This post is by Genevieve White, who describes her experience writing a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, for the British Council. The MaWSIG blog features guest posts by members – please get in touch if you would like to write for us.
Since setting out as an ELT materials writer, I’ve worked on a variety of projects: a coursebook, a self-study book, teacher’s notes, tests, downloadable lesson plans and digital materials. Last year, I tried something quite different when I got the chance to develop a MOOC (a mini-MOOC, to be precise) for the British Council.
Throughout the MOOC development process, I was struck by how greatly it differed from my usual ELT writing work. In this post, I’ll describe the process and attempt to pin down just what made it so different.
What is a MOOC?
I couldn’t have answered this question a year ago. When the British Council phoned me to ask if I would be interested in taking on the project, I was lying on a sun-drenched beach in France. Through the crashing of the surf, I only picked up the words ‘MOOC’, ‘Magna Carta’ and ‘Would you be interested?’ Following my usual policy of ‘say yes first, find out more later’, I agreed at once.
My enthusiastic acceptance of this job wasn’t a total stab in the dark. I’d been designing lessons on Magna Carta and Shakespeare for the British Council Anniversaries project and had found the work fascinating. After the phone call, I downloaded two books about Magna Carta onto my Kindle before going back to sunbathing.
Once back home, I got down to the business of finding out more about MOOCs. Chris Cavey, master of MOOCs at the British Council, suggested I begin by enrolling on the popular British Council MOOC Exploring English: Language and Culture. Working through the activities, I noted the absence of ‘classic’ ELT-type activities, such as gap fills, anagrams and picture matching (although there was the odd multiple choice quiz) and the abundance of video input and discussion questions.
A MOOC, then, is a Massive Open Online Course. It’s massive because it is free and open to anyone who can get online. The British Council MOOCs attract thousands of learners, so having the opportunity to develop one really was an exciting (if slightly daunting) prospect.
The writing process
My brief was refreshingly brief: I had to design three weeks’ worth of content on the subject of Magna Carta, pitched at intermediate-level learners of English. Activities would enable learners to learn about historical and contemporary issues relating to the signing of the Great Charter, whilst enabling them to explore language drawn from this content.
Each week needed to have around twenty different steps or activities; these were often video based but could also be articles, language quizzes or discussion questions. At every step of the way, learners were encouraged to post their comments and to interact with each other. The instant feedback this provides did not actually occur to me as I was writing the course, but it would probably be at the forefront of my mind were I ever to write a MOOC again!
The British Council had already purchased a couple of videos on the subject of Magna Carta. One of my jobs was to identify a language focus arising from these video texts, which could be practised by learners in the comments field. The rest of the video scripts, discussion questions and language explanations were for me to write: good news as script writing has always been one of my favourite activities. Initially, I did script some rather grandiose videos which involved reconstructions of historical scenes, costumes, horses and casts of ten. Then I was told about budget constraints and woke up to reality.
Initially, I drafted my activities in Word documents. Once these had been approved, I transferred them onto the FutureLearn platform. This was a useful part of the process, as I was instantly able to test the activities myself and see how well they worked. I also made a fair few tweaks at this stage.
What happened next?
When the writing was almost complete, I was asked if I would like to be Lead Educator on the Magna Carta course. Of course, I said yes. Only afterwards did I think to ask what this might entail. I needed to travel to Manchester to be filmed delivering the video scripts I had written. Once the course went live, I needed to devote two hours a day to moderating it and be on hand for live events, such as Facebook clinics.
The day’s filming was excellent fun: I even had a dressing room with a light-up mirror! There was another, less frivolous, reason for my happiness at being involved in this stage of the process. If I delivered a line which sounded clunky, I could change my script and know that it had been changed in a way that was to my satisfaction. The development time for a MOOC is so much shorter than that of a course book (I wrote this MOOC in just over two months), so you can expect to be editing the odd (tiny) mistake even when the course is live. Just hope you get to it before any of the learners do!
The course went live two months later. Thousands of learners from all over the world logged on and began posting their feedback on the activities I’d developed. Imagine every single comment and reaction to a lesson you’d designed being posted online for all to read. It was exciting and nerve-wracking at the same time. Some would say a task was too easy; others would say the same task was too challenging.
When writing a MOOC, you never know who your audience will be. There is no level test, and the thousands of learners range from near beginner to proficiency level. Chris Cavey says, ‘A MOOC is the biggest mixed ability class you’ll ever have.’ I couldn’t agree more.
Having said all this, it was brilliant being able to see how learners interacted with the material I’d designed. With the passage of time, I was able to evaluate any criticisms and accept them, so it was a valuable learning experience. There were plenty of positive comments, too, which was good.
In July this year, the course had its third run. I am really proud of it, and I feel lucky to have had this writing experience. The course can be found at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/explore-english-magna-carta
Have any of you ELT writers had a really different writing experience? I’d love to hear about it!
Genevieve White is an ESOL teacher, a resource specialist and a regular conference presenter. She is currently one of the educators on Exploring English: Shakespeare and will be travelling around Europe this month delivering seminars on teaching Shakespeare to language learners. Information about the course can be found here: