Growing body of research into MOOCs

In the last few months the number of published research papers, which focus on MOOCs has significantly increased and this looks to continue.

In May eLearning Papers published a special issue on MOOCs – MOOCs and Beyond

In June the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching published a special issue on MOOCs –  and this included a paper that I worked on with colleagues from Oxford Brookes University.

Another special issue this summer came from the Research and Practice in Assessment Journal – MOOCs and Technology

There has been a call for papers on MOOCs for the EMOOCS2014 conference in Switzerland in February …

… and a similar call from the journal Distance Education for a special issue to be published in April 2014

There are also papers about MOOCs which are not published in special issues. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning often publishes papers on MOOCs. Their most recent edition has included another paper written with my Oxford Brookes colleagues:

Mackness, J., Waite, M., Roberts, G., & Lovegrove, E. (2013). Learning in a small, task-oriented, connectivist MOOC: Pedagogical Issues and Implications for Higher Education. [S.l.], v. 14, n. 4. IRRODL

And there are many more, both already published and in the pipeline – see, for example, the conference that is being organized by George Siemens

University of Texas Arlington December 5-6, 2013: MOOCs and Emerging Educational Models: Policy, Practice, and Learning.

and the call for papers from the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (JCal) which, ironically, although prestigious is a closed journal – Learning Analytics in Massively Multiuser Virtual Environments and Courses

It is in the most recent issue of JCal that perhaps one of the most interesting articles from this whole list has emerged  – a critique, or perhaps more accurately a criticism, of connectivism.  Connectivism is the proposed learning theory that started off this MOOC ‘tsunami’ (as some have called it), although I wonder if all those who convene MOOCs know about connectivism. But Clarà and Barberà think they do.

Clarà, M. & Barberà, E. (2013).  Three problems with the connectivist conception of learning Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.

But even more interesting than the article is Stephen Downes’ response on his Half an Hour Blog – On the Three of Four Problems of Connectivism

This was published within days of the Clarà and Barberà article appearing in JCal, for free, on his blog.

So it’s worth remembering that high quality writing about MOOCs and MOOC issues will not always be in journals or conference papers, open or closed.

06-10-13 Postscript

Frances Bell’s comment about connectivism – below (see the link to her 2011 article) – and the number of times this post has been tweeted has made me think that it might be useful to mention a couple of other sources of MOOC research.

Rita Kop has been publishing papers about MOOCs since 2010. See

Research Publications on Massive Open Online Courses and Personal Learning Environments

In 2011 there was an IRRODL special issue on connectivism – pre-xMOOC ideas:

Special Issue – Connectivism: Design and Delivery of Social Networked Learning

And this year – again in IRRODL – Tharindu Liyanagunawardena et al. published a systematic study of MOOC literature 2008-2012.

So whereas in 2008, there was virtually no literature to draw on when writing a paper about MOOCs,  there is now more and more.

07-10-2013 PPS

As noted above, not all quality writing about MOOCs and connectivism is in published journals. A good place to start to find out what is not, is on Stephen Downes’ website. See Posts about MOOCs.

18 thoughts on “Growing body of research into MOOCs

  1. Matthias October 5, 2013 / 7:48 pm

    You wrtte “in the most recent issue”, but clicking on the link shows “Early View (Online Version of Record published before inclusion in an issue)”. So Downes’ rebuttal is actually before the forthcoming issue.

  2. jennymackness October 6, 2013 / 7:53 am

    Thanks for pointing that out Matthias – and ‘Yes’ the article is only available (at a cost) online at the moment. It’s interesting though, isn’t it, that had Stephen gone down the traditional route of publishing a response in JCal, then it could easily have been up to another year before it was published! And it’s also interesting that now that his response is on his blog, Clarà and Barberà’s article will likely receive a lot more attention than it would have otherwise 🙂

  3. francesbell October 6, 2013 / 10:18 am

    I am frustrated by my lack of access to JCAL because I have worked out that is where the first criticism to which Stephen responds must be, namely the development of a learning theory under academic ‘scrutiny’. Stephen’s interpretation (of something I haven’t read) seems to raise some interesting issues about what the theory of connectivism is? in 2008 prior to the first connectivism MOOC and now? For a learning theory to develop, it suggests that it must change. So I am wondering how the research that you and others have done is changing the theory of connectivism,.and if it is, where can we see the trace of that development. A subject of lively debate on CCK08 was the Groups vs Networks conceptualisation that seem to have morphed into the cMOOC principles of learning that you address in your work .I can see how your work can impact on future research and practice in MOOCs, but what difference does it make to the theory(ies) of connectivism and connective knowledge?
    Are the concepts of connectivism and connective knowledge (or for that matter groups and networks) ‘plastic’? and if so, can we see them changing shape?
    I tried to deal with the ways in which we might use theory(ies) including connectivism in research and practice of technology-enabled learning in this article
    As they say on Facebook – it’s complicated

  4. jennymackness October 6, 2013 / 3:24 pm

    Hi Frances – This is an interesting question that you raise – does a learning theory change as a result of research? I don’t know the answer to this. I suppose we would have to look for the evidence.

    I have in the past been hesitant to call connectivism a learning theory – it seems to me that the jury is still out on this – and the ideas are still developing. This was apparent in George Siemen’s blog post last year (which you commented on), where it is clear that he is still struggling to articulate some of his thinking around connectivism and views moocs and the theory that informs them as emergent and the ideas in flux –

    At what point do the ideas around connectivism stop being emergent and become more ‘fixed’ and generally accepted as a learning theory?

    I need to read the Clara and Barbera articles and Stephen’s response again, more carefully, before making any further comments.

    I’m going to add a postscript to this blog post about earlier research on MOOCs, including yours 🙂

    Thanks for the thought-provoking question.


  5. francesbell October 6, 2013 / 11:00 pm

    I could say What’s the point of research if it doesn’t confirm or change theory? Ideas can be debated from a completely logical perspective but in the messy world of human action in a technological landscape I think that data-rich research can help us understand what’s happening and what might be possible. What theory wouldn’t be malleable in those circumstances?

  6. Stephen Downes October 7, 2013 / 12:16 am

    To answer the salient question: yes, I do think research influences theory, or at least, the theories I work on, but the route isn’t straightforward and simple.

    For example, several of the responses to Clarà & Barberà were based on thinking I did in preparation for a debate with Diana Laurillard last year – – but I only revisited my slides and audio on that today, several days after I wrote the reply.

    What happens is that each time I write a reply or give a talk, I typically rethink the ideas afresh. Sometimes they bend a bit, sometimes they are retrenched, sometimes they are abandoned (though I admit that the latter doesn’t happen very frequently).

    In the current case, George Siemens sent me a copy of the Clarà & Barberà paper, and I happened to have a free afternoon, so I wrote a response. Normally I have no time to give to closed-access publications.

    A lot of the literature – including the Clarà & Barberà paper – is concerned about whether connectivism is a theory or not. The question presupposes that connectivism should take a certain form and content. It presupposes this incorrectly.

    That said, most of the literature on MOOCs says nothing about the approach I have developed and endorse. What am I supposed to learn from Tharindu Liyanagunawardena et al, which did not even consider any of what I wrote worth including as part of the literature on MOOCs? I go though an awful lot of such literature, and while yes, it’s about MOOCs, it doesn’t change my understanding of connectivism because it doesn’t talk about it.

  7. jennymackness October 7, 2013 / 7:58 am

    Thanks Frances and Stephen. Some further thoughts from me – and I really do need to give this whole subject a lot more thinking time. I certainly haven’t got my head round it yet!

    >each time I write a reply or give a talk, I typically rethink the ideas afresh. Sometimes they bend a bit, sometimes they are retrenched, sometimes they are abandoned (though I admit that the latter doesn’t happen very frequently).

    Presumably then a theory becomes more widely accepted as a theory, when ideas pretty much cease to be abandoned, although I can see that ideas could continue to bend a bit.

    > A lot of the literature – including the Clarà & Barberà paper – is concerned about whether connectivism is a theory or not. The question presupposes that connectivism should take a certain form and content. It presupposes this incorrectly.

    Is that the question? For me the question more about trying to understand exactly what is a theory and at what point a set of ideas become a theory. And if it’s not that, then are you saying that its immaterial whether connectivism is a theory or not? I have probably not understood your point Stephen.

    I feel another postscript coming on 🙂

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