such as youtube, vimeo, echo360 and screencast-o-matic)
  • Weblinks to interesting and relevant website or policy documents etc.
  • Opinions from multiple academic staff or subject experts
  • Self-assessment questionnaires to check as participants progress through the week that they are understanding.
  • Formative “reveal box” activities whereby participants are asked a question and invited to type an answer before being provided with a ‘model’ answer with which they can compare to their own response.
  • Images, diagrams and tables of information

4. We will provide weekly topic areas giving participants the opportunity to post reflective blog entries. These will be shared with the cohort. Participants will be encouraged to engage in the ‘community spirit’ by reading and responding to each other’s reflections.

5. A synchronous “live” Blackboard Collaborate session will be scheduled at the end of each week in which the MOOC tutors will present consolidatory slides on the week’s learning, discuss the blog topic area and pull out interesting posts and comments. These sessions will participatory (we will use the chat window for comments during the session) and will also seek to answer any questions that the MOOC team have received during the week and also give a preview of what will be covered in the following week.

6. In addition to the Collaborate session, we will be opening a weekly discussion forum where conversations can be continued outside of the live session. Due to the potential volume of posts in these forums, we will be offering a ‘loose’ moderation style, ie the MOOC team will monitor posts for appropriateness however will not guarantee that tutors will respond to threads.

Alongside all of the above, we will be encouraging participants to engage with the MOOC tutors in tweeting using the hashtags we are associating with the MOOCs. For the diets MOOC we will be using #dietsmooc. The MOOC welcome pages will contain an embedded twitter feed filtering in all tweets which use this hashtag. Participants are welcome to start tweeting amongst themselves prior to the course commencing, and indeed to respond to Tweets posted by course leaders.

All in all this is an exciting prospect for us as course leaders, but also for all our participants who have enrolled on one of the ScHARR MOOCS. The prospect of being part of such an exciting project which combines learning, participation and research all in one is waiting to be embraced, and we encourage everybody to get on board!

Angie and Luke

Friday, 12 April 2013

The ScHARR MOOC Diaries part VII - Jack and the Giant Course - Getting a MOOC to Market

Jack and the Giant Course - Getting a MOOC to Market

'The Only Way is Up' - © Luke Miller - Image used under a Creative Commons By Attribution  Licence 

When creating a MOOC there are several factors you have to consider, all of which eats up precious time. From the previous posts on whether we can actually do this to deciding on a platform, and pulling a team of experts together, we can see that setting up and running a MOOC is no easy thing - and we’ve not even got on to the other 'M' word just yet - marketing.

Marketing in the traditional sense is quite simple, you identify a target group who you think might be interested in your product and push it that way. MOOCs are quite different from that, first of all we are running three health-related courses, which naturally is of interest to a wide range of people and organisations, from the NHS to BUPA, from governing bodies to charities, from health practitioners to members of the general public, and ultimately this can be applied on a global scale.

So the courses are truly global in their appeal as we are all interested in our health and that of others in some way. This potentially means there are a lot of interested parties and individuals that we want to get the message to and as I said earlier, running a MOOC is labour intensive regardless of marketing. 

By Colin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So with that in mind we are treating the marketing of our MOOCs like an onion, that there are many layers we need to peel back.

Firstly starting closest to home we already have a cohort of current health-research students on site, most of whom are from Africa and Asia. As we saw in Dan Smith’s post on managing participant enrolment we have managed to entice students from that part of the globe to our MOOCs. Certainly the anecdotal evidence from a lot of MOOCs is that the majority are being undertaken by people who either have a higher education background, whether as students or staff. Certainly every MOOC seems to attract students who are academic staff who are either interested in the course content or more often how the MOOC is run. The real untapped potential of MOOCs is that they begin to attract the greater numbers of students who have not attended a higher education establishment before in addition to those from parts of the world where this is much harder to attain specialist health education..

We also want our staff to enrol on the courses, whether just for the in-house pilot we plan to run ahead of the first course or as students when they are formally released. The main reasons being that they get to not only see and feel what it’s like to be in a MOOC, but to be a distance learner as some may go on to deliver learning via our various e-learning channels.

The next layers are the Faculty of Medicine of which we are part of, with over 1000 staff and several 1000 students we want them to take part in the first MOOC at the University of Sheffield. Much of this marketing will and has taken place via internal electronic mailing lists, personal contacts, our ScHARR MOOC Diary Blog and the University Learning Technology Blog. Then there is the whole University, again the courses will be publicised as previously mentioned but will also include features on our University homepage, thus taking us beyond the University firewall, which has huge potential. On campus we can employ traditional marketing methods including posters, newsletters and business cards. Whilst any colleagues travelling to conferences and events have been encouraged to take our MOOC materials with them.

It’s beyond this firewall where much of our marketing will take place and for this to happen more effectively we need champions and support beyond our MOOC team. This comes from internal experts who work in our marketing and media teams to help channel the news of our MOOCs to established contacts with national and international organisations. We are based in Sheffield, at a University that has strong ties with the local community, a community that has inequalities in the quality of health of its population.

So it’s fitting that our courses, one of which is on the said topic reaches out to those with an interest in it. We plan to promote the courses to local organisations, the two large teaching hospitals, charities and individuals who will benefit from this open sharing of health education. We have good connections with the local media, from BBC Radio Sheffield to the Sheffield newspapers, who really can reach out to the local population. 

It’s at this point that a need for translation becomes much more important, for those of us who have worked at an academic institution and gotten our heads around MOOCs it is all too simple to forget that to others things can get lost in translation - how many people outside of a university knows what a MOOC is? 

As someone who spent a lot of time reporting on council and court proceedings as a journalism student some many years ago I learned how important it was to turn council-speak and legalese into something that the person on the street could understand. Talking about MOOCs is OK, but sometimes we have to understand that not everyone knows what it is, and why it may be different from another online course that is free. By writing a simple one page ‘press release’ or offering FAQs and glossary of terms we remove much of the barriers that sometimes intimidates those who have never set foot on an academic campus.

The courses are of massive potential for the NHS, an organisation where staff often struggle to find time or funds for carrying on professional development. Reaching out to the NHS is not always that easy due to the scale of the organisation and barriers set around it, so champions are needed. As for champions they rarely come more enthusiastic or connected than health librarians with a huge network of NHS libraries to collaborate with. Libraries are often the central hub of health organisations, so are an ideal place to help spread the courses organically. The altruistic nature of MOOCs has been a driving force for us at ScHARR and by including the NHS as best as we can it feels we are giving something back to this important workforce. As the marketing starts to extend nationally and globally it becomes increasingly important that the duplication of effort is paid attention to. Anyone involved in running a MOOC can transmit the courses via their personal networks, and over time the need for a single uninformed message explaining in simple terms what the courses and MOOCs in general are about. The plan to explore is by collaborating with journalists, academics and established bloggers based in the health education sector by sending press packs. These packs will include short briefs on each course, something about MOOCs, and ScHARR, poster materials and business cards.

Video is also an important part of our marketing strategy and we have already recorded our first one wit Dr Angie Clonan introducing our MOOCs.

According to technology giant Cisco Systems, video is forecast to be the dominant format for mobile and computers and with YouTube uploading 72 hours of content for every hour we have understood at ScHARR for some time that video is increasingly an effective way to communicate, teach and learn.

Discussion and mailing lists may have been around for decades but still remain an important communication tool for discussing everything from health to communication. The opportunities for marketing the courses is extensive. These will include JISC mail lists, Environment Job, Charity Job email lists to name but a few.

In addition, video channels (such as YouTube and Vimeo) and other social media channels are being explored. This obviously means targeting Facebook and their groups, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.Edu, Mendeley Groups, alongside other the micro-blogging giant Twitter. Already we have seen spikes in our enrolment numbers potentially attributed to the little bird and tweets we’d posted about our MOOCs. We have already employed the #scharrmoocs hashtag via our @ScHARRsheffield and @openScHARR accounts and posted on our ScHARR Facebook pages. At the University we have been using Google Apps for Education for nearly two years now and many of the #scharrmoocs team are active on Google+ as a result sharing updates on the courses there.

The ScHARR MOOCs for this summer/autumn are all hosted on the Blackboard platform Coursesites as discussed in our second post. This brings our courses to the huge number of students already undertaking courses there. Our courses are part of the catalogue of courses hosted by other institutions that will hopefully bring additional students to our course, with the benefit of many already using the Coursesites platform previously to undertake a MOOC.

There are countless avenues for anyone starting up a MOOC and we’ve only covered a few here. It very much depends on your target audience, but the MOO in MOOC is a clue as to how you promote your course. They are potentially massive, and certainly on-line and open, so the sky is literally the limit as to how far you pitch them. The only real limit is a big one and that is resources, getting the message out there effectively is no small thing. Following up posts and mail outs and checking for responses in threads and groups could potentially take up more resources. To go back to the analogy of the title, when you do start planting the seeds you are unsure of what will grow and how big it will get. With an effective marketing plan you not only have a better chance of making your MOOC massive but you also build the networks for future courses and for established communication channels with your students that begin before and hopefully do not end ‘ever-after’ the course has finished.

Monday, 8 April 2013

The ScHARRMOOC Diaries part VI - Managing participant enrolment

The ScHARRMOOC Diaries part VI - Managing participant enrolment

Since we allowed participants to start registering on our ScHARR MOOCs on the 8th Feb 2013 we have had a steady stream of sign-ups (with occasional ‘surges’). At the time of writing this latest ScHARR MOOC Diary entry we currently have over 480 registered ‘MOOCsters’.

But how exactly are we managing this process? How are we ensuring that this doesn't incur an unmanageable administrative load?

Well, let’s start by looking at the process we have in place for accepting registrations.

The sign-up process 

The process we were going to use had to be nailed down before we made anything available - changing once students started signing up would have been a disaster. We had 3 options for the entry to our MOOCs:
  1. completely open, no signup - like a public-facing website that has scheduled activities. This would have made analysing the users of the course further down the line problematic not to mention any moderating.
  2. self enrolment, semi-open - the course available to view but with everything but the homepage hidden. They can only see as much of the course as we want them to see at the moment, so we can still turn on some of the tools and make them available before the start and we have a natural place in the homepage to post or link to additional information.
  3. it could be self enrolled with the everything hidden - this is what most MOOCs I have seen so far have done, with just a separate webpage outlining the course. Keeping as much information as possible inside the course made most sense.

We went for option 2. The process is outlined in the slide below...

As it mentions students can ask questions before or upon signing up - we have an account ( set up for handling enquiries and set aside time to check incoming mails generated by the sign up process for questions about the courses. This initially was handled by Luke but once the volume increased (we’ve had over 100 in a day) some admin help from Jess and Jon (thanks!) was arranged. We have created a MOOC FAQs page, based on the kinds of enquiries we are receiving from would-be participants, to help minimise the admin load.

Who is signing up?

So, whilst coursesites enables us to process our participants in a fairly automated way, we do still have some manual admin tasks that require regular attention.  For starters, we wanted to keep an up-to-date record of who was signing up to which MOOC and when. We are gathering this information by capturing registration request numbers in a google spreadsheet which is updated (manually) daily.

We also wanted to record some basic demographic information about who was actually signing up. More specifically, for each signup, we were interested in the following information:
  • Age
  • Gender
  • Location
  • How they heard about us
  • Why they are doing it

This information is gathered using a google form and for each MOOC we can start to get a picture of where (globally) our participants are coming from

We were also keen to monitor the amount of resource which was being invested internally in terms of staff hours (broken into different roles such as ‘academic’, ‘admin’ and ‘learning technologists’). This would ultimately help inform our ScHARR MOOC evaluations and help with decisions about the viability of running future MOOCS. 

Finally we’ve also embedded google analytics into several pages that lead into the MOOCs - more about those in another post once we have more information from them.

For more information or to sign up go to our ScHARR MOOCs registration page.

Luke and Dan