#H809 Research on MOOCs

credit: Freedigitalphotos

credit: Freedigitalphotos

Week 12 in the H809 course and MOOCs – the official educational buzzword of 2012 – couldn’t remain absent.  The focus in this course is not so much on what MOOCs are, their history and the different types with their various underlying pedagogies and ideologies.  I blogged on MOOCs before, as a participant in LAK11, a connectivist MOOC on learning analytics.  In H809 the focus lies on issues such as:

  • What kind of information and research is available on MOOCs?
  • What kind of MOOC research would be interesting to do?
  • What are benefits and limitations of the type of information on MOOCs that is around?
  • What is the educational impact (rather than the press impact) of MOOCs?

Much information on MOOCs consists of the so-called grey literature.  Main information sources include:

  • blogs from practitioners and academics, with an overrepresentation of academics from Athabasca Un. and the OU.
  • blogs from participants in MOOCs, sharing their experiences
  • articles in open academic journals such as IRRODL, EURODL, Open Praxis
  • articles in more popular education magazines such as Inside Higher Education and The Chronicle of HE.
  • articles in the general press such as The Economist and The New York Times

Some comments on these sources:

  1. The term ‘grey literature’ may sound a bit disparagingly.  However, as Martin Weller writes, notions of scholarship and  academic publishing are evolving.  Blogs and open journals constitute alternative forms of scholarship with more interaction, less formality and shorter ‘turnaround’ times.
  2. Information and research on MOOCs is heavily Anglo-Saxon centred (or perhaps better Silicon Valley-centred?).  I couldn’t hardly find any articles on MOOCs in Dutch, although that might not be so surprising.  Although MOOCs (xMOOCs) are often touted as a ‘solution’ for developing countries, there are few perspectives from researchers from developing countries.  As Mike Trucano writes on the EdTech blog from the World Bank:

    “Public discussions around MOOCs have tended to represent viewpoints and interests of elite institutions in rich, industrialized countries (notably the United States) — with a presumption in many cases that such viewpoints and interests are shared by those in other places.”

  3. It’s interesting to see how many of the more general news sources seem to have ‘discovered’ MOOCs only after the Stanford AI course and the subsequent influx of venture capital in start-ups such as Coursera, Udacity and edX.  The ‘original’ connectivist MOOCs, that have been around since 2008, let alone open universities are hardly mentioned in those overviews.  A welcome exception is the Open Praxis paper from Peter and Deimann that discusses historical manifestations of openness such as the coffee houses in the 17th century.
  4. The advantage of this grey literature is that it fosters a tremendously rich discussion on the topic. Blog posts spark other blog posts and follow-up posts. Course reflections are online immediately after the course. Events such as a failing Coursera MOOC or an OU MOOC initiative get covered extensively from all angles. This kind of fertile academic discussion can hardly be imagined with the closed peer-review publication system.
  5. The flipside of this coin is that there are a lot of opinions around, a lot of thinly-disguised commercialism and a lot of plain factual mistakes (TED talks!).  MOOCs may be heading for a ‘trough of disappointment’ in Gartner’s hype cycle.  Rigorous research would still be valuable.  For example, most research is descriptive rather than experimental and is based on ridiculously small samples collected in a short time.  Interrater reliability may be a problem in much MOOC research .  Longitudinal studies that investigate how conversations and interactions evolve over time are absent.
  6. Sir John Daniel’s report ‘Making Sense of MOOCs‘ offers a well-rounded and dispassionate overview of MOOCs until September 2012.

Interesting research questions for research on MOOCs could be:

  • What constitutes success in a MOOC for various learners?
  • How do learners interact in a MOOC? Are there different stages?  Is there community or rather network formation? Do cMOOCs really operate according to connectivist principles?
  • What are experiences from MOOC participants and perspectives of educational stakeholders (acreditation agencies, senior officials, university leaders) in developing countries?
  • Why do people choose not to participate in a MOOC and still prefer expensive courses at brick-and-mortar institutions?
  • What factors inhibit or enhance the learning experience within a MOOC?
  • How to design activities within a MOCO that foster conversation without causing information overload?
  • How do MOOCs affect hosting institutions (e.g. instructor credibility and reputation) and what power relations and decision mechanisms are at play (plenty of scope for an activity theoretical perspective here).

A few comments:

  • High drop-out rates in MOOCs have caught a lot of attention.  Opinions are divided whether this is a problem or not.  As they are free, the barrier to sign up is much lower.  Moreover, people may have various goals and may just be interested in a few parts of the MOOC.
  • MOOCs (at least the cMOOCs) are by its nature decentralized, stimulating participants to create artefacts using their own tools and networks, rather than a central LMS.  cMOOCs remain accessible online and lack the clear start and beginning of traditional courses. This complicates data collection and research.
  • Although MOOCs are frequently heralded as a solution for higher education in developing countries, it would be interesting to read accounts from learners from developing countries for whom a MOOC actually was a serious alternative to formal education. The fact that MOOCs are not eligible for credits (at the hosting institution) plays a role, as well as cultural factors, such as a prevalent teacher-centred view on education in Asian countries.

References

Overview of posts on MOOCs from Stephen Downes: http://www.downes.ca/mooc_posts.htm

Overview of posts on MOOCs from George Siemens: https://www.diigo.com/user/gsiemens/mooc

OpenPraxis theme issue on Openness in HE: http://www.openpraxis.org/index.php/OpenPraxis/issue/view/2/showToc

IRRODL theme issue on Connectivism, and the design and delivery of social networked learning: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/issue/view/44

Armstrong, L. (2012) ‘Coursera and MITx – sustaining or disruptive? – Changing Higher Education’,

Peter, S. and Deimann, M. (2013) ‘On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction’, Open Praxis, 5(1), pp. 7–14.
Daniel, J. (2012) ‘Making sense of MOOCs: Musings in a maze of myth, paradox and possibility’, Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 3, [online] Available from: http://www-jime.open.ac.uk/jime/article/viewArticle/2012-18/html
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2012, Year of the MOOC?

funny-farm-animals-04In various places (such as the New York Times) 2012 has been heralded as the year of the Massive Open & Online Course, also called MOOC.  Although MOOCs have been around since 2008 or so, developed by researchers like Stephen Downes, David Courmier, George Siemens, Jim Groom and others.

“In the summer of 2008 I invited George Siemens and Stephen Downes to come to edtechtalk and tell us about the new course they were teaching. They had 25 people registered (paid), at the university of Manitoba, but they had opened the class for online registration to whomever wanted to come along. Hundreds (and then a couple thousand) people took them up on it. We started talking about what it meant to have lots and lots of people learning together… somewhere in there, i called them a massive open online course… for which i have been often chastised :)” (from Dave Courmier’s blog)

They are based on a connectivist pedagogy, characterised by distributed content, network formation, creation of artefacts outside course-related structures and superfluous course boundaries.  MOOCs based on these principles are often dubbed cMOOCs, to distinguish them from their less salubrious nephews.

The main in change in 2012 has been the entering of Ivy League institutions in the MOOC fray.  As OU vice-chancellor Martin Bean notes, the arrival of great brands, lots of (venture capital) money has vastly increased the forces of disruption.  The entrance of Silicon Valley in MOOCs has been spearheaded by Coursera, Udacity (both offshoots from an open Artificial Intelligence course at Stanford University) and edX (grown from MITx after investment and participation from Harvard University and UC Berkeley).  Online courses from these providers routinely attract tens of thousands of people (although drop-out rates are stratospheric).  Mass media have picked up the phenomenon (New York Times, The Economist, Financial Times).  Coursera has been gradually expanding its offer to non-US universities and currently offers more than 200 courses from 62 universities and 14 countries, including France, The Netherlands, Hong Kong and Italy (no, not from Belgium yet, no surprises there).  It’s interesting to note that these institutions have largely missed out the evolution to online learning so far and their  Silicon-centredness and lack of regard for 40 years of research in distance and online learning has been derided by researchers.  In the UK the Open University (OU) has recently announced its own MOOC platform, Futurelearn – here is a worthwhile reflection from OU researcher Doug Clow – and in March a ‘regular’ online course (h817) will be offered partly as a free open course.

Dubbing 2012 the ‘year of the MOOC’ may seem condescending to institutions and researchers who have been active on the topic for years.  However, there’s no denying in the worldwide appeal of the Ivy League institutions and their disruptive power.  Many challenges remain, in terms of business models, learner interaction, accreditation and quality.  It will be interesting to watch if also this disruptive innovation, like radio and television before, will evolve from an open, bottom-up structure full of creativity towards a commercialised and closed system, as described so beautifully by Tim Wu in ‘The Master Swith’ (blog post on the book).