Special edition on research on MOOCs in the journal ‘Distance Education’

August 14, 2014 Tony Bates
The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs

The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs; their results are still to come

The August 2014 edition of the Australian-based journal, Distance Education (Vol.35, No. 2.), is devoted to new research on MOOCs. There is a guest editor, Kemi Jona, from Northwestern University, Illinois, as well as the regular editor, Som Naidu.

The six articles in this edition are fascinating, both in terms of their content, but even more so in their diversity. There are also three commentaries, by Jon Baggaley, Gerhard Fischer and myself.

My commentary provides my personal analysis of the six articles.

MOOCs are a changing concept

In most of the literature and discussion about MOOCs, there is a tendency to talk about ‘instructionist’ MOOCs (i.e. Coursera, edX, Udacity, xMOOCs) or ‘connectivist’ MOOCs (i.e. Downes, Siemens, Cormier, cMOOCs). Although this is still a useful distinction, representing very different pedagogies and approaches, the articles in this edition show that MOOCs come in all sizes and varieties.

Indeed, it is clear that the design of MOOCs is undergoing rapid development, partly as a result of more players coming in to the market, partly because of the kinds of research now being conducted on MOOCs themselves, and, sadly much more slowly, a recognition by some of the newer players that much is already known about open and online education that needs to be applied to the design of MOOCs, while accepting that there are certain aspects, in particular the scale, that make MOOCs unique.

The diversity of MOOC designs

These articles illustrate clearly such developments. The MOOCs covered by the articles range from

  • MOOC video recorded lectures watched in isolation by learners (Adams et al.)
  • MOOC video lectures watched in co-located groups in a flipped classroom mode without instructor or tutorial support (Nan Li et al.)
  • MOOCs integrated into regular campus-based programs with some learner support (Firmin et al.)
  • MOOCs using participatory and/or connectivist pedagogy (Anderson, Knox)

Also the size of the different MOOC populations studied here differed enormously, from 54 students per course to 42,000.

It is also clear that MOOC material is being increasingly extracted from the ‘massive’, open context and used in very specific ‘closed’ contexts, such as flipped classrooms, at which point one questions the difference between such use of MOOCs and regular for-credit online programming, which in many cases also use recorded video lectures or online discussion and increasingly other sources of open educational materials. I would expect in such campus-based contexts the same quality standards to apply to the MOOC+ course designs as are already applied to credit-based online learning. Some of the research findings in these articles indirectly support the need for this.

The diversity of research questions on MOOCs

Almost as interesting is the range of questions covered by these articles, which include:

  • capturing the lived experience of being in a MOOC (Adams et al.; Knox)
  • the extent to which learners can/should create their own content, and the challenges around that (Knox; Andersen)
  • how watching video lectures in a group affects learner satisfaction (Nan Li et al.)
  • what ‘massive’ means in terms of a unique pedagogy (Knox)
  • the ethical implications of MOOCs (Marshall)
  • reasons for academic success and failure in ‘flipped’ MOOCs (Firmin et al.; Knox)

What is clear from the articles is that MOOCs raise some fundamental questions about the nature of learning in digital environments. In particular, the question of the extent to which learners need guidance and support in MOOCs, and how this can best be provided, were common themes across several of the papers, with no definitive answers.

The diversity of methodology in MOOC research

Not surprisingly, given the range of research questions, there is also a very wide range of methodologies used in the articles in this edition, ranging from

  • phenomenology (Adams),
  • heuristics (Marshall)
  • virtual ethnography (Knox; Andersen)
  • quasi-experimental comparisons (Nan Li et al.)
  • data and learning analytics (Firmin et al.)

The massiveness of MOOCs, their accessibility, and the wide range of questions they raise make the topic a very fertile area for research, and this is likely to generate new methods of research and analysis in the educational field.

Lessons learned

Readers are likely to draw a variety of conclusions from these studies. Here are mine:

  • the social aspect of learning is extremely important, and MOOCs offer great potential for exploiting this kind of learning, but organizing and managing social learning on a massive scale, without losing the potential advantages of collaboration at scale, is a major challenge that still remains to be adequately addressed. The Knox article in particular describes in graphic detail the sense of being overwhelmed by information in open connectivist MOOCs. We still lack methods or designs that properly support participants in such environments. This is a critical area for further research and development.
  • a lecture on video is still a lecture, whether watched in isolation or in groups. The more we attempt to support this transmissive model through organized group work, ‘facilitators’, or ‘advisors’ the closer we move towards conventional (and traditional) education and the further away from the core concept of a MOOC.
  • MOOCs have a unique place in the educational ecology. MOOCs are primarily instruments for non-formal learning. Trying to adapt MOOCs to the campus not only undermines their primary purpose, but risks moving institutions in the wrong direction. We would be better re-designing our large lecture classes from scratch, using criteria, methods and standards appropriate to the goals of formal higher education. My view is that in the long run, we will learn more from MOOCs about handling social learning at scale than about transmitting information at scale. We already know about that. It’s called broadcasting.
  • lastly, there was surprisingly little in the articles about what actual learning took place. In some cases, it was a deliberate research strategy not to enquire into this, relying more on student or instructor feelings and perceptions. While other potential benefits, such as institutional branding, stimulating interest, providing a network of connections, and so on, are important, the question remains: what are participants actually learning from MOOCs, and does this justify the hype and investment (both institutionally and in participants’ time) that surrounds them?

Cultural and ethical issues

The Marshall paper provides an excellent overview of ethical issues, but there is almost no representation of perspectives on MOOCs from outside Western contexts. I would have liked to have seen more on cultural and ethical issues arising from the globalization of MOOCs, based on actual cases or examples. Given the global implications of MOOCs, other perspectives are needed. Perhaps this is a topic for another issue.

Happy reading

I am sure you will be as fascinated and stimulated by these articles as I am. I am also sure you will come away with different conclusions from mine. I am sure we will see a flood of other articles soon on this topic. Nevertheless, these articles are important in setting the research agenda, and should be essential reading for MOOC designers as well as future researchers on this topic.

How to get the articles

To obtain access to these articles, go to: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cdie20/current#.U-1WqrxdWh1

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