My MOOC dissertation journey: An Overview

As part of my Masters in Education Studies programme, I am writing a dissertation and being so interested in MOOCs I have decided that this will be the primary focus of my research topic. I thought that since I am towards the last month of working on my dissertation, it will be a good time to write a little bit about my journey of researching MOOCs and perhaps share some of the challenges I have encountered as well as any tips I have. This is the first post of others to come as I am still working on the dissertation.

Since I started my course last September I had a very clear idea that I will be writing about MOOCs, and having been involved in external quality assurance reviews for a while now, my initial topic was going to relate to how can we quality assure MOOCs and investigate if the same mechanisms that we use for programme quality assurance (internal and external) are still relevant. However, before I started working on this, I began a new job at the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) Partnership and got to know much more about qualifications frameworks and how learning enters them. This is what influenced my current topic, which is:

Can MOOCs lead to Qualifications? Challenges, Opportunities and Developments.

I have decided that I will take a Grounded Theory approach for this dissertation and allow my hypothesis develop through my research. In other words, I am not setting a hypothesis to begin with and instead I am starting directly with the data collection and allowing my discoveries to guide my theories. Considering how quickly MOOCs have been entering our education system and how many opinions different bodies have of them, I thought that starting with a specific hypothesis may not be the best approach. Especially considering that there is still a lot that we do not know about MOOCs and how they are used.

To support that, I am also trying to remain as impartial as possible by not taking any MOOCs myself. This has been one of the most challenging parts of my dissertation journey. As I am very curious about MOOCs and a big advocate of Open Education, it is indeed hard not to try them out myself. Not to mention that very interesting courses keep coming out… However, the way I see it, it will be difficult to remain as objective of possible if my personal experiences with MOOCs are extremely positive or negative. Therefore, in order not to influence the way I research the topic, I will not be taking any MOOCs until I finish writing about them.

In order to investigate the topic specifically of qualifications and more specifically the recognition of learning done through MOOCs, I am undertaking a largely qualitative research. There are two questions I am concerned with:

Do MOOCs, as they are, fit within our current Qualifications Frameworks? 

For this, I will be largely using the Scottish Framework – the SCQF. Through the analysis of policies regarding Scottish education I am looking at how MOOCs fit in the current system, if anything (on either side) needs to change in order to accommodate this inclusion and etc. I am using two approaches to do this – first of all, looking closely at national frameworks, and especially Scotland, in order to find an answer. To support this, I have also interviewed experts working in the fields of qualification frameworks, quality assurance, e-learning and open education in order to gather their views on the matter.

Recognising learning done through MOOCs – what is currently being done and what does it all mean for the future – would formal recognition be a part of MOOCs?

This is a more challenging question as empirical research done on learning in MOOCs is still largely unavailable. Considering that MOOCs became the topic of conversation between academics, learning providers and learning technologists everywhere in 2012, it is safe to assume that most research projects would have started around that time, meaning they are probably going to start appearing soon… but haven’t done so yet. There is still a lot of resources online. More and more MOOC providers are publishing data on how their MOOCs are doing, open education journals and blogs are making resources available as well as guidance and statements on MOOCs from national bodies appearing in various countries. In addition to going through these resources, I conducted a set of interviews with people with the following backgrounds:

  • Qualifications & qualification frameworks experts;
  • Quality assurance experts;
  • Open Education and/or e-Learning experts; and
  • Learners

Using people with these backgrounds has helped me get a rounded view of what people’s perceptions of MOOCs are and roughly get an idea of what the sector is thinking about them. In addition to this, I have been lucky to attend several conferences regarding education policy where MOOCs have had dedicated sessions, which has allowed me to informally talk to people and listen to developments from different points of view.

I will use all of those resources and data to attempt an estimation of what recognition of learning might look like when it comes to MOOCs. Another question that has emerged from this – is do we need to formally recognise learning and what implications/opportunities either scenarios would pose.

In a nutshell this is what I have been up to lately, and why I haven’t spent much time writing in my blog… Over the next week or so, I’m planning to share my experience with the interviews and go over more detail of how I planned those, a little bit more about who I interviewed and what I asked them and some advice on conducting interviews (which may not be only MOOC specific!).