TWEET: Why MOOCs (still) matter

In this TED talk Anant Agarwal, head of MOOC provider edX, describes education as having ‘calcified’ for the past 500 years.  I’m not sure that’s entirely fair if one considers education in the wider context, from primary school through to post-graduate university study and not forgetting the learning and development that is facilitated by countless commercial and not for profit organisations.

My wife works in a primary school so I see first hand how different the facilities and ways of engaging pupils are to when I was at a similar school over fifty years ago.  Yes there are still the brightly coloured pictures on the walls and familiar pots of paints and crayons, but there’s plenty of technology too.  I wouldn’t say that the technology has shaped the teaching practices in the school though.  What is different is definitely cultural, it’s about the way pupils are encouraged to treat one another and to embrace what life has to offer.  This is summed up in the school’s motto “New day, new possibilities”.

Agarwal also talks about the innate ability of the millennial generation to use technology, a topic I remember debating right back at the start of the IDEL course.  I’m not going to go over that again now, save to say that there’s enough evidence to debunk that theory.

However, contrary to what you might expect from the head of a company offering online education, Agarwal isn’t extolling the virtues of MOOCs as the elixir to cure the ‘calcified’ educations system in this video presentation.  Instead he talks about a blended approach, where online resources are combined with classroom based activities.

Argawal suggests a number of ideas he believes would be effective in helping students learn more effectively:

  • Similar to a TED talk I posted earlier in this blog from Coursera founder Daphne Koller, Argawal promotes ‘active learning’ quoting Craik and Lockhart (1972), who proposed that “Learning and retention is related to depth of mental processing”.
  • Secondly he suggests that ‘self pacing’ is very helpful to learning, for example students being able to pause and rewind virtual lectures.
  • He suggests that ‘instant feedback’ is more effective than the traditional format where work is submitted and feedback and grading is received a couple of weeks later when ‘students have forgotten all about it’.  “Instant feedback turns teaching  moments into learning outcomes”
  • Gameification through virtual laboratories
  • Peer learning through discussion forums and Facebook like interactions – learning by teaching

This talk was published in 2013 so it’s no surprise that all of the ideas he suggest above are present in the learning environments offered by many of the businesses I network with on a regular basis, including my own.  Many of these ideas have been implemented for purely pragmatic reasons, to reduce costs and to enable a relatively small number of trainers to meet the needs of a large number of learners.  They also appear to be an effective way of helping large numbers of people learn.

TWEET: What we’re learning from online education

“Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary”

This quote from NY Times columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas Friedman sets the scene for this TED talk from Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera.

The talk is relevant to both the community culture and algorithm cultures of this course.  From a community perspective Koller describes cultural norms in MOOCs that we have also seen develop during this course, including students asking  and answering each others questions and forming into smaller study groups of their own volition.

From an analytics  perspective Koller talks about the way massive open online courses have enabled turning “the study of human learning from a hypothesis driven mode to the data driven mode”.  Koller states that the data Coursera collects enables fundamental questions such as “what are good learning strategies versus ones that are not” to be examined.  She also talks about the personalisation that is possible by virtue of having large volumes of data available, making it easier to spot anomalies and address them with targeted guidance for students.

Interestingly she doesn’t see MOOCs making traditional universities  obsolete, but calls upon them to move away from the lecture based format and embrace active learning.

She finishes with a vision of the possibilities that online education brings for fundamental change in the world.

Week six Lifestream summary

As Dirk neatly summarised in his Tweet earlier in the week, the multiple communication routes have been tricky.  I’m very conscious that I’ve hardly visited the Digital Hub or Twitter all week.  Instead I’ve chosen to spend the time understanding the readings or in the two MOOCs I joined, it’s entirely possible that this was at least in part an avoidance tactic.  Was this fragmentation of the community deliberate I wonder?

Toward the end of the week the untimely death of a colleague I’ve worked with for around twenty-five years also had an impact on my motivation and I’ve only really got back to some serious studying over the weekend.  An email from James Lamb regarding featuring my block one digital artefact on his  COMPOSITION:
 project site were a much needed pick me up.  Now I just need to find some time to write a rationale to go with it!

I do feel I have a reasonable understanding of community cultures and the value of ethnography and I think my artefact demonstrates that I have an understanding of what ethnography is and, perhaps equally importantly, what it isn’t.



For my micro-ethonography I joined ‘Spanish for beginners’, which is part of a series of courses offered by Future Learn.

I joined right at the start of the course so the level of discussion forum activity was very low – indeed the frequency of forum posts by most of the learners across all the forums they were registered appeared to be very low.  With such low levels of participation it might be reasonable to assume that the majority of learners are what Kozinets, R.V. (2010) and Corrrell (1995) refer to as ‘lurkers’.

As the discussions either hadn’t got going’ or were never going to, I resorted to analysing the MOOC participants’ user profiles to see whether I could find any differences in the way that they engaged with the course.  The small size of the sample I was using (n=200) made comparison by anything other than gender difficult, so I looked for difference in the way male and female learners engaged with the course.  Given that Future Learns’  profiles cover all of the courses the learner is registered to, I also looked for any gender differences in the way learners engage with MOOCs in general.  I appreciate that this is what Kozinets refers to as a ‘Survey approach’ and only certain aspects of it might be considered ‘Netnography’ .  However, the lack of any social interaction beyond the tendency of male learners to engage with female learners who had posted a profile photo, rendered the study of any ‘complex cultural practices in action’ almost a non-starter.  (Incidentally, this latter example probably accounts for the lower percentage of female learners who do post a profile photo.)

There were a few examples of cultural practices beginning to emerge toward the end of the last week of my involvement with the course and I’ve detailed these below.

Ethnography conclusions:

There was evidence of some ‘cultural norms’ emerging:

  • Learners tended to write their posts in a similar style to those most adjacent in the timeline and one could start to see these ebb and flow as the discussion progressed.
  • Even thought there was no requirement to do so, some learners started posting in Spanish and others then followed suit.  As this was right at the start of the course it’s reasonable to assume that most learners had not learned to do this from the course content and I suspect many were using an online translation site.
  • In general the learners who were following the most other learners also had the most followers, possibly indicating a social convention where learners feel pressured to follow someone who is following them.

Most people’s motivations for joining fell into one of a very small number of categories, such as travel, holidays, or simply a love of how the language sounds when spoken.  Occasionally though I came across a snippets of someone’s life that was fascinating – such as a professional footballer moving to play football in Spain, a citizen of a war ravaged city in the Middle East studying languages in the hope of getting away from the hostilities and a combatant on active military duty who is studying the language to be able to communicate more effectively with the local people and her co-workers.

Another participants motivation provided a glimpse of the valuable service MOOCs offer – she wants to return to a hospital where she had been cared for (for many weeks) by Spanish speaking staff who had done their best to converse with her in English.  She wants to be able to go back to the hospital, presumably to thank them, and wants to be able to talk to the staff in their native tongue.

One anomaly I discovered calls into question the reliability of the data, or indicates that participants may choose to hide some of the courses they have completed. One participant stated that she had already completed several courses and there was plenty of evidence to support this in her discussion history, which extends to at least 100 entries, however, her profile only shows one course.

‘Kozinets (1999) theorised that there is a pattern of relational development as people who are interested in online communities become drawn into and acculturated with them’.  Kozinets (2010). The discussions I was involved in had not moved beyond the earliest stages of Kozinets theory; ‘topical information exchange’ and ‘identity information exchange’ and both of these were being driven by the course content.  With the lack of interaction in mind I’ve represent the Community Culture block visually as I did with the Cyberculture.  This is posted here in the visual artefacts section of my Lifestream.

Survey conclusions:
At the survey level there were some gender differences in usage and motivation as shown on the infographic below, although it should be noted that the sample size is relatively small and, while there was some randomisation introduced by selecting the first 200 contributors, the sample might not be representative.  A more reliable result would have required analysing the entire cohort.

One can see areas of common ground where learners might start to ‘weave webs of affiliation’, such as those motivated by travel, communicating with friends or holidaying in Spanish speaking countries.

With a larger sample size it would be interesting to look at regional differences in usage and motivation.  Even with the relatively small data set there were some observable differences in participant’s motivation and their propensity to follow other learners or engage in discourse with them via the discussion forums:

  • In general, participants from India and the African countries tended to be motivated by career and personal development rather than travel or holidays, the latter being a much more prevalent motivator amongst Europeans and participants from the USA.
  • Profiles belonging to participants of either gender from African countries were more likely to have a profile photograph.
  • Participants from Muslim countries tended to be registered to multiple courses and were more likely to be following, followed by and in contact with other learners.

Survey methodology:
I used the ‘Introduce yourself’ discussion as the starting point for collecting data about the individual learners, as this had the most individual posts.  From here it was possible to click through to each learner’s profile, which shows:

  • other courses they are registered to
  • their activity in terms of the number of posts across all the forums they are registered to
  • how many other learners they are following
  • how many learners are following them

I then analysed the data for the first 200 learners who had posted to the ‘Introduce yourself’ discussion and presented the output in the following infographic.

Survey of 'Spanish for beginners' MOOC
Survey of ‘Spanish for beginners’ MOOC – click for pdf version

Assumptions made:

  • Where no profile photograph was available and gender wasn’t shared within the discussion, gender was assumed based on forename.  Where the forename wasn’t obviously gender specific or unfamiliar this was recorded as ‘not known’.  This included ambiguity where names are used in both Western and Eastern countries but with a different gender bias.
  • The reliability of the data is questionable.  When spot checking I found discrepancies from one day to the next.  While these could be due to learners changing their profile the nature of the anomalies indicated that database issues are more likely.  (There is also the possibility of mis-recording of data on my part.)
  • Given the relatively small sample size (n=200) some profiles were excluded from the analysis where necessary to avoid skewing the data – for example, one learner was following over 1,000 of their fellow MOOC participants.
  • The number of posts appears to be capped at 100 in profile information, so the number isn’t entirely reliable as an indication of usage.   However, only 14 (7%) of learners reached this cut-off point.
  • Profile images clearly not of the learner (e.g. pets, cartoon characters, flowers etc.) were recorded as not present.

Visual artefact

In this image I’ve tried to sum up the above and represent my MOOC experience in a single image:

Micro-ethnography visual artefact
Click image for full resolution version on For those who can’t access the site through their firewall a slightly lower quality version is available through Media Hopper.

‘Real life’

I thought long and hard before writing this post and eventually decided that from time to time it’s inevitable that there will be events from one’s social life that should be included this type of Lifestream.

Today I learned that a colleague I’ve worked with for over twenty-five years has passed away, much too young and with so much still to offer.

Those sort of events knock you sideways, at the same time putting life into perspective and making you appreciate what you have all the more.  One small positive that has come out of this sad news is that I’ve caught by phone with ex-colleagues I haven’t spoken to in five years or more.  All understandably shocked and stunned, but thankfully all well and enjoying life.

So that will be today’s blog post.  Ironically as the colleague was part of my social network I guess there’s even some tenuous relevance.

Rest in peace.

Sunset over the Isle of Skye, Scotland
Sunset over the Isle of Skye, Scotland

TWEET: Fixing higher education through technology

This article doesn’t reference Stewart, B., (2013) but the authors constructs some very similar arguments, focusing in particular on the part played by the media in constructing a view of MOOCs and constructing a contrasting view of the established educational establishment in Canada.  “Where professional magazines focus on the relationship between technology, higher education and profit, newspapers symbolically construct MOOCs as an easy fix for an allegedly inefficient and outdated higher education system.”

The discussion points at the end of this piece are worth reflecting on alongside the other block one readings for this course.  I think this point the author raises in particular summarises the way MOOCs are seen as arbiters of change (or at least portrayed as such by the media):

“Once MOOCs remove barriers to access, getting an education becomes an individual responsibility/ choice. When articulated with the utopian idea of the democratizing potential of digital technologies, this vision effectively leads to an individualized take on education aligned with a neoliberal vision of public goods. MOOCs become a symbol of an education system that looks more like a catalogue of products, allowing individuals to pick their favorites and build the ‘knowledge’ profile that best suits their needs.” Dumitrica, D. (2017)


Stewart, B., (2013). Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation? MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Technology, 9(2), pp.228–238.

Delia Dumitrica (2017): Fixing higher education through technology: Canadian media coverage of massive open online courses, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2017.1278021

TWEET: Oxford University MOOC

Well this will be one to watch!  While I’d imagine that the faculty at Oxford are already embracing many of the new literacies that MOOCs have helped bring the the fore, I can’t help but think of the ‘old’ universities such as Oxford as being  more likely to have traditional approaches to pedagogy.

When I saw the announcement linked in the tweet above a description of the practices of new literacies from Lankshear and Knobel (2007) in Stewart (2013) sprung to mind:

The more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over “normalization,” innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a “new” literacy. 

I wonder how much Oxford’s first MOOC will embrace these practices…


Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2007). Sampling “the new” in new literacies.  In Stewart, B., (2013). Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation? MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Technology, 9(2), pp.228–238.

TWEET: Create your own fake degree

I guess this is nothing new, counterfeit and fraud has been around forever it would seem.  The difference today is that access to the means to produce authentic looking materials is widely available.

I also wonder whether the so called ‘soft offence’ of downloading copyright material,  which appear to be almost endemic and rarely frowned upon in society, is likely to result in more people taking a chance and boosting their CV with claims that move beyond the exaggerated and into the fraudulent.

If this sort of activity were to become more widespread there’s a real risk that it would devalue genuine academic achievement.