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Getting to Know Your Students: Five Best Practices for Developing and Managing an Arts-Based or Liberal Arts MOOC

The EvoLLLution | Getting to Know Your Students: Five Best Practices for Developing and Managing an Arts-Based or Liberal Arts MOOC
While many claim that MOOCs failed to live up to the hype, they have shown that colleges and universities have a lot of work to do in making teaching and learning practices suit the needs of their students, and the data made available by MOOCs is pioneering this work.

Many have said that the MOOC is dead and many more have listed a myriad of disappointments with the outcome of MOOCs—specifically that they did not live up to the unrealistic expectation of usurping the system of higher education as we know it. While the landscape of MOOCs has certainly shifted over the past 18 months, and yes, the traditional higher education system is still alive and well, I personally would not start writing a eulogy any time soon, nor would I agree with the sentiment that the MOOC movement has failed to disrupt the status quo.

Not only have MOOCs led to the ever-progressing destigmatization of online education, but given their massive nature, they have also provided an unprecedented amount of valuable data and insight into student behaviors, norms and practices that have in turn helped course developers and instructional designers create more engaging content that is directly influenced by student wants and needs. Before MOOCs, educators had intuitive hunches around what students wanted and/or needed, but now we have a staggering amount of empirical evidence that supports (or refutes) some of those hunches that we have had for decades.

Since 2001 Berklee Online, the online division of Berklee College of Music in Boston, has endeavored to create high-quality, project-based music courses online. We offered our first MOOC on Coursera in 2014 and we have used MOOCs as an opportunity to gain greater insight into student behaviors from all over the world (70 percent of our enrollees are international).

There are five key findings we have learned from our work in the MOOC arena and we would like to share them with you in the hope that we, as the academic community, can create better learning experiences for all of our students.

1. Craft Communications to Drive Engagement

Many MOOC providers will tell you that emailing your students on a regular basis will drive engagement, and they are certainly not wrong, however we have found that the level to which your students feel compelled to engage in your course is dependent on the content of that email.

Coursera quotes the average activity rate on the platform as 50 percent—“activity” defined as any students who accesses any piece of content in the course, be it a video, reading, forums, etc. Using that 50 percent as a guideline, we wanted to see the effect communications had on activity in our courses.

Dividing our students into three separate cohorts, one group did not receive any email communications, one group received a fairly typical “Welcome to week x, here is what you need to know” style email, and the final group received an email that provided a related article or blog post tied to the content for that lesson with a call to action to post reflections and thoughts in either the course forums or on social media.

The activity rate amongst students who did not receive any communication was roughly 35 percent. Students that received the typical overview email had an activity rate of roughly 50 percent. Finally, the activity rate for students who received the email with a call to action was over 70 percent. After we discovered this, we swiftly updated all of our communications to include articles, posts, infographics and more with a call to action at the end.

The overall average activity rate in our MOOCs offered on Coursera is up to 68.65 percent, with the highest activity rate being over 80 percent.

A fringe benefit to sending communications that include additional content is that you can drive traffic to specific outlets that may be beneficial for your institution. For example, Berklee Online also offers for-credit courses and degrees, so we try to drive as much traffic as possible to our website. One way that we do this is through our blog, Take Note. Take Note features interviews with industry professionals, posts, and videos that are created by Berklee faculty and staff. Our students find great value in the posts on Take Note and much of the content is directly related to the curriculum they are working through in any given lesson. By sharing a Take Note post with our students, it can provide them a different perspective on the material they’re working through (one that they might not necessarily get in the course) and it simultaneously drives traffic to the Berklee Online page. Everybody wins.

2. Meet Your Students Where They Are – Integrate Social Media Into Your Course

MOOCs are indeed massive – for example, to date, our Introduction to Guitar course has had over 300,000 enrollments. So how do you foster connectivity and community in a population the size of a small city spread across six continents? Let’s face it—forums are less than ideal, and while MOOC platforms continue to address their clunky nature, the fact remains that they are not the best way to grow a community.

You have to meet your students where they already are (i.e. social media) and connect them through those platforms. Most of our students have Twitter and Facebook accounts, so we started there.


Every MOOC we offer has a private Facebook group dedicated specifically for the students in that course. The Facebook groups are course-specific, not cohort-specific, so that means students from different cohorts can continue to connect and collaborate with one another.

Our Facebook groups have become a place where our learners can share links to their assignments for peer review, ask questions, share resources, connect with one another, and even become friends. These groups are an integral part of the course experience and help students feel connected to not only other learners, but to the institution of Berklee itself. Given the success of these groups, we are in the planning stages of hosting monthly Facebook Live events.


We primarily use Twitter to host weekly Twitter Chats for our students. Each course has a specific hashtag and during the chat, students can ask questions using that specific hashtag and have their questions answered by the course teaching assistant. When we first began these chats, only a handful of students would participate (however it’s impossible to know how many students were watching the twitter chat, just not actively asking questions). We have consistently hosted these chats on a weekly basis for over a year, and at this point, the chats have become a flurry of questions, resource sharing, and reflections. While not every student in the course participates, those who do walk away with a feeling of connectedness and perhaps a deeper understanding of the material. If you’d like to see one of these chats in action, @BerkleeCoursera hosts a Jazz Improvisation chat every Friday at 1:00pm EST using #BerkleeJI.

The key to leveraging social media for your courses is consistency—whether it’s posting content on Twitter or Facebook, reaching out to students to comment on their posts, or hosting an event. Specifically in the case of twitter chats, we’ve found it’s best to host the chat the same time and day of every week. This helps to set an expectation and prompts students to work it into their routine.

3. Support Your Learners with Teaching Assistants

The MOOC team at Berklee Online is very lean and managing student inquires and engagement in the forums and on social media quickly became too much for the team to handle without help. Most MOOC platforms provide community mentors—learners who have completed the course and would like to help monitor forums and engage with new learners in the course.

We wanted to go one step further. We wanted teaching assistants—professionals working in the field with expert knowledge in the subject areas. We also wanted our MOOC learners to feel more connected to the institution. Berklee College of Music has a large alumni network, full of folks eager to volunteer and give back to the college, so it seemed natural to recruit our alumni as teaching assistants in our MOOCs.

Our TA’s love working in the courses—connecting with students, gaining teaching experience, and watching students grow over six weeks. In turn, our students love connecting with the TA’s—reading their impressive bios, having the opportunity to connect to an expert in the field, and attending the social media events they host. This TA program communicates to both parties—TAs and students—that Berklee values and appreciates them.

4. Build Opportunities for Reflection

Although we endeavor to provide students with a sense of connectedness and community, the fact remains that MOOC students are completing our courses individually on their own at their own pace. For this reason, we have built in numerous opportunities for students to reflect on not only the course content itself, but also their learning goals and challenges. At the beginning of each course, students are asked to complete a short, four-question reflective quiz based on the WOOP method. Essentially, the quiz asks students to identify their learning goals (why are they in the course), potential challenges, strategies for overcoming those challenges, and finally, how their life will change once they have completed the course and gained the knowledge they hope to acquire.

There are many reasons why students do not persist, however giving them the opportunity to proactively identify those potential challenges and plan how they will overcome them can help learners navigate those challenges when they arise, leading to a more successful learning outcome.

We also provide opportunities for students to contribute ideas and reflections regarding the course material to course discussions via the forums and social media. These reflections help students to think about the course material as a community and can potentially lead students to view the course material in different ways because they are exposed to different perspectives. Many of our students like and appreciate these opportunities to reflect and we believe encouraging reflection and deep thinking improves the overall learning environment in our MOOCs.

Leverage Data to Make Better Design Decisions

As I mentioned earlier, MOOCs have provided an unprecedented amount of data, giving us insight into learner behaviors. If you know how to interpret this data, it can also help you to develop better course material. For example, is there a specific video that your students are skipping? Or is there a particular drop off point in a video where students stop watching? Do a significant amount of students drop off after the second lesson? Is there one piece of content that students really like? Is there one piece of content that students really don’t like?

Once you analyze where the pain points are in your course, you can then begin to identify potential reasons why students don’t persist. Maybe the faculty member says the same thing over and over and that’s why students stop watching the video. Maybe the end-of-lesson quiz does not accurately match the skill level of the students by the time they get to that quiz. While the data itself will not provide answers, it can alert you that there is a problem and you can start to identify and test possible solutions. It will take some trial and error, but ultimately, you will end up with an improved learning experience for your students.

If MOOCs have taught us one thing, it is that there is still a lot we do not know about teaching and learning, especially when it comes to reaching learners all over the world, at scale and online. We still have much to learn, but hopefully these best practices will get you on the right track and help you to learn more about your students so that you can continue to improve the learning outcomes for your learners.

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