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New Research Effort Aims to Examine Effectiveness of MOOCs

As more and more colleges experiment with massive open online courses, or MOOCs, a new project hopes to cut through the hype and gauge the effectiveness of the courses.

The MOOC Research Initiative, financed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will award grants of $10,000 to $25,000 to researchers seeking to explore issues such as student experiences in MOOCs and the free courses’ systemic impact.

The initiative is aimed at “any group of academics who’ve ‘heard death by MOOCs’ and want to move past the hype and start looking at the actual research around open online courses,” said a co-founder of the project, George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, in Alberta. Mr. Siemens was one of the first professors to teach a MOOC, in 2008.

Along with Stephen Downes, of Canada’s National Research Council, Mr. Siemens designed and taught that course, “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge,” which was completed online by about 2,500 students. He has since taught more than a dozen MOOCs.

Mr. Siemens acknowledged the deep impact of such courses, but he said he wanted to find out exactly what that impact looked like. “A lot of proclamations are being made by prominent media folks talking about just how wonderful MOOCs are,” said Mr. Siemens. “The voice absent has been that of the faculty and the learners. We want to target the designer experience and faculty experience as well.”

The initiative, which kicked off on June 5, will accept research proposals until July 7. Grantees will present preliminary findings at a conference in December, and their final results will be released in early 2014. Mr. Siemens acknowledged the aggressive nature of the project’s timeline, but he said that given the speedy adoption of MOOCs at universities nationwide, it is appropriate to produce evidence and disseminate it as quickly as possible.

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