Open Learning Research & Scholarship


Since Georgetown University launched its partnership with edX in 2012, GeorgetownX has launched several Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) featuring Georgetown faculty. Given the experimental nature of MOOCs and their role in higher education, CNDLS has taken an active role in contributing to research in this burgeoning field. In particular, we have pursued research projects that explore how learning works in this new online space, so we can maximize the design of future GeorgetownX MOOCs. Our contributions to scholarship around MOOCs have been focused in two areas: the design and development of MOOCs, and the potential for promoting contemplative reading in these innovative courses.

Design and Development of MOOCS

We have shared many of our own practices for designing and developing MOOCs, as well as strategies for teaching online in this medium. Publications from CNDLS staff around MOOC development include:

  • CNDLS Director of Learning Design and Research, Yianna Vovides, along with Instructional Designer Sarah Inman of Stevens Institute of Technology, co-authored the chapter “Enabling Meaningful Certificates from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): A Data-Driven Curriculum E-Map Design Model." It was published in December 2015 in the book Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education.

    Vovides, Y. & Inman, S. (2015, August). Enabling meaningful certificates from Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): A data-driven curriculum e-map design model. In Reushle, S., Antonio, A., & Keppell, M. (Eds), Open Learning and Formal Credentialing in Higher Education: Curriculum Models and Institutional Policies (pp. 79-97). Queensland, Australia: IGI Global International.

  • Barrinton Baynes, Multimedia Specialist at Georgetown University's Gelardin New Media Center, presented at the "MOOCs and Libraries: A Brewing Collaboration" webinar hosted by the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) on August 12, 2015. His talk focused on Georgetown's experience with creating MOOCs, starting with the inception of ITEL and moving on to current projects available on edX. He discussed ways that ITEL project teams, in collaboration with lead faculty members of their respective MOOCs, devised ways of transferring in-class learning experience (which requires the payment of tuition and is graded) to a cost-free online platform where self-motivation may be the learners’ only incentive for participating. Slides of his presentation can be viewed at

    Baynes, B. (2015, August). MOOCs and libraries: A brewing collaboration [Webinar]. In the National Information Standards Organization (NISO) Webinars.

  • Several CNDLS staff members, including Yianna Vovides, Susan Pennestri, Anna Kruse, Dedra Demaree, and Theresa Schlafly, published a set of guidelines and tips for developing MOOCs, based on our own tested practices in the first several years of our partnership with edX. The article, “From Planning to Launching MOOCs: Guidelines and Tips from GeorgetownX,” was published in the manual E-Learning, E-Education, and Online Training (Springer International Publishing, 2014).

    Demaree, D., Kruse, A., Pennestri, S., Russell, J., Schlafly, T., & Vovides, Y. (2014). From planning to launching MOOCs: Guidelines and tips from GeorgetownX. In Vincenti, Giovanni, Bucciero, Alberto, Vaz de Carvalho, Carlos (Eds.), E-Learning, E-Education, and Online Training (68-75). Bethesda, MD: Springer International Publishing.

Learning analytics from GeorgetownX MOOCs

The open learning team at CNDLS has also been mining our own growing body of data on MOOCs to understand more about the learning process in this new platform. One recent paper, “LAK15 Case Study 2: Examining Learners’ Cognitive Presence in Massive Open Online Courses,” published in the Learning Analytics Review in 2015, explores the relationship between cognitive presence and course performance in a GeorgetownX MOOC. By examining the textual markers in students’ discussion board posts, students’ achievement in the course, and students’ engagement with video content, the paper aims to uncover a richer understanding of cognitive presence in a MOOC. You can access the full paper here.

  • Vovides, Y., Youman, T., Arthur, P., Davis, D., Ayo, E., Pongsajapan, R., McWilliams, M., & Kruse, A. (2015, March). LAK15 Case Study 2: Examining learners’ cognitive presence in Massive Open Online Courses. Learning Analytics Review.

Contemplative Reading in MyDante

Our three-part MOOC, Dante’s Journey to Freedom, based on the Divine Comedy, has been recognized for its innovative contributions to the world of MOOCs. Conducted in both the edX platform and our own signature custom-built platform, MyDante, this MOOC relies on a conceptual framework that emphasizes mindfulness and contemplative reading habits as key to deriving lasting meaning from poetic texts. MyDante guides learners through multiple encounters with the canti of Dante's Divine Comedy--some encounters personal, some guided, and some shared. MyDante also balances a line-by-line, attentive reading approach to the text with broader reflective prompts that encourage students to look at the text at a more global, thematic level. Through the platform students experience the poem as a journey toward a richer understanding of their freedom and responsibility as persons.

As we have refined MyDante throughout the three unique MOOC courses, as well as their subsequent reiterations, we have turned to our growing body of analytics data on user engagement with the courses to inform our revisions to the platform. From this ongoing research, we have aimed to examine how well students achieve a particular objective for these courses: the ability to achieve the deepest level of engaged reading, or contemplative reading. In this area, we have published one article and are currently developing a second comprehensive piece:

  • Philosophy Professor Frank Ambrosio, the lead faculty member in the MyDante MOOCs, and Eddie Maloney, CNDLS Executive Director, published “MyDante: Contemplative Reading and Hybrid Technologies” in the book Trends in digital education: Selected papers from EC-TEL 2015 workshops CHANGEE, WAPLA, and HybridEd (2015).

    Maloney, E., & Ambrosio, F. (2015). MyDante: Contemplative reading and hybrid technologies. In C.D. Kloos, P.J. Muñoz-Merino, R.M. Crespo-García, and C. Alario-Hoyos (Eds.), Trends in digital education: Selected papers from EC-TEL 2015 workshops CHANGEE, WAPLA, and HybridEd.

  • In fact, we have been exploring the benefits and challenges of using technology to support the reading of literature since 2012, when Frank Ambrosio and Eddie Maloney, along with CNDLS staff members, William Garr and Theresa Schlafly, published another article on MyDante, titled “My Dante: An Online Environment for Contemplative and Collaborative Reading” in the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.The article explored the tensions between individual and collaborative aspects of reading in the context of MyDante, then in an earlier iteration than the platform used to launched the three Dante MOOCs.

    Ambrosio, F., Garr, W., Maloney, E. & Schlafly, T. (2012, February). MyDante: An online environment for contemplative and collaborative reading. Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.

  • Frank Ambrosio, in collaboration with CNDLS staff members, Yianna Vovides and Jaime González-Capitel Martorel, has also been engaged in another research project on MyDante, involving an assessment of our own learning analytics from the courses. This project addresses the following research question: What is the depth of contemplative reading that students engage in during their written reflections within a Massive Open Online Course? To answer this question, the research team operationalized learning engagement at three levels of reading instructed in the course: literal reading, whereby students get acquainted with the characters and understand the narrative structure of the poem; metaphoric or ironic reading, in which the poem is decoded as a message on the sense of human life; and reflective reading, requiring the active involvement of the students and their personal experiences. This is a mixed methods research project. Journal entries have been coded to assess learning engagement in relation to the three levels of reading while platform activity data such as the number of annotations per user, discussion forum entries per user, length of journal entries per user, private journal entries per user, and peer assessment scores are used to enable further examination of the depth of the reading in relation to interaction with the learning environment and assessment scores.