Why MOOCs matter: The consequence of massive open online courses for museums, universities, and their publics

Ross Parry, University of Leicester, UK, Alex Moseley, University of Leicester, UK, Nichola Gretton, University of Leicester, UK, Rachel Tunstall, University of Leicester, UK, Matthew Mobbs, University of Leicester, UK


The last two years have seen an extraordinary expansion in the number of massive open online courses (MOOCs) around the world. This proliferation of programmes (in diverse subjects, at all levels of expertise and styles of delivery) has been accompanied by a debate on both the value this provision may have for learners and the return it may offer to the learning providers. MOOCs, after all, flip the traditional university model. Rather than managing student numbers, MOOCs potentially accommodate a simultaneous learning cohort of thousands—if not tens of thousands. Rather than place the learning experience behind a pay wall of tuition fees, MOOCs instead can open up their teaching for free. Rather than maintaining admission criteria (built around prior academic attainment and experience), MOOCs are open to all with an internet connection. Rather than leading to a recognised accredited award, most (though not all) are sub-award, in many cases resulting in simply a certificate of participation. And rather than having direct and regular contact and access to faculty and expert scholars, many of these MOOCs mobilise the learning community itself to self-regulate, moderate, and support learners. This paper draws upon a two-year pilot run by the University of Leicester into designing and delivering MOOCs, including in the area of museum studies. The paper describes how the development of MOOCs at Leicester has, evidently, had an impact on the way the institution is beginning to think more generally about both its distance-learning provision and the role of digital social-learning environments within all of its teaching offers, on and off campus. Specifically, the paper looks at the development and impact of "Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum," a MOOC developed by Leicester’s School of Museum Studies in partnership with National Museums Liverpool.

Keywords: MOOC, open, course, learning, university, expertise

1. Introduction: Museums as Web leaders

As we look back on twenty years of the Museums and the Web community generating and exchanging ideas, we see the narrative of a sector gaining confidence with a new set of media. Through the conferences’ proceedings, we can trace a story of an industry first seeing an anomaly (a change and perhaps a challenge to the status quo), to then recognising an opportunity, to then sharing (generously and supportively) its first adoptions and new initiatives. Today, now intellectually mature and self-assured, the story of this community is invariably one of theoretical sophistication as it is technical proficiency. The current discourse is of a sector, in many respects, no longer playing catch-up, but working creatively and imaginatively with the Web. And poignantly, where once this same community reached out to grasp a new and uncertain future, sometimes feeling behind the curve, today, in contrast, the discourse we share is about practice in which museums are at times the digital innovators and the thought leaders.

In one respect, this paper represents part of this new contemporary—a contemporary where museums are no longer simply students of the Web, but instead, at times, are mentoring and inspiring other sectors in ways to use the Web. The case presented here is of how museums’ experiences with the Web can help museums to lead another cognate sector (the university sector) into the development of new forms of open online provision.

This paper draws upon a two-year pilot run by the University of Leicester (UK) into the design and delivery of massive open online courses (MOOCs). It describes how the development of MOOCs has, evidently, had an impact on the way the institution is beginning to think more generally about both its distance-learning provision and the role of digital social-learning environments within all of its teaching offers, on and off campus. More specifically, the paper looks at the development and impact of “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum,” a massive open online course developed by Leicester’s School of Museum Studies in partnership with National Museums Liverpool. Having shared and discussed this specific experience, the paper steps back and considers more generally (outside of this particular example) some of the motivations for developing MOOCs in and with museums. The paper discusses the possibilities that collaborative development affords for engaging teaching and research, and an extension and expansion of traditional audiences.

The key aim of the paper, however, is to propose the value of universities collaborating with museums (now as experienced Web users) on the design and delivery of MOOCs. It is suggested here that museums have the key expertise sets to provide structured authoritative experiences for large distributed communities of informal but engaged learners.

2. Motivation

The University of Leicester is a major provider of online education, with over twenty-five years of experience in distance-learning degree programmes and continuing professional development courses. In March 2013, the University began a partnership with FutureLearn (a private company wholly owned by the Open University), in order to explore the potential of MOOCs.

The University’s decision to build on its strong established reputation for distance-learning provision and expertise in this new arena was initiated by a desire to explore changing learner markets and use the potential of mass, open, and free short courses to investigate how modern casual learners learn. To place this in a wider context, 2013 saw a shift in international markets, causing the University to reevaluate and refocus marketing in new regions and in learner expectations; 2013 was also within a longer trajectory of shifting learner expectations—the ubiquity of mobile, flexible access to resources was at odds to much higher education provision (Barnett, 2014). As a distance-learning provider, the University was perhaps more attuned to needs than purely campus-based institutions, but it was apparent that learner needs were rapidly changing.

MOOCs were therefore interesting on a number of levels to the University, and to this end their development was strategic: governed at a senior level, and developed within a central learning and teaching unit. The first pilot phase (from 2013 to 2015) investigated the potential of MOOCs in four strategic areas:

  • The topical MOOC: built with agility around a current and topical story, appealing to the leisure learner and amateur/potential scholar alike caught “in the moment”
  • The popular MOOC: framing a course around a theme or subject with a resonance in popular culture: the University’s teaching and research reimagined for a broad mainstream audience
  • The skills MOOC: targeting University strategic priorities such as widening participation or retention/progression, attracting or supporting potential or new students
  • The taster MOOC: a tactical “taster” short course for people thinking about taking one of the University’s full distance-learning programmes

The University’s first topical MOOC, “England in the Time of King Richard III,” was an interdisciplinary six-week course developed by the Schools of Archaeology and Ancient History, English, and History and linked directly to the current events surrounding the discovery and reinterment of Richard III. The MOOC was one of a set of eight initial courses offered by FutureLearn as part of their launch in September 2013, each with a cap of ten thousand registrations per course. The Richard III MOOC reached its cap within four days of registration opening and by January 2016 had been taken up by over forty thousand learners (Earle et al., 2014).

For the fourth “taster” MOOC, was initiated by the University’s School of Museum Studies. Established in 1966, the School is the only autonomous department in the United Kingdom dedicated to the study of museums and galleries, and is the oldest and largest academic unit of its kind in the world. Through its existing campus and distance masters programmes, research, and the careers of its students, the School already has a global influence both on its academic field and the institution at its heart. In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the Department of Museum Studies, as it was then called, was the highest scoring unit of any discipline in any higher education institution in the UK. The School therefore already possessed both strong course materials and a wealth of existing strategic partnerships with cultural organisations, making it the perfect base for a MOOC focused on attracting and supporting future and existing professionals. The resulting MOOC, “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum,” became the first of the University pilots to involve a cultural organisation (National Museums Liverpool) as equal partners in a co-designed experience (Stephens, 2015). Crucially, the partnership between the organisations has been both longstanding and productive, with staff in the museums collaborating with academics on research projects and taking part in the teaching, and equally academics in the School involved in projects in the museums (MacLeod, 2015).

3. Production

The majority of University of Leicester MOOCs, following a pattern across the FutureLearn portfolio, have been split into six weekly units. Each week is focused on a particular subject and designed to require an average of two hours’ study, but split into fifteen to twenty smaller segments that allow learners to adopt flexible study patterns. Advice is given at the start of each course to help learners plan their time around work, family, and other commitments.

The FutureLearn MOOC platform is built around providing a learning experience in small, manageable, and engaging chunks. Course materials have been prepared with this in mind and contain a mixture of short texts, audio overviews and interviews, images, videos, animations, and slideshows. All media is accompanied by accessible transcripts and subtitles, meeting the University’s (and its partners’) principle of inclusion (Sharples et al., 2015). The courses have a strong narrative thread and encourage learning through storytelling.

There are formative exercises in each course: short multiple-choice quizzes, interactive self-tests, and discussion activities; at the end of each week is a longer formative multiple choice quiz. No accreditation is awarded on completion, although learners do have the option of purchasing a digital or physical certificate if they complete more than 50 percent of the course.

One of the key elements of the FutureLearn platform is social learning, and every page has a discussion area alongside the content. Learners can read what others have to say about the topic and join in with their own comments: this lends a discursive, exploratory feel to the courses and extends discussion beyond set discussion tasks.

Tens of thousands of learners are impossible to support on a personal level, in the manner a University might be used to. Alternative methods for support and engagement therefore need to be developed, not unlike those more familiar to museums and galleries, where complex, drawn-out relationships on- and off-line are played out. In the initial University of Leicester MOOCs, this was achieved through a strong personal narrative throughout each course, weekly emails from the lead educator that drew on discussion points from the previous week, and (in the case of the “Museum” MOOC, drawing on expertise from National Museums Liverpool) short “live” video recordings from the educator highlighting contributions from particular learners. It was important that this particular MOOC reflected the high support model the School of Museum Studies deploys on its full distance-learning programmes, as a “taster” for the full course.

To this end, the MOOC several socialization activities. Learners, for instance, were asked to tweet a picture of their favourite museum and to post and describe a favourite object on an online wall. This promoted the MOOC on social media as well as bringing together the new community of learners.

Image showing some pre-MOOC Twitter activity related to "Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum".

Figure 1: pre-MOOC Twitter activity (left); “Museums and Me” – sharing objects and emotions (right), from “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum,” University of Leicester (2015).

National Museums Liverpool (NML), “one of the UK’s leading museum services” (MacLeod, 2015), were an equal partner with the University throughout the development process for “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum.” The partnership had buy-in from the leadership team of both organisations, key contacts at each organisation were identified, clear lines of communication were established and a formal partnership agreement was put in place. A number of authors from across the museum produced rich content, drawing upon concrete examples and cutting edge case studies from NML’s award winning practice (Clarke, McClafferty, & Tunstall, 2015). Co-developing the curriculum with the School of Museum Studies, NML also signed off on materials as part of the course design process.

As an example of this co-designed content, in the “Museums and Our Emotions” week, a temporary exhibit at one of the NML galleries was explored. “Alive in the Face of Death” was a sensitive exhibit containing photographs of people facing death or life-threatening conditions. Gallery visitors were asked to record on a large white wall how the portraits made them feel. For the MOOC participants, it was important to recreate the experience online with sensitivity. An online space was created where the MOOC learners were exposed to the same imagery as physical visitors to the museum, and had an opportunity to write their feelings onto an online “wall.” The activity proved to be successful and will be built upon by the next MOOC cohort, creating a continuously growing online exhibit and a bank of data to analyse.

Image showing the MOOC 'online wall' of participants comments mirroring the 'physical wall' of visitor comments at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

Figure 2: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. “Physical Wall” (left, © National Museums Liverpool) mirrored by the MOOC “Online Wall” (right).

4. Outcomes

The four strategic pilots, between them amassing 84,000 learners (four times the size of the number of registered students at the University of Leicester), provided a wealth of data surrounding the learner experience and wider impact of the MOOCs. FutureLearn provided a wealth of demographic and analytic data, in addition to providing access to all discussion posts on every page; for instance, the first run of ‘Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum’ attracted 43,447 comments from 3,188 contributors. The University was also able to track interest in other University-related activity (applications, response to press releases, and mailing lists).

Through these sources, rich pedagogic data has been gathered that is now influencing the design of internal degree courses. The huge number of learners provides a unique opportunity to test particular pedagogic preferences when applied across a wide population. If (as was found to be the case) learners have a strong preference for active learning (searching for information, reading articles, working through formulae), with a secondary preference for audio or video material, then degree programmes can be designed with this in mind.

Particular subjects also gave rise to more engaged social behaviour. “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum” saw a higher than average percentage of social learners (Clow, 2013), with 50 percent taking part in discussions during the course. Particular activities, particularly discussion around personal experiences or polarised opinions, gave rise to posts in higher numbers and of greater length.

Image showing bar chart of learner ratings (from 80,000 learners) of learning activities across all four Leicester MOOCS.

Figure 3: learner ratings of learning activities, across all four MOOCs (n=c.80,000).

Although the University has a long history of online learning through its distance-learning provision, MOOCs have provided an opportunity to think about this mode of learning in fresh ways. There have been many changes over the last decade in access to and use of technology, meaning that distance learning has become more mainstream, with learners expecting to be able to access learning materials from anywhere and engage through storytelling, discussion, and community support. Such concepts are less familiar to traditional higher education institutions than to cultural organisations that encounter changing needs and modes of engagement daily. MOOCs may well allow the University to keep pace with future changes in technology and innovative pedagogies, meeting a strategic aim to design and deliver the best campus-based and online educational experience possible, without needing to build and evaluate full degree programmes each time. Indeed, the School of Museum Studies have already used its experience of developing content for the MOOC, and the richness of its relationship with NML, to remodel one of its programmes: moving towards a more media-rich, online learning resource.

The worldwide reach of MOOCs have allowed the University to not only showcase its educational offer to a large, globally spread, audience; but also to draw upon and contribute to the international awareness, experience, and aspirations of students and staff: developing an internationalised curriculum that looks outward and engages in the most important global issues. And in some instances the MOOCs have blurred the boundaries between active learners and teachers – creating instead a common room for debate and exchange of ideas between academics from all over the world as well as practitioners and interested learners.

MOOCs have enabled rapid response to events and news stories; for example, the “Richard III” MOOC was written to build on the interest generated by the discovery of his mortal remains in 2012. Subsequent runs of the course were launched to coincide with King Richard III’s reinterment and included live Twitter feeds on the events of the week, which resulted in over six hundred new Twitter followers from all over the world, helping to further enhance the research impact.

The data collected from MOOCs have also helped the University to gain a good picture of learner demographic, helping to tailor marketing appropriately. Optional mailing lists once a course has finished link MOOC learners direct to both the University and any cultural partners (NML, in the case of the “Museums” MOOC), allowing relationships to continue and strengthen. Most learners are unlikely to immediately make the step from a free MOOC to a full degree, but once engaged there is opportunity to advertise events, short courses, conferences, summer schools, and open days. From a learner perspective, MOOCs provide a good opportunity to gain a “taste” for a formal course, and for current enquirers and applicants to raise their interest before a course starts.

Pie chart showing reasons given from 80,000 respondants for studying a University of Leicester MOOC, with top response at 24.7% being 'to learn new things'.

Figure 4: reasons given for studying a University of Leicester MOOC (n=c.80,000).

MOOCs lend themselves to collaborative working; indeed, FutureLearn itself has several internationally renowned organisations as partners (including the British Library, British Museum, and British Council). “Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum” was co-produced with NML, and this relationship proved fruitful on both sides: further strengthening the School’s partnership with the museums sector; providing a global platform for NML to showcase its expertise interpretation, community engagement, its exemplary approach to museum ethics, its role as a campaigning museum, as well as its the commitment and contribution to social justice and human rights.

In research, too, MOOCs have provided an ideal channel for both dissemination, and generation, of research data. For example, the teaching in the “Museums” MOOC draws extensively on the internationally influential research produced by the School of Museum Studies; whilst the “Richard III” MOOC gathered data from a lively discussion around the cultural and social value of historical reenactments, the conservation of historic battlefields, and the place of medieval heritage in English towns and cities. Such potential enables scholars in educational and cultural spheres to find new, innovative, and as yet unimagined ways of undertaking and communicating their research.

5. Knowledge exchange between museums and universities

The lessons for the university have, therefore, been plentiful, and their influence on the future learning strategy of the institution has been profound. However, stepping back from the unique context of the complex relationship between Leicester and NML, there are perhaps a number of wider conclusions to be drawn from this type of collaborative work—conclusions with consequence perhaps for the museum and digital heritage community. In particular, these type of collaborations bring into relief a set of complementary differences and synergies between the skills and experience of universities and those of museums, when both are involved in the creation of open online learning provision. Specifically, there appear to be qualities each type of institution can bring to the production of MOOCs from which the other might significantly benefit, as hinted at by both Mazzola (2013) and Greenfield (2013).

This partnership of mutual benefit (formed around visibility and delivery, content and context, process and progress) might be usefully summarised in the following way:

Universities bring expertise in …

Museums bring expertise in …

harnessing established admissions systems VISIBILITY

harnessing a trusted online brand

supporting individual learners through planned and formal learning provision


supporting communities of learners through multiple forms of unplanned and informal learning

leveraging a substantial local research base


leveraging a rich local media base

operating in a blended learning environment


operating in a cross-platform environment

interpreting assessment data


interpreting Web analytics

designing synchronous, outcome-focused, and level-based courses of study


designing open learning opportunities with multiple entry and exit points

In other words, the university and museum each can bring skills and provision the other may not have, but which are nonetheless essential for successful MOOC production. The result can be highly symbiotic.

For instance, as well as a resolved and established educational offer, the university will have established processes for managing applications and admissions on to what is sometimes a varied and complex portfolio of learning opportunities, including expertise in articulating entrance requirements to learners from multiple educational backgrounds, dealing with application enquiries, and overseeing registration and enrolment systems. However, what the university will not necessarily have in quite the same way as the museum is a trusted and active online brand that is established and that can operate in diverse parts of the Web (Parry, 2013). In this regard, with over twenty years of developing an effective voice and presence online, museums have much to teach universities about how to function in a distributive but cohesive way.

Drawing from this same experience, the museum can also share with the university the many strategies for supporting diverse types of unplanned and informal learning. When engaging with a mass audience in a MOOC, a university is finding itself in a community that may be dominated by leisure learners or individuals who may not have a high investment in the course or indeed an inclination to complete (Clow, 2013). This is unfamiliar territory for most universities, and it is here that the experience and strategies used by museums in supporting informal and unplanned learning can be invaluable.

Furthermore, the university’s reflex when starting a MOOC is invariably to draw upon its own core of original research—this, after all, is where it distinguishes itself within its market. And yet, not all universities have a rich and deep archive of material to substantiate and illustrate this research when it is taken into the public domain. (Indeed, typically, it is at this point that many universities turn to memory institutions, such as museums, for support.) In contrast not all museums embarking on MOOC design can draw upon an expansive research base from within their organisation of internationally significant research to support and structure their discussion (Clay et al., 2014).

That said, a characteristic today of both of these types of institutions is their positioning and expansion across different media. For the university sector, the growth (and orthodoxy) of “blended learning” has seen online tools supporting on-campus learning as much as physical learning resources (be they practical exercises, residential schools, or physical resources such as books) supporting distance education and Web-based learning. Likewise, the redefining of the museum from venue and place to service and platform over the two decades has been widespread and well documented (Parry, 2007; Parry, 2010). And yet, within this shared ambition and reinvention sit important differences. As much as the university can usefully share with the museum potential of its new skills in “lecture capture” and the live streaming of teaching, so the museum’s confidence today in mobile, app development, and social media campaigning are all poised to have a catalytic effect on the offer made by universities in their design of MOOCs.

The knowledge exchange between the two institutions on MOOCs also extends to the data processes they manage. With complex modularised programmes of study, with varied and multiple assignments, as well as flexible forms of registration, universities today have sophisticated systems (not part of museum practice) to generate the degree outcomes and grade point averages of which their students (and their students’ future employers) can trust the accuracy and validity. Just as they can bring this confidence in managing assessment data to MOOC design, so museums have much to teach the university sector on the power of Web analytics and what it can reveal of learners’ journeys through an institution’s online content (Villaespesa & Tasich, 2012).

Finally, it is perhaps by working together on MOOC design that universities and museums may guide each other on the need for, at one level, sequential courses of study with clear progression points, but equally a learning offer that is entirely open and accepting of attrition.

6. Conclusion: A partnership of mutual benefit

In the design of massive open online courses, museums have the institutional knowledge that can help universities to support a large distributed audience, through a trusted online brand, over a sustained period of time, managing learner expectations when not behind a paywall, recognising the openness of these learners’ pathways through this provision, and having the analytical means to understand this online behaviour. Complementing this, the institutional history of universities allows them to help museums to design structured curricular, introduce formative assessment and checks on learning, and develop research-teaching synergies within the learning experience.

MOOCs may not be new for museums or for universities. And yet the opportunity for recognising the potential of this collaboration—this partnership of mutual benefit—is as “massive” as these extended communities of learning.


The authors acknowledge the work of all the staff at the University of Leicester and National Museums Liverpool for the creativity and inspiration in developing these new massive open online courses—taking both institutions into new directions. Particular recognition should go to Dr. Suzanne MacLeod (Head of School, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester), along with her colleagues Katy Bunning, Robin Clarke, and Sheila Watson; and, in Liverpool, Dr. David Fleming OBE (Director, National Museums Liverpool), as well as Carol Rogers (Executive Director, Education and Visitors), Janet Dugdale (Director, Museum of Liverpool), and Francoise McClafferty (Policy and International Relations Officer, National Museums Liverpool). The authors are also grateful to the ongoing support of FutureLearn (particularly Mark Lester, Director of Partnerships Development) and the encouragement they have given to the University of Leicester team to reflect on the significance of this work. The authors would also like to thank the organisers of the “Digital Humanities” conference (Krasnoyarsk, Russia) held in September 2015 at the Siberian Federal University, who invited the team to share and test an earlier version of this paper in a critical, stimulating, and supportive arena. Finally, and most importantly, the authors would like to thank the 80,000+ learners who have over the last two years enrolled upon Leicester’s new portfolio of MOOCs and taught us a new form of Higher Education.


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Cite as:
Parry, Ross, Alex Moseley, Nichola Gretton, Rachel Tunstall and Matthew Mobbs. "Why MOOCs matter: The consequence of massive open online courses for museums, universities, and their publics." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published February 1, 2016. Consulted .