Making a MOOC (guest blog by Ross)

Hi, there.  Ross here.  I used to teach creative writing at a KIPP school near Oakland. That’s right—creative writing in a charter school.

I recently returned to Match—where my ed career started in ’06—this time as a writer. The broader Match mission is to 1) do a great job with the kids we teach/tutor and the teachers we train, and 2) to sometimes discover "what works" (often through failure) and share those practices.  

My first task: produce a MOOC with Orin, the director of Match Teacher Residency, on how rookie teachers can be successful and happy.

Here is the course

I'm going to tell you today about creating it. 

MOOC stands for "Massive Open Online Course."  These are free, online, interactive lecture series.  This stuff is new -- growing rapidly in the past few years.  The courses are hosted on websites like Coursera (our home) and EdX.

Now, some MOOCvelopers assume they can rely on the “captive audience” effect of a physical college lecture hall.  You can hear it now. Hmm. I’m a college professor. I have a webcam. I'll just talk to the camera and say smart stuff.  Holy crap… this online lecture series is going to make itself!

But the MOOCiverse is where the self-directed students thrive, and semi-invested go to die.  The average MOOC has a completion rate of about 6%.  Most people who sign up to take a MOOC quickly tire of it, and don't complete it. 

So there’s the puzzle: how to motivate people to listen to the whole story, and pay close enough attention to pull something useful out of it.

Blog readers, for your consideration, I hereby list the literary devices of MOOCreation:

1. Character Development (or: the movie was meh, but I loved Johnny Depp)

Your lecturer is a character. She needs to be dynamic and have emotional depth. Find ways to leverage personality quirks or sense of humor. In our case, Orin makes it easy.

But the lecturer needs a supporting cast to provide multiple emotional focal points.  For example, we presented the course Teaching Assistants as visible on-screen personalities to offer characters through which viewers could access the narrative.

Moreover, we found legitimate actors in our midst here at Match, like history teacher Alex Johnson. He agreed to help us out with some staged classroom video.  Since he's got this Shakespearean actor training, his chops paid big dividends.

2. Motif (or: wait, there’s a PATTERN developing here!)

Motif is one of the major signposts of theme. And it often ain’t subtle, akin to the dramatic stage whispers of plot development (“Get it? Macbeth died for his sins”) or metaphor (“See, the rain is like Holden’s rebirth”).

But in the MOOCvironment, motif is useful for creating consistency. We are talented pattern seekers, we great apes, and some very old part of our brain rewards us (yum, dopamine) for noticing repetition of related symbols.

As teachers of teachers, we went for a classroom motif (duh), which helps the messaging to cohere in the audience’s mind. Hm, the title screens are all written on a whiteboard, just like in a classroom. And Orin keeps flashing notes for me to take—just like in a frickin’ classroom! 

Here’s your mantra: when MOOC coheres, learner perseveres.

3. Tone  (or: dude, it’s deep—Morgan Freeman narrates it)

Don’t be fooled, I’m not just talking about the lecturer and her delivery. But in the MOOCvironment, there are a lot of ways to tweak the tone of your course.


-Title screens: low/elevated/neutral diction      

-Direct emails and in-site announcements: colloquial/formal    

-Site construction: happy amateur/polished professional

Teaching how to develop tone is a beastly task. I mostly just punted on direct-instruction and relied on reverse-engineering a narrative where a student had incidentally generated appropriate tone; being aware is always the first step to glory.

4. Setting   (Or: Sandra Bullock floating in the void of deep space? Sold!)

My students always got a kick out of it when I, listening to a narrative devoid of setting, would start to levitate out of my chair and pantomime floating in zero-g with eyes wide and arms akimbo.

(“NO! It’s the WHITE VOID!!!”)

The audience cares where in the space-time continuum you exist.

-Walk off-screen.

-Turn the camera around.

-Acknowledge the absurdly vague backdrop you chose for your lecture set (probably because of its absurd vagueness).

Filming an art history MOOC from Paris? Get some exterior b-roll from the Louvre and carry a baguette under your arm (see: Motif).

Changing location for some portion of your film? Create an absurd map-graphic with a floating head jetting jerkily from Boston to New Orleans.