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Five Lessons for Online Teaching from Finishing a MOOC

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[This is a guest post by Michelle Moravec, a historian currently working on the politics of women's culture, which you can read about at michellemoravec.com. Follow her on Twitter at @professmoravec.--@JBJ]

At the end of January 2014, I enrolled in an MOOC on corpus linguistics offered by the U.K.-based Open University’s Future Learn. CorpusMOOC, as it was affectionately known and hashtagged on Twitter, was billed as a “practical introduction to the methodology of corpus linguistics for researchers in social sciences and humanities” (See the video introduction here). Tony McEnrey, a leading scholar in the field, aimed to deliver a hefty eight learning objectives in as many weeks. One in particular, to “demonstrate the use of corpus linguistics in the humanities, especially History” aligned nicely with my prior work using corpus linguistics as a digital history methodology. I am happy to report that I beat the odds (or rather, fit most of the profile of a successful MOOCer) and successfully completed the course.

CorpusMOOC was top notch from start to finish. Each week consisted of a series of video lectures, complete with PDF transcripts and downloadable powerpoints. Participants gained access to many resources including proprietary ones. The range of expertise was impressive, especially in the video interviews between McEnrey and leaders in the field. The realtime online support from paid course mentors offered an astounding 12 hours of coverage on weekdays and 5 hours on weekends.

As I proceeded through the course, marveling at how well it was all going, I realized that I was learning as much from CorpusMOOC about teaching online as I was about corpus linguistics. I blogged the full eight weeks, but have distilled the top five lessons learned about teaching online from taking a MOOC.

Think More About Time

I devoted significantly more time than the estimated three hours per week to CorpusMOOC. I advise my students to schedule time for online courses like they do for face-to-face classes. The weeks I was able to follow my own schedule were much easier, but I failed to account for aberrations like travel or big deadlines. Get students to beta-test online course material or if that proves impossible overestimate the time needed to complete. Urge students to structure their time at start of the course for the entire semester.

Create Skimmable Content

In an era of tl;dr no one is reading everything on an online course site, including myself. CorpusMOOC was broken into many small pieces, with one week’s lesson having as many as thirty components. I tended to get confused about what I was meant to view or read versus what I was meant to complete as an assignment. Visually differentiate course content, such as readings, videos, resources, and tasks to be completed.

Facilitate Face-to-Face and Online Communication

Some weeks of CorpusMOOC were so challenging that I longed for either a synchronous online course or a physical space for collaboration. Thankfully, during the most difficult assignments, timely online support saved me from making the sorts of frustrating errors that no doubt contribute to the high MOOC dropout rates. Encourage students to work together in computer labs and harness our online classroom. Emulate online 24/7 support by offering students a choice of platforms (LMS public Facebook page, Twitter, and blog) and awarding participation points for responding correctly to classmates’ queries.

Encourage Experimentation

CorpusMOOC provided clear parameters for experimentation that allowed for a broad range of participants to get the most from the course. Weekly emails from Tony McEnery encouraged students to “Do what works for you.” Historical linguists worked alongside secondary language on the same assignments using their own corpora, software interfaces, and research queries. Create extremely explicit instructions for each step of an assignment, post links to external resources as well as relevant material from earlier in the course, and most importantly, give the students heads ups on sticking points where they might get frustrated.

Offer Advanced Options

CorpusMOOC provided optional advanced materials every week in explorations of more in-depth topics. I particularly enjoyed McEnery in conversation with experts in the field. While providing custom content for my courses is impossible, a wealth of materials already exists, from videos on Youtube to academic blogs to journal articles that could provide this connection to leading academics. Include at least one additional link to material for advanced study for students who wish to delve deeper into the material.

If I’ve piqued your interest in corpus linguistics, the course repeats September 2014.

How about you? What lessons for teaching, whether online or in-person,have you learned from taking a MOOC? Alternatively, have you completed a MOOC? What facilitated your success? If you dropped out of a MOOC, what, other than time-crunch, exacerbated problems for you?

Photo “Sydney Tech.Ed 06: Labs after Hours” by Flickr user K.C. / Creative Commons licensed BY-NC-ND-2.0

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