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Researchers Push MOOC Conversation Beyond ‘Tsunami’ Metaphors

Arlington, Tex. — Dozens of higher-education researchers convened here last week, in the midst of a snowstorm, to talk about a tsunami.

Massive open online courses have been a hot topic at higher-education conferences for about two years. But the objective of the MOOC Research Initiative Conference, which brought together dozens of researchers from universities involved in MOOCs, was to move beyond the hype and try to begin sorting out what, exactly, the courses might mean for various parts of higher education.

The literature on MOOCs so far has been largely limited to articles in the popular media, which tend to suggest, in general terms, that traditional courses “would be replaced by MOOCs, transformed by MOOCs, there would be a tsunami, there would be all these natural-disaster terms,” said Bonnie Stewart, a writer and doctoral student at the University of Prince Edward Island.

Practitioners of higher education, meanwhile, tend to talk, in less dramatic terms, about “using MOOCs in ways that fit the purposes of our specific institutions,” she said. Those conversations require serious research.

The MOOC Research Initiative, which is bankrolled by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, aims to create that more serious literature. The initiative has given researchers $10,000 to $25,000 each to collect and analyze data from MOOCs. Eventually those research projects will turn into papers, the best of which will appear next spring in an issue of The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, a peer-reviewed journal.

For now, the researchers huddled against a winter storm in a convention center here, informally presenting some early data and picking one another’s brains.

One research team, from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, is trying to figure out if MOOCs can help low-income learners land jobs. The researchers are focusing on a subset of students taking Michigan MOOCs who say they registered for the course because they could not afford a formal college education.

The Michigan researchers did not have any answers yet to the big question of whether MOOCs can make people people upwardly mobile; thus far, they have analyzed data from only one course, “Model Thinking.” They did note, however, that low-income learners in that course were not significantly less likely to earn a certificate.

Another team, from Duke University and the nonprofit research group RTI International, is studying how employers are looking at MOOCs. Some very early data from that study suggest that companies might be more interested in using MOOCs for professional development, rather than for recruiting new employees. But Alexandria Radford, a program director at RTI, cautioned that it would be premature to treat those findings as anything but lightly informed speculation.

Such caveats were a running theme throughout the conference. The sessions were conversational, with the presenters occasionally wondering aloud about their methodologies and audience members breaking in with suggestions. The objective of the researchers here is to eventually produce robust research that administrators and faculty members could use, in lieu of generalizations and tsunami metaphors, to inform their decisions. But the conference itself was just a prelude.

“These data aren’t complete yet,” said Shaun Kellogg, a researcher from North Carolina State University, of his own presentation, echoing a popular refrain, “so sort of disregard everything that you see here.”

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