I’ve been fascinated by the rhetoric surrounding MOOCs, and the storylines and narratives that are shared by providers of these initiatives.
One of the main storylines around MOOCs focuses on amazing individuals that overcome insurmountable struggles to succeed (e.g., individuals in conflict-ridden Afghanistan and Syria). I believe that we can all agree that these stories are inspiring. As I’ve argued in the past, these individuals are extraordinary. They will succeed despite shortcomings in pedagogy, platform, design, etc. These individuals can serve as role models, and they should be celebrated.
At the same time, one has to wonder about the numerous individuals that have struggled and abandoned MOOCs, individuals whose life circumstances, motivations, and needs negatively impact their learning. These stories, the stories of the individuals who are struggling, are rarely shared. They are, in fact, hidden. They become figures and statistics (e.g., “90% dropped out” or “82% completed the first two assignments), and as such their stories remain untold.
I have just returned from the University of New Hampshire where I gave a keynote talk at the 12th annual Faculty Instructional Technology Summer Institute. My hosts (Terri, Stephanie, Marshall, Dan, Ken, Shane) organized an excellent event and were so welcoming and gracious that it was difficult to leave!
Photo courtesy of UNH Information Technology
This year’s faculty member participants represented departments that have launched or were exploring the launch of an online program. Professional development events like this one have a number of goals including helping participants understand online education, gain technological and pedagogical skills, alleviate anxiety, share, foster community, and create a sense of shared purpose.
My talk focused on exploring the opportunities, challenges, truths, myths, and realities of online education. I argued that our goal as educators and designers is to create and foster learning experiences and opportunities that are effective, fulfilling, inspiring, meaningful, caring, empowering, and democratic. Using this goal as the starting point, my fellow faculty members and I explored the online learning landscape and discussed a variety of topics that included the “no significant difference phenomenon” as it pertains to online vs. face-to-face education, competency-based models, disaggregation and unbundling, online program management services, the role of the faculty member, the quest for efficiency and automation, and openness.
I am including my presentation below. This is the first talk in which I included practical advice and simple strategies that a faculty member new to online learning may find helpful in their teaching. If you are interested in that aspect of online education make sure to explore the last few slides of my talk.
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.
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.
In reading the Higher Ed story about the new institutions joining Coursera, I am reminded of one of my favorite texts: Davies’ (1993) Shards of Glass. This wonderful book is a story of binaries describing how texts influence the way children think about their gender, themselves, and others. Davies notes that texts inscribe children’s reality. Children, influenced by the texts that permeate their world, adopt storylines that shape the ways they view the world and act within it. If we take this stance as one possibility of how perceptions of gendered identity are formed, one question to ask is: Do children abide by dominant storylines that keep their gender in place? Davies would argue that they do – hence her attempt to empower children with alternative discourses. Such discourses go beyond the male-female binary and the conceptions that “male” ought to represent masculinity and “female” ought to represent femininity.
Female – Male.
Real – Virtual.
. . .
The Higher Ed story notes:
“The partnerships announced this week also represent a break from Coursera’s plans to work only with elite institutions.”
“To partner with so many institutions, however, Coursera will sidestep a contractual obligation to primarily offer courses from members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America. It will do so by creating a new section of its website to house material from the less-than-elite state universities. This different section will offer MOOCs but will be branded in a different way.”
Elite – Non-elite
How does this lens, this perception of educational institutions affect the way we view and act in the world as students, faculty members, administrators, and educational technology designers/developers?
. . .
Davies, B. (1993). Shards of glass. Sydney: Southwood Press.