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MOOC Production Values: Costs, Approaches and Examples

At every MOOC-related event I attend, I meet people who say they want to teach online classes. Most are affiliated with a university or school, and often some plans seem imminent, but I rarely hear about new courses sprouting up outside of the most high-profile MOOC platforms.

For all the interest in MOOCs, there is precious little guidance for teachers on how to produce them. I hope to give some good examples to follow here. Even for students, it’s worth watching how MOOCs are produced with an eye on the educational goals, production elements and the resources employed.

Beware: MOOC production is a LOT of work

Briefly stated, producing a MOOC forces even top-notch professors to “up their game.” Because of the massive scale they provide, Coursera and edX have successfully recruited the “cream of the crop” from leading academic institutions to feature on their platforms. However, these professors are challenged to rethink how they present even their most familiar material. They must organize their courses differently, learn new production techniques and develop new methods for interacting with students.

The challenge of preparing for a MOOC has been described as like writing a textbook in a matter of months. MOOCs also happen to be self-documenting learning environments, which paradoxically strip away the distance between the professor and their students while at the same time eliminating face-to-face student interaction. I have nothing but admiration for the first wave of MOOC leaders.

How to teach this stuff?

With the reputation of the professor and their organization at stake, it’s impressive to observe the variety of approaches taken in the first MOOCs. Some classes consist primarily of standard lectures captured on video, but this approach has given way to a variety of video presentation methods. Since students can rewind elements as often as they need, professors have explored how to get everything into the video, essentially making the video collection the textbook for the course rather than a collection of lectures. This has led to shorter, more elaborately detailed video segments.

There are other important elements to a MOOC experience. Some put video content in the back seat in favor of more attention on facilitating connections between students. But on the major platforms, video content is currently the hub around which the rest of the course design revolves. And, since dozens to hundreds of videos might be included in an online course, the resources associated with producing a MOOC becomes the major factor in the overall course cost.

Three examples

Here’s a production perspective on the work of three pioneering MOOC teachers. They are remarkable not only in their approach to their subjects and their production choices but also what they are leaving behind for others to use.

Stanford’s Keith Devlin is on a mission to spread the tools of mathematics. With over a dozen books to his credit, the prolific author jumped at producing Introduction to Mathematical Thinking with Coursera. He says it took hundreds of hours to produce the course, with an out-of-pocket cost of $35,000 which was handled by his department at Stanford paying for support services. Devlin tried several video delivery methods. In the end, he decided not to have the camera focus on him or on his slides. Rather, his videos feature the camera pointing down on his hand writing on a white sheet of paper while his voice describes the thinking behind the calculations he performs. His gifts as a story-teller make the use of equations and math processing seem practical and relevant for everyday problem-solving.

Mathematical Thinking MOOC

Professor Devlin has delivered the course twice, with a third running planned for the fall. He details his MOOC production and delivery experiences in a well-written blog. In it, he documents the activity of students as well as his own perspective on the process. He takes a forensic approach to the over 400,000 accumulated forum entries, using them to gather clues to identify which items he needs to sharpen up in his next version of the course. He’s also learned to do his own video editing. As he masters the video production elements (such as lighting, framing and sound), he feels he is building a core educational resource that can become a mainstay in his field. The second running of the course cost him $5,000 in production services. He hopes to drop that cost to zero even as he continually improves his offering.

In Google’s Power Searching courses, Dan Russell did more than guide users through the ins and outs of locating information and solving search problems. The search team used Google’s own Course Builder toolkit, which was developed by Peter Norvig, who taught the original open Artificial Intelligence class at Stanford with Sebastian Thrun. Russell created the frameworks and templates he needed to produce his courses and then Google open-sourced the entire project.

Some developers find the Course Builder tools more approachable than other open source tools from edX. While the tools from Coursera and Udacity are more robust, they are not yet widely available. With an eye toward providing tools for teachers to use in their own courses, Google continues to improve the usability of Course Builder, thanks to Russell and others. Teachers such as Bank Street College’s Jeannie Crowley are helping each other to build their own courses using these free tools.

Steve Blank’s classes at UC Berkeley and Stanford are designed to prepare students to start new ventures. His mission is to change how entrepreneurship is taught. He also happens to be an investor in Udacity. So, it’s quite reasonable to look at his How to Build a Startup course as an example of a no-holds-barred approach to course development. While I have no idea how much the production efforts cost, the use of professional artists alone puts it well above the amount used in the Mathematical Thinking course mentioned earlier.

Building a startup MOOC

I think it’s safe to say that Udacity is using the methods it developed with Blank’s course in their approach to Georgia Tech, San Jose State and other initiatives. Moreover, Blank has open-sourced his curriculum and course materials in an effort to inspire others to take over the teaching role in smaller settings. The videos he offers are not at the same production quality as the Udacity material, but they cover a good part of the course materials. His blog details additional teaching aids he has provided for anyone interested in employing his methods.

So, this discussion comes back to engaging more teachers in online education. When MOOC pioneers such as these meet to discuss the courses they teach and where they see things going, a different picture emerges than what is usually put forward by the platform providers. I have heard the terms SPOC (Small, Private Open Course), LOOC (Local Open Online Course), BOOC (Big Open Online Course) and MOOR (Massive Open Online Resource) used to describe the frontiers that are just now coming into view. The comment, “Tech will do far more for the seminar than for the lecture” is met with nods and far-off gazes.  There is no doubt we are in the early days of a new industry that will develop an ecosystem of teachers as well as a massive number of students.

Education’s media evolution has been in the works for decades. MOOCs are becoming a media business in which the superstars get the lion’s share of attention. At the same time, I believe a groundswell of interest from teachers will be required to further the revolution. I expect MOOCs will stimulate an expanding production of online courses of all sizes and at all levels.


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. Hi John,

    A very interesting post indeed. I was recently having a conversation with representatives of the OCW Consortium about adopting a content production model such as we use it with our OER nonprofit ‘The Virtual School’ – where young design talent from universities (likely the same ones that actually produce the MOOC content) engage in animation projects. Surely there must be some kind of graphic design or animation department in either each uni or their partner unis? They could then work together to create content by combining the abilities of animators and teachers / lecturers. It is a very powerful combination for the OER movement indeeed and we are living and working it every day here in London!

    Let us know if you want to have a chat about it.

    All the best,


    • Hi Frédéric-

      Thank you for your comments and I do wonder where the creative resources will come from. If students are engaged to produce materials, does this mean a widespread curriculum in video production will be required? I would enjoy learning more.

      • Hi John, my pleasure. It only really does require graphically gifted / design oriented young people. Visualisation of data and information is, as I am sure you are aware, and extremely relevant skill for anyone who comes out of uni nowadays. I am sure that most faculties have the talent available but never capitalise on it!

        We have had young designers with no prior animation background (so still image design but no moved images) learn our production methods within the course of 1-2 weeks, mostly through self instruction and just watching many examples of well-conveyed information.

        I am happy to send you a couple of examples from basic level to advanced.

        We really think that this rapid method is extremely helpful for taking advantage of multimedia production without having to spend huge amounts on clunky productions as in the classical sense of elearning (but dont get me wrong, audio and video still need to be embedded in an interesting and engaging course format of course)

        • Also, such a huge amount of video tutorials for self instructions are available free of charge on the web for the most relevant creation tools out there. It would be much easier than one thinks at first!

          • Interesting. When I was chatting about this with Keith Devlin, he moved into the more advanced issues of lighting, framing and audio. As you well know, production value has a huge impact, and I suspect teachers will need help.

            Also, if more interactive simulations or video game-like exercises become the norm, new skill sets will be required. How much is pioneered by the major MOOC platforms and how much bubbles up from mainstream teachers cobbling together their own courses remains to be seen.

  2. I think HangoutsOnAir can really help with the MOOC video production. No editing, no uploading, no compressing–straight to YouTube. It could be a way to scaffold video production for novice users.
    I also think the expense that goes into video production for MOOCs is a bit..over the top. It drastically increases the cost of the experiment and it also makes people more hesitant to update the content (knowing how much the original video cost).
    Informal, lower production values that are responsive to student needs and goals are the way to go IMO. 

    • A great example of this approach is the summer Maker Camps, currently underway, which features a new project each day for 6 weeks. I just happened to be watching experts in Brooklyn demonstrate how to build gliders to camp counselors in California.

      What you are pointing to is that teachers are everywhere and their work is often best presented impromptu. Video captures demonstrations, failures and features in addition to scripted productions, so why not use the technology to document learning in a wide variety of environments?

  3. The Udemy platform has posted a nifty tip for prospective online teachers: post a test video to their Facebook group for feedback.

    And, here is a success story about a teacher who is experiencing financial success: