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Acknowledging the Local Reach of Global Digital Courses

by Billie Gastic & Daniel Konecky - February 15, 2016

In this commentary, we share what we learned from the experience of having our massive open online course (MOOC) made into a blended course by learners across the globe.

In April 2013, Coursera announced a new category of massive open online courses (MOOCs) aimed at supporting teacher professional development (Stiglitz, 2013). Relay Graduate School of Education joined other universities, educator preparation programs, and non-profit organizations such as The Johns Hopkins School of Education, Match Education, and the American Museum of Natural History in a unique opportunity to reach educators across the globe.

Relay launched its inaugural MOOC, Teaching Character and Creating Positive Classrooms, in February 2014. The four-week course introduced learners to general principles of positive psychology and described strategies that teachers could use to integrate character based objectives into their lesson plans to support student engagement and learning. Content consisted of video lectures, interviews with leading scholars, video clips of teachers working in K–12 classrooms, and moderated discussion forums.

To date, over 45,000 learners from almost 200 countries have enrolled in Teaching Character. The course is now available on demand and 7% of these students have officially completed the course. While we were in awe of the fulfilled promise of its sheer scale, we were most impressed by what we did not expect: learners downloaded more than 53,000 instructional videos that were available through the MOOC. As a result of this student demand, we set out to understand this high volume of downloads.

A survey revealed that learners were downloading materials to share their emerging knowledge with others. In response, we decided to develop a downloadable guide and a set of supplementary materials to help support these learners with the intention of extending the reach of the MOOC. We wanted to teach its content as a blended course featuring the MOOC’s digital resources and in person sessions they led on their own. We recruited survey volunteers from these blenders who taught us to look beyond online analytics to understand the local reach of a global course.

Blenders taught the MOOC material to the same audience that the course was primarily designed for: K-12 educators including teachers and other school-based instructional staff (83%). The remainder of the audience was comprised of nonprofit organization staff and caretakers of children (e.g., parents, guardians, etc.). When we asked why these learners decided to blend the course instead of simply referring colleagues or friends to the MOOC itself, we discovered a range of responses. Nearly 40% of blenders expressed a desire to customize the course content for their intended audience and local needs.

Reasons for Blending



To tailor the content to my particular environment



As an opportunity to build community



I believe that this content is better taught in person



To help make the content available to individuals who do not have reliable internet access






Blenders enhanced the MOOC materials in different ways to meet their local needs. Approximately 32% of respondents reported integrating stories or vignettes based on their own personal or professional experience. About another quarter of blenders deliberately anchored the course materials in the specific and timely needs of the audience and only 6% made no changes at all.

Changes Made



I added anecdotes or examples from my own life or professional experience



I grounded the topic in the needs of my particular community or school



I translated the materials into a different language



I changed some of the activities



I made major changes to the blended learning guide



I taught the course as designed



There is also evidence that teaching blended MOOC courses to others yielded benefits to the blenders. Approximately 87% of blenders agreed or strongly agreed with the following statement: “Preparing to use/teach the content to other people furthered my knowledge/internalization of the lessons." This question yielded an average response of 5.4 on a 6-point scale where 1 = strongly disagree and 6 = strongly agree. Blenders also reported feeling more able to enact or put into practice what they learned (84% agree or strongly agree; average score = 5.4).

MOOCs offer an unparalleled opportunity to scale up high quality learning opportunities. However, having our MOOC blended by its learners underscored that MOOCs have not yet found a way to satisfy many learners’ desire for a collective learning experience. Defining who constitutes the we in an online course presents its own set of challenges and we is not guaranteed by enrollment size. In fact, a universal we may not even exist online; instead, the vastness of MOOCs warrant inquiry into how these digital learning experiences could find their local anchor to promote opportunities for students to learn in a social context of their own making.

We live in a historical moment where expectations for connectivity run high, while predictions for engagement remain discouragingly low as exemplified by poor rates of student course completion in traditional MOOCs. A localized complement to global digital learning may be a productive way to excite learner curiosity and cultivate agency by building opportunities for truly networked practice and active learning.


Stiglitz, J. (2013, April 30). Coursera announces professional development courses to facilitate lifelong learning for teachers. Coursera Blog. Retrieved from https://blog.coursera.org/post/49331574337/coursera-announces-professional-development

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 15, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19459, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 6:44:04 AM

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About the Author
  • Billie Gastic
    Relay Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    BILLIE GASTIC is the Chief Research Officer at Relay Graduate School of Education.
  • Daniel Konecky
    Relay Graduate School of Education
    E-mail Author
    DANIEL KONECKY is the Director of Online Development at the Relay Graduate School of Education
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