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Networking supports MOOC success

Where to turn for ideas and inspiration in launching and managing MOOCs
University Business, September 2013
There's already an array of networks, online discussion boards, and forums where administrators are sharing best practices for MOOCs.
There's already an array of networks, online discussion boards, and forums where administrators are sharing best practices for MOOCs.

Michigan State University’s first massive open online course—Metropolitan Agriculture Value Creation—attracted 400 people from around the globe interested in learning about new ways to produce food in urban areas. Launched in March 2012, the course was built on a WordPress website and students communicated with one another via Facebook and Twitter.

Although the MOOC successfully expanded the university’s network of students and scholars concerned with urban agriculture, it also raised some thorny and unanticipated questions: If MSU students took the course, should they get the same credits as the 50,000 other students on the East Lansing campus? And, should MSU students get credit for earning certificates or badges in MOOCs offered by other institutions?

Searching for answers, MSU administrators turned to two associations—the University Professional & Continuing Education Association and the National University Technology Network. Through conferences and online discussion boards, they learned how others experimenting with MOOCs have addressed these issues.

(Related UBTech presentation: MOOCs at Johns Hopkins)

“With MOOCs, it’s still like the Wild West out there,” says Gerald Rhead, director of academic entrepreneurship for MSU Global Knowledge & Learning Innovations, the unit formed to produce MOOCs. “There aren’t a lot of hard policies and procedures, and the way people interpret them actually depends on what university they’re from.”

With at least 250 colleges and universities having already made their first foray into MOOCs, they are finding an array of networks, online discussion boards, and forums where administrators are sharing best practices and solutions to issues raised by the online courses. As one indicator of the demand for information, the LinkedIn Group—MOOC - Massive Open Online Courses—attracted 1,200 members in the first nine months after its launch in October.

“It’s become crystal clear that people are hungry for information,” says Ron Fredericks, a video technologist from Sunnyvale, Calif., who started the LinkedIn group. “A lot of misconceptions are out there about MOOCs.”

Networking via the consortia

The networking groups providing the bulk of nuts-and-bolts information about starting a MOOC are the committees set up by the consortia partnering with colleges and universities to provide a platform. Once joining a consortium, university representatives may participate in a group created to discuss specific issues related to MOOCs, ranging from research to librarianship.

Resource box

“That’s part of the advantage of joining a consortium rather than just going outside them to create a MOOC,” says Joseph Burns, dean of the faculty at Cornell University, which affiliated with edX in May.

At edX, the nonprofit collaboration launched by Harvard and MIT, committees are created and led by college and university partners. edX has a network of 28 institutions, which it expects to cap at 40, says Howard Lurie, vice president for external affairs.

“The benefit of the consortium is having access to the committees and the shared conversations,” Lurie says. “It’s sort of a cross-fertilization environment.”

Similarly, Coursera offers its 83 partner institutions access to a community forum. Institutions can discuss and collaborate on a variety of MOOC-related issues, such as data analysis and teaching strategies.

One popular thread on Coursera’s forum is a discussion of how institutions have created MOOCs. “This has been tremendously useful for new partners and current partners just to get a glimpse of the processes that are in place at other institutions,” says Connor Diemand-Yauman, course operations specialist at Coursera.

Networking with other providers

Many colleges and universities are running MOOCs on platforms offered by learning management system providers, such as Canvas Network and Blackboard Inc. By this fall, Blackboard says it will be hosting MOOCs for 40 client institutions.

As its involvement with MOOCs increases, Blackboard has started creating community cohorts for its partners to network with one another about best practices. The partners may attend live online meetings, interact in discussion boards, and view videos about online teaching strategies.

“It’s really facilitated networking and bringing people together,” says Katie Blot, Blackboard’s president of education services. “We provide the technology to do that asynchronously and we also facilitate these live sessions.”

Other outlets for connecting

Institutions not partnering with a consortium or educational company also have many online outlets for learning about MOOCs. An Educause MOOC constituent group, formed last summer, has generated, among other topics, a discussion about how libraries are being integrated into the online courses.

Jason Blanchard, the group’s leader, was working as an instructional designer at Drexel University in Philadelphia when he decided to start the constituent group so members could discuss MOOCs from a “healthy critical perspective.” The traffic has been sporadic, but Drexel administrators monitored postings and raised issues at meetings. This was “a way to inject my ideas into the discussion,” says Blanchard, now a web developer for the e-learning company ApprenNet.

Gerry McKiernan, a science and technology librarian at Iowa State University, posed several questions on the Educause constituent group site about the role of librarians in offering resources to students enrolled in MOOCs. When he didn’t receive a response, he started his own discussion by creating a blog called MOOCs and Libraries, which logged 32,586 visits from readers around the world in four months after its launch in March.

The avalanche of visits to his blog reflects a growing awareness of the issue of how librarians will be involved in the development of MOOCs. “I think by posting questions or posting blog entries, that does stimulate interest,” McKiernan says.

Another new entry in the online world is MOOC News & Reviews, a website established in April by Robert McGuire, a Connecticut-based writer and consultant. Publishing six news stories a week, the site attracts nearly 1,000 visits daily and has a Twitter following of 1,250.

While many of the comments deal with questions on how to set up MOOCs, some readers want to debate the merits of the online courses. “There are a lot of people who are very passionate about the issues,” McGuire says. “People can be surprisingly aggressive in their arguments in that short space.”