A post-mortem for the MOOC pilot

So, our first shot at MOOC support didn’t work out.  I’ve always found other people’s failures informative, so I’m going to air mine.

And to be clear, they are mine. I structured the course so that it only cost us two staff hours (as opposed to my person hours) specifically so that if we needed to pull the plug we could discuss it without people worrying that heads might need to roll.

 Why our MOOC support project didn’t fly.

First, let’s define success:

A MOOC support project would have been successful if, on a basis of staff hours spent, it was competitive with other events.  In my own branch, our children’s storytimes tally about 15 participants a staff hour, and our IT training tallies about 10 participants per staff hour. So, the face-to-face benchmark is easy to construct.

In terms of our online presence, book coasters posts have a completely different metric because they create a long-tail digital asset. To briefly explain that, imagine I spend half an hour writing book club discussion questions for “20 000 Leagues under the Sea”. This creates a post which draws views effectively until we shut down our online presence. In that case, it had a spike of views when it was first published, but since then it has averaged a couple of views a day, every day. These views (over 700 a year) dwarf the original spike of views at publication. Benchmarking by views is tough, so benchmarking by number of digital assets created is easier.

The way I set this MOOC support project up, as a proof of concept which drew on my own time rather than staff time, reduced the number of staff hours this required, and so dragged down the benchmarks. The project is, however, not getting to the point where we can justify moving staff effort from book coasters posts to MOOC-related posts.

What I could have done better, and you could learn from my experience:

First to remove an apparent point of failure from consideration. While the MOOC support project was running I was sidelined for two weeks while recovering from surgery. I don’t, however, feel this impacted on the outcome. During that time I wrote several book coasters posts, and set up a blog where some friends and I are building an imaginary museum. All of these items are pulling numbers of views which would have been sufficient for the MOOC support project to continue.

Things which I could have done better:

  • There aren’t a lot of MOOCs directly applicable to literature and reading, and so I went with the best one, but there were problems with the selection. The course had not been run before, so the information on it was promising, but scanty. Also, the FutureLearn platform is still in beta, and the tools for forming community are less impressive than in, say, the Coursera platform.
  • The MOOC I picked doesn’t create digital assets that have a long tail. Some MOOCS do. As an example, I privately participated in a Graphic Novels themed MOOC run through the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the comic I created for it draws daily views to my private blog. It’s possible to select MOOCs carefully so they create perpetual assets.
  • Members of some of the local writing groups had indicated general interest in MOOCs, but I didn’t get a specific commitment before we chose this particular one. I did some follow-up and to generalize, they thought it was an introductory course, and they’d have liked something which was set at a more experienced level, or they wanted something genre-specific. Any online forum needs a seed group, to be having active conversations, so that new people don’t feel like they are the first on the dance floor. When we set up book coasters, we used staff. For this, I hoped to use local writers and that didn’t happen because I did not get firm enough commitments. If I was doing this again, I’d use my the online community of fans of my work (with whom, as I noted, I’m currently doing collaborative non-paid art projects).
  • Several people have approached us at FTF events and indicated they were lurking on book coasters, watching what we were doing. Lurking’s great, in the sense that it translates into page views, but it’s not sufficient in terms of creating a community of support for other students. I needed to work harder to convert those people into commenters.
  • As a large library service, it’s necessary for us to plan events that are to be advertised in branches up to six months ahead. Many MOOC platforms don’t give that kind of long-term notice. That means that to advertise the MOOC, it needs to get into our electronic stream of messaging. In a really large Council, that can be difficult with a pilot program, because it competes with everything else Council wants to message. This means that the program needs to be bigger, and have a more dramatic cost of failure, to shoulder out all of our other possible messages for a particular day. I went small-scale, to test the technology and, if successful, to sell that success to people not familiar with MOOCs. What I perhaps should have done is work on a far bigger scale.
  • I set the project up in the back blocks of our online book club, but severed it from the recent post and recent comment feeds, so that it didn’t spam subscribers to the book club site. I should instead have sought permission to create a new online venue.
  • I was too modest about myself. Our library newsletter said “The co-ordinator has commercial writing experience” and what it should have said is “The co-ordinator has a quarter of a million books in print and more electronically.” Library audiences prefer the novel to any other form, and so by stressing I didn’t write novels, I thought I was just beinghonest, but did us a disservice.
  • I didn’t mention this to people who are fans of my work. Initially I intended to, but there were hurdles involved in me blurring the lines between my own writing and my role as a government employee. On one hand, my publisher controls their online fora and want that to focus on their business, and on the other, I can’t use my position as a government employee to advertise my own writing. There are ways around this problem, but if you are using an in-house author, you need to think them through carefully before the MOOC kicks off.

So, a useful experience, and one we could build from if there was a suitable MOOC being advertised on a satisfactory platform as kicking off December or later, which is effectively to say that there is no possibility of doing this again in 2014. In future years, MOOCs will become more popular, customers will be more familiar with the idea, and other libraries will run successful pilots we can emulate.  I think the technology shows a lot of promise, and I’m glad we did this, so that if the perfect MOOC comes along, we can leap on it with the voraciousness of a sabre-toothed cat.