The Gates Foundation Funds MOOC Research Initiative

Bill Gates. Co-Chair and Trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

The MOOC Research Initiative (MRI) was announced this week. Funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation via Athabasca University, the MRI is “part of a set of investments intended to explore the potential of MOOCs to extend access to postsecondary credentials through more personalized, more affordable pathways” according to the funding website. The MRI is interested in providing access to postsecondary credentials to “low-income and disadvantaged young adult populations”. It is also interested in fostering research about “more affordable pathways”.

ADFI has a current Call for Book Chapters for Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education: Curriculum Models and Institutional Policies that offers an opportunity to scholars to publish about the relationships between open learning opportunities and formal credentialing. Some of the same authors may be interested in the funding opportunity provided by the MRI.

While institutions, designers and scholars argue, design, innovate, and publish in the context of cMOOCs, xMOOCs and newer designs like MOOPhDs, it’s good to step back and ask “What’s in it for learners?” After all, some MOOCs argue that their Raison d’être is to maximise student-centeredness, user-generated content, and socially connected learning in a digital age.

It’s time to consider MOOCs – whether open or commercial – from the perspective of a learner’s lifelong learning. MOOCs are one of many formal, informal and incidental learning opportunities that a leaner might utilise. A student’s journey may include a cMOOCs, xMOOCs, formal and informal workbased learning, non-accredited short courses, micro-credentials such as badges, formal enrolled studies (vocational and university), lifewide learning and so on.  Learners now have many opportunities to personalize and build evidence of learning of value to postsecondary credentials – but only if institutions develop recognition practices that value what they bring.

For this reason, we hope that some of the funding about MOOCS via the MRI will focus on MOOCs-in-context of the personalized learning journeys of individual students. This isn’t just a question about learning pathways. It isn’t just about “credit for MOOCs”. It isn’t about how a university might aggregate different MOOCs through a “bolting together” approach with a focus on course content. It is about the sector developing the capacity to focus on the learner-in-context, to interpret evidence in relationship to learning outcomes, and to articulate what “equivalence” means in the context of postsecondary credentials. This is very much an intellectual challenge about whose knowledge counts, where, and why; how it is evidenced; how institutions transform their relationships to personalized learning in a digital age.

Hopefully the following MRI focus question will generate research about MOOCs-in-context and lead to transformative thinking about the relationships between MOOCs (open and commercial); the many other forms of open learning; and credentials for learners.

  • 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?

Image credit: “The Thinker” by Steve Jurvetson via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license


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