Michael saved in Pocket: ‘Challenges to research in MOOCs’ (Fournier et al. 2014)

Very relevant read while working on my micro-ethnography of ds106, particularly around the challenges and ethical issues surrounding research of connectivist-style MOOCs!


Over the past five years, the emergence of interactive social media has influenced the development of learning environments. Learning management systems have come to maturity, but because they are controlled by educational institutions and are subsequently used to support institutional learning, have been seen by learning technologists as not capturing the spirit and possibilities that new media have to offer for learning. Academics and researchers are currently investigating a different learning environment, more open and networked, while the underpinning learning theory is moving from social constructivism towards connectivism. Research in open learning environments is only in its infancy and researchers have only started to become interested in massive open online courses (MOOCs) as a topic of investigation. Recent research and development efforts have focused on generating technologies that might facilitate learning within a self-directed information and communication stream. In this paper, the authors report on an exploratory case study of PLENK, a connectivist-style MOOC, and highlight some of the challenges in the research and analysis process, especially as significant amounts of both quantitative and qualitative data were involved. Important findings related to activity levels and important dimensions of self-directed learning in an open learning environment are presented.

  • ‘Every researcher has to consider the ethical implications of the chosen methods of obtaining data for a study as well as the use of the data. Sometimes obtaining data is a matter of accessing statistics or documents. When human subjects are involved in the research, careful consideration of the level of informed consent by participants is also required. Miller and Bell (2002) argued that gaining informed consent is problematic if it is not clear what the participant is consenting to and where “participation begins and ends” (p. 53). Several ethical issues were raised in the literature, of which misuse of data and privacy issues were the most important. Boyd (2010) and van Wel and Royakkers (2004) caution that data could pose a threat to subjects when either misused or used for different purposes than for which it was supplied. Researchers should at least anonymize data in order to respect privacy issues (Boyd, 2010; Rogers, McEwen, & Pond, 2010; van Wel & Royakkers, 2004). It has also been suggested by network researchers that people should have the choice to opt in or opt out of the use of their data. If someone is not aware that the data is being collected or how it will be used, that person has no real opportunity to consent or withhold consent for its collection and use. This “invisible data gathering” is common on the Web (van Wel & Royakkers, 2004, p. 133) and highlights some new decisions related to ethics that researchers will have to make. Researchers have a responsibility to carefully consider the context of their research, and also the process that takes place between observing, collecting and analyzing “big data” – data that is left by traces of activities that might not at all be related to the visible participation of learners.’ (Fournier et al. 2014: 3)

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