Students with laptops around a table

What is a MOOC?

A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) is an openly accessible, web-based course designed for large-scale enrollment and instruction. Unlike a blended or flipped course, a MOOC is taught completely online, though many MOOCs encourage local learning communities to form. It is not uncommon for MOOCs to offer statements of accomplishment once learners have completed some or all of the learning activities in the course.

Learners participate in MOOCs for various reasons, including a desire to acquire new skills and knowledge, obtain job (re)training, and even personal enrichment (Kizilec, Piech, & Scneider). Increasingly, universities are creating MOOCs to connect various audiences with the latest research findings and applications in a field. These MOOCs target specific audiences with resources for professional development (e.g., a MOOC on important research on math learning, aimed at teachers) or may offer broader applications of findings in salient fields (e.g., a MOOC on the impacts of global warming on communities). Many faculty offer MOOCs or other openly-available resources as part of the outreach or broader impact plans in their sponsored research projects.

Why teach a MOOC?

Those who choose to teach a MOOC want to broaden the impact of their teaching and research. Many see it as a way to connect Stanford students to a wider community of people and as a way to make material from the course available to anyone who is interested, campus-wide and beyond.

Teaching a MOOC pushes you to be innovative and creative when it comes to teaching.  It allows you to explore the online environment while pushing the envelope in terms of teaching pedagogy and strategies. Many professors say that teaching a MOOC invigorates their on-campus teaching. If you want to share content with an open and diverse audience, teaching a MOOC is a good way to go. 

Developing a MOOC

Developing a successful MOOC is challenging because there are a lot of moving parts. In addition to writing course content you also need to produce the course materials, which will require you to carefully consider appropriate content presentation styles (i.e. videos, standalone slideshows, text and images, etc…) and logistics. Our key recommendation is to start as far in advance as you possibly can (a year is not that long when you are busy planning, designing, and producing a course). An instructional design consultant from VPTL can help you plan and initiate the course development process.

Tools for MOOCs

Gearing up to teach a MOOC:

  1. Start by scheduling a consultation with the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning

  2. Sketch out a course plan. Include learning objectives, content and content presentation style for each course module or unit, as well as activities and assignments.

  3. Assemble your team.  Enlist graduate student assistants, technical staff, and anyone else who you feel would best support your efforts. In addition, VPTL consultants can point you to on-campus resources.  

How to communicate with students

When you teach a MOOC chances are you will never get to meet your students in-person or even individually online. The interpersonal connections you build with your Stanford students can be more challenging to recreate when you have a large number of diverse students in a MOOC. It is important to consider that you may have students connecting from countries around the world and from a variety of time zones. Planning for effective communication with those learners is critical. Here are some suggestions:

  • Use built-in features of your CMS/LMS system, such as announcements and discussion forums

  • Create an email listserve   

  • Offer a few Google+ Hangouts on Air

  • Connect on Social Media such as Google+ Online Communities, Facebook, LinkedIn Groups, Twitter, etc… These tools can be appealing for use in your Stanford classes as well, although you need to point your students to the tools privacy policies and terms of service for any tool that you use in conjunction with your Stanford course.  

  • Chat channels

  • Wikis

Learning Activities

More traditional assignments such as research papers, reflection assignments, and even group projects can work in a MOOC setting. However, you have a whole spectrum of innovative possibilities, including having students create digital artifacts (images, audio, video, presentations), contribute to a course Wiki (student-generated content, resource curation), or participate in a forum discussion, just to name a few.   


Assessment in a MOOC can serve the more traditional purpose of evaluating a student's performance or it can also become a way to foster student learning. When designing assessments for your course you may consider the following options:   

Case Studies

Scaling MOOC

A MOOC for Growing an Organization

Huggy Rao, Robert Sutton

Photograph of the DTAL team sitting on a sofa with a sketch of a person.  Caption reads: You are part of the team!

Innovative Methodology Encourages Learning by Doing

Leticia Britos Cavagnaro
Design Thinking Action Lab

International Women's Health and Human Rights Course Photo

Worldwide MOOC for a Worldwide Issue

Anne Firth Murray
HumBio 129/FemGen 129

Interactive Forums Create Online Community

Daniel McFarland
Organizational Analysis