Section 8: Platform selection
This section starts with a look at the personal side of the limitations of MOOCs. Data privacy is a topic in almost all online contexts. In MOOCs, the data to be protected consists of information about the users and their behavior. This comprises address, age, gender, and other information users provide when joining the course. But there is still much more.
Since the advent of the web, copyright issues have been pressing. Do use everything that suits your purpose and that you are demonstrably entitled to use. Do not use anything that could violate third-party copyright or anything with an unclear origin. In traditional classrooms you may, depending on your country’s laws, be allowed to use books, movies, music, and all other kind of media freely. This rarely applies to an open online setting.
There is one way to avoid problems with copyrighted material if they are legally available on the web for free – instead of providing the material itself in your course you provide a link to the website. The members of your course can go there, read it, see it or hear it and then come back and continue. The only thing you should make sure is that the link does not lead your participants to crash into a commercial paywall. Note that future law, in particular in the EU, may limit the right to linking. According to EU and German court decisions, you may already today be liable for linking to sites that contain illegal content (not necessarily on the page that you linked to).
Apart from material published before and outside of your course there is another side to copyright: these are the comments or even texts that your course participants write on the discussion forum or for assignments. You should which rights to these the platform demands in its fine print. This could even be a point when choosing a platform, because some services claim exclusive rights to all coursework handed in.
Usability concerns how well people are able to interact with technical devices. Users should instantly feel comfortable and know how to handle an interface. The individual experience of a course depends on the personal background in online activities. Platforms are interested in good usability and therefore provide guidelines for the creators of their courses. For them, good usability is a marketing argument and for you as well.
The possibility to download content or to work while being offline can be an important part of the usability and learning experience. Where wireless internet is not seamlessly provided, support for offline work can be an important part in the students’ relationship to your course.
Also as a way of providing the best possible user experience you should keep in mind the growing number of mobile devices people use for accessing web content. Web pages have to be optimized for good interaction on small screens. Web pages should be able to recognize these devices and tailor the content according to their capabilities. This feature is called responsive design.
Concerning the international availability of your course there can be limitations. For example, MOOC platforms based in the US have to follow trade sanctions because course content is considered to be a service, or a platform such as YouTube can be blocked in a number of countries. So your course may not be available in all countries around the world, depending on the platform.
Including everyone who is interested in your topic needs providing subtitles and transcripts. This allows everybody with vision or hearing problems to handle your content. For all institutions with federal funding in the US it is compulsory to support such a widened accessibility.
Last but not least you should think about the usability for the teachers who provide the material and run the course. To provide a good working environment for you or your course creators, options such as the collaboration of authors, an undo function and a backup service should be present.
When running your course without an “all-inclusive platform”, you need to keep a number of technical limitations in mind: Google Docs allows a maximum of 50 users working simultaneously on a document; the maximum number of viewers for a document is limited to 200. When providing videos directly from your own WordPress site you should be aware of the amount of traffic this can produce. On the one hand this can lead to a poor performance or even collapse of your website, on the other hand this can result in high costs. So even if you use a personal website for running the course you should think about putting the video material elsewhere and just embed it into your content.
Integrated solutions for MOOC platforms
This section provides an overview on how one can categorize integrated solutions for MOOC platforms. First of all, you have to decide whether you
are using a service in the cloud or whether
are hosting the platform on your own server or
have it hosted on some webspace.
In this second case you are confronted with, for instance, choosing an operating system and with installing updates. The benefit is that everything is under your control and you can pick and choose what to do and what not to do. A service in the cloud is of course much easier to handle. Most well-known MOOC platforms fall into that category. Unless you are at a particular university, you may not have access to them as an author. There are some cloud-based platforms, however, that are open to almost everybody.
Below, examples of these three types will be pointed out. You will not find long feature lists in this section, however, as all of these platforms are under continuous development and overnight changes are to be expected.
Let us start with platforms that are services in the cloud, though most may not be open to you. Here we find the big names Coursera and edX, which close contracts with universities and demand steep fees for their services. Then there is Udacity, which works on a project basis with authors or with companies. In the noncommercial domain, there is a number of platforms run by groups of institutions such as FutureLearn in the UK and FUN in France. Some institutions even have their own platforms, such as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Potsdam, Germany, or the two universities in Graz, Austria. There is one important borderline case, namely that of MiríadaX. This is a MOOC platform for the universities participating in the Universia network in Spain, Portugal and Latin America. MiríadaX, however, has been founded by companies, not be the universities themselves.
The most interesting platforms for a lean production are, of course, those that live in the cloud and are open for almost every author at little or no cost. Some of those platforms work on a project basis and wish to review or at least greenlight your project – among them Canvas Network in the US and formerly iversity in Berlin. There is a European project called EMMA, the “European Multiple MOOC Aggregator”, which may start to work like that as well, and the “mooin” platform from Lübeck, Germany.
For some other cloud-based platforms, you just have to sign up, e.g. Udemy and Eliademy. Google’s and edX’s project mooc.org, which was intented to provide the edX platform running in the wild for everybody to become an author, has never materialized.
If you want to have full control, a platform that you are hosting on your own, maybe locally or at some provider, is the way to go. The downside is that you have to take care of installation and administration. A number of full-blown MOOC platforms are available for installation on your server. In particular, you can run your own copy of edX, but there are others as well, such as OpenMOOC. Google’s solution named Course Builder does not run on arbitrary webspace. It is supposed to be hosted on Google’s App Engine, that means in the Google cloud.
Rather than using a dedicated MOOC platform, you can use a standard learning management system such as Moodle and maybe dress up the user interface. This is what the German platform mooin has implemented. And finally, even blog software such as WordPress will do, possibly if you add some functionality for quizzes and other MOOC functionality. There is a number of appropriate extensions to WordPress. Most of these do not come for free, however.
Web mashups for MOOCs
In this section, some ideas on how to mash up web services rather than using a platform for MOOCs are presented.
If you take this idea to the extreme, you can have one central hub, an “information desk”, so to speak, that points to video platforms, discussion platforms, shared documents, scheduled or unscheduled video conferences etc., all of them possibly resting on different servers in the cloud. These services out there
in the cloud can be integrated to different degrees.
A much more lightweight approach to integration is linking. In the extreme case, you would just be providing a list of URLs, which may be distracting or even confusing for many participants. From the viewpoint of the learner, however, this type of arrangement may be great for a personal learning environment, the idea being that the learner has his or her own collections of search engines, collaboration tools, etc.
The most prominent example of a MOOC run without a central platform may be CCK08 “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge”, which is regarded as the first cMOOC in history. In this case, the hub was an RSS aggregator that collected the updates from blogs, from Twitter, from wikis, from Moodle and whatsoever, and presented them to the participants as an RSS feed. The participants then use an RSS reader – for instance, most e-mail software will do – to get an up-to-date list of all those things that have happened out there on the internet. “RSS” stands for “really simple syndication” or “rich site summary”. An RSS feed is a way to publish updates. The “Mechanical MOOC” of the Peer-to-Peer University simply used mass e-mail rather than RSS feeds. The Mechanical MOOC sent out mails with lists of resources to be looked at, with lists of problems, with points to discuss, and so on.
To run a MOOC without a central platform, in the link-type approach, you need some sort of hub. Nowadays, RSS is a out of fashion but still works, for instance with aggregators such as ChimpFeedr. You could use a blog site as the center of your MOOC. And then, there are lots of social networks that can be used to create some sort of heartbeat for the MOOC.
Once the central hub is in place, the next vital question is where to put the videos, simply due to the bandwidth they consume. For narrated PowerPoint slides you can get away with 1 MB per minute or less, but the more details and the more motion you show, the higher the data rates, possibly not only 10 MB per minute, but even 50 MB per minute. The more compression you are using, the lower the data rate but the larger the amount of artifacts. The first thing that you may notice in the video is blockiness. You can spot a grid of squares in the picture. And depending on your settings for audio compression, the sound may be muffled or even distorted.
Here is a back-of-the-envelope calculation: If you have 1000 viewers, everybody watching five hours of video a single time at an average rate of 5 MB per minute, then you end up with traffic of 1.5 TB, so this is akin to downloading the entire content of a modern hard drive. Hence, you may not want to put those videos onto regular web space, as strict limits to traffic and bandwidth may apply.
A standard choice is to upload videos onto YouTube. The free version of Vimeo is also interesting, but limits the number of videos that you may upload during every week. iTunes may be too much part of the Apple universe to be helpful as one component in a mashup. You also can post videos on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter. They may be hard to find on those platforms, but then again you can simply specify the links on your central hub.
If you are worried about the rights that you have to grant YouTube or other providers, or if you worried about advertisements, and if you want your users to be able to download those videos, for instance for mobile viewing, then Google Drive or Dropbox may be an option. There is one caveat, though: Dropbox has a download limit of 20GB per day; Google Drive most probably has a similar one, which is not specified exactly.
You cannot only offload videos to specialized web sites, but much of the other components of a MOOC as well:
Quizzes, which can be hosted, for instance, on learningapps.org;
A forum which can be realized, for instance, on Disqus or OpenStudy;
Collaboration tools: In the early days one used wikis; today, there are lots of options for EtherPad, including its sibling Google Docs;
Video conferencing: Google Hangouts, Skype, plus mashups that are based on Google Hangout and support managing and scheduling those conferences for learning groups;
For everybody in the STEM field, SageMath Cloud is a very interesting option. It contains collaborative math software, a collaborative TeX editor and more.
It is entirely possible to run a MOOC without paying for services and servers, services that have great user interfaces and offer great functionality. However, it may be hard to keep track of discussions. This may already happen if you have a central discussion forum plus comments on YouTube. Some sites, in particular those for discussion forums, may require a separate log-in. And finally, in a mashup it becomes hard to say what a learner has or has not accomplished. Hence, issuing a certificate may not possible.
Selecting a Platform
Criteria for selecting a platform for your MOOC
Selecting a platform may not need to be very difficult as you may be able to quickly rule out certain options based on certain requirements. However, it is important that you be aware of all potential issues in case you overlook something that later proves to be important.
The first category of criteria we will look at is under the heading of “platform functionality”, that is: does the proposed platform have all the features that you feel you need in your MOOC.
- Can the platform embed Youtube videos onto course pages? (as this looks a lot better that linking out to Youtube in a separate window)
- Can the platform handle objective tests or quizes and store the results for other uses? (controlling progress or issuing certificates)
- Does the platform facilitate Peer Assessment? (important if you want to do large scale assessment of higher order learning outcomes)
- Does the platform have discussion forums or can it allow you to link out to other services that will enable group discussion?
- Does the platform have other features that enable group work?
- Does the platform have data analytics tools that will allow you to analyse large amounts of data to identify how your course might be improved?
- Does the platform facilitate progress tracking allowing participants to see their progress easily and see what they have to do next?
- Can the platform automatically issue certificates?
- Can the platform accept payments for specific services? (e.g. personal assessment and feedback)
- Can the platform verify the identity of people taking tests?
- Do you require the platform to have significant storage?
- Does the platform have the necessary bandwidth to guarantee performance given the expected pattern of usage?
- Can users download materials from the platform so that users can view the course offline?
- Are there any restrictions on the number of users who can register?
- Does the platform have access rights for many types of users (e.g. non-editing instructor that cannot change the course, guest user that cannot participate)
- How easy is it to set up the course on the platform?
- Is the platform easy to use for the course builder and is there help available?
- Is the platform easy to use for the learner and is there orientation and help available?
- Does the learner have mobile access?
- Does it have accessibility aids for learners with impairments?
- How much will it cost you to host the course and what are the marginal costs as usage increases?
- How visible will your MOOC be on this site? (e.g. Is it hosted where people come to look for courses?)
- Are there any constraints imposed by the platform provider such as a development timeline or quality assurance requirements, not to mention intellectual property or other legal constraints?
- Is your target audience relevant to the choice of platform? (e.g. where do they tend to look for training opportunities)
Platform Selection Tool
For the Erasmus+ LoCoMoTion project we developed a simple spreadsheet tool that uses weighted scoring to allow you to list all the criteria that are relevant to you, indicate the relative importance of each, and then score each platform against each. It will calculate weighted scores for each platform. A shared version of the tool that you can copy and edit is available here  and a downloadable Excel version is available here , and you can view a video explaining its use here: https://youtu.be/ijaX3X8TyN4
It should be said that the numerical results from this tool can and should be skeptically considered. If the output is not as you expected or hoped, it may be because your inputs have not been carefully considered enough. If the tool is recommending a particular platform that you do not intuitively feel is correct, consider the reasons why you feel that way and then check:
- Do you have criteria in your list that quantify those reasons?
- Does the weighting you have given to all criteria realistically reflect the relative importance of those reasons?
This may feel like you are manipulating the results to get the platform you want, but it also helps you to analyse more carefully the exact criteria that are influencing your choice. In the end, it is up to you to be honest with yourself, even to the point of selecting a platform that you initially had discounted.