Tag Archives: cognitive science

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:


#ALN13 Presentation – MOOC Cartography (A Literature Review)

I presented my dissertation literature review at the Sloan International Conference for Online Learning on Wednesday at 12:45pm at the Swan & Dolphin Resort at Walt Disney World.  Several technological glitches threw me off-point, and the topic was expansive by design (perhaps too much), but attendees were positive and responsive to the presentation.

Looking back over my literature review (I completed my oral defense in July of this year), I see not only a great deal of change in the field, but also a greater understanding within myself of the field and its tribulations.  There is a lot of news and hullabaloo about MOOC platforms, MOOC economics, MOOC battles on campuses, but there is still a significant lack of writing on MOOCs from the dominant ideology from a theoretical perspective.  The MOOC as we see it in everyday literature was built by computer scientists interested in artificial intelligence and machine learning.  AI and Machine Learning are byproducts of cognitive science, which has a sister learning theory, cognitive theory.  Obviously the 1960s and 1970s sent the psychologists and educators down one road where a human mind handled information and grew into education theories such as constructivism, social learning theory and activity theory…while the computer scientists went down another road with expert systems and intelligent agents.  But both constitute learning from a certain perspective.
The theoretical voice missing in this MOOC debate is the AI voice.  What is the learning theory behind the AI movement that helped usher MOOCs into existence?  Who are the seminal authors in the field?  Why is learning designed for machines considered applicable to humans? Once all sides have an understanding of these issues we can better engage in dialogue about MOOCs and their role in the future of higher education.