6 Design Experiments in a Mildly Massive Open Online Course

A little over a year ago, I led my first MOOC, Understanding Cheating in Online Courses. It got a fair amount of media attention, likely because it made for provocative article titles…things like, “MOOC Teaches How to Cheat in Online Courses With an Eye Toward Prevention.” There were also articles in the BBC News, Venture Beat and the New York Times. Those articles tell a bit about the what and why of the MOOC, but they don’t really get into the design side of things, giving you a glimpse into the design decisions that shaped this experiment. I shared a few of these thoughts at conference earlier this year, but I thought I others might be interested, so here you go.

First I should explain the goals of the MOOC. There were six of them.

  1. 1.Increase attention to academic honesty issues and have a great conversation with people about a topic that is important to me. Yes, I created a MOOC to build a community around this topic, so that I could learn more about the subject.
  2. 2.Equip people to mitigate against academic cheating, but in a way that was not all about policing and punishing.
  3. 3.Add depth to the current discussion by looking at it from an interdisciplinary perspective (the philosophy of cheating, psychology of cheating, from the perspective of the cheater, etc.).
  4. 4.Challenge existing beliefs and myths. Many talk about cheating as a simple moral issue. I tried to broaden the conversation to think of it also as a design issue.
  5. 5.Promote a design approach to academic honesty.
  6. 6.Experiment and play with the affordances of open learning.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 10.37.46 PMAfter meeting a number of times with my design team (a few instructional designers, a digital media specialist, and our director of online technology), we decided upon six features: collective knowledge generation, a mix of public and private spaces, live events, a design that welcomed and encouraged self-blending, pre-established but emerging schedule, and whimsical but meaningful digital badges. Each of these were selected to build community, foster a highly personalized experience and self-directed, and to honor the unique affordances of a MOOC…doing things that can’t be done with other courses as easily (like collective knowledge generation).

Collective Knowledge Generation – This is one of the affordances of a MOOC. If you have hundreds or thousands of people gathered together around a topic of shared interest, you can actually leverage that group to generate meaningful content that benefits the entire community and beyond. That is what we did. For example, we started the course with an online discussion, where participants shared cheating stories that they’ve experienced. In a matter of a week, we had probably one of the largest collections of informal cheating case studies in existence. And we learned about how students are cheating through those stories. There is no way that I or any other single instructor could have created a better and more varied collection of examples.

Then we followed that activity by making it even more personal. We had a “cheating confessional.” People had a chance to anonymously share a time when they cheated, why they, and how they cheated. It personalized the topic, reminding us that the proclivity for cheating is closer than we like to think. It didn’t condone cheating, but it did make it a bit more personal. This activity added even more cheating case studies from which to learn.

Throughout the class, we also created a cheating lexicon in Google Docs. At any point in the class, participants could add a new term that they learned in the course, also adding a definition and source. The group edited one another’s work and we developed an ever-growing lexicon of terms.

Then at the end of the class, students had the option of doing a “final project” where they came up with a proposed project or plan for mitigating against cheating in their learning organization. Those got posted to the class so we could learn from the wonderful ideas and how plans varied from one context to another.

A Blended of Private and Public

This was an open course in that anyone was welcome to join. However, it was not entirely open. First, we capped enrollment at 1000, so not everyone who wanted to attend was able. This was mostly just a limit put in place by the provider that I used. Beyond that we also elected to host some course discussions in the password-protected learning management system, where only other registered participants could read them. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, this was done to give people the freedom to share and be a bit more candid than they might want to be on the public web.

Alongside that, we had plenty of openness. There was a Twitter stream (#cheatmooc), public weekly content and live events that anyone could access…whether they were registered or not. We also made some of the collective knowledge resources public to the world (like the Cheating Lexicon).

Live Events – As a way to build rapport and to collect great lectures on the topic, we offered weekly lectures on the topic for the week, open to the world. We recorded all these and made them public to the world.  Most of these were done using Google OnAir along with a Q & A through a simple chat tool. We encouraged the presenters to be personal…even a bit informal in the live events. They were rich with amazing content, but we tried to run them a bit more live a great living room conversation.

Now here is an amazing part of the live events. I initially planned on presenting all these myself. Then, with the great media attention, a number of amazing scholars reached out and offered to help. So, we had leading thinkers and companies in the field giving these talks (James Lang presenting on what was at the time his forthcoming book called Cheating Lesson; Tricia Bertram Galant, Teddy Fishman, Proctor U, Software Secure, TurnitIn, etc. It was a wonderful and impressive collection of people who gave us a rich and diverse look at the topic.

Plan for Self-Blending

A core affordance of a MOOC is that students don’t need to do what the instructor tells them. They are in charge of their learning. They choose what is valuable and what is now, whether to persist, when to pay attention and when to take a break, which resources to read or watch, which activities seem valuable, and when to go find or create a new resource. We designed the MOOC to honor all this, treating it as a distinct affordance of a MOOC.

As such, we took a lesson from Howard Rheingold and used co-learner language. I described myself as a co-learner and tour guide, not an instructor who calls all the shots. Resources were offered, not required. It was a buffet instead of a prepared meal. They choose what goes on their plate and what does not.

To help provide structure, each week had a provocative driving question, content that explored that question, and suggested activities/experiments that helped participants grapple with and explore that question. Amid this, we added enough resources and activity options that there were many paths to answering and exploring the driving question. The learner got to choose how to explore the question, how deep to go, etc. We also included learner contributions to these resources. So, if a learner went out and found a great resource, we edited the course to include those treasures.

A Pre-Established but Emerging Schedule

This course was a learning community, not an instructor-led dictatorship. So, we wanted the shape of the course to be informed by the interests and needs of the participants. We had pre-developed weekly learning objectives and driving questions. We had pre-developed weekly readings and resources. We had pre-developed weekly suggested learning missions and events. Yet, we revised, added, and removed based upon what students wanted. For example, two of the live events were not even planned beforehand. Students requested a topic, so I went out and found the best people I could to speak to it. Fortunately, they were willing to help us out. I also adjusted many resources and added new suggested activities by watching and listening to the learners. In a sense, this was an adaptive design.

Digital Badges

This course was my first time implementing a digital badge system. With the wonderful help of Credly.com, it was pretty easy to do. We did a ton of reading and research on the concept of digital badges and then we just gave it a try. Our badges were not competency-based. They were meant to recognize contribution to the community and conversation around a given weekly driving question. We assigned points to each suggested activity. If a learner earned 100 or more activity points in a week, they got the badge for the week. Each badge represented a “role” for the week, as students were invited to approach each week by trying on roles like philosopher, psychologist, instructional designer or cheater. We had badges like the research assistant, the cheating psychologist, the cheating philosopher, the cheating investigator, the teacher, the instructional designer, and the cheater (which had a sub-title…”this badge was not earned honestly). We tried to be whimsical but substantive in this design, and a number of people were able to use them as evidence of professional development for their employers.

As another experiment, we had an “exemplary contribution” badge that was distributed to 1-3 people each week, as surprise recognition for their wonderful addition to the community for that week.

Note that the entire badge design was about recognizing and encouraging contribution to he community. They were less about recognizing learning and more about celebrating an individual’s commitment to building knowledge from which others could benefit.

This was a wonderfully rewarding experiment in creative instructional design, digital age communities of practice, and how to leverage the affordances of open learning to give voice to important issues in society. It was far from perfect, but I consider the items above to be largely a success. It was a joy to see the great media attention to this important topic, countless blog posts written about it by participants, and dozens of academic integrity projects implemented in k-12 schools and Universities based on participant work in the MOOC.

Posted in blog, instructional design, MOOC, Open Learning

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.