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Making a MOOC: behind the scenes with educator Dr Ciarán Wallace

In this post we lift the lid on making courses with FutureLearn, interviewing educator on Irish Lives in War and Revolution, Dr. Ciarán Wallace, about his experience of making an online course.

In this post we lift the lid on making courses with FutureLearn, interviewing educator on Irish Lives in War and Revolution, Dr. Ciarán Wallace, about his experience of making an online course.

How can you teach people over the internet?

It’s a question people have been asking (and answering) for well over a decade now. And it leads to a whole host of other questions: how can traditional universities use digital tools? How can you teach subjects which rely on discussion online? Can online learning ever match up to learning in the classroom? How can educators work with digital companies to create new types of learning?

At FutureLearn we regularly grapple with these questions, as do the educators we work with. That’s why today we’re sharing one educator’s experience of creating a MOOC (or as we prefer to call it – free online course) and some of the answers he discovered along the way.

FutureLearn (FL): What made you decide to offer the Irish Lives in War and Revolution course online?

Dr. Ciarán Wallace (CW): In our case, we were told to develop a MOOC. We were already working on a digital teaching resource, and the partnership with FutureLearn came at around the same time.

Our course team was completely non-techy: we didn’t know what a MOOC was. Some of us didn’t even use PowerPoint when teaching. We wouldn’t have done anything like this before; we were the guinea pigs.


We looked at existing MOOCs to figure out how we were going to approach our course. We realised two things:

1. We wanted to avoid the ‘talking head’ video we saw elsewhere.

2. Our area, the humanities, was very different from engineering or CPD, which were fairly dominant in MOOCs. In the humanities there are no ‘right answers’. Our pedagogy is different, and tools ready-made for other fields might not be as applicable to ours.

FL: What were the advantages and challenges of teaching a MOOC vs. an in-person class?

CW: One challenge was how much information to give learners in the course. How deep can you go in 4 to 8 weeks? We decided to cover a 10-year period in depth, rather than e.g. a century in less detail.

We also had to decide how to design our videos: should we use individual stories as hooks, or stick to broad overviews? Editing down to a 3-4 minute video is very hard. We had to get the tone of voice right, and we wanted to the video to include important visual materials such as photographs and historical footage – again, not just a talking head.

In our pedagogy, we reverted to how we might teach in a small group setting – a seminar or a tutorial. It’s the same skillset. As an educator, you’re not abandoning your existing teaching experience when you design a MOOC.

For example, Anne Dolan, another educator in the team, takes her classroom students to the National Archives of Ireland when she teaches, and lets them loose – what will they discover? This is seen as exciting, and somewhat risky but it works. We did the same thing on the course: here are the online archives, now go!

In fact, the MOOC has some advantages over a tutorial. First, you aren’t limited by 50 minutes and a discussion of a single document. The online format stretches time – you can give learners more opportunities to take their learning forward. Second, learners are constantly discussing, and even the ‘lurkers’ (those learners observing the discussion but not joining in) are reading the comments. These lurkers see a much wider range of voices than, for instance, a quiet student would hear in a traditional tutorial. And that may eventually encourage them to join the conversation.


We also found that the discussions on course steps were very much like a tutorial or seminar. We posed open-ended questions where there was no right or wrong answer; what mattered was that learners were talking. We kept refining these questions in the second and third runs of the course, to better encourage learners to join the conversation.

Overall, the discussions among the learners were very civil. We had been concerned about possible bullying or heated political discussions. These behaviours were minimal, in part because of the FutureLearn platform (learners use their own names and have a profile) and in part by the tone we tried to set.

As a MOOC educator, if you do step into the discussion, it can have a huge ripple effect among the thousands of learners. So we tried to make very general, reassuring comments and not step in too much.

FL: What has the impact of the course been for you as an academic?

CW: For me, the course has led to new research and research dissemination. For example, I have an article with Silvia Gallagher forthcoming based on research in the course [Gallagher, S. E. and Wallace, C. (In Press) A far cry from school history: Massive Online Open Courses as a generative source for historical research. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning].

We discovered that part of what was happening in the course comments was essentially a crowdsourcing of historical material, of personal and family stories. These comments were 10% or less of the total, but they were significant.


People were posting unpublished facts about individuals in their families, their parents and grandparents. The course was generating a public response to history, and these stories (suitably anonymised for publication) might not have come to light otherwise.

FL: What advice would you give other educators who are considering developing a MOOC?

CW: The huge bulk of the work is upfront, creating the first run of your course. After that, it’s much more light-touch, essentially it’s just management.


A lot of our colleagues were resistant to the idea of a MOOC at first. Some felt it would necessarily ‘dumb down’ the material, or that we were devaluing the work that academics do in the classroom.

We learnt that these fears were unfounded – a MOOC wasn’t what they thought it was. It’s not a replacement for a degree. Some of our learners had to drop out of college when they were younger, or had studied something else but always had an interest in history. If anything, our course increased their appetite for learning.

Want to learn more about how FutureLearn works? Check out Making FutureLearn.

Or to hear more from Dr Ciarán Wallace, join Irish Lives in War and Revolution.

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