How is the much-heralded advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) impacting higher education culturally, socially, and institutionally? To address this question, investigators Graham Jones and Susan Silbey of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology employ participant observation, interviewing and discourse analysis to study of the design, implementation, and reception of edX, one of the world's principal sites for the development of this new educational technology. This award will support research in three areas. First, the process of designing of edX's educational platform, particularly as this platform extends beyond engineering, to social sciences and the humanities. Researchers will focus on the learning theories, tacit assumptions and value preferences the designers build into the platform. Second, the computer-mediated communication (CMC) among the students within edX forums, through which students engage in collaborative teaching and learning. Researchers will track students' expressed and implicit goals, commitments, and critical engagement with the course work, looking for varied patterns of involvement and evaluation. Third, the welter of competing interpretations online and in print surrounding MOOCs, which reflects the broader cultural context in which this technology is evolving. Here, researchers will juxtapose the culturally circulating accounts of this new educational technology with the experiences of it as displayed by students and observed by the researchers.

Viewing this research as a way to advance theories of social learning, Jones and Silbey approach MOOCs not only as a new type of formal education but also, and more importantly, as a practice of socialization in which knowledge transmission is connected to interactions through which persons forge both identities and community. From this perspective, as sites of socialization, MOOCs may have profound consequences for the way not just students, but also engineers and educators, experience and shape not only the form of educational communities but also the content of what is learned and what kind of persons are valued and developed. The researchers ultimately seek to elaborate a theoretical framework of media socialization, emphasizing how practices of learning through media and learning to use media affect how people view themselves and relate to others.

At a moment when many people inside and outside the academy are questioning the value of the historically unique American residential, liberal arts and sciences model of higher education, Jones and Silbey will produce and publicly disseminate an empirically grounded understanding of the implications of MOOCs for individuals, universities, the nation, and the world. The investigators are particularly eager to help fellow social scientists better understand the implications of MOOCs for their own fields, and to train undergraduate and graduate students in ethnographic research on formal and informal socialization in virtual worlds.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
Standard Grant (Standard)
Application #
Program Officer
Jeffrey Mantz
Project Start
Project End
Budget Start
Budget End
Support Year
Fiscal Year
Total Cost
Indirect Cost
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
United States
Zip Code