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5 Tips From a MOOC Producer

It was the second Google Hangout On Air broadcast for the “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education.” Professors and students at three universities—Duke, Stanford, and the University of California at Santa Barbara—were engaged in conversation while dozens of viewers watched, asking questions in the Google Hangout and in the MOOC forums and live-tweeting the session. Seven minutes in, without warning, Google Hangout stopped recording and broadcasting. Viewers were left with blank screens, and there was no way to show the session later … and the seconds were ticking past. A quick Google search offered no solutions, and the interface was not responding. What to do?

This was precisely my situation four weeks ago. Here’s what I did. First, the audience: I posted to the Google Hangout page that we were having technical difficulties. Two students started posting updates in Twitter and the forums. Google Hangout would not restart the broadcast, but I could save the recording. I retrieved a video camera, a tripod, a microphone, and a pile of extension cords. In less than five minutes, we were recording. Although we couldn’t broadcast, we could at least let the audience know that we would publish the video later.

At that moment, I realized that producing a MOOC could be just as educational as participating in one. Here are some of the things I’ve learned as the producer of “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education”:

1. There is always a work-around. The malfunction of the Google Hangout wasn’t the first time we had to improvise during the production of the MOOC. It’s easy to get hung up on technology glitches and problems that will inevitably occur. Rather than focusing on the tools and methods, focus on what you need to accomplish. There are always multiple ways to get there, even if not all of the solutions are perfect.

2. You can never have too many cords. It’s easy to take a studio for granted, even if it is in an office. There are plenty of power outlets, and the lights, sounds, and backgrounds are easily managed. The first two weeks of MOOC filming required merely a webcam, a USB microphone, and some extra lighting. When we decided to go on a field trip to Washington, D.C., things got more complicated. Our entire in-the-field setup consisted of a camcorder with a 20-minute battery and a 48-inch power cord, a single-mic lavalier microphone, and three filming lamps.

The problem was that we had no flexibility outside a studio. So three days before the trip, I express-ordered a 15-foot power cord, a power strip, three more microphones, XLR extension cords with special converters, lots of extra batteries, and an invaluable cord-organizer case. For less than $100, I was able to shoot interviews on top of clock towers, in food-court atriums, and in people’s homes. Cords gave me the ability to bring my equipment to the action.

Filming setup in the atrium of the Old Post Office Pavilion, in Washington.

3. When in doubt, press all the buttons. All software and equipment—whether it is a new camcorder, editing equipment, or an online tool or platform—was designed with the user in mind. All of those buttons and tabs and drop-down menus are there because they do something. When you have a problem or you want your system to do something different, then you need to push a different button. You are far more likely to discover a solution to your problem or a new useful feature than you are to “ruin it” or “break” something. Be brave. Be curious. Push the buttons. (Just make sure to save the original document first.)

4. MOOCs are a team sport. When a viewer watches a MOOC, she will see only the professor and other students in the forums. It’s easy to forget that there are dozens of people who help produce it.

Similarly, it is easy for MOOC producers to focus on only their own role and forget they are part of a team. In my opening example, the students updated Twitter and the MOOC forums while I set up the video camera. While producing the MOOC, we relied on the assistance of Coursera representatives, professional videographers, numerous guest speakers and their staffs, coordinators for offsite filming locations, and even colleagues who helped set up lighting and hold cue cards. For MOOCs, the team also includes institutional administrators, consultants, accountants, software developers, and web designers.

You’re never alone when producing a MOOC. Rely on the expertise of others, and ask for help, even if you don’t think you need it.

5. It’s easier than you think. For the last week of the MOOC, we interviewed Dennis Quaintance, chief executive of Quaintance-Weaver Restaurants & Hotels. His team learned how to do sustainable building online and, together, designed and built the first LEED-Platinum Certified hotel, the Proximity Hotel. Afterward, he commented that “it wasn’t that hard.” And then he added, “And that makes you wonder, if it’s not that hard, why don’t most people try to make a difference?”

That applies to producing MOOCs as well. You may have heard that MOOCs take hundreds of hours to produce. That’s true. And there’s a lot to learn to produce a MOOC. When you start out, it seems positively insurmountable. It’s not. Take one thing at a time, pay attention to the details, and make sure to give yourself room to experiment. And, most of all, remember the end you are trying to achieve. If changing higher education is the goal, then a MOOC that engages more than 18,000 people is worth the effort.

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