The Pedagogy Behind MOOCs: What eLearning Professionals Should Know

The Pedagogy Behind MOOCs: What eLearning Professionals Should Know
Jack Frog/
Summary: What are the peculiarities of designing an online course that addresses to such a big audience? What does it mean in terms of instructional design? And is there an ideal pedagogy behind MOOCs? In this article, I’ll explain the peculiarities of an instructional design for “massive” learning, the different pedagogical approaches behind xMOOCs and cMOOCs, and I’ll show you how to motivate your learners in order to maximize the effectiveness of your MOOC courses and minimize dropout rates.

The Pedagogy Behind MOOCs: Instructional Design Adjustments For “Massive” Learning

2014 had been foreseen by Coursera Co-Founder Daphne Koller as the year that MOOCs will come on age [4]; and she was right. Today, with more than 2 billion potential learners worldwide [1], MOOCs cannot be easily ignored. Massive Open Online Courses offer to academic institutions and the corporate sector new business opportunities to reach what we call today “the extensive classroom”. It is very frequent, therefore, small-to-medium sized companies and academic institutions instead of investing in developing their own eLearning platform to choose a MOOC platform as a solution to deliver their online classes.

Before we examine the best pedagogical approaches that MOOC courses should be based on, we first need to determine what it means, in terms of instructional design for MOOCs, to design an online course for massive learning. Here are some of my suggestions when you are addressing to a large online audience:

  1. Upgrade MOOC facilitator’s role.
    Due to the large number of participants in the MOOC course, one thing for sure is that “massive learning” neither leaves much room for customization to the particular needs or preferences of each learner, nor for personalized attention of the MOOC course participants. This implies that an instructional design for MOOCs, should include other alternative ways in order for learners to receive the direction and feedback they need to get the most of their MOOC experience. A successful instructional design should provide learners with online activities upgrading the role of the MOOC facilitators, apart from monitoring learners’ process, to also provide them with extra information and tips facilitating the learning process by leading them to successfully meet the learning objectives set for the specific MOOC activity.
  2. Offer both compulsory and optional online activities.
    As in education the one-size-fits-all approach rarely does it yield good results, from a pedagogical point of view, a good practice would be an instructional design for a standard MOOC course of medium-level of difficulty, that would cover information all MOOC course attendants should receive and master, plus additional learning content for those who want to delve deeper into a topic as optional MOOC learning material.
  3. Provide automatically graded assessment.
    Massive also has an implication in terms of assessment. I would suggest the use of closed-ended questions that can be automatically graded by the MOOC system, allowing the MOOC course facilitator more time for other services, such as tracking of learners’ progress through the reporting options every MOOC platform provides, giving feedback to group activities and making improvements on the MOOC course accordingly.
  4. Provide both synchronous and asynchronous MOOC activities.
    An instructional design for MOOCs should provide for a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous online activities. As the role of MOOC course facilitator is limited, apart from the standard form of teaching methods most frequently employed in MOOCs, such as uploading recorded video lectures, online interactive presentations, slide shows and other types of online resources that are used to provide learners with information, learners should be also given the opportunity to interact not only with the MOOC course material but also with each other. This implies that an instructional design for MOOCs should consist of both asynchronous and synchronous online activities, as MOOC low completion rates have been very frequently attributed to lack of interaction [2].

The Pedagogy Behind MOOCs: Towards cMOOCs and xMOOCs

Knowing the peculiarities of “massive” learning, we may now discuss the appropriate theoretical framework and pedagogical principles behind MOOCs that would yield better results for a MOOC course.

In terms of instructional design models to be employed with MOOCs, MOOCs have been classified by Stephen Downed [5] into two distinct types: xMOOCs (Extended MOOCs) and cMOOCs (Connectivist MOOCs). The very same classification is self-explanatory conveying that there should be a distinct approach for each type. The basic difference between extended and connetivist MOOCs is reated to where learning takes place. xMOOCs have been design to be run in a single MOOC platform that can handle many concurrent users, and they consist the vast majority of the MOOC courses offered. On the contrary, the key concept behind cMOOCs is networking, meaning that learners may go anywhere to locate sources of information. Learning may also take place outside the official MOOC platform, such as in other web sites, or even in Facebook, Twitter or other social networks [3].

As cMOOCs, as the name implies, are exclusively based on connectivism, I’ll briefly describe the pedagogy behind them and then, I’ll give you my recommendations about the pedagogical approaches best suited for xMOOCs, that are those we most frequently encounter, and develop.

Latest Trends: Instructional Design For cMOOCs Based On Connectivism

cMOOCs provide diversity of approaches in a dynamic constantly changing learning environment requiring learners to take full control of their own learning. cMOOCs have, therefore, been characterized as more learner-centered [2]. However, a big drawback to consider is that, as learners freely navigate in the MOOC course, it’s not easy for the MOOC facilitator to keep track of their progress.

As far as the pedagogical framework is concerned, an instructional design for MOOCs based on connectivism would also take into account the ultimate goal of every learning material, that is to achieve far transfer of knowledge. Connectivism refers to the fact that the learning material should be presented in such a way in order for learners to be able to make connections of the new information to what they already know about the topic under consideration. Connectivism, however, does not only refer to linking previous with newly-acquired knowledge  - as a matter of fact, this would be an entirely cognitive process – but also to maintaining connections with other people through social networks. This is due to the fact that the critical point of connectivism is neither “what” to be learned, nor “how” to be learned, as behaviorism and cognitivism imply respectively; it is rather, “where to look” for the information, and this refers both to online resources and people [2].

Instructional Design for xMOOCs

Extended MOOCs (xMOOCs), on the other hand, seem to have been based so far on behaviorism; all information was provided within the MOOC course in a structured linear order, followed by self-assessments designed to check whether the particular learning objectives of the MOOC course had been mastered. Although there is nothing wrong with a behavioristic approach for MOOCs, I strongly believe that MOOCs should be taken a step further; instead of relying exclusively on information transmission on a stimulus-response basis, other learning theories may be employed in order to offer learners variety of online activities and keep them engaged in the learning process.

Today, the latest trend is a mixed approach that combines constructivism, social learning and connectivism, to form the ideal mix that best fits MOOC’s conceptualization of learning. As a connectivist approach forms by itself a separate category of MOOCs, in this section I’ll elaborate a bit further what you can do with MOOC activities based on constructivism and social learning.

  1. Constructivism.
    A pedagogical approach based on constructivism seems to be ideal for MOOCs, as they take for granted that students will be responsible for their own learning. Therefore, an instructional design for MOOCs should be based on “learning by doing” activities that promote interaction with the MOOC content.  MOOC learners should be offered an active learning approach, according to which knowledge will be constructed, not given. Though online projects and case studies, a constructivistic instructional design for MOOCs triggers learners to enhance their problem-solving and decision-making skills by making selections that promote discovery learning. These eLearning activities may be planned for self-study, or even as group projects under a mixed perspective with the social learning approach described below.
  2. Social Learning.
    As far as social learning is concerned, ideally, MOOCs take full advantage of online collaborative learning tools, such as, blogs, wikis and social media. Social learning activities are usually based on reflection and sharing of personal experiences, opinions and ideas, in order for each member of the group to draw their own conclusions about a specific topic under the supervision and assistance of the MOOC facilitator(s).

How To Motivate Learners in MOOCs

Whatever the approach you may use, an instructional design for MOOCs needs additional time and effort, as you should not only design online activities for a large audience, but you should also foresee what might go wrong. Careful planning seems to the only way to maximize the effectiveness of your MOOC course and reduce learners’ dropouts.

In order to motivate learners in MOOCs, I would recommend 4 techniques eLearning professionals could include in their instructional design, especially for asynchronous learning MOOCs; formative assessment, progress bars, gamification and badges.

  1. Formative Assessment.
    Offering brief questions throughout the MOOC unit gives course facilitators the great benefit of keeping track of learners’ progress on-the-spot, meaning that they can proceed to remedial action in the form of feedback, either synchronous through via chats and web cameras, or asynchronous via online discussions, fora and e-mails. Although individualized attention may be difficult, by just showing your presence could motivate learners and significantly reduce dropout rates.
  2. Progress bars.
    Progress bars, on the other hand, give learners the opportunity to visualize how much they have accomplished so far and how much is still missing in order for them to complete the online course. This has been proved an effective motivator  for learners.
  3. Gamification.
    Gamification is without any doubt another way to motivate learners. Competition is within our human nature. Leaderboards, combined with a point system for successfully completing online MOOC activities, could show learners where they stand in terms of their fellow virtual classmates.
  4. Badges.
    Last but not least, we should also not overlook the role of badges as means of extrinsic motivation. Badges serve to learners as means that prove a certain level of accomplishment. By giving your MOOC audience the option to share their leaderboard rank and badges earned in social media, in addition to promoting your MOOC course, you also make them feel proud of their personal achievements.

Still wondering what is wrong with MOOCs and they have not yet received the attention they perhaps deserve? Check the article What Is Wrong With MOOCs? Key Issues To Consider Before Launching Your First MOOC to learn about key issues that MOOCs raise by definition, as well as the critiques they have received.


  1. Bersin Josh (2013), The MOOC Marketplace Takes Off, Retrieved from Forbes on July 24th, 2015:
  2. Lackner E., & Kopp, M., (2014),  Do MOOCs need a special Instructional Design?, Retrieved on July 24th, 2015 from:
  3. Mackness Jenny (2013), cMOOCs and xMOOCs – Key differences, Retrieved on July 26th, 2015  from:
  4. Shah Dhawal (2014), MOOCs in 2014: Breaking down the numbers, Retrieved from edSurge on July 24th, 2015:
  5. Wikipedia (2015), Massive Open Online Course, Retrieved on July 18th, 2015 from