MOOCS as Research Platforms vs. Actionable Insight?

What are MOOCs for anyway?

I’ve often wondered about the inherent value for University stakeholders for designing and running a Massively Open Online Course, or “MOOC”. As an enthusiast for this sort of thing, I can fully appreciate the value of poking around in a course, even if I don’t complete it for certification. But the initial “hype” for MOOCs was not about people like me – it was about the possibilities for expanding access to world-class curriculum, professors, and universities to anyone around the world who can gain access to an internet connection.

Image Credit: (“Arts Education in MOOCs,” n.d.)


In Chapter 18 of the Handbook of Learning Analytics, Kizilcec & Brooks discuss the application for MOOCS as a platform for research. The practical “hype”, at least right now, is for these massively open courses to be used as research platforms. Speaking to the unique possibilities for MOOCS as research instruments, Kizilcec & Brooks conclude that:

The ability to deploy large randomized experiments rapidly to large heterogeneous learner populations has the potential to disrupt the way educational research is carried out. While in the past learning theories might arise from the careful study of a small number of highly selective environments where control over conditions is difficult(e.g. Higher education classroom studies in WEIRD contexts), it is now possible to deploy randomized experiments with high fidelity to tens of thousands of learners across the globe in a single course – an unprecedented opportunity in the field.  (Kizilcec & Brooks, 2017)

This is a paradigm shift for me. When intentionally designed, these open courses can provide valuable insight into where and why pedagogy, design, and content work for diverse populations of learners. Particularly learners that are not from western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic countries (WEIRD), which is a crucial goal of any intervention that purports to be access-oriented on a global scale.  

Where is the gap?

But that shift also leads me to more questions, many of which I’m sure I’ll gain more insight as I mature in my studies. At least I hope so.

If MOOCS are best harnessed as research platforms for sharpening pedagogy, design, and eventually access fo a diverse group of learners – where are all of the insights published? When does the promised disruption for access happen? Are they confined to the budding Learning Analytics and Educational Data Mining communities, and if so, then why? Are the institutions publishing these courses on platforms like EdX simply not publishing what they are learning at the same rate they are producing courses and credentials? Are insights gained from learning analytics in MOOCS incentivized as much as other research going on across the broader the learning and social sciences?

I’m excited to be learning more about how and where learning analytics and educational data-mining can be used to make lives better in the form of MOOCS. I do still feel that I lack clarity on the full purpose for launching so many MOOCS at the pace they have gone. Where is the gap? Is it a lack of incentive for publication, a lack of contributors to a still nascent field? What will it take for MOOCS to employ these refined insights for learning design for those who really need it? As excited as I am for the research “hype” of MOOCS as research instruments, I’m more excited for that next step: global access to authentic learning experiences and certification.


Arts Education in MOOCs. (n.d.). Retrieved February 3, 2018, from
Kizilcec, R., & Brooks, C. (2017, May 11). Chapter 18 – Diverse Big Data and Randomized Field Experiments in MOOCS. Retrieved February 3, 2018, from


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