Saturday, June 22, 2013


Those who know that I'm in grad school sometimes ask what my research is about. I mumble something about MOOCs, but I really haven't always had an easy (or brief) way to answer. When I formally proposed my research to my committee early in June, I did it with a 50 page paper, an 8 minute prepared statement, and 40 minutes of answering their questions. My 50 page paper wouldn't make a very good blog post, but an edit of my prepared remarks might help to describe what I'm researching. I'll give that a try here. 


Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have drawn a great deal of attention in the last two years. One reason for that is that people are interested in seeing whether MOOCs can help with some of higher education’s greatest challenges, including
1.     Access
2.     Costs
3.     Rate of, and time to completion

·      Access, because MOOCs can reach users worldwide through the Internet, and can serve tens of thousands of students at once, regardless of where they are.
·      Costs, because while MOOCs today are often expensive to produce, they generally do not involve any cost to those who take them.
·      Completion, because MOOCs will probably play a role in remediation in the short term, and may increasingly be able to be taken for credit in the longer term.

Another reason that MOOCs have drawn attention is that the set of universities most visibly involved are the elite U.S. universities who generally have engaged in online education in only limited ways until now. When Harvard, Stanford, Princeton and Penn make major moves into online education, the higher education community takes notice.

Enthusiasm for MOOCs in these early days is high, but so is MOOC skepticism. Past large scale online education efforts such as Columbia’s Fathom have failed so it is reasonable to wonder whether MOOCs will turn out to be merely a higher education fad that will eventually fade away.

In addition to skepticism, there are concerns. Some college leaders, especially those at less well funded institutions that have not been early adopters, have expressed concerns about the impact of MOOCs on their business model. With MOOCs being produced at some of the top ranked universities in the world, they are concerned that their business model is at risk. When their own students take Poetry from Penn, Circuits from MIT, and Justice from Harvard, all at no charge, how will that affect their perceptions of cost and value at their home institution when they return to class the next semester? Will they expect education to be free, taught by celebrity faculty, available on their schedule, and in convenient 15 minute segments complete with nifty graphics? There may be valid reason for concern.

Since 2012, more than 80 elite U.S. and international universities have developed and distributed course content in the MOOC format, but their motivations are not yet entirely clear.  This leads directly to my research questions regarding these early adopters.

1.     First, What are they trying to achieve?
2.     Next, How will they assess success?
3.     And finally, what business model or value proposition are they planning?

Interest in these questions is high. Versions of my study questions can be seen frequently in higher education and popular press headlines, and heard in discussion among faculty and educational technology staff. Conferences in academic and IT circles increasingly have topics and tracks that address MOOCs and their role. I believe that these research questions are of significant interest to many within the higher education community.
The literature on MOOCs so far includes a substantial and growing amount of research on learning theory as it applies to MOOCs. Some have studied learning outcomes in online education since well before the days of MOOCs. Others have studied some of the unique attributes of MOOCs (such as their massive nature, their use of social network concepts to promote interaction, etc.) and how they can be used well to foster good learning outcomes. Little or no research has been published on MOOC decision process, however. This is not surprising, given how new the phenomenon is.
To attempt to answer my three research questions, I propose a qualitative, multiple site holistic case study to investigate and analyze the goals, motivations and decision processes at elite, early-adopter U.S. universities as they consider investments in, and possible future roles of, MOOCs at their institutions. Interviews with individual faculty members involved in planning or teaching in the MOOC format as well as with faculty members who are willing to share concerns and skepticism about MOOCs, will be performed. In addition to faculty, others will be interviewed including educational technologists who help to prepare MOOCs, and students who have taken MOOCs or have helped as teaching assistants. Finally, and most importantly, I will interview key decision makers such as chief academic officers and faculty advisors on MOOCs. I will also study related documents at each study site, looking for documentary evidence that helps to answer the three research questions.
Inductive data analysis approaches will be applied to the interview transcriptions and collected documents, and then patterns and themes in the data will be noted and analyzed. An effort will also be made to collect data representing multiple perspectives. For instance, minutes from a faculty meeting in which objections were raised would help to provide balance and avoid the “echo chamber” effect that could occur when interviewing only those who have committed to the stated university direction on MOOCs. Strong patterns found at study sites will be considered for their contribution to that site’s plans and decisions regarding the role of MOOCs. Looking across the three studied sites, common patterns and stark contrasts will also be noted.
I was able to perform a pilot study at Penn, which was very helpful in fine tuning my research protocol and practicing the process of writing up findings and performing analysis. Penn was a rich site in that it was a very early adopter and a prolific creator of MOOC content. Since then, Several good study sites have been identified, and contacts at several of them have been showing signs of support.
(Candidate sites not named here until arrangements are finalized)

In conclusion, I propose to study the goals, assessment and decision processes, and business models at at three elite early adopters of MOOCs. I plan to use a multiple site holistic case study approach relying on interviews and documents as evidence. I believe that my research questions are not yet well studied, but are of broad interest and therefore worthy of investigation.

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  1. Hi Deke... Maybe I didn't see you address this in your blog post, but...

    Do you plan on addressing what - in my MOOC-naive mind - is the biggest question:

    From a traditional university student's perspective, physically attending college leads ultimately to a degree, and the purpose of that degree is to better enable job opportunities. "Open doors" and all. How can a student get a degree when his/her curriculum is of the student's own choosing, without the "blessing" and vetting of a respected and established university? That seems to especially be a big question if the student picks MOOCs from different universities. And even if the student gets a degree in the end, will employers value and respect that as much as a degree earned "the old fashioned way"?

    1. I believe that it will be quite some time before students routinely design their own educational program and pursue them with opportunities such as MOOCs (though I wrote about exactly that sort of thing in October 2011 in this blog). I think the short term promise of MOOCs is simply this: For learners, much more high quality content, very accessible. For universities, more chances to make connections with more people (lifelong learners, alumni, prospective students, etc.) worldwide.

      Your MIT degree is still a really valuable thing, and that isn't changing anytime soon.

  2. Are the online courses taken available as credited classes or are they merely for those interested in the pursuit of knowledge.
    If credit isn't available it's difficult to see how a business model would be changed as academic credentials lead to actual jobs.
    If credit is available how will these institutions deal with indentity assurance?

    1. Great questions. A few courses, including the Single Variable Calculus course taught by Prof Ghrist of Penn, have now been recommended by ACE (American Council on Education) for credit Others are sure to follow. It's up to each university whether to actually offer credit. Some will, some won't, some will treat MOOCs as AP credit. Identity assurance programs such as Coursera's Signature Track are popping up. See:

  3. 1. First, What are they trying to achieve?
    2. Next, How will they assess success?
    3. And finally, what business model or value proposition are they planning?

    1)To find out if there is a more cost effective way to deliver education. Cutting staff and Professors will result . Sprawling campuses will disappear.

    2) Success will be determined by the number of students who not only stay the duration of the course,and not drop out, but do as well as those who physically attend college.

    3)I think colleges will need to spend money on MOOC's in order to develop the technology. Once they do, and it is deemed a success, it will no longer be free of charge, and be offered in place of online classes, and students will receive college credit..

    Can i get my Ph.D Now? :)

    1. I'd be glad to give you a Ph.D. But you'll have to earn it the hard way :)

      Elite universities like Penn, Harvard and Princeton don't care if education is expensive. That's the concern of other colleges. There will always be top ranked high school students ready to pay Ivy League tuitions, at least as long as Ivy League education is seen as a premium product. So the early adopter elite universities are doing this for other reasons. At Penn, transforming on-campus education through MOOC experience seems to be a big part of the value proposition. Penn does not seem overly concerned with a revenue stream from MOOCs.

  4. wow, i'm so negative all the time :)

  5. What is your major?

    I think MOOCs may be among the most fantastic things to help realize the potential of the human race ever. Imagine if the top 0.001% of shoeless Africans have access to MOOCs. How many Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Sidney Shapiros does that wind up creating, over and above what we've been managing while education has been insanely expensive, fantastically localized, and all done by hand?

    1. Hi Mike! I'm in a higher education management program at Penn. If all goes well, I'll defend in April and graduate in May. "Dr. Deke."

      I hope all is well with you and yours!