Variations in Pedagogical Design of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Across Disciplines

Hedieh Najafi, Carol Rolheiser, Stian Håklev, Laurie Harrison


Given that few studies have formally examined pedagogical design considerations of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), this study explored variations in the pedagogical design of six MOOCs offered at the University of Toronto, while considering disciplinary characteristics and
expectations of each MOOC. Using a framework (Neumann et al., 2002) characterizing teaching and learning across categories of disciplines, three of the MOOCs represented social sciences and humanities, or “soft” MOOCs, while another three represented sciences, or “hard” MOOCS. We utilized a multicase study design for understanding differences and similarities across MOOCs regarding learning outcomes, assessment methods, interaction design, and curricular content. MOOC instructor interviews, MOOC curricular documents, and discussion forum data comprised the data set. Learning outcomes of the six MOOCs reflected broad cognitive competencies promoted in each MOOC, with the structure of curricular content following disciplinary expectations. The instructors of soft MOOCs adopted a spiral curriculum and created new content in response to learner contributions. Assessment methods in each MOOC aligned well with stated learning outcomes. In soft MOOCs, discussion and exposure to diverse perspectives were promoted while in hard MOOCs there was more emphasis on question and answer. This study shows disciplinary-informed variations in MOOC pedagogy, and highlights instructors’ strategies to foster disciplinary ways of knowing, skills, and practices within the parameters of a generic MOOC platform. Pedagogical approaches such as peer assessment bridged the disciplines. Suggestions for advancing research and practice related to MOOC pedagogy are also included.


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs); Pedagogical design; Disciplinary differences; MOOC pedagogy

Full Text:



Barberà, E., Layne, L., & Gunawardena, C. (2014). Designing online interaction to address disciplinary competencies: A cross-country comparison of faculty perspectives. The International Review Of Research In Open And Distributed Learning, 15(2).

Biglan, A. (1973). The characteristics of subject matter in different academic areas. Journal of Applied Psychology, 57(3), 195.

Coffrin, C., Corrin, L., de Barba, P., & Kennedy, G. (2014). Visualizing patterns of student engagement and performance in MOOCs. In proceedings of the Fourth International Conference on Learning Analytics and Knowledge (pp. 83–92). New York, NY, USA: ACM.

Cox, K., Imrie, B. W., Miller, A., & Miller, A. (2014). Student assessment in higher education: A handbook for assessing performance. London: Routledge.

Chandrasekaran, M. K., Ragupathi, K., Kan, M.-Y., & Tan, B. C. (2015). Towards feasible instructor intervention in MOOC discussion forums. Paper presented at the 36th International Conference on Information Systems, Fort Worth, TX.

Donald, J. G. (1995). Disciplinary differences in knowledge validation. New Directions for Teaching and Learning,

(64), 6-17.

Drinkwater, M. J., Gannaway, D., Sheppard, K., Davis, M. J., Wegener, M. J., Bowen, W. P., & Corney, J. F. (2014). Managing active learning processes in large first year physics classes: The advantages of an integrated approach. Teaching and Learning Inquiry: The ISSOTL Journal, 2(2), 75-90.

Fischer, G., & Wolf, K. D. (2015). What can residential, research-based universities learn about their core competencies from MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). In H. Schelhowe, M. Schaumburg, and J. Jasper (Eds.) Teaching is touching the future — Academic teaching within and across disciplines (pp. 65-

. Universitätsverlag Webler, Bielefeld

Garrison, D. R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2010). The first decade of the community of inquiry framework: A retrospective. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(1), 5-9.

Gorsky, P., Caspi, A., Antonovsky, A., Blau, I., & Mansur, A. (2010). The relationship between academic discipline and dialogic behavior in open university course forums. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 11(2), 49-72.

Hativa, N. (1997, March). Teaching in a research university: Professors’ conceptions, practices, and disciplinary differences. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. Chicago.

Jessop, T., & Maleckar, B. (2016). The influence of disciplinary assessment patterns on student learning: A comparative study. Studies in Higher Education, 41(4), 696-711.

Kizilcec, R. F., Schneider, E., Cohen, G. L., & McFarland, D. A. (2014). Encouraging forum participation in online courses with collectivist, individualist and neutral motivational framings. In U. Cress and C. D. Kloos (Eds.), EMOOCS 2014, Proceedings of the European MOOC Stakeholder Summit (pp. 80–87).

Krause, K. L. D. (2014). Challenging perspectives on learning and teaching in the disciplines: the academic voice. Studies in Higher Education, 39(1), 2-19.

Laird, T. F. N., Shoup, R., Kuh, G. D., & Schwarz, M. J. (2008). The effects of discipline on deep approaches to student learning and college outcomes. Research in Higher Education, 49(6), 469-494.

Lindblom-Ylänne, S., Trigwell, K., Nevgi, A., & Ashwin, P. (2006). How approaches to teaching are affected by discipline and teaching context. Studies in Higher education, 31(3), 285-298.

Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2007). When to jump in: The role of the instructor in online discussion forums. Computers & Education, 49(2), 193–213.

Neumann, R. (2003). A disciplinary perspective on university teaching and learning. Access and Exclusion, 2, 217-245.

Neumann, R., Parry, S., & Becher, T. (2002). Teaching and learning in their disciplinary contexts: A conceptual analysis. Studies in Higher Education, 27(4), 405-417.

Norton, L., Richardson, T. E., Hartley, J., Newstead, S., & Mayes, J. (2005). Teachers’ beliefs and intentions concerning teaching in higher education. Higher education, 50(4), 537-571.

Open U of Toronto MOOC initiative: Report on second year of activity. (2014). University of Toronto. Retrieved from:

Paré, D. E., Collimore, L.-M., Joordens, S., Rolheiser, C., Brym, R., & Gini-Newman, G. (2015). Put students’ minds together and their hearts will follow: Building a sense of community in large-sized classes via peer- and self-assessment. Toronto, ON: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Pearson, M. L.; Albon, S. P.; & Hubball, H. (2015). Case study methodology: Flexibility, rigour, and ethical considerations for the scholarship of teaching and learning. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 6(3). Article 12. Retrieved from:

Postareff, L., Virtanen, V., Katajavuori, N., & Lindblom-Ylänne, S. (2012). Academics’ conceptions of assessment and their assessment practices. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 38(3), 84-92.

Stake, R. E. (2006). Multiple case study analysis. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Swan, K., Bogle, L., Day, S., van Prooyen, T., & Richardson, J. (2014). Assessing MOOC pedagogies. World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications, 2014(1), 1018-1026.

Tomkin, J. H., & Charlevoix, D. (2014, March). Do professors matter?: Using an a/b test to evaluate the impact of instructor involvement on MOOC student outcomes. Proceedings of the first ACM Conference on Learning@ Scale Conference (pp. 71-78).

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2004). Development and use of the approaches to teaching inventory. Educational Psychology Review, 16(4), 409-424.

Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Yousef, A. M. F., Wahid, U., Chatti, M. A., Schroeder, U., & Wosnitza, M. (2015). The effect of peer assessment rubrics on learners' satisfaction and performance within a blended MOOC environment. Proceedings of the 7th International Conference on Computer Supported Education, Vol. 2 (pp. 148-159). Lisbon,




Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


Teaching & Learning Inquiry is the official journal of the
International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL)