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

The research that MOOCs need


Posted on June 5th, by George Veletsianos in sharing. 62 comments

Even though the concept of the Massive Open Online Course has become wildly popular during the last year, empirical research on these initiatives is largely absent.

On the one hand, this is not surprising. The fact that the research that exists in the literature falls under the case study approach is not surprising either. Historically, the research that characterizes emerging practices has been formative and focused on specific case studies (Dede, 1996). Research on connectivist MOOCs is available (e.g., see Fournier’s and Kop’s work), but research on other types of open courses is just slowly starting to emerge (e.g., see the work of the Lytics Lab and the research pertaining to P2PU). I hope and expect that a forthcoming special issue from JOLT focusing on MOOCs will add much needed insight.

The important questions that I believe we should be asking at this point are: What education-specific research will be beneficial to the field? What do we need to know? And how should we go about investigating what we need to know about? Systematic empirical research can (a) generate a deeper understanding of this phenomenon, (b) provide evidence to support or refute the claims surrounding MOOCs, and (c) help universities and MOOC providers enhance course offerings.

What follows is a set of research questions that, if answered, will generate insights into learner/instructor experiences, outcomes, practices, and interaction in massive open online learning courses:

  • What are the learning outcomes of MOOCs?
  • Who successfully completes MOOCs? What are the shared characteristics of the individuals who successfully complete MOOCs? For instance, past research shows that there’s a strong positive relationship between prior knowledge and learning (Dochy, Segers, & Buehl, 1999). It would not be a stretch to expect this to transfer to MOOCs.
  • Why do learners sign-up for MOOCs? Note that this is an empirical question. We can surmise why they do, but asking them may yield different answers… or may bolster what we already think we are seeing.
  • What factors cause learners to persist or cease participation in MOOCs? The concepts of “dropping out” and “retention” are not new (e.g., The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a story in 2000 that was entitled “As Distance Education Comes of Age, the Challenge Is Keeping the Students“),  have already been examined in the broader online learning literature (e.g., Park & Choi, 2009), and a number of models exists to explain dropout (e.g.,Bean & Metzner, 1985). Recent evidence highlights that academic locus of control and self-regulation are factors that mediate persistence in online learning (Lee, Choi, & Kim, 2013). However, the concept of “drop out” has historically been associated with for-credit endeavors. With  large numbers of individuals seemingly enrolling in MOOCs out of sheer interest and curiosity, and perhaps merely exploring their options, what new knowledge can we gain about this issue? Koller, Ng, Do, and Chen (2013) add nuance to this discussion by adding the idea that “student intent” is important in this discussion, which I think is worthwhile. However, even with this variable in mind, we should still ask: What factors cause learners to persist or cease participation? Intent can be defined ex post facto by looking at the coursera data, but intent changes over time. For example, one may sign up for a course intending to complete it, but for various reasons (e.g., unrealistic expectations, lack of time, bad course design) may cease participation. Conversely, one may sign up for a course to simply explore a topic but may stay (e.g., a supportive community encourages ongoing participation).
  • What is the learning experience like in a MOOC? How does this experience differ across designs and pedagogical models?
  • How do learning communities and groups develop, grow, and dissipate in MOOCs, in both online spaces (e.g., Facebook groups) and face-to-face spaces (e.g., mediated by Meetups)?
  • What factors are critical in sustaining learner interest, motivation, and participation in a MOOC?

A number of initiatives are in place at present to examine MOOCs. For example, HarvardX has established a research committee headed by Andrew Ho, a professor of education, to conduct research on EdX; Justin Reich is joining the HarvardX team as a Research Fellow; George Siemens, Valerie Irvine, and Jillianne Code are editing a special issue focused on MOOCs for the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (pdf); and the Journal of Universal Computer Science is also hosting a special issue focused on Interaction in MOOCs (pdf). Such initiatives will go a long way in providing much needed empirical results on the topic.

References

Dede, C. (1996). Emerging technologies and distributed learning. American Journal of Distance Education, 10(2), 4-36.

Dochy, F., Segers, M., & Buehl, M. (1999). The relation between assessment practices and outcomes of studies: The case of research on prior knowledge. Review of Educational Research, 69, (2), 145-186.

Lee, Y., Choi, J. and Kim, T. (2013), Discriminating factors between completers of and dropouts from online learning courses. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(2), 328–337.
Park, J.-H., & Choi, H. J. (2009). Factors Influencing Adult Learners’ Decision to Drop Out or Persist in Online Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 12 (4), 207–217.




62 thoughts on “The research that MOOCs need

  1. In fact I challenged Dr. John Hennessy, the President of Stanford University with that very comment, that his “Courserans” had ignored the readily available research about what constitutes good online learning. He was being given an honorary degree at the University of Waterloo last October, but took time to offer a public lecture on “Online Education – The Coming Tsunami”. He had no answer, despite the fact that he had lectured as if Stanford had invented online learning. The developers of Coursera are mostly professors in technical disciplines & seem unaware of such things as online courses as communities of inquiry, collaborative learning & the use of social media.

  2. #1 priority is to tackle plagiarism using even simplest text comparison technology (Unix 1970). Just look a random UOttawa thesis or classwork assignment and you’ll see lots stolen from Wikipedia, sometimes garbled to be unrecognisable. Luddite lecturers and savvy students are a sure formula for plagiarism in higher education.

  3. I think the introduction of MOOCs is going to be great for the community, however, I see them as a supplement to higher education – not a replacement. The open courses (although run by some Ivy League and world class institutions) are not reproduction of the universities original course and do not offer academic credit or recognisable qualification. I think they will be around in the long-term future, but see their primary function being as a means of self-development.

  4. Thank you for your comment. Plagiarism isn’t as big of an issue as it is made out to be, actually. To solve this problem, I believe that we should see it as a symptom of deficient pedagogical practices, systemic issues, and failure to explain to the students plagiarism’s broader implications. Potential solutions include changing the ways we assess learning and the activities we assign. As someone who has read hundreds of essays, I can also tell you that plagiarism is quite easy to detect. The issue isn’t about “luddite” lecturers and “tech-savvy” students – it’s about having conversations with students about plagiarism, explaining to them what the issues are, developing trusting teacher-student relationships with them, and see them grow and learn.

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