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Course Planning Overview

Course planning for an open online course (versus a traditional university course) benefits from additional focus on learner goals and increased assessment opportunities.   The following process helps foster both.

                                         Figure 1. Course Design Process.

1) First, outcomes (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).  Learning goals should be defined from the top down, first at the course level, and then for each module (or week), and then for each individual lesson or video.   Learning outcomes that are measurable and use specific verbs work best (Smith & Perkins, 2010).  Learners appreciate being presented learning outcomes before lecture in order to help them focus and identify what they need to learn (Simon & Taylor, 2009).

2) Next, assessments.  An assessment plan may be designed either from the top down or from the bottom up; how will the learners be able to demonstrate their mastery or understanding of the goals for each lesson? For each week of the course? For the course as a whole?  Assessments play an enhanced role in online learning because of the opportunity to provide learners immediate feedback -- a well recognized benefit for learners (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett & Norman, 2010).  Additionally, research has shown that the testing process itself improves learning -- being asked to retrieve information actually deepens learning (Karpicke & Grimaldi, 2012) (Roediger & Karpicke, 2006).

3) Last, materials. With outcomes and assessments in place, course content creation can be planned to specifically support learners in succeeding in those assessments and reaching desired learning outcomes.  Research on multimedia learning and Coursera-specific research can inform instructors in making effective video lectures (Mayer, 2009).  For more information, please see Coursera’s guide on Creating Engaging Video Lectures.

4) Additionally, community.  Open online courses, and Coursera’s platform in particular, offer additional, often new opportunities to enhance learning by leveraging the diverse learning community.  For example, learners can be encouraged to answer each other’s questions or share local implications of a topic or project.

The remainder of this document provides further recommendations for these stages.  Outcomes are covered in the greatest depth.  There are three additional guides on the remaining topics: assessments, materials (specifically video lectures) and community (coming soon).

Best Practice Guides

This section provides guidelines on the following areas: 

Section 1: Course Planning and Design

Section 2: Assessment 

Section 3: Creating Engaging Video Lectures

Section 1: Course Planning and Design

Design for open online course learners:

  • Make explicit what learners will gain/be able to do if they engage with the course
  • Design to keep learners coming back to engage more: preview and motivate upcoming material, highlight real world applications or connections
  • Clarify, clarify, clarify.  Provide extra examples and explanations and make instructions as clear as possible.  Open online learners have varying backgrounds and many are non-native English speakers.

Work backwards:

  • First, create course-level learning outcomes then more specific module-level outcomes (a module contains learning materials on a single coherent topic and targets 1-2 hours of learner time)
    • Outcomes should make clear what skills and/or knowledge learners will gain
    • Outcomes should complete the sentence “By the end of this module, you will be able to…”
    • Use explicit and descriptive verbs and avoid unmeasurable verbs (e.g., avoid learn, understand, and know)
  • Next, create assessments
    • Plan formative assessments (un-graded, to guide learning) as well as summative assessments (graded, to measure learning)
    • Use both quizzes for automated, immediate feedback and peer review or programming assessments for developing analysis and evaluation skills
  • Then, create learning materials (e.g., video lectures, readings, etc.)
  • Plan video lecture content to match assessments and measure learning outcomes
  • Refer to Section 3 : Creating Engaging Video Lectures for details. 

Section 2: Assessment

Planning assessments:

  • Plan assessments based on course learning outcomes
  • Create both formative assessments (un-graded, to guide learning) and
    summative assessments (graded, to measure learning)

Formative assessments:

  • Create in-video quiz questions to allow learners to test basic lecture understanding
  • Create 3-5 formative quiz questions for every 20-30 minutes of lecture content
    • Use quiz questions to test higher-level thinking (application, analysis)
    • Use option-level feedback to fully “teach” the answer to the question
    • Follow good question writing guidelines (question stems should be clear, not use negatives; move common option words into the stem, avoid making the longest option the correct one) [1]
  • Use peer review assessments to help learners develop evaluative judgement or analysis skills; to give learners feedback on preliminary stages of a project
  • Create MORE formative assessments -- your investment is multiplied across thousands of learners

Summative Assessments:

  • Quizzes: Use option-level feedback to refer learner to related lesson/video
  • Peer Review: Seek feedback on peer review prompts; create clear and detailed evaluation questions which non-experts can accurately answer; provide an example of the product to be produced.

Improve Assessments Using Analytics:

  • Use Coursera instructor dashboard or IVLE instructor's panel for information to find questions learners aren’t doing well on; to improve peer review evaluation questions

[1] Haladyna, T. M. & Downing, S. M. (1989) Validity of a taxonomy of multiple-choice item-writing rules. Applied Measurement in Education, 2(1), 51-78.  


Section 3: Creating Engaging Video Lectures

Teaching through video lectures challenges instructors to improve and extend lectures to proactively address learner questions.  On the plus side, there are many opportunities for instructors to improve the “learn from lecture” experience with technology.

Planning video lectures:

  • Plan video lecture content by reviewing course assessments and learning outcomes
  • Create short (4-9 minute) videos with explicit and descriptive titles
  • Identify 1-2 learning outcomes for each video
    • Present these at the beginning of the video
    • Ask learners to test their understanding of these at the end of video using IVQs
  • Design slides to manage learners’ cognitive load (focus them on content)
    • Use a combination of visual images and keywords on slides (don’t read slides)
    • Direct attention and label; especially label subgoals in complex processes
    • Explicitly share and explain your thinking
    • Create a summary slide

Use Coursera’s in-video quiz (IVQ) system:

  • Keep learners watching: use short, relatively basic questions in video
  • Leverage pre-existing understanding: Ask a question which engages learners in recalling things they already know that are relevant to what you are going to teach NEXT
  • Ask learners to predict the next step in a problem solving process or activity

Getting started recording video lectures:

  • Create a welcome video for your course and an introductory video for each module or section
  • Speak more directly to learners (use words like “you” and “your”)
  • Imagine yourself in the lecture hall (don’t just read a script)



Coursera Online Pedagogy Best Practice Guides (2014). 

Haladyna, T. M. & Downing, S. M. (1989) Validity of a taxonomy of multiple-choice item-writing rules. Applied Measurement in Education, 2(1), 51-78.  


The advice presented here is based on a significant base of research on how people learn and the nascent base of research on MOOC learning.  




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