Pre-planning analysis of a MOOC offering

I had the pleasure of observing an open course on the history of China called ChinaX.  It is one in a host of EdX MOOCs offered by founding partners Harvard and MIT.  The course is broken up into 6 modules which are meant to correspond to a 6 week time frame.  The course is, however, asynchronous and doesn’t have any real-time elements.  The designers note that it is to be completed “anytime, self-paced” but they do restrict the learner’s autonomy just a little in choosing to lock the next module in the sequence until a set date.  The course has a lovely, light and airy interface and uses the familiar format of many CMSs with the navigation panel down the left-hand side of the screen.

Overall I’d say this was a carefully pre-planned course and that the designers provided for each of the ISSUES TO ADDRESS IN THE PLANNING PROCESS listed in the Simonson text (2012, p. 15-162).  In my navigation and participation of the course I found instances that suggest that they considered the following: Who are the learners? What is the essential content? What teaching strategies and media should be used? What is the learning environment?


The logo for the ChinaX course offered through Harvard and MIT’s edX MOOC.


The ChinaX course begins with an “Important Preliminary Survey” which each participant is strongly urged to complete.  This suggests that they are aware that “knowledge of general learner characteristics can inform the instructor of the nature of students” and that “this knowledge can aid the distance education instructor in overcoming the separation of instructor and students” Simonson, 2012, p. 154).  As this was the course debut they implemented the survey to gain insight so that they could better serve the students of the course.  The designers know that some learners are not there with an endgame in mind such as a certificate.  Some are there simply to audit and observe.  The pre-requisites as listed in the syllabus?—“ None, just a willingness to jump in, learn your way around and have fun”  (edX/ChinaX, 2014).  This isn’t to say that they leave the learner flying blind.  There are video tutorials on how to navigate the course for those who don’t find it instinctive.

The designers know the content extremely well. There are over one dozen Chinese history SMEs involved in supplying the content and lectures for the course.  They know the nature of the content is very vast and that they needed to put some serious thought to how best to present the content.  One of the team members (the Content Consultant and Developer) talked about how daunting it was to “conceptualize 2,000 years of Chinese history and condense it into digestible themes” (edX/ChinaX, Meet the Team video, 2014)—which they accomplished quite nicely.  This, to me, was ample evidence of their taking into account that “it is essential to examine the nature of the content as well as the sequence of information” in light of the issue of time which within the distance learning environment “is often limited and inflexible” (Simonson, 2012, p. 157).  The course is self-paced allowing the user to control the flow of information even down to the degree of speeding up (or slowing down) the cadence of lecturing professor’s.

Piskurich (Laureate Education, n.d.) notes that a well-planned course should provide ample opportunities for online learners to explore on their own. The designers for this course seemed to bear that in mind in their consideration of what strategies and media should be used as they incorporated fun optional activities that would enrich the experience (i.e. upload a video of yourself singing the Ming Dynasty song) as well as giving the learner a choice of assessment (multiple choice vs. short answer).  Teaching and Learning at a Distance notes that instructors need to “focus on selecting instructional strategies that engage all the learners in active learning [by] de-emphasizing the informative part of the instruction for more discovery of information” (Simonson, 2012, p. 159).

Lastly the learning environment was also considered.  The designers were aware that “when the classroom shifts into a distance learning setting…the environment often becomes a challenge (Simonson, 2012, p.160).  As such, they provided contingencies for the resources that they offered (transcripts of the videos should student’s need to refer to material from the video) as well as contingencies for the technology adding the following notation to their page of video tutorials:

“In locations where YouTube is restricted, edX videos may not be available for streaming. The video segments are frequently available for download, however. Click the “download here” link below each video segment to download the file for viewing (EdX, 2014).


EdX. (2014). Home. Retrieved from:

Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Planning and designing online courses [Video file]. Retrieved from

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2012). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education(5th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.




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