MOOCifying an existing course

2012_09_03_course_graph_v5Could the UniKey course be a MOOC? A great deal has been written in the last few months about MOOCs, Massive Open Online Courses and I have tried a few. It’s one thing though to talk about existing MOOCs and quite another to take an existing course and try to MOOCify it. How would one go about this?

Why MOOC? The UniKey course aimed at European interns in small and medium-sized companies was very popular in its pilot form and not all who applied were taken on once the limit of 50 participants divided into two groups was reached. An obvious question was whether the course could be offered as a MOOC, Massive Open Online Course to satisfy this demand.

Since 2007 there have been many examples of MOOCs attracting up to the high tens of thousands of participants. How would the UniKey course need to change in order to be offered as a MOOC and would this be practical?

What is a MOOC? The most obvious aspect of a MOOC is the number of participants which makes a personal relationship with the tutor impossible for logistical reasons. In fact it was the burden on the tutor which led the UniKey consortium to restrict the size of the group to 25 and the number of groups to two.

MOOCs are presented in many different ways which broadly fall into two types. The so-called xMOOC is a password protected online version of a course which relies heavily on automated assessment such as multiple choice and peer assessment with randomly allocated peers. The second type is the cMOOC or connectivist MOOC where participants are given links to openly accessible prompt materials, a list of prompt questions which must then be responded to on participants’ own online spaces such as blogs using a specific course tag to ensure that the task contributions will be found by other participants and the organisers so that they can comment. In the Digital Storytelling MOOC, participants even contribute to an assignment bank which tracks how many people have done (though not how well they did) each contributed assignment and what rating they gave it.

For example here is my participant response to the unit 2 task of the Edstartup course offered in the fall of 2012. What links my blog entry to the EdstartUp course was my use of the tags edstartup and space as part of the blog post.

There is an argument for preferring the cMOOC model when we want to promote entrepreneurial thinking.

Another interesting development is the offering of credits for completion of a MOOC but only to those who want one. Sometimes the delivery of a formal credit must be paid for. Sometimes the completion of the MOOC is part of a formal degree course but this part has been opened so that others can benefit on a more informal basis. When credits are offered the MOOC tutor can undertake to interact and assess only those aiming for a paid credit.

The issue of formal accreditation leads to serious issues of identity verification where the effort of identity verification incurs costs.

Another possibility is to offer the UniKey course using the Cooperative Freedom approach of Flate Paulsen through the NooA learning portal. Cooperative Freedom offers individual flexibility as to timetable while promoting links to a learning community for social learning benefits.

The table below compares the standard UniKey, tutored online course with one offered using the Cooperative Freedom approach, as a xMOOC, as a cMOOC and as a purely mechanical online course with no interaction or intervention by other persons.

UniKey tutor-supported online course Cooperative Freedom xMOOC cMOOC Self-directed online course
Number of participants 20-25 per tutor From few to 50? Limited only by the technology but can be in the tens of thousands No limit as everything happens on the open internet Limited only by the technology
Timeline Clear start and end datesCourse made up of modules Flexible time period eg 3 months study time spread over 6 monthsCourse made up of modules Clear start and end datesCourse made up of modules Clear start and end datesCourse made up of modules Start and end any timeCourse made up of modules
Assessment Automatic  self-correcting exercises, peer-assessed and tutor assessed Automatic self-correcting exercises, peer-assessed and tutor-assessed Automatic self-correcting exercises and peer assessed Informal ly peer-assessed (as blog comments etc) Automatic self-correcting exercises
Interaction With materialBetween participants and between participants and tutor With materialBetween participants and between participants and tutor With materialLargely between participantsOften the MOOC depends on the formation of small project teams Participants carry out tasks on their open blogs & in ad hoc live meetings Only with material
Price Needs to include a fair hourly rate for the tutor Needs to include a fair hourly rate for the tutor Usually offered free to participants but often cost a great deal to prepare Usually offered free to participants but cost time to prepare Can be priced according to demand from free to very expensive.
Completion rates High (80% +) ? Low but does this matter? Low but does that matter? Mixed (high on compliance training)
Certification Yes Yes Sometimes possible (sometimes for a small fee) Sometimes possible (sometimes for a small fee) Yes


Taking each factor in turn let’s examine how suitable the UniKey course would be as a xMOOC.


Massive implies large numbers of participants which cannot be overseen by one tutor.

In the first pilot run both participants and tutor felt overwhelmed by the number of postings in the forums when there were 35 participants. For the participants it was a great deal of material to read and for the tutors it was a great deal of material to react to and assess individually. Thus adding to the number of participants would compound this problem. However my experience as a MOOC participant tells me that as soon as the numbers start to get overwhelming, participants begin to read selectively and of course react to even fewer. Participants also start to form study groups and follow course ‘stars’. This has implications for the task and for assessment. The task needs to result in individualized answers, perhaps based on the context of each participant. This would avoid the tedious repetition of ‘the right answer’ such as in response to ‘What is a SWOT analysis?’  A scalable assessment instrument would be needed to avoid tutor intervention and this is most often peer assessment or automatically corrected multiple choice quizzes.

Massive also has implications for the technology used. The Georgia Institute of Technology Online teaching MOOC course in early 2013 failed when inappropriate technology was chosen for one of the tasks.


Open could imply many things but in the case of MOOCs it usually refers to open enrollment so that there is no pre-enrolment requirement in terms of age, qualification or location. Open does not imply open source however, although some MOOCs are that as well. So materials can still be kept within the course. Open could also refer to the fact that most MOOCs are free of charge to participants which adds to their accessibility.


MOOCs have been organized on several different platforms. It is possible to host a MOOC on Moodle, the platform used by UniKey. Offering the course online also means that the course is globally accessible which could help to ensure more cultural diversity in the experiences discussed by participants.


MOOCs usually have a distinct start and end date, a timeline during which different parts or modules of the course are completed in the form of tasks, a date beyond which new participants cannot join, a repository of materials usually text, internet and video-based. MOOCs also often include regular, synchronous online meetings which allow participants to interact a little with the lead instructor. This matches the current UniKey course well apart from live meetings which are not part of UniKey. In the Cooperative Freedom format participants are given access to their chosen course for much longer than is needed to complete the course in order to allow them to complete it at their own pace with tutor support.

Popular MOOCs can be offered regularly, for example annually or biennially.


Case study task

Let’s take one of the UniKey course tasks and see how it would need to be amended to fit into the MOOC model.

Task 1 in Module 3 requires participants to learn about effective feedback and then to try these techniques out by responding to a problem experienced by a fictitious intern. In addition they are required to react to at least one of the responses given by another participant which is another opportunity for them to show their skill in feedback. In a small, closely tutored course, the tutor would check that the responses demonstrated the use of at least one feedback technique effectively. In a MOOC setting this would be impractical and for documentation purposes one could only register complete or incomplete. The question is whether this is sufficient?

Task 2 in Module 3 requires participants to learn about mission statements and then to think about the mission statement at their internship and how it is manifest in everyday working life. Participants are then required to comment on at least three of their colleagues’ posts. As a MOOC task this works and can be assessed as completed or not. Though of course a participant could misinterpret the task and for example describe a company rule such as ‘Female staff must wear hosiery at all times’ as a vision. There may be a vision behind that rule but that is not what the task was looking for!

Instead of (or as well as?) asking participants to respond to three colleagues posts we could introduce an element of peer assessment of this task. Peer assessment by randomly allocated peers is possible in Moodle. However there are certain requirements that make peer assessment practical and one of them would be that the piece of work being peer assessed needs to be fairly substantial before it is worth being peer assessed. Therefore the two or three presentations we require as task contributions elsewhere in the course might be more suitable for peer assessment than a shorter task of this nature.


One of the prime aims of the UniKey course is to stimulate participants to interact with their internship colleagues and this would still be an outcome if the course were offered as a MOOC due to the nature of the tasks. Another aim of the course is to promote interchange of information and experiences between participants and here the tasks may need to be re-cast slightly to enable this to happen without the intermediation of a tutor. One factor which would need great attention are those tasks which may seem too personal to make public to other participants such as the ongoing development of the Personal Development Plan and some tasks relating to financial management. Another challenge is the high dropout rate usually experienced in MOOCs.  This is very much a question of perspective and depends on the aim of the UniKey course. If the aim is guaranteed competence in a specific set of skill areas then a high dropout rate is unacceptable but if the aim is to raise awareness of the entrepreneurial mindset then a participant who signed up and only read the tasks is as much a success as one who completed all the tasks. The problem solves itself if only those who complete all tasks satisfactorily are awarded a completion certificate. The business model could be based on charging for completion certificates upfront ie you pay for the chance to be eligible for a certificate, not just when you have completed all tasks which make you eligible.

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