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What we’re doing here folks is research

When I’ve presented on open online courses in the past, often one of the first questions that an audience member asks is some form of “how does this make sense financially”. I imagine Stephen, Alec, Dave, and others likely have a similar experience. I believe this is a misplaced question and one that we can’t really answer in the context of what many of us are trying to do with open courses.

What’s happening with open courses (MOOCs)? Essentially, we’re in a period of research. Together with course participants, we are generating data – we are trying to make sense of phenomena. In a traditional research setting, a researcher doesn’t ask practical or application questions when trying to understand “what something is”. Once research has been conducted and results are somewhat agreed upon, then the more practical work of implementation begins. While our work with MOOCs is not as clean cut as “research” and “apply” (they are tightly related and inform each other), it is too early to ask questions of impact and logistics. Universities should be far more active in experimenting on the teaching/learning process than they are currently. Financial and economic details are a different set of questions that need to be considered later. For now, it’s important that we explore ways in which universities might be impacted by networked technologies, global trends, changing contexts, learner expectations, and west-to-east/north-to-south population and capital flows. Organizations that are reluctant to cannibalize their current success risk future failure.


  1. Alan Levine wrote:

    All you have to say, “Back off, man, I’m a researcher!”

    Then zap ‘em with your proton pack.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 3:43 pm | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    See, I missed orientation, Alan. I didn’t get a proton pack. I did get an AU coffee mug, however.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 3:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi George,
    Thanks for this very interesting post. Well said, in particular about the financial justification. May be in a corporate world of education, the return on investment based on elearning is critical to the success of the corporate education business. Would we need to weigh the “value” between knowledge creation and knowledge economy (i.e. ROI and customisation of mass online education)? Here is my response as I think it is too long to be posted here.
    Still working on the research findings.
    Wishing you and your family a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    Thursday, December 23, 2010 at 8:15 pm | Permalink
  4. Calian wrote:


    Let’s hope that the benefit outweigh the cost so that there is financial justification. I agree that researchers need to address the problems that are relevant to the educational institute survival in the future.


    Sunday, December 26, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  5. Seth wrote:

    I think your point about giving some time to do MOOCs as experiments is valid. However, it is important to understand that this is not how MOOCs are always being represented. Stephen seems to suggest regularly that this is how learning should occur. Moreover, proponents of “little OER” (using Martin Weller’s distinction) have had no problem suggesting that MOOCs are the way the open education movement should go as whole, rather than “big OER” (repositories, etc.) efforts. Given this, I think it is only appropriate that MOOCs receive their fair share of scrutiny.

    >Once research has been conducted and >results are somewhat agreed upon, then >the more practical work of implementation begins.

    But how are any of the results going to be agreed upon? Solely by consensus? Is that really the best way to achieve understanding about MOOCs?

    Maybe qualitative narratives? Since assessments are apparently out (heaven forbid), I’m not sure what else it could look like. Not that there’s anything wrong with qualitative research.

    Or will it simply be visual representations of MOOC participation and structure? While admittedly cool and interesting, analysis of these graphics never seems to go that deep.

    I’m struggling to see how you can research something in which its proponents seem to fight any sort of definition, delineation, or demarcation. Recent discussion about not calling MOOCs actual courses reminds me of the “What is a learning object?” debates. At this time I only see the defining the MOOC discussion heading the same direction.

    Monday, December 27, 2010 at 9:42 pm | Permalink
  6. Hi Seth – you raise several important points. I’m not sure I can fully address them at this stage.

    wrt consensus, I see a model based on pragmatics – i.e. it works (or doesn’t). For example, I don’t see too many studies that look at how the internet makes people more productive. Perhaps they were more popular a decade or two ago, but today, the general consensus in society is that we need to be connected in education, business, social lives, etc. There is much to critique in these views, as people like Ellul, Postman, Lanier are doing. Overall, there appears to be an inevitability to technology growth and influence. Is that consensus? I’m not sure.

    If we look at consensus in educational research, it rarely exists. Each Clark raises a Kozma. In some areas, however, we can get to some agreement (though even those areas have contradictory voices on the fringe) – the role of design, appropriate media selection, etc.

    Much of the mooc discussion to date is tied to educational reform, driven by fairly defined philosophies (in the tradition of Illich and to a lessor degree, Freire) of learner control and anti-establishment thinking. I’ve somewhat side stepped the edupunk discussion. I see a role for educational systems – a view that is quite at odds with Stephen’s…and we’ve exchanged ideas on this at numerous times. I’m advocating integrated holistic system reform. Stephen is suggested a more complete alteration of the education system and educational processes. Jenny Mackness reflects from of Stephen’s views in her post on moocs: . Quite simply, in this line of reasoning, moocs are anti-course, anti-traditional education.

    In my desire for a holistic approach, I advocate for systemic reform based on the fact that education in society has multiple stakeholders. As long as this is the case, we will *never* be able to fully do away with assessment. Assessment, after all, is only needed when a system is so complex that a mediating role is required to permit scaling. Assessment activities mediate learner/society, employee/employer. Assessment models also raise the need for additional support/quality structures (accreditation). I see huge problems with the current system, but recognize that *some type* of system is needed. My interest in moocs is to try and experiment with some of the attributes that such a system would possess.

    Monday, December 27, 2010 at 11:39 pm | Permalink