GCU researchers work with Harvard University on Gates Foundation study

01 May 2014

Dr Colin Milligan

Dr Colin Milligan

A new study by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian and Harvard Universities has found that massive open online courses (MOOCs) miss the opportunity to exploit the knowledge and expertise of those studying in them. 

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is the first study to examine the learning behaviours of professionals in MOOCs – free, online courses with unlimited participation offered by some of the world’s leading universities.

The study suggests that MOOCs may encourage passive learning, with students failing to integrate the scientific knowledge they learned through the MOOC with practical, on-the-job learning.

Professor Allison Littlejohn, Principal Investigator and Director of the Caledonian Academy, a research centre at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: “We’ve observed that the highly structured MOOC design focuses on content provision, which the participants are very positive about.

“The structure, however, does not encourage learners to actively self-regulate their learning. If anything, participants, even those with high self-regulated learning ability, tend to limit their activity to reading and interacting with course content, overlooking opportunities to use the theory they’ve learned to improve their practice.”

Between November 2013 and February 2014 they surveyed almost 400 participants of ‘Fundamentals of clinical trials’, a MOOC for health professionals developed by Harvard Medical School and offered via the edX platform. The MOOC was selected as it represents a course design typical of the key MOOC providers, allowing some general conclusions to be reached.

The team measured participants’ capability to self-regulate their learning before interviewing 35 health professionals in 23 countries to investigate their learning behaviour. 

The researchers found that highly self-regulated learners articulated more precise learning goals and expectations compared with low self-regulated participants, even where their motivations for joining the MOOC were the same. However, when they participated in the course, there were few differences in the behaviours of high and low self-regulated learners. All exhibited fairly passive behaviours in the highly structured MOOC environment.

Dr Colin Milligan, co-investigator, said: “Learners focused on activities such as watching videos and taking tests, with little evidence of learners relating new knowledge into practice, or of connecting to their peers through the discussion board.

“To be effective, professional learning should provide opportunities to integrate theoretical and practical knowledge. But even those learners who said they wanted to improve their professional practice did not integrate the scientific knowledge they learned through the MOOC with practical, on-the-job learning.”

The researchers recommend that MOOC designers focus on capitalising on the diversity of MOOC participants and professionals are encouraged to link MOOC learning with their everyday work practice.

Dr Milligan said: “We need a cultural shift around conceptions of learning and teaching and of learner and teacher roles to capitalise on the experience and expertise that professionals bring to their learning.”