MOOCresearch2.0: A mixed-method and multidisciplinary approach to socio-cognitive conflicts in online educational platforms


ARC - Action de recherche concertée (2019-2024)

(Open) online education poses a variety of challenges for higher education, one of which is how to foster social interactions and induce beneficial socio-cognitive conflicts (i.e. differences in point of view that are socially experienced and cognitively resolved) to promote learning in an environment where interactions are primarily written and asynchronous.

To address this challenge, we adopt a multidisciplinary perspective that builds on theories from several disciplines from the humanities and social sciences (linguistics, natural language processing, communication sciences, education, and management studies) to analyse social interactions and investigate the presence and unfolding of socio-cognitive conflicts in massive open online courses (MOOCs). MOOCs are a unique environment where people from all over the world – with different professional experience, first language, cultural background, etc.  - are invited to discuss disciplinary concepts and/or society issues that can potentially induce socio-cognitive conflicts and/or controversies. As such, they provide a yet unexplored though promising empirical ground for multidisciplinary research on online interactions, social learning and conflict regulation. Methodologically, the project also innovates by building on various disciplinary methodological toolkits (from content analysis to natural language processing, corpus linguistics and social media analytics), thus showcasing a unique mixed-method approach and answering repeated calls for an expansion of MOOC research’s methodological toolbox.

We make use of students’ textual productions in an online learning environment (LouvainX MOOCs on the dX platform) to answer research questions related to:


1. Social interactions, socio-cognitive conflicts and learning

PI: Prof. Mariane Frenay, GIRSEF

  • What are the behavioral and cognitive engagements of learners in MOOC environments? Do they vary according to the MOOC discipline, the instructional context conditions or the learners’ individual characteristics?
  • In what respect do learner-instructor (L-I) interactions (teaching presence) and learner-content (L-C) interactions (strategies for enhancing the online discussion forum) facilitate positive social interdependence in asynchronous online discussion and deliberative argumentation?


2. How to foster and regulate socio-cognitive conflicts about essentially contested concepts (ECCs) in social sciences? The case of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)

PI: Prof. Valérie Swaen, LOURIM

  • What are the different learners’ preconceptions or everyday understandings of an ECC? How do they frame their perceptions about this ECC? What valence and types of associations do they form with this ECC? How do the different preconceptions vary with learners’ individual profiles (e.g., socio-demographics, values, experience), and geographical origins?
  • How do learners react to these multiple understandings? How do these different everyday understandings influence learners’ understandings of the scientific ECC? How do individuals’ perceptions about the ECC evolve based on online interactions with other participants?
  • What types of pedagogical and communication mechanisms can stimulate content-related debate more than ideological debate, and facilitate learning about the scientific ECC? How can explicit instruction help direct learning toward scientific understanding?


3. The communicative constitution of controversial debates

PI: Prof. François Lambotte, Social Media Lab

  • Current research on the rhetoric of controversies focuses on so-called “micro moves” of participants. Micro moves refer to the types of utterances that are typical of controversial debates (e.g., proof, refutation, politeness). Yet, in so doing, researchers often lose sight of the way these ephemeral and local communicative events are scaled up to shape longer lasting and stabilized forms of controversial debate over time and space. Hence, how do controversial debates unfold? ("zooming out")
  • More, researchers studying online debates tend to inventory and categorize the arguments of each stakeholder group in order to highlight their cumulative effects. This type of methodology aggregates events to highlight polarization in a debate or to classify stances. However, this perspective neglects the relational, sequential and longitudinal contruction of stances and polarized debates. Within controversial debates, how do micro moves perform the following functions: triggering, stabilizing, transforming and closing? (“zooming in”)


4. Socio-cognitive conflicts and negotiating meaning in a foreign language

PI: Dr. Magali Paquot, Centre for English Corpus Linguistics

  • To what extent are non-native speakers present on forum discussions? What role do they take? How does this compare with native speakers’ presence and assumed roles?
  • To what extent do non-native speakers negotiate meaning with a view to resolve a misunderstanding due to language problems vs. content-related and cognitive problems?
  • To what extent do non-native speakers take part in the richer content-based interactions that can potentially give rise to socio-cognitive conflicts and learning?
  • To what extent does language proficiency impact non-native speakers’ online presence, the range of roles they assume, the type of discussions they are involved in, and the types of posts they write?


Answering the above set of research questions in a multidisciplinary environment will make it possible to deepen our understanding of socio-cognitive conflicts and their resolution in online learning, thus improving our understanding of the dynamic process of social learning on online educational platforms while, at the same time, contributing to cutting edge research in communication sciences, CSR studies and second language acquisition. It is our hope that the newly gained knowledge will also serve colleagues who want to embark in the design and teaching of online courses by providing guidelines to select activities that trigger the most fruitful learner‐learner or learner‐instructor interactions, to raise awareness of the types of problems that may interfere with socio‐cognitive conflict resolution, and to identify interactions that require monitoring.

From a methodological point of view, the project will contribute to demonstrating how the combined use of clickstream data, NLP and corpus linguistic techniques can offer fresh insights into a range of disciplines and, by doing so, hopefully foster new avenues for more collaborative research with colleagues in other disciplines. From an epistemological point of view, the project will also question the status of ‘big data’ research in the humanities and social sciences. By mixing various data types, the project illustrates the necessity to move from big data to thick data in order to make sense of complex online social phenomena. Finally, it is our hope that this project will put UCLouvain at the forefront of online education research, further demonstrating our university’s engagement with the current digital transformation of our society.


Dr. Magali Paquot 

Project spokesperson



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