Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology & Associate Professor at Royal Roads University

MOOCs can, and should, learn from past research in education


Posted on July 17th, by George Veletsianos in moocs, online learning, open, scholarship. 7 comments

This entry is part of a reflective series of posts/questions relating to online learning, MOOCs, and openness. See the first one here.

Coursera announced today that it is adding a dozen or so universities as partners. In an article in the New York Times, Sebastian Thrun notes that MOOC courses are still experimental and argues: “I think we are rushing this a little bit,” he said. “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.”

This perception of online education as “better than” or “as good as” other forms of education (I imagine that Sebastian Thrun is referring to face-to-face education here), is rampant. I believe it is rampant because our field has not done a good job disseminating what we know and what we don’t know about online education. At the same time, individuals do not tend to go back to the foundations of the field to investigate what others have discovered.

The result: A lack of understanding that there’s a whole field out there (here?) that has developed important insights on how we can design online education effectively. The list of references at the end of this post are merely a few of the resources one can use to get started on what we know and what we don’t know about comparison studies (i.e. studies that compare learning between delivery modes).

The point of this entry is to argue that there’s no point to reinvent the wheel. There’s no point to make the same mistakes. And above all, past research has shown that there’s no point to study whether online education is as good as (or as bad as) other forms of education because what one will discover is that:

 

  1. There are no significant differences in learning outcomes between face-to-face education and online education.
  2. When differences are found between the two, the differences can be attributed to (a) pedagogy, or (b) and a lack of controls in the experimental design.

 

It is important to point out that the effectiveness of an educational approach is influenced greatly by other variables, such as instructor support or pedagogical approach. Therefore, it is very difficult (if not impossible) to compare face-to-face and online education because when one is not a replication of the other, they are vastly different, are based on different learner-instructor interactions, and offer different affordances. While researchers have tried to minimize differences and compare face-to-face learning and online learning in experimental ways, the interventions end up being meaningless for the types of powerful online/face-to-face teaching we might envision. Comparing delivery mechanisms therefore, blinds us to the important variables that truly impact how people learn.

The important and informative questions to ask are not comparative. Rather they focus squarely on understanding online education:

  1. How can we design effective and engaging online education (e.g., MOOCs)?
  2. What is the nature of learning in a MOOC?
  3. What is the learning experience in a MOOC like?

These questions are difficult. They won’t be answered by comparing survey responses and they won’t generate one simple answer. They will however generate answers that will be different depending on context. And that’s what’s exciting about doing research on online education.

References:





7 thoughts on “MOOCs can, and should, learn from past research in education

  1. Like! I think that the two points of ‘discovery’ can be difficult to accept, but the questions you propose are exactly what we should be asking. Educational experiences are taking on more diverse forms, not entirely replacing one with another.

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  4. Absolutely right! It’s great that the Ivy Leaguers have brought online learning into the spotlight, after mostly ignoring it for 3 decades. But they need to suppress the arrogant assumption that only they know what they’re talking about when it comes to online learning. e.g. Daphne Koller in her TED lecture, “What we’re learning from online education”. http://tinyurl.com/c8lkvsp

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