A review of Northwestern University’s Content Strategy MOOC

The first MOOC on Content Strategy ended earlier in March. I took the course and report on the way Northwest University approached teaching it. I look at what was good, what could have been better, and what can be done in the future to improve learning Content Strategy online.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are online courses designed for unlimited participation and open access. Most of the MOOCs we hear about today are content-based instructivist MOOCs as opposed to connectivist MOOCs.

A given MOOC is typically 4 to 8 weeks in length, and the curriculum is comprised of short video lectures, online exercises (mostly quizzes), and case studies or essays evaluated through peer assessment. Learners can interact and discuss the course in a forum. Motivated participants can earn a certificate of attendance and, in some cases, credit towards traditional degrees.

Many commenters from within the tech industry and education sector agree that MOOCs are likely to disrupt traditional location-based education. Some even predict the end of universities and degrees within 20 years. Two years into the MOOC hype, hundreds of these online courses now exist on platforms such as Coursera, Edx and Udacity, to name the most famous.

I took my first MOOC in August 2012, and I’ve barely stopped learning online since. I’ve attended MOOCs on gamification, basic coding, basic algebra, statistics, data analysis, and pedagogy for distance learning (disclosure: I work in higher education).

I’m convinced, however, that MOOCs are not for everyone, at least for now. They require a strong drive to self-learn, without the motivation of obtaining a (paid) degree and without the physical presence of classmates. In their present form, MOOCs likely appeal to those who already enjoy learning — the curious, the educated, the lifelong learners… MOOCs are still not the ground-breaking new form of learning for the masses as originally perceived, or as recently confirmed by the learning analytics systems of the main platforms.

Even Coursera’s founder, Andrew Ng, seems to suggest MOOCs are an additional type of learning rather than one that supplants existing educational frameworks, as he stated on Twitter during the 2013 Education International Summit:

On Coursera 80% of our students already have a Bachelor’s degree. We are bringing adults back to the academy.

But the future of MOOCs is getting interesting. Richard Levin, formerly the president of Yale University for 20 years, is joining as Coursera’s new CEO, which could bring the issue of accreditation in MOOCs back to the front. Should the accreditation roadblock be eliminated for MOOCs, they may go from free to several hundred dollars per course.

For now, however, and for those who can afford the time and effort, and who are at ease with a fully-digital environment, learning for free and at one’s own pace is truly rewarding.

So when I heard last January that Northwestern University was offering a MOOC on Content Strategy (another major interest of mine), I immediately registered.

“Content Strategy for Professionals…”

That’s what the course advertised. “… Engaging Audiences for Your Organisation.”

More than 35,000 people signed up for this course offered by Medill, a top-ranked school of journalism known for their graduates who mix high-tech savvy with hard-nosed reporting skills. Medill is part of Northwestern, a private university founded in 1851. The instructor for this course was John Lavine, a senior professor in media management and strategy and former Dean of Medill.

The course’s promise was to address one major theme of Content Strategy each week for a total of six weeks. The first three were dedicated to understanding and creating content in the digital age. The remaining focused on what to do with content once it has been created.

The MOOC was interesting with respect to the strategic aspects of content creation, but as many participants of the course have since noted, as well as content strategy experts from the sidelines, the course had a number of issues too, starting with its definition of content strategy.

A good place to start…

Participation from ten (many senior) professors from Medill constituted a complete expert panel, covering key aspects of content creation and audience qualification. The advice given by these specialists — from areas such as journalism, media management, marketing communications, audience analysis, psychology, and interactive narrative — was definitely the highlight value of the MOOC. Free access to chapters from the Medill on Media Engagement ebook was also beneficial to participants.

The quality of the lecture videos was impressive too. Northwestern clearly had the financial means for professional media production — high-definition studio-like quality. This was a major improvement over the early MOOCs filmed with webcams. And as always on the Coursera platform, learning resources were plentiful, accessible, and clearly organised.

The Medill MOOC is thus a very good starting point for professionals who are not used to working with content and want to get the basics on strategic content communication.

…But some issues

Content Strategy is credible, trustworthy, transparent content that enhances the organisation’s strategic goals.

This is the definition given as an introduction to the MOOC. As if 10 Definitions of Content Strategy weren’t already enough, the course got its participants confused with this definition, before it even started.

According to the course introduction, the term “‘Content Strategy’ became common in the late 1990s”. There were indeed content strategists then, mostly from the technical communication side of things, but the term was hardly common. Most people across digital professions would probably agree the term has only become common in the last 3 to 5 years.

Adding to the confusion, the course intro also stated that content strategy in the late ’90s “referred to the planning, development, and management of content in written or digital media”, which is fairly similar to Kristina Halvorson’s now popular definition, “Content strategy is the practice of planning for the creation, delivery, and governance of useful, usable content”, presented in the first edition of her book in 2010.

A quick search on Google Scholar for the term ‘content strategy’ returns 97 results between 1996 and 1999, 95 of them unrelated to either of the definitions given above. So, again, hardly a common term at the time, even in academic circles.

The MOOC’s forum thread on the Definition of Content Strategy was one of the liveliest through the whole course, with 176 posts and 2404 views. The forum topic began as soon as the course opened, and a healthy, constructive debate ensued between advocates and opponents of the definition. Even participants who didn’t know of Kristina Halvorson’s work were quick to spot the main problem, that content strategy cannot itself be content because it creates a loop of defining something via itself. In other words, a book is a book is a book….

Indeed, a ‘strategy’ cannot be ‘content’. Content is an outcome of a strategy, not the strategy itself. The more informed students also recognised that creating content is not content strategy, as Colleen Jones wrote earlier in January. In short, many of us agreed the course’s definition of Content Strategy was closer to that of Content Marketing, and thus did little to help distinguish between content creation, marketing, and strategy.

A number of prominent people from the Content Strategy community were aware of the course (some even took it) and shared their thoughts. Hilary Marsh, founder of the Content Company, was the most critical:

I suspect this course will do a great deal of damage to our profession. It ignores all of the issues around the content, the ones that we content strategists address. Of course content must be good, but it also needs to be treated well.

Richard Prowse also wrote about the course, saying, “While Lavine’s definition deals with the what, it fails to address the who, where, when, why and how”.

Besides the definition, the caliber of the course seemed more suited to beginners than seasoned professionals, with advice like: “If you want to address a younger audience, think mobile and social”.

Instructors didn’t dig deep enough into subjects (a common problem with many MOOCs, in my opinion). Topics were a little shallow, and concepts were bandied around but not tied together well. One of the most interesting parts of the course was an 8-minute video sequence on Managing Content in Organisations, largely an explanation of Kristina Halvorson’s take on content governance, audits, and workflow.

The slow pace of ‘lectures’ actually had me watching the videos at 1.5 times the normal speed. The overly long intros were also a major gripe for people, eliciting strong criticism from participants in the forum.

There was plenty of good content, and it was organised too — videos, business cases, recommended readings, etc. — but the video production style didn’t fit. A lot of effort was put into it, but the TV show-style discussions and camera angles they chose over more traditional multimedia formats was not really appropriate, and the tone was not natural. I’ve participated in other MOOCS produced with webcam technology that were nevertheless more casual in style, yet also dynamic and ‘pedagogical’, even without professional production.

A better Content Strategy MOOC

Creating a MOOC is itself an interesting exercise in Content Strategy. (I’ve been working on one in geopolitics for a few months.) The question is, Can we learn Content Strategy from a MOOC? I think so, at least in an introductory way, starting with a strong definition and a more hands-on approach.

I won’t try and describe the ideal content for a content strategy MOOC here. Many good books have been written that would make excellent curriculum. Content Strategy is still a young discipline in the hands of its practitioners, so the practical aspects — indeed the tactical aspects that can be taught — would be an essential part of the learning process.

A mix of instructivist and connectivist pedagogy would be a good scenario. It would begin with using video lectures and readings as a first phase. Then participants would be organised into decentralised teams to work on a case study from scratch, learning from each other. Limits to the number of participants per course would also help make the experience better, but then would it still be a MOOC?

To the best of my knowledge, there are still no Content Strategy degrees on the market today, though plans are in motion for a masters program at the University of Applied Sciences in Graz, Austria. There are a few single courses on offer, and even an ‘advanced graduate certificate in Content Strategy’ for post-masters students at Southern Polytechnic State University, but so far that’s about it.

Setting up a MOOC still costs a lot of money. There’s little chance of a higher education institution offering a robust MOOC on Content Strategy anytime soon if it doesn’t have the programme to sell, or lacks the financial means to put one together. Does this mean the future of Content Strategy online training is in the hands of its community?