Tips for designing MOOCs and useful teaching strategies

As part of the EMMA project we are developing a series of MOOCs which will be delivered through the MOOC aggregator platform. Tomorrow we at Leicester are leading a webinar with partners to share best practice in MOOC design. In advance I have created a document sharing tips and hints for good design of MOOCs and a list of suggestions for teaching strategies which might be used. Here is the version to date comments and suggestions for things to add very much welcome!

Best practice guidelines

  1. Keep the MOOC relatively short; evaluation suggests that longer MOOCs result in high dropout rates and low learner satisfaction. Four to eight weeks is the recommended length of a MOOC.

  2. Clearly articulate the number of anticipated learning hours per week; again keep these to a minimum; around 3 – 4 hours is recommended.

  3. Have a clear and logical learning pathway.

  4. Consider having core and extension activities.

  5. Indicate the amount of learning time associated with each learning activity,

  6. Make clear why participants are expected to use digital technologies (such as forums, wikis, blogs, etc.) and in particular clarify what are the perceived benefits. For example, wikis as a good means of collaborative working, blogs for reflection, or e-portfolios as a means of participants evidencing and collating how they have achieved the intended learning outcomes.

  7. Ensure that learning outcomes are indicated at the beginning of each week, use active verbs that are measurable.

  8. Ensure content is coherent and logically structured, with a clear beginning, middle and end.

  9. Indicate what, if any, tutor support is provided.

  10. Articulate the pedagogical approach used, for example is reflective learning encouraged, or dialogic learning.

  11. During design try and focus on activities rather than content.

  12. Consider carefully what collaborative elements are included and how these are organised.

  13. Try and ensure that each week is organized in the same way so that it is easy for the participants to orientate themselves.

  14. Keep participants motivated and on track by providing a weekly email update, summarizing the key points covered and signposting to the following week’s activities.

  15. Include mini quizzes at the end of each week, to enable participants to assess their learning.

  16. Provide extensive activities, which are both remedial and advanced in nature, to cater for a diversity of participants.  

  17. Consider having a short (5 minutes) video introducing the week’s content and activities, this provides a more personal touch.

  18. Have a number of synchronous hour-long sessions, perhaps one at the beginning of the MOOC to provide an overview and enable participants to outline what they hope to get out of the MOOC, one in the middle providing a space for Q&A and any points for clarification, and one at the end to provide a space to reflect on their experience.

  19. Try and ensure that all the resources are open and CC licenced.

  20. Provide a discussion thread on the forum to enable participants to introduce themselves, their experience of the subject to date and what they hope to get out of the participation in the MOOC.

  21. Consider having a particular structure, for example:

  • Connect, Activate/Demonstrate, Consolidate

    • Connect – an introductory section to orient the participant to the week’s content and activities.

    • Activate/Demonstrate – the main focus of content and activities for the week.

    • Consolidate – the reflective element of the week, where participants reflect on what they have learnt and consider the relevance to their own practice.

  • Present, Apply, Review

    • Present:  Methods to present new material to students, or to encourage them to think it out for themselves.  This might involve facts, theories, concepts, stories or any other content.

    • Apply: Methods requiring students to apply the new material just presented to them.  This is the only way to ensure that students conceptualise the new material so that they can understand it, recall it, and use it appropriately in the future.

    • Review:  Methods to encourage students to recall former learning so as to clarify and focus on key points, ensure understanding, and to practice and check recall.

  1. Use an appropriate mix of multimedia, ensure that images add something to the text, and consider the benefits of audio versus video. Audio is good as participants can listen to whilst doing other things, video is good if it shows or demonstrates something.

  2. Try and ensure active participation as much as possible, for example: get participants to find and collate relevant resources, comment on the resource that others have uploaded, get them to write reflective blog posts and to comment on the blog posts written by peers, get them to participate in a discussion forum on a particular topic, or get them to work collaboratively in a group.

  3. Enable participants to monitor their learning progress, by providing them with the ability to tick once activities are completed.

  4. Consider personalising the learning experience, by providing audio feedback.

  5. Ensure that there are clear signposts for navigation and labelling (i.e. have clear headings, make it easy for the participants to navigate around, etc. ).

  6. Ensure that all the materials accessible (variable fonts, suitable colours).

  7. Ensure that all links work.

  8. Ensure that all the activities are consistent with the platform’s functionality (i.e., discussion forum, feedback mechanisms).

  9. Keep text simple and to a minimum.

Teaching techniques

The following are useful teaching techniques:

  1. Annotation – get participants to annotate a resource and then summarise the key points

  2. Articulate reasoning – participants articulate their reasoning on a particular topic, this can be done as a reflective blog post or as part of a discussion forum thread.

  3. Brainstorming – the tutor invites participants to brainstorm as many ideas as possible about a particular topic, these can be collated in an online tool such as

  4. Collective aggregation – get the participants to collectively aggregate a set of resources around a particular topic.

  5. Flash debate – where a current hot topic of relevance is put up as a discussion thread.

  6. Crossword puzzle – have a series of clues around a set of concepts and get participants to complete a crossword. So for example the clue ‘A type of pedagogical approach’ with 14 letters is ‘constructivism’.

  7. Fish bowl – where participants are organised in two circles, in the inner circle there are about four or five chairs, all the remaining participants are arranged in the outer circle. In an open fish bowl one chair in the inner circle is empty, in a closed fishbowl all are occupied. A moderator introduces a topic and those in the inner circle begin discussing it. In the open fish bowl anyone from the outer circle can then move to occupy the empty chair in the inner circle, when this happens someone must voluntarily leave. In the closed fish bowl those in the inner circle talk for a while and then choose to vacate their seat.  

  8. Flash cards – participants work through a series of flahscards or can create and share their own flash cards. Can be useful for example in language learning in terms of drill and practice for learning vocabulary.

  9. Flash debate – where a current hot topic of relevance is put up as a discussion thread.

  10. For and against debate – where participants are divided into two teams of three, one team argues the case for a particular issue, the other team argues against it, then the wider cohort discuss and finally vote.

  11. Icebreakers – activities which help participants relax and become used to a group context, they are useful at the beginning of a course. Here is a link to some useful examples (

  12. Jigsaw pedagogical pattern where a problem is broken down into four parts, each participant researches a part of the problem, then they get together with others who have researched the same problem, and then they return to their home team to combine knowledge.

  13. Mini quizzes – help participants assess their understanding of the week’s content and activities through a formative mini quiz, providing instant feedback.

  14. Mindmapping – get the participants to create a mindmap of a particular topic and associated ideas, either individually or in groups.

  15. Peer critique – get the participants to peer critique other participants’ writings.

  16. Q&A forum – a space for participants to asked questions, which can be answered by other participants and/or the tutors. Turn the final forum output into a FAQ list.

  17. Reflective blog – get the participants to keep a reflective blog, where they consider what they have learnt and the relevance to their practice.

  18. Reciprocal teaching – this entails the tuor and/or participants taking turns to lead a dialogue. There are four key activities: predicting, questioning, summarising and clarifying.

  19. Pair dialogues – participants work in pairs to develop a shared understanding of a particular set of concepts.

  20. Panel discussion – five or six participants form a panel and discuss a set of issues, this might include questions from the remainder of the cohort who form the audience for the debate.

  21. Posters – participants create a poster on a particular topic, peers provide comments and feedback.

  22. Presentations – participants give a presentation on a particular topic, either individually or in groups.

  23. Rounds – This is a simple technique that encourages participation. The tutor states a question and then goes around inviting everyone to answer briefly. This is not an open discussion. This is an opportunity to individually respond to specific questions, not to comment on each other’s responses or make unrelated remarks.

  24. Scavenger hunt – participants are divided into teams, they are given a list of resources to find (for example they might be asked to find a resource on ‘constructivist learning’, or a resource describing how a wiki can be used to promote collaborative learning or a resource on the implications for learning). The team that collates all the items on the list first wins.

  25. Snowball – enables participants to organise groups of ideas on a concept and assign them to themes. Patterns and relationships in the groups can also be observed. One slip of paper (or ‘post-its’) is used per idea generated or possible solution offered. A meeting is set up of up to 5 people. The slips of paper are viewed and then grouped ‘like with like’. Duplicates can be created if the idea/solution is relevant to more than one group. Patterns and relationships in the groups are observed.

  26. Structured debate – the tutor poses an issue for participants to debate. Each participant then articulates their position. These are posted in the same document. Then to each position, each participant  attaches pro or con arguments. They then critique the arguments by attaching (linking) various comments, two to four participants engage with each other on provocative or divisive issues with an eye to challenging themselves and the audience to examine their assumptions and unconscious beliefs.

  27. Summarising – students work either individually or in teams to summarise the key points associated with a particular text.

  28. Teaching by asking – begin the session by asking participants a set of questions related to the topic being covered.

  29. Think – Pair – Share pedagogical pattern – where participants think about a problem or question, then discuss it with another participant and then discuss collectively with the rest of the group.

  30. Thought experiment – participants are asked to imagine themselves in a particular situation and are asked questions about that situation.

  31. Vicarious learning – where one participant provides an explanation of a particular topic.

Useful links