Tell Me about You

To find ideas for effective course design, I enroll in massive open online courses (MOOCs) and review how the course site and content are created and organized. I’ve enrolled in several MOOCs over the past year or so, and I’ll admit that, just like thousands of others who have enrolled in such online courses, I often quickly stop “attending” the course. Two MOOCs have been exceptional for me, however: Dan Ariely’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior” and Larry Sabato’s “The Kennedy Half Century,” both provided through Coursera. What factors have made the difference—and are elements that online instructors would be wise to consider in creating their own courses? Both Ariely and Sabato make the courses their own not only by including engaging stories via video lectures but also by implementing life experiences in these stories. This combination of video, story, and personal experience creates an environment in which I am interested, motivated, and engaged to learn.

Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics and fascinating researcher of the same, and his course “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior” presents findings about how and why humans act irrationally. Ariely provides, largely via video lectures, some fascinating concepts, and he offers evidence through experiments his team has run. However, he doesn’t just provide recorded lectures with facts and figures. Rather, he puts himself into the lectures by telling stories about events in his own life and how these events apply to the topic. These stories typically relate to a horrific accident Ariely experienced as a teenager. However, Ariely does not include such stories as filler or for “shock effect” but, rather, for illustration and explanation. The stories do not just make the subject more interesting: they also make the topic real and applicable to our own lives.

Larry Sabato is a political scientist and analyst as well as professor of politics, and his course “The Kennedy Half Century” covers … well, you can probably figure that out. Sabato also uses video lectures for his course content, and perhaps what hooked me on this course was, in the very first week, his use of stories from his childhood. By talking about his own childhood and feelings as Kennedy came to power, I felt that I was there with him and could better comprehend the significance of it all for Catholics in the United States at the time. Even after Sabato digs in to the meat of the course and reduces the use of personal stories, he maintains a story-telling demeanor that makes the course interesting and intriguing. As someone who is by no means a history buff, my engagement in this course is a near-miracle.

Clearly, the use of video in online courses is something that every instructor needs to seriously consider to make a course more interesting and motivating. However, simply adding video isn’t enough. Instructors need to also tell stories—preferably, with reference to their own lives—to make the course come alive and make students realize that the content isn’t merely something to memorize but, rather, to explore and make significant for themselves.

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