Friday, 12 April 2013

Jack and the Giant Course - Getting a MOOC to Market

'The Only Way is Up' - © Luke Miller - Image used under a Creative Commons By Attribution  Licence 

When creating a MOOC there are several factors you have to consider, all of them eat up precious time. From the previous posts on whether we can actually do this to deciding on a platform, and pulling a team of experts together is no easy thing, and we’ve not even got on to the other M word just yet - marketing.

Marketing in the traditional sense is quite simple, you identify a target group who you think might be interested in your product and push it that way. MOOCs are quite different from that, first of all we are running three health-related courses, which naturally is of interest to a wide range of people and organisations, from the NHS to BUPA, from governing bodies to charities, from health practitioners to members of the general public, and ultimately this can be applied on a global scale. So the courses are truly global in their appeal as we are all interested in our health and that of others in some way.

The flip side is that this potentially means a lot of interested parties and individuals that you want to get the message to and as I said earlier, running a MOOC is labour intensive regardless of marketing. 

By Colin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

So with that in mind we are treating the marketing of our MOOCs like an onion, that there are many layers we need to peel back.
Firstly starting closest to home we already have a cohort of current health-research students on site, most of whom are from Africa and Asia. As we saw in Dan Smith’s post on managing participant enrolment we have managed to entice students from that part of the globe to our MOOCs. Certainly the anecdotal evidence from a lot of MOOCs is that the majority are being undertaken by people who either have a higher education background, whether as students or staff. Certainly every MOOC seems to attract students who are academic staff who are either interested in the course content or more often how the MOOC is run. The real untapped potential of MOOCs is that they begin to attract the greater numbers of students who have not attended a higher education establishment before in addition to those from parts of the world where this is much harder to attain specialist health education.

We also want our staff to enrol on the courses, whether just for the in-house pilot we plan to run ahead of the first course or as students when they are formally released. The main reasons being that they get to not only see and feel what it’s like to be in a MOOC, but to be a distance learner as some may go on to deliver learning via our various e-learning channels.

The next layers are the Faculty of Medicine of which we are part of, with over 1000 staff and several 1000 students we want them to take part in the first MOOC at the University of Sheffield. Much of this marketing will and has taken place via internal electronic mailing lists, personal contacts, our ScHARR MOOC Diary Blog and the University Learning Technology Blog. Then there is the whole University, again the courses will be publicised as previously mentioned but will also include features on our University homepage, thus taking us beyond the University firewall, which has huge potential. On campus we can employ traditional marketing methods including posters, newsletters and business cards. Whilst any colleagues travelling to conferences and events have been encouraged to take our MOOC materials with them.

It’s beyond this firewall where much of our marketing will take place and for this to happen more effectively we need champions and support beyond our MOOC team. This comes from internal experts who work in our marketing and media teams to help channel the news of our MOOCs to established contacts with national and international organisations. We are based in Sheffield, at a University that has strong ties with the local community, a community that has inequalities in the quality of health of its population. So it’s fitting that our courses, one of which is on the said topic reaches out to those with an interest in it. We plan to promote the courses to local organisations, the two large teaching hospitals, charities and individuals who will benefit from this open sharing of health education. We have good connections with the local media, from BBC Radio Sheffield to the Sheffield newspapers, who really can reach out to the local population. 

It’s at this point that a need for translation become much more important, for those of us lucky enough to have worked at an academic institution and gotten our heads around MOOCs it is all too simple to forget that to others things can get lost in translation - how many people outside of a university knows what a MOOC is? As someone who spent a lot of time reporting on council and court proceedings as a journalism student some many years ago I learned how important it was to turn council-speak and legalese into something that the person on the street could understand. Talking about MOOCs is OK, but sometimes we have to understand that not everyone knows what it is, and why it may be different from another online course that is free. By writing a simple one page ‘press release’ or offering FAQs and glossary of terms we remove much of the barriers that sometimes intimidates those who have never set foot on an academic campus.

The courses are of massive potential for the NHS, an organisation where staff often struggle to find time or funds for carrying on professional development. Reaching out to the NHS is not always that easy due to the scale of the organisation and barriers set around it, so champions are needed. As for champions they rarely come more enthusiastic or connected than health librarians with a huge network of NHS libraries to collaborate with. Libraries are often the central hub of health organisations, so are an ideal place to help spread the courses organically. 

The altruistic nature of MOOCs has been a driving force for us at ScHARR and by including the NHS as best as we can it feels we are giving something back to this important workforce. As the marketing starts to extend nationally and globally it becomes increasingly important that the duplication of effort is paid attention to. Anyone involved in running a MOOC can transmit the courses via their personal networks, and over time the need for a single uninformed message explaining in simple terms what the courses and MOOCs in general are about. The plan to explore is by collaborating with journalists, academics and established bloggers based in the health education sector by sending press packs. These packs will include short briefs on each course, something about MOOCs, and ScHARR, poster materials and business cards.

Video is also an important part of our marketing strategy and we have already recorded our first one wit Dr Angie Clonan introducing our MOOCs.

According to technology giant Cisco Systems, video is forecast to be the dominant format for mobile and computers and with YouTube uploading 72 hours of content for every hour we have understood at ScHARR for some time that video is increasingly an effective way to communicate, teach and learn.

Discussion and mailing lists may have been around for decades but still remain an important communication tool for discussing everything from health to communication. The opportunities for marketing the courses is extensive. These will include JISC mail lists, Environment Job, Charity Job email lists to name but a few.
Whilst alongside video and such as YouTube and Vimeo other social media channels are being explored. This obviously means targeting Facebook and their groups, LinkedIn, ResearchGate, Academia.Edu, Mendeley Groups, alongside other the micro-blogging giant Twitter. Already we have seen spikes in our enrollment numbers potentially attributed to the little bird and Tweets we’d posted about our MOOCs. We have already employed the #scharrmoocs hashtag via our @ScHARRsheffield and @openScHARR accounts and posted on our ScHARR Facebook pages. At the University we have been using Google Apps for Education for nearly two years now and many of the #scharrmoocs team are active on Google+ as a result sharing updates on the courses there.

The ScHARR MOOCs for this summer/autumn are all hosted on the Blackboard platform Coursesites as discussed in our second post. This brings our courses to the huge number of students already undertaking courses there. Our courses are part of the catalogue of courses hosted by other institutions that will hopefully bring additional students to our course, with the benefit of many already using the Coursesites platform previously to undertake a MOOC.

There are countless avenues for anyone starting up a MOOC and we’ve only covered a few here. It very much depends on your target audience, but the MOO in MOOC is a clue as to how you promote your course. They are potentially massive, and certainly on-line and open, so the sky is literally the limit as to how far you pitch them. The only real limit is a big one and that is resources, getting the message out there effectively is no small thing. Following up posts and mail outs and checking for responses in threads and groups could potentially take up more resources. To go back to the analogy of the title, when you do start planting the seeds you are unsure of what will grow and how big it will get. With an effective marketing plan you not only have a better chance of making your MOOC massive but you also build the networks for future courses and for established communication channels with your students that begin before and hopefully do not end ‘ever-after’ the course has finished.

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