Tips for Designing a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

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This fall (2013), Northern Illinois University launched its first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, titled Perspectives on Disability and led by Professor Greg Long (School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders). Building this course has been an absolute labor of love for everyone involved, and we thought it would be helpful to share what we have learned. This article summaries our recommendations based on our experience and on the research we conducted to prepare for our MOOC design.

    • Participate in a MOOC 
      The best way to learn about MOOCs is to take one. This will help you learn about what it is like to be a MOOC student and give you some inspiration for how to design one. There are many providers (such as Blackboard CourseSites, Canvas Network, Coursera, or EdX) and MOOCs cover a wide variety of topics. Find a course that is similar to the content you want to teach or choose a topic that is outside of your field but interests you. Since most MOOCs are free to take, the only investment is a few hours of your time each week. In fact, it would be even better to sign up for several MOOCs, to see the variety of approaches (and given that only about 10% of students complete a MOOC, there is no pressure to finish the courses).



    • Choose a topic you are passionate about and one that will be appealing to MOOC students
      Fortunately, that is the case for Perspectives on Disability. If you believe in your content, that enthusiasm will be visible to your students. A MOOC may be an opportunity for you to teach about something that is too narrow for a course or is outside of the primary focus for your field.  You should also consider whether the topic will attract MOOC students. Based on your experience, or on a more formal needs analysis, try to determine whether there is a demand for the topic, and whether other MOOCs or resources exist on the topic.


    • Determine your targeted audience, and design the course to meet the needs of that audience
      The entire design of the course, from content to language, teaching strategies to assessment, should be designed according to the needs and prior knowledge of your primary audience. For Perspectives on Disability, we designed the course for individuals with little or no prior knowledge of the content, and for participants from middle school through adulthood. This meant we kept the language simple, included introductory-level content, and provided a variety of assessment methods that would appeal to a wide audience.It is important to remember that in many MOOCs a substantial percentage of participants are from outside of the United States, and so English may not be their native language. Age, educational background, and prior knowledge may also vary among MOOC participants, therefore it is a good idea to clearly articulate prerequisites or provide supplementary resources.


    • Build a team
      Many faculty who have taught MOOCs recommend using a team approach for the design, development, and delivery. Rather than working alone, consider co-teaching with a colleague. Find students or colleagues who can provide feedback on the design. Identify at least one person who can test the course before thousands of students are trying to use it.


    • Plan the development process
      Unlike planning a course on your own, a MOOC has more complexities. Begin the project by creating a timeline for design and development tasks, like writing objectives, creating lectures, recording videos, designing assessments, and building the course. It is important to leave time for testing the course before potentially thousands of students access it.


    • Establish learning outcomes for the course before you begin selecting or creating materials
      This is, in fact, no different from our recommended practice for any course design. First, establish what students will learn in the course. Then it is possible to design learning activities to support those outcomes and create assessments that measure whether students achieved the desired outcomes. It is also important that the number of outcomes is appropriate for the length of the course (See Other MOOC Considerations, below).


    • Design communication plan and community development strategies
      Given the potential size of a MOOC, it is time consuming to manage communication with everyone. It can be helpful to encourage discussion and community development among students, so that you are not the central figure in the course. Discourage contacting you via email by creating discussion forums or using social media. Also, plan how and when the MOOC team will monitor the community and who is responsible for responding to the group or individuals, should it become necessary.


    • Create assessments for a massive audience
      Assessment is not a required element for a MOOC – many focus on forming networks and discussing content rather than formal assessment through tests or written work. If assessments are used, the scale of MOOCs makes many assessment techniques impractical. Consider using automated grading, like multiple choice exams or programmed response activities, or “grading” on effort and contribution rather than performance. In many cases, MOOCs offer certificates of completion to participants who submit assessments or contribute to the MOOC community.


Other MOOC Considerations

    • Technology
      It is not possible to use institutional technology, like NIU’s official Blackboard site, to deliver a MOOC because of the size of the potential audience. There are, however, many free tools that offer similar features.


    • Length and timing of the course
      Traditionally, courses follow the academic calendar, but that is not necessary for a MOOC. Courses can begin and end at any time. Currently, there is not any research into the ideal length of a MOOC, but most seem to be between 4 and 8 weeks long, with a few as long as 10 to 12 weeks.


    • Funding
      It is possible to offer a MOOC without significant financial investment. If, however, the MOOC requires special technology, paid staff to monitor it, or additional services, it may be necessary to seek out funding for development or delivery. Several agencies and educational technology associations offer grants for MOOC development, delivery, and research.


    • Promotion
      Promotion and marketing are necessary to attract students to a MOOC. This will likely utilize social media and professional networks to advertise the course and gain attention. Consider emailing professional associations, colleagues at other institutions, and other groups that may be interested in the content. It may also help to share information via Twitter or other social networks.


  • Legal
    MOOCs require caution regarding legal concerns, particularly copyright of any materials created for the MOOC or used from other sources and the privacy of student data and contributions. These concerns are just the beginning, however. It is important to be aware of the many legal issues that impact MOOCs and to consult with the Office of General Counsel.

Designing and delivering a MOOC is time-consuming, but it can forever alter your views on teaching and learning. NIU faculty who are interested in creating a MOOC are encouraged to consult with the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center for further guidance.


Many of the tips are adapted from these sources.

Joosten, T. (April 2013). Ten questions for MOOC design. Available at

Siemens, G. (September 2012). Designing and running a MOOC (in 9 easy steps). Available at