April 25, 2014

Looking ‘Under the Hood’ of MOOCs

Looking under the hood of a car, an analogy to an examination of MOOCs.There’s lots of excitement about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course); new business models and prestige for education institutions, new opportunities for people from around the world to access learning. I’ve been a university student and lecturer, I’ve trained tertiary teachers in online design and facilitation, and I’ve been a guest presenter in MOOCs. Online learning has been around since the 90’s, so frankly I don’t get the hype that MOOCs seem to be causing. Maybe because, ‘under the hood’ of your average MOOC are the same old issues. Let’s take three perspectives:

The Student’s perspective

Broadly speaking, students require:

  • Motivation to join and complete the course. Motivation is about ‘what’s in it for me’. If the course lies more in the ‘nice to do’ than ‘required to do’ category, then it is less likely the student will complete. In real terms, the course needs to provide a qualification or ‘evidence’ that is meaningful to the student’s career aspirations.

  • Stimulation to engage with the content and activities. Stimulation is the opposite of boredom. If the content or instructional technique is repetitive rather than fresh and inspiring, then there is a problem. As a colleague recently pointed out to me, 20 hours of the same teacher delivering content via video is boring.

  • Simplicity is about ease of use. The MOOC needs to be intuitive to access, navigate and ‘do’ things in. Generally speaking, a cobbled up MOOC using freeware is not going to ‘cut it’ because it wastes student time and looks unloved.

Remember, learners will always ‘travel the path of least resistance’ i.e. they will do the minimum required to attain the qualification. So, ensure what they are required to do is meaningful, relevant and interesting – a ‘value add’ learning experience.

The Teacher’s perspective

There is no more overstretched fraternity I know of than that of tertiary teachers. They are under tremendous pressure to unlearn what they know about inspiring face to face facilitation, and embrace online design and facilitation. It’s a huge transition, and generally under-resourced and under-appreciated by the executive.

  • Online learning design is not about slapping classroom PowerPoint into Articulate Presenter

  • Online learning design is not about uploading classroom handouts into a resources tab

  • Online learning design is not about videoing and uploading a 60 minute lecture

It’s not about any of these things!

Student dropout rates will continue if the executive do not provide teachers with adequate skill development opportunities to understand the online learner, online content design, and techniques for writing activities for online collaboration. And, the disengagement of many good classroom teachers will continue.

Good online design and facilitation does have some foundation in the experience and intuition of the teacher. However, I argue it is also logical and procedural in nature. A technique I use successfully is to provide teachers with scaffolds, templates and contextual examples to guide them through their online design and facilitation journey, done to a project plan that is generous of time, with ad hoc coaching available along the way.

The Institution’s perspective

I don’t have expertise advising large educational institutions. I can only surmise reputation is a main motivator, and so a positive student experience is paramount. Online students feeling frustrated or ‘ripped off’ have far reaching voices.

What I do have is experience advising organisations transitioning into online learning, for internal or external audiences. Many are motivated by automation and economies of scale, expecting the online learning solution to cost less than traditional learning delivery. Ultimately, it usually does begin to cost less and drive new efficiencies. But an investment of the following is required:

  • A learning platform, such as a Learning Management System or Learning Portal

  • Multimedia tools to develop content

  • Teacher training in:

    • understanding the psyche of the online student
    • online learning design for webinar, video documents, website layout
    • synchronous (chat, webinar) and asynchronous (discussion forum) facilitation for self-directed and collaborative learning
    • new questioning and assessment technique
    • multimedia tools and techniques
    • LMS administration
    • project management
  • New marketing techniques to find a global audience. The audience may be individuals or groups, such as employers or syndicates

  • New types of contingency plans

  • ‘Finger on the pulse’ for emerging technologies, design trends and learner trends

For institutions and organisations engaging in MOOCs for the first time, trusted advisors or partners are a good idea to minimise project risk. An environment needs to be nurtured where the project journey burden is shared, lessons are learnt, and iterations and refinement to design and skill is allowed.

Tips to Help Avoid eLearning and LMS Project Failure

Implementing eLearning and/or a Learning Management System (LMS) is a significant investment in resources and budget. It can also feel like a ‘leap of faith’ when engaging an e-learning or LMS provider. Engaging a provider requires trust. It requires a deep and mutual understanding of requirements and expectations.

It’s inevitable there will be misunderstandings along the way. The trick is to acknowledge and deal with these early, before the issues become embedded in the project.

Signs that your eLearning/LMS project is at risk

  • There are no project controls in place to monitor time, cost and quality. These project controls should be shared between you and your eLearning/LMS provider.
  • The provider has not given you a comprehensive list of functional and design specs prior to build.
  • The provider has not provided a working proof-of-concept prior to full e-learning/LMS build.
  • You have not used the proof-of-concept to test the e-learning course or external LMS in your standard operating environment.
  • You have not had a meeting (F2F or teleconference) with your provider in over a week.
  • Your internal project team are becoming less engaged with the project.
  • You have a sinking feeling that the project is not delivering to your expectations, but you can’t put your finger on the issue/s, so you ignore your feeling.

“That which gets captured and measured gets done”

Although project tasks, roles and responsibilities may seem obvious, and the assumption is the eLearning/LMS provider is experienced, the only thing you have to fall on when issues arise is your documentation. It is better to be overt and clear than to assume. Put project controls in place to capture project progress, monitor quality and mitigate issues.

Use a project management approach to manage eLearning and LMS projects. Below is a synopsis of project activities and tips for managing an e-learning project – click to enlarge.

A table of e-learning project activities and tips

ELearning and LMS Project Phases, Activities and Tips

Need help?

Supporting organisations in eLearning and LMS projects is a large part of our business at Connect Thinking. It is surprisingly cost-effective, and project processes and templates are re-usable. Feel free to contact me to discuss your e-learning and LMS project management needs. Use our Contact form or call +61 417 252 960, or 02 9988 3412.

Information on E-Learning and WCAG 2.0 Compliance in Australia

Computer keyboard with blue key labelled accessQuestion from a client: What do I need to do to ensure our e-learning is WCAG 2.0 compliant?

This is a very important question for any Australian Federal or State Government agency in particular. I reached out to a trusted network of e-learning providers (listed below) to better understand the issues from an e-learning design and development perspective. The following is a synthesis of what I understand to date.

What is WCAG 2.0?

WCAG 2.0 stands for Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0. These guidelines were put together by the World Wide Web (WC3) consortium in 2008. Australian Federal and State Government agencies were to conform to WCAG 2.0 Level A compliance by 31 December 2012, and are now required ensure all externally and internally web-based content achieves Level AA compliance by 31 December 2014.

It should be noted that non-government organisations are required to meet accessibility requirements under the Disability Discrimination Act. Refer to your organisation’s Discrimination Prevention policy for further information.

What is the purpose of WCAG 2.0 compliance?

WCAG is about helping to ensure anyone, including people with any disability, can access, interpret and interact with website content (WC3, Australian Government media release). The term disability includes visual and hearing impairment, motor skill disabilities, neurological disabilities and more. The term accessibility also refers to ensuring Plain English is used.

What does WCAG 2.0 compliance mean for e-learning design and development?

Arguably, interesting and innovative e-learning design can be compromised to ensure WCAG 2.0 compliance. For example, some Flash interactions such as many games are currently no longer usable as they cannot be read by text to speech readers such as JAWS. Other interactions such as drag and drop, certain graphic styling and colours may also fail to comply with WCAG 2.0.

E-Learning developers must be aware of the parameters of the guidelines and apply these during development, such as*:

  • Use of contrasting colours
  • Including a transcript for all audio files
  • Including captions for videos and animations that are synchronised to audio
  • Keyboard audio and visual controls
  • Using alternative text for buttons and images
  • Ensuring WCAG compliance extends to any content within the e-learning, including attachments and links.

*Refer to the WCAG 2.0 guidelines and WCAG 2.0 checklist for more information.

From a development perspective, content must be authored in tools that can produce output that is WCAG compliant. This includes custom HTML and Storyline. Storyline output can conform to Section 508 of the US Rehabilitation Act (1973). At this time, Storyline does not officially support WCAG 2.0. Be aware that Section 508 and WCAG are different guidelines (see comparison here).

If you are required to develop WCAG compliant e-learning, then you will need to expect development will take additional time and skillset, which costs money. Many organisations ensure their e-learning is compliant by having it audited, which again is an additional cost.

What does WCAG 2.0 compliance mean to IT operating environment?

To ensure the newer programming used to make e-learning content WCAG accessible will work in your environment, build a test course before developing the entire course. If your organisation is using old operating environments such as Windows XP, Office 2003 and Internet Explorer 6-8, then you may have problems even having the capability of complying with WCAG 2.0. Be sure you have a strong relationship with IT, and work together towards achieving and maintaining an operating environment that supports WCAG accessibility.

What does WCAG 2.0 compliance mean for Learning Management Systems?

It cannot be assumed that all Learning Management Systems (LMS) are WCAG compliant. If WCAG compliance is imperative to your organisation, you must seek further information from your IT department and LMS provider.

What does WCAG 2.0 mean to a mobile learning strategy?

WCAG is about accessibility. Compliance to WCAG 2.0 extends to any operating system and any device where people are accessing web-based content.

An Industry perspective on WCAG 2.0 compliance

WCAG 2.0 compliance is less than 18 months away. From an information perspective, it appears as though there are no direct guidelines or information specific to e-learning courseware and learning design, and no stewardship from Australian e-learning industry bodies. E-Learning developers and clients are required to interpret guidelines generalised for web content.

The lack of clarity around WCAG 2.0 and e-learning results in additional resourcing time and effort for those charged with e-learning in organisations. The specialised design skill, more complex development, testing and auditing requirements adds additional cost to e-learning projects.

Organisationally, an antiquated IT operating environment will impede those charged with managing e-learning from actually achieving WCAG 2.0 compliance. Additionally, any requirement to extend accessibility to mobile devices may actually stop or block a mobile learning strategy.

The bottom line

E-Learning designers are becoming better educated in WCAG 2.0 accessibility requirements. New programming techniques are helping developers achieve better design quality outcomes. However, these skills and knowhow are apparently not widespread. To this end, any organisation who must comply with WCAG 2.0 accessibility for -learning should consider seeking professional advice and support from an e-learning provider who has experience in developing to this specification. It is also a good idea to audit at least the first e-learning course designed and developed for WCAG 2.0. This will provide an opportunity for you to develop a baseline from which subsequent e-learning can be designed.

Some Australian web accessibility testing and training services

The following organisation are listed for your information only:

Access Testing



Scenario Seven

Stamford Interactive

Vision Australia

Web Usability

Thank you to the following e-learning development providers who helped inform this blog post




MMC Learning and Development



Got anything to add?

Please feel free to add a comment. I’d really appreciate any additional information or questions about this topic.

E-Learning Change Management Free Video Series

Followers of our E-Learning Academy blog may be aware I have been posting a series of videos on change management when implementing e-learning including Learning Management systems, webinars and performance support tools.

Here is a link to the enture series on YouTube

The series is also embedded below.

Please kindly let me know if any of the series has been helpful to you. Thank you.