I chose ‘The Internet of Things’ (IoT) MOOC delivered by Kings College London via FutureLearn to be the subject of my micro-ethnography. I decided upon this MOOC as my IT background would act as a point of reference when wading through the mass content that is held within the course.

Before beginning my research, I ensured that I had taken appropriate steps to satisfy any ethical considerations arising from ethnographic observations. I contacted both the course facilitator, Prof. Mischa Dohler and the General Enquiries contact at FutureLearn to declare my intentions and make them aware that I was conducting an ethnography.

To begin, I felt it compulsory to establish just how massive the IoT MOOC was. I was forced into contacting Prof. Dohler as the information required wasn’t readily available to students enrolled on the course. I was intrigued by the idea that 8566 individuals were participating in an environment without having a full understanding of its scale.

MOOC Overview
MOOC Overview

Amongst the masses, there would inevitably be wide and varied sources of motivation for participation. The goal for what seemed like the overwhelming majority of participants was business opportunity or financial gain – however there were mentions of other motivators:

MOOC Overview
MOOC Overview

I decided to focus my ethnography on the role that discussion forums play in developing a community culture within a MOOC. In preparation for this I charted the relationship between the total number of comment contributions with the chronology of each forum. My findings were consistent with Fischer’s (2014) observation that the participation rate within a MOOC is usually always low.

Forum contribution chart
Forum contribution chart

From this I was able to make some important observations.

General Observations
General Observations

The cause of the constant decline in participation was difficult to prove without statistics being readily available. Instead I was able to make a comparison between the aforementioned motivators and Kozinets when he surmised that ‘if future interaction is anticipated, participants will act in a friendlier way, be more cooperative, self-disclose and generally engage in socially positive communication’ (Kozinets, 2010, p 24).

I noted that community building and academic discourse did not appear to be of any priority to those who admitted to enrolling on the MOOC to generate money.  Instead, their forum comments contributed to what I previously referred to as “digital cacophony“.  The result was a linear community with large volumes of people voicing their opinion without appearing to interact or engage with others.

Interestingly I noticed that each discussion forum was either not introduced, or introduced with a closed question, such as:

Question 1
Question 1

The resulting answers and opinions arrived in large volumes but there was very little interaction between any respondents. I put this down to the following reasons:

  1. participants seemed to want to satisfy their own needs rather than assist in the learning of others
  2. participants were not encouraged to challenge opinions and ask questions of each other
  3. there were simply too many comments to interact with and people seemed overwhelmed

The participants in the IoT MOOC did not comment very much, this may have been because they felt over-whelmed by the peer-to-peer approach (Baggaley 2014).

In conclusion, although I was not an active participant in the MOOC I felt largely insignificant as a learner and almost unable to make sense of what was going on.  The discussion forums were the only way to communicate with others on the course but I felt that the design of the course, student motivations and lack of direction had a detrimental effect on the community culture within the course.


Baggaley, J. (2014). MOOCs: digesting the facts. Distance Education 35(2): pp. 159-163.

Fischer, G. (2014). Beyond hype and underestimation: identifying research challenges for the future of MOOCs. Distance Education 35 (2): pp. 149-158.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Understanding Culture Online. Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. In Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. (London, Sage): pp. 21-40.


7 Replies to “Micro-ethnography”

  1. This is a really interesting post, slides and video, Stuart – thank you for sharing. It doesn’t sound like you had the most edifying time and your video encapsulates perfectly the experience you describe in your blog post.

    I’m really interested in what you describe as the ‘lack of direction’ in the MOOC, and the way in which this contributed to feelings of being overwhelmed. The MOOC I did was structured clearly, but more than that was well signposted – it was easy to get a sense of how the course had been constructed.

    I think you also have a super point about motivation, particularly this:

    “participants seemed to want to satisfy their own needs rather than assist in the learning of others”

    While I can see that this would have had a hugely detrimental effect on the development of community, I also get the sense that you can hardly blame them! If someone is treating the MOOC in a strictly instrumental way (like, to make money) then they’re not necessarily going to want to invest in the experience. It’s probably false economics, and I might not be able to explain this well, but I wonder if the fact that the MOOC was free to join contributed to this? If the MOOC had charged a small nominal fee to join (£5, for example), do you think it would have put off a lot of the people who joined for such instrumental reasons?


    1. Hi Helen,

      Thanks for commenting.

      Perhaps charging for the course may have had an impact.

      I agree that you can’t really blame people for enrolling on a course that is free and open. However it is a mixture of the enormity of the course with the wide and varied motivators that I think have a detrimental effect on a community that others may have learned from.



  2. Hi Stuart,

    Great post, l like how you managed to incorporate lots of different kind of media for an engaging post.

    It was really useful to do this course with you. Kudos for sticking with it! I don’t think I would have stuck with it as long as I did without your insightful observations. You summed up what it was like being on the course very accurately.

    It was interesting to experience the different dynamics of the two courses (EDC and IoT) with the same person. I thought it was fascinating that we were never able to connect on the IoT. Had we not had the connection we did from EDC, we would not have been aware that the other was on the course. Although I did feel that we were guilty of a bit of ‘jiggery-pokery’ and colluding behind the scenes ;).

    1. Thanks, Chenée.

      I definitely felt that the interactions that we had behind the scenes were the kind of communications that were missing for everyone else on the MOOC.

      That’s a great point about the possibility of us missing each other on the course. It is definitely thanks to the community we have on Digital Cultures that made us aware of things we would have otherwise missed.

      Thanks for your comment.


  3. Hello Stuart, a great response to your experience of the MOOC. In fact, two great responses: the ‘digital cacophony’ video and then your longer description with slides. They both worked really well – contrasting takes on the MOOC.

    I hadn’t appreciated until know that both you and Chenee had enrolled on the same MOOC: fascinating that you didn’t have a means of connecting, as Chenee describes.

    And it’s fascinating again to see the range of motivations that participants express for enrolling on the MOOC. Well done for going the extra mile to gather data from the course organisers. Actually you’ve made me think of something there: when we’ve been talking about MOOC (and wider online) communities, have we tended to narrow our gaze to focus on the students to the exclusion of the tutors and course organisers? Is there something about the relative visibility (or indeed invisibility) or course tutors that means we sideline them when thinking about community in these spaces?

    Thanks for this Stuart, great work.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for the feedback – appreciated as always.

      That is a good point. I guess I sidelined the tutors as they had indicated at the start of the course that they could not engage with people individually and had no involvement other than the materials that were uploaded in advance (as far as I could see, anyway).

      MOOC participants were left to their own devices for all aspects of the course – including that of community building. Maybe a community could have been developed if a tutor had provided subtle prompts to encourage conversation and keep things going.

      Thanks again,


  4. This is a really engaging read, Stuart ‘ thank you!
    The digital cacophony at the beginning was really disorienting ‘ I can see why people may want to turn away from it when learning.

    One of the points I thought of with regard to the scale of MOOCs (and mine was an infant compared to yours) was that in order to participate in forums, users need a sense of the history of that forum. Without this knowledge, the information can be overwhelming, and if enough people lack knowledge of the history, participation norms are difficult if not impossible to establish.

    As one of the ‘steps to success’ in a MOOC
    , Cormier suggests that participants need to ‘cluster’, so that they can filter the noise/information, and make it manageable.

    It seems though, that within your MOOC there was no opportunity to network and find those on with shared interests (excepting Chenée) – and similarly I’ve seen scant evidence of this in our peer’s ethnographies. What kind of environment would have supported that, I wonder?

    Really interesting observations – a pleasure to read.


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