Why do we need diverse methodologies to understand/improve digital learning?
One of the main arguments that we made in our recent paper on MOOCs, which is also the argument that I continue in this op ed piece published in Inside Higher Ed, is that the field needs to embrace diverse research methods to understand and improve digital learning. The following passage is from our paper, and given that the paper is quite long, I thought that posting it here might be helpful:
By capturing and analyzing digital data, the field of learning analytics promises great value and potential in understanding and improving learning and teaching. The focus on big data, log file analyses, and clickstream analytics in MOOCs is reflective of a broader societal trend towards big data analytics (Eynon, 2013; Selwyn, 2014) and toward greater accountability and measurement of student learning in higher education (Leahy, 2013; Moe, 2014). As technology becomes integrated in all aspects of education, the use of digital data and computational analysis techniques in education research will increase. However, an over-reliance on log file analyses and clickstream data to understand learning leaves many learner activities and experiences invisible to researchers.
While computational analyses are a powerful strategy for making a complex phenomenon tractable to human observation and interpretation, an overwhelming focus on any one methodology will fail to generate a complete understanding of individuals’ experiences, practices, and learning. The apparent over-reliance on MOOC platform clickstream data in the current literature poses a significant problem for understanding learning in and with MOOCs. Critics of big data in particular question what is missing from large data sets and what is privileged in the analyses of big data (e.g., boyd & Crawford, 2012). For instance, contextual factors such as economic forces, historical events, and politics are often excluded from clickstream data and analyses (Carr, 2014; Selwyn 2014). As a result, MOOC research frequently examines learning as an episodic and temporary event that is divorced from the context which surrounds it. While the observation of actions on digital learning environments allows researchers to report activities and behaviors, such reporting also needs an explanation as to why learners participate in MOOCs in the ways that they do. For example, in this research, participants reported that their participation in MOOCs varies according to the daily realities of their life and the context of the course. Learners’ descriptions of how these courses fit into their lives are a powerful reminder of the agency of each individual.
To gain a deeper and more diverse understanding of the MOOC phenomenon, researchers need to use multiple research methods. While clickstream data generates insights on observable behaviors, interpretive research approaches (e.g., ethnography, phenomenology, discourse analysis) add context to them. For example, Guo, Kim, and Rubin (2014), analyzed a large data set of MOOC video-watching behaviors, found that the median length of time spent watching a video is six minutes, and recommended that “instructors should segment videos into short chunks, ideally less than 6 minutes.” While dividing content into chunks aligns with psychological theories of learning (Miller, 1956), this finding does not explain why the median length of time learners spent watching videos is six minutes. Qualitative data and approaches can equip researchers to investigate the reasons why learners engage in video-watching behaviors in the ways that they do. For example, the median watching length of time might be associated with learner attention spans. On the other hand, multiple participants in this study noted that they were fitting the videos in-between other activities in their lives – thus shorter videos might be desirable for practical reasons: because they fit in individuals’ busy lives. Different reasons might be uncovered that explain why learners seem to engage with videos for six minutes, leading to different design inspirations and directions. Because the MOOC phenomenon, and its associated practices, are still at a nascent stage, interpretive approaches are valuable as they allow researchers to generate a refined understanding of meaning and scope of MOOCs. At the same time, it is significant to remember that a wholly interpretive approach to understanding learning in MOOCs will be equally deficient. Combining methods and pursuing an understanding of the MOOC phenomenon from multiple angles, while keeping in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each method, is the most productive avenue for future research.
A computational analysis and data science discourse is increasingly evident in educational technology research. This discourse posits that it is possible to tell a detailed and robust story about learning and teaching by relying on the depth and breadth of clickstream data. However, the findings in our research reveal meaningful learner activities and practices that evade data-capturing platforms and clickstream-based research. Off-platform experiences as described above (e.g., notetaking) call into question claims that can be made about learning that are limited to the activities that are observable on the MOOC platform. Further, the reasons that course content is consumed in the ways that it is exemplifies the opportunity to bring together multiple methodological approaches to researching online learning and participation.