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MOOCs research results

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Mandy Honeyman
29 April 2013

Google Scholar

I found the first page of search results for the term "educational impact of MOOCs" returned a large number of blogs, several general responses to MOOCs, several mention of MOOCs within papers releated to OERs and one paper containing relevant research.

de Waard, Inge, et al. "Using mLearning and MOOCs to understand chaos, emergence, and complexity in education." The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 12.7 (2011): 94-115. [online] (accessed 29 April 2013)

ISI Web of Knowledge returned no results for same term.

ERIC returned two results (when peer review was selected), the first was to an article to help librarians find information, but the second was to a research paper  Emotive Vocabulary in MOOCs: Context & Participant Retention 

PsycInfo returned no results

ScienceDirect returned 7 results but only one of these contained reference (keywords) to MOOCs and related to research; it was looking at web infrastructure and education and looking ahead to the impact of MOOCs on this. 

Swetswise -- no access via OU Library databases section nor via

Extra content

MOOCs and research: retention and completion rates

The HarvardX and MITx report (2014) on the first year of 17 open online courses concludes that such courses are useful but are "not the salvation of higher education". In the 2012 to 2013 year, there were 841687 registrations from 597692 users. 43196 emerged with certificates, 292852 registrants didn't even explore the online content.See for full report and for a review of the report. This report appears to confirm other quantitative research on MOOC participation and retention rates, for example, Guzdial (2014) who blogs about various institutions offering MOOCs. What he does pick up is that completion rates may be higher if the course is more advanced. The first half of the blog by Guzdial pertains: Guzdial, M. and Adams, J. (2014) ‘MOOCs need more work; so do CS graduates’, DOI 10.1145/2555813 Available at I found this in Web of Science. Also, Horton (2013), in a discussion of COOCs and MOOCs, cites the OU's report that MOOC completion rates are less than 10%: I found Horton's discussion through ERIC.

Possible avenues of research

Guzdial (2014) discusses a physics MOOC at Georgia Tech. The students who completed the course could be categorised as follows: 1) they began the course with substantial knowledge of physics and so gained little from the MOOC  2) they had little knowledge and barely progressed  3) they learnt a lot. Guzdial's comment opens up research ideas, for he says that "being a completer does not mean that anything has been learned" (author's italics). As a research possibilty, one might investigate this idea. 

Another possibility presents itself in Baggaley's (2013) commentary. He talks of how MOOCs could be ranked in the future. He cites Daniel's (2012) prediction that xMOOCs will be assessed. "Actors from the media through student groups to educational research units will be publishing assessments of xMOOC courses. These will quickly be consolidated into league tables that rank the courses – and the participating universities - by the quality of their offerings as perceived by both learners and educational professionals" I found this in PsycINFO.

In a Stanford team's research on peer assessment in MOOCs, some research ideas emerge. They talk about a need to reconceptualise what it means to be a student, including enrolment and registration.

"Typing one’s email address into a webpage is not the same as showing up for the first day of a registrar-enrolled class. It’s more like peeking through the window, and what the large number of signups tells us is that lots of people are curious. How can we convert this curiosity into meaningful learning opportunities for more student"  DOI:

From the papers I accessed, the research methods involved the collection of quantitative data for statistical analysis. One paper used open-ended questions to obtain feedback from students, but the responses were transformed into stats. Not much qualitative data.



Judith Albrecht
10:10 on 28 April 2014 (Edited 12:47 on 28 April 2014)

Embedded Content


Joanne Pratt
6:38pm 3 May 2013


Thank you for starting us off with this one.  I looked in other areas for info Educause has loads on MOOCS how relevant would take years here's a link to the results  Under heading MOOCS of interest there looked a good link about learning analytics but it is broken (shame).  A search of their library returned these results.

JISC have a white paper on MOOCs and OPen Education: Implications for Higher Education.  Has some useful links in the reference section.

I prefer to read blogs such as is a space provided by Downes and Siemens (connectivisim) to host MOOC news and info.

Search terms used 'MOOC' and 'research'

Joanne Pratt
5:28pm 6 May 2013

Interesting article in Nature magazine here on MOOCs

Fergus Timmons
9:40am 14 May 2013

Some interesting new research about MOOCs available in the new edition of eLearning Papers here through eLearnnigEuropa :

Note that not all the papers appear to be fully available. Nevertheless, some interesting titles

Grant Penny
8:02am 5 May 2014

Some demographic student reseach neatly compiled.

Maxine Armstrong
1:12pm 15 May 2015

Some recent articles on MOOCs research and higher education:

  • Davidson, C. (2014) Why Higher Education demands a Paradigm Shift, Public Culture, vol.26, no. 1, pp.3-11. Available at (accessed 14 May 2015)
  • Murray, A. (2013) Running aMOOC?, Distance Learning, vol. 10, issue 2, pp.11-18. Available at (accessed 14 May 2015)
  • Reich, J. (2015) Rebooting MOOC Research, Science, vol.347, issue 6217, pp.34–5. doi:10.1126/science.1261627 (15 May 2015)

Anna Orridge
1:18pm 6 May 2016

OK, so this is for H809 2016!


Two interesting research papers I found:

Anders, A. (2015) 'Theories and Applications of Massive Open Online Courses' International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning v16 n6 p39-61 Available at


Ruby, A., Perna, L., Boruch, R. & Wang, N. (2015) 'Are There Metrics for MOOCS From Social Media?' Online Learning Vol.19(5), p.159-170 Available at:


Interesting facts and figures from those papers



"Perna et al. (2014) found fewer than 10% of those registered for “first-generation” MOOCs at the University of Pennsylvania completed the course." (Ruby et al, 2015)


End of the year statistics for 2014 show a rapidly expanding MOOC market including more than 400 universities offering more than 2400 courses to nearly 18 million students (Alders,2015)


What is and is not ‘new’ about the research methods being used to study MOOCs?


Ruby et al (2015) refer to poor completion rates, but claim that we should perhaps be thinking of other ways of measuring the success of MOOCs: “As Sfard argues there is a case for the plurality of metaphors” (p.11) and, when the technology is still evolving, as in the case of MOOCs and measurement of MOOC effectiveness, exploring activity measures like those used by social media is a potentially fertile field of inquiry.” They therefore attempt to switch to measuring “engagement” (like number of “likes” or “retweets” on SNS). In order to do this, they explored access rates on MOOCs, as indicated by participation in pop-up quizzes and clicks on podcasts, etc. They found strong correlation between completion rates and engagement measured in this manner.

What research questions ought to be asked?


Why are completion rates so low? Why are so many people who take part educated professionals, and how can other groups be targeted? How can high development rates be tackled in order to guarantee long-term sustainability?

Anders' paper (2015) discusses different types of MOOCs, such as “xMoocs” “cMoocs” and “Hybrids” and demonstrates their pertinence to various learning theories. His study finishes with the following suggestions for research: "First, what are design patterns and trends among a large sample of MOOC courses including all major providers? Which learning theories and strategies are practitioners of all types using to guide their course designs? Second, additional empirical study will be necessary to understand the impact of hybrid MOOC designs on individual learners and their development of heutagogical, connectivist, and emergent learning capacities."


What research methods should be used?

Ruby et al (2015) point out: “The indicators of access in this study have clear limitations as measures of engagement in effective educational practices or educational progress. They do not measure learning, length of time spent on an activity, or other potentially useful dimensions of a user’s experience with any set of content

or assignment.” With this in mind, perhaps research methods need to concentrate in this sort of detail on individual attainment, by tracking the activities of individual as they pursue courses, and applying pre- and post- MOOC assessments.








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