MOOCs as part of your COVID-19 crisis plan – Gina Marchetti, Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park, and Staci Ford

As universities shut down around the world, teachers have been forced to switch to online instruction in a hurry. Most have scrambled to revamp their syllabi, reimagine their assessments, and switch to a patchwork of options through Blackboard and similar Learning Management Systems (LMS), virtual meeting platforms such as Zoom, asynchronous lecture capture such as Panopto, and endless emails. However, while many commentators mention MOOCs in passing as they offer advice and options for online learning, few talk seriously about the potential benefits of using MOOCs in an effort to ameliorate the burden placed on teachers to come up with online courses in a hurry.

Sadly, MOOC providers such as the for-profit Coursera and the not-for-profit edX have gradually backed away from their original promise to provide free and open access to the best instruction from prestigious institutions of higher education from around the world. As MOOC instructors, we have had no say in these decisions to put up paywalls around some content even though these companies rely on our continuing commitment to supervise the successful delivery of these courses. Fortunately, a few providers have lifted some restrictions because of the COVID-19 crisis. In any case, even with limitations on access, most MOOC content, created and administered by professors paid by their colleges and universities and not by these companies, remains accessible at no cost. This begs the question of why more teachers do not use these materials in flipped classes and other blended learning environments. Given the current crisis and the pressing need to move instruction online quickly, MOOCs should be at the top of the list of strategies to use to answer the immediate needs of teachers and students. Coursera, edX, and some other providers have rolled back some of their restrictions on access, so instructors should jump at the chance to introduce their students to quality online instruction through MOOCs…or maybe not.

Reluctance to use MOOCs runs deep, and, because of their novelty, little systematic evidence exists on why teachers steer clear of MOOCs when designing their courses. Furthermore, some teachers worry that incorporating MOOCs into existing courses may be seen as relinquishing teaching tasks or “slacking off” curriculum design. Not so. MOOCs offer some clear benefits and can be used to complement existing distance learning options, provide online lectures for blended learning, or be used as supplementary material for traditional face-to-face instruction. At the University of Hong Kong, for example, we use our MOOC Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens for flipped classes, for revision, and to encourage online conversations between our traditional on-campus students with our online MOOC learners from around the world. The video lectures have subtitles in English and simplified Chinese characters to support students who may have some difficulty following regular lectures.

Even with these obvious advantages, too many professors have a negative visceral reaction to online instruction. Some feel the online experience pales in comparison to face-to-face instruction—even in large lecture classes. Others fear the “McDonaldization” of higher education and job loss. Appeals to the fact that MOOCs are not designed to replace credit-bearing courses fall on deaf ears. In fact, MOOCs offer learners the opportunity to sample a new discipline, supplement campus courses, update skills, review previous lessons, or allow for further study after the completion of a degree. Unfortunately, the less than ideal/negative reputation of MOOCs has been compounded by the notoriety of certain online providers involved in online degree programmes that are not free of charge. Concordia’s deal with HotChalk Inc. (Young, 2019) provides one egregious example, but there are plenty of tales of exploitation surrounding public-private partnerships with online programme managers (OPMs) (Newton, 2016). Teachers attached to national educational systems with their own operations such as in mainland China (Ma & Christof Rindlisbacher, 2020; Wu, 2020) seem less wary of encouraging their instructors to use MOOCs in their plans for migrating classes online in the current crisis. Italy also seems to have embraced MOOCs in their struggle to keep students engaged (Reda & Kerr, 2020). However, instructors in other parts of the world remain wary of potential abuses involving surveillance, commercial exploitation, and the potential theft of intellectual property.

Given these issues also plague other online tools, we would like teachers to reconsider MOOCs and their potential to enrich your online courses. This crisis provides the opportunity to explore MOOCs and see if they meet your needs. Here are some steps you can take to take advantage of freer access now as you migrate your courses online and make plans for next term:

  1. Do a quick search for MOOCs on the topic you plan to teach.
    1. Be sure that the online course is, indeed, a MOOC with open access to students who plan to audit the course. The WWW overflows with online distance learning options that require admission to a programme and tuition payments, so stick to MOOCs for open access without payment.
    2. Check to see if the course is learner-paced or instructor-paced.
      1. If learner-paced, register for it as an “audit” to see what materials are available without pay, how long students have access to the materials, and which elements of the course fit your own teaching needs. All parts of the course should be open, so there is no need to synchronize your schedule to fit the MOOC.
      2. If instructor-paced, check to see when the course opens and closes as well as when materials in specific unit become available. You may need to adjust your schedule to fit the MOOC or look for other options.
      3. If a course is not active, see if you have access to an archived version free of charge. If so, mine those materials for your own use.
  2. Preview the material you plan to use.
    1. Be sure it is appropriate for your students.
    2. Plan how you will use the online discussion forum, recommended assessments, or other aspects of the MOOC to engage with your students.
    3. Take advantage of the bibliographies, readings, supplementary videos, and other materials available to registered users.
  3. Decide if you want to use the MOOC to replace lectures or to supplement your own lectures.
    1. Think about your objectives in using the MOOC to teach particular skills or topics.
    2. Plan how your Zoom or Slack conversation takes up points made in the MOOC.
    3. Feel free to disagree with the MOOC instructor.
    4. Communicate with your students about your expectations for engaging critically with the MOOC contents.
    5. Point your students to some of the “hidden” gems in MOOCs such as links to other online resources, additional videos, readings, and so on.
  4. Be prepared to help your students register for the MOOC.
    1. While you may feel your students are digital “natives”, they still may find it challenging to register. Walk them through the process with a PPT or written instructions.
    2. Your students do not need “verified certificates,” so steer them away from that option.
    3. Show them how to contact MOOC providers to help them troubleshoot technical problems.
    4. Walk students through the landing page of the MOOC to point to what you would like them to use in the course.
  5. Consider contacting the key teachers involved in the MOOC to let them know how you plan to use the online materials.
    1. MOOC instructors love to hear from their peers, and some are very willing to modify certain aspects of the course to help you with your own instructional goals.
    2. Some instructors may be willing to Zoom into your courses as a virtual guest lecturer or interact with you and your students in other ways.
  6. Make the MOOC your own.
    1. Feel free to add questions designed for your own students to the discussion forum.
    2. Contact the MOOC instructors and/or the provider to contribute your feedback.
    3. Take advantage of the survey mechanisms attached to the course to voice your opinions.
    4. MOOCs are open access and free for you to use in any way you see fit. However, some materials may be under copyright such as film clips. If in doubt about using anything in a MOOC, contact the instructor about permissions.
  7. Be positive about MOOC advantages and point them out to your students.
    1. Some MOOCs offer online opportunities to engage with peers on a more personal basis, so show them how to pin themselves on the map for learners or use word clouds to add their voices to the mix.
    2. Point out that they can converse with learners from around the world on the MOOC platform.
    3. Make them aware of updates on the platform that may take the form of weekly video supplements or special email messages.
    4. Show students how to access transcripts and subtitles for the lectures. This may be particularly important for ESL students and those with special needs.
    5. Enjoy the journey with your students.

In his article written on March 25, 2020, Jeffrey R. Young asks, “Will COVID-19 Lead to Another MOOC Moment?” (Young, 2020). However, he addresses the question to potential online students, university administrators, and MOOC designers rather than professors required to move their own courses online quickly. The untapped potential of MOOCs really lies with teachers working at secondary and tertiary institutions who need access to the very best from peer institutions to help them guide their students through this novel experiment in massive online education.

Special Note

Invite us to your course as virtual guest lecturers. To accommodate your needs as well as expand your menu of online teaching and learning options, we are offering Hong Kong Cinema through a Global Lens, the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on Hong Kong cinema to be produced anywhere in the world, as a learner-paced course. That means all six units are open now through the end of June 2020. Feel free to enjoy the entire course or pick and choose lessons to fit your own individual needs.


Prof. Gina Marchetti
Prof. Gina Marchetti

Department of Comparative Literature
Faculty of Arts
The University of Hong Kong
Dr. Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park
Dr. Aaron Han Joon Magnan-Park

Department of Comparative Literature
Faculty of Arts
The University of Hong Kong
Dr. Staci Ford
Dr. Staci Ford

Department of History
Faculty of Arts
The University of Hong Kong
Please cite as: Marchetti, G., Magnan-Park, A.H.J., & Ford, S. (2020, Jun). MOOCs as part of your COVID-19 crisis plan. Teaching and Learning Connections, 12. Retrieved from

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