What I’m reading

Putting together a MOOC/ethnography ‘if I only had the time’ reading wishlist

Clarà, M., & Barberà, E. (2013). Learning online: massive open online courses (MOOCs), connectivism, and cultural psychology. Distance Education, 34(1), 129–136. http://ift.tt/2l300lA
Fielding, N. G., Lee, R. M., & Blank, G. (2016). The SAGE Handbook of Online Research Methods. SAGE.
Hine, C. (2000). Virtual ethnography. London: SAGE.
Hine, C. (2015). Ethnography for the Internet : embedded, embodied and everyday. London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Hjorth, L., Horst, H., Galloway, A., & Bell, G. (2016). The Routledge Companion to Digital Ethnography. Florence: Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from http://ift.tt/2lEkmir
Knox, J. (2016). What’s the Matter with MOOCs? Socio-material Methodologies for Educational Research. In H. Snee, C. Hine, Y. Morey, S. Roberts, & H. Watson (Eds.), Digital Methods for Social Science (pp. 175–189). Palgrave Macmillan UK. http://ift.tt/2l2X3RH
Loizzo, J., & Ertmer, P. A. (2016). MOOCocracy: the learning culture of massive open online courses. Educational Technology Research and Development, 64(6), 1013–1032. http://ift.tt/2lEcY6C
Saadatdoost, R., Sim, A. T. H., Jafarkarimi, H., & Hee, J. M. (2016). Understanding the Setting of a MOOC: A Journey into Coursera. International Journal of Information and Communication Technology Education (IJICTE), 12(1), 77–98. http://ift.tt/2l3blCd
Wasson, C. (2013). ‘It was like a little community’: An ethnographic study of online learning and its implications for MOOCs. Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, 2013(1), 186–199. http://ift.tt/2lEfv0z
Webster, J. P., & Silva, S. M. da. (2013). Doing educational ethnography in an online world: methodological challenges, choices and innovations. Ethnography and Education, 8(2), 123–130. http://ift.tt/2l3dKMV


February 12, 2017 at 09:08AM
Open in Evernote


Having spent a loooooong time choosing, I eventually decided upon this edX MOOC:

Best title ever?

As I wrote up on the Digital Hub, I picked it mainly for its name. I thought it was either biased or ironic (since looking at the course content, thought, it is neither, which is interesting). The topic is fascinating too, and while I know a little about media ethics I know zilch about investigative journalism.

I was also trying to pick a MOOC that would work well with the ethnographic project. My main priority (after the name, clearly) was to find a MOOC that would allow me to explore how significant the immediate context is to the development of community and discussion.

The next task was to decide about whether to come clean about the ethnography, and I felt as though I at least had to ask permission. I didn’t want to put it onto the forum, because I’d rather be a passive observer, so I found the email address of the course leader and contacted her directly. I said I’d anonymise everything, release no personal details, photos, anything that might identify a course participant, and said I’d be willing to consider complying with anything else she wanted. I haven’t heard back yet, but if she says ‘no’ then I will of course find something else…


UPDATE (12.2.17): course leader said yes! She’s just checking with Columbia’s Centre for Teaching and Learning but thinks it should be fine. Woo! 🙂

Distributed knowledge: can MOOCs learn from folksonomies?

Back in the day when I was getting my librarianship qualification, I did some research on folksonomies. My project was to explore how folksonomies and traditional classification schemes describe the same books on LGBT history, and to see if, and how, this destabilised knowledge. When I was reading Stewart’s article about MOOCs earlier today, I was struck by a point of cautious convergence between her comments about MOOCs and new literacies, and what I remember learning about folksonomies.

There’s a brilliant article by Clay Shirky called ‘Ontology is Overrated’. It’s a bit librarianly, and it talks a lot about some of the ways in which classification schemes are outdated and even a little insidious in places. But it’s a good read. Shirky presents folksonomy, or social, user-generated tagging, as antagonistic to traditional, top-down classification of knowledge.

if you’ve got a large, ill-defined corpus, if you’ve got naive users, if your cataloguers aren’t expert, if there’s no one to say authoritatively what’s going on, then ontology is going to be a bad strategy

For Shirky, this is in particular a baaaaaaaad fit for the digital world. When you need to organise knowledge, especially knowledge contained in or packaged in digital formats, you’ll struggle to do this alongside traditional ontologies. Come in Dewey Decimal, your time is up.

Folksonomy allows, in theory, for the organisation of knowledge to develop along desire lines. Tags are freeform and uncontrolled, so knowledge is organised on the fly in ways that are authentic, shifting, contemporary. Tags are inclusive and democratic, giving equal weight to long tail interests and to cultural assignations. Folksonomy is a project committed to the fundamental distribution of the organisation of knowledge. Or so the argument goes.

Stewart contends, quite sensibly, that MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new literacies. One of the ways in which it may do this is in distributing expertise. The massiveness of MOOCs radically adapts the relationship between teacher and student. It decentres the teacher, no longer seen as the ‘knower’, and reshapes the learner’s role so that they must be less passive and more active in their learning. MOOCs implicitly foster and place a high value on collaborative, collective intelligence and knowledge.

These two developments – the organisation of knowledge via folksonomy, and the reorganisation of the teaching of knowledge via the MOOC – strike me as fairly similar. There’s a redistribution of power, a re-levelling of knowledge, a democratic shift in the locus of information and expertise, and a flattening of hierarchies.

However, studies of folksonomy in situ, particularly of dear departed websites like Delicious and Diigo where tagging was really popular, sort of demonstrate the failure of the project, at least from the perspective of knowledge organisation. They found that folksonomies were imprecise, inexact, and ambiguous. The lack of control over spelling, the cultural implications, the chaos and unpredictability and the over-personalisation of tags undermined their trustworthiness. The tags used obscured the long-tail, and they followed a power law. Just like traditional systems of classification, there was still a need for an ‘authority’. It’s just that, now, that authority was user-generated and unaccountable.

These were fairly old studies of folksonomy, so perhaps times have changed. I hope so. But I do think there might be a warning here to the MOOC, particuarly in terms of the redistribution of knowledge. The massiveness of the MOOC necessarily decentres expertise. It restructures where that expertise might lie, and it fundamentally destabilises who might be perceived as an expert, and who might be an expert. But what it can’t do is to remove the need for an expert altogether, nor can it eliminate the need for that expertise to be earned, to be accorded in some way, to be accountable in some way. It may not belong to the teacher alone, but there still need to be some condition over what it is, and who owns it.


Guy, M., & Tonkin, E. (2006). Folksonomies: Tidying up Tags? D-Lib Magazine, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1045/january2006-guy
Hammond, T., Hannay, T., Lund, B., & Scott, J. (2005). Social Bookmarking Tools (I): A General Review. D-Lib Magazine, 11(04). https://doi.org/10.1045/april2005-hammond
Shirky, C. (2005). Ontology is Overrated — Categories, Links, and Tags. Retrieved 11 February 2017, from http://bit.ly/1p97ISy 
Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.

From Coetzee

“As the reach of digital devices extends further and deeper into our daily existence, one can only foresee a further and deeper takeover of mental life – at least among human beings – by what I loosely call binary thinking, and the corresponding spread as a form of mental constraint that conceives of itself quite innocently as freedom.”

J. M. Coetzee, round table on ‘The Future of Literary Thinking’, Textual Practice, 30.7, August 2016, p. 1152
from Tumblr http://ift.tt/2kzedDW

I read this quotation on a lecture handout one of our academics had sent me to put onto our VLE. I thought it encapsulated a lot of the presumptions we might make about our use of technology for communication, as well as being a link to the themes of the cybercultures block.

Comment on Stuart’s blog

This is a really interesting evaluation of a very very complex topic. I agree that losing the ability to conceal our thoughts if we choose would lead to a very different situation than we’re in now. Though I wonder if we’re already on that road? There are definite issues surrounding privacy and surveillance and our ability to conceal what we think. However, I have two follow up questions:

– do you think that our ability to disclose (roughly) what we choose is actually connected to our mind and soul (which makes us unique)? is it innate, or a social construct? (I’m in two minds – no pun intended!)

– do you think that ‘thought’ in its natural form would make much sense to an onlooker? or is it our interpretation of that thought that makes it intelligible? I strongly suspect that if a robot were able to read my mind right now it would very quickly go into shutdown… 🙂


from Comments for Stuart’s EDC blog http://ift.tt/2kH2YeE

Whose lifestream is it anyway? – Week 3 summary

This is a visual interpretation by Jen Maddox of one of my favourite songs from the amazing musical, Hamilton, by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and throughout this week I’ve kept going back to this song and its message about history. Or, maybe George Orwell was right when he wrote that “history is written by the winners”.

Cybercultures, or the history of the internet, is relatively recent history. Most of us have lived through it, and we may feel some sense of ownership over it. We might experience the kind of nostalgic determinism that The Buggles exhibit both in Video and in The Age of Plastic. My lifestream this week has been a reflection of my attempt to question this. I’ve been preoccupied by whose voices we hear. For example, I’ve questioned the ‘cultural sensitivity’ appreciated by care robots, and whether this is agitated by the fact that we’re approaching this from a strictly Western perspective. In my digital artefact, and influenced by Sterne’s project, I tried to expose one or two of the narrative nooks and crannies when we’re presented with new technology: commercialism, consumerism, the bottom line.

This is leading me to the conclusion that the socio-materialists have got it right: there’s a need to account for the affordances of technology as a complex assemblage, and it’s crucial to ensure that voices other than those of the Western, privileged classes aren’t black-boxed in these interpretations. This too should help us to keep sight of the culture of cybercultures, and the ways in which our chronicling of the history of the internet is influenced by culture, in practically every sense of the word.



Silver, D., Massanari, A., & Sterne, J. (Eds.). (2006). The Historiography of Cyberculture. In Critical cyberculture studies (pp. 17–28). New York: New York University Press.

John Naughton writing in The Guardian

Is technology smart enough to fix the fake news frenzy? | John Naughton:

picture of a keyboard with 'truth or lie'


An excellent, timely, thought-provoking article. Good conceptualisation of the complex assemblages in which technology is implicated, and the political, economic and social ramifications of it. Interesting, too, to consider how assessments of technology being able to ‘make up’ for human failure or inadequacy can shift depending on our appraisal of those failures and inadequacies.
from Tumblr http://ift.tt/2kuJKqH

Comment on Nigel’s blog

This is great, Nigel! How did you make it? There is so much in this image.

I like the way you’ve used the juxtaposition of what’s happening inside and outside to make a comment on the prevalence of technology, as well as its inherent possibility for variance. Is there something too about the way in which technology can absorb our attention, physically(?) preventing us from seeing what’s beyond it?


from Comments for Nigel’s EDC blog http://ift.tt/2kt3c7n

“We can’t rewind, we’ve gone too far”

What a corker of a song. The Buggles, from The Age of Plastic, 1979.

in my mind and in my car

However you name it, cybercultures, or internet studies, is our perspective on history. In this song, The Buggles nostalgically lament the loss of knowledge of bygone technologies, and they blame new technologies for this, rather than the humans who created them, or any of the socio-cultural or socio-material contexts which gave rise to it.

put the blame on VCR

This represents to me a decentring of human intention, but perhaps not in a way completely conducive with socio-material theories. This brings to mind the criticism of actor-network theory by McClean and Hassard (2004): they argued that it’s inevitably ethnocentric because we’re the ones explaining the network and making the connections. They quote Bloomfield and Vurdubakis (1999):

How can we re-present Other times and Other places with only the tools of Here and Now with which to do it? (p. 631)

Sterne raised the possibility of historiographical gaps in our narrative of cybercultures. But it may be worth taking this further. Is there a historiographical problem in general with our current perspective on cybercultures? Is our (natural?) nostalgia for the past – discussions of the noise that dial-up internet made, the Nokia 3310, fixing a VCR with a pencil, etc. – actually damaging for the way that we understand our interaction with technology now? And, if so, does this cross over into the way we think about using technology in our teaching?


Bloomfield, B. P., & Vurdubakis, T. (1999). The Outer Limits: Monsters, Actor Networks and the Writing of Displacement. Organization, 6(4), 625–647. https://doi.org/10.1177/135050849964004
McLean, C., & Hassard, J. (2004). Symmetrical Absence/Symmetrical Absurdity: Critical Notes on the Production of Actor-Network Accounts. Journal of Management Studies, 41(3), 493–519. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6486.2004.00442.x
Silver, D., Massanari, A., & Sterne, J. (Eds.). (2006). The Historiography of Cyberculture. In Critical cyberculture studies (pp. 17–28). New York: New York University Press.


Betty Sneezes

So here’s my digital artefact! I must apologise for the poor quality of it – I’ve not only been very stretched for time this week but I’m a horribly unvisual person, and I can’t do images. Which explains why I cheated and put a voiceover on it. Sorry about that.

Just in case you can’t see the video, it’s meant to be a commercial for a product called Betty Sneezes, which I’ve totally made up. Betty is a robot who can detect airborne rhinovirus, which causes 80% of instances of the common cold. Betty can alert you to this, allowing you to make a swift exit and therefore remain healthy. The end line of the commercial is: “you’ll never miss work again”.

I’ve wanted right from the start to make a commercial for a product – I haven’t personally given much thought to the intersection between cybercultures and consumerism but I suspect it is totally inescapable. Both from a practical perspective and an ethical one, technology can’t be economically neutral. This too is raised in the final line – while a common cold detector sounds pretty magnificent to me, I wanted to temper this with a slightly more pernicious message about human productivity.

Betty is a skeuomorph, rather than a cyborg. I did consider instead ‘inventing’ a chip or something that could be inserted into humans, but it (a) didn’t work as well visually and (b) I wanted to make a point about infection. One of the themes in this cybercultures block is what makes humans human, and whether cyborgs render debates over the differences between humans and technology completely redundant. Cathy Hills did an ingenious mentimeter poll to see what we thought the difference was, and I found the split of the results really interesting. But I wondered if, ultimately, the difference is going to be how the diseases between us spread, so I was playing a little bit on the word ‘virus’.

Finally, I just wanted to make it really clear that everything I’ve used in the video is available from Pixabay or Pexels and licensed under CC-0. No copyright infringements here 🙂 And, very much a hat tip to Cathy for her excellent poll!