MOOC Research Conference

2013-08-28 17.39.35

Back a few days from mri13 and now that the experience has settled in somewhat I thought I would try and reflect on the conference and what I learned about the current mooc landscape and its impact on our research here at the Caledonian Academy.

First off, thanks to George Siemens and Co. for bringing together a diverse group of people with key knowledge and perspectives and no shortage of ideas and opinion. I thought the conference was about perfect size, though the attendees were sometimes a little thinly spread due to the many parallel sessions. This also meant I only saw a minority of presentations from other MRI grantees (even though I prioritised these over presentations which might have had more general appeal to me), so I need to go back to the abstracts and hope I can find some online presentations for the ones I missed (ours [Professional Learning through Massive Open Online Coursesis here). 

The conference started off on a high with a charismatic performance from Jim Groom describing his work supporting learners as creators at UMW.
In the CETIS PLE project (Milligan et al, 2006, Wilson et al, 2007) we described a utopia of learner-centred learning in a mature online landscape but my own experience at institutional level has taught me how difficult this is to achieve at scale (is it a coincidence that my work has moved into more informal contexts – professional and workplace learning). Jim’s work has shown that learner-centred learning can be supported within formal settings. However, opening the conference with a presentation showing what learning could be like backfired a little for me because over the next few days I saw too much evidence of learning taking second place to other considerations – content, delivery, administration, data. At points I was left wondering whether the legacy of the MOOC bubble of the last few years will be a million hours of talking heads video lectures.

In some presentations I was left wondering whether the whole canon of literature on online and distance learning has been cast aside. A key element of our project has been to try and understand the MOOC we are studying as an online learning event (before then going on to explore the learning occurring within it). Having a robust theoretical base is essential for us as we go forward to design tools and recommendations intended to inform the design of future MOOCs. Another disappointment was that some of the presentations seemed a little dumbed-down. In one presentation, we got the ‘MOOC: every letter is negotiable‘ line, while one presenter asked us to think when a cMOOC would be best and when an xMOOC was appropriate (like I’m not allowed to consider a million other ways of delivering a course online). Surely a MOOC research conference can support  a base level of dialogue beyond this.

Having complained (I did enjoy the conference), I should say that I saw some really thought-provoking presentations that I will follow up on (see abstracts for the MRI grantees here – sorry i couldn’t find presentation links).

  • Bruno Poellhuber described an MRI study based across a number of Canadian Universities using SRL to explore motivation and engagement in MOOCs. Over the years, our work has been focused increasingly on motivation and I think it is a key issue in MOOC research, and one which has to be addressed by any MOOC provider or designer.
  • Rebecca Eynon and Nabeel Gillani from the University of Oxford presented the most interesting SNA focused talk I attended. Part of their study focused on the vulnerability of networks, removing nodes to show how those networks dissolved or degraded. This is a mixed methods study, combining big data analysis with qualitative approaches (interviews) to really understand what is going on in the course they are studying.
  • Martin Weller presented data from two complementary studies. In the first, his colleague Katy Jordan had collected and analysed a large amount of data on MOOC participation. The emerging visualisations (some with large error bars) begin to highlight some key patterns. For example: it looks like you can now start to predict participation rates in MOOCs. [update: see Martin’s blog post on Completion Data ] In the second, Martin showed how he had adapted course analysis approaches used at the OU in an attempt to describe the form of a range of MOOCs. [update: see Martin’s blog post on Learning Design of MOOCs] Although this work is still in its early stages (I liked the fact that the findings presented by all the MRI grantees at the conference were ‘interim’) I think it shows great promise.
  • Although not a MRI grantee, I liked Shirley Alexander’s presentation describing the signature pedagogy (Learning 2014) being implemented at UTS in Australia. I suppose that brings us back to Jim Groom and learner centred learning. And away from MOOCs.

I’m looking forward to the MRI projects coming to fruition. I hope they make their research results easy to find online.

Personally, it was great to think and talk about research for an extended period of time (both at the conference and at the airport/on the flights at either end). It was also great to meet other researchers in the community and makes some personal connections. The main lesson I learned: I realised that while we don’t do ‘big data’ analysis at the Caledonian Academy, it shouldn’t stop us thinking of how we can try to complement our studies with data-driven studies: I think that in the long run, combined approaches (cf the Oxford study) are going to be the most informative.