My start to the MOOC was stalled somewhat because I tied myself in knots around gaining permission for my research. There was to-ing and fro-ing with the course convenor who himself wasn’t sure how to navigate the grey area of the ethics of netnography. He passed my queries on to his colleagues who responded with silence (interestingly, Eli has also experienced the same issues). In the end, I simply announced my intent on my profile page:
restated it in my welcome message:
and cracked on.
I think one of the ethical issues I had before embarking on the MOOC course was the notion that my presence as a researcher would affect the interactions I had with my peers. However, the number of participants on this MOOC runs to thousands. I doubt anyone is even aware of my purpose in being there. As was noted in our tutorial, however, Matthew experienced a very different outcome which he reflected on in the hub.
The session started with Matthew telling us about his experience of getting ‘flamed’ by another participant in his MOOC. Like me, he is studying with FutureLearn and, again like me, has endeavoured to get to grips with the ethics of this mini-ethnography. He has announced his presence as a researcher to his fellow course participants, and that has not been well-received by some of them. The discussion around this was interesting. Jeremy proposed that, in his view, when participating in a course as an ethnographer, we don’t have to worry too much about the ethics of our involvement; rather, it is when we are thinking about how we might document the experience that ethical considerations should come to the fore. Nigel stated that he hasn’t ‘revealed’ himself to be engaged in netnography on his course as he is concerned about interactions being changed because others know that he is a researcher. Jeremy shared with us his experience of helping to run a MOOC at Edinburgh, and the strong reactions which some of the course participants had to feeling like ‘lab rats’. These considerations about the ethnographic method and the associated ethical considerations offer a rich arena to explore and I’m hoping that there will be space to do this when we move on to Research Methods.
We considered the defensive, reactive behaviours of some within the MOOC communities. Dirk felt that the community was wanting to protect itself; Jeremy highlighted that this was in itself a way in which community is performed in the MOOC. He also asked us to question whether the MOOCs that we are participating in actually evidence a strong sense of intense community; we were in broad agreement that much of the communication which we had observed in our own MOOCs thus far was predominantly one-way. With regard to my course, there are thousands of participants and whether it is possible to establish a meaningful network, a community, within a course on this scale is questionable. So far, I have had one reply to the comments and posts I have made within my MOOC. It will be interesting to see if that changes over the coming weeks. Stewart reflects on the tensions inherent in scaling education. She notes one of the key objections to the idea of MOOCs in general, ‘the premise that learning is a social and communicative practice (Bruner, 1983), and thus cannot be scaled in purely economic terms.’ (Stewart, 2013, p.232). However, she also suggests the potential for MOOCs to offer strong peer-peer open learning networks. The key consideration here is, I suppose, how we define a community. Baym, notes Lister, ‘sidesteps’ this issue (Lister, 2009, p.215): ‘It is these stable patterns of social meanings, manifested through a group’s ongoing discourse that enable participants to imagine themselves part of a community’ (Baym, 1998, p.62).
In response to Kozinets’ classification of types of online community participation, Nigel and Colin both reflected on the nature of the groups which can be found within MOOCs and other online communities. Nigel is taking a Spanish for Beginners course and has already identified a group of ‘Insiders’ (characterised by Kozinet as a group which has ‘strong social ties to the online community as well as deep identification with, aptitude in, and understanding of the core consumption activity.’ (Kozinets, 2010, p.33-34) This group of insiders communicate entirely in Spanish, excluding the other ‘beginners’ (Newbies). Colin reflected on what he felt was missing from much of the critical analysis of online groups which he felt was an exploration of what happens to groups at the end of their engagement; when the online activity ends or is fragmented. What happens when the ‘triad of common relationships, shared values and shared spaces‘ (Lister, 2009, p.214) draws to a close? He himself has had experience of this when some of the online gaming communities of which he had been a part were closed. It’s an interesting question to consider in terms of education too. Is there a sense of being an ‘alumni’ of an online learning experience or are the ties weaker?
With regard to engagement, Jeremy encouraged us to think about the facility for the learner to engage and disengage as they wished; as Stewart notes, ‘learners set some of their own terms for participation’ (Stewart, 2012, p.235). She notes that ‘openness…begins to strike at foundational cultural concepts of what a course and learning are’ (ibid, p.235), decentering the role of the teacher as expert. She posits the notion that (even) xMOOCs (as opposed to cMOOCs) offer the possibility of undermining the ‘instrumentalist perspective on education and expertise’ (Stewart, 2012, 234). Learners, she argues, are exposed within MOOCs to ‘fledgling networks’ (ibid, 234) which sow the seeds of more open literacies. We touched on this in the tutorial, discussing the ‘social construction’ of knowledge and the rejection of the ‘sage on the stage’.
Cathy highlighted how mobility theory was pertinent to our exploration of MOOCs. This is an interesting area to explore: the movement of ideas and identities and the networks which are created within the open learning space of a MOOC offers a rich seam to investigate.
As someone who, in the past, has been engaged in ‘traditional’ ethnographic research, Matthew highlighted how he was finding the disembodied nature of this research challenging. There was, he noted ‘a relocation and dislocation’ when one entered a MOOC space. From this, our discussion ranged to considering reality as a text and the only identity as a signifier. As Lister notes, ‘any online community exists as just text and code…’text as virtual social reality’ (Lister, 2009, p.214). As a former English teacher, I was struck by how much the seam of postmodernism which weaved through our discussions about identity, language and meaning. Beckett’s quote from Engame ‘I’m in words, made of words, others’ words’ seems salient to considering these spaces where ‘the user can ‘type oneself into being’ (Sunden, 2003, p3, cited in Lister, 2009, p.215). Throughout the Hangout, Dirk frequently donned a ‘Dirk mask’. At the end of the session, he asked us how we had felt about this. He explained that he often wore the mask in public and received a lot of attention. However, online, it was not treated as remarkable. He used the mask to explore notions of identity and presentation within online environments. The general consensus, at the end of the session, was that we all wanted a Dirk mask.
The chat aroud our video discussion can be found here.