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Gates Foundation funds new research on MOOCs

University of Toronto leads scholarship in emerging field

U of T offers MOOCs through Coursera and edx (photo by Ken Jones)

Three University of Toronto research teams are among the successful applicants in a competitive grant competition run by Athabasca University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The teams will receive funding for their research into the experience of teachers and students of Massive Open Online Courses, commonly known as MOOCs, and the impact of this emerging field.

“A year ago when we started teaching our first course, MOOCs were quite new, but we've now moved to the point where we've taught the courses and we want to know if learners find them effective,” said Professor Jennifer Campbell, who teaches computer science at Uof T and has led two Learn to Program MOOCs. “It’s exciting to be able to use this new research to delve a bit deeper and see what’s going on.”

MOOCs are free, online, university-level courses—often called ‘coursettes’ at U of T to differentiate from full degree courses— that users can enrol in and follow from anywhere in the world. In addition to readings, videos and other teaching materials offered online alongside the guidance of university professors, the MOOCs also invite learner engagement through discussion forums and peer feedback. Although they are not for credit, to date there have been hundreds of thousands of participants in the University of Toronto MOOCs.

The U of T initiative began  last year with subjects ranging from Psychology to Computer Programming to Aboriginal Worldviews and more through partnerships with two different platforms, Coursera and edX. Campbell’s pilot endeavour taught with Paul Gries, was one of the first to launch.

“We learned as much as the students did the first term,” she said. “When teaching at scale, the game really changes.” Campbell’s MOOC had approximately 67,000 learners enrolled with about 10 per cent of them engaging on the discussion boards.

Campbell said she and her teaching team couldn’t help but wonder about the impact of her MOOC as it was sent out to tens of thousands of students. She said the Gates Foundation funding offered an opportunity to learn more about students that are otherwise mostly invisible to them: “We decided this was a good chance to explore some of those questions we had.”

Now, just over a year since the launch of MOOCs at the university, three research teams at U of T have secured funding to learn more about the people who participate, how effective the instructional designs are and could be and how their usefulness can be expanded to meet the needs of diverse learners.

“I believe the three U of T proposals were strong because each was developed by a team with expertise spanning academic disciplines, educational research approaches, analytic methods and practical experience with learning technologies,” said Laurie Harrison, director of Online Learning Strategies at U of T.

“Leveraging our institutional capacity across the departments was key to the success of the proposals. We were so pleased to hear these three had all been funded—to know that we had been able to support our researchers in moving forward their work.”

Harrison says only preliminary study of MOOCs has so far been explored at the university, and that these projects will be the first at U of T and among the first in the field to examine more nuanced and complex aspects of MOOCs as an area of academic research.

“Because it’s such an early stage, there’s still a lot to be learned about the possible benefits for our learners,” said Harrison. “We’re in an exploratory phase and our focus is on trying to understand their potential by working in the MOOC arena across two platforms. We’re one of the few institutions doing research across two platforms: Coursera and edX.

“This news says to me that U of T is leading the field in research in this area. Our returns on MOOC study proposals submitted are nothing short of stellar.”

These are the U of T projects funded:

Beyond and Between “Traditional” MOOCs: Agile and Just-in-Time Learning
Jennifer Campbell, Alison Gibbs, Laurie Harrison, Stian Haklev – $25,000 (Dept. of Computer Science and Dept. of Statistics – FAS
This study will compare the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as active, instructor-led, open-facilitated courses with their use as archived, self-directed learning resources. 

Hatch, match, and dispatch: Examining the relationship between student intent, expectations, behaviours and outcomes in six Coursera MOOCs at the University of Toronto
Carol Rolheiser, Laurie Harrison, Stian Haklev, Chris Teplovs – $25,000 (Curriculum Teaching and Learning – OISE)
Our primary goal in the proposed research is to use survey, clickstream, and assessment outcome data from the MOOCs that have been offered to understand how those dimensions interact (the “match” in the proposal title). As well, the research project will focus on adaptation of analytic methods particular to large MOOC data sets and documentation of those methods.

Secondary School Students and MOOC’s: A Comparison between Independent MOOC Participation and Blended Learning
Dilip Soman, Rosemary Evans, Christopher Federico, Laurie Harrison, – $17,000 (Rotman School of Management)
The focus of the research will be to compare secondary school student achievement of learning outcomes and levels of student engagement and persistence under two models of instruction: 1) through independent engagement with a MOOC; and 2) through a blended model involving teacher support and engagement with a MOOC.