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Patterns of diffusion and social implications of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): A comparative study between United States and Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - MOOC_DaSI (Patterns of diffusion and social implications of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): A comparative study between United States and Europe)

Reporting period: 2018-10-01 to 2019-09-30

MOOC_DaSI project aims to develop a comparative study between the United States and Europe investigating: a) patterns of diffusion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and b) their contribution to a “smart ad inclusive growth” by broadening access to education and providing individuals with better skills.
Enthusiastic views welcomed these resources as a flexible, customized, cost-effective form of education. On the other side, skeptical views pointed to several shortcomings. A consistent body of literature has grown on the pedagogical and psychosocial aspects of MOOCs, but the social implications of MOOCs in terms of inequalities for different social groups and actors in the organizational field are still little investigated.

Following this line, the project has two main objectives and related research questions:
• Objective nr.1. Mapping patterns of development of MOOCs in the United States and Europe in a comparative perspective. It investigates the organizational field of the provision of MOOCs: who are the key actors; to what extent the diffusion of MOOCs changes power roles, generates inequalities and conflict. Moreover, it investigates whether a European pattern of development of MOOCs be identified and which are the peculiar features of the diffusion of MOOCs in Europe as opposed to the United States.
• Objective nr.2. Studying the contribution of MOOCs in reducing social inequality, in the United States and Europe. It investigates the contribution of MOOCs in: a) reducing inequality of access to education; b) returns to MOOCs in terms of skills formation and occupational outcomes. The project investigates whether MOOCs contribute to reducing social inequality by broadening access to higher education and providing better occupational outcomes. And whether MOOCs really improve individuals’ skills and occupational chances or rather, if they may turn into traps, not bringing the expected returns to time and effort invested.
The first year of the project was devoted the USA case study. First, the work consisted of mapping MOOC providers and other existing actors in the Higher Education system by means of available bibliographic sources and interviews to experts in the field. Second, the research analyzed quantitative data about learners enrolled to MOOCs provided by Stanford University. The analysis of survey, demographic and behavioral data of learners investigated the relationship between socio-economic status and learning outcome, both in terms of course completion and engagement with the course material. Third, the researcher collected and analyzed qualitative data through semi-structured interviews to people who enrolled in at least one MOOC. The qualitative section aimed to investigate motivations, learning outcomes and returns on the labour market of MOOC learners, providing a broader picture of MOOCs role in individuals’ paths.
The activities of the second year focused on the European case study. First, the fellow investigated the organizational field of the provision of MOOCs in Europe through bibliographic resources and experts interviews. Second, the project investigated the socio-economic background of learners and the type of returns that learners had from this type of digital education tool. Framed in the context of social stratification literature, the work carried out used secondary quantitative data from the database MOOCKnowledge, managed by the Joint Research Center of the European Commission in Seville (ES), partners of MOOC_DaSI project, and collected primary qualitative data on learners who enrolled in the courses included in MOOCKnowledge database. Both quantitative and qualitative methods of research are employed to achieve original results.

The project results have been extensively disseminated in the research community through the participation of the fellow as speaker to about 20 events between international conferences, workshops and seminars. Moreover, results of the project were also disseminated to students by means of about 10 lectures and teaching seminars to undergraduate and graduate students. Finally, the project’s results have been communicated to the wider public in two EU Researchers Nights and in several occasions of the internet and social media.
MOOC_DaSI contributes with new and original knowledge to the debate around MOOCs -and Open Education in general- along three main lines of argument:
1. MOOCs originally represented a threat to existing higher education institutions, potentially jeopardizing the autonomy and quality of faculty labor at both private and public institutions. This occurred in the USA and especially in the first years of the hype (2012-13). Consequently, MOOCs faced some forms of resistance across different higher education institutions, which ultimately may have contributed to the slowdown of the MOOCs phenomenon in subsequent periods. European HE institutions joined with a bit of delay the ‘MOOCs mania’ and at the very early stages stood as observers with a bit of apprehension, but now Europe has a substantial offer of MOOCs and remarkable numbers of learners.
2. The contribution of MOOCs in reducing social inequality of access to education appears ambiguous: on one side learners with high levels of education, individual cognitive and organizational resources, as well as motivation and proactive behavior tend to be advantaged. On the other side, when considering the individual situation on the labour market, unemployed learners in particular seem to benefit from MOOCs, as they tend to adopt a strategic approach in which MOOCs are used as a (positive) signaling factor about their ability and motivation to prospective employers. On a gender perspective, MOOCs emerge as an accessible and useful tool for women experiencing transition periods and problems of work-life balance (e.g. in between jobs, between countries, after family separation). On the negative side, MOOCs positive contribution is not at everyone’s reach: only individuals with high individual resources, able to identify their own needs and to organize themselves are those benefitting the most.
Finally, the project contributes to shed light on the phenomenon of drop outs in MOOCS by highlighting a more articulated and non-binary version of ‘failure’. Indeed, most of learners appear to be at the same time completers of some courses and non-completers of some other courses, in the context of an area of experimentation in a low risk environment with no monetary cost, no blame, freedom of choice, and even a form of escape from routine or social and spatial isolation.

Last but not least, the project identifies few areas of policy intervention, dealing with:
1. Openness: Findings stress the importance of preserving the original ‘openness’ and accessibility features inherited from the Open Education movement, in favor of the circulation of knowledge at macro and micro level.
2. Monitoring: The research community and citizens in general would benefit of an institutional, reliable and non-profit source of information which regularly releases updated and comprehensive data for research and for information purposes.
3. Focus: One of the strengths of the European context is represented by its cultural diversity. Policy intervention at European level could further support and value this aspect, ultimately contributing to revitalize the common European identity.
Poster presented at European Researchers' Night (Sept 2019)
Poster presented at European Researchers' Night (Sept 2017)
Poster presented at Learning with MOOCs conference (Sept 2018)