Why MOOCs Are Great for Teacher Development


For a while there, the word “MOOC” seemed to be on everyone’s tongue. For many educators who had reached their saturation points, MOOCs were the education world’s version of a song you heard every single time you turned on the radio and little by little grew to hate.

In the background of all this oversaturation though, MOOCs have actually been embraced by a lot of great schools and professors. And the courses now available include a number of subjects aimed directly at teachers.

3 Reasons to Consider Taking a MOOC

Even if most schools didn’t require continuing education, teachers could benefit from seeking out opportunities to learn more. New technologies are constantly changing what teaching looks like. And for the teaching best practices that don’t change, a refresher never hurts.

So why consider MOOCs?

1. They’re convenient

You can take them at your own pace from anywhere with internet. Most of them are free (all of the ones included on our list fall into this category, but some also have an optional paid component), although many of them come from the professors at top institutions in the country.

2. Some MOOCs count as your required continuing education credits

You’ll have to do your research to confirm whether a particular MOOC will count in your school district, but both edX and Coursera offer continuing education courses for teachers that provide certificates many school districts will count toward your continuing education credits.

3. They can make you a better teacher

Those other reasons don’t really count for much unless this one holds true. When the teacher Maha Bali wrote about her experience taking MOOCs for professional development, she identified a few key reasons they can make teachers better at their jobs:

  • You get to see how someone else teaches. Whether your opinion of their teaching style is positive or negative, you learn something that can make your own teaching style stronger.
  • You can see what using tech in education looks like from the student perspective. This makes you more aware of how to introduce your students to it and use it effectively when you bring it into your own classes.
  • And then there’s the obvious: you learn new information. You can pass the knowledge you learn along to your students, or even consider using a MOOC within your class for instructional purposes.

5 Great MOOCs To Consider

You should know right off the bat that narrowing the list to five was a real challenge. The MOOCs out there for teachers cover a lot of fascinating territory. The course that’s best for you personally may not have made it on to our list.

These are also exclusively focused on education and teaching (and the aspects of them generally useful to all teachers), but you may get more out of taking a MOOC that teaches you something new about the subject you teach or that specifically addresses how to teach that subject.

You also will get a different experience out of a MOOC currently in session versus one that’s archived. In the latter case you have access to the videos and materials, but miss out on the interactive portion of the MOOC. Our list includes both, recognizing that even those currently in session will become archived for many of our future readers.

The point is: extra research into the other MOOCs out there is highly encouraged!

But in the interest of giving you a head start, this list shows some of the MOOCs that are most likely to help teachers improve their classroom skills.

1. Student Thinking at the Core

Available from Coursera, and led by two Vanderbilt University faculty members, Student Thinking at the Core is a course designed to help teachers take better advantage of the thoughts and ideas students bring into the classroom. Recognizing how important student contributions are is one thing, but developing the skills to make use of them in a way that benefits the whole class is another. That’s what the course aims to help with.

The professors teaching this MOOC emphasize the value its students will get from working with partners and getting feedback from others in the class. That means you may lose some of the benefit if you take it as an archived course. The dates for the current run of the course are March 2-April 18, 2015. It’s on its second run, so if you miss it this time, you may have another chance later.

2. E-Learning and Digital Cultures

This is currently only available as an archived course, but has been offered twice now so may become available again toward the end of the year. The course is put on by several professors from the University of Edinburgh and found great success in participation in its first couple of go-arounds.

Unlike some of the other courses on the list, this one isn’t about providing actionable information on how to incorporate technology into your classes. Instead, it’s more about considering how digital cultures work and how they relate to learning online.

The reviews on this one are pretty mixed (although more positive than negative). Some students found it too experimental; others found that the community and inspiration that came out of it were incomparable. The good thing about a MOOC is that if you find yourself in the former category, you can always bounce and start another one instead.

3. Saving Schools: History, Politics, and Policy in U.S. Education

This course is a little different from the others, as it is a series of mini-courses (the most recent one is here). The edX courses are run by a Harvard University professor and explore the workings of the U.S. school system in a historical context, along with what can be done to improve how things work now.

For teachers with an interest in educational reform, this course covers many currently circulating ideas for improving the state of education.  You can come away with a greater understanding of the discourse around school reform, with new opinions about what the school system needs, or with more research to back up those you already have.

Reviews for this one are still fairly minimal as it’s in its first run, but so far they’re pretty positive.

4. Becoming a Blended Learning Designer

This course shifts away from the more theoretical discussions of education and technology and focuses on the specifics of building a blended learning course. The course provides access to BlendKit, a collection of resources that helps teachers through the process of bringing more online learning experiences into their courses.

If you’re considering switching to a more blended learning approach for your classes, this course provides examples of how blended learning works and lessons on specific steps to help you get started. This class is currently available from Canvas through May 12, 2015. It’s on its second run, so there may be a BlendKit 2016 version if you miss out on this one.

5. Design and Development of Educational Technologies

This course examines how educational technologies are developed and how they’re used. Unlike the other courses on the list, this one isn’t entirely run by academic faculty. Professor Eric Klopfer from MIT is one of the main people behind it, but a couple of developers of educational games and technology round out the MOOC staff.
Participants of this course will gain a clearer understanding of the process of developing education technology, and the work that goes into understanding how students and teachers think about and use technology. They’ll also gain some insights into education technologies they may not be familiar with yet.

This one started back in October of 2014 and is currently in session.

If you’re a teacher with experience taking MOOCs, we’d love to hear about it – especially if you have any specific recommendations for other teachers. A lot of the MOOCs on our list are too new to have many reviews, so insights in our comments section from anyone with first-hand experience in a MOOC are highly appreciated.


  1. Brian Silberberg

    March 3, 2015 at 4:14 pm

    MOOCs offer a great opportunity to pursue unique and innovative topics at the convenince of the potential student. To try to use them to expand the possibilities inside the classroom is a great bit of divergent thinking.

  2. Christopher

    March 3, 2015 at 11:27 pm

    I think as teachers it is a compulsion to keep up with the technology advances. They are changing the way teaching looks like today and we need to brush up in order to make teaching our students more fruitful! And MOOCs are the best way to do so.