My mini-ethnography about a MOOC

I’ve never used Thinglink before, so here’s my first ever attempt, trying to use a visual format for my MOOC report:


I’ve structured it around an airport image, and specifically an airport security image. Like an airport, the MOOC struck me as a temporary site, a transit zone within an ongoing journey of learning.

It also struck me as a policed zone. I encountered this when signing up, via the usual kind of terms and conditions, now experienced as a researcher. I also encountered it via a friendly and constructive email from the moderators, when some learners had queried the nature of my involvement in the MOOC. Having adjusted my involvement according to their suggestions, I also encountered this when confronted (and I choose the verb deliberately) with an aggressive response from one fellow learner. After some deliberation and reflection, I reported it to the moderators as a personal attack. A few days later, the comment was removed by them, and marked as such, which felt like some kind of addressing of this situation (but with no email response from them).

Ethnographically, this encounter had knocked the wind out of my MOOC-learning sails, but also provided the insight I needed for this mini-ethnography.

On the Thinglink, my matched ‘A’ comments seek to contrast the nature of ‘open-ness’ within a MOOC, and some of the tensions within it. My matched ‘B’ comments do likewise regarding entering the MOOC space: the learner’s sense of empowerment and disempowerment, and especially when played through the lens of a rookie on-line ethnographer (albeit one with significant offline experience).

The trio of ‘C’ comments offer the core of my observation. As with any online community, it’s not formed from a tabula rasa. And learners’ expectations come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. I’ve sought to contrast two which I encountered, and I’m pleased with the mirrored wording and mirrored architectural graphics I’ve managed to include. At the heart of my findings, I think the mini-ethnography problematised and extended Kozinets’ typologies for me. I’d found the typologies helpful and illuminating, and still do, but the ethnography has revised my working hypotheses regarding them. I’m more persuaded, after the ethnography, about the importance of course design, scaffolding for learning, and learning facilitations and interventions.

The trio of ‘D’ comments try to capture this, both as a lived experience in the MOOC and as a working hypothesis for further consideration. I’ve tried to use some ordinary-but-unsettling images from the airport scenario to capture something of this. And then, with the ‘E’ comments, I’ve tried to illustrate them with more conventional myths of the airport as site of consumption and mobility, but not completely without the sense of policing and threat. That, for me, attempts to encapsulate the tensions I’m left with from my brief but very stimulating MOOC experience.

14 Replies to “My mini-ethnography about a MOOC”

  1. I think changing the title of the thinglink so it tells us what MOOC you signed up to would be helpful. Even in this post you just refer to it as “the MOOC”.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Daniel. I did this deliberately, given the nature of the interaction I had with fellow learners. I want to preserve anonymity as much as possible. I agree further information would be good but, on the scale of the research, I don’t think it will add analytically to what I’ve presented.

  2. It’s a really nice metaphor though and you seem to have nailed the thinglink format in your first try. One thing that I was curious about was the first B statement “Everyone comes in equal”. This would be quite a problematic statement for me if left as it is. Everyone comes in equal in terms of what? Knowledge? Experience? Skill level? I am sure you don’t assume that but it would be worth clarifying.

    1. Daniel, that’s a really good point you’ve raised, and you’ve made me think back to what I was trying to get across. The line you quote is intended to be somewhat ironic, and subverted by both the graphic accompanying it and the rest of the written text within that first ‘B’ statement. I agree that, in isolation, it would be problematic. Not least for the three disrupting elements you raise (and there would be others). In part, though, I’m wanting to capture that ill-ease that you sense, especially off the back of my two ‘A’ statements about openness and their cross-cutting trajectories. Perhaps it’s hard to communicate a certain tongue-in-cheek tone, but that’s what is intended to be there.
      In the airport security analogy, it’s the equal entry, once you’ve removed your belt, de-shoed, and thrown away your liquids. Then you’re completely equal. If you like!

  3. First of all, thanks Matthew for this really thoughtful and imaginative presentation of your micro-ethnography. As Daniel has already said, great use of Thinglink and in particular the use of visual metaphor as a way of thinking about the nature of the MOOC.

    ‘Like an airport, the MOOC struck me as a temporary site, a transit zone within an ongoing journey of learning’

    And in the same way that the passengers going through security in the image will then branch off in different directions as directed by the destinations board (for leisure, for work, to see family) MOOC participants approach the course with a range of interests (learning, of course, but perhaps also CV-enhancement, employment, research, enjoyment, and so on).

    ‘As with any online community, it’s not formed from a tabula rasa. And learners’ expectations come in all sorts of shapes and sizes.’

    I really like this point as it very usefully reminds us that we are never just ‘newbies’ or ‘lurkers’ (if we are those at all). When we designate a MOOC participant (or a member of some other form of online community) to part of a typology, this does not exclude their prior histories or interests or qualities (including those which encourage people to be confrontational).

    ‘I’m more persuaded, after the ethnography, about the importance of course design, scaffolding for learning, and learning facilitations and interventions.’

    Out of interest, what were your were perceptions before hand, Matthew, and in what ways have they changed?

    Thanks again for this work – fascinating reading…viewing.

    1. Thank you, James, especially for your question about my pre-conceptions. I thought a MOOC would be bigger than it was. (My guess is that this one had less than 100: after I’d completed my Thinglink, some participants raised in a forum that there weren’t as many people on the MOOC as they might have expected, too.) That led me away from a preconceived idea that it would be anonymous in its culture. Seeing other people’s experiences with FaceBook groups, Instagram, Twitter hashtags, I can see how even at the massive scale, people will carve out / create niches.
      At the scale ‘my’ MOOC was running, and with the levels of intervention going on, I was reminded of what Baggaley (2014: 161) calls “small private online courses” (SPOCs).
      Baggaley quotes Coughlan (2013) in that regard. The citation turns out to be to this BBC News item: This item includes the claim that we’re already in a “post-MOOC” era (that seems a bit over-cooked). Regarding SPOCs, it suggests that they’re still free of fee to participate in. I feel, in that sense, I was more in a SOOC (small, but open not private). And I wonder about whether the ‘P’ in SPOC opens options – genuine and generative options – for innovative pedagogy that can also be monetised. That, I think, has been the major shift in my perceptions.

  4. A fantastically creative presentation of your MOOC experiences Matthew!

    In my own experiences of teaching a MOOC on Coursera back in 2013/14, metaphors of travel and transit – train stations, airports – where quite common, as were analogies of water – oceans, waterfalls etc, from students trying to convey the experience. While these were more related to the ‘chaos’ of participation, i think you are highlighting another important aspect of airports: borders and controlled mobility. This certainly seems to be a much wider theme recently.

    The trolling you experienced also seems to reflect our times, in a different but very much connected way. This is fascinating for me, as someone interested in MOOCs in general – that the ‘openness’ the seemed to provide the moral grounding for their promotion has now become ‘controlled’: both in the sense of course teachers and administrators feeling unease at the (research) agendas participants might bring, but also in the sense of students assuming their are strict rules to authentic participation, the breaking of which justifies public shaming.

    This was not a very pleasant occurrence for you to experience…but as you say, rather good fodder for an ethnography! I think you’ve handled things sensitively here (as you’ve explained in previous comments), and highlighted some really interesting, and important, aspects of ‘community’.

    ‘I’m more persuaded, after the ethnography, about the importance of course design, scaffolding for learning, and learning facilitations and interventions.’

    Indeed. Might we say here that typologies tend to focus on the ‘nature’ of participants, and thus assume that community (cohesive or not) emerges as a result, while what you seem to advocate is more ‘teacher control’, more ‘expertise’. Those two terms aren’t very fashionable I know, but I would tend to agree.

    1. Jeremy, thank you for some wider positioning / reflecting on the metaphor I adopted – it’s very illuminating for me. The sense of borders and control coincided with me reflecting on previous work with David Delaney’s 2010 book ‘Nomospheric Investigations: The Spatial, The Legal and the Pragmatics of World Making’ (London, Routledge), which I also refer to in a Lifestream post entitled ‘@philip_downey Not been to law school…’ The MOOC as a nomosphere was a helpful background metaphor for me, and generative in framing it within the airport site.

  5. Hi Matthew.

    Great work! I really like your metaphor and think you have done a great job of presenting it visually.

    I am particularly interested in your angry encounter with another learner on your course. I felt that my MOOC was so big and had such a diverse group of learners with a wide variety of motivators, that I would have been very surprised to see an individual challenged based on their reasons for being on the course. I found there to be a very selfish ethos within my MOOC and nobody seemed to bother with what anyone else was doing.

    I did notice, however, that you said your course wasn’t very big.

    So I wonder if people who are aware of the size of their online community behave in different manners. Perhaps the person in your encounter felt that their voice would be louder in a tight-knit community, rather than drowned out in the masses?



    1. Stuart, that’s a helpful comment about scale – ‘massive’ might not allow community, but it might not allow unwarranted policing by participants either 😉 Perhaps selfishness allows a certain freedom, even if not a sense of interaction.

      Scale is a dimension I don’t remember Kozinets bringing into his analysis, and probably a significant one, too. And, as you note, it would then, as you also say, be a question of perception, too.

  6. Matthew: what a great idea to use Thinglink and the airport metaphor is an interesting one. As Daniel has already noted, you’ve done a brilliant job with the medium. I’m struck that you felt that MOOCs were only the start of a learning journey and not the heady flight itself; is this a comment on the superficiality of the learning which can happen within a MOOC environment? Or something else?

    Thanks for sharing your work and your experience of what sort of confrontations can happen within an online community.

    1. Helen, I did wonder about how much of a ‘transit’ space I wanted to make MOOCs – not least because when people are ‘in’ them, they’re probably far more involved and committed (or at least some are, thinking back to Kozinets’ typology) than in airport security. I wondered about using airport duty-free shopping, but it lacked the surveillance element, and the control factor, which I wanted to foreground. Your suggestion of the ‘heady flight itself’ as the metaphor is not one I’d considered: it’s suggestive, especially because, then, the destination does scatter the passengers onto a multiplicity of destinations. If I was reworking the assignment, that would be well worth considering. Thank you!

  7. An excellent review of your chosen MOOC Matthew! The airport analogy is very apt in the way it exemplifies the transitory, temporary and superficial nature of the relationships one develops while partaking in such a online course. Everyone bustling about in their own worlds with their own agendas and purposefully not engaging to the full extent. Like you, this study has really opened my eyes to the true nature of MOOC’s and their, somewhat of a failure (?), to really address their original purpose. But, we should probably blame psychology and human nature for that right?

    1. Myles, I’d share some of your chastened appraisal of MOOCs vis-a-vis their original purpose – as well as human nature, and within it, probably a bit of over-inflated rhetoric at the start, too? That said, I’m quietly illuminated by my experience, but I think towards something more resembling the SPOC model mentioned in the reading: small, private online courses. I’d not want to over-egg their rhetorical base either, but I’m sensing some affordances in with them, as well as constraints, and perhaps a more ‘at-scale’ model than for many non-massive institutions. But, as you note, still got human nature to engage with 😉

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