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What MOOCs Can Do for the Traditional Online Classroom (Part II)

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2014 is upon us! We are now a couple of years from the big MOOC “explosion” in the news, and since we’ve gone to both extremes, too much optimism and too much pessimism, about what MOOCs can and can’t do, it’s now time to have a more refined look at MOOCs and their potential to cross-pollinate with, and positively influence the direction, and practices, of traditional online courses.

As with the previous article in this series, I’ll just refer to MOOCs in general.  The reason for this is that MOOCs are experimental, and we’ve seen a lot of experimenting over the lifespan of MOOCs these past six years. These include cMOOCs, xMOOC, pMOOCs, sMOOCs, and other MOOCs that have yet to be named.  It’s now time to start thinking about what can best be borrowed from MOOC practices into traditional online learning.  As with the previous article, when thinking about this topic, there are three different areas: materials, technology, and practices. In this article I’ll discuss blogging and tweeting as technology and materials, easter eggs as practices, Open Communities, as practices supported by technology, and collaborative research as a way to tie everything together.

Easter Eggs

I don’t see Easter Eggs often in MOOCs, but I think it’s worthwhile to think about incorporating this feature into courses.  An Easter Egg is a hidden message, a hidden joke, or some hidden treasure in a game, software, or computer program - and apparently it’s also found in books and crosswords, too! The Gamification MOOC, offered through the University of Pennsylvania on Coursera, had an easter egg throughout the course.  When the course instructor created his weekly lectures his background trinkets changed. Those who were observant noticed that the changes spelled out “ftw” (or “for the win” for those in the know). There was a prize for the first person to decode this Easter Egg which was a free copy of the professor’s book, also named For The Win. Now, as an instructor or designer you don’t need need to break the bank awarding prizes for your learners. If you tie in Easter Eggs into a badge system you can have secret badges that learners don’t know about until they unlock these.  Badges can also be unique, in that only one learner in a class of twenty can earn that badge in each semester, thus giving the badge to the person who first discovered the hidden feature.  What could be an easter egg? 

A potential Easter Egg element that you can incorporate could be around additional or supplemental readings.  Not every learner will go through the supplemental readings, but they are there for a reason: you hope that students will read, or view, or listen to what you have posted. What if you put in a small piece of text in an article that directed learners to email the professor with a keyword? Or, what if you tie into your LMS’s analytics to see who was the first person to click and view a recording that went above and beyond the class? Or, you can be like Dr. Werbach, in the gamification course, and do something more covert, but also sustained throughout every week, to help your learners pay closer attention to your presentations. Some learners will care about these elements of gamification, but others will not. Just because this does not necessarily appeal to all learners does not mean that you shouldn’t try to increase engagement by using this approach. One thing to remember is that some things will resonate more with some learners than others. If a set of actions that result in the discovering of an Easter Egg in your course is optional then there is no issue with having all learners partake in an activity that doesn’t resonate with them. Furthermore, pairing Easter Eggs with badges is one way of encouraging curiosity and exploration amongst your learners.

Blogging, Tweeting & Distributed Learning

Again, blogging, tweeting and distributed learning are not something that is new to MOOCs.  Ever since the advent of Web 2.0 we’ve been thinking about ways to incorporate these tools into our teaching in order to increase the engagement in our classrooms.  One of the early examples of this was using twitter in a face-to-face class to engage students in a large auditorium lecture (Smith, 2009, Elavsky et al., 2011). One of the things done well in certain MOOCs is providing for spaces outside of the classroom and the course discussion forum to demonstrate not only an evolving understanding of the course materials, but also ways of collaborating and communicating with others in the course. By using tools such as gRSShopper, a tool used in CCK11 for example, or tools such as wordpress to aggregate blog posts, tweets, and other content created by learners in their own learning spaces back into the course, you are encouraging learners to take a leap and start thinking about learning in spaces outside of the classroom. In other words preparing for lifelong learning in Personal Learning Environments.

Another important aspect of this is having the instructor be present in these environments as well. In thinking of the Community of Inquiry model (Anderson, Rourke, Garrison, & Archer, 2001), it’s important for the instructor not only to read and react to the contributions of his class, but also to write publicly about the topics that the course is tackling. Thus, the instructor isn’t confined to the regular roles of sage on the stage, or guide on the side, but also takes on the role of fellow passenger on the learning journey. After all, even if someone is teaching the course, that does not mean that they know everything about every single aspect of the course.  Thus, their exploration of the subject matter helps them as instructors, and helps their learners reach for higher levels of mastery in the subject matter. I would liken this to masters practicing their craft, and apprentices learning from it.

Open Community

Even if your course isn’t a MOOC, there is something that you could take advantage of: a large scale community of support! A good example of this is Alec Couros’ EC&I course. You can either open the course up to non-credit participants, or you can invite Network Mentors to help the learners in your course. Or, of course, you can do both as Alec Couros does. Now, it should be noted that this doesn’t work for all subjects, and some courses, as they are currently designed, don’t necessarily scale-up very well. The Fundamentals of Online Education MOOC (#foemooc) found this out the hard way (Kolowich, 2013). However, having out-of-class mentors participate in the discussions, provide feedback toward student’s projects, and provide current real-world examples to whatever is covered in the course in any given week is a big benefit to the learners in the course. The big question, then, becomes what’s in it for the mentors?  It would seem like good, ol’ fashioned, altruism, is not necessarily the norm these days.

One potential way to approach this is to have introductory and advanced level students in one course. The advanced students would have taken the course before, so that they would have already been exposed to the introductory material.  In addition to going over the material, and getting a second chance at thinking about the content, and sharing that know-how with the introductory students, these advanced students would have access to materials that are only available to them. This could be thought of in game terms as “level 2.”  Thus, for college credit purposes, an independent study course could be devised for the handful of former students who act as mentors in the course in the future. A letter of recommendation could be nice if the mentors do a good job; earning badges for lifelong learning for skills such as supervised course facilitation and mentoring; and for those PhD candidates, such practice might count toward teacher preparation workshops that they might need to do. If you design your course well, and take into account scalability issues, you might be able to offer an open access course as well. Here learners get to learn not only from the materials you provide, but from the diverse experiences of their fellow peers.

Collaborative Research & Collaborative Writing

Finally, collaborative research and collaborative writing can be something that you incorporate into your course. Generally, this isn’t something I’ve seen built into MOOCs, but rather it’s a happy by-product of massive open online collaborations that occur in a MOOC. In MOOCs I’ve discovered individuals whose research interests follow or complement my own, so we’ve had very successful post-MOOC research collaborations.  Two of these great individuals are fellow co-authors such as Inge de Waard and Rebecca Hogue. These types of collaborations are great because not only do you get to learn more about a specific subject by collaboratively researching about it, you also get to attain new levels of understanding by working with people who know something about things you don’t. These types of peer scaffolding can be seen through the lens of Vygotsky’s More Knowledgeable Other (Vygotsky, 1978).

In the recent Video Games and Learning MOOC on coursera Steinkuhler and Squire asked participants in the MOOC to contribute to a project called the Playful Learning database. Collaborative research doesn’t have to be about papers. Rather, a group of students in a course can contribute to project like Playful Learning or wikipedia by picking topics that are related to the class they are in, but also intersect topics that they are interested in.

Again, this is not necessarily an option in all courses, but in upper level undergraduate courses and graduate courses it’s a interesting thing to think about adding into your course. One of the biggest things that I hear students complain a lot about is group work, and research isn’t something that is neatly tied together in one semester’s time, or fits 100% with the content of the course. How does one balance academic schedules and people’s dislike of group work?  Perhaps certain incentives like being able to publish in a peer reviewed journal that only accepts collaborative research could be an option.  Or, perhaps offering local or regional conferences for students to present their work among peers and established researchers. Of course, there is always the possibility that students will feel good about contributing to something that they are passionate about, like a wikipedia article on their favorite movie, television show, or video game.  There is no one answer to the “what’s in it for me?” question. 


In this last series of articles we examined some techniques and tools used in the world of MOOCs to drive student learning and engagement. These tools and techniques don’t necessarily need stay segregated in the world of MOOCs, but we can learn from them and adapt them into our traditional online courses. With some solid instructional design, and a little imagination, materials and tools such as OER, digital badges (part 1 of this series), easter eggs, blogging and tweeting;  and techniques such as peer grading (part 1 of this series), open communities and collaborative writing have the potential to enhance what goes on in a traditional online course. This is by no means an exhaustive list of things we can learn from MOOCs, and I am sure that as time progresses we will have more that we can borrow from them. One thing is for certain: watch the MOOC space, and keep an open mind.

     Anderson, T. Rourke, L., Garrison, D.  R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1-17.
     Elavsky, C. M., Mislan, C., Elavsky, S. (2011). When talking less is more: exploring outcomes of Twitter usage in the large-lecture hall. Learning, Media and Technology. 36(3). pp 215-233. DOI:10.1080/17439884.2010.549828
     Kolowich, S. (2013). Georgia Tech and Coursera Try to Recover From MOOC Stumble. Retrieved from:
     Smith, K. (2009). The Twitter Experiment - Twitter in the Classroom. Retrieved from:
     Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in Society. Harvard University Press.

     Easter Egg Wikipedia:
     Gamification[Coursera / Werbach / UPenn]:
     E-learning and Digital Cultures [Coursera / Knox; Saybe; Ross; Sinclair; Macleod / U of Edinburg]:
     Open Badge Initiative:
     Playful Learning:
     Video Games and Learning [Coursera / Steinkuhler & Squire / UW Wisconsin]:
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