September 3, 2014

Special edition on research on MOOCs in the journal ‘Distance Education’

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The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs

The University of Toronto is one of a number of institutions conducting research on MOOCs; their results are still to come

The August 2014 edition of the Australian-based journal, Distance Education (Vol.35, No. 2.), is devoted to new research on MOOCs. There is a guest editor, Kemi Jona, from Northwestern University, Illinois, as well as the regular editor, Som Naidu.

The six articles in this edition are fascinating, both in terms of their content, but even more so in their diversity. There are also three commentaries, by Jon Baggaley, Gerhard Fischer and myself.

My commentary provides my personal analysis of the six articles.

MOOCs are a changing concept

In most of the literature and discussion about MOOCs, there is a tendency to talk about ‘instructionist’ MOOCs (i.e. Coursera, edX, Udacity, xMOOCs) or ‘connectivist’ MOOCs (i.e. Downes, Siemens, Cormier, cMOOCs). Although this is still a useful distinction, representing very different pedagogies and approaches, the articles in this edition show that MOOCs come in all sizes and varieties.

Indeed, it is clear that the design of MOOCs is undergoing rapid development, partly as a result of more players coming in to the market, partly because of the kinds of research now being conducted on MOOCs themselves, and, sadly much more slowly, a recognition by some of the newer players that much is already known about open and online education that needs to be applied to the design of MOOCs, while accepting that there are certain aspects, in particular the scale, that make MOOCs unique.

The diversity of MOOC designs

These articles illustrate clearly such developments. The MOOCs covered by the articles range from

  • MOOC video recorded lectures watched in isolation by learners (Adams et al.)
  • MOOC video lectures watched in co-located groups in a flipped classroom mode without instructor or tutorial support (Nan Li et al.)
  • MOOCs integrated into regular campus-based programs with some learner support (Firmin et al.)
  • MOOCs using participatory and/or connectivist pedagogy (Anderson, Knox)

Also the size of the different MOOC populations studied here differed enormously, from 54 students per course to 42,000.

It is also clear that MOOC material is being increasingly extracted from the ‘massive’, open context and used in very specific ‘closed’ contexts, such as flipped classrooms, at which point one questions the difference between such use of MOOCs and regular for-credit online programming, which in many cases also use recorded video lectures or online discussion and increasingly other sources of open educational materials. I would expect in such campus-based contexts the same quality standards to apply to the MOOC+ course designs as are already applied to credit-based online learning. Some of the research findings in these articles indirectly support the need for this.

The diversity of research questions on MOOCs

Almost as interesting is the range of questions covered by these articles, which include:

  • capturing the lived experience of being in a MOOC (Adams et al.; Knox)
  • the extent to which learners can/should create their own content, and the challenges around that (Knox; Andersen)
  • how watching video lectures in a group affects learner satisfaction (Nan Li et al.)
  • what ‘massive’ means in terms of a unique pedagogy (Knox)
  • the ethical implications of MOOCs (Marshall)
  • reasons for academic success and failure in ‘flipped’ MOOCs (Firmin et al.; Knox)

What is clear from the articles is that MOOCs raise some fundamental questions about the nature of learning in digital environments. In particular, the question of the extent to which learners need guidance and support in MOOCs, and how this can best be provided, were common themes across several of the papers, with no definitive answers.

The diversity of methodology in MOOC research

Not surprisingly, given the range of research questions, there is also a very wide range of methodologies used in the articles in this edition, ranging from

  • phenomenology (Adams),
  • heuristics (Marshall)
  • virtual ethnography (Knox; Andersen)
  • quasi-experimental comparisons (Nan Li et al.)
  • data and learning analytics (Firmin et al.)

The massiveness of MOOCs, their accessibility, and the wide range of questions they raise make the topic a very fertile area for research, and this is likely to generate new methods of research and analysis in the educational field.

Lessons learned

Readers are likely to draw a variety of conclusions from these studies. Here are mine:

  • the social aspect of learning is extremely important, and MOOCs offer great potential for exploiting this kind of learning, but organizing and managing social learning on a massive scale, without losing the potential advantages of collaboration at scale, is a major challenge that still remains to be adequately addressed. The Knox article in particular describes in graphic detail the sense of being overwhelmed by information in open connectivist MOOCs. We still lack methods or designs that properly support participants in such environments. This is a critical area for further research and development.
  • a lecture on video is still a lecture, whether watched in isolation or in groups. The more we attempt to support this transmissive model through organized group work, ‘facilitators’, or ‘advisors’ the closer we move towards conventional (and traditional) education and the further away from the core concept of a MOOC.
  • MOOCs have a unique place in the educational ecology. MOOCs are primarily instruments for non-formal learning. Trying to adapt MOOCs to the campus not only undermines their primary purpose, but risks moving institutions in the wrong direction. We would be better re-designing our large lecture classes from scratch, using criteria, methods and standards appropriate to the goals of formal higher education. My view is that in the long run, we will learn more from MOOCs about handling social learning at scale than about transmitting information at scale. We already know about that. It’s called broadcasting.
  • lastly, there was surprisingly little in the articles about what actual learning took place. In some cases, it was a deliberate research strategy not to enquire into this, relying more on student or instructor feelings and perceptions. While other potential benefits, such as institutional branding, stimulating interest, providing a network of connections, and so on, are important, the question remains: what are participants actually learning from MOOCs, and does this justify the hype and investment (both institutionally and in participants’ time) that surrounds them?

Cultural and ethical issues

The Marshall paper provides an excellent overview of ethical issues, but there is almost no representation of perspectives on MOOCs from outside Western contexts. I would have liked to have seen more on cultural and ethical issues arising from the globalization of MOOCs, based on actual cases or examples. Given the global implications of MOOCs, other perspectives are needed. Perhaps this is a topic for another issue.

Happy reading

I am sure you will be as fascinated and stimulated by these articles as I am. I am also sure you will come away with different conclusions from mine. I am sure we will see a flood of other articles soon on this topic. Nevertheless, these articles are important in setting the research agenda, and should be essential reading for MOOC designers as well as future researchers on this topic.

How to get the articles

To obtain access to these articles, go to: http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/cdie20/current#.U-1WqrxdWh1

University of Wisconsin’s annual conference on distance teaching and learning

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Madison, Wisconsin

Madison, Wisconsin

What

This is one of the oldest and largest conferences in North America on distance education, and covers the full range of target audiences from k-12 through universities and colleges to corporate training and adult education/lifelong learning. The conference provides an exchange of current resources, research, and best practices from around the world that are relevant to the design and delivery of distance education/training. This is the 30th annual conference they have organized.

Where

The face-to-face conference will be hosted in Madison, Wisconsin, but the conference also offers a virtual option to attendees at a distance with selected presentations. The conference is organized and sponsored by Distance Education Professional Development (DEPD) in the Division of Continuing Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in affiliation with the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s Instructional Communications Systems.

I couldn’t find any information on the site about accommodation. Presumably this will come.

When

August 12-14, 2014

How

The call for proposals for papers/presentations officially closes tomorrow (January 22), although many conferences extend their deadlines, depending on the number of proposals submitted.

Papers must be submitted by May 12.

Registration for the conference must be by June 12. However, I couldn’t find out how to register so I assume it’s not open yet.

Comment

Given the size of the conference, I understand the need for early submission of paper proposals, and that in itself is not a large commitment. However, it is difficult to commit in advance to doing a paper if you don’t know what the fees are if accepted, and what accommodation is likely to cost when you get there. Practical information, such as accommodation and fees, should be in place before the call for proposals goes out. This is not the only conference guilty of this oversight, but the days when faculty could just get on a plane whenever they felt like it and have their expenses paid have long gone – if they ever existed.

Nevertheless, if you are in distance education (and by definition, if you are teaching fully online courses, you are) then this is usually a very good conference to go to, if you can find the money.

Education across space and time: Distance Education, Vol. 34, No.2

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Distance education in Australia

Distance education in Australia

This special edition of the Australian-based Distance Education journal presents a selection of papers originally submitted to the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia’s 2013 summit meeting. The themes that the issue attempts to address are as follows:

  • How can we foster engaging and interactive learning with a dispersed and diverse population of students? 
  • How can we shift towards a learner-centred paradigm when institutional practices and physical infrastructures are geared towards teacher-centred delivery modes?
  • How can we enable the social and connected features of technology, when LMSs can be restrictive and clumsy…?

Sims, R. and Kigotho, M. (2013) Education across space and time: meeting the diverse needs of the distance learner:

This editorial sets the context and provides a brief description of each of the papers in the edition.

Hockridge, D. (2013) Challenges for educators using distance and online education to prepare students for relational professions

Relational professions are those which require ‘personal skills and a level of maturity.‘ This paper describes research that investigated educators’ concerns about distance and online education in Australian theological institutions. The paper in particular looks at ‘formation’, or character development, so the findings are more widely relevant than just theology. Her conclusion is well worth summarizing:

…it is overly simplistic to conclude that formational learning cannot occur in distance and online modes. Formational learning is complex and not easy to achieve regardless of the mode of study….a more productive way forward…is to be more intentional about the ways in which formation is addressed whether on campus, distance or online.

Earl, K. (2013) Student views on short-text assignment formats in fully online courses.

Short-text assignments restrict the word counts to 800 words or less. (Bit like a blog.) The study addressed two questions: how do students rate short-text assignments? How do students rate feedback provided by short text assignments? Conclusions:

assessment is more than a summative check of student knowledge and skills; it is an experience and part of the communication, and therefore relationship, between teachers and students. Short-text assignments are rated highly by students not because of a shorter word count but because students appreciated the variety and creativity aspects to these assignments. 

Note that the study was on one class of 21 students taught by the researcher.

Watson, S. (2013) Tentatively exploring the learning potentialities of postgraduate distance learners’ interactions with other people in their life contexts

Little consideration seems to have been given to the possibility that distance learners may be interacting with other people in their life contexts about their studies in a way that is making a positive contribution to their studies. The study involved semi-structured interviews of 15 Australian post-graduate students studying at a distance. Although the findings suggest that students vary widely in the extent to which they interact with others outside their course for study purposes, when they do interact, they produce identifiable learning benefits. Watson identified five types of life context interactions:

  • gathering information for assignments
  • getting help with difficult content
  • discussing the application of content to real-world contexts
  • sharing knowledge with others
  • getting feedback on assignment drafts

Watson suggests two course design implications from her studies so far:

  • encourage learners to talk to appropriate colleagues, friends or family about the application of particular theories in practice
  • encourage the establishment of mentoring relationships between learners and appropriate industry personnel

Higgins, K. and Harreveld, R. (2013) Professional development and the university casual academic: integration and support strategies for distance education

Casual academics are university instructors who are not entitled to either paid holiday leave or sick leave (such as, presumably, adjuncts and contract instructors in North America). In this study, twelve casual academics who taught distance education courses discussed their work through an in-depth semi-structured interview. The interviews revealed that these instructors managed their own professional development informally, and were sometimes unaware of the formal professional development activities available to them from the university.

Murphy, A. (2103) Open educational practices in higher education: institutional adoption and challenges

In this study, 110 individuals from higher education institutions in 29 countries participated in a survey aimed at identifying the extent to which HE institutions are currently implementing OERs and practices. The sample was focused on people with an interest in OERs; half the participants were from UK.

Main findings:

  • 23% were in organizations actively involved in the OERu network - 
  • 88% ‘knowledgeable’ about OERs
  • 29% were in institutions that were actively publishing OERs
  • the adoption of OERs and practices is still in its infancy
  • additional support such as funding and dedicated human resources are needed

Yasmin (2013) Application of the classification tree model in predicting learner dropout behaviour in open and distance learning

This study compares pre-enrollment student data with student attrition/drop-out for 12,000 post-graduate distance education students admitted to the University of North Bengal, India. The study indicated that married, employed, older, or remotely located students were more likely to drop out.

Note that the study used mainly demographic data, rather than data based on previous academic performance or the influence of factors during courses.

The paper’s main value is that it provides an analysis of drop-out factors for distance education students in a developing country, complementing the vast array of similar studies in developed countries.

Todhunter, B. (2013) LOL – limitations of online learning – are we selling the open and distance education message short?

This article questions the terminology being used to promote an institution’s programs. The author is particularly concerned that focusing on the term ‘online learning’ does a disservice to the special aspects of open and distance education. He argues it is necessary to pay close attention to the different needs of off-campus or distance learners, which can be lost in a discussion of the merits of online versus campus education. But above all, Todhunter is concerned that a focus on ‘online learning’ will put off many who are potential learners, whereas the terms ‘open’ and ‘distance’ will not only be be more appealing to some students, but may require different policies and strategies than a focus on ‘online’ learning.

Students embarking on graduate theses involving online learning, e-learning, distance education or open learning will benefit from reading this article when it comes to clearly defining what they are researching.

Comments

First, an explanation of why I have taken the time to ‘abstract’ these papers. This is not an ‘open access’ journal; you require a subscription from Taylor and Francis Group publications at nearly $40 an article. So pray that you have access to a good library, or you need to be sure that the article will be worth it to you. I have complained several times to Distance Education about a journal on open and distance education not being open access, but this is the policy of ODLAA (the Open and Distance Learning Association of Australia).

Second, some of the individual articles are well worth reading, depending on your interest. From reading the journal I picked up the following points (these are my interpretations, not necessarily the author’s):

  • good pedagogy is more important than mode of delivery (Hockridge) – further evidence for my law of equal substitution (i.e. most of what applies to good teaching in classrooms also applies to online education, and vice versa. Most things that can be taught in class can also be taught online, so we need to focus on the exceptions, not the rule.)
  • we need to do far more research and development on online assessment methods (Earl)
  • we are underusing learners’ life experiences in the design of distance courses (especially important for adult learners) (Watson)
  • institutions need better policies for casual/adjunct/contract instructors, and need to pay particular attention to professional development for this increasingly important human resource in higher education (Higgins and Harreveld)
  • even amongst the supporters of OERs, actual use, and especially secondary use, of OERs is still minimal (Murphy) – how long does maturation have to take?
  • studies of drop-out that focus on the demographics of incoming students are pretty useless. These are your students: find ways to help them succeed – don’t screen them out just because they are a higher risk, especially if you are an open institution (Yasmin)
  • open and distance learning are not necessarily the same as online learning; institutions need to be clear about markets and values as well as about mode of delivery. (Todhunter)

However, I do feel for journal editors who have to try to pick the best papers and at the same time try to find a common theme. The theme and the questions set out for this edition are only partly addressed in these papers, but nevertheless the articles are well worth reading. It’s just a pity they are so inaccessible.

Distance Education journal: November 2012 edition

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Volume 33, No. 3 of Distance Education does not have a particular theme. But all the articles in one way or another discuss critical factors for student success in online or distance learning:

  • the design of the student learning experience
  • the role of tutors (student learning facilitators)
  • students perception of their inter-connectedness with other students and their teachers
  • the organization of learning.

I am not covering all the papers here but just the ones that were of interest to me (e.g. focused on post-secondary education) and seemed to have significant results, roughly in my order of interest, with the most interesting first.

Halverson, L. et al. (2012) An analysis of high impact scholarship and publication trends in blended learning Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 381-413

This was by far the most significant article for me in this edition, because the authors recognize that while blended learning is ‘likely to emerge as the pre-dominant model of the future‘, ‘the research on blended learning lacks a centre point.’ This is basically another meta-study, looking at where the conversations about blended learning are occurring. What this article does is to identify the 10 most cited research articles, book chapters, books and authors on blended learning. (No, I’m not on the list).

Furthermore the authors analyze what kind of studies they are: ‘most of the seminal work in blended learning to this point has not been empirical in nature, but rather has focused on definitions, models, and [its] potential.’

This is a really useful article, directing us to the most significant literature on the topic – and also indicating its current severe shortcomings.

Latchem, C. (2012) Reflection on the new dynamics of distance education: an interview with Sir John Daniel Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 42-428

This interview is at a completely different level of analysis than most of the other articles in this edition. Sir John takes an eagle’s eye view of international developments in open and distance learning, drawing on his vast experience of working in international agencies such as the Commonwealth of Learning and UNESCO – as well as having run the odd open university.

His views on the need for more focus on open schooling in developing countries, the need for institutions to make fundamental changes to their organization and the role of faculty if they are to fully exploit online and blended learning, and the futility and frustration that comes from new practitioners ignoring all previous research on open and distance learning are just some of the themes of the interview. Well worth a read.

Borokhovski, E. et al. (2012) Are contextual and designed student-student interaction treatments equally effective in distance education? Distance Education Vol. 33, No. 3, pp.311-329.

The authors provide a concise but comprehensive overview of the literature comparing online, blended and classroom learning (overall conclusion: little difference in learning effectiveness although there is wide variation within each condition). They argue (and I agree) that it is more important to focus on ‘how different instructional interventions in DE compare to one another‘ than how DE compares to other forms of learning. The latter topic has been studied to exhaustion. In this article the authors ask: ‘Are inter-action treatments that intentionally promote collaborative and co-operative learning superior to other forms of interaction treatments in terms of student achievement outcomes?’

In more normal language, they looked at just putting students into a context where the interaction was left open to the students to those where the instructor  purposefully designed collaborative learning opportunities. This is in fact a meta-analysis of 36 studies on this topic, which found – surprise, surprise – that students had significantly better learning outcomes (as measured by grades) when collaboration and/or co-operation were organized by an instructor or course designer. Just hoping for collaboration or student discussion is not enough; it has to be organized. The paper, drawing on other research, also suggests a number of ways in which collaboration/cooperation can be facilitated. If you can wade through the technical jargon, this is a worthwhile paper to read.

Forster, A. (2012) Book Review: Burge, E. et al. (eds.) (2011) Flexible pedagogy, flexible practice: notes from the trenches of distance education, Edmonton: Athabasca University press, 348 pp.

A thorough and thoughtful review of a book written by a large collection of golden oldies of distance education. Valuable to me because the review helped me to decide whether to get the book (I won’t, but this shouldn’t discourage you, particularly if you are new to the game of online learning – at least read the review first.)

Slagter van Tryon, P. and Bishop, M. (2012) Evaluating social connectedness online: the design and development of the Social Perceptions in Learning Contexts Instrument, Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 347-364

This study looks at the use of a research tool for measuring students’ perception of their social connectedness in an online course. They found that the tool was relatively reliable and valid in measuring student perceptions of social connectedness, but still needs further work (of course.) Unfortunately there was no evidence in the article as to the how this tool can help identify factors leading to social connectedness, but just the extent to which it exists – hopefully this will come from further studies.

Xiao, J. (2012) Tutors’ influence on distance language students learning motivation: voices from learners and tutors. Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 365-380

This paper from China looks at the role and influence of tutors on the motivation of students learning at a distance in China. The study found that teacher competence, personal characteristics, subject matter expertise and the relationship between student and teacher all influenced the motivation of distance learners.

Kozar, O. (2012) Use of synchronous online tools in private English language teaching in Russia Distance Education, Vol. 33, No. 3, pp. 415-420

The title says it all. An interesting paper for those of you interested in one way in which the Internet is being used for teaching in Russia.

Conclusion

It is good that research is being conducted on these issues, because too often now people launch into online learning without any consideration of what is already known and hence continue to make unnecessary mistakes that reduce the effectiveness of the learning experience. (No, I’m NOT going to mention MOOCs).

However, despite the valuable research published in this journal, you have to either subscribe or have access to a university library to get it. And too often researchers write in a way that seems to deliberately obscure the value or the main outcomes of their research. This journal in other words has good stuff but should be much more accessible.

New journal: International Women Online Journal of Distance Education

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The International Women Online Journal of Distance Education  (int.WOJDE) is a journal focused specifically on women in distance education. The Editor-in-Chief is Prof.Dr.Emine Demiray, Anadolu University, Turkey (the wife of Professor Urgur Demiray, the editor of the Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education). Articles in both journals are published in English. The int.WOJDE states:

int.WOJDE is a peer-reviewed quarterly e-journal. International in scope, this scholarly e-journal publishes refereed articles focusing on the issues and challenges of providing theory, research and information services to global learners in any kind of distance education or open learning applications. 

int.WOJDE invites mainly the proposals from the introductory through advanced level on all topics related to:

  • the using of information and communication technologies in distance education for women, and
  • instruction and knowledge about new learning technologies in distance education for women;  
  • the using of information and communication technologies in distance education by women, and
  • instruction and knowledge about new learning technologies in distance education by women;

The first edition (Vol. 1, No. 1) covered topics on women in distance education in Zimbabwe, Palestine, Nigeria and Russia.

Comment

This journal fills a major need in distance education. There is a long history around the issues of women in distance education, but articles or research on the topic have tended to be scattered across a wide range of journals. What makes this journal particularly fascinating is its global reach, looking at women and distance learning across a wide range of cultures.

Other publications/resources on women in distance education

The Commonwealth of Learning web site lists over 40 publications on women and distance education (including three by its current President, Asha Kanwar). Some further articles not included in this list are:

Atan, H. et al. (2005) The support system in distance education: factors affecting achievements among women learners, TOJDE, Vol. 6. No. 4

Wall, L. (2004) Women, Distance Education and Solitude: A feminist postmodern narrative of women’s responses to learning in solitude Athabasca AB: Athabasca University (master’s dissertation)

Menda, K. O. et al. (2008)  Challenges facing female distance learners of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana, African Journal of Open Learning,

However, this is a very large topic, and any other suggestions for publications on this topic will be much appreciated.