MOOC Magic

MOOC: Massively Open Online Course Techniques. This page will focus on the technical and instructional design of the "Stanford," Coursera, and Udacity MOOC courses. The free and massive nature of MOOCs is not of interest in this context, rather the techniques all focus on instructional effectiveness. MOOCs tend to use video to present core content, and their most successful video modules contain the five elements below:

1. Short, single-topic videos. The core instructional element of both popular MOOC courses and K-12 sites like Khan Academy is the short, single-topic video. A typical online "chapter" or week will contain three-to-six 10-minute videos.

In addition to the brevity and single focus, the videos have four other salient characteristics:

2. High instructor presence. This is accomplished by audio and video of the instructor speaking, demonstrating, or even writing as on a whiteboard. Picture-in-picture is often used to provide the instructor presence.

3. Informal tone. In contrast the didactic tone used in many classrooms and lecture halls, these courses strive to create an informal tone much as you would experience in a discussion with a classmate in a coffee shop.

4. Live in-video "scribing" where text is often hand written (scribed) and graphics are often live-annotated as one would do in a classroom whiteboard or Smartboard (or old fashioned blackboards!). This seems to focus the student's attention as the topic is developed.

5. Frequent retrieval. After each sub-topic (3-6 minutes), the video stops and students are are asked to respond by retrieving information or performing the skill that was just taught. The student is given immediate feedback and invited to review the last video and try again. Many courses implement mastery learning by requiring students to get each question correct before proceeding with the rest of the lesson. This seems to be one of the most effective aspects of successful MOOC courses. The Udacity MOOCs use the most sophisticated methods to "embed" quizzes into their videos (they actually use a combination of HTML5, javascript, and CSS). Adobe Captivate is used in some Coursera videos, but it is not as integrated into the video instruction as the Udacity system. A "poor man's" approach is to include the questions in the video with directions to pause the video, answer the questions, and then resume the video to see how you did.

Below is a screenshot of one of my "MOOCky" videos. The system I used is a few paragraphs below.


Scudacity_scribing.jpgribing (writing or drawing in the video presentation). Scribing was popularlized by the informal Khan academy videos written as the video progresses and by RSA Animation, a company whose scribing videos have reached millions of viewers. The image on the right showcases Udacity's scribing method where the text always appears ABOVE the hand and pen! It has a magical effect!

Example: RSA animation of Sir Ken Robinson's "Changing Education Paradigms." While this is an extreme example of scribing, notice how your attention is directed and riveted by the active writing and drawing. Is it the "artistry" or the synchronicity that produces this effect? Compare this effect with page after page of professionally typeset screens with high-quality photographic layout. Why does one seem more effective?

Needed: You need a writing/drawing device like an iPad or graphics tablet, software that records the PROCESS of the writing/drawing, often on top of an image, PDF, or video. Finally, you need a system that captures your audio narration as well as the screen action in a movie file. The movie file may or may not need editing. The movie file is uploaded to a server such as YouTube where students can access it. Ben's website (below) will help you get a grasp of some of the ideas.

Tutorials: There are quite a variety of tutorials, most of them related to "flipping the classroom" or making "screencasts." There are so many variables in the complexity and the tools you may want to use that I don't have many tutorials to recommend other than the ones below.

"The Electric Scribe" is a 10-part free course by Alphachimp University on scribing with Sketchbook Pro: (search for course title and "free" to get login code.)

Screenflow IconBuilding a MOOC Video

My Current System

I use ScreenFlow (Mac OS X only) to capture the full screen and then to edit the result. ScreenFlow also captures the audio and video of me as the instructor. ScreenFlow allows flexible positioning and sizing of my image on the video. ScreenFlow also allows me to edit video, add transitions, and adjust color/brightness/contrast. If you don't have a Mac, then use Camtasia Studio.

For presenting slides and scribing on them, I use a clunky system. I create slides in Keynote (Mac only) leaving a space for my video image. The Keynote slides are converted to PDF and the PDF slides are added to Jarnal as a background on which I can write. For scribing, I use a graphics tablet (any one will do), and Jarnal supports choice of pens. A simpler alternative is to use PowerPoint, which natively supports a graphics tablet (so you don't need Jarnal).

I don't yet have an in-video quiz system I like. Sometimes I use the "poor man's" system of asking a question and then asking a pause in the video, resuming when you want to hear a solution. The most promising system right now is Hapyak, a new HTML5 / CSS / Javascript system. You can create five free video quizzes before you need to pay $100 per month.

I use my laptop's built-in camera and microphone, and I try to set up good lighting and a simple background. ScreenFlow allows me to upload videos directly to my YouTube channel (or to Vimeo and a bunch of other sites).

Other Approaches and Background Concepts and Techniques

Keith Hughes is a teacher who creates short videos to "flip" his classroom. Keith's 24-min video demonstrates how he creates multimedia, high-engagement, high-content videos using inexpensive equipment and and relatively simple techiques:

Ron Bertino has compiled a webpage highlighting the tools he uses for screencast videos, which are a MOOCky kind of video. He includes narrative to help you understand the role of each tool and how to use them:

Best-Quality Audio

A lavalier microphone or headsest microphone reduces background noise dramatically. A high-quality USB stand-alone microphone like the Blue Snowball or Yeti record give a studio feel to the recording (and are often available reconditioned or used). Your laptop or desktop computer microphone also works if you are in a quiet area and if there is no fan, disk drive, or other noise your computer produces. NOTE: it's harder to record good audio than good video! Take your time and experiment.

Video-Editing Software

Consumer-grade video editing software like iMovie or Windows Movie Maker are fine for the beginner and intermediate producer. iMovie, for example, does simple and convenient picture-in-picture, but the aspect ratio of the inset must be the same as its container movie. For more advanced effects and greater technical control, Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro are often used (but they cost a lot more).

Hosting Your Videos

Everybody uses YouTube or Vimeo for free. There are other services, but they will probably be less reliable and more costly.

iPad and Android Tablet to the Rescue

A simple, low-cost app like Explain Everything allows you to record narration and live scribing over images and pdf slides from PowerPoint or Keynote. Upload easily to YouTube. The easiest solution (but not the most professional).

Support and Collaboration Options

One of the factors separating successful from unsuccessful online courses is the degree to which the course and the instructor are able to support the learners and to foster a collaborative environment in which they can support each other. Think of the frequent teacher-student and student-student interactions that happen in a face-to-face classroom. The instructor and the other students are as significant to the learner as the content, often more so. One the great challenges of online courses and MOOCs is how to more deeply support and engage each student in a community of learners to avoid the feeling of isolation that has too often been a product of courses that focus exclusively on content knowledge, ignoring social learning.

The most common form of support is a Q&A forum and of collaboration is a discussion form of the kind provided by the Moodle, Blackboard, or other CMS. Wikis can be used to support team projects (think of Wikibooks), and Google Docs/Drive offers a great assortment of collaborative tools. Lesser known systems like CmapTools offer synchronous development of rich concept maps.

Courses that require written papers and projects can make use of peer reviewing and editing, which even helps reduce the incidence of plagiarism. Coursera MOOCs have explored and rely upon peer grading of course papers and projects, which appears to be highly accurate as long as students are trained to evaluate the work using a rubric that makes sense to them and for the project.

So designing a good online course, MOOC or otherwise, includes thoughtful design of social learning, social networking, and scaffolded support for students.