Case Studies: Short courses
Feedback and advice from the academic leads of a selection of our short online courses.
We asked the Academic Leads of a range of courses on our three partner platforms - edX, Coursera and FutureLearn - what their experience was of the course design and development process, online tutoring, building community in the online environment, and support they received from the Online Course Production team.
We also discovered what our Academic Leads found most beneficial about running their own short online course, and how the process has impacted their work and personal objectives. They also shared some valuable insider tips and advice for anyone interested in designing and developing an online course.
Course Development, Community and Support
Launched: 13 October 2020.
Total enrolments: 1,207 (accurate as of 31 March 2021).
What was your experience of the course design and development process?
Working with the Online Course Production team was an extremely positive experience. They were well organised and used a range of methods to help build up the learning objectives and course structure in a way that reflected the subject, but also enhanced the content for the learner.
What kind of support did you receive and how useful was it?
There was lots of support throughout: planning workshops, online content development support, media development support, and weekly catch-ups during content development and editing. I also received QA guidance and support from the technical side, as well as guidance for the subject specific QA. Bearing in mind this was for, a large part, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the level of support was exemplary.
You also run an online masters programme – what was different about creating content for a short online course?
The focus on the audience and making content accessible for a wide range of learners was insightful and can be seen in the end product. The level of detail in the editing of media content was also very high.
Launched: 10 July 2015.
Total enrolments: 171,528 (accurate as of 31 March 2021).
How has running your course impacted or influenced your understanding of the role of an educator?
It has completely broadened my horizons. It is now clear to me that educators also need to inspire, support, motivate and open new doors to their students. Having had the experience of developing such an innovative course, I now take a much more playful and experimental approach to teaching.
What is your experience of interacting with learners on the course?
It’s been very rewarding and so much fun! They’re real people (you can sometimes forget that!) with fascinating stories. We mainly interact in the discussion forums and during live Hangout sessions. And every now and then I get a message from a learner that embarked on a career in computing because of the MOOC – what else can a teacher ask for?
What are the benefits of collaborating with other institutions when designing and running a MOOC?
Other institutions can bring new ideas and different perspectives to online learning – this is not to be underestimated. My experience of collaborating with ORT Universidad Uruguay was excellent. We learned from each other and co-created a MOOC that would not have been possible without this knowledge exchange.
Launched: 24 July 2017.
Total enrolments: 52,182 (accurate as of 31 March 2021).
What do you believe is the role of course tutor in a short online course?
For ‘How to Read a Novel’, the role of the tutor is actually (I think!) far less important than for an undergraduate online or in-person course – or it can seem and feel so. This is because the community of people who do the course, and perhaps who do MOOCs in general, is very active and the vast majority of the huge volume of activity and comments is from participants interacting with each other and independently responding to the course material.
The role of the tutor therefore feels like it is to maintain a presence – and to stimulate or guide discussion where needed. Of course, it is also very valuable to those participants who you respond to and engage with individually to validate their responses, but I was always aware that I was unable to do this for everyone (because of the huge volume of interactions) and so tried to be careful to balance this.
The tutor also acts as a point of contact for technical issues and practical questions about the course.
Has your experience as a MOOC course tutor influenced your offline tutoring?
Because I am a part-time and self-funded PhD student, I have always had other employment/jobs, which means that I have not taught in person for the last few years – but I do think that my teaching will have been influenced by raising my awareness of the importance and value of direct interaction between learners (and sometimes just stepping back and letting this happen, and guiding/directing only when necessary).
How do you engage with your community of learners?
A lot of engagement happens via the University and book festival around the James Tait Black prize. For the first few years of the MOOC, I tweeted about it directly from my own Twitter account (as this was advised by the Online Learning team as having more impact) – but a few years ago I set up a standalone Twitter account for the MOOC. I have tried to increase our followers, but because the main activity is in the lead up to the MOOC, this has had limited success so far. I am also aware that the main focus should be the interactions happening on the actual MOOC, so I have sometimes been cautious about encouraging discussions on Twitter that would be more appropriate on the MOOC itself.
I know there are weekly emails as well, but there is not much engagement beyond this at the moment (other than what happens on the MOOC itself). When the book festival was happening in person, groups of MOOC participants would meet up at the festival, and there is perhaps scope to build on this in the future.
How have your interactions in discussion forums and social media built on the sense of community?
When the course first began, there was a lot of excitement about it and there was a real feeling of a community building around it (and around the book festival events). There was also a lot of support from the University PR team, etc. However, there is still a lot that could potentially be done to build/harness the online community around this MOOC – maybe involving libraries?
In the course discussions themselves, I have sometimes felt a bit worried about the returning learners dominating the course discussions and putting off new participants. I always felt that what was asked of me re the social media was to raise awareness of the course, rather than building a community of existing learners.
Do learners return to the course each year based on the new James Tait Black (JTB) shortlist? If so, what do you think brings them back to the course?
Yes! There are many returning learners! They come back because they want to discuss the new JTB novels – like an annual book club – and I think that some people also do lots of MOOCs each year. I also think that the course is well pitched, well balanced and designed in a way that allows returning learners to get something new each time (and the discussions are a large part of this).
Benefits, Impact and Advice
The range of people who take the course can help you see your subject matter in a wider context. If you use your practice in managing a MOOC to feed into your other teaching practice, it can have pedagogical benefits in terms of feedback and interactions.
I loved the fact that it provided a huge number of people with a free, non-academic venue in which to discuss serious literature (like a giant book club, in a way). It also introduced lots of people to books and authors that they otherwise might not have read. I think it’s great to have a MOOC attached to the JTB prize as it makes people consider which books are shortlisted and why - in a sense they are invested in the prize.
Impact, impact, impact! If you want to have a real-world impact as an academic, this is a great opportunity to share your passion about your discipline with thousands of people worldwide. It can also help raise your profile and attract students or collaborators.
I feel that I have seen the content of my MSc teaching and research experience be transformed into a very accessible, interactive and cohesive package – even down to editing my writing to help it flow better. It almost feels like the team have helped me distill my expertise into something I can share with a much wider group of people.
I didn’t create the original course, but I know that setting it up required a huge time commitment. Last summer when I created some of the content for the first time (about the contemporary novels), I became aware of how much time it takes and of the various elements that need to be considered beyond just the course content – and it did have an impact on my other work (although of course I was very pleased to be doing it). I think that for anyone doing this work in the future, it should considered as a large task in its own right, rather than something that can be done ‘on the side’.
As a teacher, I became more curious about online learning and supporting learners from diverse backgrounds. This curiosity led me to do research in learning analytics and computing education, which is something that I hadn’t considered before. Eye-opening!
You need time written into your budget for at least a year, if not more, and the support of your school. I would suggest looking at a number of school level strategic reasons to create a course to enhance the buy-in. Having a team of people in the development stages from your discipline helps, but there needs to be an individual who has time and motivation to dedicate to developing the course, and then the Online Course Production team can really work to enhance your content.
Although I didn't create the MOOC, from what I've seen, I would say - don’t be scared to tackle complex issues or “high” literature. Our participants tended to be very interested in tackling and discussing complex issues and literature, including relating contemporary news stories to the books we were discussing. Often, it was specific details that really engaged people as well.
First, take a MOOC as a learner to see what the student experience is like. Keep things simple, so as not to overload your learners. And be very clear throughout the course about what they’re meant to do, how and when – you don’t want to be receiving emails from thousands of confused learners.