Thoughts on Conducting Research in MOOCs

One of the philosophical underpinnings of MOOCs as practiced by Siemens, Downes, et al. has been the rejection of the idea of pre-defined learning outcomes. For example, the LAK12 syllabus reads in part:

“You are NOT expected to read and watch everything. Even we, the facilitators, cannot do that. Instead, what you should do is PICK AND CHOOSE content that looks interesting to you and is appropriate for you. If it looks too complicated, don’t read it. If it looks boring, move on to the next item.” The learning outcomes will, consequently, “be different for each person.”

This makes MOOCs almost completely immune to rigorous investigation with regard to how they function as a means of facilitating learning. There can be no uniform pre-test. There can be no uniform post-test. MOOCs make a loud point about the fact that they don’t teach anything in particular. No one is supposed to learn anything in particular. Consequently, there are no broad outcomes to measure. Ergo, it is difficult to say anything about MOOCs from the perspective of whether or not they succeed in facilitating learning, at least under the traditional group “learning gains” paradigm of educational research.

If we can’t inquire broadly about the educational effectiveness of MOOCs, perhaps we can at least inquire broadly about the attitudinal impacts of MOOCs on participants. In a traditional context, learning analytics would correlate various behaviors, degrees of behavior, and patterns of behavior with pre-defined, uniform learning outcomes. It seems that an interesting parallel approach to learning analytics in the MOOC context would be to correlate a variety of behaviors with the degree of satisfaction experienced by MOOC participants.

In other words, instead of using grades as the dependent variable in MOOC research, we might for example imagine using responses to a satisfaction survey. Rather than asking, “did engaging in this highly designed set of activities help a person learn what we were hoping they would learn?” we might instead ask, “did engaging in a unique set of activities help this person reach the specific outcome(s) they were hoping to achieve when they enrolled in the MOOC?”

What might we learn from this kind of research? Are MOOCs giving people the knowledge / experience / other outcomes what they’re hoping for? Are there certain patterns of behavior among MOOC participants that seem to correlate more highly with satisfying experiences than other patterns of behavior? Etc.

BYU PhD student Michael Atkisson and I are going to work on this for his dissertation. Has someone else already started down this road? Am I missing something? Are there some satisfaction data somewhere we should be starting from?