Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have become a hot topic this year in the press. It seems on a daily basis there is some article or blog post talking about the latest MOOC platform, MOOC course being offered or debate surrounding the issue regarding this type of learning.

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It should be no surprise that the MOOC field is quickly becoming an industry into itself where there is almost a new company, initiative or program being launched on a monthly basis.

Many people may be familiar with the existing MOOC players such as edX, Coursera and Udacity. But there are new, global players entering the market such as iversity, Schoo and Futurelearn.

These MOOC players and the ones yet to come are shaking up the academy as well as the overall idea of what learning can be. There has been plenty of debate in the press about the advantages and disadvantages to this kind of learning, and many questions remain about the future of where MOOCS will reside in the larger education picture.

I don’t have a crystal ball to say if MOOCs will become a permanent learning fixture, but I do think as educators we have the opportunity to explore this format to test out new forms of teaching. In the 21st century we have the chance to set the path toward new and exciting ways of teaching subjects, and the only way to do so is if we are willing to experiment with different approaches.

Case Study: Data-Driven Journalism MOOC

I had the opportunity to teach and coordinate a journalism MOOC for media professionals recently through an invitation with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas on “Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics.” The MOOC had 3,700 students enrolled from over 140 countries. People enrolled in the course were as far as Nepal and as close as San Francisco.

Many of the students were journalists. But some were librarians, professors, engineers, programmers and designers, and others were just curious citizens wanting to know more about how journalism works. It was great to see such student diversity in terms of background, experience, and geographic location. It helped make the discussions each week in the course an enriching experience for the students and the instructors.

I want to share my personal experience about teaching this course and how teaching a journalism subject such as data-driven journalism techniques can be taught through the MOOC platform if you have the right set of ingredients to make it successful.

Here are the quick tips with further explanation below for each:

• Tip 1: Give a lot of time to planning the MOOC, its content and instruction model.
• Tip 2: Prepare a detailed syllabus.
• Tip 3: Launching a MOOC is a team effort. Don’t try to do it alone.
• Tip 4: Be detailed throughout the course. Provide clear instructions.
• Tip 5: Be as involved as possible.

Tip 1: Give a lot of time to planning

Be diligent in planning the MOOC, its content and instruction model. Consider co-teaching it with professionals in the field.

The original idea for the “Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics” MOOC came about earlier this summer when I saw a lot of discussion online about the lack of training and centralized materials for journalists to learn data-driven journalism techniques around the world. There are a lot of online resources such as digital books, videos, tutorials and websites on the topic, but much of it is not centralized and lacks structure or organization to help a newbie navigate those waters. I thought there was a gap out there and thought it may be the right moment to offer a course to help folks have the tools and information to help them get started in this area.

I spoke with Rosental Calmon Alves, director of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas (who has been running a successful distance learning program for journalists for 10 years and teaching journalism MOOCs for a year now), about the possibility of teaching a data-driven journalism MOOC. He was ecstatic over the idea, and I started putting together a plan.

My approach to this MOOC was different from others I have seen. I have been teaching data-driven journalism for years at San Diego State University, but I thought having more than just one instructor would be unique and also a great way for the students to learn from various data journalism experts.

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So my plan was to be the lead coordinator/instructor of the course and bring in several data-journalism experts to teach different weeks of the course. I invited four data journalists to be instructors, and they all said yes. Thus, the dream team was born: Lise Olsen of the Houston Chronicle, Derek Willis of the New York Times, Jeremy Bowers of NPR, and Sisi Wei of ProPublica became the instructors for the course. Each of them would teach a different week and different aspect of data journalism.

This format was exciting for the students because they were able to get a new teacher each week, experience a different teaching style and different kinds of content, and have new interactions with each teacher. This format definitely spiced up the course and kept the students engaged every week of the course.

Tip 2: Prepare a detailed syllabus.

Planning a MOOC does entail a lot of time. We spent about two months planning the curriculum for the MOOC. When planning a MOOC you should ask yourself these questions:

• What subject do you want to teach?
• How do you want to teach it?
• What skills do you want them to learn?
• What knowledge do you want them to gain?
• What tools do you want them to learn?
• How will they apply what they have learned?
• Do you want them to reflect on their learning experience and in what ways?

Thinking through the learning outcomes is an important part to the planning process. For the Data-Driven Journalism MOOC, I had specific learning outcomes that were tied to building knowledge in the following areas that became the overall outline for the course:

• Week 1: Introduction to Data Journalism
• Week 2: Where to Find the Data and the Stories
• Week 3: How to Interview the Data
• Week 4: How to Bring the Data to Life Part 1
• Week 5: How to Bring the Data to Life Part 2

Each instructor was given academic freedom of how to cover their theme in their own week. However, each instructor had to provide a set number of readings, videos (theoretical and practical), links to relevant resources, a brief quiz (covering the major concepts from that week) and discussion questions that connected to the major concepts covered for the week. Knowing that some of the students in the course would have varying levels of experience, instructors also prepared beginner and advanced materials for students accordingly.

All this information was compiled into a syllabus. The syllabus also featured course deadlines, the communication policy (how the students can interact with each other and the instructor), expectations for completing the course, and overall logistics of the platform.

Creating this overall structure for the course, giving academic freedom to each of the instructors to craft their own materials for the week, and providing a detailed syllabus for the students created a strong foundation for how the MOOC course would run.

Tip 3: Launching a MOOC is a team effort. Don’t try to do it alone.

When creating this MOOC, the planning and building of the course happened over a two-month timeframe and I was lucky to have a team of great folks from the Knight Center to help.

If you are going to launch your own MOOC, I highly recommend you try to get at least two to three people to help you. For this MOOC, the Knight Center provided the MOOC platform, a teaching assistant (to help me with building the course shell and to help me and the other instructors during the course), a web developer (to help with technical issues with the platform), a videographer (to help with the editing and encoding of the lecture videos) and an administrator to help with overall logistics.

It may not be possible to have a big team to help with your MOOC, but if you can get student interns or assistants to help, it can be a great opportunity for them to learn about online learning, instructional design, and learn more about the journalism topic you will be teaching.

Tip 4: Be detailed throughout the course. Provide clear instructions.

When launching a MOOC course, you will have people enroll from all over the world with varying backgrounds and skills with using the digital platform. It’s important that your course is as inclusive as possible by making sure you provide detailed instructions of how the students can use the platform, navigate the materials and the way online learning works. Several of the students that enrolled in the Data-Driven Journalism MOOC stated it was their first online learning experience, and I made sure that they had the information they needed to navigate the course. How do you do this?

Create an FAQ section in the course. This FAQ should cover as many questions as you can think of related to the course platform, the instruction, materials, etc. You can then refer students to this section when they have questions.
Create a “Questions for the Instructors Forum.” During the course, you may receive several questions via email from students that are the same. Instead of replying with the same answer each time, you can post one response to a general forum and everyone can then see your reply. It’s a big time saver and allows the information to be shared with all the students in the course versus only one student at a time.

Tell students how to navigate the course materials. With an online learning platform, students may or may not be familiar with an online course. It’s important that you provide detailed instructions to the students telling them to click on this link, go to this section of the course shell, how to make a forum post, you will be viewing a video here, etc. This level of instruction may be tedious, but it helps guide the student along in the course material no matter if the student is a novice or not. You should also make a course guide that goes over the basic functions and features of the platform — how to send a message, make a post, take a quiz, check their grade, etc.

Tip 5: Be as involved as possible.

Recent stories in the press about MOOCs have pointed out that these kind of courses are failures for teaching subjects because it’s just taking a series of self-directed modules with little to no interaction with other students and the instructor. This may be the case with some MOOCs, but it doesn’t have to be the case with your own MOOC.

For the Data-Driven Journalism MOOC, I specifically wanted to make sure to be as involved as possible with the course. I also asked Lise, Derek, Jeremy and Sisi to be as involved as possible in their respective weeks.

It may seem counterintuitive or overwhelming to think about being highly engaged in a MOOC, but it can be done. Here are a few ways in which you can bring interaction and engagement into the course:

Identify a communication policy for the MOOC by telling students how they can reach you — whether you decide on using email and/or forums. In addition, you should state how quickly you will respond to inquiries (24-48 hour time frame). It’s important to be clear with the students about how often you will communicate and when.

Send a welcome message/greeting at the beginning of each week of the course and a wrap-up message at the end of the week. When students embark on a new week of materials it’s important for the instructor to provide a brief overview of what they will experience and what they can be prepared for. When the week ends, send a concluding email message to the students letting them know what were the main points of the week and how the overall class did throughout the week.

Incorporate multiple discussion forums for each week of the course. If you provide students multiple entry points of how they can interact with the course materials, you may find more people will participate and have a conversation than if you have only one discussion forum. For the Data-Driven Journalism MOOC, we had about five main discussion questions for the week and allowed the students to enter in as many as they like.

You should participate in the forums and make observations of the conversations happening in them. With an online course, it’s important that the instructor is present. The instructor should try to review the forums daily and participate in the discussions. In addition, the instructor should review all the forum posts throughout the week and provide observations of the major points brought up and address them in an overall post throughout the week — make an observation post on Monday, another one on Wednesday, and a final one on Friday or Saturday.

Consider doing some synchronous communication activities such as holding a virtual chat or a Google Hangout with the students at a given time during the week.

Use social media channels. In the MOOC, we had a Twitter hashtag — #datajmooc and a private Facebook group page that we also used to communicate with the students. They were not obligated to use these platforms, but many of the students did — to post resources/articles, interact with each other, and converse with the instructors. The social media channels remain open after the course has ended and serve as ongoing learning communities for the students.

The Challenges

When teaching a MOOC for the first time or for the 15th time, there will be challenges. Lise, Derek and Jeremy have some suggestions related to handling challenges with MOOCs:

Derek’s point: The most challenging aspect is trying to get a broader sense of how students are doing. With so many participants, it can be difficult to know for sure whether the concepts you are teaching are really being absorbed.

Jeremy’s point: The most challenging aspect for me was scale. Especially for a tech-driven subject like news applications, I had a built-in assumption that I could individually shepherd along stragglers. But with 3,500 students, this isn’t really possible — you might have 200 stragglers! My immediate feeling after the MOOC was that I should have been more careful to segment the “easy,” “intermediate,” and “hard” parts of my lectures/questions and then offered more instruction around the “intermediate” and “hard” concepts.

Lise’s point: Not being able to see or hear the students and knowing you can have personal contact with only a certain small group (via posts or email). Not knowing in advance the level of skill or previous experiences of the students. (Pre-MOOC surveys could help with this.)

Some Advice and Key Take-Aways

Here are some of last points of advice for anyone wishing to launch their own MOOC:

My advice: It takes a lot of time. Any online course, whether it is a MOOC or not, takes a lot of time to plan and maintain once it launches. Be prepared to spend twice or four times as much of your time on the course. Be available to the students. As the online medium creates an imaginary distance between people, students crave interaction with the instructor to know they are there. Try to be as present as possible in the course. Don’t take on too much. Don’t try to put everything into the MOOC about the given subject. I started out in the planning phase by including a lot of information and ended up reducing it by half to make sure it would be a manageable amount of course material for the students.

Derek’s advice: For a single instructor, I would suggest that if it’s at all possible, try not to script the entire course out ahead of time. It certainly helps to have a solid outline and materials ready, but it seems to me that preserving the ability to respond to the pace of the class and the interests of students could make for a better overall experience.

Jeremy’s advice: Focus, focus, focus. Both the overall MOOC and the individual chapters will benefit from laser-like focus on a theme. This MOOC was a great example of that focus, and a journalist or educator would do well to follow this example.

Lise’s advice: Do pre-MOOC surveys to figure out a little about skills and interest of students participating in the course. Try to develop and incorporate examples from the countries where students live. If you’re teaching hands-on skills, like dataviz or Excel, knowing how many have basic skills in advance helps, but you still have to prepare for multiple levels. Allow new instructors to talk to experienced teachers or read evaluations for other MOOCs in advance. (Amy was great for us.) I’m sure we all start out not knowing what tools to use — video, ppt are MOST effective or what combination of materials is NOT enough or TOO much to overwhelm. On the fly, I got a pretty good idea from feedback what forum questions I posted were most/least effective or provocative and effective to teaching the MOOC, but I’m unsure how effective the ppts I did were.

In conclusion, there is no secret formula to teaching a MOOC. These tips and suggestions above provide one start in that direction. A MOOC is not just about the digital platform, the digital technologies used, the massive number of students enrolled or the subject taught.

It all depends on the instructors, how they teach the subject, and the way they interact with the students in the learning process that will determine whether the MOOC or any other online course will be successful.

Amy Schmitz Weiss is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University. Schmitz Weiss is a 2011 Dart Academic Fellow and has a Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She teaches journalism courses in basic writing and editing, multimedia, web design, data journalism, and mobile journalism. She is also the 2011-2012 Recipient of the AEJMC Bridge Grant with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that led to the creation of a mobile news app, AzteCast for the San Diego State University campus population in spring 2012. She also is a former journalist who has been involved in new media for more than a decade. She has worked in business development, marketing analysis and account management for several Chicago Internet media firms. Her research interests include online journalism, media sociology, news production, multimedia journalism, and international communication. See her website for a full list of research publications. Contact her at aschmitz@mail.sdsu.edu