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 postimage.com. For those who can’t access the site through their firewall a slightly lower quality version is available through Media Hopper.