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Applying MOOC Lessons to Traditional Classrooms: Tips for Teachers

One of the great benefits afforded by the current generation of MOOCs is their transparency. Top tier universities have embraced the first open-registration platforms as large-scale experiments that might help them in the future while promoting their brands worldwide. Beyond the news and public debates about the size of classes and what this means for the future of education, a set of practical methods for delivering online courses has emerged.

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Municipal Archives of Trondheim via WikiMedia

If you are a teacher, whether in high school, in college or in other educational settings such as workplace training programs, there are lessons from MOOCs that might help you more effectively engage your students. Keep in mind that many recent MOOC experiments started as systems designed to support classroom learning. Here are some tips that jump out of the research we have reviewed, the interviews we have conducted and the courses we have taken.

Tip #1: BYOD

You may be able to set up your class as Bring Your Own Device, since students have the equipment they need to engage in online courses. If you are a student, please pass this along to teachers you know. Show them how you use your phone or tablet to coordinate your activities and give feedback with instant messages. Show them the apps you use to interact with maps, search for things and make purchase decisions. Share some of your posts to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook and let them see the feedback you get already. Offer to help them create lessons that engage their students and at the same time discover more value in what they teach. Of course, if you are a teacher, you should know these things. Digital literacy has evolved to mainstream status and can become a foundation for schools of all kinds.

Tip #2: Flip Your Class

MOOCs have proved that many students prefer to engage in classwork while not physically in the class. As smartphones, tablets and Internet-connected laptops have become universally available to students, they engage with their friends, family, teachers and classmates in new ways. In particular, students find that watching videos, taking quizzes and participating in class discussion is easier when their minds are clear and in focus. In a MOOC, this means someone in India is on an equal footing as a student in New Hampshire. In a school class, it means someone at soccer practice, on a ski trip or sick at home is on an equal footing with the students seated in the front row. Students come to class with a variety of issues facing them and a very short period in which to focus on the work they need to do. Online tools enable teachers to extend their classes beyond the school building so students have more opportunities in which to make what happens in class a meaningful part of their lives.

Tip #3: Engagement Breeds Success

MOOC research shows that successful students engage consistently with the resources they are provided online (mostly videos, readings, quizzes, forum discussions and wikis in which students contribute their own work). For school classes, teachers have the tools to create online “touch points” to involve students while they are out of class. Online assignments can be as simple as sending out a tweet or posting a note inviting response in preparation for an upcoming class. Ask students to post relevant articles or pictures that illustrate what will be covered in an upcoming class or review what they just learned. When you employ this simple technique, everyone sees who is engaged as the course progresses and can cheer them on or provide guidance. Use class time to motivate or address issues with those who need help.

Tip #4: Go Local

Local teachers can also do something that MOOCs have a hard time with: create successful study groups. When students see more of the contributions submitted by their peers, they know who is “getting it” and can seek them out to collaborate on projects or ask for assistance as needed. The example I use with teachers is to send out a note through the class Google+ community with an assignment such as: “Tomorrow we will examine the use of conflict as an effective way to bring attention to a story. On your way home tonight, pay attention for what conflicts you see around you and take a picture or video if something comes up that illustrates the concept. Make a caption to explain what you see and invite discussion.” Teachers end up with pictorial and textual depictions of traffic jams, dogs confronted by cats, flowers struggling in unwatered gardens and shots from football practice. The comments generated overnight help you make the focus for the next day.

Tip #5: Create Online Hubs

All that is needed to flip your class is an online “anchor”, a web site that students can go to for course materials, timelines and access to their cohort. If you are a teacher, I’m assuming you already have systems in place to manage registration, grades and attendance, so let’s set those elements aside as the tools described here will work work within that structure. The goal is to create for students a smooth transition between their existing “social networks”, the members of their class and the work they need to produce in class.

From Social Ties for Cooperation & Collaboration at

W. Ian O’Byrne, Assistant Professor of Educational Technologies at UNH suggests using Google’s popular suite of applications for this purpose. He points out that students want a “shiny and sticky” place that works with their existing mobile devices. It’s not enough to simply post lesson elements, the site should look polished and should promote interactivity.

“The key to using Google Sites is that you need to just get started. Think of this as a process in which you thoughtfully build, edit, and revise your online learning space. In just the same way that you build up your classroom every year…and every year it might be slightly different…you should constantly build up, edit, and revise your one digital learning hub.”

As the new school term approaches, O’Byrne suggests putting up pointers to materials that support a single lesson as a starting point. The tools are easy enough to add lessons as they go, and he expects teachers will discover new ways to use the online hub as their classes makes use of them. He provides links to videos and communities to support his approach.

Tip #6: Use Your Cameras

With the rise of smartphones and tablets, cameras are everywhere, and what they produce is easily shared. Superstar MOOC professors say that remaking 45 minute lectures into 10 minute video chunks forced them to “up their game.” Not every teacher can hold an audience the same way, but they can provide value by developing video segments for their class. One example is provided by video field trips. In most cases, taking an entire class on the road is impractical, but it’s easy to bring destinations to the class via videos and photos. The microphone that comes with a smartphone’s earbuds enables effective narration over quick video clips that can be strung together to cover a class topic.

Tip #7: Share Video Editing Tasks

One of Youtube’s most powerful features is its editor. Sign into your Youtube account, then add “/editor” to the URL and there you can combine clips to create engaging educational chunks for your class. Alternatively, it’s worth investigating WeVideo or MixBit for organizing quick and impactful materials. As as observer, it’s fascinating to see teachers exploring with video. Fort Hays State University’s Robert Allen Moody produces topical educational pieces for his classes and distributes others via his Twitter feed. I can’t help but think that good audio and video productions will become commonplace as teachers create online hubs for their classes.

Applying MOOC lessons to traditional classrooms

Thanks to the emergence of massive open online courses, teachers can consider validated online pedagogical methods for use in their own school classes. Applying lessons from technologically sophisticated MOOCs is possible and need not cost anything close to what an edX production costs. The vast majority of schools not invited to be a part of edX and Coursera would do better to look at the more self-directed options (similar to self publishing) pioneered by many cMOOCs. So do individual teachers working on their own initiative. Flipping the class, building online hubs and creating videos for classroom use bring the investments made by MOOCs to the benefit of a wide range of teachers and students.


John Duhring (7 Posts)

John Duhring has been s a founding team member at nine startups, including Supermac Software and Bitmenu. During his career he has also applied technology to learning at large companies such as Prentice-Hall, Apple and AOL. Follow him on Twitter @duhring.


  1. I don’t know: aren’t we already doing a lot of this, or is it just my field? The MOOC I took and the one I am in actually use a lot *less* of this, and are much *more* “traditional”, than what you can do if you have some form of course management software, blogs, chat rooms, and so on, and so forth. It seems to me that MOOCs are just taking a little of what is normally done with technology, but not nearly all.

    What I enjoy in the MOOCs is the people in them from all over the world. What I have learned, or gained in terms of tech interests is a penchant for archiving online discussion under themes, so it’s searchable and people can go back. This needs help in MOOCs though, because there is so much online chat and there are so many threads, that it is as though they needed a librarian or curator to organize it all.

    • Thank you for your insights. My research would indicate you are ahead of the curve! While previous educational technologies (books, filmstrips, even word processing and powerpoint) supported asymmetric production to consumption ratios that trended towards adoption of mass produced instructional elements, the online platforms emerging now level the playing field. Do you find your classes are more productive and your students more successful by generating your own online courses?

      Your point about discussion threads suggests to me that local production of student portfolios and re-usable learning artifacts is worth investigating. Future classes might be built on top of current projects?