Innovative pedagogical practices in MOOC teaching – Attin Cheng

Designing and teaching MOOCs requires new pedagogical practices. Drawn on the experience of a MOOC on Dinosaur Ecosystems, this article discusses a number of innovative pedagogical practices that are effective in enhancing student engagement and increasing completion rate.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are courses designed to be accessible by all public audiences characterised by 100% online delivery and large-scale enrolment. MOOCs received good popularity because of its high-quality offerings by famous universities, and the provision of casual, hassle-free, and boundless learning environment allowing learners to access from anywhere at their own comfortable learning pace. According to Class Central (2018), there were more than 800 universities offering a total of 9400 MOOCs as of December 2017. Learners enrol the MOOCs for a number of reasons such as the quest for knowledge and skills, job training, or just for personal interests. Despite the fact that MOOCs are gaining higher popularity, MOOCs always got the problems of insufficient learner engagement and a low completion rate. Actually, both phenomena are not surprising to see because MOOC learners have a wide spectrum of background, they may just participate in the course for a week and then switch to another MOOC freely at no cost. A recent MOOC report in 2017 said HarvardX and MITx that only an average of 5.5% of their learners enrolled in a MOOC completed the course and earned a certificate (edSurge, 2017). As an instructional designer holding additional roles as project manager and course administrator, I was assigned to work with Earth Science Department to produce the Dinosaur Ecosystems MOOC in November 2015. To recall, I felt a bit stressful as I was new to the topic and I was wondering how to engage online learners more effectively. My biggest challenge was: How to engage a wide spectrum of global MOOC learners with a highly diverse background, different cultures and learning behaviours in a completely online uncontrollable learning context?

Fortunately, Professor Ricky Kwok, the Associate Vice-President (Teaching and Learning) highly supported the course development and positioned the course as high-quality, good visual-based, and thus allocated good media production backup. Then, I browsed through the course materials together with all footages and worked closely with the course instructor Dr. Michael Pittman, who was also the Research Assistant Professor from Department of Earth Sciences. To explore the weaknesses of MOOCs, I had enrolled more than 10 MOOCs including the most popular computer and artificial intelligence courses, business, science, and some similar topics. I found many of the MOOC videos were too long and/or the presentations were mostly old-style as if the instructors were presenting in front of a PowerPoint slide or a whiteboard. Comparing to our real traditional classroom, the MOOC learning context even falls short of face-to-face interactions. Honestly, I dropped most of these MOOCs after the first or second week, with only a few until the third week.

There should be some innovations in MOOC pedagogy or at least some adjustments in the content delivery strategy. We understood that great content, including the style of presentation being vital to get people engaged. Therefore, we decided to move a brave step forward and tried to apply the innovative practice found on TV, which is entertaining! Firstly, we resolved the videos being-too-long issue by trimming down the video length significantly. We did so by limiting the number of learning objectives to be delivered in a single movie such that most of our MOOC videos were shorter than 5 minutes and some were just 2 to 3 minutes long. Secondly, we attempted to produce more entertaining /engaging lectures by jumping outside the classrooms and brought learners to the places they had never been to. This was made possible because Dr. Pittman took lots of field-based footages himself when he carried out his researches in Gobi Desert, the States, and the UK. Further, I did some literature searches and concluded that breaking down the learning objectives into several small finite ones alongside the bite-sized videos incorporated with refreshing documentary TV-styled presentation would be helpful in learner engagement, and thus should achieve a higher completion rate. Our principles, therefore, include the following points:

  • Long MOOC videos have a lower level of engagement comparing to short ones (Loucky, 2017)
  • Learning as entertaining: a happy and casual presentation makes learning a fun
  • Graphical visual presentation is much better (We used paleoart to reconstruct the real side of dinosaurs)
  • Content is the king! Engage learners with something new and keep them curious for the upcoming content, say injecting the latest research findings of dinosaurs that couldn’t be found in the textbooks.
  • In favour of learning convenience. Keep everything simple, adopt mobile-friendly bite-sized videos to facilitate ubiquitous learning (smooth access to learning content anytime and anywhere)
  • Take care of operational efficiency in content update. That is, updating and uploading a bite-sized video with finite learning objectives is quicker and easier

Regarding learner background, getting to know the learners at the beginning of the course is important because it allows the instructor to cultivate active participation by posting specific discussion topics relevant to their background, interests, and learning expectations. Following this, the discussion is a good method to create new knowledge, generate new points of view, and nurture growth through collaboration and cooperation with other peers in the community (Oxford Learning Institute, 2018; Brookfield and Preskill, 2012). So we let student bring in their new content by nurturing an active weekly discussion forum, where they can share their thoughts and comments, and in turn, they actively discussed and being engaged in the learning. Last but not least, we also maintained a responsive teaching attitude to engage learners using a Whatsapp group. The social tool facilitated the discussions between instructor and TAs so that accurate response could be posted to the discussion forum timely.

The 6-week Dinosaur Ecosystems MOOC was launched on Feb 8th, 2017 and completed on March 28th, 2017. The MOOC captured 9000+ learners, with 4392 active learners in the first week and 1004 learners having achieved a passing score of 50% or above. The global average MOOC completion rate was around 10% while our completion rate was 1011/4392 or 23%. Regarding engagement, reliable measurement of learner engagement has yet to reach a consent in MOOC community, therefore qualitative review from learners is one of the main indicators of MOOC engagement. We’ve reviewed more than 500 comments and discussion threads, some of their feedback was shared below.

Dinosaur Ecosystems MOOC: Part of the comments shared by learners

Source: edX (2017)

We got some tips from the development and delivery of Dinosaur Ecosystems MOOC. They are:

  • High-quality bite-sized documentary-styled videos are good for learner engagement
  • Active discussion forum fosters learner engagement
  • Up-to-date content together with new content brought by learners make the course more compelling to learners
  • Responsive teaching with a prompt response is good to keep learner active

In all, Dinosaur Ecosystems MOOC has received good comments from local and global learners. Some students approached us asking about further studies in palaeontology. They enjoyed the online learning experience and some of them are now part of our course team members. Innovation is not necessarily about high-tech, it is about how you think out of the box and move a step forward to solve the problem in a practical way with the tools around you. Our simple innovative practices include chopping the lecture into a number of bite-sized videos, presenting the videos in a documentary entertaining style, getting to know more about our learners using a community tool, teaching responsively through accurate and timely reply to the learners using WhatsApp, and letting learners bring in their own content for shaping a sense of ownership. They love the Dinosaur Ecosystems MOOCs because they also own the course! The pedagogical practice alongside the encouraging outcomes may be specific to the Dinosaur Ecosystem MOOC because Dinosaur is an interesting topic. Nevertheless, our case may be a valuable reference for the development of other MOOCs. The case may also be a good reference when constructing the online components of blended/ flipped learning. Finally, pedagogy and content framework should not be rigid. Instead, instructors should bring in new materials continuously in response to learners’ needs. The other side, learners’ participation are important because they bring in their contents and ideas through discussions. Learners make our course being unique by enriching the course content with their collaborative intelligence. Our practices echo the next-generation pedagogy that our pedagogy should be flexible or agile enough for meeting the needs of individual learners in the modern internationalised fast-changing social world (Guàrdia, J. et al., 2016).


Attin Cheng
Attin Cheng

Instructional Designer
E-learning Pedagogical Support Unit, CETL
Technology-Enriched Learning Initiative

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