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5 tips on how to teach a successful MOOC in journalism based on the Knight Center’s "Data-Driven Journalism"


Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, are still relatively new teaching formats with their own set of challenges and advantages for educators.

For Amy Schmitz Weiss, a journalism professor at San Diego State University and one of the five instructors of the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas’ MOOC “Data-Driven Journalism: The Basics,” teaching and coordinating the pioneering course was in itself a learning experience that taught her some general principles on how to organize a successful MOOC.

The five-week course began on Aug. 12 and concluded on Sep. 16, 2013. The instructors were five journalists from some of the leading news organizations in the United States: The New York Times’ Derek Willis, National Public Radio’s Jeremy Bowers, the Houston Chronicle’s Lise Olsen, ProPublica’s Sisi Wei, and Schmitz Weiss.

“Data-Driven Journalism” represented the first time Knight Center invited multiple instructors to teach one course. The results were overwhelmingly positive: more than 3,700 students from 143 countries participated in the course.

Writing for PBS’ Media Shift, Schmitz Weiss summed up her advice on teaching massive courses, concluding that an effective MOOC requires plenty of planning, teamwork and clear and abundant communication with the participants.

Here’s a summary of her five recommendations. Click here to read her full article on Media Shift’s website. 

Tip 1: Give a lot of time to planning.

Invest time in planning the course, its content and the instruction model, and consider co-teaching with other professionals, Schmitz Weiss said.

Tip 2: Prepare a detailed syllabus.

Schmitz Weiss said her team spent around two months planning out the curriculum. She suggested making these questions to guide the process:

• What subject do you want to teach?
• How do you want to teach it?
• What skills do you want them to learn?
• What knowledge do you want them to gain?
• What tools do you want them to learn?
• How will they apply what they have learned?
• Do you want them to reflect on their learning experience and in what ways?

“Creating this overall structure for the course, giving academic freedom to each of the instructors to craft their own materials for the week, and providing a detailed syllabus for the students created a strong foundation for how the MOOC course would run,” she said.

Tip 3: Launching a MOOC is a team effort. Don’t try to do it alone.

Amy Schmitz Weiss

Schmitz Weiss highly recommended finding two or three people to help you when launching a MOOC. For “Data-Driven Journalism,” the Knight Center helped Schmitz Weiss with a platform for the MOOC and personnel, including a teaching assistant, a web developer, a videographer and a logistics administrator.

“It may not be possible to have a big team to help with your MOOC, but if you can get student interns or assistants to help, it can be a great opportunity for them to learn about online learning, instructional design, and learn more about the journalism topic you will be teaching,” she said.

Tip 4: Be detailed throughout the course. Provide clear instructions.

Schmitz Weiss said to keep in mind the diversity in fields, skills and backgrounds of the students that enroll in a global MOOC. Make sure the course is as inclusive as possible and that students have all the information necessary to navigate it by a) creating a FAQ section, b) creating a “Questions for the Instructors Forum” and c) describing in detail how students should use the online learning platform.

Tip 5: Be as involved as possible.

As with the Knight Center’s other MOOCs, “Data-Driven Journalism” aimed to encourage as many interactions as possible. Schmitz Weiss offered some advice as to how to handle interactions in a massive course without it becoming overwhelming:

a) Identify a communication policy by telling students how to reach you and how quickly you can respond, b) send a greeting message at the beginning of each week and a wrap-up message at the end of them, c) incorporate multiple discussion forums for each week of the course, d) participate in the forums, e) consider other synchronous communication activities like a Google Hangout or chats, and f) use social media channels to continue the conversation. 

* Amy Schmitz Weiss is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at San Diego State University, where teaches journalism courses in basic writing and editing, multimedia, web design, data journalism, and mobile journalism. She has a PhD in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has also played an essential role in the coordination of the Knight Center's Distance Learning program since 2003.

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