Variations in pedagogical design of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) across disciplines


  • Hedieh Najafi University of Toronto
  • Carol Rolheiser University of Toronto
  • Stian Håklev École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne
  • Laurie Harrison University of Toronto



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


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.


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Author Biographies

Hedieh Najafi, University of Toronto

Hedieh Najafi is a researcher, Online Learning Strategies at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Carol Rolheiser, University of Toronto

Carol Rolheiser is a Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and is the Director of the Centre for Teaching Support & Innovation at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Stian Håklev, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne

Stian Håklev is a postdoctoral researcher at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne Switzerland.

Laurie Harrison, University of Toronto

Laurie Harrison is the Director, Online Learning Strategies at the University of Toronto, Canada.


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How to Cite

Najafi, Hedieh, Carol Rolheiser, Stian Håklev, and Laurie Harrison. 2017. “Variations in Pedagogical Design of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) across Disciplines”. Teaching and Learning Inquiry 5 (2):47-64.