Course Development and MOOCs - I

The more things change...

January 7, 2015

As MOOCs, or Massive Online Open Courseware, emerged over the last several years, the shaping of the industry has been widely influenced by a few large actors, such as edX, Coursera and Udacity, as well as the institutions whose content they distribute and repurpose--Harvard, MIT, and Rice among many.

The emergence of this evolving form of courseware, however, has been at least partially dependent on the rise of a new role in higher education, often dubbed the “course developer.” The role may vary slightly based upon the institution, but the core function is to ensure the successful transformation of university content into new formats and uses: online and otherwise.

Recently, with the help of folks at HarvardX, and as a project course on MOOCs taught by Adjunct Lecturer on Education Justin Reich, I set out to examine the course development role across institutions in the edX Consortia to determine if it was uniform across institutions, or a label with little meaning or standard definition.

To do so, I conducted interviews of individuals in course development roles at four different higher education institutions that develop courses for the edX platform. These eight individuals sat down with me for 1-2 hours each, and I used semi-structured interviews to explore their roles, responsibilities, and qualifications.

Across institutions, I found that all individuals in course development roles had baseline knowledge of all the following skills or attributes, though their levels of experience in each varied greatly.

  • Experience with classroom instruction, educational pedagogy, or instructional technology: All the course developers had experience as educators. Some were college teaching assistants, others had teaching certificates or degrees in instructional design, while others had direct classroom experience.
  • Knowledge of course subject matter: Beyond their knowledge of educational pedagogy, all course developers had expertise or knowledge that complimented at least one of the courses they helped build. For example, one course developer had a PhD in the same field as the online course she was developing. Many, in fact, were originally hired as content experts; yet, as they gained expertise in course development and took on other courses and projects, they became generalists.
  • Skills or expertise with multi-media production and editing: Developers had varying knowledge of creating digital content, but all described themselves as having at least a basic proficiency. Some had been professional videographers, others had taken courses, and yet other were self-taught.
  • Project management: Project management turned out to be significant responsibility for all course developers, as a common expectation was the management of the life cycle of a course, the actors necessary for its development, and the content of the course itself.
  • Ability to act as an intermediary between university professors, and web-developers/designers: Course developers had a need to be bilingual, both interacting with professors about the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, and with platform developers to design the delivery and structure of this content online. This interplay was emphasized as an important and essential portion of their jobs.

With these similarities in mind, my fact finding missions suggested relative uniformity existed in the role. In addition, most course developers had largely similar skills and responsibilities within the small sample I explored.

One important variation was present. The frequency with which they used these skills varied greatly across courses. For example, one developer noted that he used multimedia editing skills more frequently for a Political Science course then for the creation of an Education course, as the content and curriculum of the course of the former necessitated news clips and content of political speeches.

Generally, course developers described similar roles and responsibilities across different institutions and organizations within the edX consortia. Such uniformity is important, as it opens the opportunity for formal professional development and training for course developers that includes both instructional  design, and faculty curricular development methods, with the intention of further sharing and developing course development best practices. While MOOCs have challenges, that roles are becoming more standardized suggests maturity in the field.

That said, a finding outside the original scope of my project, namely the variance of institutional ideas surrounding the use, purpose, and goals of MOOCs, suggests potential headwinds. Some schools believed MOOCs to be a useful classroom tool for undergraduates on campus. Others saw themselves as leaders in the development of online courseware, and others saw MOOCs as a tool to build residential diversity. Further schools viewed MOOCs as a necessity for a 21st institution of higher education. Such findings are not surprising, but are important to consider as MOOCs change and evolve: divergence of institutional goals for course development could mean prioritization of singular institutions over collective sharing of online courseware.

This leaves the course developer in a unique position of influence: as online courseware is often  created to facilitate university learning for those outside its explicit community, the developer has the opportunity to shape the public face of a university and the quality of it’s online learning. While this could be positive or negative for education, it is important to remember that many institutions build online courseware for a wide variety of reasons, despite similarity in pedagogical methods. Thus, with the emergence of course development, we begin to see that the future of MOOCs might mean a greater emphasis on the realization of institutional goals.

Ellen Brandenberger is a Master of Education Candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology, Innovation, and Education program. Ellen’s work examines the intersection between learning, design, technology, and access.She conducted the project as a capstone for Justin Reich’s course Massive: the Future of Learning at Scale at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In addition to her studies, Ellen works as a research assistant at Harvard University.


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