Understanding the value of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)


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Understanding the value of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)
Image Credit: Cali4beach/Flickr

After 30 years in a corporate learning setting, I wanted to try something different. So, I decided to experiment in the world of online teaching, knowing I could share my passion of big data and learning with an even larger audience (after all, the “M” in MOOC stands for “massive”).

Armed with a topic I was passionate about (big data for learning), I worked with online learning platform Udemy to build my first course. Not only did this experience allow me the opportunity to expand my audience, but it also yielded a few best practices for others looking to do the same.

Lesson 1: The content itself is only half the battle

When it comes to the content, think about it in context. While the content of any course is key, I was surprised to find that it’s just as important to emphasize the timing and format of the content’s “unveiling.”

Massive Open Online Course instructors have two routes they can take:

1: Release each course separately
2: Release all their content at once

When trying to identify which route is best for you, consider whether your intended audience is likely to have the time to binge-watch. For example, an audience of busy working professionals likely only has the time (and patience) for courses that are cut into small installments. This type of audience consumes online content in a way best described as “primal” – i.e., they devour the skills and topics for which they are hungriest and those that are the most “nutritious,” then quickly get on with their busy lives.

Instructors who clearly lay out the course’s content in an introductory syllabus-style outline streamline the process for their students, allowing them to more directly access the course lessons that are most relevant to them. Releasing the content in phases has the added benefit of giving you the chance to incorporate audience feedback and make improvements along the way.

For instance, A trio of three-minute videos might be more digestible than a single video that is nine minutes long.

Lesson #2: Don’t overvalue the “course completion rate” statistic

One of the most frequent – and quite frankly bogus – criticisms we hear about MOOCs is that course completion rates are extremely low, suggesting that students lose interest and ultimately learn nothing.

The beauty of the on-demand MOOC format (i.e., students start and stop their classes as they desire) is that the student is in the driver’s seat. Asking “what are completion rates?” is the wrong question. Rather, you should be asking, “Did students learn what they needed to know?”

Online learning is different from a traditional academic setting; everyone comes in with a different level of understanding and expertise. Therefore, not everyone needs every segment of every course. A low rate of course completion is a meaningless statistic without any additional context.

Consider your course’s student completion rates in tandem with student feedback. For example: If low completion rates are paired with negative student commentary, then the content may be to blame;  however, if completion rates are low and yet the feedback is positive on the whole, this tells a different story (and is a good sign!). It means the student got what he/she wanted and moved along.

Remember, skill seekers have enrolled in your course to gain a specific skill, so they are likely to focus on the segments of the course that are most relevant and of most value.

Lesson #3: Do pay attention to the numbers in general

The numbers that really matter are the reviews and ratings. Since this is an online learning marketplace, it is important to understand what students perceive the value of your course to be.

But don’t stop there. Each of the various MOOC platforms offer insight into what adjustments can be made to make the course better; or even highlight opportunities for the creation of other courses that may be in demand.

While some data points look exactly as you would expect them to look (e.g., a course on Microsoft Word may have more baby boomers than millennials enrolled), some of the insights will be unexpected and beneficial. For example, I was surprised that none of my students took my lectures over the weekend, and most chose to learn during the day rather than in the evening. Most of my content was consumed between the hours of 4 and 5 p.m. — interestingly during the last hour of their work day.

Rather than make assumptions about when your audience might find it convenient to take your course, offer it on-demand and let them decide.

Data also showed that my students still returned to my lectures to review the content more than three months after it originally launched, which, to me, reinforces the evergreen nature of the content itself. Instructors that create content with a practical, on-the-job application are likely to see students refer back to it in a similar way.

Metrics at your disposal will not only provide insight into possible adjustments, but will shed light on the content itself and the ways it is bringing value to your audience.

Despite my vast experience as an instructor around the world, my first foray into the MOOC world was an enlightening one. When I started out, I expected to expand the size and reach of my audience; what I didn’t expect was the degree to which I would learn something new and expand my own experiences.

Elliott Masie heads The MASIE Center, a New York think tank focused on how organizations can support learning and knowledge within the workforce. In May 2014, Masie created a corporate MOOC on Udemy to deliver content to his Learning CONSORTIUM, a coalition of 230 global organizations cooperating on the evolution of learning strategies. Click here to learn more.


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