Blending MOOCs into Your Courses

Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have become a major part of online learning, with numerous universities offering courses that draw upwards of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of participants. These courses help fulfill higher education's mandate of serving the public good by making university resources available to the general public rather than only those who can afford the tuition.

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Massively open online courses (MOOCs) have become a major part of online learning, with numerous universities offering courses that draw upwards of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of participants. These courses help fulfill higher education's mandate of serving the public good by making university resources available to the general public rather than only those who can afford the tuition.

But there has always been a wall between MOOCs and regular university courses. While some institutions are offering certificate or credit options for selected MOOCs, the assumption is still that the “regular,” on-campus or online courses offered by the institution for degree students will exist separately from any MOOCs for non-degree students.

But why must this division between MOOCs and regular courses exist? Why not combine a MOOC with a regular campus course to allow degree and non-degree students to intermingle? The MOOC could serve as the online component of a blended on-campus course, thus allowing the same content to serve both parties. Plus, on-campus students could engage in discussion of course topics with the off-campus students through the MOOC discussion forums. Because MOOCs generally attract working adults, the discussion forums could be used to add an element of field experience to the deliberations. For instance, students in an on-campus engineering course could learn about the challenges faced by those in the profession and how professionals think about projects.

A fully online course could also be run to serve both degree and non-degree (MOOC) students at once. The course could be hosted on a MOOC platform like Coursera so that both degree and nondegree students could have access to its content, including videos, readings, and discussions. The degree students could have the additional requirement of doing certain assessments and required discussions to receive their grades, thus blending the two audiences. It would also be interesting to ask if MOOC discussions tend toward a more free form than those in online degree courses because those taking it are doing so for the learning rather than getting a grade. This, then, might be another way in which a MOOC can expose degree students to a wider range of thinking.

Douglas Fisher of Vanderbilt University tried this approach with his on-campus machine learning course (2013). He combined the course with Stanford professor Andrew Ng's Machine Learning MOOC on Coursera. The students watched the MOOC video lectures and completed the MOOC assignments and quizzes. While there were also discussion forums on the MOOC, they were optional for Fisher's students. As this was a blended course, in-class time was then spent on “interactive discussions and more challenging material.”

Fisher found that students liked the MOOC content. They also liked the flexibility of being able to watch the lectures at any time, to rewatch them if necessary, and even to watch them at different speeds. Students also found the MOOC discussions helpful in finding answers to particular problems. When they were stuck on a problem, it was likely that another participant was stuck on that problem as well, so they could use the discussions as a resource for getting help with course issues.

However, the on-campus students did not engage in the discussions of general course concepts to a similar degree as did the outside participants. This might have been because the discussions were optional.

The bigger issue was that students found a poor alignment between class and MOOC material. The class and MOOC material were not always in sync. As Fisher put it, there was often a “loose coupling” between the in-class and online components of the course.

The problem was a result of blending two independently developed courses. In essence, Fisher created a blended learning course by simply grabbing the closest off-the-shelf online content he could find. It was not much different from just assigning a series of YouTube videos to make a blended course.  

A better approach for combining a MOOC with an online course is to start with either the MOOC or the on-campus course and develop the other part around it. That is, an instructor who wants to move an on-campus course to a blended format could build the online component in a MOOC rather than an LMS to provide on-campus students with the benefit of interacting with those outside of the campus. Note that an instructor planning to turn an on-campus course into a blended course already plans to create online content, so choosing to put that content into a MOOC rather than an LMS is not a huge difference in work. The instructor could also move in the opposite direction, starting with content from a good MOOC, perhaps developed by another instructor, and then designing his or her own on-campus class to fit with it.

Combining a MOOC with a fully online course is even easier because all of the online content is already developed or will be developed to create the course. It just amounts to a choice to host the course in an environment that allows interaction with outside participants.

An instructor looking to sell the idea to the institution can mention the benefits of exposing students to a wider range of discussion. Fisher also found that outside professionals enjoy helping students who struggle in a course, and thus they offer a kind of free tutoring to degree students. Graduate students can also monitor discussions to gain some experience working with students. The instructor can also note that the MOOC component will broaden the name recognition of the school by allowing many more participants into the course. These students might later choose to matriculate at the school.

The instructor would probably want to make participation in MOOC discussions mandatory for matriculated students to avoid the problem that Fisher had with participation. Those students can be graded on their participation and be given guidelines on how their grade is determined, thus structuring their participation. In a blended course, the instructor would want to consider how the online discussion compares to the in-class discussion. The instructor does not just want to copy the online discussion in the in-class environment, so he or she would have to think about the purposes and thus formats it would take.

It is a common myth that our students need to be walled off from the big bad world, as if they live in cages and never leave campus. Breaking down this wall can expose our degree students to a range of thoughts and opinions that they would not encounter with other degree students.


Bruff, Derek, Douglas Fisher, Katherine McEwen, and Blaine Smith.  “Wrapping a MOOC: Student Perceptions of an Experiment in Blended Learning.” MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 9, no. 2 (2013): 177–189.