What We’ve Learned from Teaching MOOCs

MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses for the uninitiated, have taken the education world by storm. As with any disruptive technology, there are bound to be some pitfalls along the way. How can instructors new to MOOCs successfully navigate teaching a MOOC? We’ve recently finished teaching BerkeleyX CS169.1x and CS169.2x, Software as a Service Parts I & II, on edX. Here are some tips from our experience that will help you make the most out of your MOOC.


Leonardo da Vinci said “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” You will always find ways to improve your material, but remember, you can always revise your lecture recordings later—this Fall we will revise our lectures for the third time. Balance your desire to perfect the material with the need to juggle all the other commitments most faculty must manage. Another perspective is that you need feedback from MOOC students before you can perfect it. Instead of obsessing about trying to get it right the first time, focus on sustainability: Once you’ve invested the enormous amount of work required to do a quality MOOC, what resources will you need to re-offer the MOOC between refreshes of the material?  We’ve managed to offer our MOOC two to three additional times between refreshes using community TAs (see “CONSIDER DELEGATING” below).


The New Yorker magazine famously printed this caption in the early nineties to draw attention to the anonymity available on the Internet. Unfortunately, a small fraction of MOOC students take advantage of anonymity to engage in antisocial or antagonistic behavior on the forums, towards either their fellow students or the course staff. We found that these perpetrators were cowards hiding behind an anonymous throwaway email address. Up to a certain point you can instruct your community TAs to shut down destructive threads, but if the behavior persists, see if you can have the students expelled from the course. Don’t let their behavior get you down, and don’t let it sour the experience for the vast majority of students who are diligent and appreciative of your work!


Most Berkeley campus courses use student discussion forums, and as conscientious instructors, we’re used to checking the forums and posting answers to questions there frequently. But on-campus course forums tend to follow a regular rhythm as students work during the day, go to sleep (eventually), prepare for exams, or enjoy a short break following an exam or during a holiday. The cross-cultural, cross-time-zone reach of MOOCs obliterates this rhythm, and you may find it too time-consuming to keep up with the forums. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that most MOOCs don’t have formal office hours or other means for students to get direct help, so the forums are even more critical to the student experience.

In our case, the first time we offered the course we recruited some of the strongest undergraduates from the previous campus offering of the course to serve as forum monitors. On subsequent offerings, we recruited volunteer “World TAs” from among the highest-scoring MOOC students, and retained an undergraduate working about 20 hours a week to organize the volunteers’ efforts as well as serving as “Head TA.” This system has worked well: the world TAs get some recognition, the course gets forum coverage by multilingual students spanning all the time zones (in our most recent offering, there was coverage nearly 24×7), and we get our lives back. We still check in every week or two with our TAs to see how things are going, and often do 5-minute impromptu videos (Prof. Jennifer Widom at Stanford called them ‘screenside chats’) on topics in the news relevant to that week’s course content.


With hundreds of thousands of students, course technology has to work perfectly. We extended the EdX platform with sophisticated autograders for our programming assignments. Critical to our success was “dry running” new autograders and new assignments in our campus classroom (about 165 students last time around) to fix both logic bugs in the autograders and problems with the grading rubrics for new homeworks. We started the MOOC three weeks after the campus course to give to us time to repair assignments and autograders. Dry runs will save you a world of pain.


Rather than create a single 12-week MOOC in one fell swoop, we first created a 6-week MOOC (CS169.1X), and offered it a few times. The next semester we recorded the second 6 weeks of the campus course to make CS169.2X, and then told the CS169.1X alumni that part 2 was available. We (and our families) were very glad we split the 12 weeks of MOOC to give us time to recover instead of one long marathon.

This is only a start, but as MOOC instructors, we’re excited to roll up our sleeves this summer and do the work to make our course even better. All in all, it’s way more work than “just” owning an on-campus course, but it’s also tremendously rewarding.

Armando Fox is a Professor-in-Residence in the EECS Department at UC Berkeley and a co-founder of the UC Berkeley RAD Lab. As of Fall 2012, he has been named half-time Academic Director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education.

David Patterson is the Pardee Professor of Computer Science at the University of California at Berkeley, which he joined after graduating from UCLA in 1977.