In many ways, MOOCs (massively open online courses) are not new. When introduced in 2008, they were seen as extensions of the existing distance learning model (which itself had evolved from correspondence to radio to closed-circuit television broadcasts) to the internet. But then it became something else: a way to extend the university itself to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

The idea was tried by many universities over the next few years, and became wildly popular when it teamed up with the OER (open educational resources) movement, which added the idea that the MOOC should be free for anyone to take. In 2011 the first MOOC organizations (Udacity, Coursera) appeared. In 2012, the New York Times declared the Year of the MOOC, and one year later, the Times declared MOOCs to be failures. But not everyone agrees with the Times. In December 2014, an MIT Technology Review article asked What are MOOCs good for? . So who’s right? Are MOOCs a superior educational experience that allows the students to learn from the best instructors, or just another over-enthusiastic technology application?

I’ve taken several courses through Coursera, one of the major MOOC platforms, and have heard many of the standard complaints. Non-completion rates as high as 96% wasted the time of serious students. Instructors who acted as though their university were forcing them to make their courses available to the unwashed masses, and instructors who did not seem to acknowledge that anyone was outside their classrooms at all. Assignments made on the premise that the student had no responsibilities other than the course (honestly, 8 short stories and 2 novels in one week?).

But I’ve also seen some genuine innovation in teaching: science courses that brought current field research into class in an easy and seamless way, and comparative literature taught through video games. So are MOOCs really a failed form, or can we learn from these issues to continue this experiment in genuine adult education?

The first rule of communication is “know thy audience”, and this is where I believe many MOOCs have disappointed. When first proposed, MOOCs were intended to provide college-level courses to the masses for free. I won’t comment on the “for free” part, because while producing a MOOC isn’t free, the business model that allows students to take the courses is still very much unresolved.

Once a MOOC is released into the wild, however, anyone and everyone can sign up for it. The model intended for college students becomes a learning resource for everyone. This has led to some interesting, although probably predictable, results. Huge numbers of people sign up for courses, but those who complete the course (the common measure of success) are typically self-motivated, interactive, diligent, and disciplined. So in one respect, the initial audience analysis for MOOCs is spot-on: successful students are those who would be successful on-campus college students. But who are the rest of the audience, and why are they not successful?

Well, most of them are adult learners. The difference between the two is a matter of focus and experience: adult learners generally have more experience to draw upon, and less time to focus on learning than the traditional 18-22 year old college student. Adult learners may not be looking for a college credential – they may be looking for a resource or to learn something interesting and new. Non-native language speakers may be looking for a way to practice English composition (this was the case in the literature courses). Others take courses to try out new skills and career options. So for these learners, the credential is not the goal – it’s the content. But the content is not organized for those audiences.

Other people simply may not learn well in the traditional academic structure. Maybe they are night owls, or learn experientially rather than by reading or listening. They may succeed in learning the content, but fail at the course. The content is in most cases not organized for those audiences either.

Still others do not have the time to devote to a traditional course (the literature course that took 15+ hours a week). For them the traditional structure may be appropriate, but not the deadlines.

The basic idea of the MOOC is a good one – providing access to learning for everyone. However, developing courses with audiences other than the college student in mind will make it more successful. Here are my suggestions, for what they are worth.

Keep the college courses.
Even if it’s only 4% of the total population, traditional college students are an important audience for MOOCs, and will help universities broaden their total audience.

Develop for adult learners. Designing for adult learners is different from designing for college students, but it will be worth the effort to address the audience of non-degree-seeking learners.

Hands-on and group learning. Some audiences require group discussion and / or hands-on projects to complete in order to master a subject. Book club members already understand this concept, and a growing number of researchers are finding that science is often better when people share data and discuss findings.

Abolish the semester. To address the student’s lack of time, courses could be offered with a six-month or one-year deadline instead of the typical 10-12 weeks. This is tougher than it appears, as the support system for a MOOC includes interacting with instructors and facilitators who would be bound to a longer time commitment.

Describe the approach in the catalog. Let your audience know how the course is designed and they can choose for themselves. MOOCs have been accused of being one-size-fits-all, but I’ve found that much of that reputation comes from placing existing classroom courses, sometimes unaltered, into the structure of the MOOC platform. Yet within that structure many find ways to provide innovative learning techniques. Describe the intended audience for the course along with the content and let the learner decide.

The good news is that most of these suggestions are being tried. A recent report from Columbia University discusses the proliferation of various forms of the MOOC, and in a later posting, I’d like to start a discussion on the merits of xMOOCs, cMOOCs, and corporate MOOCs. But that’s a tale for another day. The success of Coursera, Udacity, and other similar open knowledge resources suggests that the form is evolving as practitioners continue on the grand experiment. My prediction: there will be many types of MOOCS, addressing the needs of learners throughout their lifetimes. Stay tuned!

Estimating online course work

Whether you’re a solo practitioner or working with a large training development company, you will at some point be asked to estimate how long it will take to create an online course. Most people want the rule-of-thumb (ROT) version: X hours of work for a 1-hour course, so if I charge Y dollars per hour, the project will cost X*Y dollars.

After more than 15 years of designing, developing, testing, and evaluating results from online courses, I have come up with the definitive answer: it depends.

It depends on a number of factors, which is why I like to create a scoping document before starting any course. This is not always possible, but every time that I have seriously underestimated the time a course would take, I had not written a scoping document.

Tom Gram argues a similar point in Myth of E-Learning Levels of Interaction. It has become common to base estimates of time on a three-level scale of interactivity such as the Brandon Hall model. Level 1 has one level of interactivity, level 2 is 25-50% more, and level 3 is anything beyond that. While level of interactivity is less a myth than a shorthand device for talking about the complexity of the project, it does imply that only one component will change the time it takes to create a course. When estimating time, you need to look at a number of components. A project in which the content must be written may require as much additional time and effort as one in which the content is complete but the scenario-based interface must be designed from scratch.

So let’s look at some of the components you should take into account in estimating time for an elearning course.

Have you worked with this client before? This might not seem like the #1 thing to look at, but believe me it affects everything else in your estimate. Any time you work with a new group of people, it takes time throughout the project to understand how they work. Experience with a client means you can spend less time trying to figure out how many reviews they want and more time actually creating their course.

Needs. This should be simple, right? The course sponsor knows that he or she needs a course on the new system they installed so that employees can collaborate while developing sales presentations. But what exactly do they need?

While talking to the sponsor or SME, ask questions that reveal how well the project has been defined: What do they really need for this course? Why do they want a course at all – what has lead to the decision to train? Focus on outcomes – what should the audience be able to do once they’ve taken the course. Should they be aware of the new system, or is there a behavior that must be changed? The sponsor may have already done a formal needs assessment characterizing the audience and the learning needs, so they may already have this information available for you.

There are some tactical issues you want to clarify as well. Are there regulatory or testing requirements that are part of the course? When and how will the course be launched? Do they have a budget for the work?

Expectations. Beside the needs of the course stand the expectations, and these are as important to your estimation as the needs. What does the sponsor expect the final course to look like and provide to the participants? On which medium will the course be delivered – mobile, webcast, self-study, or all of the above? How long will the finished course be? Will the course contain graphics, video, audio, games? How complex is it – strictly a short informational presentation, or a scenario-based, multiple branching, highly interactive course? Each of these factors can increase or decrease your estimate of time.

You may have to negotiate a little to set appropriate expectations. Many clients will ask for more than their budget can support, and you may need to work with them to align the needs of the course with the expectations and budget.

Process. The final area you need to explore can be summed up by the question “who does what and when?”.

Start with the content: how much of it is available? What condition is it in? (I’ve seen content run the gamut from updated storyboards to a concept-only outline. Your idea of “ready” may be different from your client’s.) Who will be responsible for updating the content and writing it into storyboard and script formats? Where will the graphics, audio, video, and other media come from?

Next look at the procedures. Online development is a multi-step process: design the course, create storyboards, develop the online version. At each step there will be reviews; the online version requires testing. The client’s compliance requirements may add multiple reviews at various stages; if the content, examples, or test questions are newly-created for the course, plan on at least one round of reviews for accuracy and appropriateness. Testing may be a formal process requiring members of the target audience to evaluate the course, or it may be an informal review by the SME and the designer. Knowing these process steps in advance is crucial to accurate estimating (as well as a smoothly running project)!

Which brings us to staffing. Who is responsible for each bit of the work? I’ve seen projects fail utterly because no one was responsible for making sure some vital task was completed correctly.

If this seems like a lot of work just to estimate how much time will be required, remember that each project is different, and your assumptions may be wildly inaccurate. As Sumathi Reddy wrote in a recent Wall Street Journal article on tardiness, everyone underestimates the time it takes to perform a task. Unpacking the task – breaking it down into its detailed component parts – provides a more accurate estimate of time than simply relying on past experience to make the estimate. Almost every experienced project manager or proposal writer I know would agree.

So start with your own assumptions about the project and how much time it will take you to complete it. Walk through the components of the project, adjusting your time estimate up or down as you learn the details of the audience’s needs, the sponsor’s expectations, and the project’s processes. This leads to a much more accurate estimate, and a lower risk of over-promising and under-delivering.

Learning Storyline™

One of my goals for 2015 was to regain my skills as an elearning developer.  I had developed a number of courses in Lectora™ and Articulate™, but over the last few years, my work had tended to be more content design and project management, with the development left to others.  However, I believe that understanding how an online course is created expands my creative options as a designer.  The world of online training has changed rapidly in the last 5 years, and I felt the need to learn and refresh. So I am learning to use Storyline 2™ by Articulate.  There are a number of excellent learning development platforms available, but Storyline has a number of features I have not seen elsewhere, plus a robust, supportive user community, which makes all the difference for a new user.  So check out my first Storyline course: Catproofing your house.

Great expectations

I’ve intended to put up a web site for Memorable Learning for a couple of years now, and today is the day I finally do it. Procrastination is not ultimately a satisfying process.

Memorable Learning is me: writer, instructional designer, technology adopter, cooking enthusiast, and curious storyteller.  In this site I hope to share some of what I’ve learned in more than a half-century of observation and also my latest efforts to master the task at hand.  Once I figure out what goes where on this web site template, that is.