Research Proposal, 2013


Self-Efficacy, Connectivist MOOCs and the novice experience.

A research proposal for the Msc in Applied eLearning, 2013.

Keith Brennan


MOOCs are Massive, Open, Online courses, where participants may number thousands and there is no barrier to entry.

The first MOOC was run in 2008 by Siemens and Downes, exponents of a theory of learning, Connectivism, where knowledge is a function of our connections to one another ,technologically enhanced ,where the abundancy, obsolescence and growth rate of knowledge require learning be outsourced to our networks of connections(Siemens 2004, Downes 2008).

There are several MOOC types. cMOOCs, task-based and xMOOCs  (Lane, 2012). Connectivist theory underpins cMOOCs, this proposal’s focus.

cMOOCs usually occur on open platforms (Twitter, Google +, blogs) having no required syllabus, or assessment. Instructors are absent, or facilitate. Knowledge is generated through reflection, sharing, critique, and creation of artefacts by self-directed participants. (Kop 20011, Downes 2008, Siemens 2004).

The proposal draws on Bandura’s work on self-efficacy, to analyse motivational processes (Bandura 1977, 1982) referencing ideas of Cognitive Load, ( Clark, 1999) (Kirschner, Sweller and Clark,  2006), to  investigate possible links between levels of Digital Literacy, Cognitive Load, and motivation amongst technology novices in cMOOCs. I will be running a cMOOC in February 2014, based around educational technology, and targeting educators, and this will operate as the context for my research proposal.

Digital Literacy has numerous definitions (eg. Belshaw, 2011, Beetham, 2012).

The Office for Information Technology Policy’s (OITP 2013) definition is current, flexible enough to embrace the technologies and skills expected in cMOOCs, and is used here

the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, understand, evaluate, create and communicate digital information, an ability that requires both cognitive and technical skills”

It is intended to submit the  resultant paper to The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning for consideration for publication. The Review is peer reviewed, and has a history of publishing Connectivist and Connectivist critiqueing papers.

Context and Rationale

I focus on experiences of technological novices, with limited digital literacy, in cMOOCs, and how Connectivism may fail  to address novice  requirements, prior knowledge gaps, and self-efficacy issues.

The research  will take place in an educational technology cMOOC, run by myself over a two weeks in February 2014, with an Advance Organiser Digital Literacy Resource facilitating  self-identified technology novices  enhancing their social media knowledge ( Twitter, Google +, blogs platforms), in an attempt to raise self-efficacy, motivation, and participation levels.

The Digital Literacy Resource will be task-based, using screencasts, Articulate (or comparable software) artefacts, and instructor facilitated collaboration sessions on target technologies that will emulate and develop the skills required and deployed in the MOOC (useage of Twitter, blogs, Google+) . A resource currently in design by Lisa Donaldson, to be impmented as a research project for the MSc, is a candidate for part of this purpose. 

The resource / Digital Literacy Advance Organiser will run for four weeks before the MOOC, and will cover the content areas detailed below.

Digital Literacy Resource Content


Setting up an account, tweeting and retweeting, following people, use of hashtags, using third party software to tweetchat.

Google +

Setting up a Gmail account, joining the community, posting to the forum, setting up your information feed


Setting up a WordPress blog, posting, commenting and finding your rss feed.

I chose an educational technology theme, due to  my unfolding experience and interest in the pedagogical uses of technology. The MOOC will target educational professionals at all levels, and is inspired by concerns expressed about the  dearth of technology in Irish education. (Hayden, 2013)

Additionally,  “We know that teachers, far more than researchers or policymakers, are the de factor architects of the quality of education.” (Laurillard, 2013) Laurillard maintains that  in order for  educator innovation to drive educational policy, educators need access to training, support and peer engagement.

In our recessionary context, a cMOOC, on open platforms, requiring little investment apart from effort and time, seems a useful tool to address these concerns.

My focus on digital novices comes from the literature, discussed below, detailing  needs amongst novices facing specific challenges in cMOOCs, and from personal experience in a cMOOC I participated in earlier this year, where I noted mlutiple complaints about information overload, unfamiliar tools, and novel learning methods confounding some users efforts to engage.

The cMOOC will focus on educational technology and the provisional content is detailed below, and all seminars will have detailed suggested readings, and a suggested task list to complete.

CMOOC proposed Seminars

Digital Storytelling

Planning, implementation, creation and assessment of Digital Stories, and Storytelling technologies

Data Privacy, ownership, and your data exhaust

Ownership of online data and artefacts, what companies and software claim what rights over your use of their services.

Making your learning visible

Reflective learning, sharing and connecting over digital formats, eportfolio production, introduction to blogging, quad blogging and group blogging

Connecting in theory and in practice

Connectivism theory, aggregating, remixing, repurposing and sharing ideas, rersources and digital artefacts

Curation and collection

Digital techniques for aggregating,curating and sharing content, social bookmarking, using twitter,, diigo for collecting, commenting and owning information

Digital Citizenship and Digital footprints

Digital identity, and responsibility, for educators and their students

Personal Learning Networks

Creating, maintaing and contributing to a Personal Learning Network online

Digital Literacy / 21st Century skills

Tools and intellectual techniques for sharing, sifting and sorting information, what does digital literacy mean, why is it important

Aim and Objectives of the Research

Primary Research Question

What is the relationship between levels of digital literacy and participation rates amongst digital novices in cMOOCs?




How does Connectivist theory shape the experience and participation of participants with low digital literacy in cMOOCs?

Is there a relationship between self-efficacy, self-assessment of Digital Literacy, and cMOOC participation?

How will a resource that targets Digital Literacy shortfalls affect novice motivation and participation in a cMOOC?



The research will examine  possible links between the motivation of cMOOC participants, Cognitive Load, and participation levels, as a function of Digital Literacy.


I aim to document possible shortfalls in Connectivist theory and practice regarding Digital novices, and deploy an Advance Organiser resource, as suggested by Kop et al (2011), testing their thesis that such resources are required to address  shortfalls in technical prior knowlegde, and self-efficacy amongst novices (detailed below) in cMOOCs.


The research is not designed to form a complete picture of motivation, or participation in MOOCs, but picks out one thread for amongst what has been identified as a  complex set of concerns, currently being investigated (Kizilcec Piech & Schneider 2013) (Rivard 2013).


Literature Review

To detail Connectivist thought, I  focus on the work of Downes and Siemens, cMOOC Organisers, and seminal Connectivist thinkers.

The essays by Downes and Siemens have been chosen due to their  seminal nature, and role as  foundational pieces of Connectivist literature.

Connectivism asserts that, in environments where knowledge is abundant, and subject to rapid change and alteration, learning  is shifting from knowing, and towards our ability to access information rapidly.  “Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today” (Siemens , 2004).

In Connectivism,  learning is “grown anew by each learner” and is”not structured, controlled or processed.” it is not “produced (solely or reliably) through some set of pedagogical, behavioral, or cognitive processes.”,“nor is it the storage of facts, durable truths, the process of a transfer,”. (Downes, 2008)

Learning comprises connecting across a network, and knowledge transfer “occurs through a process of connecting”. “Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where.” (Siemens, 2004)

There is no prescribed course content “… there is no core of content that everyone must learn…” (Downes, 2012).

The network described invokes Wenger’s Community of Practice (Wenger, 2001) . “The idea of a connectivist course is that a learner is immersed within a community of practitioners and introduced to ways of doing the sorts of things practitioners do, and through that practice, becomes more similar in act, thought and values to members of that community. “ (Downes 2011) In essence, cMOOCs are designed to facilitate the creation on digital Communities of Practice, where knowledge is driven by participant need, opportunity and communication, and is a lateral process across the network, rather than a top down, instructor lead, or artefact based knwoledge transfer mechanism.

Downes identifies four online learning  mechanisms.

Aggregation: Participants select resources and materials for study from participant and instructor disseminated materials . Aggregation also occurs as participants manipulate technologies  to create personalised information feeds.

Remixing: participants reflect on and organise resources, according to individual need.

Repurposing: creation of artefacts, repurposing materials participants have aggregated, sifted, sorted and categorised themselves. 

Feeding forward: sharing materials, resources, and created artefacts across the community. (Downes, 2011).

It is by these processes that Downes claims learning in connectivist networks occurs, and that individuals traverse the community, experiencing and propogating learning.


the connectivist approach can pretty reliably lead to chaos…. we expect students to be able to manage complex and rapidly changing environment(sic) – in other words, to be able to manage through just the sort of chaos we are creating”   (Downes, 2008)

Thus a high level of Digital Literacy is, explicitly,  a requirement of cMOOCs.

Learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks. “ (Downes 2011). Without that ability already in place, students may face significant cognitive load issues in trying to adapt to, and traverse the chaos..

Bandura’s ideas regarding self-percepts of efficacy as a major predictor of student success, and the role that  high cognitive loads can have on individual persistence, motivation, effort, and learning success (Bandura 1977, 1982) are seminal, well established and key to the research. Self-efficacy is the self-judgement of one’s ability to achieve a particular task, and a sense that it is achieveable within the environment being operated in. (Bandura, 1982)

Those who have a stronger sense of efficacy exert greater effort to master the challenges”  and “when beset with difficulties people who entertain serious doubts about their capabilities slacken their efforts or give up altogether”” (Bandura, 1982, p123).

A persons sense of their own capability will also determine hhow ppong they will persist, how hard they will work, and how resistant to obstacles they will be.  (Bandura, 1977, p193-194)

People with  low  self-efficacy  tend to “shun or fail those (tasks) that exceed their perceived coping abilities.” (Bandura, 1982, p126).

It seems clear that efficacy self-percepts are key to motivation and persistance in learning, and forms a solid basis for investigation. An understanding of participant self-efficacy is likely to inform ideas of motivation, and proviude a useful lens through which to assess participant data and engagement.

Experiences leading to increased self-efficacy, as a consequence of persistence in the face of obstacles, tend to increase  self-efficacy, resulting in more effort  deployed and consequent success . However, “Those who cease their coping efforts prematurely will retain their self-debilitating expectations and fears for a long time” (Bandura, 1977, p194)

Experiences that undermine persistance, effort, and are characterised by decreased levels of self-efficacy will tend to have an adverse effect on confidence, effort, success, and subsequent feelings of self-efficacy.  Those with low self-efficacy, in environments they consider  unresponsive, will tend to become apathatic, or may even, observing the success of others experience “”self-disparagement and depression”.(Bandura, 1982, p140-141).

In many senses, this is the kernel of aspects of the research questions, and the attempt to understand Connectivism’s role in motivation and persistence amongst novices in terms of self-efficacy percepts is a key theoretical underpinning. The question is, does Connectivism, and it’s assumptions regarding participant digital literacy, promote lowered self-efficacy for novice participants?

It seems likely that the novice participant issues identified by Kop et al (2011) may be characterised by such concerns.

Kop, Fournier and Mak (2011) identify shortfalls in cMOOC support for novices,  “The lack of a coherent and centralized structure and a lack of summary around learning in the MOOCs also presented challenges for some participants, in particular the novice learners. The choice of tools allowed learner autonomy, but was at the same time seen as a reason for a fragmentation of the conversation”

In addition, MOOC participants identified the characteristic  high participant to instructor ratio as a problem.

…there were deficiencies in the support structures of the MOOCs. The small number of facilitators (only four for PLENK2010 against 1,641 participants and two for CCK11 against 700+ participants) available to support learners in the MOOCs raised concerns about their level of interaction, participation, and engagement: “ (Kop et al, 2011).

Participants noted a lack of support using online toools, and difficulties in connecting with participants and instructors as issues that undermined participation – again, a key idea and experience that informs the research area.

Kop et al advocate that novices be supported with saffolding that will “build confidence and self-efficacy and to ensure novices will feel confident and competent in using technologies and are supported throughout the course” (Kop et al 2011), which has been key in determining to preface my own course with an Advance Organiser.

This analysis identifies the  prior learning and self-efficacy issues facing novices in cMOOCs.

I’ve chosen to focus on building such a scaffolding resource, and to study it’s effect on novice motivation and participation in cMOOCs, as it seems useful, of benefit, and has not yet been implemented and analysed in any study I’m currently aware of.

The work of Kirschner  et  al(2006) and Clark (1999) provides a Cognitive Load framework for understanding  the issues referenced above.

Any instructional procedure that ignores the structures that

constitute human cognitive architecture is not likely to be ef fective.” (Kirschner et al, 2006)

Qualifying their statement, they claim “We are skillful in an

area because our long-term memory contains huge amounts of

information concerning the area. .” (Kirschner et al, 2006)

The relationship between prior knoweldge and  performance is considered to be a function of cognitive load, and seems apt to describe the difficulties narrated by Kop et al. Unfamiliar technologies, tools, and pedagogy seem likely to be cognitively demanding, hence, in part, my research focus on their role, and methods for alleviating possible difficulties.

As task novelty and Cognitive Load  increase , self-efficacy decreases. Ultimately,  an efficacy threshold is reached, resulting in an automated efficacy default on the part of the leraner, where  a lower self-percept of efficacy, or potentially, a feeling of helplessness is encountered (Clark, 1999, p16). Students consequently  refocus on distracting goals, thoughts and strategies. Clark

draws a parallell between self-efficacy (and attendant levels of motivation, persistance and effort deployed, and, ultimately task success) and the degree of Cognitive Load experienced.

It is on this mechanism, that the research I intend to conduct is focused. By preparing students in advance with necesary Digital Literacy skills, it is hoped to ameliorate possible negative effects on self-efficacy, and motivation.

Research Design

The MOOC will take place on multiple platforms, (elective and prescribed). Capturing a complete picture of participant interaction will not be possible , no formal assessment methods are used, and no curricula is set,  so a quantitative aproach is unlikely to be possible

Cohen at el note, (2011. p209)  that case study method  applies where researchers have little control over events as they transpire, which seems appropriate for cMOOCs where such control is absent.

An action research approach has been discounted, as participation is likely to be unpredictable, and the two week timescale, and lack of opportubnity for additional cycles makes this method  unsuitable.

Cohen, quoting Hitchcock and Hughes, (Cohen et al 2011) suggest several case study characteristics which mesh well with the project, participants, and data available.

Rich and vivid event description, where description and analysis are narratively blended will enable me to take the available data (participant generated tweets, blogs posts, digital artefacts, comments) and form  such a narrative.

As course organiser, and seminar facilitator, I will be personally involved with articipants. Cohen’s account of  Hitchcock and Hughes characterisation of the integral involvement of the researcher as a case study characteristic  also seems to indicate case study applicabilityy.

Hitchcock and Hughes also note that case studies have temporal, group and role boundaries that enable defining groups. The course will have a definite two week span, and the advance organiser will be available for specified times. Identification of subgroups (novices who use the Advance Organiser, those who don’t, digital literates) will be key to the project, and, as noted by Yin, would match with an embedded case study design (Cohen et al, 2011, p291)

Case studies offer the capacity to follow dynamic complex interactions, an experience that is at the heart of Connectivist networked learning (Cohen et al, 2011, p289)

A case study is also  an achievable workload, where other forms of research may prove unrealistically demanding.

Where quantitative data is available ( e.g. numbers of tweets,of Google+ posts, session participation and downloading), it will be utilised to give a more textured understanding of participation, and may provide a basis for comparison with other studies.

Identification of subgroups and participant tracking

Novice users will self-identify during the signup process, and be directed to a Digital Literacy Resource, which will capture identifying details ( gmail address, twitter handle) and allow  tracking and categorisation across platforms (Google +, Twitter, blogs).

Comparison between novice sub-groups may yield useful data and insights as to the efficacy of the advance organiser.

Case study candidates will initially self-identify, and user participation data, as noted above, will be used to profile individuals. From both novice subgroups, users who participate, and whose participation drops off will be selected, and a survey sent out to establish their participation experiences.

In addition, all participants will be asked to complete a survey at course ending.

Using the results of surveys, questionnaires, and data collection, individuals will be identified for post-course interviews, from all subgroups (novices who have and haven’t engaged with the Advance Organiser, digital literates,  active and inactive participants).

Subgroup identification may rest on collection of data from tools and technologies that some novice users are unable to access successfully.  It is hoped to address this by  contacting each applicant to the course at the signup stage, via email, securing permission for a direct email survey, post course.

Archived tweets, blog and Google+ posts from the entire body of participants will be used to enrich descriptions and analysis.

Ethical Procedures

Data ownership and privacy will constitute a course seminar, and this may necessitate increased data sensitivity.

Participants will  register a gmail account, be asked to reply to questionnaires online, post videos to YouTube, and contribute to Google Docs. Blogposts, tweets and Google+ posts will be archived and made available publically.

Google, its subsidiaries, and survey websites, typically reserve the right to use material posted by individuals, globally, for whatever purposes they see fit. Where applicable, participants will be made aware of this as a condition of participation.

Participants will be made aware that their posts, tweets, and comments  may be archived, made publically available, reproduced, or made available for later, related research. As this material is already in the public domain, consent is not required, (as clarified verbally during our ethics seminar) but, given the data ownership aspects of the MOOC, it seems apropos to explicitly state this useage during signup.

Participants will be informed of the possible benefits of the study, and have access to clarification ( via a faq webpage, and email where they can request  clarification) and will  be informed that they are free to withdraw consent at any stage for material used.

It will be made clear to participants, in advance, that seminars will be recorded, and made publically available ( a statement to this effect will preface each seminar, and will be included in the signup agreements).

Participants will be free to engage with the course if they deny consent for their material to be published.

All questionnaire survey and interview  responses will be anonymised in publication, and all questionnaire, interview and survey data will be kept in encrypted form on a laptop, and in a DropBox account (Dropbox state they do not own, and will not use data stored with them), as well as on a portable hard-drive.

Should I publish the research, advance permission from the ethics committee will be sought, and in the execution of the study, all applicable guidlines from the ethics committee will have been implemented.

Research Limitations.

The limits regarding data, outcome and participation measurement capture have already been described.

The case study method may limit the degree to which generalisations can be formed. It is hoped that this study may serve as an exploratory study, whose focus is to identify potential areas for further study.

Insufficient participant numbers or resources could interfere with project execution . Should this be the case, there are alternative paths available. It may be possible attach the Advance Organiser, and data collection aspects to a course already in place, or to co-organise an already planned MOOC, or to offer the course on a scaled down basis, voluntarily ( for example, to a cohort of technology students, or as part of a professional development program, based around a small number of seminars).

Timescale and plan

The cMOOC will take place in Febraury 2014, over two weeks. The preparatory Digital Literacy Resource will be available for four weeks beforehand.

Follow-up tweetchats on a weekly, or fothnightly basis  may be used to locate and identify questionnaire and interview candidates.

A seminar platform ( Blackboard Collaborate is the current candidate, as they offer a 30 day free trial, and are an industry standard platform) will be finalised by Autumn 2013.

Preparation for the MOOC ( speakers, platform configuration, website implementation, blogfeed calibration, syllabus and task design, questionnaires, surveys, and interviews) will take place over summer and autmun 2013, with sections piloted (Digital Storytelling and Literacy seminars for example, and a 21st Century skills  seminar has already been piloted) on DIT’s Blackboard system within the Msc cohort.

Questionnaires and surveys will be completed, and piloted amongst non-participants by  November 2013, with time for alteration and adjustment where necessary.

By March 2014  questionnaires, surveys and interviews should be completed, and data collation, analysis and description of the pre MOOC data completed. Given the relatively small number of core participants MOOCs typically have (circa 4% of the total signup) it is not envisaged that respondents will be numerous.

Twitter data, blog and  Google + posts, and Collaborate data will be collated and archived on a rolling basis automatically, and will be immediately available as the MOOC ends.


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