Monthly Archives: March 2014

MOOC History…or Lack Thereof – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 2, the literature review. This excerpt looks at the history of the MOOC as defined by MOOC providers and developers such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

MOOC history and MOOC influences.  The linking of MOOCs to historical precedents and influences is found wonting in both academic and popular literature.  Part of this is due to the relative newness of the MOOC, a phenomenon that caught fire at the end of 2011, but it must be noted that, when speaking about MOOCs, developers consistently fail to link the learning model to existing research, trends or prior histories (Bady, 2013b).  Rather, developers have discussed their work in the context of random opportunity meeting individual exceptionalism, a identifying it as a bold experiment (Rodriguez, 2012) rather than denoting or clarifying the role of prior experiments. According to the existing literature, if MOOC developers were influenced by prior efforts in online learning, distance education, and/or educational theory, those influences were tacit (Waldrop, 2013).

This is not to say that developers have not linked their learning model to other thinkers or models.  MOOC developers such as Sebastian Thrun (2012) and Andrew Ng (2013), along with the developers for former open-source MOOC platform Class2Go (Wan, 2012), have noted the influence of Salman Khan, a hedge fund analyst who left business to focus his energies on the development of a platform for sharing academic tutorial videos he created for a relative (Khan, 2012).  His enterprise, Khan Academy, is an educational website that aggregates short video tutorials based around common academic subjects.  Recent efforts to expand the scope and abilities of Khan Academy have focused on adding assessment tools as well as data collection for teachers to utilize in their own classrooms (Walsh, 2012).

Khan himself does not link his influences in the development of Khan Academy to historical precedents or educational theories, rather noting that much of his inspiration was based on practice and intuition rather than academic research:

Every time I put a YouTube video up, I look at the comments — at least the first 20, 30, 40 comments that go up — and I can normally see a theme… I think it’s nice to look at some of the research, but I don’t think we would… and I think in general, people would be doing a disservice if they trump what one research study does and there’s a million variables there (Weber, 2011).

The research Khan does cite comes from cognitive science, a psychological field dedicated to interpreting how the brain interprets information via thought (Khan, 2012). Within education, cognitive theory seeks to utilize the nature of the brain’s ability to store memory and utilize prior knowledge in undertaking complex or multi-step problems (Bruning, Shaw & Norby, 2010).  While important to the development of learning theory over the past 40 years, its current place in the canon of educational theory is as a stepping-stone to more modern theories, an important step in the development of learning theory but not the destination (Fosnot, 1996).  However, focus on memory, recall and learning styles inherent to cognitive learning theories are similar to the personalized aspects of MOOC technologies afforded to students (Siemens, 2013a).

It is similar cognitive research that Anant Agarwal, the director of MOOC organization edX, heralded as a “must-read” (Rivard, 2013a) for anyone involved in higher education instruction.  The paper Agarwal heralded was a 1972 review of existing memory-based research and a proposal for unique methods to consider information processing in context to memory (Craik & Lockhart, 1972).  Similar to Khan, Agarwal noted how his scholarship and methodology toward MOOC pedagogical practices was similar in scope to the study prior to reading this research, saying, “If we followed [this research], it was completely by accident” (Rivard, 2013a).

Non-Web Citations:

Bruning, R., Schraw, G. & Norby, M. (2010).  Cognitive psychology and instruction. New York:  Pearson.
Craik, F. & Lockhart, R. (1972).  Levels of processing:  A framework for memory research.  Journal of Verbal Learning & Verbal Behavior, 11(1), 671-684.
Fosnot, C. (1996). Constructivism: A psychological theory of learning. In C. T. Fosnot (Ed.), Constructivism: Theory, perspectives, and practice (pp. 8-33). New York: Teachers College Press.
Khan, S. (2012).  The one-world schoolhouse:  Education reimagined.  New York:

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The Power(ful Perception) of Learning Analytics – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note: I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course. The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license. The following is from Chapter 4, the results of the research study. This excerpt tackles the only prompt of 12 to gain consensus in Round 1 of the study, an agreement with the following:  The data we gather from students utilizing MOOCs will help us solve student struggles in learning through redesigning the learning system and content modules.

Round 1: Consensus. Only one prompt in Round 1 reached the consensus level of 75%, Prompt #3 data, experts agreeing with the contention that back-end data gathered from MOOCs would help solve learning struggles.

The positive view of data from a consensus majority of the expert panel potentially comes due to the panel’s make-up. Although panelists were chosen from five distinct disciplines, it was the congruence to MOOCs and educational technology that forecast expertise within the phenomenon. Panelists were bullish on back-end data in part because panelists were bullish on the overall confluence of education and technology.  Participant E8 stated, “Computer based learning generally, and the whole innovation mindset as brought to teaching and learning, will transform the possibilities for learning research and teaching practice.” Participant E12 added, “The analytics provided by MOOCs (and other online learning) can provide a window into actual student performance – missing in most F2F and online learning today.”

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The Cognitive Style Revolution – Excerpts from MOOC Research

Note:  I will use this space over the next month to share excerpts from my dissertation The Evolution & Impact of the Massive Open Online Course.  The research was a Delphi study bringing together 20 MOOC experts to discuss the MOOC in educational, political, and sociocultural terms (slides from the oral presentation can be seen here). Upon library clearance, the entire document will be available through a Creative Commons license.  The following is from Chapter 5, the conclusions of the research study.  This excerpt tackles one of the educational implications of the study — the re-emergence of cognitive learning theory in the educational milieu.

1. Computer science replaces education research & theory.  In the time since the Delphi research study (note:  the expert study ran in October and November of 2013), prominent MOOC voices involved in development and surrounding political affairs have continued to advocate for educational solutions engaged within a cognitive worldview.  Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng recently promoted the book “Why Students Don’t Like School:  A Cognitive Scientists Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom,” in doing so advocating for the cognitive approach, saying, “[This is a] great book on applying cogsci principles to teach better. Loved this!” (Ng, 2014). This exchange, passed along the social media platform Twitter to over 14,000 followers, marked some of the first recognized link to educationally rigorous learning theory, a change in the histories MOOC developers have heretofore shared with the world. Since 2011, those at the forefront of developing MOOCs have either linked their structures with very recent technological phenomenon such as Khan Academy (Vanderbilt, 2012), or avoided making a link to the history of education at all (Koller, 2013). The link between the artificial intelligence and machine learning backgrounds of the primary MOOC developers and the cognitive principles at the foundation of their academic disciplines now has been linked to existing learning theory literature. This link suggests MOOC developers believe the principles they employ for teaching machines are ideal principles for teaching humans.

Such developments might be ideal if, as Marvin Minsky put it, the brain is a computer made of meat (Minsky, 1982).  Such a comparison may be provocative but does not withstand psychological scrutiny. The evolution of educational psychology, generations removed from the dawn of cognition in the 60s and 70s, has rendered cognitive learning theory archaic (Siemens, 2013a).  While cognitive theory remains popular in computer science and among some educators, the work of educational psychologists and social scientists such as Jean Piaget, Etienne Wenger, and Bonnie Nardi have identified the limits of cognitive learning theory while using its strengths to create new theories of learning such as constructivism, communities of practice, and activity theory, theories accepted within education as more robust than cognitive theory (Wenger, 2013). A theoretical return to cognition thus creates a rift in the field of educational research, where a focus on the MOOC phenomenon as a learning model substitutes the field of computer science for educational psychology theory.  Moreover, the ahistorical attitude of the MOOC movement (Khan, 2012) implicitly invalidates prior education research.  The end result is a whitewash of the field of education, where prior initiatives and research are discarded without consideration, and where the MOOC model and similar education initiatives can grow and thrive despite sizable concerns existing within prior and contemporary education research.

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The MOOCademy Awards

This tweet, from the co-founder of Coursera, highlights several troublesome aspects of the MOOC phenomenon and the manner in which we envision online education in an age of technological solutionism (see Morozov).

Education as fun

No one wants education to be void of fun.  Practitioners and scholars alike work tirelessly to remove boredom, dullness, lifelessness and listlessness from practice of the discipline, because learning happens best if we avoid boredom, dullness, lifelessness and listlessness and replace them with engagement, activity, critical thinking and debate.  And educators hope that, in the end, students find the experience enriching; ergo, enjoyable…and if they wish to call that  amalgam fun, that’s okay.  But fun is not the immediate emotional correlation educators hope to establish between the learner and the learning.

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