MOOC researchers: 3 actions that will change your research story

As a Massive Open Online Course researcher, you are probably overwhelmed by the progress of MOOC development, not only in practice but also in literature. For a lot of us, MOOC studies/practices are so new that we find it a bit hard to position us as a researcher in this field. Where are we now in the development? What’s going on? What benefits and challenges do we have? Where are we heading? A lot of questions are hovering your mind when picking up your pen and trying to write something about MOOC.

I have been studying and practicing MOOC since January 2015 as a PhD student at USI Università della Svizzera italiana (Lugano, Switzerland) and the trend of MOOC studies. Due to the fact that USI has been trying to enter the market as a MOOC HEI (higher education institute) provider, I have been working as a project manager for one of its pilot MOOC (eTourism: Communication Perspectives) while doing relevant researches related to MOOC as a PhD candidate at campus.

In this article, I would like to share two articles that are considered as systematic review of MOOC studies, which can provide you with a panoramic view in the subject, which can be extremely helpful for MOOC starting researchers to figure out some research gaps that might interest you.

Article One: Liyanagunawardena, T. R., Adams, A. A., & Williams, S. A. (2013). MOOCs: A systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 14(3), 202-227.

Summary: This paper presents a systematic review of the published MOOC literature (2008-2012): Forty-five peer reviewed papers are identified through journals, database searches, searching the Web, and chaining from known sources to form the base for this review. We believe this is the first effort to systematically review literature relating to MOOCs, a fairly recent but massively popular phenomenon with a global reach.

Useful results: The review categorises the literature into eight different areas of interest, introductory, concept, case studies, educational theory, technology, participant focussed, provider focussed, and other, while also providing quantitative analysis of publications according to publication type, year of publication, and contributors. Future research directions guided by gaps in the literature are explored.

Methodology: systematic review of literature based on two studies

Gao, F., Luo, T., & Zhang, K. (2012). Tweeting for learning: A critical analysis of research on microblogging in education published in 2008–2011. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(5), 783-801.

  • A search in 22 major refereed academic journals in educational technology using the keyword “microblogging” or “Twitter”
  • Search was extended to three major educational databases: Educational Research Information Center (ERIC), Education Research Complete (ERC), Education Full-Text
  • Search was conducted on Google Scholar to further expand the pool. Key word searches were conducted using “Twitter” or “microblogging” in combination with “learning” or “education”
  • Snowball sampling was conducted by examining related articles cited in these 19 papers.

Williams, S. A., Terras, M. M., & Warwick, C. (2013). What do people study when they study Twitter? Classifying Twitter related academic papers. Journal of Documentation, 69(3), 384-410.

  • Ellis (1989) defined six characteristics of search by academic social scientists: starting, chaining, browsing, differentiating, monitoring, and extracting.
  • This study was based on searches using the search word“Twitter”of Scopus and Web of Science, via their university library access, in both cases the search was based on    abstract, keyword and title
  • Open coded content analysis, based on the paper’s title and abstract, a technique used by Miller, Fullmer, and Walls (1996), and adapted from Glaser and Strauss (1967).
  • A total of 1161 items included and 575 were used for final analysis


Article Two: Bozkurt, A., Keskin, N. O., & de Waard, I. (2016). Research Trends in Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Theses and Dissertations: Surfing the Tsunami Wave. Open Praxis, 8(3), 203-221.

Summary: In an effort to understand MOOCs more comprehensively, this study analyzes theses and dissertations (N = 51) related to MOOCs and published between 2008 and 2015, identifying research trends from these academic documents. Theses and dissertations within this research scope were gathered through a comprehensive search in multiple academic databases. For the purposes of the study, the research employed a systematic review approach. In order to reveal trends in research themes, emphasize theoretical/conceptual backgrounds, research designs and models, first a document analysis was used to collect data and this was followed by a content analysis.

Useful results: Our research findings indicate that MOOC research is generally derived from education, engineering and computer science, as well as information and communication technology related disciplines. Qualitative methodology linked to a case study research model is most common, and the theoretical/conceptual backgrounds are usually distance education related. Remarkably, nearly half of the studies didn’t benefit from any theoretical or conceptual perspectives. In sum, this study presents an evaluation regarding research trends derived from MOOC theses and dissertations, and provides directions for future MOOC research.

Methodology: systematic review of literature

Systematic reviews aim to identify, appraise and summarize studies of a particular topic (Webb & Roe, 2007) and are used to arrive at a more holistic, comprehensive and trustworthy outlook of the research topic (Gough, Oliver & Thomas, 2012). Systematic reviews provide guidance to researchers planning future studies, and provide convenient summaries of the literature on a particular issue (Petticrew & Roberts, 2008). In current MOOC systematic review research, the data collection and organization process employs document analysis while data analysis process employs content analysis approach.

This research sampled theses and dissertations published between 2008 and 2015 to reveal research trends. The authors employed purposeful sampling. The findings of the study are limited to theses and dissertations written in English, with online, full text accessibility, published from 2008 to 2015, and having one of the following definitions in the title: MOOC(s), Massive Open Online Course(s), cMOOC and xMOOC. The following databases were used: Google Scholar, ProQuest, Open Access Theses and Dissertations, WorldCat, Anadolu University database, Athabasca University database and Open University database. 51 documents met the sampling criteria and were included in this research.





Fig 2. A list of systematic review articles of MOOC studies

Based on the long list of systematic review of MOOC literature between 2008 and 2015, there are three action items that are recommended.

  • Keep tracking the updated studies – Use the keywords of “MOOC”or “MOOCs”and search in Google Scholar. Choose to create a Google Scholar alert and send updates to your email address.
  • Read systematic review articles – read through the existing systematic review of MOOC studies and get a holistic overview of this topic.
  • Master the research tools – Refer to different ways of conducting literature review of a topic and conduct a review of your own by adopting one of them to study a specific set of research questions related to MOOC.


To start a research in the topic of MOOC, it requires a lot of effort to track, read and analysis the flooding information and resources. But with the three actions suggested above, you can find it much easier to start and proceed.


About Author


Jingjing Lin (Twitter: @linjingjing)

I am currently a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Communication Sciences at the Università della Svizzera italiana (USI, University of Lugano). I focus the research interests mainly on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Raised up in China, I received her bachelor degree in the area of management from the Harbin Engineering University, China. Afterwards, I moved to Hong Kong for master programme study specializing in eLearning. In the following four years after my graduation from The University of Hong Kong (HKU), I continued to serve in the Hong Kong communities by contributing in various projects closely related to eLearning in both the industry sectors and the local universities.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2019 MOOC It | ScrollMe by AccessPress Themes