"Coursera" in large letters on a mosaic-looking wall.
By Jerry Rhead, Emily Brozovic, Angela Martin, and Nick Noel

Michigan State University (MSU) has been experimenting  in the MOOC realm since 2012.  Our ongoing goal is to understand the ways in which MOOC adoption serves learners globally and how teaching large-scale online courses can inform new approaches to teaching and learning.  Educause defines a massive open online course (MOOC) as a model for delivering online learning content to any person who wants to take a course with no limit on attendance. MOOC courses are often offered at no-cost to learners, though many MOOC’s also offer a certificate or credential upon completion (for a fee).

Early Interactions

One of the world’s largest MOOC platforms is Coursera. MSU began following Coursera’s evolution at their launch in 2012.  Faculty interest and questions about how MSU would engage with MOOCs was circulating so in January 2013 the Provost convened a university-wide team consisting of administrators and faculty to explore opportunities and strategic alignments.  

The team’s first engagement with Coursera was unsuccessful as Coursera’s portfolio was exclusive and interest in featuring MSU’s content was low. However, the team did concluded that there was sufficient interest in understanding how MOOCs could impact learning and engagement. The team recommended to the Provost that MSU support a series of MOOC experiments to better understand the opportunities and challenges in this learning and delivery environment.

From 2012 to 2015, MSU experiments with MOOC’s included 10 projects across 5 different platforms, ranging in participation from 150 to 4,000 learners. These experiments allowed MSU faculty to explore new and refined approaches for teaching and learning in an online environment, particularly at scale. They informed new approaches for corporate engagement, research, and increased our global exposure.


A man stands behind a podium, talking to a small group of people.


Coursera Returns

In early 2015, MSU was approached by Coursera regarding their new specialization strategy featuring authenticated certificates for which learners would pay. Specializations are designed as a series of 4-5 courses in a given subject with a final capstone (project-based) course to conclude the series. Successful completion of the series and capstone is required to earn the specialization certificate. Coursera was interested in MSU’s Game Design and Development (GD&D) programming from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences.

At the same time, MSU’s Hub for Innovation in Learning & Technology worked to establish standard practices and policies for MOOC development. Practices had to leverage faculty expertise, college and departmental buy-in, and align with Coursera timelines.

Consultations with the GD&D faculty yielded an interest in pursuing the offer from Coursera to create a GD&D Specialization that would be delivered on Coursera’s new platform that launched in the Fall of 2015.

During this time, Coursera also expressed interested in our journalism, photography, sales, and entrepreneurship programs. Consultations with these programs, in addition to the Game Design and Development consult, resulted in MSU entering into an Online Course Hosting and Service agreement with Coursera on June 2, 2015.

What We Learned (internally)

Early MOOC experimentation yielded insights into:

  • Approaches for learning design at scale.

  • Engagement strategies for the “casual” as well as serious learner

  • Transitioning learners from a MOOC into MSU programming such as certificates and degree programs

  • Understanding the demands of a for-profit enterprise (Coursera) including managing the deadlines and demands around course production and design

  • Effective and manageable legal, financial and internal processes to accommodate the requirements of a bottom line oriented partner.

Working with Coursera required us to develop a new approach to course production that would allow faculty to produce learning assets more efficiently. We also had to develop new legal and financial processes. Overall processes had to be nimble to align with the constant shifting of  Coursera business strategies to remain competitive and produce a positive financial return for investors.

These lessons have led to the creation of a specific Coursera course production process, comprehensive budget outline, financial and revenue sharing models and legal agreements.  Each of these elements are outlined in our initial consultations with faculty who are interested in working with Coursera.

What Faculty Learned

The Coursera experience is impacting the way our faculty think about teaching and learning. Mark Sullivan, Associate Professor in MSU’s College of Music and co-author of the Photography specialization shares:

Other than the daunting demands of a tight production schedule, the most significant shift has been twofold:  I now think online, particularly in hybrid forms, can be a dynamic, intellectually responsible and challenging format for learning, with a responsive, personal relationship between learners, mentors and teachers, and at the same time, I think it can have positive impact on all forms of face-to-face teaching, while at the same time expanding the range of learners the University can reach, as well as the kind of learners the University can reach.

Brian Winn, Associate Professor in MSU’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences and co-author of the Game Design and Development specialization remarks:

We spent a lot of time creating strongly branded, clean, coherent, and concise teaching materials (slides, readings, videos).  This effort has improved the quality of the materials that we use locally at MSU.

The Coursera learning experiences are having a profound impact on learners from around the globe. Hani Kazem, a learner in the Journalism specialization shared her story:

“Dear Professors Lucinda Davenport, Eric Freedman, Joanne C. Gerstner, David Poulson, Jeremy Steele,

I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the great efforts you exerted throughout the specialization. If it had not been for you I would never be what I am now.

Being a Syrian citizen prevented me from many opportunities. I got accepted to study an MA in Human Rights at CEU in Hungary but due to my circumstances I could not make it. Here are at this specialisation I have learned how to develop myself, and be a better professional.

This is my blog

I would like to express my gratitude once again for changing my life.


A group of people stand talking in a hallway.


Where we are today

MSU currently offers four specializations and four project-based courses on the Coursera platform.  The links below provide direct access to the entire MSU/Coursera portfolio as well as access to each specialization or project-based course.

MSU-Coursera Portfolio

Current Specializations

Entrepreneurship Specialization

Game Design & Development

Journalism Specialization

Photography Specialization

Current Project-based Courses


Music Theory

Script Writing


Coursera allows MSU to reach thousands of global learners and impact them in a positive way.  Approximately 75% of our Coursera learners are from outside of the United States with representation from India, United Kingdom, Canada, China, Brazil, Mexico, Germany and Spain.  To date, our Coursera learning experiences have generated 227,935 active learners who registered and consumed at least one piece of learning content. 19,340 learners have successfully completed learning requirements in our specializations and project-based courses to earn an authenticated certificate.

We are in the process of developing an updated experience in Game Design and Development with the addition of media arts learning modules and a project-based course on Avatar Psychology.  These experiences will launch in late Fall 2017.

Plans are also in the works to expand the learning experiences from MSU’s College of Music with courses in Songwriting, Piano Pedagogy and Jazz slated for Spring 2018.


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