Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, offered by institutions around the world have served millions of people of all ages in the three years since they have risen in prominence. But who are these online learners, what attracts them to a course, and what makes them engage with the material and stay with it to the end — or not?
These are some of the questions universities have been trying to answer in recent years as these popular multiplatform, all-inclusive, digital courses have sprung up across the globe.
While the institutions have done some research on MOOCs, particularly their own, they want to learn more generally about the audiences for these courses that allow participants to work at their own pace.
Some of the university leaders and scholars who’ve been trying to come up with a profile of MOOC learners assembled Monday at U-M to compare notes and talk about how they might work together to advance research about this form of digital education.
The event, sponsored by the U-M Office of Digital Education & Innovation, attracted university researchers from five countries and 15 universities.
“Our approach to digital learning at U-M is designed to be both scholarly and practical in order to test and challenge assumptions about teaching, learning and collaboration,” said James DeVaney, associate vice provost for digital education and innovation.
“In a short amount of time we’ve learned a great deal about the potential of scale in this era of learning. We know that an important path to fully realizing this potential is a road filled with global multi-institutional research partnerships.”
Those partnerships will help the institutions better understand MOOC learners and their needs, leaders said.
“The goal of this summit is to build a research community, doing analysis and experimentation,” said Christopher Brooks, a research fellow in the School of Information and director of learning analytics and research at DEI. “There are 118 Coursera partners currently, but not all of them have the capacity to do research.”
And while Coursera is where much of the MOOC activity began, Brooks said, the information of interest is broad, so the group will not be created for a single platform and will be an open organization. Other major platforms include NovoEd, FutureLearn and EdX. U-M is affiliated with Coursera and NovoEd.
T.C. Pong of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology came to the summit because, he said, he was “interested in what everyone is doing” and wanted to tell participants “what the other part of the world in Asia is doing.”
Kim Manturuck of Duke University made the trip because she finds her own faculty are quite involved with MOOCs, but said most of them were not talking with one another about best practices and anything they have learned along the way.
She also has been frustrated by the lack of data available in the academic community. “When I talk to people about what they are doing, I get excited. Then I go back to my office and look at journals and see there’s nothing there,” she said.
Institutions are doing some research, as evidenced by presentations from several during the morning of the summit, including Stanford, the University of Melbourne and U-M.
By the end of the day, participants had devised a plan to collaborate on research that called for significant efforts in six-10 months. The group identified about a half-dozen top areas of research interest, and set next steps, which include:
• Coordinating communication and research plans across these key themes
• Sharing institutional emerging and best practices
• Sharing approaches and software developed by various institutions
• Exploring research and experimental capacity within and across institutions
“I hope this research summit, and bringing this group together, provides resources to those of us who need them, improves our research capabilities, and allows us to share findings that can be implemented in the MOOCs to better reach our learners,” said Gayathri Narasimham, assistant director for education and research at the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning.
“I look forward to the projects that evolve out of our collaboration, and innovations that unfold in the field of higher education as a result. In particular, I’m excited that Vanderbilt University can contribute tangibly to the goals of this group.”
Other attendees were from the University of Pennsylvania, University of Illinois, Universidad Catholica de Chile, Georgia Tech, University of Toronto, University of Edinburgh, Universiteit Leiden and Coursera.