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

Who studies MOOCs? (or, thinking with Siemens & Downes)


Posted on May 2nd, by George Veletsianos in my research, online learning, open, papers. 28 comments

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.





28 thoughts on “Who studies MOOCs? (or, thinking with Siemens & Downes)

  1. Pingback: elearnspace › The Linearity of Stephen Downes. Or a tale of two Stephens

  2. Thanks for this George and I look forward to reading the paper. 1 wasn’t sure what you meant by “relatively over-represented in the Independent Researcher category ” but I am sure I will once I have read the paper. Anyway, the statement brought up something I have been thinking about since moving from full-time academia to semi-retirement ie becoming a an independent researcher. So the point I wanted to make is that while rich studies can be done more easily within the academy – this beautiful paper with a rich but small study landed on my desktop this morning Gourlay, L. (2015). Open education as a “heterotopia of desire.” Learning, Media and Technology, (May), 1–18. doi:10.1080/17439884.2015.1029941 – there is a complementary role for independent research. Moving outside the academy has definitely shifted my perspective, and this is advantageous in some ways. In 2011 (from within the academy), I pointed out that much of the early MOOC research was unfunded (my own included) and recommended funded high quality research. I was thinking about rich qualitative studies and data analytics/ visualisations and combinations thereof.
    My new insights from outside the academy have tended to reinforce the impression I already had that quite a lot of research into learning and educational technology is provider- rather than learner-centric. There is quite a strong push to concentrate research and evaluation funds on interventions and applications of technologies rather than richer stories across individual lives and broader organisational contexts. This is where independent researchers can contribute I think. Perhaps more collaboration is in order. The students and staff in Lesley Gourlay’s study seemed almost to be co-researchers.

    • Hi Frances,

      > “relatively over-represented in the Independent Researcher category ” means that relative to the calculated average, there were more independent researchers studying MOOCs in 2008-2012 (the period studied by Liyanagunawardena et al). This is not surprising given that the MOOCs of that time were not part of the mainstream. There’s a really interesting finding here that Downes misunderstood in his response: The MOOCs of the time were also researched by people from a less diverse interdisciplinary background than the MOOCs of 2013-onwards. More on that on the paper.

      > You said “My new insights from outside the academy have tended to reinforce the impression I already had that quite a lot of research into learning and educational technology is provider- rather than learner-centric. There is quite a strong push to concentrate research and evaluation funds on interventions and applications of technologies rather than richer stories across individual lives and broader organisational contexts.”

      I can’t speak about educational technology in general because I don’t have data, but our research on MOOCs tends to support your feeling in the following way: While a lot of the MOOC research focuses on student-related areas, it’s definitely lacking input from students. This is why we are doing a special issue on learner experiences in MOOCs (it’s due out next month or so) and why my research team and I have been interviewing MOOC learners for the past 4 months. We have a paper that is coming out in BJET that explores some of these issues, and I think it will be online soon. I’ll post about it once it appears online.

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