What do we mean by ‘open’?

In this blog post I want to think about what makes a MOOC open, and what openness means in this context. I’m taking as my starting point Marshall’s observation that  MOOCs “have been positioned as providing a means of addressing disparities in access to higher education for disadvantaged students, nationally and internationally” (Marshall, 2014, p. 254). This certainly aligns with my initial understanding of what ‘open’ implied, and yet I’ve come to consider it a fairly problematic understanding of the term.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Early rhetoric about MOOCs, particularly in the media but also in some scholarship, occasionally focused on their capacity to fundamentally democratise higher education (cf. Koller, 2013). Here openness is availability and freeness: anyone can participate, there are no access restrictions. We do seem to have moved on from this triumphalism to a more realistic understanding that MOOCs can potentially and theoretically broaden access to higher education. They’re more open, if not actually open.

And that reservation is I think because of the understanding that to participate in a MOOC you still need material access to a computer. You still need to benefit from the physical infrastructure, and the social infrastructure, and I’d say most importantly of all: you need the relevant digital skills. And yet, according to the ONS, in 2016 11% of households in the UK did not have an internet connection. Of that 11%, 21% reported that this was due to a lack of skills. “Nearly half of pensioners still hav[e] no internet access at all”, reports the ONS. For me, this fundamentally undermines any assessment of the first ‘O’ meaning ‘availability’.

There’s also plenty of research to back up assertions about the link between socio-economic status and MOOC participation. Hansen and Reich (2015), for example, looked at 68 Harvard and MIT EdX courses run between 2013 and 2015, and examined the socio-economic status of about 15% of the million or so sign-ups. They found that on average participants were significantly more affluent, not just than the national average, but of their neighbourhoods. They have higher average levels of educational attainment. Overall, not only were people with higher socio-economic statuses likely to participate in MOOCs, but they were more likely to complete them.

So what are the alternative meanings?

Rodriguez (2013) tries to describe how MOOCs are ‘open’ in lots of ways all at once. The c-MOOCs, he says, are open because they allow for ‘all degrees of involvement’, because ‘everyone who wishes to participate can do so’; x-MOOCs are less open because ‘the course materials are made available under a custom copyright license’. There’s a sense here that openness is defined as a lack of, or a dismissal of, the rules and norms that usually govern the way higher education is coordinated and conducted. There’s an indication of openness as a sort of difference, even of anarchy.  Similarly, Alraimi et al. (2015) identify openness in terms of being ‘less like traditional higher education’ and ‘more like everyday life’.

Stewart (2015) implicitly connects openness to her discussions of scale and massiveness. Openness here is understood in the sense of being public, or out in the open (p. 232). MOOCs are open in the sense that they’re not ‘closed’, not private. This to me aligns far more with understandings of openness from a research standpoint – open access, for example.

I’m starting to reach the conclusion, then, that openness just means all of these things. And more. That it’s shorthand for ideals like visibility, accessibility, flexibility, freedom, choice. But I wonder how open a MOOC – especially one hosted by a commercial, for profit company like Coursera or Udacity – can truly be, and whether openness is in fact nothing more than a chimera.


Alraimi, K. M., Zo, H., & Ciganek, A. P. (2015). Understanding the MOOCs continuance: The role of openness and reputation. Computers & Education, 80, 28–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2014.08.006
Hansen, J. D., & Reich, J. (2015). Democratizing education? Examining access and usage patterns in massive open online courses. Science, 350(6265), 1245–1248.
Koller, D. (n.d.). MOOCs can be a Significant Factor in Opening Doors to Opportunity. Retrieved 25 February 2017, from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2013-12-31-daphne-koller-moocs-can-be-a-significant-factor-in-opening-doors-to-opportunity
Marshall, S. (2014). Exploring the ethical implications of MOOCs. Distance Education, 35(2), 250–262. https://doi.org/10.1080/01587919.2014.917706
Office for National Statistics. (n.d.). Internet access – households and individuals. Retrieved 25 February 2017, from https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/bulletins/internetaccesshouseholdsandindividuals/2016#main-points
Rodriguez, O. (2013). The concept of openness behind c and x-MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Open Praxis, 5(1). https://doi.org/10.5944/openpraxis.5.1.42
Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.

MOOC assumptions

In the small amount of UX and ethnographic work I’ve already done, I’ve learned the value of admitting and questioning the biases and assumptions we might naturally hold. So I’ve spent a little time this week, in preparation for the micro-ethnography, thinking about what I might assume about the participants on the course, and whether those assumptions are fair.

I’ve come up with three things:

a) they’re human

But maybe they’re not. I’ve seen The New Adventures of Superman, and I cannot therefore discount the concept of robotic investigative journalism.

b) they know what a MOOC is

Leaving aside any epistemological dilemmas about the nature of knowledge, I’m not sure this is true. How much determinism can we assume? Heaven knows what I’ve signed up to without knowing it. So, erm, let’s switch this to…

b, again) they’ve heard of MOOCs, or they’ve been told about them, or they’ve stumbled across them randomly on the internet

Which feels like a spectacularly unhelpful statement. Finally, I ended up with:

c) they have an email address

This is probably all I can assume with any certainty. They have access to a computer, and to the internet – but we can’t be sure about the level of that access. What they do have is an email address and – crucially – the relevant skill set to set that up, to enrol and participate.

Something from Scannable

Scannable Document on 24 Feb 2017, 10_53_23

February 24, 2017 at 10:53AM
Open in Evernote


I’ve been thinking this week about presence and absence, partly in response to a decision I made at the beginning of the week not to reveal myself as a researcher on the discussion board for my MOOC. This was for several reasons, but mainly that I sort of missed the boat:

(a) the discussion boards I’m predominantly looking at are historical (i.e. they’re two weeks old), so new posts would be missed

(b) there isn’t anywhere else obvious to me where a post like this would be seen; there is a ‘general’ board, but there are very, very few entries on it

Anyway, this quotation from Hine was caught me at just the right time while I was considering this and made me consider my own status and identity – in the MOOC setting, as a researcher – and the impact that might have. Today (two days later), as I sit having finished (but not yet posted) my artefact, I’m still wondering about this…

Social media and the public sphere

Jurgen Habermas

“the public sphere is rooted in networks for the wild flows of messages – news, reports, commentaries, talks, scenes and images” (p. 415)

From Habermas, J. (2006) “Political Communication in Media Society: Does Democracy Still Enjoy an Epistemic Dimension? The Impact of Normative Theory on Empirical Research.” Communication Theory 16(4): 411-26.

Habermas argued that a public sphere adequate and appropriate to democratic states or polities relied upon two things:

  1. quality of discourse
  2. quantity of participation

And although this is an extremely rudimentary understanding of Habermas’ works, I can’t help but think that you could substitute ‘public sphere’ for MOOCs here, and it’d still be true…


Just the bare necessities of life(stream) – Week 5 summary

My lifestream this week is focused on community. This was partly in response to my reading of the chapter by Lister whom, I felt, took a fairly traditional stance on what we might understand by ‘community’. While Lister stopped short of othering online communities, and while he helpfully argued against the binary of ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ (p. 209), there was still a sense of assessing the new as part of the continuum of the old. Old wine in new wineskins, rather than the other way around.

This week I’ve looked at the make up of MOOC participants, and included a couple of screenshots based on the survey conducted on entry to the course. I started to explore the nature of the community, focusing on the stated motivations of participants to join this MOOC. The variety of explanations might be expected, but I found an interesting mix of fairly passive responses and some which strongly mirrored the expectation of socially constructed knowledge, to which Knox (2015) refers.

Following from this, but sticking with the theme of community, I had great fun attempting to bring a critical perspective to the use of gifs and memes. I even tried creating a few of my own, but found it much harder than expected; there’s a message there about the roles of consumer and producer. I wrote about the impact that memes and gifs might have on community development, and the implications of their ability to be both the object of a community and its vocabulary. There are critical considerations around their currency, their political influence (for example, see here), their relationship to text, the effects of their de/re-contextualisation, and – librarian hat on, sorry – their ownership.


Knox, J. (2015). Critical education and digital cultures. Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. Singapore: Springer, 1–6.
Lister, M. (2009). Networks, users and economics. In M. Lister (Ed.), New media: a critical introduction (2nd ed, pp. 163–236). Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York, N.Y: Routledge.

MOOC motivations

I’m a little overwhelmed by the number of participants on the course – there are hundreds of participant introduction posts, and though there’s very little conversation, I thought I’d do a micro-micro-ethnography on their motivations for taking the MOOC. I haven’t read all of the posts because it’d take hours, but there’s definitely a convergence in terms of the reasons why students admit to signing up for the MOOC.

Here they are. Not in any particular order.

1. I’m a lifelong learner: the phrase comes up fairly frequently, but it’s pretty clear that there are some people on the course who just like learning, and identify as a learner. They haven’t expressed the reason why they chose this particular MOOC, but their principal motivation is learning.

2. I wanted to try out an online course: “Warren Buffet [sic] likes online courses”, writes one person. These are people who are not necessarily confirmed learners, but they’re just testing the waters. It’ll be interesting to see if any of them assess their experiences later on.

3. I work in another industry, but I’m interested in investigative journalism: some people are just interested in the subject, though they’re in other professions or are happily employed in other areas; from what I can tell, they’re not nursing any ambition to switch professions, but journalism is a hobby or something that they find particularly fascinating.

4. I work in another industry, but something is happening in my country and I want to know how to report it: some participants are enrolled in the course in response to a particular problem in their communities, and they want to understand it, to learn how to write about it, and to disseminate what they’ve written.

5. I work in another industry, but I’m interested in becoming an investigative journalist: for some people, this is the first step in their career change to investigative journalism; some are ‘testing the water’, as it were; others are committed to this change, and would like the experience and knowledge.

6. I’m a journalist, and I want to enrich my understanding of my career: wanting to get better at investigative journalism is probably the most commonly cited reason on the introduction boards, and it’s probably the most simple to understand.

7. I’m a journalist, and I want to promote my work and writing: there are a few people openly promoting themselves, their blogs, their businesses; it’ll be interesting to see how (or if) they contribute to discussion where it is less appropriate to mention their twitter handle or link to their LinkedIn page.

8. I’m a journalist, and I’m looking for new collaborative projects: again, these people are openly there for the community, rather than for the content of the learning that they might do.

Slowing down?

I had another email from the course leader of the MOOC I’m doing, urging me to get cracking with the ethnography. She writes:

Am assuming the discussion boards will slow down so you may as well go for it now.

It doesn’t appear to be slowing in terms of content or chat, but it’ll be interesting to see if the course leader’s assumption comes true…

Busy, busy

Islands in the Lifestream – Week 4 summary

The anthropologist, Nancy Fried Foster, gave a presentation a couple of years ago to a small group at my institution. She talked about a variety of things but, as a manager, one of the things that stuck with me the most was about helping people cope with change. Her key message was that you need to allow and acknowledge a period of mourning. This pretty much reflects the main theme of my lifestream this week: a definite absence of content, ensuing from the transition from cybercultures to community cultures.

This transitory, momentary grief – a result of this change in focus – accounts for the lack of a richness of detailed, conscientious grappling with key ideas in this theme, or those revealed in the core readings. It also accounts for the attempt at preparedness exhibited in the lifestream, tempered by a general sense of disorientation. I put together, for example, a short and desirous wishlist of things I’d like to read; I’ll add to this throughout the theme. I spent time picking a MOOC, and wrote up my reasons for my choice: something interesting enough for me, but with a clear eye on the ethnographic project which would be based on it. This resulted in me looking for something that I perceived might be emotive and evocative enough to generate cool and engaging ethnographic observations and conclusions. But there’s also been a sense of connectivism about what I’ve written: in a post about MOOCs and folksonomy, for example, I tried to orient some of the new ideas I’d encountered in the article by Stewart with another topic with which I was already familiar.

So it feels as though my lifestream this week has been a set of islands. The topography is the same, and the climate comparable. But the ferry schedule between the islands could do with improvement.

Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand



Stewart, B. (2013). Massiveness+ openness= new literacies of participation? Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 9(2), 228.
Image credit
CC-BY. Queen Charlotte Sound New Zealand, by Patarika, on Flickr.