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Writing-Related PD Through MOOCs

Written by: Betsy Gilliland
Published on: Jul 21, 2021

Online Course
Image credit: Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock

With summer holidays approaching for many of us in the northern hemisphere, you may be looking for professional development (PD) opportunities to improve your own writing or increase your knowledge of how to teach writing. In most of the world, however, we are still stuck at home and not able to travel to conferences or workshops. In this post, I discuss one form of online PD, MOOCs.

What Is a MOOC?

MOOCs have been around in one form or another for more than 20 years, but have really only taken off in the last decade. The acronym stands for massive open online courses, and each of these words reveals an important characteristic of the format:

  • Massive: There are usually thousands of students enrolled in a single course.
  • Open: Anyone can enroll without applying for admission to an institution.
  • Online: The courses are entirely delivered over the internet, almost or entirely asynchronously.
  • Course: No matter the topic, these are all designed for learning purposes and include traditional features of academic courses, such as readings, lectures, and quizzes.

MOOCs are usually designed by academic or professional institutions, though some courses are designed by individual teachers. Though they are technically open to anyone who wants to enroll, most are also designed for a particular student audience, such as high school age English language learners or experienced language teachers. Because courses are massive, there is minimal interaction between the students and the instructor, although discussion boards allow students to interact with each other, and instructors or facilitators may post from time to time. The primary means of instruction are video lectures and reading texts, followed by auto-graded activities and quizzes.

Platforms With Writing-Related MOOCs

The following list includes links to some current writing-related MOOC courses that look relevant to English language teachers and their students. I cannot speak to their individual quality or content. Check out the tips at the end of this post for selecting and persisting in MOOCs.

  • Online Professional English Network (OPEN) is run by the U.S. Department of State as part of their English language teaching outreach. Courses in the OPEN series are all free of charge and run regularly and use entirely open educational resources (OER) resources, which means that you can reuse and modify them to suit your own context. One upcoming course of interest to college and university teachers and administrators is “Establishing Academic Writing Centers at International Higher Education Institutions.” There are also OPEN courses aimed at learners, such as “English for Journalism” and “English for Business and Entrepreneurship,” both of which include instruction in writing.
  • The British Council also runs MOOCs about English language teaching, although it appears that there are no courses specifically about teaching writing. Nevertheless, they do cover language assessment and teaching in specific contexts (young learners, workplace, university), which probably include writing. Courses are hosted on Futurelearn and include fees for premium access.
  • Futurelearn hosts courses mostly developed by British and Australian universities, as well as other institutions. Basic course access is free, but there are charges for tests and permanent access to materials. Writing-related courses for English learners include “A Beginner’s Guide to Writing in English for University Study” from the University of Reading and “How to Succeed at Writing Applications” from the University of Sheffield.
  • Coursera courses are designed by faculty from major universities around the world. Free audit enrollment does not allow participation in graded tests and quizzes, which can be accessed for a fee. Writing-related courses include “IELTS Writing Section Skills Mastery” from the University of California, Irvine and “Writing in the Sciences” from Stanford University.
  • EdX is similar to Coursera, with courses designed by faculty from major world universities. Free auditor enrollment allows participation in graded quizzes but not unit tests, and you only get a few months access to the course materials (vs. unlimited access for paid enrollment). Just a few of the EdX courses that appear in a search for “writing”:
  • Udemy has hundreds of writing-related courses for English learners at all levels, including courses specifically about preparing for the writing section of the IELTS exam. Other courses (not specifically for English learners) focus on writing for business and writing fiction. The platform charges for access to all courses. Instructors are not necessarily affiliated with any universities or other institutions.

Tips for Choosing a MOOC

Not all MOOCs are created equal, so it is worth shopping around unless you are looking for a very specific course. Here are some things to think about as you browse:

  • Are you willing to pay?
    • No: Most platforms like Coursera and EdX allow auditing, which means you get access to the course materials but may not have the option to take tests. OPEN MOOCs are entirely free.
    • Yes: You can get complete access and a completion certificate. Depending on how much the platform charges, however, you may want to consider taking a smaller access course such as those offered by TESOL, where you can get more personalized feedback and access to the instructors.
  • How much time do you have?
    • MOOCs vary in length from a few modules that may only take a week or two to nearly semester-long courses. The syllabus or overview is usually available on the course information page. The page may indicate approximate time commitment per module or week.
    • Some courses have set due dates for assignments, whereas other courses allow self-pacing within a total time frame.
  • Who do you want to interact with?
    • Some MOOCs are intended for learners at a particular level. If you are not at that level, you may find the discussions and peer feedback unfulfilling.
    • Some MOOCs have established facilitators (e.g., OPEN MOOCs have alumni facilitators) who monitor discussions and provide additional resources.

Tips for Making the Most of a MOOC

Once you’ve chosen a MOOC, think about how you can make the most of the experience. Like any course, you may be able to coast through, but if you increase your commitment, you will likely feel more satisfied.

  • Set up a study plan. Make to-do lists and schedule time to engage with the course.
  • Establish goals for yourself. Based on the course description, decide what you hope to get out of the course and monitor whether you are making progress toward those goals.
  • Participate in discussion boards. This is usually your only opportunity to interact with other people in the course and to get human feedback.
  • Share what you are learning with colleagues or friends. Because MOOC design is primarily unidirectional (information is delivered to you), it can help to set up a study group where you can talk interactively about the course content. For PD, you may want to take the course with colleagues and apply what you are learning to your own context.
  • Download as much as you can for future reference. Even in cases where your access isn’t cut off on a date, the course may disappear from the host platform. Save your own posts and writing as well.
  • Don’t be ashamed to quit if the course is not meeting your expectations. Especially if you enrolled for free, you are better off quitting than wasting your time if you don’t see value in the course. If you did pay but have just gotten started, you may be able to get a refund. (Carefully review each platform’s policies before paying!)