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!).


What you need to know about EPALE – the Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe

EPALE (Electronic Platform for Adult Learning in Europe) is currently being set up by the European Commission. EPALE will allow Adult Learning Stakeholders, such as providers, teachers, trainers, policy-makers, media, researchers and so on to exchange, showcase, and promote methods of good practice in adult education.

The European Commission has high ambitions for EPALE. The e-Platform is designed to become the reference point on adult learning in Europe, becoming essential to any professional in the field. 

EPALE will offer a number of tools, such as collaborative networking space, calendar of events and courses, a library of high quality educational and policy resources, discussion groups and more. The features will allow Adult Learning professionals and stakeholders to have access to high quality educational content, strengthen their networking and have a much closer involvement in policy at various levels. Ultimately, these will support the development and quality of adult learning in Europe.

Through the platform, adult learning professionals will be able to share good practice and recent developments and learn from each other.

According to the EC:

EPALE will support the following goals:

  • make lifelong learning and exchange of experience a reality;

  • improve the quality and efficiency of adult learning;

  • Promote equality, social cohesion and active citizenship through adult learning (1).

The platform will be open to anyone involved in the organisation and development of adult learning and it is due to launch later in 2014. 

Currently stakeholders are invited to contribute to the development of EPALE via a survey. The survey is available on all EU languages and should be completed by the 14th of May. The survey can be accessed via this link:

More information on the platform can be found here:






“Imagine Tomorrow – Change Today” on MOOCs

“Imagine Tomorrow – Change Today” on MOOCs

I was delighted to be invited by NUS Scotland  to guest blog on MOOCs this week. The issue I decided to address was what direction MOOCs might take, now that the hype about them has started to quiet down a bit… MOOCs have the potential to be a powerful tool for Access to Higher Education, but they can also be a very persuasive marketing agenda to attract new students in universities. So which direction will they head in? It’s a topic I’m keen to hear more discussion on, so I’m looking forward to any thoughts on the matter!

Scenarios for the future. What would education look like in 2025?

Earlier this year Goodison Group in Scotland and Scotland’s Futures Forum published a report “By 2025, Scotland will be regarded as a world-leading learning nation: Scenarios for the future”. The report is based on the evidence the authors collected through desk research, seminars, discussions, workshops and talks. The results show four possible scenarios of what our education system will look like in 2025.


Each of the above shows an extreme version of what could be our education system if we focus on a certain aspect of it. All scenarios show what the society looks like and how this affects the education – and how the education affects the society. Positives and negatives can be found in all possible futures… and the question remains –  what is the learning society Scotland is aiming for?

In each version of 2025 we can find a discussion on what schools, colleges and universities look like and how they respond to their learning societies. Looking at the report closer, we can also see where MOOCs fit in the picture.

Market-Driven Learning Society

Education is largely employer focused, universities have become private organisations responsible to shareholders, the focus is on transferrable skills and training in this is given from early education to University. The college sector has become redundant, no national strategy for vocational education which has led to it being operated by employers. There is no support for adult learners – part-time or full-time. Universities have become globally competitive and their reputation is built by the quality of the distance learning courses.

So – how would MOOCs look in a world like this? This is the only scenario that actually mentions MOOCs. In 2025 MOOCs are used as a marketing tool, allowing students to get a feel of what a course looks like before they enrol. However, in a society like this one, MOOCs can allow Scotland to restore its Access to HE agenda and provide people who would otherwise be unable to go to University continue to acquire knowledge in an area. If by 2025 MOOCs offered qualifications as well, they would have become a very big competition to the private Universities. However… would MOOCs remain free and how would the qualifications they offer compete in the market?

Local Learning Society

The focus is on equality and social justice. Lifelong learning and support for people who want to be in education are available to all. Scotland is not focused on what the rest of the world are doing, and is concerned only with how the education system serves the local community. Access to education is widely available with many links to Higher Education through colleges and learning hubs opened. Employers are supportive of lifelong learning initiatives and encourage employees to participate in such.

MOOCs are not mentioned in this scenario. In this possible future, student mobility and global awareness are not considered to be important. With so many opportunities for lifelong learning, perhaps MOOCs are not a necessity, although they could strengthen the initiatives and allow another way for the society to continuously develop. What MOOCs also bring is a huge international community – which might allow Scotland to open up slightly to the rest of the world as well.

Global Learning Society

In this extreme, the government is building the learning society. There is a big focus on research and lifelong learning is looked on as a way to boosting economy growth. Funding has been continuously targeted towards early years education and deprived areas, the college sector has close relationships with schools and HE and entrepreneurship is fostered. Scotland is recognised internationally for its education values.

In this society, concerns are being raised for social isolation because of the wider use of technology to deliver education. Although MOOCs are not mentioned at all in the scenario, they could also be one of the factors that has contributed to this. However, it is also possible that as Scotland has become internationally recognised for its provision, Scottish Universities can be also leading in their provision of Massive Open Online Courses and thus maintain and increase their profile, foster exchange and contribute to the global economy.

Divided Learning Society

This is the most gloom of all the proposed futures. In this society, there is a huge social divide and this has been accepted by both communities. There is a significant inequality existing in educational aspirations and opportunities between the rich and the poor. Support is offered locally, rather than nationally and there is a huge increase of health and mental issues in deprived areas. Education is often not an aspiration within the deprived communities.

As in the previous scenarios, MOOCs have the potential to help the society through an increased education provision. However, the unavailability of resources in deprived communities is a huge issue and the ones that would need this provision the most will not be able to take advantage of it.

Which of these futures do you think we are going towards? You can read about each one in more detail through the link provided at the top of this post.

Student Engagement… Online?

One of the aspects of most quality assurance review methods is to measure the student engagement. Depending on the method, reviewers look at what mechanisms for student engagement exist, how active is the student body, the student learning experience or simply monitoring attendance/drop-out rates/ withdrawal rates and etc.

Student engagement is not always easy to detect. As mentioned above, it can take place through different forms so it is not always very obvious. Many institutions are now striving to create better mechanisms for their students to be involved with the “behind-the-scenes” of their learning, and thus increase how much their students are engaged with them.

Another side of student engagement is the activity in the classroom. How much are students involved in their own education through directed and self-directed learning. How much are they getting out of a course, are they doing the minimum or look for opportunities to learn and do more. Monitoring student progression throughout the different stages of learning is now becoming very important in education. To some extent, it has always been there, in the form of stats and figures, but now institutions are looking for the why. Why aren’t students performing well on a course? Why have students decided to leave a course? Why have students decided to progress on the next level? Perhaps online learning has somewhat of a head start on this.

In traditional HE it is not easy to measure the levels of engagement in a class room, or even on assignments and work done away. Yes, to some extent the end result can be seen, as well as snapshots of the progression, but often the picture is not full.

When the learning is done fully online, the tutors have the ability to see a much more detailed story. Through an online learning platform the student engagement on a course can easily be monitored – what content do they engage with? Which parts of the course do they go through? How much time do they spend on different parts of the course? As already discussed, just monitoring is not enough. However understanding how each student, and the whole cohort, engages with the material they have been provided with can also allow tutors to act early and make changes/address issues as the programme runs

For example, if a student is not logging in and working through the materials for a week, the tutor can easily connect with the student and understand why they are not engaging with the online community. One might argue that this is no different to what happens in a traditional HE course, however when there are 100s of students in one class room it is not always so easy to spot those who are not regularly attending or are behind on their learning.

The ability to act instantly when one notices that not everyone is engaging with the materials is what could perhaps increase the quality of the student learning experience. Immediate and individually tailored support when needed – just imagine how much this can help deal with drop out rates and allow students to see how they can cope with the course better! This is where online learning has an advantage

However, this is true when it comes to SPOCs (Small Private Online Courses) or distance learning courses. But how can this be included in a MOOC? The answer may well be in the fact that MOOCs offer what other online (or not) courses can’t – a community or a forum of thousands of people doing the exact same course. Perhaps this ability to speak with such a large amount of other students, with various experiences and backgrounds, is an alternative way to offer this type of support.

Drop Out Rates – Is It Really a MOOC Issue?

I have been discussing MOOCs a lot over the past week. Having had a couple educational meetings I’ve had a good opportunity to talk about how people see MOOCs. Not surprising, one of the main topics that has come out of it is the issues MOOCs are currently facing. One of those issues is the so called drop-out rates.

Progression and retention data is gathered by institutions to monitor the success of their courses. Depending on the department, institution or country different rates are thought to be appropriate. For example, in some institutions 85% pass rate in modules is thought to be the acceptable minimum pass rate. Anything below that starts to cause alarm. This brings us to drop-out rates, which represent how many students have left the course without completing it.

Drop-out rates are used to monitor the quality of the course, the support it offers and how the students are coping with it. In standard courses this can be valuable information and, with the correct follow up, can be used to enhance the student learning experience.

And if we used this to judge MOOCs it would appear that they are not very good. Here is why this is incorrect.

Currently MOOCs have very high drop-out rates. In fact, this high number of students who leave without fully competing the course and it’s assignments is thought to be one of the biggest issues surrounding MOOCs (1). With figures like 60,000 students starting a course and only 3% completing it, it sure does look scary. However – can we really compare traditional Higher Education drop-out rates to MOOC drop-out rates?

I believe these are two very different matters. MOOCs have tens of thousands of people who sign up to a course, unlike in a University where this will be a few hundred. Students who then enrol on their chosen MOOC would do so not so much for obtaining a qualification, but simply because they want to expand their knowledge or sample a course. As Keith Devlin puts it “In other words, they come looking for education. Pure and simple.” (2)

And realistically, if you have a large number of MOOC students who take the course to further their knowledge in a topic, and leave it when they do not feel that they require it anymore, is it really the same as dropping out from a traditional HE course? Or the students who just wants to sample a course before they enrol in University, who really just want to know if this is for them? MOOCs remove many boundaries of education. The idea that you are in control of how much you do and how much you put into it can be slightly uncommon to traditional HE, which is why it’s more difficult to understand the trends within MOOCs.

The way I see it is that instead of dwelling on the high “drop-out” rates in MOOCs we should rather work on redefining what dropping out really means in the context of a Massive Open Online Course. And if there is such a thing at all. I am sure there are people leaving a MOOC without completing their initial goals, however how we measure that cannot be the same as measuring it in traditional HE courses.




What’s the craze about MOOCs?

Over the past year every Higher Education event, conference and seminar I have attended has had some sort of a discussion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Key-note speakers, talks during the coffee breaks, presentations… the sector is truly buzzing.

And even though there is an incredible amount of talk on the topic, I still find people who are not very aware of it. I have to admit that the first time I heard about MOOCs I wasn’t terribly excited. However, very quickly I realised how much potential MOOCs have to change and develop our education systems.

In this post I intend to shed some light on what MOOCs are and why are so many people talking about them… and why you should too.

What is a MOOC?

 MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. A MOOC is essentially a fully online course, allows for unlimited participation and is open for access by anyone on the internet.  They offer a large community of students and peers, web sources and a distributed knowledge base. Because of this, MOOCs essentially promote great student engagement, independent learning and networking with other people interested in the subject.

This videos offers slightly more detail on what a MOOC is:

Essentially MOOCs are the most recent development in e-Learning. Utilising web resources, not physical contact time and fully online materials, contents, learning activities. The main difference between a MOOC and an online distance learning course is that a MOOC is not currently credited, while a distance learning course also includes assignments and can lead to a qualification. Both, however, offer learning through online materials and communities. While distance learning courses are limited to a number of participants, MOOCs are open to unlimited participation which can open up a very large forum of people, and a huge learning community.

Why is everyone talking about MOOCs?

The term MOOC was first mentioned in 2008 and the first MOOCs emerged from Open Educational Resources (1). 5 years later, MOOCs are regarded as “revolutionising”, “game-changer”, “worldwide phenomena”.

Why? It is already evident that they attract huge numbers of students. According to The Wall Street Journal, Coursera (the largest MOOC provider) has attracted 5 million students, edX – another provider – 1.3 million (2). The courses come from institutions such as Harvard, Stanford. MIT and so many more. They are also free. Imagine the possibilities – potential students trying out a subject before they enrol; Access to education; Life-long learning; no geographical obstacles.

Even mainstream media are now engaging with MOOCs. AMC‘s critically acclaimed TV show The Walking Dead, based on comic books of the same title, has started a MOOC entitled Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead (3). This is a great example of how open MOOCs really are.

What MOOCs offer is a huge choice of courses, communities and the possibility to study something that was previously unavailable to you. These are all great things. The big subject variety, the choice of providers and generally the availability of information are things that have the potential to change how we develop our current education system.

In this blog I will be posting about current issues and trends regarding MOOCs, what effects they are having on Higher Education, and providing regular press round ups. This post is the first of many to come, and provides an overview of what MOOCs are. I hope you will find the blog helpful and I am looking forward to your comments!