Grant applicants could be awarded up to $25,000.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent millions of dollars helping to bolster non-profit massive open online course (MOOC) providers like Khan Academy and edX. Now, they’re putting $400,000 toward the much-hyped technology in an effort to answer the question: are MOOCs actually effective?

Called the MOOC Research Initiative, the project aims to address what the foundation refers to as a “research gap” by examining MOOCs and the impact they have on teachers, students and education in general.

“To date, the impact of MOOCs has been largely disseminated through press releases and university reports,” the project’s co-founder, George Siemens, said in a blog post on the project’s web site. “The peer-reviewed research on MOOCs has been minimal. The proliferation of MOOCs in higher education requires a concerted and urgent research agenda.”

Siemens is the associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University. He was an early adopter of MOOCs, having taught an open online course through the University of Manitoba in 2008.

See Page 2 for what aspects of MOOCs the research will cover. 

The foundation will provide grants ranging from $10,000 to $25,000 to approved researchers, who have until July 7 to submit a proposal. The grants will be administered by Athabasca and used to study several areas of MOOC effectiveness such as student outcomes, learning design, cost and performance, university policy and impact, and alternative MOOC formats.

The grantees will present some of their findings at a conference in early December at the University of Texas, Arlington.

“The dramatic increase in online education, particularly MOOCs presents researchers, academics, administrators, learners, and policy makers with a range of questions as to the effectiveness of this format of teaching and learning,” Siemens said.

The MOOC Research Initiative is just the most recent concentrated attempt to cut through the MOOC hype with research. Last month, Vanderbilt University announced the creation of the Vanderbilt Institute for Digital Learning, which will also study online learning and MOOCs, encouraging faculty and students to research digital resources.

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