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Options for Creating Standalone Online Courses

There are various ways an online course can be offered, with varying requirements for how the course is developed and administered.

  1. Through edX is Berkeley's nonprofit partner for delivering both free and for-pay online courses to the widest possible audience. Anyone around the world may enroll. Courses may include both free content (no tuition to the learner) and paid content (additional materials and/or opportunities to interact with Berkeley instructional staff whose costs must be covered). edX and Berkeley work together to set market-competitive prices for the paid tier.
  2. By default, edX courses do not result in Berkeley or other transferable academic credit. However, depending on the course topic, short sequences of courses may lead to a “Professional Certificate” for the learner (which generates some extra revenue for the course). Finally, edX has rolled out a new program called “MicroMasters” in which a sequence of upper-division-or-higher level online courses can potentially result in shortening time-to-degree if the student is admitted to a Masters-level degree program after completing the courses.

You can also deliver online courses through Berkeley Extension or Summer Sessions, although those offerings do not in general reach the audience that edX reaches. If you are interested in Extension or Summer offerings only, please contact Berkeley Extension directly.

The rest of this article summarizes the macroscopic level steps in adapting an existing campus course into the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) format or SPOC (Small Private Online Course, uses the same technology stack but initially customized for a smaller cohort, often as a dry-run before launching the MOOC) using the edX platform and edX/Berkeley relationship.

Getting Started: Creating a MOOC or SPOC (Small Private Online Course)

Before you start, you should “enroll” in an EdX MOOC to understand the student experience of taking such courses, since you'll be preparing your materials to match that experience. Go to and enroll for one or more courses, watch a few video segments, and try out some assessments.

  1. Create an account on account if you don't already have one (different platform than the MOOC account/login, but we encourage you to use the same username/password, and definitely use an email).
  2. All students who help create online courses should have some basic background in digital pedagogy. The Center for Teaching and Learning has created a self-paced online course we would like you to complete before you get too far in your own course design.
  3. Request access to edX Studio authoring tool by following these instructions. If you have trouble, email Laura Ingison, Berkeley's partner manager at edX.
  4. While waiting for your Studio approval (usually <1 day), take the self-service "EdX 101" course that walks you through how to create and deploy a course using EdX Studio.
  5. And/or if you prefer reading over MOOCing, read the Getting Started Guide for the edX Studio authoring tool

More Details

Adapting a polished, mature on-campus course for EdX delivery involves the following.

  1. Determine course scope and length. Shorter courses (3-7 weeks) seem to work better, so consider splitting up your on-campus course into self-contained sub-courses. An online course is organized into units; typically 1 unit can be completed in 1 week, and includes some combination of lectures, readings, homework assignment deadlines, and quizzes/exams.
    • Tip: You can also choose to create a module, which is a self-contained subset of a course that can be either publicly-available or limited access, and build your way up to a full course.
  2. Structure your lectures as self-contained segments of about 5-12 minutes of lecture delivery time. It's helpful for each segment to be accompanied by one or more interactive activities, such as graded or ungraded (self-check) questions, discussion, etc. EdX 101 (see two short-answer self-assessment questions (see Short-Answer Autograders below).
    • Tip: If you plan to deliver your lectures live rather than separately pre-recording, you can use these questions for peer instruction by giving out inexpensive colored flash cards.
  3. If you use copyrighted imagery or content in your lectures, you will need to ensure that you have the permission of the copyright owner or that your use of the materials is otherwise covered by Fair Use. (A pointer to more detailed information and how-to is coming soon.)
  4. Lecture capture. Arrange for screencast and/or video capture and postproduction of your live lectures, or if you are planning on pre-recording lectures before the course begins, identify the resources and arrangements you'll make.
  5. Autograding. Determine what kinds of machine-gradable and human-gradable assessments you will use. EdX 101 gives an overview of the options. (It's also possible to create standalone sophisticated autograders to handle arbitrary assignment types that aren't built into EdX. Ask Armando Fox if you are curious about this. Documentation pointer coming soon.)
  6. MOOC TA. Identify a teaching assistant to monitor the forums and otherwise keep an eye on the course. The first time you offer the course, expect to require 20-30 hours per week of TA time just for the MOOC (i.e., in addition to any TA resources for your concurrent on-campus course).
    • Tip: We have found that strong undergraduates who have mastered the course content do fine in this role. On subsequent MOOC offerings, you can recruit volunteers from the current cohort to help do this job for future cohorts - see below.
  7. Prerequisites and materials. Prepare a description of the course, including length of course, prerequisites, required books or other materials, and (important) approximate hours per week students should expect to spend.
    • Tip: For open-access courses, it's useful if the required material(s) are free or low cost, or if free or low-cost alternatives are available.

Best Practices and Tips

Discussion Forums

Managing forums: Supervision of the forums is a must, as minor problems can quickly escalate if left unsupervised.

First week or two: Ani Adhikari's advice is to be proactive during first couple of weeks in identifying major threads/problems on the forums and systematically addressing - for example, you could do a general post stating which questions you intend to address. Ani found that once students realize someone is listening, the forums quiet down and the posts are about the material.

Anonymous posting: We suggest you disable anonymous posting in the forums. Others have found that anonymity can create a toxic atmosphere in which a few trolls/griefers can post without accountability.

Trolls and griefers: There will be some even if non-anonymous. Don't get drawn in to such discussions. Clamp down on uncivil behavior; the course has UC Berkeley's name on it, so apply the standards you'd apply in your classroom discussions. You can ban problem students permanently if they cannot be managed.

  • The first time around you will need one or more Berkeley students to monitor the forums. Remember MOOC students span all timezones so checks need to be more than once a day.
  • At the end of your first successful MOOC offering, consider emailing all the enrolled students (this is a function within Studio) and solicit volunteers to be Community TA's the next time around, with a part-time (8-10 hours/week) Berkeley undergraduate who has done well in the course to supervise and coordinate the Community TA's so there is somewhat even coverage.
  • Here are some great tips for forum moderators, including Community TA's.

Integrating Piazza: If using edX materials as a SPOC for a Berkeley course, many Berkeley courses have “standardized” on the Piazza forums. Here are instructions for Integrating Piazza forums into your edX SPOC.

Video lectures

Keep them short: Study after study has demonstrated that online learners consume short “lecturelets” (6-12 minutes) very effectively, and long ones (60-90 min) not effectively. Unless you specifically planned your long lectures as sequences of short topics with clear “cut points”, simply chopping them up may not yield good results. In other words, don't assume that your captured live lectures are necessarily a good starting point for a standalone online course.

Best practice for Berkeley MOOCs is short lecture segments interspersed with self-check (multiple-choice or short-answer or numeric-answer) questions. Unless there’s very good reasons not to, we will insist on this best practice when new MOOCs are created that will be public-facing.

Some have reported that going beyond “passive” PowerPoint slides (in live as well as captured lectures) improves student engagement. Here are some possible approaches to try.


Courseware: Students will have a wide range of system types and capabilities, especially in developing world, so you can't expect a minimum standard computer configuration. Software installation is painful in the best cases, so:

  • Make courseware available as a service accessible via a Web browser, if you can.
  • If not, create a virtual machine (VM) image that students can either deploy on their own computer using a free hypervisor like VirtualBox, or can deploy in Amazon's EC2 cloud. (For the latter, they'll either need to pay for cycles or use the free “micro” tier, which is VERY underpowered for anything more compute-bound than compiling and running very simple programs.) The MOOCLab can point you to technical help for this.

Course materials and accessibility

Although you can upload most files directly into Studio, and you can create 'static' HTML pages and even online textbooks in Studio, you may choose to also distribute course materials through other sites such as Google Docs for reasons of your own. If so, keep in mind:

Accessibility: Anything made publicly available (i.e. to people other than Berkeley students) must pass an accessibility review by BRCOE. ETS has guidelines and step-by-step guides for either doing this yourself (with a combination of free tools and manual reviewing/editing) or having campus vendor 3Play Media do it for about $2.05 per minute with 3-4 day turnaround. (We are working on other possible solution that may enable volunteers to caption videos. Stay tuned.)

It's easier if you think about accessibility from the moment you start creating assets. Here are some useful starting points:

For both screencast and live video capture, you must be careful not to use images or other content that is copyrighted unless the content license specifically says you can.

In general you cannot distribute materials (including showing them in captured videos) for which you don't own the copyright without getting specific permission from the copyright holder (unless the material is explicitly in the public domain or licensed under a type of license that permits redistribution).

While there are fair-use exemptions when distributing certain materials in campus classes, these exemptions often do not apply for MOOCs or for distributing materials outside of your brick-and-mortar classroom, and proceeding without permissions puts you and the University at legal risk..See Copyright and Trademark Issues for help and consultations.

Similarly, if your course uses other copyrighted material such as software, the conditions that govern whether you can use it in a Berkeley classroom are different from those that govern whether MOOC students outside Berkeley are allowed to use it.

Below is a link to helpful folks in the UC Berkeley Libraries who can advise on specific scenarios, but before you object, let me bust some myths:

  • Fallacy: because we are using these in a lecture (educational) setting, we're protected by fair use. Fact: while there are definitely Fair Use exceptions that apply, they are narrower than most people believe. This excellent Wikipedia article summarizes it pretty well, including the fact that fair use as it applies to trademarks is different from fair use as it applies to copyrighted works.
  • Fallacy: because we're not making money from the use of the content, we're protected by fair use. Fact: Copyright restrictions are orthogonal to whether you're making money from the content. Fair use considers many factors, of which this is just one.
  • Fallacy: if it's on the Web (ie found by Google Images), I can use it. Fact: putting something on the public internet doesn't weaken its copyright protection in any way.
  • Fallacy: because Berkeley has a campus-wide site license to the materials (for example, the ACM Digital Library online), any “Berkeley-stewarded” use of the materials for an educational purpose is OK. Fact: Such licenses are usually quite restrictive about who may use the material and under what conditions, and MOOC-related expansions of the use cases are almost certainly excluded.

Content that is probably OK:

  • Content on Wikipedia and in the Wikimedia Commons can generally be used as long as you attribute where you got it from. Read the license on the page containing the content to be sure.
  • Microsoft Office comes with a clip art library whose license expressly allows reuse.
  • Content you've redrawn or created yourself is of course OK.
  • Clip art or stock images or clips purchased from commercial sites setup for this purpose are OK, since such sites usually exist expressly to allow you to pay for content which you can then reuse.

To learn more, or consult with an expert regarding a particular scenario, contact Cody Hennesy in the UC Berkeley Libraries.

Redundancy: If you use external sites such as Google Docs for handouts, consider also putting them on a second site (eg Dropbox), not just due to possible site failures (rare) but because network paths to different services may be dramatically different in different countries. Other examples: YouTube, back up with Vimeo; Github gists, back up with Pastebin; Google Docs, backup with Dropbox; etc.

Distribution: Once a Google Doc is out there, it's out there forever. If you try to remove access from it, future students will send you 'share' requests. There's a particular risk if the document is a homework assignment that is subsequently revised: eager students may stumble across the old document and try to do the old assignment. So be sure to delete or make private any such documents when the course ends.

Assessments and autograding

How will assessments be graded? For a SPOC, manual grading may be fine, but for a MOOC you must think about “gradability” from the start. Some possible options include:

  1. Autograding (built-in): edX supports a number of question types that can be automatically graded, including multiple-choice, short-answer, numerical answer, equation answer, and many, many others.
  2. Autograding (custom): You can also create custom server-side code to autograde arbitrary questions, though this requires significant engineering effort.
  3. Peer grading: edX has facilities for doing this; the instructor specifies the rubric that peers will use for grading (“2 points if student mentions x”), as well as constraints on the grading relationships (e.g. “take the average or median of the scores of N peers”) and participation (“student must grade the work of at least N peers before they can see their own grade”). However, peer grading may not be practical in a self-paced course if there isn’t enough critical mass of students available to do it. We only recommend doing this if you are running a synchronous, non-self-paced course in which there are good pedagogical reasons for peer grading. In other words: this is not a shortcut/substitute for manual grading or autograding.
  4. Self grading: the course materials include answer keys, and students check their own work. This option is OK, but prevents the course from being offered for any sort of certificate, and therefore from generating any revenue.

Assessments for Verified or Credit-Pathway Courses

If your MOOC is part of a MicroMasters or other program where course completion is high-stakes, consider using any or all of the following techniques for your assessments, which you can remember with the acronym TRAP:

  • Timed exams - once student starts a single-attempt exam, must complete the whole thing within a time limit
  • Randomized questions - edX has facilities for randomizing question choices so different students get slightly different versions of questions
  • Alternative content - if your course has both a non-verified and a verified/credit-pathway/paid offering, an alternative to randomizing is to use different (static) sets of questions for each. This defeats the cheating technique wherein a student has two accounts, using the free account to “harvest” correct answers and then populating the verified/paid account.
  • Proctored - edX has asynchronous proctoring (login required to view video) as an additional check on integrity.

Others' best practices

  • This blog by 10gen, a technology company with whom EdX partners, gives their best practices for creating internal MOOCs for their employees.
adapting_an_existing_on-campus_course_for_berkeleyx.txt · Last modified: 2018/02/28 17:02 (external edit)