30 Best Research Universities and Institutes in the World 2019
Some people are very cynical about the motives of academic researchers. It is certainly true that research publications, in conjunction with your record of obtaining external research grants, are the main currency for the purchase of career progression in academia, at least in the stronger universities.
The wealthier and more prestigious the university, the more this will be true. The stronger universities are not for those who want to devote most of their time and energy to teaching. In this blog, we have to explain the best 30 Research Universities and institutes in the World according to the Google Survey report 2019.
Good careers that are principally focused on degree level teaching are available in the USA, the UK and many other countries around the world. In countries like the USA that operate a tenure-track system, strong research output is essential in order to secure long-term employment and equally important there-after in securing promotion and salary advancement.
In North America, as in the UK, academic research is typically combined with a career that involves teaching university students, although there are also opportunities to pursue full-time research in some commercially sponsored laboratories.
It is a private research university that was founded in 1636 and is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States. Harvard was a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900. Harvard is a large, highly residential research university having $34.5 billion financial endowments.
The nominal cost of attendance is high, but the university's large endowment allows it to offer generous financial aid packages. It operates several arts, cultural, and scientific museums, alongside the Harvard Library, which is the world's largest academic and private library system.
It comprising 79 individual libraries with over 18 million volumes. Harvard's alumni include eight U.S. presidents, several foreign heads of state, 62 living billionaires, 359 Rhodes Scholars.
It is a private research university that is commonly referred to as MIT. It was founded in 1861 and is located in Cambridge , Massachusetts, United States. often cited as one of the world's most prestigious universities.
The Institute is traditionally known for its research and education in engineering, physical sciences, biology, economics, linguistics, and management.
MIT is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU), and founder of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS Institute).
For several years, MIT's School of Engineering has been ranked first in various international and national university rankings, and the Institute is also often ranked among the world's top universities overall.
As of 2017, 87 Nobel laureates, 54 National Medal of Science recipients, 66 Marshall Scholars, 47 Rhodes Scholars, 38 MacArthur Fellows, 34 astronauts, 19 Turing award winners, 18 Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force, and 7 Fields Medalists have been affiliated with MIT.
The school has a strong entrepreneurial culture, and the aggregated revenues of companies founded by MIT alumni would rank as the eleventh-largest economy in the world.
It is formally known as Leland Stanford Junior University and is commonly referred to as Stanford University or just Stanford. The private research university was established in 1885, opened in 1891 and is located in Stanford, California, United States.
Its 8,190-acre campus is one of the largest in the United States. Its academic strength, wealth, and proximity to Silicon Valley have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities.
Stanford was a former Governor of California and U.S. Senator; he made his fortune as a railroad tycoon. Stanford faculty and alumni have founded a large number of companies that produce more than $2.9 trillion in annual revenue, equivalent to the 9th-largest economy in the world. It is the alma mater of 31 living billionaires, 19 astronauts, and 22 Turing Award laureates.
It is also one of the leading producers of members of the United States Congress. 65 Nobel laureates and seven Fields Medalists have been affiliated with Stanford as students, alumni, faculty or staff.
It is commonly called Cambridge University that was Founded in 1209 and is Located in Cambridge, England, United Kingdom. Cambridge is the second-oldest university and the world's third-oldest surviving university.
Cambridge is formed from a variety of institutions which include 31 constituent colleges and over 100 academic departments organized into six schools. Cambridge University Press, a department of the university, is the world's oldest publishing press and the second-largest university press in the world.
The university also operates eight cultural and scientific museums, including the Fitzwilliam Museum, and a botanic garden, Cambridge's libraries hold a total of around 15 million books, eight million of which are in Cambridge University Library.
As of 2017, Cambridge is ranked the world's fourth best-ranked university and no other institution in the world ranks in the top 5 for as many subjects. Cambridge is consistently ranked as the top university in the United Kingdom.
The university has educated many notable alumni, including eminent mathematicians, scientists, philosophers, writers, actors, and foreign Heads of State, politicians, lawyers. 97 Nobel laureates, 15 British prime ministers, and 11 Fields medalists have been affiliated with Cambridge as students, faculty, or alumni.
It is also known as Oxford University or just referred to as Oxford. The date of founding this university is unknown but what is known is the when teaching started at this university as it dates back to 1096.
The university is located in Oxford, England, United Kingdom. The university is made up of a variety of institutions, including 38 constituent colleges and a full range of academic departments which are organized into four divisions.
All the colleges are self-governing institutions within the university, each controlling its own membership and with its own internal structure and activities.
Being a city university, it does not have the main campus; instead, its buildings and facilities are scattered throughout the city center. The university operates the world's oldest university museum, as well as the largest university press in the world and the largest academic library system in Britain.
Oxford has educated many notable alumni, including 28 Nobel laureates, 27 Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom, and many heads of state and government around the world.
It is the formal name of the university but it is commonly known as Caltech. It was founded in 1891 and is based in Pasadena, California, United States. In 1934, Caltech was elected to the Association of American Universities, and the antecedents of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The university is one among a small group of institutes of technology in the United States which is primarily devoted to the instruction of technical arts and applied sciences.
Caltech has 6 academic divisions with strong emphasis on science and engineering, managing $344 million in 2017 in sponsored research. Its 124-acre primary campus is located approximately 18 km northeast of downtown Los Angeles.
Caltech alumni and faculty include 34 Nobel Prizes, 4 Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force, 2 Fields Medalist, 7 Turing Award winners, and 73 have won the United States National Medal of Science or Technology.
There are 116 faculty members who have been elected to the United States National Academies. In addition, numerous faculty members are associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as well as NASA .
It is a private research university that was founded in 1746 and is situated in Princeton, New Jersey, United States. Princeton provides undergraduate and graduates instruction in the natural sciences, humanities, social sciences and engineering.
The university has graduated many notable alumni , 41 Nobel laureates, 22 National Medal of Science winners, 15 Fields Medalists, 5 Abel Prize winners, 12 Turing Award laureates, 212 Rhodes Scholars, 7 National Humanities Medal recipients and 129 Marshall Scholars. 2 U.S. Presidents, 12 U.S. Supreme Court Justices and 12 living billionaires and foreign heads of state are all counted among Princeton's alumni body.
Princeton has also graduated many prominent members of the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Cabinet, including eight Secretaries of State, three Secretaries of Defense, and two of the past four Chairs of the Federal Reserve
It is sometimes referred to as Berkeley, California, UC Berkeley and Cal. The university was established in 1868 and is located in Berkeley, California, United States.
Berkeley is the oldest of the ten research universities in the University of California system and is often cited as one of the most prestigious universities in the world. Established in 1868 as the University of California.
Berkeley is a founding member of the Association of American Universities and continues to have very high research activity with $796 million in research and development expenditures in the year ending June 30, 2016.
It also co-manages three United States Departments of Energy National Laboratories, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy.
Berkeley faculty, alumni, and researchers include 91 Nobel laureates, 9 Wolf Prizes, 15 Fields Medals, 20 Academy Awards, and 119 Olympic gold medals. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) also ranks the University of California, Berkeley, third in the world overall, and first among public universities.
It is sometimes referred to like Chicago, UChicago. The university was established in 1890 and is located in Chicago, Illinois, United States. The University of Chicago has many prominent alumni.
91 Nobel laureates have been affiliated with the university as professors, students, faculty, or staff, the fourth most of any institution in the world.
In addition, Chicago's alumni include 55 Rhodes Scholars, 26 Marshall Scholars, 11 Fields Medalists, 26 National Humanities Medalists, 36 faculty members, and 17 alumni have been awarded the MacArthur "Genius Grant", 16 billionaire graduates, and a plethora of members of the United States Congress and heads of state of countries all over the world.
It is a private research university that was founded in 1754 and is located in Upper Manhattan, New York, United States. Columbia contains the oldest college in the state of New York and is the fifth chartered institution of higher learning in the United States, making it one of nine colonial colleges founded prior to the Declaration of Independence.
The university is organized into twenty schools, including Columbia College, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the School of General Studies, as well as Columbia Law School, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Barnard College., and Union Theological Seminary, with joint undergraduate programs available through the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, University College London, Sciences Po, City University of Hong Kong.
The university has graduated many notable alumni, 5 Founding Fathers of the United States - amongst these an author of the United States Constitution and an author of the Declaration of Independence; 10 Justices of the United States Supreme Court;
22 living billionaires; 98 Nobel laureates; 77 National Medal of Science winners; 23 National Humanities Medal recipients 143 Pulitzer Prize winners; 42 Academy Award winners; 3 United States Presidents; 29 heads of state; 111 National Academy members.
The nature of Research and Researchers
What kind of person makes a good researcher? There are some general qualities that tend to predict success in a wide range of occupations: cognitive ability, motivation, good time management, etc.
I will take these for granted and consider more the frame of mind that is needed for research. In my view, researchers fall broadly into two camps. I could call these theoretical and applied, but for the moment I will call them Scientist and Engineer.
Scientists are people driven by a desire to understand nature: they want explanations and answers and may spend years or entire careers chipping away at some fragment of the great puzzle. Engineers, in my experience, although knowledgeable about science, have a different orientation. They want to solve practical problems in the world around them; they want to make things work.
Scientists are driven by the sheer joy of understanding and – in truth – are little concerned about the practical applications of their work. In psychology, those with this orientation tend to be drawn to topics that are highly theoretical in nature:
For example, cognitive science, neuroscience or social cognition, despite the obvious practical implication that advances in these fields would bring.
Most of your research will need to be funded on a project by project basis. If you are doing theoretical research that involves application to public bodies, then your applications will be peer-reviewed in a highly competitive system that rejects the majority of grant applications that are deemed, in principle, to be fundable.
Research funding is a very important topic but also the most difficult to write about in a blog like this, which aims to have cross-national appeal. The reason is that funding systems vary a great deal between different countries. In the UK, the system I know best, research in universities has for many years been ‘dual-funded’.
Funding is supplied directly by the government to establish the infrastructure for research, using the peer-reviewed Research Excellence Framework (REF, previously known as the Research Assessment Exercise).
Where money is allocated on the basis of the recent research record of the department concerned. Where funding is large, good laboratories and facilities can be founded and more academic staff or faculty employed.
This enables lighter teaching loads and more time to be spent on research work. Even in this system, however, academics are still expected to apply for research grants from external bodies to fund particular research projects.
Including a number of publically funded research councils. Career progression can depend critically on the success one achieves in this highly competitive enterprise.
By contrast, some countries focus more on funding researchers than individual research projects. For example, in France, researchers may be funded by the central body CNRS, either in centers or on placement within university departments, with a lot of freedom to choose what research is conducted.
Similarly, elite researchers are gathered into the prestigious Max Planck institutes in Germany. In Canada, research funding is provided to university academics on a more or less universal basis, but with relatively small amounts spent on projects than, say, in the UK.
My Canadian colleagues are always amazed by the size of UK research grants and unconvinced that the research needs to cost that much! This is partly a matter of accountancy practices, as in the UK, the full economic costs (including, for example, the salary for the hours spent on the research work) have to be funded.
The Canadian system also seems to make a lot more use of students to run research projects, whereas, in the UK, projects usually employ more expensively salaried research assistants and research fellows.
In the United States, as I understand it, there is similar pressure to fund research projects via competitive grants as in the UK, with governmental funding bodies (such as the National Science Foundation, Washington) as well as other government agencies, private corporations and charities able to award grants.
The pressures and processes involved in obtaining funding seem to be quite similar between the UK and the USA. The management of grants once awarded is somewhat different, though.
In the UK, spending has to be very closely accounted for with respect to the particular research specified, as well as the various headings and subheadings for equipment, travel, staff costs and so on. My impression is that my American colleagues have a great deal more latitude in how they spend their grants once they are awarded.
In spite of these cross-national differences, I believe I can offer some quite general advice about how to obtain, manage and report on grants for particular research projects.
How to get funded
The research funding systems as I know it is inefficient and frustrating. This is because you will have to spend a large amount of time writing applications that may not be funded.
It is very competitive as well as a somewhat political process. The ideas may be good, the research sound but something else gets priority when the funding committee meets.
It is common to get a response that says, in effect, that we thought your research project was suitable for funding but could not find the money for it. With journal articles, there is usually a constructive route to follow if a paper is rejected.
you may be able to resubmit to the same journal and certainly can do so to another, after suitable re-writing. Rejected grant applications are more difficult to deal with. You cannot normally resubmit to the same funding body with small changes.
You can submit elsewhere if there is an alternative funder suitable for this research work. But this will usually involve a lot of work, as the format of applications required can vary considerably between different funding bodies.
My personal strike rate over my career was around 60–70%, which may not sound very high but is well above the base rate. I had runs where several applications were funded in succession, but also where several were rejected.
Statistically, this is bound to happen, but the emotional impact on the individual can be very strong. Repeated rejection, particularly in early career, can be very demoralizing.
If it happens to an experienced researcher, then it is also very worrying, as you wonder if you are losing your touch or losing favor with your colleagues. In truth, there are just too many good applications chasing too little money.
But you have to take this on. Research funding is considered so important in universities and has such impact on your career that you cannot simply opt out. There are ways of running research unfunded, which I discuss later, but this is the last recourse.
Given this situation, there are both quantitative and qualitative strategies for getting funded. I know researchers who use both approaches. The former crank out lots of applications, expecting the majority to be rejected.
They take the view that there is a lot of luck in the system, depending upon which referees you get and who is feeling argumentative on the day that the funding committee meets. Throw enough mud against the wall and some will stick.
I know researchers who take a similar attitude to publication in good journals, too. The qualitative approach involves trying to write applications of exceptionally good quality.
You write fewer applications, taking more time over their preparation, but expect to achieve hit-rates well above the base rate. You still have to accept that some will be rejected. Researchers taking this second approach tend to have more belief both in their own ability and in the integrity and reliability of referees.
Managing a long-term academic research programme is quite tricky. You will want to get to a point where all aspects of research are going on at the same time.
That is, you are writing up the results of completed research projects while supervising the conduct of current projects and also preparing applications to secure funding for future projects.
It is the unpredictability of the research funding system that causes the most difficulty. Say you make two or three applications per year, needing at least one to get funded to keep things going. It can happen that all of them get funded in a given year – or none at all.
It is somewhat easier in large research groups where a number of collaborators can make more applications between them, smoothing out the random fluctuations to some extent. Nevertheless, you will need to develop strategies for coping with both too much and too little funding at particular times.
For example, you could take advantage of a lull in funding to do more writing of papers based on completed research that you have been too busy to get to. If you are short of data, you could work on a theoretical paper, or a review or a blog. And, of course, you have plenty of time for writing new grant applications!
The question of how to research grant applications are framed is closely related to issues discussed in previous chapters. They will reflect your style and ambition as a researcher.
However, there are certain basic rules you can follow. If you are an early career researcher without a track record of successful grants, you are unlikely to be awarded a large grant on your own.
If you are fortunate enough to be in a large research group, you can team up with more experienced researchers, in whom the funding committees will have established confidence. If you need or wish to make your first applications on your own, then go for relatively small sums until you have proved that you can deliver.
There is a common mistake in how young researchers typically present grant applications. The most important section is the plan of work, where you specify the research to be carried out.
Most inexperienced researchers will devote far too much of this to theoretical argument and rationale and provide an insufficient specification of what they plan to do.
I have seen applications where 80–90% of the space allowed for the proposal is spent on the rationale. The experimental programme is presented almost as an afterthought and amounts to little more than ‘we will do some experiments to test these ideas’.
Sometimes, you find that your little-known author is asking you to risk a substantial amount of public money on this unspecified enterprise. Such applications have almost no chance of success.
It is important to put yourself in the position of the referees and committee members. They are entrusted with the distribution of a scarce and valuable resource.
There is never enough money to support science. They have two main priorities in mind: (a) to support good work and (b) to ensure that there will be a return on the investment.
According to the funding body and political context, they may also be under pressure to fund work that has prospects of early impact in terms of application.
Established researchers have an advantage because they have shown that they can do good science, as evidenced by their publication record, and they have also managed successful funded research programmes before.
People want to encourage and fund young researchers but are cautious about committing large sums. Also, they need a proposal where they can see that the research is likely to succeed. High-risk research is always hard to fund, and almost impossible in early career.
The second point applies no matter how experienced the applicant. You will not get funded simply on reputation (this may happen, but much less than you might think).
Hence, successful applications normally are very clear indeed about the purpose of the research and how it will be carried out. Try to use no more than 20–25% of your allotted space to describe the background and rationale, but make the objectives extremely clear.
The empirical programme should then be specified in as much detail as possible, even to the point of describing the outline design, materials and procedure for studies 1 to 6 (say), specifying the size and nature of the samples of participants to be tested.
Reviewers can then see that these experiments are soundly designed and do indeed address the objectives specified. This increases their confidence that the project will deliver. It also makes it much easier to judge whether the resource requested is appropriate.
I know researchers who find writing grant applications very difficult because they have the opportunistic research style. They like to run an experiment, think about its results and then come up with another experiment, repeating the process. A lot of Ph.D.’s happen this way, so it may form a model for young researchers when they move to the postdoctoral phase.
For some people, this is an effective way of conducting research, but in truth, you are unlikely to get a research grant that specifies such a strategy. It just comes across as ‘trust me, I will think of something as I go along’.
You simply have to plan ahead a sequence of studies that can be presented in the way I describe above. But some people will say: what if the results of Experiment 1 are not as expected – will that not throw the whole sequence off?
Everyone knows that research does not go as expected and that design of later studies will have to be modified in the light of early endings. When you come to write up a report to the funding body on the completed project, you are able to explain and justify such deviations.
At this stage, the funding body is more interested in what the project produced than whether it stuck rigidly to the initial plan. However, it is important to show that you still pursued the objectives of the original proposal unless there was a very strong reason for altering them.
So, you might say, what is the point of specifying a research programme in such detail if it is almost certain to change when the research is run? The bottom line is that you will not get the grant unless you do!
If you want a more rational reason, it is that you at least demonstrate to the reviewers that you can design studies appropriate to your objectives and cost them correctly.
Choice of projects and funding bodies
One approach to research funding – ‘bottom-up’ – is basically to consider what research it is that you want to do and then look for a way to fund it. That has been my own approach in the main.
You need to have confidence in your own ideas and an established publication record to obtain support. From this point of view, the motivation for the research is intrinsic.
Your goal is to carry out a piece of research; the funding, a means to that end. The problem with this pure approach, however, is that you make it more difficult to get funding in a number of ways.
First, you are restricting the number of funding bodies you can approach – specifically, those that will fund whatever kind of work you want to do. Second, you are normally unable to benefit from various ‘top-down’ initiatives that might be out there.
Research funding is a very political business and not just in the sense of academic politics. For example, government ministers rarely share the academic ideals of knowledge for its own sake.
Nor are they keen on trusting academics to come up with the right work on their own initiative. Depending on the funding body, there may be more or less interference with funding processes as a result.
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In the UK, great pressure has been put on research councils in the past 20 years or so to make sure that work is relevant and applicable to the real world.
This can affect the ways in which applications have to be made, especially for basic theoretical work. It can also result in funding initiatives where large pots of money are earmarked in a ‘top-down’ manner for particular topics or themes.
A more pragmatic approach to funding, then, is to judge the political mood and be aware of special initiatives and reserved pots of money. Then you can design the kinds of projects that the political masters deem worthy.
The research is now being driven less intrinsically and more by the chances of funding. A lot of people take this approach, although I never have.
My intrinsic motivation to address my own research questions was simply too strong. There is also a political aspect to research funding that I dislike and have had little to do with.
It helps to be connected, to know the academics who sit on the funding committees and may give advanced warning of special initiatives as well as other insider advice.
I have known public bodies announce special funding initiatives with deadlines so short that no-one without advanced knowledge would have a chance of preparing an application.
Some research funding is intensely political. I have particularly in mind the vast amounts of research money available from the European Union. It is frustrating that they allocate such large sums in the way they do. Not only is the great bulk of the money for top-down topics and initiatives, but there are a number of political constraints.
Normally, you have to include academic and industrial partners from several different European countries, including sometimes those with little research strength and tradition that the EU wants to encourage. As if that was not bad enough, it is very hard to get funding without active lobbying of EU officials in Brussels.
A number of universities employ their own lobbyists precisely for this purpose. The great bulk of funding is also aimed at projects with immediate impact and application – a problem for theoretical researchers.
This is definitely one for researchers who start their search with the money rather than the project. Needless to say, I have never had an EU grant.
For some researchers, the attainment of high levels of external research funding becomes an end in itself, something encouraged by university politics as I discuss below. You do not need to confine yourself to the public bodies and charities that fund more basic kinds of research.
You can also apply to pharmaceutical companies and other industrial sources for funding. In this case, the research will have to be very applied and there may be issues about publication and intellectual property rights more generally.
This may also lead to opportunities for consultancy work with fees paid for expert advice. Universities have different policies in the extent to which this kind of work is encouraged and whether staff can retain some or all of the consultancy fees.
I do have some experience of work of this kind. For example, at one stage, Educational Testing Services, Princeton, approached our reasoning group for help with some of the reasoning items in the Graduate Record Examination test, which led to a series of substantial contracts.
Managing and reporting on research grants
Let us suppose that you have obtained your research grant. You have your programme of work and a budget for, say, two to three years. Now you need to conduct the work, publish the endings and report back to the funding body at the end.
You will have to comply with the financial regulations of both the funding body and your own institutions and there will be administrative staff in the university to help with that.
Otherwise, essentially, you are on your own. But the way in which you manage the project and the report you present at the end could be critical to your career.
If the research does not deliver its objectives and the funding body is not happy with the report, you could have great difficulty in obtaining further grants. A first major grant, in particular, is an awesome responsibility.
Early career researchers will at least have had the experience of their own Ph.D. work to draw on, even though it was supervised. If you managed the time well, conducted the planned studies to time and budget and wrote up the thesis quickly and efficiently, you probably have a good idea of what you are doing.
If you failed on one or more of these counts, then be sure to learn from the experience because you cannot afford to repeat the mistakes on your first research grant. I would strongly recommend that if at all possible, you collaborate with a senior researcher with plenty of experience in managing funded research programmes.
If you involve them in the application itself, then you will improve your chances of getting the grant, as it will seem less risky to the funding body. But bear in mind that it is also possible to recruit collaborators and co-authors after a research grant has been awarded. However, they will not share your responsibilities so far as the funding body is concerned.
The most important priority in managing a research grant is to complete the work you planned or its near equivalent. If the work changes direction because of unexpected findings or methodological issues, then you should be able to justify that in your final report. So long, that is, that the quantity and quality of the work are equivalent to that in the proposal.
What you cannot afford is to plan three studies and run only two, or run the third at the last minute and have no results and analyses to present in your final report.
Most definitely, you cannot report that studies were incomplete because you had insufficient time or money to run them. That makes you look completely incompetent, as you were the one who planned the research and specified the resources needed in your application. The sponsors can only conclude that you are incompetent in either the planning or conduct of research or both.
It is also not a good idea to rely on extenuating circumstances to explain failures to deliver the project objectives. You may believe, with some justification, that your research was held up because a research assistant resigned halfway through and you had to recruit and train a replacement.
Or that it took longer to obtain ethical clearance and other forms of consent than anticipated; or that participants proved difficult to recruit at the time you needed them; or that the workshop was too busy to set up your equipment on time and so on. Putting any of this in your final report, however, will just look like excuses.
As you will learn with experience, things of this kind almost always go wrong at some point in a grant and you have to build in enough contingency for them. There is an important implication here for the writing of the initial application. Do not be overambitious in the hope that the large amount of work you plan will impress the funding committee.
Next, to complete the programme, the most important thing is to publish your work and publish it well. The question here is timing: when should you be writing up papers? Ideally, you should not work for more than a year or so before submitting papers for publication.
It will certainly help your final report if you can already list papers in press supported by the grant. Because papers can be rejected and resubmitted, the earlier you can start the process, the better.
But this is not as important as completing the planned work on time if it comes to a choice. Strictly speaking, writing for publication is part of the research and should be completed along with everything else. Ideally, all work would be either published, in the press or submitted at the time of the final report.
In practice, you will get a bit more leeway on this than you will on slow progress with the empirical work. Everyone understands that publications tend to lag behind research work. So my advice is to write work up as you go along but not at the risk of failing to complete the main programme of work.
You typically have a few months after the grant completes to write and submit the final report. This report will normally go to academic referees who will compare what you achieved with what you planned. While part of the report will deal with finances and deliverables, it will still read like a mini-journal article reporting the research itself.
It will generally be shorter than a journal paper but the same principles apply. You must tell a clear story that engages the reader’s interest in a satisfying way.
The skill with which you can write this report may affect the final rating quite apart from the quantity and quality of the research work conducted. If your research diverged significantly from the plans.
You must provide a good explanation as to why and demonstrate those good findings resulted from your decision to change direction. If you can back that up with published papers, then so much the better.
The extent to which you can conduct empirical research without external funding depends on what you are trying to do. If you are a neuroscientist planning fMRI studies, you can forget it.
You work in social cognition and can conduct studies using pencil and paper vignettes, you may have a shot. You can probably get some help from undergraduate project students. You may have to prepare materials and run analyses yourself, of course, in the absence of a research assistant.
Recruiting and running participants is the most time-consuming part of an experimental psychologist. One possibility is to hand out booklets during a lecture, but I found this practice, once common, was increasingly discouraged over my career.
Even if it only takes a few minutes, students will complain that the time is being taken out of their teaching. For this reason, some departments may ban the practice altogether.
There is, however, a very good alternative available these days: web-based research. The use of web research has become acceptable to editors of psychological journals, with initial worries about lack of control over participants and testing conditions having been apparently set aside.
Of course, not all research can be administered this way but the software packages available now allow for quite a range of studies to be delivered remotely.
There may be some costs in accessing the right websites to recruit participants but these are relatively minor and can probably be claimed from departmental budgets.
So provided you can develop the skill to program your own web experiments, this is a way of keeping certain kinds of empirical research going without external funding. As alluded to in the previous chapter, design choices for web studies may differ from those run in the laboratory.
If you are not currently funded, however, I would recommend that you devote a significant portion of your available research time to writing grant applications. In most psychology departments that I know, there always seem to be one or two individuals who maintain a published output of some kind without external funding, having perhaps given up on the tedious and sometimes soul-destroying process some years ago.
Such individuals are generally not too popular with their academic managers, however, and certainly, do not carry the status and clout of the big grant-getters. I will return to this in the final section of this chapter on the politics of research funding within universities.
Research fellowships leave
So far, I have discussed only funding for empirical programmes of work. However, there is a different kind of funding – one that pays for your teaching and other duties to be covered, providing you with a block of free time to think and write.
In highly conceptual and theoretical subjects such as mathematics and philosophy, such personal fellowships may be the main and most appropriate form of funding. After all, you cannot employ a research assistant to do your thinking for you.
It is possible to obtain externally funded fellowships of this kind, although it strongly empirical subjects like psychology, they are exceptional. The reason is quite simple: it is much cheaper for a funding body to pay the salary of a research assistant than a faculty member.
Also, as one gains experience, there are a lot of routine aspects of research work that is more efficiently delegated to others.
However, it is as true in psychology as in philosophy that you cannot employ someone else to do your thinking and that one can benefit greatly from a period of time free from other duties.
I was lucky enough to receive one such period of funding late in my career from the ESRC, which paid my salary for 30 months while I worked on developing the dual process theory of reasoning. This was one of the most enjoyable and productive periods of my research career.
Such grants are generally only available to senior scholars who have had time to acquire sufficient knowledge and reputation to justify them. However, many universities do follow the practice of giving their academics regular periods of sabbatical leave – perhaps for a year, but more commonly, six months – where they are left free of all normal university duties.
These may be awarded to junior as well as senior staff. Practices vary greatly between countries and universities; it may be automatic or discretionary, fully or partly salaried, given at frequent and infrequent intervals and so on.
You may have to apply for sabbatical leave and make a case for how you will spend your time, reporting on it afterward. In this case, it is much like a research grant, except that your own university is the funding body.
I was fortunate enough to benefit from regular periods of sabbatical leave throughout my career and cannot speak too highly of the benefits to individuals and departments of allowing this.
Of course, it has to be funded in some way. In my department, we had sufficient numbers of staff to provide some teaching and administrative cover, all recognizing the benefit to us all in supporting the system.
Typically, leave would be for six months and the recipient might expect a higher than normal teaching load in the other half year. However, we had a strict policy of not contacting an individual on leave over regular university matters.
We all understood the principal benefit of such leave – a free mind. Individuals will, however, normally need to cover research-related duties such as Ph.D. supervision or oversight of current research grants or make arrangements for these if traveling extensively away from the home university.
How should these periods of leave best be employed? The first decision to be made is whether to travel and spend time at another university, perhaps in another country.
In some universities, and in some countries, this is expected. If you are isolated from the best research in your field, it makes sense to visit somewhere that has excellence in the topic to develop links and collaborations.
Generally speaking, the earlier you are in your career, the more beneficial this is likely to be. This may not always be a feasible option, however, if, for example, you have children at school or you have no financial support for travel costs.
I only had one major traveling sabbatical in my career when I spent the first six months of 1982 at the University of Florida, taking my wife and four children with me.
As I said above, the big benefit of fellowship leave is having a free mind, so different from a research day with teaching and other duties always hanging over you.
This is particularly useful for scholarship activity, theoretical development, and writing. I have written a number of academic books over my career and all (except this one!) benefited from a period of research leave.
This is so much harder to do while engaged in regular university duties than is the supervision of empirical research projects. However, I am not suggesting that my actions would be the norm. Many successful academics never write a single blog in their careers and do not necessarily try to develop original theories.
Even if you are highly empirically oriented, however, the free mind will help you in such matters as (a) writing papers for major journals, which requires exceptional clarity of thought and expression, (b) reading your way into new topics when you wish to change the direction of your research and (c) preparing ambitious grant applications.
Sabbaticals and other periods of research leave are a great resource. They should not be squandered but often are. What can go wrong? The general mistake is the one that I discuss for Ph.D. students, setting out with a long period of research. That is, thinking that you have plenty of time and starting without a particular plan or structure.
If you made this mistake as a Ph.D. student, it does not mean that you will not repeat it! You should always work with specific objectives and a timetable against which you can assess progress.
The time to do this planning is before you take the leave, not during it. You do not want to waste a minute of this precious time doing stuff you could have done in advance.
Nor do you want to waste time laundering around trying to think of ideas. It is criminal to waste a sabbatical: you may have to wait a number of years for another such opportunity.
University politics and research funding
I have already discussed the external politics of research grants: how their nature and chances of the award are influenced by government pressures and by the degree of connectivity that individual researchers have with influential academics in other universities.
Research funding is also very important within universities in determining status and favor with the senior academics running the place.
It would be nice to think that university managers see the purpose of the institutions as the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge: nice, but naïve. There are two big drivers of university policy: money and prestige.
The two are linked, of course, as the most prestigious universities are also, in general, the richest. To an extent, universities can be seen as businesses that need to make a profit and reinvest it to improve the future.
Certainly, they cannot afford to make heavy losses unless operating in a country where they are fully nationalized. They need to generate more income than they spend.
Most university bosses are keen to see money of all kinds coming into the institution. The contribution they want and expect from individual academics is research grants: the bigger, the better.
I heard a story some years ago about a young lecturer in a leading UK psychology department who obtained his first research grant from a government research council.
The grant was for about £20,000, which at that time would have paid for a research assistant, plus costs of materials and participants for a two-year project. The lecturer was called into the office of his senior and eminent Head of Department. The conversation went something like this:
Head: I see you have obtained your first research grant?
Lecturer (expecting praise): Yes, indeed.
Head: Why is it only for £20,000?
Lecturer: Uh, well, that is all I needed.
Head: Don’t be so naïve! Find a way of making your research expensive!
I am not sure if this actually happened, but it may well have done. In fact, I imagine that a number of exchanges along these lines have taken place in many universities.
The RAE/REF system in the UK has made things worse by giving credit for the scale as well as a number of grants awarded. So what that comes down to is this: judge the value of research by its cost.
This worries me quite a lot. Philosophy departments are an endangered species in the UK now. Admittedly, this is partly due to lack of student demand but philosophers also have the big political problem that they do not need research grants.
Their research is far too cheap. By contrast, university managers love to appoint neuroscientists because their research is so expensive.
It is also fashionable so that they can obtain large grants. I have a lot of experience running reasoning research without neuroscience methods, but also some with, in recent times.
I can attest that a grant with the methods included greatly increases the cost of the research and, hence, the value awarded. Whether greater knowledge and understanding is acquired as a result is debatable.
Two things bother me particularly. First of all, the value of research is quite evidently not its cost. I can think of a number of examples of books or theoretical papers published by psychologists that have radically changed thinking on the topic, without any expensive empirical research of any kind.
On the other hand, I frequently see very expensive pieces of empirical research published that contribute little or nothing to our knowledge.
The second problem is that research funding is not obviously real income to the university in a business sense because most or all of it gets spent on the research itself. The award of a grant may even end up costing university money because of the indirect costs that department has to meet.
This brings me to the second driver of universities: prestige. Or, if you prefer, academic snobbery. Larger research grant income provides a bragging right, much easier to quantify than a contribution to knowledge.
Moreover, because of the prestige factor, not all money is equal. In the UK, money from government research councils, for example, is generally valued a lot higher than money from industrial sources.
This is because it is perceived as funding more theoretically based and, hence, cleverer research than that obtained from industrial sources.
It is true that, under political pressures, the research councils increasingly require candidates to demonstrate ‘non-academic’ impact of their research work but it is still scientists and not politicians or industrialists who sit on the funding committees. Whatever the rules of the game, academic referees will tend to favor research with a strong theoretical basis.
The UK REF system explicitly acknowledges this, giving more weight to traditional academic sources, in the same way that it gives more weight to articles published in prestigious journals. Elite universities want to say: we have the best academics, the best research and attract the most (good) research money.
This is an advice blog, but I am not going to tell you how to respond to this political climate: I just want to make you aware of it. Personally, I think it quite ridiculous to make research more expensive than it need be: immoral, in fact, when the taxpayer is ultimately funding it.
I also cannot imagine choosing to give up a field of science that fully engages my interest and moving to another on the grounds that larger research grants are easier to obtain.
I have never done anything other than seeking funding for the work I wanted to do at the expense it genuinely required. But your chances of promotion or to appointment to another university will, to quite a large extent, be influenced by both the number and size of your research awards.
MOOC (Massive Open Online Course): A Research and Online Learning Platform
MOOC project has always highlighted the importance of research and experimentation when explaining the value of massive online learning to educational constituencies as well as to the public.
As centralized programs with hundreds of thousands of participants, MOOCs are generating the type and volume of data needed to perform meaningful statistical analysis regarding what students are doing in their online classes.
At the same time, surveys and other forms of research involving large numbers of students participating in such classes can answer questions that begin with “who,” “how,” and “why.”
In addition to collecting and analyzing data, developers of MOOC classes have also demonstrated a desire to quickly put those research results to work, modifying course components based on how effective they were in previous iterations of a class, or tinkering with class structure and assignments to take into account best practices developed in other courses.
This culture of experimentation has also created an environment where course developers are eager to test out new teaching ideas and share their results (either data-driven or experiential), allowing MOOC designers to try new things that appear to work well while also learning from other people’s mistakes.
And as anyone who has seen typos, programming errors, or on-the-fly changes to their massive courses already knows, those who sign up for a free MOOC get to play the dual role of student and beta tester.
Research You have already read about some of the statistical research that has come out of the earliest MOOC courses. which shed light on the demographics surrounding the student body of a MOOC course, was based on data generated by Coursera’s learning management system supplemented by the results of surveys received from tens of thousands of class participants.
The first-year research findings from HarvardX and MITx provide the most detailed analysis of who is participating in MOOC classes and what they do after enrolling. As Justin Reich, an MIT lecturer and HarvardX research fellow, explains, these results extend findings from previous research teams, in striking ways.
The percentage of students who finish a course through HarvardX is pretty similar to MITx, to U Penn’s and the University of Edinburgh’s Coursera results.
The proportion of people who already have an advanced degree, the tilt toward men, the fact that our students are older than a typical college student, all of that seems to be pretty consistent with what other folks have found.
I hope the special contribution of our research is to characterize all of the different ways that people are using MOOCs as learners, with some pathways that lead to certification and other pathways that lead to meaningful learning without certification.
If we’re going to understand how open online learning experiences are contributing to society then we can’t just narrowly focus on certification. We have to try to figure out all the different ways people are learning and having a meaningful experience.
While one of the research papers published by Harvard/MIT presents aggregate results across multiple courses, others present reports for each individual MOOC class.
These detailed papers about particular courses high-light what Reich refers to as “a diversity of teacher and course intention,” reflecting the fact that just as students spread out across a spectrum of activity (from dabblers to auditors to students who complete far more work than is necessary to achieve a passing grade), MOOCs themselves spread out across a continuum of intention:
Some professors are trying to reproduce their residential experience online while others are trying to create learning experiences that don’t have the same structures or goals as their residential counterparts.
As Reich points out, “The results from individual massive courses should be viewed as reflecting the diverse goals of the professors and teaching teams behind each course.”
As MOOCs gained momentum throughout 2012 and 2013, researchers working independently of the MOOC providers or the colleges and universities participating in MOOC development have been organizing their own channels for publishing and funding research.
For instance, in September 2013 the new academic journal, MOOCs Forum released its premiere issue with articles on subjects like adaptive learning and alternative means of assessment within MOOCs.
And as that journal was being announced, a new Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation–funded MOOCs research initiative (MRI) was awarding its first set of $10,000 to $25,000 grants to over two dozen independent researchers working on issues related to assessment, engagement, retention, and personalized learning, as well as the role MOOCs can play with communities outside their traditional college niche such as K–12 educators and employers.
A Position Paper” that looked at how forum activity could be used as a basis for grading class participation. And Gates-funded MOOC research initiative grants have gone toward projects that look at course components such as peer grading, community formation, and assessment, in addition to ongoing analysis of key issues such as student motivation and retention.
And the same Udacity content used to anchor the original NSF project is also being made available to professors interested in using it as part of blended-learning versions of traditional classroom courses.
So even as some aspects of this research served to humble those proposing MOOCs as an alternative to residential degree programs, other results indicate that online content being generated by some of the world’s best colleges and universities might do the best by playing a supporting, rather than a starring, role in existing classroom-based and blended courses.
Unlike a great deal of academic research that gets circulated only to small communities that might not focus on it for months or years (if ever), research related to MOOCs can find its way into products almost immediately.
And the research we have done has had a direct impact on course development. For example, our research team took a look at ten courses, five from Harvard and five from MIT, courses which took different approaches to how assignments were scheduled.
Some of them put hard deadlines on every assignment, while others left all assignments open for the entire length of the course. And the data seemed to show that courses with fixed deadlines had higher completion rates.
Now, this is a correlation, so we would have to do some experimentation to prove causality. But once we shared our findings with the HarvardX course teams, they were eager to talk to us about their philosophies behind scheduling assignments and start looking at how to build what we learned into future courses.
They were also very open to discussing how we might be able to create structured experiments in order to discover if there actually is a causal relationship between deadlines and success in a course.
Just as data-driven research and development is one source for innovation within the MOOC community, the developers of massive online classes are also tapping their own creativity to come up with experiments that leverage resources and large numbers of participants associated with MOOCs to create novel, innovative learning experiences.
how experiments with instructional formats are taking place in the area of video-based lecturing where shorter lectures or videos based on dialogs, interviews, on-location shots, and even skits and performances are blending with or replacing traditional sage-on-stage presentations.
But lectures are not the only area where professors are trying to create a MOOC experience that cannot be replicated in a traditional college classroom.
Professors are also experimenting with ways to include components in their classes that defy common wisdom regarding what can and cannot be taught in an online course, much less a massive course in which students do not have direct contact with the teacher.
Professor David Cox of Harvard, who has included on-location shooting and interactive exercises in the video components of his 2013 HarvardX MOOC Fundamentals of Neuroscience, also wanted to give students the ability to engage in real-world experimentation as part of the class.
“In addition to asking students to interact with rich simulations, we are also asking students to do experiments in real life. Now many courses, including online courses, have textbooks and those cost up to $100. We’re basically telling people don’t buy a textbook,” explained Cox in a 2013 interview.
What Are Colleges Selling?
Someone making the case that the primary value of a college experience derives from the classes offered there could calculate the value of each course by simply dividing annual tuition and fees by (on average) the eight full-semester courses a student takes each year, which works out to approximately $2,000 per course at a state institution and up to $5,000 per course at an Ivy League college.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the MOOC phenomenon is that it has required colleges and universities to better understand and articulate the nature of their “product,” especially for schools selling the value of their own residential learning experiences while also making claims about the rigor and value of MOOCs being given away at no cost.
But most prestigious colleges and universities do not offer their allegedly effective products to any and all. Rather, they limit their customer base to only those who have already proven themselves academically, which means their “customers” would likely succeed in any learning environment.
This brings up the question of whether big-name educational institutions with highly discriminating admissions processes are actually “selling” education or discrimination.
One of the strongest cases that can be made in support of MOOCs is that they solve this paradox by allowing anyone accesses to high-quality courses previously available only to those able to get past the gatekeepers barring entry to prestigious (and expensive) colleges and universities.
In fact, MOOCs provide students the flexibility to choose classes from multiple institutions, rather than being restricted to just the set of courses offered by the residential college they were lucky enough to be accepted into.
And even if courses alone do not make up the totality of a college experience, they certainly have more educational value for the thousands of people who have completed them than their zero-dollar price tags would imply.
College Age Learners
During the early euphoria surrounding MOOCs, a number of commentators clearly saw them as an alternative (and direct challenge) to traditional colleges and universities that were becoming increasingly expensive and decreasingly demanding, part of a higher education system that was failing to deliver the long-term economic advantages often used to justify the ever-larger investments needed to earn a diploma.
So with regard to traditional college-age learners, MOOCs were simply the latest proposed antidote for a perceived crisis in higher education that was leading to the creation of ever-larger armies of debt-laden and unemployable college graduates.
Like the blind men trying to describe an elephant, however, most of those celebrating or condemning MOOCs for what they might do to institution-based higher education programs were drawing from their own limited experience when considering what was meant by “institution-based higher education” or the alternatives proposed as a substitute.
And with the growth of online programs, the percentage of students experiencing college far removed from lecture halls and dorm rooms has grown even larger. A different but equally narrow vision affects the technology entrepreneurs who have dedicated themselves to remaking education.
Such as Peter Thiel, founder of the Thiel Fellowship program, or Sebastian Thrun, founder of Udacity, whose Silicon Valley experience includes college dropouts becoming celebrated billionaires, teenagers selling products they invented or companies they founded for millions, and high-paying jobs flowing to skilled programmers—regardless of where (or whether) they went to school.
But even as educational programs inspired by high-tech success stories attracted entrepreneurially motivated students, they failed to take into account that such students are outliers, even within the worlds of business and technology.
Even if large numbers of eighteen-year-olds are not gravitating toward the types of courses being offered through MOOCs.
Clearly, hundreds of thousands of people who share my profile are, which raises the question of whether future development of MOOCs should be directed toward the people they were originally thought to target (traditional college students) or the people who are actually taking them (mostly educated adults).
Criticism of MOOCs based on the demographic makeup of most classes implies that the learning tools that schools and investors are spending so much time and money creating are simply one more plaything for the already well-off and educated who could learn this same material on their own without the output of a MOOC experiment that does not seem to be benefiting young learners.
But a critique that assumes college-level courses taken after college serve little social purpose ignores the important role that formal and informal learning plays throughout many people’s lives, whether that education falls under the name of professional development, job training, or continuing education.
Many occupations, such as nursing, accounting, and teaching, require in-service professionals to continually retrain, with professional development requirements creating a perpetual need for ongoing study.
Similarly, careers that require professional licensure (such as health professionals) or certification (such as IT specialists) support a vast infrastructure that delivers the kind of training needed to help (usually older) professionals prepare to pass high-stakes exams.
And even in fields where professional development or licensure is not required, the ongoing education of managers and employees has become such a high priority in both the public and private sectors that a new title of chief learning officer is now a fixture in the “C suite” of highly paid executives.
This has led to the creation of a multibillion-dollar training industry dedicated to educating adults in subjects ranging from management, finance, and human resource issues to the latest computer programming technologies.
Given the ongoing training that has been built into many job roles during an era of globalization and rapid technological change, it is no surprise that some of the most popular MOOCs have been in subjects like computer science, or that Coursera chose to make professional development courses for teachers in one of the first niches they explicitly embraced.
And, as noted in the last blog’s discussion of Coursera’s Signature Track program, job-seekers using MOOCs to burnish their resumes or employees needing to fulfill on-the-job training requirements are ready to complete and even pay to credential their MOOC learning.
Especially when the teaching is high quality and a certificate costs less than what someone might pay to participate in a commercial professional-development or training program on the same subject.
And given the popularity among older learners of not just MOOCs but of recorded lecture series, such as those offered through Apple’s iTunes U or the Teaching Company’s Great Courses, it would seem that the intellectual curiosity of many college graduates was not sated when we were handed a diploma at the age of twenty-two.
This large (and largely unanticipated) market may also demonstrate that MOOCs have been built around the right product for older learners: the undergraduate-level course.
For if K–12 education requires a hands-on mix of MOOCs are one of the few educational initiatives where institutions are investing in liberal arts courses and, more important, people are taking them.
Teaching techniques to promote both acquisitions of knowledge and behavioral training, and graduate school is built around the type of independent research and intimate interactivity with colleagues needed to manufacture new knowledge, undergraduate courses are where students who have already been socialized for the classroom are ready to learn from people who know more than they do.
This is why things like survey courses built around sage-on-stage lecturing, still effective ways of teaching curious undergraduates, can also work for more experienced learners interested in using online tools to expose themselves to unfamiliar subjects.
And even as both the traditional undergraduate classroom and the MOOC are trying to use technology to move away from dependence on didactic education methods, I and my fellow seasoned students seem to be happy being taught by experts with a flair for lecturing.
So while MOOC makers should patiently cultivate the for-credit undergraduate market in order to earn a place at the table alongside other credit-bearing programs, they are in a position now to leverage an audience of older students who have already demonstrated a large and growing interest in what MOOCs have to offer.
This demographic is already playing a pedagogical role in teaching and learning that takes place within many MOOCs by contributing expertise derived from experience in different fields to student-to-student teaching within discussion forums and other communities that form around MOOC classes.
Anyone who has attended a presentation on the subject of MOOCs will be familiar with stories like the one in the e-mail reproduced above, a note sent to Sebastian Thrun of Udacity by a student in Afghanistan in appreciation for the free AI class the student was able to take, even under the most frightful conditions.
Coursera’s blog is filled with similarly heartwarming tales about this Mumbai teen or that refugee from Syria’s civil war succeeding in self-education under challenging circumstances.
Stories like these helped generate much of the original zeal for MOOCs as potential game-changers in global education, and while such emotional anecdotes should not shield MOOCs from legitimate criticism, the bigger story represented by these nontraditional learning experiences may be the changes wrought by MOOCs implemented in niche educational communities.
When drawing a comparison between MOOC-based and traditional education, an image frequently invoked for a MOOC student is that of a pajama-clad independent learner working in isolation in front of his or her computer screen.
But when MOOCs are implemented in typical learning environments, they are often part of a blended learning experience where students watch Udacity, Coursera, or edX lecture videos together in the same physical location (which might be a classroom, courtyard, or sports stadium) and then spend the rest of class discussing the content or working together on problem sets or group projects.
As with microcomputers, the first online courses were clearly inferior to teaching delivered in the classroom.
And when making a one-to-one comparison between a MOOC course and the same course being given in an intimate classroom environment, most people would point to the classroom as providing a superior overall learning experience (even if they might choose to participate in the MOOC for reasons of convenience).
But convenience is not the only reason to take part in a HarvardX MOOC rather than taking the same class at Harvard.
For example, Harvard accepts only approximately 2,000 students per year into its undergraduate program, which leaves everyone older or younger than that age, everyone who cannot get into or afford to attend Harvard, and everyone living in parts of the world with no access to the university with no other choice but to take the MOOC if they want access to that course.
Perhaps this is why new MOOC classes continue to draw tens of thousands of students despite everything that has been written about their alleged inferiority to “real” college learning.
For students of any age eager enough to work their way through challenging subjects like circuit design or Greek literature are more than likely up to the task of living with or working around the limitations MOOCs have in areas such as assessment, discussion, and lack of “signal” to employers.
Comparing my own MOOC experiences to earlier online classes I have taken, including an expensive graduate-level class in education with fewer than twenty students, it was startling to me how much MOOCs have upped the ante in terms of production values, creativity, and risk-taking.
Which means that from within the various educational niches MOOCs are serving, they are already setting a new standard that other online courses will need to meet or be judged inferior to no-credit “MOOCware” that will be harder to dismiss as educationally worthless the more it continues to outshine what came before.
Even as some MOOC experiments are attempting to create more intimacy within classrooms of thousands or leverage those huge numbers to engage in educational activity that cannot be done in a “normal” physical classroom.
Other projects—such as those involving using MOOC content as part of blended or flipped classroom projects—are avoiding problems associated with massive open learning by treating MOOCs as just one of many content sources creative educators can use to construct their own classroom experiences that combine the best of online and hands-on learning.
In addition to raising the bar for online learning and providing a platform to explore new innovative classroom experiences, the emergence of MOOCs has also forced those selling the continuing value of traditional residential learning to take a closer look at what they are actually providing that might justify the ever-rising costs of attending college.
Business Model Experiments
A new online venture attracting millions of signups— seemingly overnight—tends to generate expectations that turning mass audiences into mass revenue is just a matter of developing an effective, scalable business model and finding the right investors and management team to implement it.
Much of the business-focused discussions surrounding MOOCs have centered on the ways major MOOC providers such as Udacity, Coursera, and edX can turn their popularity into the dollars needed to sustain a multimillion-dollar enterprise and, in the case of venture-funded companies like Udacity and Coursera, turn a profit.
But there are other economic players with a stake in the success or failure of MOOCs, notably the colleges and universities who create (and usually own) the courses distributed by those providers, educational institutions whose goals and financial requirements might be different from those of a Coursera or an edX.
And the MOOC field is becoming an increasingly crowded space, with new providers such as the UK’s FutureLearn and Germany’s university releasing European MOOC content alongside US ventures such as Canvas and Udemy, which straddle the line between paid and free open learning.
And as LMS providers such as Blackboard and Moodle explore how to open up courses on their system to the world, new players such as the edX-Google partnership MOOC.org are promising to provide a way for anyone to become a MOOC professor.
An exciting opportunity for educators but a confounding factor for business people trying to attach a price tag to courses that are becoming increasingly commoditized.
Finally, increasing numbers of Internet startups, major corporations (including educational publishers), and entrepreneurial nonprofits are looking at the student body of MOOCs as potential clients for their products and services.
Content licensing based on teacher reuse of MOOC lectures and other resources may also be limited by how quickly and widely teachers embrace the flipped classroom model, which assigns watching video lectures as homework, freeing class time for extended discussion or work on in-class projects.
Even in cases where teachers are eager to move to lecture out of the classroom, professors are frequently creating their own lecture videos or turning to resources from the open web (which includes many of the same lectures found within MOOC classes) to broaden the number of voices students hear during a course.
In fact, some professors are using content they generate to create their own MOOC-like classes, meaning the flipped classroom may present competition as well as the opportunity for the major MOOC organizations.
Most of the experiments described in this blog represent attempts to try new pedagogies for a new instructional medium. Online learning had already created physical distance between teachers and students, but it still allowed for one-to-one or small-group interaction through the creative use of online communication tools.
But with MOOCs, the size of classes required new approaches to teaching that assumed direct interaction between an instructor and his or her students would not be part of the teaching dynamic.
Attempts to innovate instructional videos so that they do something other than deliver the same content as a podium lecture or experiments involving a large student body participating in crowdsource style projects represent some of the pedagogical innovations that have made MOOCs unique learning experiences.
And while some experiments have confirmed that massive online instruction is not likely to be effective for all types of learners, the continued popularity of MOOCs indicates that distance instruction featuring hugely enrolled classes can be effective for certain populations of students.
Within the world of massive online courses, the techno-geeky term of SPOC (small private online course) was coined to describe the implementation of MOOC content in something other than a 100 percent open-enrollment environment.
For instance, a HarvardX SPOC on intellectual property law, called CopyrightX, limited enrollment to just 500 students who had to apply to take the course and participate in weekly discussions and pass a final exam (graded by the teaching team) in order to earn a certificate.
This somewhat loose term has also been used to describe the use of MOOC content as a component of classroom courses like the aforementioned Circuits course taught in San Jose State University, as well as other instances where MOOCs materials are used as part of a flipped-classroom implementation.
The flipped classroom is a pedagogical experiment that has been mentioned a number of times in this blog.
If you recall, flipping the class refers to a method of instruction that reverses the typical order in which students listen to lectures while in class and then work on homework elsewhere with a new model that has them watch lectures on video in their homes or dorms, freeing class time for discussion and projects that involve more interactivity between teachers and students.
One group frequently described as being threatened by MOOCs are community college professors who fear that once a classroom has been flipped they will end up at the bottom as little more than glorified paper graders.
But such an argument ignores the fact that teachers at such institutions are often far more innovative and entrepreneurial than their Ivy League colleagues.
Online learning took hold fastest within this segment of higher education, and even before the advent of MOOCs many teachers at community or small state colleges were eagerly experimenting with how to integrate third-party content into their classes.
In fact, whole disciplines (such as the teaching of computer skills) have already transitioned to a point where rote learning at home coupled with hands-on work in class is the norm.
For such tech-savvy educators, MOOCs are just one of many content sources available for professors to leverage as they perform their own experiments in re-engineering education.
But there is another challenge to the flipping strategy if it is to expand beyond a few early adopters: figuring out what creative exercises, group projects, and other activities are supposed to fill up all the free time that’s been created by moving the lecture component of a course outside the classroom.
Within many institutions, there are likely to be teachers comfortable with experimentation who are eager to double or triple the amount of time spent in discussion with their students, teachers who are happy to create and share interesting classroom exercises that can fill up the hours previously taken up by lecturing.
But in order for any educational transformation to grow beyond acceptance by such typical users, there needs to be an infrastructure in place that can provide teachers/professors who are already teaching successfully using traditional classroom lectures with the resources and encouraging models that might inspire them to try something new.
And as good as the flipped classroom might be in many situations, it is likely not to be suitable for all (possibly even most) subjects, teachers, or students, in which case, current efforts to encourage this type of teaching should be treated as just another set of experiments we can learn from as SPOCs, flipping, and other technology-enabled pedagogies are put to the test in the real world.
Before leaving the topic of pedagogical experimentation, it is important to keep in mind that technology-based innovation is just one area where educational experimentation is flourishing.
Outcomes-based learning, authentic assessment, hands-on instruction, and other forms of educational experimentation are being tried and implemented not just in formal school environments but within after-school enrichment programs and nontraditional learning environments such as a diversifying home-schooling movement.
And while a discussion of each of these important subjects is beyond the scope of this blog, educational technology making news (including MOOCs) should be thought of as part of a wider experimental culture in education.