Home » E-Learning » MA in Open & Distance Education » H809: Practice-based research in educational technology » MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon. There’s been a lot of hype about them. What does the research say? 

MOOCs are a relatively new phenomenon. There’s been a lot of hype about them. What does the research say? 

A ‘MOOC’ is a ‘Massive Open Online Course’, perhaps better called on ‘Free Online Course’.

The ‘Massive’ comes from online video games where there can be huge numbers of participants. An early online module on engineering from Stanford had some 10,000 initial participants. A couple of years later and niche, less popular courses from far less prestigious establishments may have only a few hundred participants which takes the ‘massive’ out of the MOOC, and can in turn diminish the learning experience as only a fraction of students participate and only a fraction stay to the end. Well meaning MOOCs I have done, one for example on e-learning design for MOOCs, could well have been down to a dozen active participants by the end as the drop-out rate was so high, largely, in my view, in that instance, because the demands on and expectations of participating students was far too high.

Where to search

In addition to investigating ISI Web of Knowledge and Google Scholar, see also the bibliographic databases ERIC and PsycINFO and the full-text databases SwetsWise and ScienceDirect.

My OU Student Blog has 55 entries on MOOCs, this begins with very early forays, lurking, in the 2010/2011 before committing as a participant twice this year, in the Open University’s Online Learning Design MOOC (OLDS MOOC) and the OU’s Martin Weller chaired H817 Open MOOC. I was able to give five then three weeks full-time to each before EMAs and life made me reduce the time I could give to them.

Particularly the OLDS MOOC that I would describe as a standard OU Module with as many, if not more activities and even more potentially to read … as well as the now obligatory interaction in a Google Hang-out and forums which, unlike in a standard OU Module, had the active participation of some of the heavy hitters of online learning.  A blind alley though, other than a reminder of what it is like to take part in a MOOC.

Questions to ask

  • Is anything known about the educational impact of MOOCs, as distinct from their news impact?

  • What research methods were used?

  • What could be known about MOOCs?

  • Are research methods being developed ‘new’?


  • You may go up many blind alleys, but persist.

  • You might not find a huge number of high quality research studies. As mentioned above good research often takes time to set up, analyse and write up; and the most highly rated journals typically have detailed peer review and editing processes, followed by long lead times for publication.

  • You may well find yourself in the so-called ‘grey literature’ – conference papers, technical reports, reports to funders, web pages, blogs, and so on. Such grey literature was once more difficult to search than journals, but now dominates online search results. It has traditionally had a lower academic status than peer-reviewed journals. However, this situation might change because of the growth of web-based publishing and the need for studies about fast-changing technologies to be published quickly.

As previously, keep notes on what you find, and on your reflections.


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