One of the topics that we get asked frequently about MOOCS is how to structure the initial / first / orientation week (including everything from the design of the syllabus to the “on-boarding” / scaffolding process to introductory content). And for good reason – that first series of interactions can seriously influence large numbers of learners to keep going or give up. Obviously, since you created the course, you want people to continue going and not give up. I can go through what we did with dalmooc and then offer some ideas that arose from that process.

Our general strategy was to have an orientation week (or “week 0”) before the first week of class officially started that was dedicated to on-boarding people with the course design and structure. This is generally when people would be looking at the syllabus anyways. But the reason that we didn’t make that Week 1 was that many people who take MOOCs are so self-directed that they are ready to jump in an figure it out as they go along (or advanced enough with MOOCs that there is nothing to figure out). We knew that we had to balance the needs of the new learners with the desires of experienced learners, without alienating either group or those in between. Having to sit through a bunch of orientation videos the first week would just chase off several advanced learners. They might intend to come back later, but that break in momentum would mean that many won’t. So the orientation was shifted to pre-course.

This orientation was basically a series of videos and Google Hangouts that covered course structure, introductions, a design, and assessments. I know that many courses do not cover the design process, but I am glad we did. In my opinion, part of creating an open course means that you also cover the design process. This way people can easily replicate your work at a later date. Here are the videos and Hangout archives for those that are curious:





The week 1 video was moved up to week 0 because we felt that it fit better in that spot, and the assessment video was created to answer some FAQs about that topic. These videos mainly served as ways to introduce the instructors and basic topics to the participants as well as to expand on the visual syllabus.

I have discussed the visual syllabus in this blog in several places. Some of the relevant posts to this topic are listed here:

Other posts in that series might also be of interest for other reasons depending on where you are in the design process. George Siemens’ reflection on the first week of DALMOOC also covers many issues that affected our design decisions and highly recommend reading his reflections.

A couple of quick notes about the technical side of creating the visual syllabus (which you can skip if you are not interested). It was built utilizing a self-hosted WordPress installation using the incredible services of Reclaim Hosting. We used the Pictorico theme, but I customized / hacked the front page that you see. I basically copied the source code from the original theme home page to a new file (index.html), cut out the distracting elements, and added the parts you see. Those are technically square images on the front page, but I used Fireworks to add a circle overlay to make them easier to distinguish. I also added the numbers in Fireworks, and found the background/header images on The diagrams throughout the syllabus were also built in Fireworks (PhotoShop, GIMP, or other graphics programs would also work – probably even better) and sliced into squares to add the pop-up links. Those pop-ups are a WordPress plug-in called Fancybox that works well..

So, enough of the technical side. The actual instructional design of the syllabus is the important factor. George Siemens really wanted the visual syllabus aspect for dalmooc. He wanted to avoid the wall of text. I also went for scaffolding the syllabus in a way that should be easy for completely new learners to tell where to start, but had enough there to guide more experienced MOOC participants to the parts they wanted. Too much text on the first page would still mean “wall of text.” So the roll-over effect for those first page images (they came as part of the theme we picked) were perfect – you get the info when you need it, but its not there to stress you out when you don’t need it.

The visual diagram might seem to be a necessity for a complex course design like the dual-layer design, but in reality I would say that every course really needs one. Don’t assume that your learners can visualize your course flow just because it seems simple to you. What you see as simple might be due to a cultural norm that doesn’t translate to other cultures (not only your social/geographical culture but also your institution’s institutional culture).

I’m also a fan or roll overs and pop-ups that expand the content (as you can tell). That really helps with not only the new learners that need scaffolding, but also with non-linear thinkers that want to remix your intended order on the spot. With Federated Wikis gaining momentum, I think this ability to reorganize content as the learner sees fit will be a big deal. While pop-ups aren’t truly “remixable” content, they do allow a pick-and-choose method that comes close.

The general idea for the design of the syllabus was to scaffold participants into the overall structure of the course: start with “basic” and go deeper and deeper into various levels. Additionally, I took a cue from Jim Groom and DS106 and utilized a visual metaphor for the course. DS106 uses these metaphors (ds106zone, thewire106, etc) to add personality and presence to courses. Yes, even a course itself can have presence. Time constraints kept us from carrying this metaphor through the rest of the course, but I would suggest any course take this idea and fully implement it.

So to wrap up with some final thoughts on design and the first week of a MOOC (which could also apply to any course, really):

  • Never assume that something makes sense to everyone just because they signed up for your course. Keep the complete newbies in mind as much as the self-directed learners. Too many college courses are designed more on the self-directed learner end. Which means you probably end up explaining a lot of the same basic stuff over and over and over again, right? Think about it.
  • At the same time, don’t force the self-directed learners to go through everything that the newbies need to. Consider non-linear learning paths, dual-layer approaches, connectivism, etc. If you don’t have access to something like Ning or ProSolo to accomplish the connectivist layer, you can always use something like the BuddyPress plug-in for WordPress or a self-hosted installation of Known to accomplish the same structure.
  • While visual and video elements are important for breaking up content, don’t forget that not everyone has perfect sight. Keep accessibility mandatory.

edugeek-journal-avatarI think I am leaving out a few ideas that I had on this issue, but this post is already long enough. If you have any questions on specific design decisions or technical details, I would be glad to answer them. With access to a good instructional designer, knowledge of basic html, and basic experiences with a graphics program you should be able to accomplish much of what we did in your MOOC orientation/syllabus.

(image credit: Flavio Takemoto, obtained from

2 thoughts on “Structuring the Initial Week of a MOOC (or An Online Course)

  1. First, thanks for taking the time to put together this post. I’ve just started my research into best practices as it relates to various modes of online learning including MOOCs. I really like the overall nature and intent of a visual syllabus acting as Week 0. I was wondering if you could expand at all on the concept of a visual metaphor?


  2. Sure – we knew that the idea of a dual-layer approach would be new to many of our participants. Several would have been through courses that use aspects of both layers, but still a single path through the course. So when we put together the visual syllabus, we thought there needed to be something that went beyond the text and images in explaining how there really are two distinct experiences to be had. The Matrix movie metaphor kind of closely resembled our structure in that people could go back and forth between the layers (realities) and all of that. We just had to be careful to make sure everyone understood we felt both layers were equally valid, which is where that particular metaphor fell apart. All metaphors will fall apart in some way, of course – we just wanted people to know we were aware of it from the beginning,

    So the idea is to basically find some kind of metaphor from pop culture to help learners understand some of the more complex designs or ideas in your course. Jim Groom does this with “themes” for the his course, where he goes as far as having his professor “persona” take on various aspects of these themes. Much of this really falls into the category of teacher presence as you can guess – even if learners don’t need a metaphor per se, at least the metaphor will give the class or professor or both some personality that will help learners connect with their experience some more. Of course, the danger with pop culture is that you can lose some learners who lack socialization into that particular pop culture reference, but with YouTube being what it is today you can usually put together several resources to help catch them up.

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