MOOC research on student experience and social responsibility toward learners

Open Education Conference 2013
November 6-8, Utah

I am very excited about being in UTAH this week and presenting at OpenEd 13. Here are slides accompanying my presentation and below are listed other resources and a short description of the research. A full publication is currently being drafted.


View slides on Slideshare

Download reference list of peer-reviewed literature articles

Download reference list of blog articles

Methodology for literature and blogature searching and evaluation – coming in a wee while!


I am interested in our academic and social responsibility toward online learners. I don’t know a single academic past or present who is not entirely dedicated to supporting young people through their education. I just get the sense that just because some online learning is now free, academic institutions involved have just stopped caring.

My aim was to look at the literature and “blogature” surrounding massive open online courses (MOOCs) that has discussed academic standards, social responsibility, inclusivity and accessibility, and many of the other core values of an education institution. I conducted a systematic review of the literature and also evolved methods for identifying and evaluating other web-based literature such as blog articles.

What did I find?

In his keynote lecture at the OpenEd13 meeting, George Siemens reported on recent Gates-funded research around MOOCs, and identified there is certainly interest in good quality research being carried out. I guess I am a little surprised at the conference so far at the lack of speakers talking about any research underway. Mike Caulfield was one exception reporting on a really interesting study where a group of academics looked at using MOOCs in blended learning scenarios.

Hopefully my research will act as a bit of a primer in terms of identifying gaps and also making the plea (once again) for good quality work.

Whenever I research an educational field, as with my past systematic review looking at multimedia and learning (Rolfe and Gray 2011), it is always surprising how little good quality education research is actually carried out. In my MOOC review, of the 38 peer-reviewed articles that I did find, 26 were empirical studies and only 1 was a case-control study with two comparative groups. Only 1 study directly addressed social responsibility, and the rest largely focused on methodology for analysing learner data rather than the learner experience.

Results of the blog search

In addition to searching peer-reviewed academic journals, I used Google Scholar and Google Blog Search to surface current opinion and other useful reports. The blogs were from high authority people – academics, technologists, senior university executive, and in my thinking are as good quality as any “letter to the editor”, “comment” or “mini-review” of any peer-reviewed journal. Some of my themes of interest in terms of digital and social inclusion, intellectual property and privacy, were reflected in the blogs but not the published literature.

I would hate to see people get a bad taste of university because there’s just too many students in there to get personal attention.

There will be no private, “safe” spaces for learning.

Fairly unaltered in relation to the important stuff like instructional design, instructional delivery, and authentic assessment.

Conclusions of the research

The increasing number of free online courses delivered by large-scale platforms (xMOOCs) are reaching potential learners all over the world, and sparking much debate in media and educational circles. What is clear is the evidence supporting the MOOC in terms of learning design and providing the best possible opportunities for learners is lacking, and much research focuses around tracking users and analysing the vast quantities of user data.

It would be lovely to see in the future:

  • Some good quality research into xMOOC learners – their needs, their successes and what happens when they fail? This could feed directly back into mechanisms for support.
  • Discussion around intellectual property and privacy. Do participants know they are being tracked? Where are their personal details going next? Don’t they have the right to a safe space in which to learn?
  • How inclusive and accessible are xMOOCs? Current institutional strategies reflect widening participation, providing accessible learning for ALL including those with special needs, and are digitally inclusive. Much of this is not reflected yet in the xMOOC.


3 thoughts on “MOOC research on student experience and social responsibility toward learners

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  2. Thanks for the shout-out, although I’m always embarrassed a bit when someone cites Amy and my work as good research, because it feels so darn preliminary. The good news is that the Rahim from the Gates Foundation approached me after that preso and said they’d love to talk about the work, so maybe we’ll get a chance to go after this more systematically. It’s not so much the time issue as we need leverage to get people to open up course data to us.

    I do agree, there did seem to be a real lack of research in MOOCs at the conference, but even worse there seems to be a lack of intentionality in the research I’ve seen presented elsewhere. Everybody is going after the same three questions (dropout rates, success factors, demographics) without knowing why we care or dealing with questions of generalizability. Or worse, they have no research questions at all and are just counting things. Big data disease.

    What I don’t understand if these MOOCs really are research projects for the universities sponsoring them is why they don’t take the excellent chance to use a controlled methodology on something bigger than A/B testing on what design works best for Powerpoint slides. Why not put the standard MOOC delivery method up against something a bit more cMOOC/ds106? Or structure a cross-over, etc? I guess the answer is because with 90% of these things run by corporations there’s no interest in research that can’t lead to a press release.

    Well, I can feel myself veering towards rant, so time to stop. But was great to meet you!

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