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What Is Being Learned From MOOCs? New Report Takes Stock

The hype around the free online courses called MOOCs has drawn millions of students, who are all essentially part of a teaching experiment of unprecedented scale. These days, researchers are increasingly checking in on that experiment.

A new report, released on Thursday, seeks to answer the question “Where is research on massive open online courses headed?”

The report is the work of the MOOC Research Initiative, funded with more than $800,000 in grant support by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The group put out a call for research submissions and used much of the grant money to fund 28 of them, which were then analyzed for the report.

When MOOCs emerged a few years ago, many in the academic world were sent into a frenzy. Pundits made sweeping statements about the courses, saying that they were the future of education or that colleges would become obsolete, said George Siemens, an author of the report who is also credited with helping to create what we now know as a MOOC.

“It’s almost like we went through this sort of shameful period where we forgot that we were researchers and we forgot that we were scientists and instead we were just making decisions and proclamations that weren’t at all scientific,” said Mr. Siemens, an academic-technology expert at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Hype and rhetoric, not research, were the driving forces behind MOOCs, he argued. When they came onto the scene, MOOCs were not analyzed in a scientific way, and if they had been, it would have been easy to see what might actually happen and to conclude that some of the early predictions were off-base, Mr. Siemens said.

The goal of the MOOC Research Initiative was to take a step back and get a better understanding of MOOC research and literature. Though the public’s interest in MOOCs has dwindled, academic literature on the subject is on the rise. The researchers examined who was writing about MOOCs, what fields they represented, what type of research has been done, and the various themes in the research that has emerged, Mr. Siemens said.

Five key research themes were identified in the report: student engagement and learning success, MOOC design and curriculum, self-regulated learning and social learning, social-network analysis and networked learning, and motivation, attitude, and success criteria.

The report names student engagement as a prominent theme. Many students enrolled in MOOCs are nontraditional, so making sure that they are engaged and able to succeed in such a course is even more important. Figuring out how to maintain students’ interest during an online course when “a distraction is literally just a click away” is another important element, Mr. Siemens said.

Mr. Siemens said he hopes the report will help colleges to make smart decisions, based on research and evidence, about their digital campuses.

The findings of the MOOC Research Initiative are just one section of a larger report called “Preparing for the Digital University: A Review of the History and Current State of Distance, Blended, and Online Learning,” which covers numerous aspects of the digital campus.

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