The Direction of MOOC Research

After 2 years of MOOC mania, the time has come for increasing the output of MOOC research. But what direction is that research taking – what direction should it take?

At the beginning of the month George Siemens convened a MOOC conference – (with funding from Bill and Melinda Gates) – which was billed as the MOOC conference of all MOOC conferences – pulling together many of the big names associated with MOOCs. And, by all accounts, it was a great conference – the conversations must have been fascinating.

Given that I couldn’t attend, I have been watching the Twitter stream quite closely and am following the blog posts that are emerging now that delegates have managed to return home after being stuck in Dallas in an unexpected ice storm .

From my reading of some of the follow up tweets and posts it seems that despite the bonhomie, there were some divisions between the delegates, although they may not have been openly discussed at the time.

I was alerted to this first by a tweet from Stephen Downes who wrote:

#MRI13 – seeing more and more the gulf between my own approach to MOOCs and those from the xMOOC perspective…

And then by a blog post from Ralf St.Clair  who has suggested that there were three groups in the conference delegates and these were not necessarily compatible:

The first, and the most fun, are the techno-utopians. These folks believe that the issues of MOOCs are fundamentally technical, and once we have a better [insert tool here e.g. marking algorithm] then we really will have a widespread and powerful democratisation of knowledge.

The second group are the Educational Idealists, who fret about structure and pedagogy and rigour. That’s the group I belong to, through frankly I’d rather be in the first group. They have all the good tunes.

The third group are the Administrative Puritans, focused on return on investment, costs, and monetisation so that MOOCs can pay their (considerable) way.

Bonnie Stewart  also noted that there were groups who did not appear to know how to talk to each other and wrote in her recent blog post

I think ‘what’s next?’ is working out the conversation IN the metaphorical van. Some who see MOOCs as learning focus on the pursuit of its ever-more-finely-honed measurement. Others are more inclined to dismiss measurement as irrelevant to the networked synthesis of ideas that forms the backbone of their approach to education. A hundred more do something in between. We don’t necessarily know how to talk to each other. It became evident around the Arlington bar tables last week that the chasms between practitioners’ varying versions of learning and knowledge are so deep some aren’t even really aware that the rest of us are IN the van.

Then there have been a couple of blog posts from Martin Weller and Martin Hawksey that suggest that the emphasis on big data research might not be exactly what is needed  – It was easy to forget you were talking about learners, and not sales of baked beans. (Martin Weller).

These posts were interesting given that my own research into MOOCs has always been on the learner experience. Whilst there is a lot to learn from big data, we also need to keep the focus on the learner and try and understand the changes that are happening in learners themselves in these new open online learning environments. My experience is that it is difficult to square this interest in the unique individual experience with the massive number of MOOC participants.

There have also been interesting discussions about the role of theory in relation to MOOC research and the suggestion that we are moving from theory-led to evidence-based research – i.e. post-theory  ( See Martin Weller’s blog post and this post by Mike Caulfield). My own thinking is that perhaps we need more theory – not less – and in particular we need more discussion around the proposed theory of connectivism, which only a few researchers have, to date, been prepared to engage in.

Post conference reflections, tweets and blog posts are still coming in and the discussion remains very interesting.  Here are some of the posts that have caught my eye

Bodong Chen – Top Links from the MOOC Research Conference Twitter Backchannel (#MRI13)

Matt Crosslin – Give Me an M! Give Me a C! Blah Blah Blah To All This Theory

Keith Devlin – The MOOC Express – Less Hype, More Hope

Lori Breslow, Donald Clark, Professor Asha Kanwar, Stephen Downes – EduDebate: What Future for MOOCs

Michael Feldstein – Changing the Narrative

I picked up most of these from the conference Twitter stream  (#mri13 )

38 thoughts on “The Direction of MOOC Research

  1. Mark McGuire December 11, 2013 / 10:57 pm

    Thanks, Jenny. I totally missed the #MRI13 event and stream.

    Regarding the quote from Ralf St.Clair, their is another perspective, which isn’t getting much attention — the political economy of MOOCs. I just read “Unbundling Higher Education, A Doubly Updated Framework” by Michael Station (@mpstaton http://goo.gl/aHnkha via @Downes). Searching for Terry Anderson and Rory McGreal’s work on unbundling (I heard their presentation at OpenEd12 in Vancouver and found this: http://goo.gl/uF9SLR), I came across John Holmwood’s post from March 2013: “The rhetoric which surrounds MOOCs can distract us from the broader project of ‘unbundling’ the University in pursuit of profit” (http://goo.gl/HxdD2W, http://goo.gl/D68kZ7).

    We need to remind ourselves that higher education sits within an increasingly market-driven environment, and open strategies can be easily co-opted by those who profit from closed corrals. Every manifesto advancing the cause of open education should include the rallying cry “Don’t fence me in!” (http://goo.gl/UZeRSj).

  2. jennymackness December 12, 2013 / 8:37 am

    Hi Mark – thanks for this comment and interesting links. ‘Openness’ and ‘Don’t fence me in’ is a great way to express what I have sensed is somewhere under the surface of recent developments around MOOCs. It certainly resonates with my thinking.

  3. Mark McGuire December 12, 2013 / 8:44 am

    Hi Jenny. Not everyone is jumping on (or following) the MOOC bandwagon for the same reasons — or with the same agendas. I guess we just have to keep our critical faculties sharp.

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