Are MOOCs Working for Us?

BetapicBy Kristen Eshleman | Director of Instructional Technology, Davidson College.

This post is the first in a four-part series on MOOC research at Davidson College. We begin with the rationale for our research design and will follow with posts about our planning process, implementation and results.

This past spring I had the privilege of talking with Fiona Hollands, Associate Director and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. She and Devayani Tirthali published a cost-benefit study of MOOC experiments that is a must-read for college administrators overseeing existing or future MOOC initiatives. Two leading goals for the 29 institutions interviewed include expanding access to higher education and improving economics through lowered costs or increased revenues. The Columbia team’s research suggests, however, that the likelihood MOOCs will achieve either of these goals is unclear.
In contrast, improving educational outcomes, fostering innovation and conducting learning research are the least cited reasons for creating MOOCs. I believe these lesser goals may in fact prove to be the areas where we see the greatest benefits on our campuses. The first two are anchored by the third—research will help us understand how we can improve educational outcomes and advance innovation through iteration.

To date, MOOC research has focused largely on the quantitative ‘big data’ generated within the online platform. Course designs reflect a desire to study learning through the easy analysis of individual clickstreams and assessments. While these designs offer insights into the ways MOOCs can scale content delivery and individual assessment, they do not accurately reflect how knowledge is created in the digital age.

We know, for example, that digital environments are comprised of networks of connections—connections between data and connections between individuals and ideas. George Siemens’ theory on connectivism describes digital learning as a similarly networked process. Knowledge is less about mastery of content and more about wayfinding—navigating, connecting and synthesizing rapidly changing nodes of information. In this setting, learning is inherently social. We know from experience that communal learning is also a valuable part of residential education.

When Davidson College joined edX in 2013, President Carol Quillen said, “This partnership exemplifies our obligation to understand how new technologies might strengthen the hallmarks of the academic experience at Davidson.” This is where we are focusing our MOOC research efforts, and where we believe we can add the most value to the existing body of knowledge about the potential for digital technologies in higher education.

Mixed Method Research

At Davidson, we are starting with the simple question: “How, if at all, is the MOOC experiment impacting residential teaching and learning?” In response, we are undertaking a mixed method research study of two MOOC-infused residential courses during the fall semester of 2014.
Ours is primarily a traditional case study, examining the human side of learning that cannot be measured in clickstreams. We are documenting the experiences of our faculty and residential students in the classroom and in the MOOC, using observation, interviews, focus groups and surveys. Quantitative data from the edX platform will complement the qualitative focus.

How learners experience the knowledge process in digital environments is important to understanding optimal designs for open, social learning. Quantitative data can track student pathways online, but it cannot tell us why a student chose that path, or whether that experience was seamless and intuitive or frustrating and fraught with hurdles. Where quantitative data leaves off, qualitative data picks up, giving us a clearer picture of learning.

We are committed to studying every MOOC we create, building on the great qualitative work of researchers like George Veletsianios. Our research also will be designed for the teacher and the learner, to better understand how MOOCs might work to enhance the academic experience at Davidson College.

The once popular notion of MOOCs as an alternative to college is waning, but higher education will continue to embrace digital environments where people connect and create knowledge. If online environments can make a residential education more relevant for tomorrow’s professors and students, they should be part of the fabric of teaching and learning.
Part two of this series will discuss how we planned for the research, using collaborative design and partnerships to overcome limited resources.

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