How are MOOCs organized?

A real-time chronicle of a seasoned professor who is about to give his second massively open online course.

With exactly one week to go before the second edition of my MOOC Introduction to Mathematical Thinking goes live, my TA and I have been working feverishly to get everything ready — a task far more complex and time consuming than preparing for a traditional (physical) course. (If you have been following this blog since I launched it last summer, when I started to plan my first edition of the course, you likely have some idea of the complexities involved.)

MOOCs continue to be in the news. Just last week, NBC-tv used my course as an illustration in a news story (4 min 21 secs) they ran about the American Council on Education’s recommendation that some Coursera MOOCs be considered eligible to receive college credit.

But what exactly is a MOOC and how are they organized? The easiest way to find out is to simply sign up for one or more and take a look. They are all free (at least, all the ones everyone is talking about are free), and there is no requirement to do any more than hang around online and see what is going on. If you do that, you’ll find that they all exhibit some differences from one another, as well as many similarities. Moreover, almost everyone giving a MOOC approaches it as an experiment, so they often change from one edition to the next.

Taking my own MOOC as an illustration, when the course website opens to registered students next weekend (Saturday March 2), they will initially find themselves in a website populated with several pages of information about the course structure, together with a bit of background information relevant to the course content, but none of the lectures, assignments, quizzes, problem sets, or tutorials will be available. Those are released at specified times throughout the ten weeks the course will run, starting with Lecture 1 on March 4.

For a sample of a lecture, see this short clip (7min 16 sec) from Lecture 1 on YouTube. (But note that Coursera videos are much higher resolution than YouTube, so the YouTube video is hard to follow — it’s purely an illustration of the overall format of the lectures.)

One of the main informational pages the students will see describes the various components of the course. Here, verbatim, are the contents of that page.

Basic elements of the course

Consult the Daily timetable (see link on left) on a regular basis to see what is due at any one time.

1. Lectures – videos presented by the instructor.
2. In-lecture quizzes – simple multiple-choice questions that stop the lecture, designed to assist you in pacing and monitoring your progress.
3. Assignment sheets (one for each lecture) – downloadable PDF files to work through in your own time at your own pace, ideally in collaboration with other students. Not graded.
4. Problem sets (one a week for weeks 1 through 8) – in-depth problems like those on the assignment, but with a deadline for submitting your answers (in a multiple choice format). Machine graded.
5. Tutorial sessions – the instructor provides (video) comments and answers to some of the previous week’s assignment problems.
6. Reading assignments – downloadable PDFs files providing important background information.
7. Final exam – a downloadable PDF file that you will have one week to complete before participating in a peer review process. Required to be eligible for a grade of completion with distinction.


Lecture videos are released at 10:00AM US-PDT on Wednesdays. (Weeks 1 and 2 are slightly different, with lectures released on Monday and Wednesday.) Each lecture comprises one or two videos, with each video of length 25 to 35 minutes if played straight through. Completing the embedded progress quizzes will extend the total duration of a video-play by a few minutes, and you will likely want to stop the playback several times for reflection, and sometimes you will want to repeat a section, perhaps more than once. So you can expect to spend between one and two hours going through each lecture, occasionally perhaps more.

The lecture videos are not carefully crafted, heavily edited productions. If you want a polished presentation of the course material, you can read the course textbook. My goal with the lectures is to provide as best I can the experience of sitting alongside me as we work through material together. And, guess what, I often make mistakes, and sometimes mis-speak. I want to dispel any misconception that mathematicians are people who generate perfect logical arguments all the time. We’re not. We just keep going until we get it right.

In-lecture quizzes (Ungraded)

Each lecture is broken up by short multiple-choice “progress quizzes”. The vast majority of these in-lecture quizzes are essentially punctuation, providing a means for you to check that you are sufficiently engaged with the material.

Slightly modified versions of the quizzes will also be released as standalones at the same time as the lecture goes live, so if you do not have a good broadband connection and have to download the lecture videos to watch offline, you can still take the quizzes. In which case, you should do so as close in time to viewing the lecture as possible, to ensure gaining maximim benefit from the quizzes in monitoring your progress. The standalone quizzes are grouped according to lecture.

Completion of all the quizzes is a requirement (along with watching all the lectures) for official completion of the course, but we do not record your quiz scores, so quiz performance does not directly affect your final grade. If you complete the quizzes while watching the lecture (the strongly preferred method, as it helps you monitor your progress in mastering the material), you do not need to complete the standalone versions.

BTW, you may notice that it is possible to speed up video replay up to a factor of double speed. This can be a useful device when watching a video a second or third time. Going beyond 1.50 speed, however, can sometimes lead to problems with the display of the quizzes (besides making me sound like a chipmunk (though some may find that an enhancement).

Course assignments (Self graded)

An assignment will be released at the end of each lecture, as a downloadable PDF file. The assignment is intended to guide understanding of what has been learned. Worked solutions to problems from the assignments will be demonstrated (video) or distributed (PDFs) in a tutorial session released the Monday following the lecture (so in Weeks 2 through 9). The tutorial sessions will be released at 10:00AM US-PDT.

Working on these assignment problems forms the heart of the learning process in this course. You are strongly urged to form or join a study group, discuss the assignment problems with others in the group, and share your work with them. You should also arrange to assess one another’s answers. A structured form of peer review will be used for the final exam, when you will be graded by, and grade the work of, other students, randomly (and blindly) assigned, so it will help to familiarize yourself beforehand with the process of examining the work of others and providing (constructive) feedback.

Problem Sets (Machine graded)

Each Wednesday (in weeks 1 thtough 8), following the lecture, a for-credit Problem Set will be posted, with submission due by 9:00AM US-PDT the following Monday. The scores on these problem sets will count toward the course grade. Though the Problem Set has a multiple-choice quiz format, these questions are not the kind you can answer on the spot (unlike most of the in-lecture quizzes). You will need to spend some time working on them before entering your answers.

Though you are strongly encouraged to work with others on understanding the lecture material and attempting the regular assignments, the intention is that you work alone on the Problem Sets, which are designed to give you and us feedback on how you are progressing.

Tutorial sessions

The tutorial sessions are more than mere presentations of solutions to the previous week’s assignments and problem session. They are really lectures based on problems that the student has already attempted. You can expect to expand your knowledge of the course material beyond the lectures. Not all questions on the assignments sheets and problem set will be considered in the tutorial session.

Final exam (Peer graded)

Though the lectures end after week 8 (apart from a tutorial on the final assignment), the final two weeks are intended to be highly active ones for any students seeking a grade of distinction, with considerable activity online in the various forums and discussion groups. This is when you are supposed to help one another make sense of everything.

At the start of week 9, an open-book exam will be released, to be completed by the end of the week. Completed exams will have to be uploaded as either images (or scanned PDFs) though students sufficiently familiar with TeX have an option of keyboard entry on the site. The exam will be graded during week 10 by a calibrated peer review system. The exam will be based on material covered in the entire course.

As with the weekly Problem Sets, the intention is that you work alone in completing the final exam.

NOTE: The process of peer reviewing the work of others (throughout the course, not just in the final exam) is intended to be a significant part of the learning experience and participating in the formal peer review procedure for the final exam is a requirement for getting a grade of distinction. In principle, it is during week 10 that stronger students will make cognitive breakthroughs. (Many of today’s professors really started to understand mathematics when, as graduate student TAs, they first helped others learn it!)

Course completion and final grade

There are two final course grades: “completion” and “completion with distinction”. Completion requires viewing all the lectures and completing all the (in-lecture) quizzes and the weekly problem sets. Distinction depends on the scores in the problem sets and the result of the final exam.


The pacing of the lecture releases is designed to help you maintain a steady pace. At high school, you probably learned that success in mathematics comes from working quickly (and alone) and getting to the right answer as efficiently as possible. This course is about learning to think a certain way – the focus is on the process not the product. You will need time to understand and assimilate new ideas. Particularly if you were a whiz at high-school math, you will need to slow down, and to learn to think and reflect (and ideally discuss with others) before jumping in and doing. A steady pace involving some period of time each day is far better than an all-nighter just before a Problem Set is due.

Keeping track

Consult the Daily timetable on the website on a regular basis to see what is due.


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12 Responses to “How are MOOCs organized?”

  1. 1 Thomas McGarey February 24, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Thanks for the info. Looking forward to the course.

  2. 2 Muvaffak GOZAYDIN February 24, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Thanks Keith

    Is this course same as the on campus course ?

    Assume you have right to give credit for this course, would you give credits for this course ?

    • 3 Keith Devlin February 24, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      It is essentially the first part of a course I have given many times in the past (including at Stanford), but I am not currently teaching it in physical format.

  3. 4 April Harding (@april_harding) February 24, 2013 at 1:57 pm

    Prof Devlin,
    This is extremely helpful information for the many people who are or will be preparing their first MOOC.To my knowledge, none of the other instructors for the first-gen Coursera MOOCs have been sharing their experiences and insights in an open format.

    Quick query: have you had any opportunities to interact with instructors of other first-gen MOOCs to compare experiences and insights? In general? Or, with others using the Coursera platform?
    Clearly, getting this information to flow as quickly as possible can help the second-generation of courses to be better than the first (or, at least to make new mistakes, which is always a worthy goal).

    I enrolled in two courses (on the Coursera platform) which launched January 28: the E-learning and Digital Culture and the Online Course Planning and Prep courses. The first course was well-designed. The second, as you likely know, was seriously flawed, and closed. Clearly the Digital Culture team had integrated insights from the earlier courses, while the Online Course course did not. It made me wonder what resources are available (from Coursera or otherwise) to help instructors benefit from what has been learned from the earlier courses – besides reading your blogs, and listening to your podcasts of course.

    • 5 Keith Devlin February 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm

      I have certainly interacted with other Stanford professors who have given MOOCs, and Coursera provides a MOOC platform for all instructors and their assistants to communicate and learn from one another. We are all learning as we go along!

  4. 6 Danny Dishon February 24, 2013 at 2:33 pm

    Wow. Seems like a well organized class!! I look forward to coming back to mathematical reasoning after spending the last 37 years writing software. Should be fun!!

  5. 7 Nadine February 24, 2013 at 4:01 pm

    Thank you for the info. Very excited to get started.

  6. 8 Ivan Perez February 26, 2013 at 1:52 am

    The info is very good, Thanks you all! See you next week

  7. 9 Nayda Cepeda March 3, 2013 at 9:21 pm

    Im spanish speaker. I want to try de course. Its a challege for me.

  8. 11 Amit Sharma March 12, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Hello Sir,
    I find this course very interesting for me.
    I was reading about mathematics and its history. I searched at various places like, wikipedia etc. I also read the recommended background readings pdfs of your course. In a section about the history of mathematics, the book mentions about the Babylonian mathematics and Egyptian mathematics. But it also says that others civilizations also developed mathematics but they don’t have much effect on modern mathematics. Here I feel its worth mentioning about the Indian mathematics also.
    Here is a part of wikipedia article about Indian mathematics:

    “The decimal number system in use today[3] was first recorded in Indian mathematics.[4] Indian mathematicians made early contributions to the study of the concept of zero as a number,[5] negative numbers,[6] arithmetic, and algebra.[7] In addition, trigonometry[8] was further advanced in India, and, in particular, the modern definitions of sine and cosine were developed there.[9] These mathematical concepts were transmitted to the Middle East, China, and Europe[7] and led to further developments that now form the foundations of many areas of mathematics.”

    Thank you.

    • 12 Keith Devlin March 20, 2013 at 6:33 pm

      Amit, I’m glad you are finding the course of interest, but I’m note sure why you did not view any of the almost twelve hours of videos that discuss the nature, history, and uses of mathematics, since that is where you would find discussion of the various historical threads that led to modern mathematics. The Introduction to Mathematical Thinking course itself was about a contemporary way of thinking, not the history of mathematics, so naturally there was no more than occasional, brief, passing references to history. All I can do in a MOOC is make the information available, I cannot direct anyone to view or read it. :-( I hope you continue to enjoy the course.

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I'm Dr. Keith Devlin, a mathematician at Stanford University. I gave my first free, open, online math course in fall 2012, and have been offering it twice a year since then. This blog chronicles my experiences as they happen.

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