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Making a Difference with MOOCs

photo2I had the pleasure of working on two of the first MOOCs (massive open online courses) offered by Northwestern University. Launched through the Coursera learning management system (LMS), these courses have drawn more than one hundred thousand sign-ups and the trend has not been limited to NU. The New York Times declared 2012 “The Year of the MOOC.” And why not? Who wouldn’t blush at the prospect of free (for the student) and open (in countries that allow access) courses taught by “rock star” professors from some of the world’s premier universities?

Canvas by Instructure, Northwestern’s new LMS has opened its doors to MOOCs through the Canvas Network. I recently attended the “What Makes a Good MOOC?” Workshop at InstructureCon 2014 to learn more about their approach.


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Often a MOOC’s success is measured in terms of sign-ups, completion rates, student satisfaction, or even profits. While these may all be valuable indicators, what struck me most about the Canvas team’s philosophy was the emphasis a

nd attention they place on creating project-based MOOCs that allow participants to leave the class with a real world product or plan to use in their own lives, careers, and communities. This focus is what set their vision of success apart from the dozens of MOOCs I have signed up for (and never finished).

In Thirty Days of TED, teachers left the course with an updated curriculum and actual flipped lessons for their classes utilizing free TED resources.

Clemson University’s Sustainable Energy Innovation course offered students “the chance to change the course of history” by guiding them in the creation of their own sustainability innovation plan to enact in their home communities.  The course’s team even went so far as to assist participants in successfully receiving grant money to move their projects forward.

The intended outcome for one creative writing MOOC was for participants to leave the class with the first chapter of their novel completed.

Through a series of exercises, Forums for the Future enables students to leave the course “with an explicit (written) worldview…for living peacefully and sustainably on a crowded planet in the 21st Century.”

At no point during the workshop was the focus on boosting enrollments or profits, or even on Canvas itself (Canvas allows instructors and institutions to own and use their work outside of the Canvas Network). The value in the courses they showcased came in the potential for participants to generate projects that made a real difference in people’s lives and communities.

To learn more or to find MOOCs that may interest you, visit the Canvas Network, and check out Northwestern University’s own MOOC offerings through Coursera.