Talk MOOC to Me

Inside the creation of a MOOC.

November 7, 2014
(This blog post stemmed from a presentation called "Talk MOOC to Me," given at the Higher Education Web Professionals Annual conference.)
Four ladies, 45 minutes. Can it be done? We’ll find out. The Penn State Design team looked at MOOCs, specifically the Epidemics MOOC at Penn State.
What’s a MOOC? It’s a Massive Open Online Course. But, what is massive? The average enrollment for a MOOC is 43,000, but it can greatly change based on course material. MOOCs are “open” because they’re free; but you get what you pay for.
These courses then ended up having little to no production value from poorly uploaded videos from one faculty member. To increase the quality of these videos and courses, a new pricing model had to be analyzed. Models such as Signature Track or Verified Courses along with Monthly Access and Certificate Programs started to form, but with a price. Some will verify that you are who you say you are, while others provide a wide variety of material.
When MOOCs first started, the course material was provided by video or transcript. This posed a problem for those students who did not have access to video, as they missed out on important graphics provided in the videos. Evaluations were an obstacle, as well. So, why do we create MOOCs?
Penn State had a variety of goals for their MOOC, but focused mainly on Reinforcing Leadership in Online Education and enriching Face to Face, Hybrid, and Online Designs. Most every college has a specific online division, becoming a leader in the online education realm. The team was excited to take on the challenge to renovate the learning experience for their students using Coursera.
Penn State created a custom space that follows an easy, chronological flow in a streamlined format for online learners. Penn State had 8 different faculty members working on their MOOC, having a great impact on the way faculty analyzes the way they teach in the classroom, as well as how to do it online. Course ideas became shorter, easier to learn, and blended with online coursework.
Many members of the audience had never worked on a MOOC, therefore not having an understanding how much effort it takes to put a MOOC together. The ladies of the Penn State Design Team worked with 8 faculty members to build an 8-week course with hardly any text, and mostly video.
4 members of the design team + 8 faculty + countless video = 5,500 hours of work.
By using three different cases, it’s incredibly apparent that there’s no “normal” way to build a MOOC. The hours spent in different aspects (video, faculty work, text…) are going to be divided differently every time.
Hours can be spent on animating video, as well. For example, to put together a 6minute video with 32 “assets,” it took 20 hours. Scale that up to over 60 videos, and the task seems impossible. How do you create 1,800 assets?! You don’t.
The ladies at Penn State needed 1,830 assets, and created approximately 800. By using image sources like Shutterstock to reduce hand-crafting assets, and recycling old assets, it drastically cut down the amount of work to be done. The job can be easily handled by developing a multimedia style guide to discuss fonts, colors, and line thickness for illustrations. Consistency is key, and all styles should be determined in advanced.
Finally, it’s important to assess cultural considerations when making graphics. Be aware of how other cultures perceive certain symbols, designs and concepts. Check multimedia for anything that could possibly cause concern, offense or general confusion by avoiding stereotyping, colloquialisms, idioms, and using strategic color choices.
Video is a key aspect to MOOCs, and should not be an afterthought.
The first considerations before your video is produced should be the WHO. WHO is going to be featured? Is this WHO comfortable on camera? If not, can you make it easier on them? The most common shooting style for MOOC videos is one instructor looking straight at a camera and talking. This is a challenge, because most people can not look straight into a lens for an extended period of time and be engaging and confident. An alternative option to the “straight on” approach is an interview.
There are considerations there too, though.
Will there be an on-camera interview? How will the context be provided to users to understand what the instructor is discussing in his response to the question? Will captions be used?
Important things to keep in mind when creating video include:
  • Audio matters: make the investment of time or money.
  • To estimate recording time, 3-4 x length of content + 15 minutes for breaks
  • Learn when to stop and when to keep going. This comes mostly with experience, understanding when things should be re-recorded or not. Sometimes, re-recording a flustering professor makes the situation worse.
  • Estimate 175 spoken words per minute
  • For scripting, the shorter the better.
  • How will you edit your video?
  • Where will you record?

To design a MOOC platform, the Penn State Team used Coursera. First, the content needed to be organized. By using a wireframe to organize the objective and the weekly content for learners. This conversation also lead to usability, when considering who the audience was, and what needed to be done.

There are many different tasks for learners in MOOCs, from watching videos to participating in forums, and with a thought-out design, it will greatly increase the ease of learning through MOOCs.

There were a few stumbling blocks for users along the way, based on the way Coursera builds templates. With JavaScript and a lot of research, it was done. Then, CourseEra announced that the JavaScript + CSS strategy couldn’t be done. Back to the drawing board, it looks like. With more research and thought, the team created a style sheet, but it could not be applied throughout the entire course at once. There are dynamic pages that couldn’t apply the sheet at all, creating another inconsistent mess. Oh, did I mention that you only have one shot with your sheet? If you want to make changes, you’ll have to delete your style sheet, make changes, upload the new one, and hope. It was a lot, but it was done.

What was used:

  • Bootstrap – for typography, tables, grid systems, and buttons.
  • Typekit – for typography
  • Javascript – for video lightboxes

The team looked into typography, colors, and layout to create the design of the MOOC, which really made a difference. The layout for each week of coursework, as it originally stood, was a little hard to navigate for users. Using tables and better headers with consistent typography, users had an overall better experience.

Protip: have your own mini-beta test with students. Get their feedback, and edit for usability.

Was it worth it? All the videos, recordings, animations, web designs, and headaches are a lot of time spent. Of all the MOOCs offered (ALL of them), the Penn state Epidemics MOOC was ranked #14. Retention rates were high, as well. Coursera claims a 3-7% retention, while the Epidemics MOOC had 14% retention. So, was it worth it?

Yeah, I think so.

Jackie Vetrano is a Customer Success Manager at Merit. She works with colleges across the country to create innovative ways to recognize student success. She is a SUNY Geneseo alumna and a Buffalo native. This post originally appeared on LINK: The Journal of Higher Education Professionals.


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