Now that the media seems to have exhausted the “MOOC honeymoon” stories, they’re looking for “MOOC disaster” stories. Two recent high-profile stories involve the truncation of a Georgia Tech MOOC due to a technology mismatch and a professor abandoning his MOOC in mid-course over disagreements on how to teach it.  How can instructors new to MOOCs prevent these problems from happening to you?  What should you expect if you’re getting into this area?  Here’s some thoughts based on our experience offering our Software Engineering course as a MOOC several times on edX and Coursera.

An incremental-refinement plan is better than being perfect

Especially if you’re recording your lectures in a studio-like setting, remember that you can always revise them later.  This Fall we will revise our lectures for the third time.  Leonardo da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned,” and you will always find ways to improve your material, but balance this with the need to juggle all the other commitments most faculty must manage.  Instead, focus on sustainability: once you’ve invested the enormous amount of work required to do a quality MOOC, what resources will you need to re-offer the MOOC between refreshes of the material?  We’ve managed to offer our MOOC two to three additional times between refreshes using community TAs (see “CONSIDER GIVING UP SOME CONTROL” below).

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

The New Yorker magazine famously printed this caption in the early nineties to draw attention to the anonymity availble on the Internet. Unfortunately, a very small fraction of MOOC students take advantage of this anonymity to engage in antisocial or antaognistic behavior on the forums, towards either their fellow students or the course staff.  We found that the few perpetrators were cowards hiding behind an anomyous throwaway email address.  Up to a certain point you can instruct your community TAs to shut down destructive threads, but if the behavior persists, see if you can have the students expelled from the course. Don’t let their behavior get you down and don’t let it sour the experience for the vast majority of students who are diligent and appreciative of your work!

Consider giving up some control

Most Berkeley campus courses use student discussion forums, and as conscientious instructors, we’re used to checking the forums and posting answers to questions there frequently.  But on-campus course forums tend to follow a regular rhythm as students work during the day, go to sleep (eventually), prepare for exams, or enjoy a short break following an exam or during a holiday. The cross-cultural, cross-time-zone reach of MOOCs obliterates this rhythm, and you may find it a lot more time-consuming to keep up with the forums.  The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most MOOCs don’t have formal office hours or other means for students to get direct help, so the forums are even more critical to the student experience.

In our case, the first time we offered the course we recruited some of the strongest undergraduates from the previous campus offering of the course to serve as forum monitors.

Cultivate your Community TAs

On subsequent offerings, we recruited volunteer “World TAs” from among the highest-scoring MOOC students, and retained an undergraduate working about 20 hours a week to organize the volunteers’ efforts as well as serving as “Head TA.”  This system has worked well: the world TAs get some recognition, the course gets forum coverage by multilingual students spanning all the time zones (in our most recent offering, there was coverage nearly 24×7), and we get to have a life.  We still check in every week or two with our TAs to see how things are going, and often do 5-minute impromptu videos (Prof. Jennifer Widom at Stanford called them ’screenside chats’) on topics in the news relevant to that week’s course content.  We use a Google Group as a mailinglist to organize the world TAs and WeJoinIn.com to coordinate the schedule of when each of them will monitor the forums.

Guest instructor Prof. Sam Joseph has taken this practice to a new level, posting short video interviews with community TAs who took the course and are now successfully getting professional work as a result of their skills!

Dry-run the technology

WIth hundreds of thousands of students, course technology has to work perfectly.  We extended the EdX platform with sophisticated autograders for our programming assignments.  Critical to our success was “dry running” new autograders and new assignments in our classroom (about 165 students last time around) to fix both logic bugs in the autograders and problems with the grading rubrics for new homeworks.  Dry runs will save you a world of pain.

This is only a start, but as MOOC instructors, we’re rolling up our sleeves this summer and do the work to make our course even better. All in all, it’s way more work than “just” owning an on-campus course, but it’s also tremendously rewarding.