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Ebben, M., & Murphy, J. S. (2014). Unpacking MOOC scholarly discourse: a review of nascent MOOC scholarship. Learning, Media and Technology, 39(3), 328–345.


Summarize: This paper unpacks the MOOC scholarly discourse, with critical lenses that are terribly needed. It focuses on publications from 2009 – 2013, which features the transitional moment from cMOOCs to xMOOCs. The search results “only” include 15 papers published during that time. The data analysis is not complicated, showing a growing body of literature, distribution of papers among different journals. The Discussion section is very impressive as it greatly expand the scope of the analysis conducted in this study to discuss various issues related to MOOCs.

Assess: Relatively simple analysis, but great discussion. More like a think-piece than an empirical piece.

Reflect: This paper enriches a thought I current have–MOOC research operating in different world views, in that it taps into different epistemologies reflected in different MOOCs. I’ll think more as preparing for a upcoming Doctoral Consortium. It also highlights the importance of critical discourse analysis in the MOOC scholarship – which could be quite fascinating as well.


Drawing upon a comprehensive search of nine leading academic databases, this paper examines the initial phase of MOOC scholarship (2009 – 2013), and offers an analysis of these empirical studies that concep- tualizes themes in MOOC scholarship and locates them within a chrono- logical framework. Two key phases of scholarship about MOOCs are identified, each with associated research imperatives and themes. Phase One: Connectivist MOOCs, Engagement and Creativity 2009 – 2011/ 2012. Themes of Phase One include: development of Connectivism as a learning theory, and technological experimentation and innovation in early cMOOCs. Phase Two: xMOOCs, Learning Analytics, Assessment, and Critical Discourses about MOOCs 2012 – 2013. Themes of Phase Two include: the rise of xMOOCs, further development of MOOC peda- gogy and platforms, growth of learning analytics and assessment, and the emergence of a critical discourse about MOOCs. (p. 2)

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) owe their heritage to the open edu- cation movement (p. 2)

Methodology (p. 3)

The principle of inclusion was confined to MOOCs described as such by the scholars who investigated them. (p. 3)

We tabulated numbers of articles, noted authorship, place of publi- cation, author affiliation, and location. We also analysed the number, type, and location of the journals. Following Silverman (2011), we worked induc- tively to identify learning theories, assumptions, research directions, and themes across the literature to establish a conceptual framework for understand- ing the present landscape of MOOC scholarship. (p. 3)

Data collection (p. 3)

Articles for analysis were drawn from a comprehensive search of nine leading academic databases starting in the year 2002 to 1 July 2013. (p. 3)

The databases searched were: Academic Search Complete, Communication and Mass Media Complete, Directory of Open Access Journals, Education Full Text, ERIC, Google Scholar, MathSciNet, Science Direct, and Web of Science. (p. 4)

Databases were searched for articles with the word, MOOC, in the title, abstract, or content. This process yielded approximately 43 articles from a variety of sources. (p. 4)

This process yielded 25 scholarly articles in peer-reviewed academic journals that were directly about MOOCs. (p. 4)

Results (p. 4)

Table 2. List of journals with MOOC scholarship 2009 – 1 July 2013. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology Distance Education Educational Theory Electronic Journal of e-Learning eLearning Papers European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning International Journal of Advanced Computer Science and Applications International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning International Journal on Computer Science and Engineering Open Praxis Research and Practice in Assessment Telecommunications Journal of Australia (p. 5)

Five continents were represented by the lead authors of the 25 articles in the database: 2 from Africa, 1 from Australia, 8 from Europe, 12 from North (p. 5)

America, and 2 from South America (Table 3). (p. 6)

Unlike traditional fields, online and distance education, and computer science journals have a relatively brief turn-around time from submission through review to publication because their subject matter is rapidly changing. (p. 6)

However, as MOOCs continue to evolve, the social and cultural implications of MOOCs may increasingly become the focus of humanities and social science research. (p. 6)

Discussion (p. 6)

Liyanagunawardena, Adams, and Williams (2013) identify eight themes apparent in MOOC scholarship. These include: (1) Introductory (explaining aspects of MOOCs), (2) Concept (discus- sion of threats and opportunities of MOOCs in higher education), (3) Case Studies, (4) Educational theory (pedagogical approaches used), (5) Technology (discussion of hardware and software used), (6) Participant focused ((discussion of participants’ experiences), (7) Provider focused (discussion of course crea- tors and leaders), and (8) Other. (p. 6)

This paper seeks to further organize themes in MOOC scholarship and locate them within a chronological framework to help understand this unfolding body of scholarship. (p. 6)

Phase one: Connectivist cMOOCs, engagement and creativity 2009–2012 (p. 7)

Early Connectivist MOOCs emphasized human agency, user participation, and creativity through a dynamic network of connections afforded by online tech- nology. (p. 7)

Mackness, Mak, and Williams (2010) identify attributes of Connec- tivism as network principles of diversity, autonomy, openness, and emergent knowledge but suggest that these attributes may be compromised within some MOOC environments. (p. 7)

Kop goes on to identify four learning-enhancing types of activities that can occur within cMOOCs: (1) aggregation (access to lots of content resources), (2) relation (reflection on the aggregated content through blogging, discussion boards, and related technology), (3) creation (assignments or expectations that participants would create new ideas, and (4) sharing (of created content with other participants) (Kop 2011, 21). (p. 7)

nt and are well suited for consistently active participants. Early MOOC researchers sought to operationalize the learning theory of Connectivism by building and running cMOOCs with a few researchers (Kop 2011; DeWaard et al. 2011) doubling as both designers and facilitators of the MOOCs under study. (p. 7)

If a central dynamic of cMOOCs was participant engagement, unpacking the features of disengagement, often referred to as participant lurking, was the key. (p. 8)

There is little critique of the limits of Connectivism in this first phase of MOOC research; however, Bell (2011) is the exception. He does not believe Connectivism can always be applied successfully to online teaching, and suggests that Connectivism fits some learning environments better than others. Bell rejects Connectivism as a theory, and argues that it is best under- stood as a phenomenon rather than as a full-fledged theory of learning. (p. 9)

Thus, early MOOC research published in scho- larly journals was focused around five key questions aimed at getting MOOCs right: (1) What is the best way to create a high-quality learning environment for autonomous (self-directed) learners? (2) Are the principles of Connectivism getting realized properly and fully in MOOCs? (3) What is the best way to support autonomous learners in MOOCs (acknowledging the evolving roles of learners and educators)? (4) What are the most effective tools and applications for participants? (5) How can MOOCs, influenced by Connectivism, elucidate the complexity of and chaos experienced by higher education at the moment? (p. 9)

profound observation, but for this paper, not grounded in results as the authors did not report related analyses. (p. 9)

Phase two: xMOOCs, learning analytics, assessment, and critical discourse 2012–2013 (p. 9)

Rodriguez ( 2012) argues that MOOCs need to be differentiated because they may vary in pedagogical under- pinnings. Rodriguez’s empirical research categorizes MOOCs into two main types: cMOOCs and xMOOCs. (p. 9)

From an epistemological point of view, Rodriguez argues that cMOOCs are characterized by generative knowledge, whereas xMOOCs are characterized by declarative knowledge. xMOOCs may be more appropriate for learning where there are clear right and wrong answers, but behaviorist pedagogy is ill suited for critical thinking and the practice of creativity (Rodriguez 2013). On his view, the Connectivist paradigm would seem better positioned to take advan- tage of resources and connections available in the networked global learning environment (p. 10)

Yay! (p. 10)

The concept and practice of ‘openness’ in MOOCS also gets differentiated between the two MOOC formats by Rodriguez (2013). (p. 10)

Learning analytics (p. 11)

Predictive algorithms and adaptive feedback mechanisms hardwired into MOOCs track, record, and analyze every click a student makes to generate data aimed at understanding the ways in which students learn in MOOCs (McKay 2013). (p. 11)

Another aim of learning analytics is to correlate student characteristics (age, gender, nationality, etc.) with achievement in MOOC courses. (p. 12)

The development of learning analytics may accelerate further if edX follows through on plans to make their MOOC databases available to other researchers (Reich 2013). (p. 12)

Assessment (p. 13)

Issues explored in this corpus include the ways in which MOOCs can be used to substitute for tra- ditional forms of higher education, and made acceptable as a legitimate form of higher education. Assessment typically focuses on accreditation concerns (p. 13)

accreditation sounds like a more pivotal heading here. (p. 13)

Overall, most in the assessment community welcome MOOCs as ‘an extre- mely positive development’ (Sandeen 2013, 11) and have high expectations that MOOCs will solve a number of social and educational challenges that have worsened over recent decades. (p. 13)

Critical discourse about MOOCs (p. 14)

Critiques of MOOCs are being articulated that identify problematics related to MOOC epistemology, pedagogy, and cultural hegemony (Rhoads et al. 2013). For example, the problem of epistemology concerns the narrow view of knowledge employed in some MOOCs that view knowledge as a product to be transmitted to anyone with an internet connection and a computer (p. 14)

impoverished understanding of knowledge and, moreover, one that does not acknowledge the inherent relationship between power and knowledge. Fou- cault’s insight that power produces knowledge (because power creates norma- tive understandings), permits us to see how MOOCs, given their influence, may promulgate particular interests, and particular expressions of knowledge over other interests or other expressions of knowledge. (p. 15)

Rhoades encourages consideration of the effects of ‘an Internet-based knowledge system in which certain disciplines and fields of inquiry become [more dominant while other disciplines and fields become] further marginalized by their lack of adherence to this form of knowing’ (Rhoads et al. 2013, 92). In other words, MOOCs may become a tool to further the relatively narrow goals of academic capitalism such that disciplines that serve the dominant economic order are privileged. (p. 15)

The problem of pedagogy refers to a limited understanding of what consti- tutes empowering teaching. (p. 15)

MOOCs are also being critiqued for their linguistic representations that are paradoxical and impenetrable. For example, the discourse of MOOCs, which is characterized by a decontextualization of learning and a decontextualization of technology, paradoxically, contains within it both the possibility of (p. 15)

democratized education as well as the reproduction of post-colonial forms of knowledge. (p. 16)

Furthermore, we would suggest that there has been a subtle, but significant shift in the ways in which faculty and students are labeled in MOOC discourse. While the title professor is rarely used, the term instructor or facilitator is fre- quently invoked. This semantic shift may express a diminished importance of perceived knowledge, autonomy, and status on the part of the educational leader. Professor and instructor/facilitator are not equivalent terms. Similarly, in the MOOC discourse, students are frequently not called students, but rather referred to as participants, a linguistic modification which would seem to dis- lodge their primary identity as learners. The import of these and other aspects of MOOC discourse require further critical investigation. (p. 16)

Phase two of MOOC scholarly literature comprises research trajectories aimed in several different directions: (1) efforts toward the establishment of differentiation among MOOCs with regard to pedagogical underpinnings, (2) development of learning analytics based on student characteristics and behaviors that are recursively applied in MOOCs, (3) advancement of forms of assessment that position MOOCs as legitimate pathways of education, and (4) the rise of a criti- cal discourse about MOOCs and their implications for teaching and learning. (p. 16)

Notes on contributors Maureen Ebben is an Associate Professor, Adjunct and Lecturer in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Southern Maine. Her teaching includes courses on human communication, technology, and social media using online and face-to-face formats. She has received grants to study students’ perceptions of tech- nology in teaching and learning and has published works that explore the nexus of information technology, pedagogy, and human communication. Julien S. Murphy is Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department and Coordinator of the Liberal Studies / Online Humanities Program at the University of Southern Maine. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles and three books in bioethics (The Constructed Body: AIDS Reproductive Technology and Ethics), feminist theory (Gender Struggles, co-edited with Constance Mui) and French philosophy (Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Paul Sartre). (p. 17)

Downes, S. 2013. “The Semantic Condition: Connectivism and Open Learning.” Keynote presentation delivered to Instituto Iberoamericano de TIC y Educacio ́n – IBERTIC, July 11. (p. 18)

Kop, R. 2011. “The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences During a Massive Open Online Course.” International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning 12 (3): 19 – 37. (p. 18)

Liyanagunawardena, T., S. Williams, and A. A. Adams. 2013. “The Impact and Reach of MOOCs: A Developing Countries’ Perspective.” eLearning Papers 33: 1 – 6. (p. 19)

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