Who studies MOOCs? (or, thinking with Siemens & Downes)
If it wasn’t abundantly clear by now, George Siemens and Stephen Downes are two individuals that are making significant contributions to the field. I respect them both and I enjoy engaging with their work. They have been having a conversation regarding the research and academic diversity in MOOCs, (here and here and here) as a result of a report that George and colleagues released on the history and current state of blended, distance, and online education.
I am writing to add to that conversation because my colleagues and I analyzed some parts of the literature published on MOOCs, and have some results that are relevant and interesting. The paper is under review but the editor gave me permission to share our findings.
We studied the disciplinary distribution of the authors who published MOOC research in 2013-2015 and compared it to the submissions to the MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) reported in Gašević et al., (2014). Our tests showed that the MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 differed significantly from the MRI submissions: our corpus had a greater representation of authors from Computer Science and the Gašević et al., corpus had a greater representation of authors from Education and Industry. In other words, our corpus was less dominated by authors from the field of education than were the MRI submissions. One of Downes criticisms is the following: “the studies are conducted by people without a background in education.” This finding lends some support to his claim, though a lot of the research on MOOCs is from people affiliated with education, but to support that claim further one could examine the content of this papers and identify whether an educational theory is guiding their investigations.
We also compared author affiliation information in our papers with the papers used in Liyanagunawardena et al.’s (2013) review of the 2008-2012 MOOC literature. We found that the two samples differed significantly. For example, the Liyanagunawardena et al. corpus was relatively over-represented in the Independent Researcher category. This result suggests that the bodies of literature published in 2008-2012 and 2013-2015 differ in significant ways. This may or may not hold true for the writing that has occurred in blogs, unpublished reports etc. We don’t know and we haven’t studied that.
Finally, and most significantly, we found that the disciplinary makeup of the literature is changing over time: there’s greater interdisciplinary activity in MOOC research now than in the past. This result is very interesting and its implications are worth examining. Suffice to say that this provides opportunities (can we capitalize on the expertise of one another to improve education?) and challenges (are newcomers to the field capitalizing on what we now about the science of learning?). The move to greater inter- and cross- disciplinarity in the field is evident in other initiatives. See for example, the Digital Learning Research Network.
Keep in mind that this research faces some of the same limitations raised by Downes (i.e. like Siemens, our inclusion criteria mean that some research is included while other is excluded). However, it also addresses some of those criticisms. For example, we tried to verify whether some of our results could have arisen by chance by running 10,000 computer simulations on the samples. The computer is confident that they could not have arisen by chance.
I’m hoping this paper will be out of peer-review soon so that I can share, but I’m thankful to the editor that allowed us to share our findings.