Best Practice

What do MOOCs hold for UCC?

2012 was dubbed the year of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).[1] . The MOOC hype has subsided somewhat in the intervening four years and they have become a de facto part of the educational ecosystem rather than the agent of disruption they were touted as from the outset. So what do MOOCs hold for UCC and our teaching and learning?

MOOCs can provide an excellent introduction to online learning and provide an insight into the course development process. At the initial stages of developing an online or blended learning course I often ask the programme team ‘When a student will log into your course, what do you want them to see’. Sometimes we have understandable difficulty visualising at the early stages how the course will look when developed. I often recommend that programme team members go to Coursera, edX or FutureLearn and enroll in some courses just to get ideas and appreciation of the learning design and user experience that can be achieved. With each MOOC provider there are always a range of subjects and course types available at all times.  As an introduction to online learning and instructional design requirements such as consistency, accessibility and constructive curriculum alignment MOOCs can be very beneficial.

MOOCs can be used for personal and professional development. Courses introducing the student to particular topics or subject areas are very common on each of three platforms. Courses on particular technical skills are also available ranging from photography and videography to 3D printing and even instructional design. Figures 1-3 show typical course landing pages from Coursera, edX and FutureLearn respectively.

Figure 1 Coursera course page
Figure 1: Course home page from Coursera
Figure 2 edX course page
Figure 2: Course home page from EdX
Figure 3 FutureLearn course page
Figure 3: Course home page from FutureLearn


While courses vary in subject matter they do share common features such as short video presentations, extensive quizzing and readings. One of the most beneficial aspects to enrolling in a MOOC for personal or professional development is that these courses also offer excellent networking and peer learning opportunities. Forums, discussion boards and in some courses social media are used extensively by the course participants which can provide valuable insights and a more global perspective on the topic. You really do need to engage on these discussion boards to maximise your learning experience in MOOCs. Should you want to pursue an accredited path on these course certificates for attendance and certificates of accomplishment are available on many courses at differing price points. Some FutureLearn programmes for example also offer participants who pay for the certified route with credits toward a formal academic qualification in the Open University.

MOOCs can also be used as aspirational targets both pedagogically and technically. When reviewing the underlying pedagogy of a MOOC it is always important to bear in mind that the course was built to be delivered simultaneously to thousands of students. This focus on scalability has proven challenging particularly with formative assessment.[2] The big three MOOC providers – edX, Coursera and FutureLearn employ bespoke, advanced virtual learning environments which afford opportunities for pedagogical innovation. Use of advanced learning analytics and smartphone and tablet apps feature prominently and provide a roadmap for UCC VLE development. For those who are more technically adventurous edX offers Open edX, an open source course management system which is available to download and develop courses with.

In 2012 the advent of MOOCs raised the public awareness of the potential of online learning.  The intervening four years has shown that they do not pose the existential threat to traditional higher education as was initially reported. As an instructional designer I consider MOOCs to be useful learning artefacts for programme development. Typically, MOOCs show excellent consistency in the presentation of academic content and the more pertinently the student journey through the course. Complex topics are broken down into smaller constituent parts and formative assessment is included in the form of self-check quizzes etc. MOOC courses adhere to very high accessibility standards with for example close captioning and transcripts provided more multimedia. In UCC we endeavor to implement these good practices in our development of our own online and blended learning.

For MOOCs, they remain worthy of our attention, occasionally warrant closer inspection and when it comes to updating your programme or modules for the coming academic year may prove to be a welcome source of inspiration. That technical and user focused inspiration married to sound pedagogical practice could well form the foundation for improved student learning and satisfaction in 2016/17.

[1] Luara Pappano, ‘The Year of the MOOC’, The New York Times, 2 November 2012, Last accessed on 9 August 2016.

[2] Hoi K. Suen, ‘Peer Assessment for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, Volume 3, No. 3 (2014). Last accessed on 10 August 2016.



MOOCs page on this site