Are MOOCs immune to rigorous investigation?

The title of this post is taken from David Wiley’s blog post that he made earlier this year. And this week on Twitter Apostolos Koutropoulos commented that there is currently a lot of comment on MOOCs, but much less research.

David Wiley mentions that his PhD student is researching MOOCs and I know that Eleni Boursinou of the Caledonian Academy in Glasgow – is researching the FSLT12 MOOC, so I suspect there are many more PhD students who are investigating MOOCs.

I think it’s probably true that there is more comment on MOOCs than published research, but the body of research is slowly growing. Here are a couple of links which point to research and there are more:

A Wikipedia site

Rita Kop and colleagues’s publications

Recently I worked with George Roberts, Marion Waite and Liz Lovegrove (from Oxford Brookes University), Joe Rosa (Cambridge University) and Sylvia Currie, BC Campus Canada (see Tutor Team), to develop and run the FSLT12 MOOC earlier this year. A funding  requirement of this MOOC is to follow it up with research.

Yesterday we had a full day review/research meeting in Oxford, on an exceptionally hot day, which made Oxford’s yellow sandstone buildings look spectacular, but made concentration a bit difficult …… but we had a very enjoyable and ultimately productive day, fuelled by edible treats and celebrated at the end of the day with a bottle of Prosecco! Thanks George and Marion 🙂

We have decided on four research papers, which we hope will reach different audiences.

  1. What evidence is there for the ways people learn in MOOCs (I will lead on this one). Audience – Studies in Higher Education or BERJ
  2. How do you design and plan a MOOC? (George will lead on this one). Audience – JIME or JCAL?
  3. Differential participation and designing for differentiation (Marion will lead this one). Audience – IRRODL
  4. The First Steps curriculum – a case study (Liz will lead this one). Audience – BeJLT and Press release for ALT, HEA, SEDA, JISC ?

We are keen to get this research out as quickly as possible. This will be a challenge for me. I am naturally a ‘slow’ researcher, but I acknowledge that there is a balance to be achieved between reflective, well thought through research and ‘missing the boat’ in relation to the fast moving conversation and developments around MOOCs.

As I have experienced before, it is difficult to know how open to be about ongoing research, i.e. in what sense might openness in the research process compromise the research. I would like to keep posting about our progress and hopefully this won’t compromise the research. In particular I would welcome any thoughts about any of the questions we have and particularly welcome any references to others who have researched and published in similar areas.

Before finishing this post I am going to do a plug here for staying in Exeter College if you ever go to Oxford.

Exeter College, Oxford

My room was a bit noisy so be sure to ask for a room in a quiet area – or even next to the chapel where you might be treated to a Baroque Music Concert; you might even end up in the Chapel at 4.00 am because of a false fire alarm, as I did

The Chapel, Exeter College, Oxford
The Chapel, Exeter College, Oxford

but when you walk into breakfast in this setting, everything is forgiven.

Breakfast in Exeter College Dining Hall, Oxford
Breakfast in Exeter College Dining Hall, Oxford University

Oxford really is an amazing place.

I hope we will be able to show that MOOCs are not immune to rigorous investigation and add to the increasing body of respected research.

11 thoughts on “Are MOOCs immune to rigorous investigation?

  1. Scott Johnson July 28, 2012 / 2:13 am

    Hi Jenny,

    Osvaldo Rodriguez commented on his blog about the lack of research over simple speculation on MOOCs:

    Dave Wiley’s comment * Caught my attention because it never occurred to me to participate in a MOOC to attain a specific outcome. This suggests to me that (in my case) the process and maybe raw curiosity drew me in. I always felt there was something compelling in school that kept me at it even though I couldn’t identify it. Being awful at the necessary mechanics of the education machine didn’t—but didn’t drive me away either. This is something like the feeling in a MOOC, pleasantly incompetent while gaining on some unknown destination.

    * Rather than asking, “did engaging in this highly designed set of activities help a person learn what we were hoping they would learn?” we might instead ask, “did engaging in a unique set of activities help this person reach the specific outcome(s) they were hoping to achieve when they enrolled in the MOOC?”

    How to quantify the intuitive hunch are valuable? How do you study something so new? Something without a history, still in the process of making itself? The barrier to naming what MOOCs are may be the absence of certain purpose in a world where being purposeful is so important? It’s very brave to take this type of research on so good luck!


  2. helinurmi July 29, 2012 / 9:28 am

    Hi Jenny, you have an interesting topic here.

    I think David Wiley summarizes well the problem. If anyone does whatever he/she wants, what happens? It is like meeting in a party and having some smalltalk. How could we measure it? We can tell stories and believe what the participants say..

    I consider Eleni B research interesting, she made some good questions which I should answer more carefully (the second phase going on). And I like a lot your topic in fslt12
    What evidence is there for the ways people learn in MOOCs ? Perhaps I write a blog post to go further in my fslt experiences before I forget them. So you can use them as well as Eleni B.

  3. jennymackness July 29, 2012 / 12:32 pm

    Hi Scott – many thanks for sharing your thoughts and for the link to Osvaldo’s post. As Vanessa comments on that post, it is increasingly difficult to keep up with all the posts that are being made.

    I like your idea of feeling ‘pleasantly incompetent’ in MOOCs. Maybe they provide an environment in which it feels safe to be ‘consciously incompetent’ – unlike in the workplace.

    And if has also been my experience, that I join MOOCs without explicit specific intended outcomes. I will be interested to see the result of the research that Allison Littlejohn is doing in Glasgow – on self-regulated learning in MOOCs.

    Thanks for your good wishes.

  4. jennymackness July 29, 2012 / 12:36 pm

    Hi Heli – do we need to measure learning for it to be of value? I remember Dave Cormier once saying that measurement can destroy the very thing it is trying to measure – or words to that effect. Hope I haven’t misquoted him.

    Is looking for evidence the same thing as measuring? Interesting point. You have got me thinking now 🙂

    I look forward to reading your post about Eleni B’s research questions.

    Thanks for your visit,

  5. George Veletsianos July 30, 2012 / 3:53 am

    I look forward to seeing your research, Jenny! I’m doing some thinking on the topic as well, and I think we have a long ways to go before we make sense of this topic. The hype surrounding MOOCs is disproportionately larger than the research on them, and it would be worthwhile to delve into deep analyses of various outcomes and issues associated with them. As with other emerging topics, it appears that research on MOOCs will initially focus on formative evaluations and case studies, reflecting our initial attempts to make sense of this phenomenon, and slowly evolve from there. You can see this argument in a chapter I wrote a couple of years back here:
    Thanks for sharing your work, and I look forward to learning more from your work!

  6. jennymackness July 31, 2012 / 8:12 am

    Hi George – many thanks for your interest and it’s good to know that you are researching similar topics. Thanks in particular for the link to your article which I will share with my colleagues. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet – but I look forward to doing so. I hope to keep making posts about our progress and look forward to receiving further comments from you.


  7. Chrissi Nerantzi October 28, 2013 / 5:22 pm

    Hi Jenny,

    I was searching for a specific paper around the Oxford Brookes MOOC and came across your blog. Haven’t found the paper yet…

    I am going to add your url to my webspace, so that I can access yours more regularly. 😉

    What you say about the amount of information about MOOCs is so true and I feel overwhelmed/ I am one of the PhD students in open academic practice you mention, specifically looking at open courses in the context of academic development. It would be lovely connect and find out more about your work and I hope this will be possible.

    Chrissi (Nerantzi)

  8. jennymackness October 29, 2013 / 4:31 pm

    Hi Chrissi – yes it would be lovely to connect and shouldn’t be so difficult since you are just down the road from me in Manchester. I live near Lancaster. I’ll email you.

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