Some Notes on Using MOOCs for Blended Instruction

Tayna Joosten asks on Twitter whether anyone has any best practices for reusing MOOCs. I’ve been looking at this with Amy Collier, Helen Chen and others, but we’ve tended to focus on the question of how to create MOOCs that make reuse easier. However, it’s not a big jump to flip that perspective around to the instructor view.

So briefly, what are some things we’ve found? The first thing is that the major hurdles to reusing MOOCs look, for the most part, like the hurdles to moving to any learning-centered paradigm. The sorts of issues that faculty encounter look like the sort of issues you see with any move to something like a flipped classroom, team-based learning, or peer instruction paradigm.

While that may seem obvious, it really can’t be emphasized enough. Using a MOOC is not going to solve your cultural problem for you. You’re going to have to learn to stand back. You’re going to have to be much clearer with students about expectations than you are used to, and you’re going to have to explain the “why” of the pedagogy to them as well as the how. Pick up a book on blended learning (there are plenty of good ones, but if you can wait until December, I’m going to particularly recommend this one).

That said, there are some particular issues/opportunities that arise with using MOOCs that are worth mentioning.

Finding a MOOC

Make sure you’re allowed to use the MOOC in your classroom

All the major MOOC providers currently disallow classroom use of MOOCs without permission. There are exceptions — Stanford Online allows reuse (although I believe individual instructors may set other restrictions?), and many of the Canvas Network classes are free to use in your class.

If you want to use a course by Coursera, edX, or Udacity in your classroom, you will need to talk to them and obtain explicit permission. There is a possibility that they may ask your institution to pay a fee, or place certain restrictions or requirements on your reuse.

Think about the schedule and availability of the MOOC

You might be on a quarter system using a semester system MOOC, or vice versa. We don’t recommend syncing up completely with the MOOC (see below) so some of these things can be worked around. But make sure at the very least that your students aren’t going to be shut out of the MOOC halfway through the class. Know how long the materials are available after the MOOC ends. Know what sort of materials are available before it starts.

Check the focus and prerequisites

Textbooks tend to be “overspecified” — that is, there is far more material in a textbook than you would use in any one class. This allows you to customize the class’s focus and level to the students.

MOOCs tend to be one very specific view of the subject matter, with little to no extra material. This means you have to think a bit more carefully about the “fit” of the MOOC with your students than you might with a text.

Look for a MOOC with remix and reuse rights.

If you do find a MOOC you can use in your classroom, pay attention to your specific reuse rights. David Wiley talks about 4R’s openness: the right to reuse, revise, remix, redistribute. Most current MOOCs don’t permit all these rights, but some are better than others. Can you post material from the MOOC on your class blog? Use pieces of it in your LMS?

Even the right to do a small amount of integration with the materials can go a long way towards making the experience a coherent one for students.

We’ve also talked to one person who has moved to pulling from multiple MOOCs, and recommends that practice. That’s the ultimate remix, and a practice worth considering if you have the time (and legal rights) to pull it off.

Starting the class

Don’t try to stay in complete sync with the MOOC

If the MOOC is running at the same time as your class, it’s tempting to try and stay in sync with the MOOC. Fight that temptation. You may, in fact, end up staying in sync with it, but setting up that expectation with students is going to make falling behind feel like failure.

Additionally, there are lots of advantages to staying a week or so behind in the MOOC. You have more time to plan as an instructor, and the quicker students have an opportunity to “work ahead” if they want.

The one caveat to this is that your students may want to get a completion certificate for the MOOC, and this may require they complete the course in a certain timeframe. Find out what that time frame is before the class, and encourage students that may want to work ahead a little to do so.

Set expectations and explain the why

This is blended learning 101, but it’s perhaps even more important here. When you are flipping class using your own videos, students recognize the work you put in, and respect your expertise. When you are patching together many videos from different sources, students can see that curation as an expression of your expertise, and respect the amount of time you spend constructing the experience.

In this case, however, you may be handing over the entire lecturing piece of your curriculum to one person at a top tier institution. If blended learning can look to some students like the professor is slacking, using a MOOC can look like a complete punt.

As such, it’s incredibly important to explain to the students that the lectures free up your time to do the more difficult work. Again, you can learn from other blended instructors here. I used to tell my students the Bloom’s Two Sigma story — how the best performance comes from one on one tutoring, and talk about how our Team-based Learning structure was meant to provide that sort of interaction. Your mileage may vary, but have a speech ready.

Don’t use the word “experiment”

More from my own experience running other de-centered pedagogies than anything we learned from talking to instructos, but never tell your students they are part of an experiment. Tell them it’s new, and it’s innovative, and that you seek their feedback. But telling them it’s an experiment is read by some students as permission to fail.

Running the class

Localize it, criticize it

You’re the one charged with making this experience not feel like the generic, warmed-over leftovers of an Ivy League education, so look for opportunities to bring the local element in.

Projects are a great way to do that. With people we’ve talked to, the projects are the piece that makes this feel less like a B.F. Skinner experiment, and helps the students to see the value of the work they are doing.

Small things may help as well. You might want to dialogue with the videos — if you disagree with the way something is explained in the videos, provide an alternate explanation. Supplement lectures with local examples that mean something for the students. Don’t be afraid to put yourself in the frame a bit. The last thing you want is for your students to see everything in the MOOC as wisdom brought down from the mountain. Treat the MOOC as a text, and push your students to think and engage critically with it.

Make sure your students are connected to one another

In the MOOC experience we’ve been pitched, the students in your class are all going to reach out to a student in Brazil at 2 a.m. when they have a problem. In reality, this is not the case. Students in Blended MOOCs tend to rely on other students in their class, not on the global cohort.

That’s OK. In fact, that’s what we want — students bonding with one another over classwork is one of those prime indicators of persistence to degree. Remember though that your students are going to need methods to communicate with one another and organize that are not provided by the MOOC. Maybe that’s an LMS, or twitter, or knowing each other’s email addresses. Whatever you decide, make sure your students are connected, and encourage them to reach out to one another.

Make sure they aren’t too connected

A joke, partially. But because many MOOC activities feel like trying to “beat the machine”, and because the MOOC feels like a far-away entity, your students may not know what constitutes cheating and what constitutes collaboration and support. Set clear guidelines. Explain that what constitutes cheating in the MOOC constitutes cheating in class.

This is a difficult line to walk, and it was a major worry of at least one professor we talked to. But like most things, a little clarity up front and occasional policing can go a long way.

Align your assessments

Maybe it goes without saying — but you can’t switch from the textbook you’re using to the MOOC and give the students the same test you gave last year. Do the work of thinking through what parts of your tests or assignments align with the material covered and practiced in the MOOC. If possible, set up an appeals process to catch and deal with the inevitable mismatches.

Finishing the course


As mentioned above, students who want to get the MOOC certificate may have to meet a certain deadline. Set up support for them to do that if you are trailing the global MOOC cohort. If the MOOC continues after the class is finished, offer post-class support.

In an ideal world, the MOOC runs shorter than your semester or quarter, and finishes a bit before your class, giving students time to complete it, study for your personal final exam, or finish out a project. However the MOOC is structured, make sure you allow adequate time to wrap up your local version of the class, and give students time to reflect on the experience.

Don’t forget to survey

You may wish to survey your students during the class (I highly recommend Brookfield’s Critical Incident Questionaire as an unbobtrusive way to do that). You may not.

But at the very least, survey your students at the end of the experience. Amy Collier (over at Stanford Online) has a very rough draft of a student survey you can use, and hopefully help us improve. You might also look at using the Community of Inquiry Survey which is a validated, well-respected tool to assess cognitive, social, and teaching presence in the classroom. Since so many of the struggles with MOOCs revolve around issues of presence, it’s our (as yet untested) belief that a survey like this could provide deep insights into the strengths and weakness of individual course designs. If you’d like to work with us on a research project around this, let us know.

3 thoughts on “Some Notes on Using MOOCs for Blended Instruction

  1. Mike,
    I know this is a minor part of what you’re considering but on the permissions issue, do you know if anyone has looked into how how fair use / fair dealing provisions would play into that question? I suspect the flipped-ness of much of this would suggest it might not apply in that it means the student is engaging with the MOOC as an individual and outside of ‘a classroom or place of instruction’. Hypothetically, I’m wondering on a more granular scale if an instructor could ‘take’ a single lecture from a MOOC copy it and put it within a VLE/ LMS for student access and claim fair use – such a proposal makes my inner librarian exceptionally nervous but would seem to fit with the intent of the fair use provisions (I think). I’d strongly prefer to use openly licensed content, but wonder how fair use might work in the context of offering a ‘guest lecture’ with closed MOOC content.
    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, I’m borrowing from you heavily for a professional development session next week!

  2. I’m not really sure. I think the issue you get into is that the purpose is not substantially different, even if it’s de minimus use. But not a lawyer.

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