Scaling up to “moocl,” not dropping down from a MOOC: A proposal for exploratory research

Comments welcome to help improve this short pre-proposal

1. Introduction

Consider two questions posed in the call for submissions:

  • “What models of MOOCs exist beyond large centralized providers?”
  • “What institutional, pedagogical, learning design, technological, and business models are currently employed and which have the most potential to have a positive effect for our learner population?”

This proposal recasts these into a single exploratory research question:

  • What vocabulary and themes help us examine the effect for learners of a MOOC model that does not involve large centralized providers?

The specific alternative model that is the focus of this research is a “Collaborative Exploration” (CE).[3]  In brief, CEs are an extension of Problem- or Project-Based Learning (PBL) and related approaches to education in which participants address a scenario or case in which the problems are not well defined, shaping their own directions of inquiry and developing their skills as investigators and prospective teachers (in the broadest sense of the word).  The basic mode of an online CE centers on interactions in small groups over a delimited period of time (1 hour/week for 4 weeks) using easy-to-learn tools for reflection, structured turn-taking and feedback, which elicit the face-to-face PBL experience of re-engagement with oneself as an avid learner and inquirer.[4] CEs are at their early stage; the fifth CE takes place during July.  It remains to be seen whether they will attract enough participants to scale up to “moderate-sized open online collaborative learning”—moocl—in multiple, simultaneous learning communities around any given CE scenario.

The assumption that underlies this proposal is that scaling up is more likely if CE organizers and participants have a well-honed vocabulary and themes for contrasting the moocl approach to MOOCs organized by large centralized providers.  Provisional terms and themes have been emerging among the CE participants (sect. 2).  The proposed research would explore this in a systematic manner and be undertaken primarily by an outsider to CEs (sect. 3).  Sources, including evaluations of previous innovations in collaborative learning are given in the footnotes.

2.  moocl in contrast with MOOCs: Provisional terms and themes[5]

* Instead of getting masses of people signed up for a course and knowing that a tiny fraction will complete it, focus on establishing effective learning in small online communities then potentially scale up from there.

* A course is not the default model for teaching/learning. CEs address the needs of online learners who want to:

  • dig deeper, make “thicker” connections with other learners
  • connect topics with their own interests
  • participate for shorter periods than a semester-long MOOC
  • learn without needing credits or badges for MOOC completion

Posts take the form of participants’ thoughtful syntheses and reflections with few of the surfing-the-web links that are common in connectivist or c-MOOCs.

* The technology is simple, accessible, and unencumbered by concerns about production values and costs.  In a small group running for a delimited period, something like a private google+ community suffices for participants to follow the threads.  Google+ hangout allows a group of 10 to meet.

* A modest administrative task for scaling up is to allocate CE applicants to hangouts based on time availability,[6] but the more significant challenges are to

  • host any small group well so that people want to return for more small group experiences and to spread the word to others to join in subsequent CEs
  • recruit apprentice hosts who can then host on their own and to prepare an easy-to-follow script that can be used without first apprenticing to someone else

3.  Research method

A graduate research assistant (RA) trained by the P.I. and CCT Program professional staff will:

  • submit the research for Human Subjects approval and secure informed consent of a random sample of CE participants;
  • use a standard protocol (below) to conduct short interviews about interviewees’ experience in CEs and their experience, if any, in a recent MOOC; and
  • use nVivo (qualitative data analysis software) to analyze recordings of the interviews so as, in the vein of exploratory research, to identify vocabulary and themes that flesh out or complicate from the provisional terms and themes above (sect. 2).[7]

The protocol will take the following form (subject to revision after pilot testing), which will be given to the interviewees in advance so they can prepare their responses:

  • When did you first get involved in a CE/MOOC?
  • What were your relevant experiences before that time?
  • What were your personal goals in joining the CE/MOOC?
  • How well did you achieve those goals?
  • What have been your major personal obstacles to learning more from the CE/MOOC?
  • How did your attitude to the CE/MOOC change through the period you participated?
  • How would you have proceeded differently if you were doing a CE/MOOC again?
  • What features of the CE/MOOC or actions of the organizers or participants helped you?
  • How do you think the CE/MOOC could have been improved?
  • What have you learned about making a CE/MOOC stimulating and productive?
  • What would your advice be to prospective participants about how to get the most from a CE/MOOC?
  • What other questions do you see as relevant to making sense of your CE/MOOC experience?


Peter Taylor[1] (P.I.), Graduate Program in Critical & Creative Thinking[2], University of Massachusetts Boston


[1] The P.I. has taught, developed, or organized online courses and learning interactions as director of the CCT Program (see note 2) since 2000 as well as workshops for innovation and public engagement over the same period.  Key publications include: “Guidelines for ensuring that educational technologies are used only when there is significant pedagogical benefit,” International Journal of Arts and Sciences, 2 (1): 26-29, 2007 (; “Cultivating Collaborators: Concepts and Questions Emerging Interactively From An Evolving, Interdisciplinary Workshop” (with S. Fifield and C. Young) Science as Culture, 20(1): 89-105, 2011 (; Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement.  Arlington, MA: The Pumping Station (with J. Szteiter).  See also “Probe—Create Change—Reflect,” a blog on critical thinking & reflective practice,, especially

[2] Since 1980, the CCT program has “provide[d] its students with knowledge, tools, experience, and support so they can become constructive, reflective agents of change in education, work, social movements, science, and creative arts,”

[5] This contrast is inspired by the comparison focused on learning of an x-MOOC and a c-MOOC:  Other sources are noted in, Step 4B.

About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: