Content: OER, Learning Kits and Course Length

Traditionally, online courses followed this very top-down, regimented formula:

But open online courses think about content a bit differently. Since your learners will be encouraged to find their own resources and interact with others, knowledge emerges organically. Here are a few ways that you can think about developing content in your course:

content slide.001.jpg

Peers co-create the content.

In the video you looked at in the last module, Jim Groom mentions that content is the “residue” of interactions in the course. What this means is that, when activities are open-ended and creative, the social interactions around them build out much of what we think of as “content” for an open course.

In another P2PU course, Rhizomatic Learning, Dave Cormier asked learners to participate in the design of the course–the community was going to decide what to learn together. After Dave “officially” stopped running the course in week 6, the course continued to evolve without him–proof of success if ever there was any.

Use openly-licensed content that already exists.

The Open Education movement and the use of Creative Commons licenses for educational content have given rise to a wealth of open educational resources. If you’d like to pull together a few foundational resources, MIT OpenCourseWare and the Saylor Foundation are both great sources for OERs you can use in your course. Don’t forget to attribute correctly.

We used openly-licensed content for our “A Gentle Introduction to Python” course, and grouped learners together around the chapters and tutorials in the main text we used. The interaction happened around the content, and it was super-nifty.

Learners can create tutorials for other learners.

Seasoned educators know that when a student teaches another student, their understanding deepens. That’s peer learning in a nutshell. You might want to prompt learners to create a “Teaching Kit” to accompany their project. For our Mozilla Webmaker course, learners created tutorials to help someone else complete the project in the future.

These teaching kits/tutorials ask learners to reflect on their project and model a “reflective practice” (mmmmm, tasty self-assessment). At the same time, learners are creating their own OERs to contributione to the wider open learning landscape.

Give Your Content a Vibe

As we mentioned earlier in this course, we create playful learning experiences that last. The wittier, chattier and more mysterious the better. We always try to strike a balance between playful language and internationalization (what’s funny in Australia might not be in Germany) but concepts that make us laugh are concepts that stick.

The Open University’s P2PU course on [“Open Research”] ( decided to deliver all of their examples through a character named “Mr. O’Pen.”

By setting a playful tone, you are modeling how easy it can be to engage the community and making your little corner of the internet a very welcoming one.

Course Length

Let’s re-think “length.” Because ideally what you are building is an online community–one that is ongoing, self-sustaining, and engaged. And in a community, you’re never really “done”. When is the last time you were done being a musician? Or a teacher? Or a writer?

When you look at your community longitudinally, it’s natural that folks are going to participate in different ways. Our fellow community-builder Alex Hillman subscribes to the 80/20 rule: your community will break down into gradations between somewhat active and most active participants:

Participation is a continuum of activity, and our data at P2PU bears that out. When looking at one of our recent P2PU courses, folks reported engaging on a pleathora of ways:

So instead of thinking about beginning and finishing, you might think about the course you are developing as an onramp to your ongoing community that lives on or somewhere else. You might run Arduino 101 every 8 weeks, but the Arduino G+ group is always there to help, and that way the expert folks can help newbies.

Some relevant data as to how to design your onborading: recent research by Martin Weller and Katy Jordan indicate that, no matter what the discipline, there seems to be a 4-week long “sweet spot” in active participation.

So the first 30 days of your course make all the difference. We’d recommend a four-week onboarding course that runs regularly as an introduction to your learning community.

Other People’s Good Ideas

Give It A Voice

python cartoon from xkcd

Image credit, xkcd

Computer Science textbooks aren’t always the most exciting learning materials in the world. But research shows that people learn better when they’re having a good experience. After some discussions, we decided that it would be good to create a character who would deliver the messages - a kind of steampunk International MOOC of Mystery. The irony was intentional - we wanted people to understand that a machine was talking to them, as if other MOOCs weren’t machines! It also allowed those who were writing the text to have a bit of fun, with an anchor for for presenting content that, if you’re not careful, can come across like different shades of eggshell paint.

P2PU, How We Made The Mechanical MOOC - Freerange Learning With a Mechanical Guide

What Does Collaborative Content Creation Look Like?

This slide deck walks through how to design activities for learners to create the content with each other. Folks were asked to design community-centered websites based on their interests. Check out all the awesome wireframes folks made!

Content is the Residue between Learners

In other words, the Internet Course, and ds106 before it, were not designed around pre-determined content, often packaged as textbooks (so much of the open education movement is still premised on this idea of the authoritative text), but rather on an open educational experience. For example, in ds106 students could choose from a series of assignments, create their own, and navigate a series of resources other shared, etc. But that wasn’t a text in any strict sense, content as a concept was far more elastic and slippery that this hulking, unmoveable metaphor of insfrastrucutre. It was constantly negotiable, remixable, and fluid in its relevance. In the Internet Course there is no pre-exisiting syllabus or readings, rather the students in the course immediately start brainstorming a set of topics and then start researching and reinforcing what was what. Content plays a crucial role, no doubt, but it’s not predetermined or pre-existing in it’s layout like this idea of infrastructure.

Jim Groom, Is Content Infrastructure or the Residue of Social Learning?

Content as Infrastructure

And finally, we have to understand that content is infrastructure to see current “open educational resources” projects and initiatives from the proper perspective. The OpenCourseWares, the Connexions, the GLOBEs, and all the other repositories of open educational resources in the world are critical infrastructure. As such, they are necessary conditions for revolutionizing education. The revolution can not happen without them. However, open content itself is by no means a sufficient condition for the revolution to succeed. So much more is needed! The list above includes only a handful of what needs to be worked on (localization, translation, low-bandwidth delivery, accreditation, degrees, certificates, support, tutors, study group locators).

David Wiley, Content as Infrastructure

Backwards Design: What Will People Learn in Your Course?

Everyone has their favorite readings, ideas and activities that they might want to pull into their courses. But designing a course is about selecting the right elements that will bring about transformation.

Start with what you want folks to know. Work backwards from there.



  1. What ideas or skills do you want students to master in your course? Make a list of 3-5.
  2. Think about what kinds of projects students might complete to show mastery of those ideas or skills. Jot down 1-2 ideas.
  3. You now have the learning outcomes for your course.

Post your learning outcomes.

Now you are ready to create (and play with) your modules!

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