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Anyone, anytime, anywhere: Using MOOCs to support teacher education

Written by: Amy Icke
5 min read

MOOCs (massive open online courses) allow anyone, anywhere, to access high-quality learning materials via online platforms. With a rise in online learning, and a growing recognition of how this can support continuing professional development (CPD) in the education sector, in 2016, the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) ran its first online course with social learning platform FutureLearn. This case study outlines how the GDST’s online offering fits into the MOOC and teacher CPD landscape and outlines how we evaluated and reviewed the course to best support teacher online learning. The paper concludes with some key considerations for school leaders looking to implement open online learning.

Creating our MOOC

In 2016, the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST) ran its first course with online social learning platform FutureLearn and launched its teacher CPD offering on ‘girl-friendly learning’. Traditionally, much school-led teacher CPD is still delivered face to face in a series of INSET (in-service training) days throughout the school year. However, at a time of significant pressure on education funding and pressures on teacher workload, it is unsurprising that both schools and providers are exploring new options to deliver cost-effective, relevant CPD to their staff, and that online solutions are increasingly popular. At one of its partner forums, and with this growing need in mind, FutureLearn expressed an interest in developing more education-focused content, alongside their already sizeable and diverse portfolio of teaching-related courses. It was into this online learning landscape that our MOOC launched, with more than 8,000 learners joining the first run, including over 230 of our own GDST staff.

A key aspect of the MOOC production cycle is time for review and reflection. Throughout the process, we revisited our organisational aims and motivations for creating and running our MOOC, to ensure that they were aligned with criteria identified as being effective for teacher CPD (Cordingley et al., 2015). Some of our key guiding principles are outlined below.

  • Effective CPD includes content highly relevant to its participants, their day-to-day experiences and their aspirations for their pupils. One of the particularly popular aspects of the MOOC was access to authentic learning experiences, which we included by using lesson footage from schools from across the GDST. We also ensured that we included pieces to camera from students, reflecting upon their own experiences, to emphasise the importance of student voice and add authenticity to the content of the course.
  • CPD content needs to reflect the wider social/educational context. The MOOC included a variety of voices from the education sector as well as linking schooling and attainment to the world of work and current debates such as the gender pay gap.
  • Impactful CPD builds a sense of common purpose and community. We chose to host our course on FutureLearn, which has particularly strong and intuitive social learning features built into the platform, which in turn help to foster discussion and nurture debate.
  • Teachers who undertake successful CPD implement what they have learnt in the classroom. At the end of each week there were takeaway activities and self-evaluation tools for practitioners. From the qualitative feedback data collected, it is evident that the MOOC prompted learners to reflect on current practice and experiment with new ideas in the classroom.

Reviewing our MOOC

During the three course runs, over 14,000 learners joined the MOOC, with an average completion rate of around 20 per cent. The focus on completion rates as the main mechanism used to evaluate the success of MOOCs fails to appreciate that, for many learners, MOOCs are not ‘merely destinations’ but provide ‘grounds for future opportunities’ (Ahearn , 2017). Many open courses, the GDST’s included, release all video content as downloadable take-aways, along with infographics and a host of classroom-based activities and self-evaluation tools. The repurposing of this material, and its use in offline activities, isn’t captured through online statistics but could arguably be one of the most valuable aspects of the courses for practitioners. From our post-run survey, 92 per cent of respondents said that it met or exceeded their expectations to add a fresh perspective to their current role.

Another important take-away for learners was the interactions that they had with mentors, with real-time and ongoing facilitation offered throughout. We found that engagement with content significantly increased when teachers saw ‘mentor’ comments in discussions that offered advice on follow-up resources, challenged particular perspectives or simply offered reassurance on particular pedagogical approaches. This underlines the importance of building a sense of common purpose, mixing theory with practice and ensuring that time is built in for discussion and review.

In summary, comments from teachers indicated that the course helped them to reflect on their practice and that a course written and informed by teachers, for teachers, taken by fellow educationalists created a powerful and impactful learning experience. As one learner commented,

This course really made me think about my role as a teacher… The videos and articles are well chosen to promote reflection and interaction with fellow educators. It was most rewarding to share ideas and experiences with colleagues from a variety of contexts which underline the fact that the experiences we share are far greater than any local differences might suggest.

After running the course three times, we identified that the content and structure needed a more substantial review, and they are currently in the redesign phase. Gender in education, female representation in the workplace and gender equality are huge topics, and ones that can be approached from a variety of angles. The diversity of our audience also led to changes, as we were keen that we were supporting parents, as well as educators, in this space and, perhaps most importantly, facilitating meaningful dialogue between the two. As part of the review process, the weekly workload has been cut by at least two hours a week, making it more manageable for teachers to engage, and we have also sourced new contributors for much of our content to make them more representative of the diversity of the profession.

Considerations: MOOCs for teacher CPD

  • MOOCs can offer the ‘best of both’: a more flexible approach to CPD but also a community of learners with shared aims and motivations, a key ingredient to successful CPD programmes.
  • MOOCs can be powerful tools to build a sense of common purpose. Courses that include study room activities and peer review help to create communities of practice and shared understanding, whilst representing a range of opinions from a diversity of voices.
  • MOOCs can be an important way for external bodies to support the teaching profession – for example, through summarising research, raising aspirations and partnership building.
  • MOOCs can cater for a variety of levels of experience and engagement with subject matter –an acknowledgement that not all teachers will be starting their professional journey from the same place.

Our new course, ‘Educating Girls: Strategies that develop confidence, communication and collaboration’, will launch in early 2019. For more information about the course, please click here.


Ahearn A (2017) The flip side of abysmal MOOC completion rates? Discovering the most tenacious learners. Available at: (accessed 2018).
Cordingley P, Higgins S, Greany T, et al. (2015) Developing great teaching: Lessons from the international reviews into effective professional development. Available at: (accessed 2018).
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