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How do they do that?

By Martin Manjak

Building and operating a MOOC takes a team of expert professionals.

Forget the sage on the stage or guide on the side. For online learning experiences to work seamlessly for students and instructors, the team of behind-the-scenes technical experts is key. The conversation about MOOCs, or massive open online courses, frequently leaves out the cast of thousands who make the whole thing work. But those counting on MOOCs to disrupt higher education and solve the problems of cost, accessibility, retention, completion, innovation and so on, underestimate the costs of technical support at their peril. 

In New York state, State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher has committed SUNY to enrolling 100,000 students within three years in online course offerings through a program called Open SUNY. SUNY has also entered into an agreement with Coursera, one of a number of MOOC-for-profit developers.

The premise of much of this effort is that online courses, through their broad reach, electronic nature and ability to deliver content asynchronously, will, in the long run, be less expensive in providing instruction than traditional classroom-based teaching, and that savings will be passed on to students. 

Putting aside the question of pedagogical value for the time being, what does it take to build and operate a MOOC? 

Content prep and delivery

Let’s start with the content. This has to be delivered to participants in some electronic format: text, audio and visuals have to be prepared, assembled and presented synchronously (real-time), asynchronously (prerecorded) or in some mixture of the two. Prerecorded elements have to be produced in an environment that lends itself to high-quality recording of the event. There may be substantial postproduction work if the content has to be edited or supplemented with other visual or audio components. This work is the province of audio engineers, lighting technicians, videographers and editors. Visual artists may be called upon to produce special graphics, images and animations. The process is comparable to designing and producing a textbook, which requires many specialized skills to complement textual content.

Once the content is prepared and recorded, it has to be delivered to the participants. This requires hardware to store and transmit the content (including student contributions), and software to manage it, keeping in mind all the different types of transactions that will occur in the course of the MOOC, involving students, instructors and the course material.

Managing the servers

Let’s start with the hardware layer. To paraphrase Roy Scheider’s famous remark in the film “Jaws,” we’re going to need server farms—way bigger server farms! It’s going to require a lot of hardware to run the databases and applications that will make it possible for tens of thousands of participants to interact within the MOOC. This means we’re also going to need dedicated system administrators to manage all those servers, even if most of them are virtual. Aside from the MOOC software itself, the servers will need patching and updates for the operating systems that run on top of the applications. They’re going to need to be secured against cyberattacks and monitored to ensure 24/7 year-round access, with little, if any, lag in performance.

All these machines will need to talk to each other and be publicly accessible via the Internet. That means technicians will be needed to design the internal and external networks—the switches, routers and cabling that make it possible to deliver content to tens of thousands of participants distributed around the globe in every imaginable time zone. Aside from scheduled maintenance, there’s no allowance for downtime when the MOOC is in session.

Maintaining academic integrity

Now let’s move up to the application layer. A MOOC is a complicated content-management system that must carry out some form of authentication to limit access to valid participants, deliver specific content modules, track users across its entire landscape, allow for the submission of user-produced content, manage the subject threads of discussion boards, run an email service, generally record every transaction conducted within its environment, and provide an audit trail for each one. 

The authentication and auditing capabilities are essential to maintain academic integrity. Any online course presents unique challenges in positively identifying participants and their assignments. How do you know that Eddie Murdstone is in fact the Murdstone who enrolled in the course? And how do you know that Mr. Murdstone actually took that test or produced the work he submitted to satisfy a course assignment? These are difficult problems to solve when class enrollments are in the hundreds. The problems are magnified when ramping up attendance by an order of magnitude and recruiting students from around the world.

As you can well imagine, the course management software and its various, interdependent components (Web servers, database-
management systems, application servers) will need monitoring and management to address performance, security and functionality issues. To continue with the analogy of publishing, pressmen will be needed to make sure the entire operation runs smoothly.

Staffing the help desk

Finally, we’re going to need a technical support layer that users can contact and consult with to answer questions, reset passwords and serve as liaisons to the technical production staff. Of course, the help desk will have to be staffed 24/7, particularly if the content is being delivered asynchronously. Users can be logged-in and engaging with content at any hour of the day, any day of the week.

Based on the scope and nature of online learning, the answer to the question we initially posed—What does it take to build and operate a MOOC?—is: a secure, robust IT infrastructure and a lot of highly skilled, professional technical staff, working across three shifts. 

If the product is plagued by performance issues, if students have difficulty navigating the site, if questions arise concerning the academic integrity of tests and assignments (particularly in a for-credit course), if faculty feel their material is not presented in a lucid and coherent fashion or they are not getting the technical support they require to do their job—in short, if the necessary investment in people and technology is not made—online education, on the scale proposed by some, will compound, not solve, the serious problems facing American colleges and students. And the expected savings may prove to be elusive. 

One thing is clear: The increasing emphasis on technology to deliver and mediate instruction will result in increasing demands on the expertise and time of our professional staff. Failure to realize this will doom any attempt, massive or otherwise, to move learning online.


Martin Manjak is an information security officer at the State University of New York University at Albany and a member of the United University Professions/NYSUT/AFT.

Reprinted from the Winter 2013-14 issue of On Campus.