Do’s & Don’ts For MOOCs & SPOCs

Best practices for developing Massive Open Online Courses and Small Private Online Courses.

In theory, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) would appear to be a training slam dunk, allowing thousands of participants to learn and collaborate anywhere, any time at a reduced cost. But countless organizations have missed the mark with MOOCs in the last few years, never fully realizing the potential of this technology.

“MOOCs have been heralded as a panacea for limitless selfdevelopment where anyone can learn virtually anything, at any time,” says Mark Onisk, general manager and vice president, at Skillsoft. “Conversely, the model has been derided as a red herring, with critics citing underwhelming participation, abysmal completion rates, and uneven content relevance as obstacles to mass adoption. In response, SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) have emerged as a more targeted cousin to the MOOC that address these shortcomings through smaller cohorts structured around highly relevant learning paths.”

Despite some hiccups, MOOCs and SPOCs continue to lure learners and intrigue organizations looking to increase employee engagement in e-learning. According to Class Central, student enrollments in MOOCs doubled to 35 million in 2015, attracting roughly 17 million new learners last year (

“Improvements in the technology have fed the corresponding growth in learning delivery,” Onisk says. “Today, the creation and delivery of streaming video and other rich media is ubiquitous, as are the tools to support it. Collaborative technologies have matured from one-dimensional chat-boards to multi-modal experiences that provide the richness of in-person interaction, at scale.”

Despite these improvements, MOOCs often fall prey to the pitfalls of many traditional learning programs. We tapped a variety of experts to share their do’s and don’ts for implementing a MOOC or SPOC initiative.


- Content relevance: While there is a tremendous breadth of off-the-shelf MOOC programs, many offerings are closely aligned with academia, which makes aligning them to the needs of the modern workforce and your particular organization a challenge. The leading MOOC providers offer an abundance of multi-week learning programs structured around the curricula of leading colleges and universities. The programs tend to align with the lesson plan the faculty is accustomed to delivering versus the needs of the modern workforce. As a general rule, programs should be aligned to the business objectives and performance measures of your respective organization. Solutions that allow for customization and support a variety of content assets that include videos, courseware, and e-books offer more flexibility.

- User experience: The leading MOOC providers have made considerable strides within the last two years in improving the usability of their platforms by reducing pop-up windows, simplifying navigation, and improving the enrollment process. That said, most corporate learning environments feature centralized learning platforms to track and administer programs at scale. This can introduce complexities with MOOC platforms, which typically were not designed to integrate with these systems. The best advice is to:

  1. Be sure you can populate your learning catalog or portal so the MOOC can be readily found by the search engine or embedded within a learning path.
  2. Test the integration to be sure you can gather the appropriate information.
  3. Be sure the programs do not launch multiple windows or browser sessions that impede consumption.
  4. Confirm that there are no technology constraints that prevent the user from easily accessing the content on a variety of devices, including tablets and smartphones.

- Marketing and promotion: This involves marketing the MOOCs to the internal management stakeholders and executives so they are aligned with the value of the initiative. Be sure to state the time commitments and expectations for completion at the outset of the program. Depending on the design, MOOCs can require between six and 10 hours of learning time per week, over the course of four to six weeks. Well-designed programs feature projects and collaborative activities that require the cohort to actively interact with one another. Executives and managers should be advised of this commitment, so they can be supportive of the learning process.

- Scheduling and logistics: Many MOOCs feature self-study content that is arranged in multi-week lesson plans, but also operate on the concept of a cohort-based experience with a defined start and end date. Plan your cohorts with sufficient lead time to ensure candidates have enough time to schedule the program on their respective calendars. At a minimum, you should plan to pre-market and assemble the cohort three to four weeks before the kickoff of the program and have a process in place to queue the participation of the ensuing cohort.

- Practice and application: MOOCs provide excellent opportunities for learners to collaborate and exchange ideas through the course of the learning experience. The greatest benefit of this collaboration often is found within the structure of learning exercises that include case studies, labs, or discussion forums. When implementing a MOOC program, it is important to ensure that the program is not limited to a one-way broadcast of information paired with a threaded discussion board. Rather, meaningful and challenging learning exercises should be given to the cohort members, and they should use the collaborative technologies to review and comment on each other’s work. This also provides an opportunity to incorporate into the experience mentors and coaches who can offer constructive feedback and guidance on the projects the learners submit. These activities can be as simple as developing code-blocks to enable a Web application or creating a business plan and submitting it to their coach for feedback. The successful completion of these lab exercises and activities should be incorporated as a required element of the learning program, culminating with a final capstone exercise learners submit to achieve their final certificate

- Learner support: Providing learners with an easy path for resolution when something goes wrong unexpectedly is a critical element of the program’s overall success. When implementing a MOOC strategy, it is important to have the help desk procedures clearly mapped out and communicated to the cohort well in advance of the launch date. It’s equally important to map out the different types of support that will be required. These generally fall into three categories: technical questions regarding the experience; administrative questions around how to enroll, what to complete, and how credits are earned; and questions around the subject matter itself. When planning a MOOC strategy, it is critical to document how these queries will be submitted, who will respond to them, and what the response time will be. Typically, technical issues may require an immediate response, while administrative and content questions may have more flexibility. In either case, learners should have the opportunity to connect with a support person in real time.

- Rewards and incentives: The MOOC experience should be something that is challenging and applicable to the learner’s career path. The end result of a MOOC should include a credential or certificate learners can share through their various career profiles and something that stays with them as they progress through their career. Other incentives could include points or “badges” they accrue in their profile that allow them to benchmark themselves with their peers.

- Program management: MOOC initiatives must have an “owner” or someone to orchestrate the items described here. The most effective MOOCs have a dedicated program manager to oversee the progress of the cohorts, report on key performance indicators, and ensure learners have what they need to be successful.


- Don't expect everyone to know how to use the digital learning platform (even if it is a common one their company uses). Just because people have used a Web platform before doesn’t mean they’ve used all of the platform’s tools as learners. If a participant has to learn the platform first, as well as absorb the content, this might negatively affect his or her overall experience. So it is important to have an overview of the tools you’ll be using at each learning engagement.

- Allow participants to play with the platform tools at the beginning. Even if you’re asking them icebreaker questions such as their favorite movie, song, book, or food, ask them to use the platform tools to answer. This will help to troubleshoot problems from the beginning of the experience in a low-pressure way.

- Secure support from the top. E-mail from a random talking head is never enough to get people to actively participate in a digital learning experience. Finding a senior leader champion and asking for his or her participation is critical to the success of the learning initiative.

- Remember that less is more. Learning initiatives need to focus on the unique needs of learners in the context of their organization’s culture. Considering specific experience levels, time, and learning objectives is a much better strategy than using a broad initiative that lacks focus.

- Explore breakout groups. Having fewer people in breakout groups rather than overall group discussion forums can be less intimidating for some participants and prompt more participation.

- Make it quick. In terms of overall duration of the learning experience and course experience, the quicker the better for your participants. We’ve found that participants tend to like short videos over discussion forums and shorter, ongoing meetings.

- Use common social networks. Set up an internal social network such as Yammer to foster networking among learners or create a private group on LinkedIn as a communication tool.

- Encourage learning partnerships. Leadership-focused digital learning initiatives are only as engaging as the people who are engaged in them. Learners need the support of key partners to stay motivated and engaged to ensure the learning is sustained. We recommend both accountability partners and learning partners for our participants.

- Collect impact data and use it. The measurement of any developmental effort is important to ensure that development efforts are effective and the return on investment is meaningful.


- Ensure that your design and development strategy allows for strong collaboration between the impacted business unit(s), the content subject matters experts (SMEs), and the MOOC development team. This allows for quicker development and deployment.

- Do your research. Make sure you have defined the success criteria for the learners and the program up front. In a corporate setting, understand what kind of completion metrics and reporting the business is expecting. Determine how technology will support the measurement of success criteria and accommodate participant needs.

- Make sure you have strong project management oversight during the design and development process.

- Define a clear communication strategy regarding the program expectations, process, etc., for both business leaders and participants.

- Incorporate multiple deliverable/ asset types (for example, e-learning bites, teaming activities, discussion boards, and graded exercises) and some flexibility in terms of learner-activity completion timing. Incorporate multiple opportunities for learners to collaborate and learn from each other.

- Don't let technology limitations completely drive the decision around whether or not you develop a MOOC. Even if it’s not the perfect fit, figure out how you can make available technology work for you. For example, ideally, you would have one platform that allows for end-user appeal and appropriate reporting and metrics, but you may not have access to such a resource within your company. If a MOOC is still the right fit for your needs, leverage the technology you do have available. It may include something like a SharePoint site for the appropriate end-user look and feel that also incorporates links to checkpoints and assessments within your learning management system (LMS) to meet the business’ metric and reporting needs.

- Don't be constrained by the formal tenets of the MOOC definition (that is, massive, open, online course). Apply the aspects that work for your needs and modify as needed. For example, if you are targeting a particular audience vs. being completely open, it does not mean you can’t incorporate some of the other tenets of a MOOC to create your own MOOC-like program.

- Don't be inflexible. Expect to modify content and change direction based on learners’ feedback throughout the program.

- Don't count a MOOC out based on tight timelines. One of the benefits of a MOOC is that later modules or sections can be in development while the initial ones are being rolled out.

- Don't forget to plan for a maintenance strategy. One benefit of a MOOC is that it can live on over time and continue to be a reference for learners even after they have participated. Who will be responsible for maintaining content once rolled out? How often will the content need to be updated? Such questions need to be defined up front during the planning process.


- Create in-demand content. When an organization begins to develop a MOOC, it is important to identify a subject employees have an appetite to learn about and employers are eager to address at their company. Take the time to talk to your employees and understand where they see a need for additional learning and deep knowledge.

- Provide engaging content. Gone are the days of boring Webinars and hours of mindless training videos. Think about how to make the content you build exciting. For example, the optimal length for a video online is six minutes—any longer and you may risk losing the learner’s attention. Take the time to research what will resonate with your learning audience and tailor the content to them.

- Make the course accessible for everyone, regardless of any physical limitation they might have, and regardless of whether they are accessing your course using a Web browser, an app, or a device.

- Interact with MOOC learners. “Face time” with the employees taking your MOOC needs to happen consistently and continuously throughout the course, even in an online environment. Make sure your MOOC team interacts robustly via discussion forums and provides detailed feedback to enrich the learning experience.

- Encourage lifelong learning. Develop a MOOC that leaves learners looking to learn more! Our research has found that the majority of online learners prefer to take a program of courses versus one individual course, so create a MOOC that leads naturally into a second, third, or fourth course. Not only will you meet the demands of your employees to learn new skills, but you will demonstrate your company’s commitment to and investment in the continuous growth and learning of your employees.


- Have a clear goal in mind for your MOOC. In the end, what should the learner know and be able to do? This should be a high-level, single-sentence statement that describes the course’s overarching purpose.

- Ensure the MOOC developers spend time taking a MOOC with a topic of personal interest on Coursera, edX,, or similar platform to understand how the content is organized and the process flows.

- Chunk your content into weekly modules, and provide content, a discussion, and an application or assessment each week to promote engagement. A larger assignment might take two weeks to complete, so introduce it in the first week with a later submission date.

- Provide an opening discussion board where people can introduce themselves and share contact information at the beginning of the course. This helps to build community.

- Provide and monitor a Q&A board. Questions will come in on processes, as well as content, so be sure a posting triggers a notification to someone who can answer.

- Consider leveraging pre-existing materials, as well as your own content, such as can be found on YouTube, in TED talks, and the on-demand subscriptions your company already may have. Consider copyright laws, citing sources, and linking out to the actual source files. Your company may be paying the Copyright Clearance Center for access to other rich sources of material.

- Consider the time factor when choosing the content to prepare for activities and discussions. Determine what is critical for success, and include additional material as supplemental for learners who have an interest in the topic. Workers are busy, and the nature of a MOOC is to periodically jump in and review something or participate in short bursts throughout the week.

- Write questions that will generate discussion. Asking people to restate information they have read about will not create a backand- forth dialogue. Leverage their personal stories and connections to the material. Ask for an opinion about what they have viewed or application in the workforce. It isn’t always feasible for the teacher or a facilitator to be on the discussion board, but it may keep the conversation moving.

- Enroll people in batches so there is a good group working on the material at the same time.

- Provide opening and closing dates for discussions and assignments to keep the cohort moving along. An alternate model is to keep everything open and leverage open enrollment. The downside to this model is the feeling that no one is out there listening unless another person happens to be in the same module.

- Use projects to apply what learners are discovering. Have them build a project plan and design something for their team or for use in their personal lives. Ensure there is a way to apply what they have learned. Completed projects or their progress toward the finish line should be updated to the weekly assignment board for peer review.

- Provide rubrics for peer review with specific, measurable items so reviewers know what to look for. Include the rubrics in the assignment so the learners know what they will be scored against. Upon completion, offer the learner the opportunity to print a certificate to acknowledge success.


- Raise questions. What knowledge can we offer that is unique and valuable to the world? There are blockbuster MOOCs with more than 100,000 students worldwide, but there also are niche MOOCs catering to smaller groups of passionate people. That was the case with Tenaris’ “MOOC Introduction to Running Pipe in Oil and Gas Wells” (

- Form partnerships. There are many objectives related to a MOOC coming from a corporate university. It could be talent attraction, part of the onboarding process, customer training, etc. Those objectives can be accomplished through alliances with universities, organizations, or even other companies. In one of our MOOCs, “Introduction to CNC,” we teamed up with our Community Relations Department, which has a technical high school named Escuela Tecnica Roberto Rocca, with the aim of improving the technical knowledge in Spanish-speaking countries (

- Select the expert. He or she has to be the rock star of the course. In our search for the best professor to lead our “Introduction to Steel” MOOC ( introduction-steel-tenarisuniversitysteel101x- 1), we began by investigating industrial conferences as a potential source to find a materials specialist. That, coupled with the use of YouTube, led us to our expert in London, where the course was filmed.

- Focus on interactivity. Exercises are critical to enhance engagement throughout the session and encourage students to participate, think, and learn. Some examples can be found in the MOOC, “Introduction to Oil Country Tubular Goods” (OCTG) ( tenarisuniversity-pipe01x).

- Market your MOOC. During the launch of Tenaris’ first MOOC, we rolled out a marketing campaign the last two weeks prior to the course start date and received five times the number of enrollees when compared to the weeks without a campaign. 


- Ask your employees what they want to learn. Your ability to predict what your employees want or need to learn isn't nearly as good as you think it is.

- Ask managers for input on their employees' training needs and design personalized content for individuals. Managers can help put together a personalized roadmap and development path tor their employees' personal growth.

- Make courses interactive. By incorporating quizzes, exercises, reflection time, and opportunities to practice concepts in the real world, people can “ lock in” what they learn.

- Encourage flexibility to suit a variety of styles and schedules. People want to be empowered to choose what kind of learning style they need; when they want to learn; and what they want to learn.

- Dive into the heart of your content in the first section of the course. Ideally, all of your course content will be relevant and engaging, but it's most important to “ hook” students at the beginning.

- Don't overlook the impact of tone and body language. The best instructors vary their tone, pacing, and energy throughout their lectures to capture students' attention.

- Don't make lectures or courses too lengthy. Attention spans drop dramatically after four minutes into each course section. Separate content into shorter lectures, and bring them together to teach a larger concept/skill.

- Don't forget to clean your room before recording a course. Make sure you have a clean, simple, clutter-free background.

- Don't overlook production quality. Record in 1080p , use a separate microphone, and record your course in a well-lit space.

SPOCs for Executive Education: Lessons Learned

By Diane Gayeski Dean, Roy H. Park School of Communications, Ithaca College, and Principal, Gayeski Analytics

Starting in 2006, I began designing a Master’s degree designed for high-potential professionals in communications who want to be prepared to lead innovation in this highly competitive and changing field. I based the design principles on consulting experiences I had designing new learning structures for high-potentials at companies such as General Electric and my own experience as an online professor. In 2013, we launched our executive-style Master of Science degree in communications innovation with a carefully selected cohort of six professionals. Over the last three years, here are some lessons learned that can translate to others who are building Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs).

  • The most important part of SPOCs, especially in executive education, is providing the minimum amount of information and required work to make the biggest impact on immediate performance. That ratio is something that’s difficult to balance in a world where people get credit for hours spent in classes or days of training that has been designed. The nature of SPOCs is that there is not a large audience of learners from which to draw the resources to amortize the expense of the education. So “flash” of content presentation needs to be minimized and performance output needs to be maximized. Instructors need to spend their time carefully responding to online conversations and not preparing lectures and simulations.
  • The learner cohort team selection is critical. Finding the delicate balance of having shared interest and goals but very different contexts and experiences is challenging, but it’s essential to building an environment where learning comes from reflecting and acting on new concepts in a team—not from online talking heads and automated quizzes. For ambitious professionals to grow in their careers, they need team support and concise conversational experiences that immediately have an impact on their worldview. Our own cohorts are all in the broad field of communications and media but come from backgrounds as varied as major movie studios, corporate communications in the insurance industry, documentary and educational films in India, and digital media off-shoots of cable TV channels. Learning how others experience change management and leadership challenges in different settings has been immensely important to our learners.
  • Pay attention to privacy, intellectual property, and confidentiality concerns. SPOCs for professional education require that learners reflect on their own immediate work, but for some, this can create the opportunity for breaches of company confidentiality and concerns about others stealing new ideas. We start each cohort orientation with a long session facilitated by a lawyer who leads participants in creating their own rules of engagement. We’re also careful not to enroll learners from directly competing companies.
  • Time management is always a big concern when learners are working in full-time challenging jobs and are also likely in the time of life when they are balancing major personal events such as marriages, births of children, or even care of elderly parents. In a SPOC, every voice is important and if somebody drops out for a few weeks, it can be difficult for them and others to catch up. We have learned to make our courses much shorter than the typical semester-long college course; they are five weeks and one credit, and learners see the course structure and assignments right from day one of each course. We’ve designed almost all of it to be asynchronous, so team members can contribute whenever they have some time—lunch breaks, plane travel, or nights and weekends.
  • Face-to-face is still important. Although all of our required coursework is online and asynchronous, we start with a three-day in-person orientation and have long weekend “destination intensives” as elective courses approximately every eight weeks. Online communication and interaction with content is sporadic in asynchronous courses, and short learning bites, coaching tips, and new perspectives are great over the long term. But to promote real change in the development of new ideas and patterns of behavior, it’s important to spend lots of uninterrupted time together. Our program director works with each cohort and individual intensely and travels to each of the destination courses, which are offered at different companies and sites around the world. Much of the informal but powerful learning comes from the group staying together in Air BnB apartments and sharing drinks and dinners.
  • Build on the “boutique” aspect of the curriculum. For us, in addition to courses, our program director acts as the “intellectual concierge” and helps learners connect with mentors and other developmental opportunities. Our librarians create custom searches for each person, based on not only their course assignments and final R&D projects, but also their ongoing projects at their jobs. Just like the difference between a big-box store and a boutique, those who choose SPOCs want a customized experience, one that reflects their own changing needs and interests.


By Tally Booth, Senior Manager Learning Development, PMP, PHR, ADP Learning & Performance, and Shannon Hasa, Instructional Designer, Learning & Performance, ADP National Account Services

ADP was in the process of deploying a new methodology for implementing a human capital management (HCM) product to our clients. The business challenge was to teach this methodology to our associates in a three-month time frame while they continued to perform in their current role. We needed to ensure that our associates were capable in this methodology without negatively affecting current client implementations.

Our team took a flexible approach to this learning by following a MOOC-like model, which resulted in The Lean Clean Machine (LCM) Collaboratory (a corporate MOOC) learning program.

Program Details

The program was self-paced in that associates could complete learning events when it worked for their schedules. It also incorporated team-based activities, and kickoff sessions as checkpoints throughout the program. We provided participants a roadmap to follow the various parts and sessions, and leveraged Microsoft SharePoint as the place for learners to access the training, discussion boards, and materials.

For development, we had a collaborative team that leveraged specialization and used individual strengths and skills to develop in an agile way. This solution aligned ADP’s implementation process to our holistic HCM solution.


Completion of each of the program parts and results from predefined success criteria were captured for each participant. This was shared with program stakeholders and managers of participants. Examples of the metrics gathered were as follows:

• 90 percent average completion rate was achieved for all parts of the program.

• 86.9 percent of team activities submitted achieved a competent rating on the first try.

• 99.4 percent of associates achieved a score of 80 percent or greater on the final assessment.


By Ingrid Urman, Head of TenarisUniversity Learrning Experiences, Tenaris

Tenaris is a leading global supplier of steel pipe products with 21,700 employees in more than 30 countries. For certain subgroups of employees, such as those in R&D and product engineering, only the best global experts are able to provide the technical training about cutting-edge research that Tenaris’ employees need. E-learning and Webinars are not viable training alternatives given the sophisticated, lengthy content. Instructor-led training is not possible given the cost of moving professors and employees for up to month-long courses.

Therefore, in 2013, TenarisUniversity, the company’s corporate education division, launched a new strategy that focuses on Small Private Online Courses (SPOCs). Also known as corporate MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), SPOCs allow dozens if not hundreds of individuals in different geographic locations the opportunity to simultaneously take an online course taught by a distinguished professor, who also is connected remotely.

Program Details

SPOCs incorporate innovative educational techniques such as social learning, forums, microlearning, videos, real-time assignments, peer-to-peer evaluations, live Webinars, meetups, and hangouts. They generally have start and end dates like traditional classroom courses, and students are evaluated and provided a certification of completion. Searchable versions of the courses remain online so students can continue to take them “self-paced” or search for sections relevant to their learning objectives.

The SPOC format has proved a fundamental training strategy for Tenaris. SPOCs retain networking and human interaction with professors and other students—elements crucial for learning. Subsequent runnings of SPOCs cost a fraction of first editions.

In 2013, the first TenarisUniversity SPOC was developed in collaboration with The University of Sheffield, home to well-known researchers in metallurgical sciences, to develop “Thermo-Mechanical Processing of Metals” on a customized Moodle platform. This project was designed to address a clear business challenge: deepen engineers’ knowledge of high-temperature metal-shaping processes. TenarisUniversity was recognized in 2013 for Excellence in Training by the World Steel Association and in 2015 for Excellence in Practice Citation by ATD (Association for Talent Development) for this initiative.

The benefits of the SPOC were clear:

Superior content provided: Courses were taught by world-renowned experts.

Reduced costs: The total cost of the SPOC was 20 percent of what would have been required for classroom training.

Expanded reach: Tenaris increased the quantity of employees trained, hitting 90 percent of the target population.

Increased flexibility: Employees were able to continue doing their jobs while participating in training. Previous training required being absent from the job for up to a month.


Based on the success of its first SPOC, Tenaris partnered with edX, a university-level online course platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in 2012. Since 2014, Tenaris has launched six SPOCs on the edX platform completed by a total of 600-plus employees. This has translated into savings of more than $600,000 in training and related costs. Without the SPOCs, this training would have been prohibitively expensive and, therefore, would not have taken place. Two SPOCs are in the works for 2016/2017.

Apart from the SPOCs, Tenaris also developed four MOOCs that reached 40,000 students from 136 countries. The courses are available at:



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