Massive Open Online Courses

Brown’s successful MOOCs expand our reach into the world. The Lab works closely with instructors to design MOOCs that not only share our courses with global audiences but also extend Brown students’ experiences.

Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets

Participants in Sue Alcock’s Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets explored archaeology from a variety of perspectives. Videos and readings in the course prompted participants to think about key questions in modern-day archaeology. Course materials featured Brown-sponsored research projects and conversations with Brown faculty. Participants also practiced “thinking like an archaeologist” through a range of hands-on assignments asking them to explore archaeological practices in their own backyards and communities. ADLS created a global community of individuals who shared a common curiosity and passion. To date, over 60,000 students from more than 170 countries have enrolled in Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. Many continue to contribute to the course community via social media and group blogs.

Picture of filming a hands-on demonstration for 'Archaeology's Dirty Little Secrets'

Filming a hands-on demonstration in the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology at Brown University.

Coding the Matrix: Linear Algebra through Computer Science Applications

In Coding the Matrix, taught by Philip Klein, students learned the concepts and methods of linear algebra and used them to think about computational problems arising in computer science. Students applied these concepts in hands-on programming assignments that offered immediate feedback. Using their programs, students processed real-world data to accomplish tasks such as face morphing, face detection, and classification of tumors as malignant or benign. The course discussion forum provided an opportunity for students to answer each other’s questions, provide encouragement to their peers, and discuss more advanced topics in linear algebra. Since the course was first offered in the summer of 2013, more than 120,000 students from over 190 countries have enrolled.

Philip Klein’s promotional video for Coding the Matrix describes how the course teaches fundamentals of linear algebra through real-world programming applications.

Brown University / Joe Posner

Exploring Neural Data

Exploring Neural Data introduced students to the real-life challenges faced by neuroscientists as they work with the large amount of data they collect from the brain. Brown’s first team-taught MOOC, this course by Monica Linden and David Sheinberg, employed video lectures to introduce students to basic principles of neuroscience and key questions driving research in this field; separate tutorials on simple programming techniques using Python familiarized students with approaches to analyzing neuroscience data collected in research labs. By completing custom-built programming assignments, students improved their programming skills and practiced essential data analysis techniques. This course also featured interviews with leading neuroscientists who described their research and explained their own data analysis techniques. In the final project, students worked individually and in groups to develop a question about a neural data set and used techniques learned during the course to perform an appropriate analysis.

The Fiction of Relationship

The Fiction of Relationship, Arnold Weinstein’s online version of a course offered for many years to Brown undergraduates, demonstrated that productive and engaging discussions of literature are not only possible in an online setting, but benefit immensely from the perspectives of students of widely different ages and backgrounds. As one student from Malaysia wrote, “From this course alone, I have experienced the ‘the fiction of relationship’ [in] online learning. We are all here but mostly never met at all, yet the relationship is alive through this little window (computer).” Students in this course watched Professor Arnold Weinstein’s lectures, actively engaged in the discussion forums, read ten major works of narrative fiction, and wrote a series of creative and analytical essays. To date, more than 90,000 students from 160 different countries have enrolled in the course.

Prof. Arnold Weinstein discusses The Fiction of Relationship in this promotional video for Coursera.

Brown University / Joe Posner

Inside the Box

What does it take to make a MOOC?

A successful MOOC is more than just another online course. Ideally, it’s a coordinated, collaborative effort that involves rethinking and redesigning nearly every aspect of a course, from its intended audience to the teaching methods most suited to promoting understanding of the subject.


Who contributes?

  • Instructor
  • Teaching Assistant(s)
  • Instructional Designer(s)
  • Media Production Specialist(s)
  • Guest lecturers and other topical experts

What work is involved?

  • Course and syllabus design (or redesign)
  • Facilitation of online discussions
  • Ongoing engagement with a diverse, global, and public community of learners
  • Planning for meaningful learning activities and assignments
  • Storyboarding and production of video, audio, multimedia components

How much time do you need?

Six to twelve months

Other projects

  • Intermediate Microeconomics

    Brown’s first large-scale, flipped course for undergraduates, this course incorporated online ‘microlectures’ and weekly collaborative problem-solving sessions to facilitate learning of difficult economics concepts.

  • Environmental Science in a Changing World

    Custom-built, interactive online modules developed for this introductory environmental science course guide students through the study of Earth’s climate history.