Making a Difference with a MOOC

Screenshot of Finance for Everyone landing page on Coursera

One of my first design projects as an Instructional Designer at the McMaster Institute for Innovation and Excellence in Teaching and Learning (MIIETL) is a 5-course MOOC Specialization on Coursera called Finance for Everyone, available to learners internationally no-cost or for-cost. This project has been extremely rewarding to contribute to, yet characterized by a variety of challenges, including one made my priority upon arriving at McMaster: engaging participants and building community via activities. What may be a more straightforward task in other learning design environments was made challenging by the limitations of the Coursera platform and (initially) absent course outcomes.

Challenge 1: identifying learning outcomes

The natural place to start when developing activities for a course would be to align them to the identified learning outcomes. However, here I met my first challenge – through a variety of iterations of course development over many months, the learning outcomes initially conceived were gone with the wind. And so, I did my due diligence. I endeavoured to backwards-engineer outcomes that would allow me to subsequently follow my beloved Understanding by Design framework (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

To do this this, I compiled course documents (primarily video lecture scripts and a specialization course plan) that outlined the core concepts to be covered throughout the specialization. With these, I identified frequently-mentioned underlying themes, promised deliverables and outcomes, and achievements the learner can expect to make throughout the specialization. The synthesis of this analysis of a variety of Specialization texts is captured in the below identification of 5 core themes:

Identified themes for the Finance for Everyone Specialization and Course 1

Here, the themes are made succinct for the Specialization, whereas for Course 1: Finance for Everyone: Decisions, I recorded supporting text in existing Course 1-specific course materials in order to legitimize their relevance to Course 1 in particular.

I then consulted the existing assessments planned for Course 1 and the Specialization, and aligned them with identified course themes to craft the Specialization outcomes and Course 1 outcomes (seen below). Since then, I have returned to my theme-based synthesis (represented in the screen shot above) to guide learning outcome development for all subsequent courses, which enables scaffolding and ensures important learner outcomes are aligned.

Finance for Everyone Specialization

By the end of this specialization, you should be able to:

  1. Use financial tools and information to understand financial concepts and the social impact of financial decisions.
  2. Build confidence in your ability to make informed financial decisions.
  3. Converse with others (including industry professionals such as bankers, financial managers) about finance issues with confidence.
  4. Relate important financial concepts and issues to experiences in your daily life or the real world.
  5. Engage with news that matters to you by linking it to value creation or destruction.
  6. Apply basic financial concepts to problem-solve individually and collaboratively.
  7. Analyze how financial concepts are applied by organizations.

Course 1: Finance for Everyone: Decisions

By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  1. Familiarize yourself with the broader context of finance.
  2. Explain how financial decisions may have positive and negative social impact.
  3. Describe time value of money.
  4. Perform financial calculations with accuracy.
  5. Build confidence in your ability to make informed financial decisions.
  6. Relate important financial concepts and issues to experiences in your daily life and the real world.
  7. (Optional) Execute common financial calculations with a financial calculator.

Challenge 2: working with the limitations of the existing educational technology

After accomplishing the above, I moved on to the next obstacle – working with the limitations of the Coursera platform. Every learning technology has its own set of limitations, and with Coursera, the primary limitations I had to grapple with were the lack of grade-able assessment types, and the differing course environment experienced by learners engaged in the no-cost version versus the for-cost version. Unfortunately, only learners taking the courses for-cost are able to submit assignments, and so I desired to create engaging activities that weren’t only for marks.

Referring back to the desired outcomes and course promises I identified in my themes synthesis discussed above, I determined two scaffolding course activity themes that could be applicable, and scaffolded, throughout all five courses of the Specialization. These are Course Connections and Making a Difference.

Course Connections

These activities are discussion forum threads which are available to all learners. The questions designed in Course Connections prompts were designed to primarily align with the course themes of the bigger financial picture, critically evaluating wider consequences of financial actions, and empowerment. These items are titled Course Connections as they reflect the chance for learners to connect with fellow learners, and to connect course concepts with real-world and real-life examples around them.

Making a Difference

These activities are for-marks assessments which can only be submitted to by for-cost learners. However, no-cost learners are able to participate in these activities as well if they so choose. In each Making a Difference activity, learners are directed to determine their biggest takeaways, most burning questions, and insights that support each Course’s unique peer-reviewed deliverable and share these thoughts online in some format – portfolio, blog, twitter, etc. All learners must submit to us through the Coursera platform is a link to that published account of their thoughts, and so for-cost learners are of no greater advantage than no-cost learners in this respect. Whereas only some will get “marks” for doing so, all learners are able to fulfill the requirements for these activities if they so choose. These items are titled Making a Difference as they encourage learners to facilitate conversation about financial issues with those individuals outside of our course environment, and thus have the potential to make a difference in the lives of many.

Thus far, these activities have allowed us to facilitate course conversation that links to news, media, and real-world, personal examples of our learners, thereby personalizing the experience and encouraging community-building. It also allows learners to focus their reflections on the content and course issues most relevant to them. As such, these activities facilitate an adult learning environment (Knowles, 1984), and guide the learner in self-directing their learnings.


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