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Making a MOOC: Social Dynamics and Ecological Design

By Laura Haapio-Kirk, on 7 July 2016

Screen Shot 2016-07-07 at 09.57.01

Guest post by Sheba Mohammid, a fellow on the Why We Post project. Sheba is a PhD candidate at RMIT University in Digital Anthropology/ Media and Communications and was previously Coordinator of the National Knowledge Gateway of Trinidad and Tobago.

I recently had the opportunity to conduct an 18-month ethnographic study of digital media use and learning in Trinidad and Tobago. In the process of analysing the findings, the Why We Post Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) was also being designed. The Why We Post team at UCL had a genuine interest in making their research available to the widest possible audience in learner-centred ways. One of these approaches is the MOOC that is currently making its second run. The team also has a keen interest in improving the MOOC and also seeing where the MOOC fits in a menu of resources. MOOCs have been in mainstream discussion, garnering both praise and critique. As my research on out-of-school learning was wrapping up and the MOOC was being created, there was further opportunity for discussion on the challenges and opportunities in making an effective MOOC and what this could potentially mean. In following my participants, my research focused on a low-income community. Here I found learning being performed in complex and nuanced ways that resist simplistic pedagogization but still produce some probing questions for considering the multiple dimensions of MOOCS and how they fit into the ecosystemic learning practices I observed.

Participants interested in informal/non-formal learning in the community I studied practiced their knowledge creation, sharing and use in complex ecologies that incorporated multimodal resources, searching, finding and problem solving in online and offline contexts. The reality, though, is that they weren’t using MOOCs. Some were not aware of the courses available while others were not interested in signing up. This resistance was often blamed on time constraints but deeper discussion often revealed that there was a reluctance to take a course because of the pressure that they often associated with formal classes. This was often based on poor educational experience or attainment in their past formal schooling. These participants however did employ many strategies for learning in their day to day lives that often used video resources and interactions that were outside of a bounded course. This may, on one hand, lead to a debate between the virtues of xMOOCs and cMOOCs, but it also begs a deep consideration of where MOOCs fit in the ecosystemic approaches to learning that acknowledge that people traverse a variety of everyday terrains in their learning. Does the MOOC fit into a wider ecology of resources where people who want to view the videos separately, for instance, are free to do this while the people who want to take a structured course can sign up for it? Should the MOOC itself be resistant to being a replication of a classroom and start thinking of more fluid ways that encourage different approaches? For instance, my study participants often associated traditional education with a measure of shame-based learning where failure was very much maligned. The identity of the learner and his/her feelings of success were often tied to being able to demonstrate getting things “right” in very public ways.

In studying the social dynamics of informal learning among my participants, I observed that their practices involved deep negotiation of failure, experimentation and non-linear, iterative learning. A lot of normative discourse about the internet emphasises the potential of technology to promote collaboration. I found that the dynamics at play were more complex than this as people were also using the internet in their learning to navigate sociality in ways that allowed for privacy for their own experimentation. People who were learning crafting through YouTube videos often confessed that they had never saw themselves as creative nor felt comfortable in school settings unless they thought they were good at a particular subject. They were however willing to invest time in processes of trying, failing and experimenting using YouTube videos on their own. The internet was a resource that allowed them greater control of their privacy in learning. They were then able to negotiate when they would share their process for feedback within their communities. Collaboration is often emphasised as a key facet of learning in MOOCs. Does collaboration become forced, however, and a tyranny in itself that does not acknowledge the multifaceted ways that people learn through individual reflection, privacy, sharing and interaction?

The communities my participants were involved in often were not online or based on a shared subject interest but a mix of their everyday relationships. If the participants in Trinidad and Tobago were being measured on online participation such as uploading their own videos or comments, it would seem that they were not particularly active. When their learning practices were viewed in relation to the wide ecosystem of their everyday lives and the complex sociality therein, it became clear, however, that they were moving through a number of offline contexts sharing and constructing their knowledge. It was not only their competence in their expertise that affected their perceptions of performance. A dimension I saw as social confidence or confidence within and of their social contexts was as key a factor as subject content. These Trinis were navigating their learning, interactions based on feelings of social confidence as they were negotiating their social confidence itself.

MOOCs are often measured on collaboration and online participation. In considering the ecology of how learners practice informal learning, however, a series of questions can be posed:

  • How do we best conceptualise the MOOC as a resource and a space in a wider ecosystem of resources and spaces?
  • How do we factor for design that values the nuanced dynamics of an ecology of learning in which people have spaces for individual reflection and interaction?
  • How do we incorporate offline elements into MOOCs that leverage everyday communities and relationships?
  • How do we create spaces where people can build subject competence and social confidence?
  • How do we measure MOOC success on the intent of the people who are using it as a resource? Are completion rates the best measure or is utility to participants based on their criteria a better success factor?

MOOC architects, designers or users are still in the process of negotiating the answers to these themselves. But in starting with the participant’s perspectives and the complex dynamics of their practice, we are creating an agenda to improve learning in ecosystemic ways with MOOCs playing a role in this ecology.

Are you currently taking the Why We Post course on FutureLearn or have you previously taken other MOOCs? Where do you see the MOOC fitting in your wider learning? Was it a successful experience for you?

Sharing anthropological discoveries on social media: ‘marketing’ or ‘interactive learning’?

By Daniel Miller, on 6 August 2015

Indian teenager using smartphone

Social media and engaging anthropology? (Photo: Pabak Sarkar CC BY 2.0)

Over the last year, people have often asked us questions like “Surely you will market your project using social media?” or, “What exciting campaigns based on social media will make your project a success?”

Well the answer is that indeed we think we have learnt a good deal about social media. What it is useful for, but equally where claims are made that are not borne out by our evidence. We have concluded that this huge emphasis on marketing through social media has far more to do with the wishes and desires of the marketing industry for this to be the case than any sober assessment of what social media actually is.

Looking at our research as a whole, we find quite limited successful employment of social media as a form of mass marketing and promotion. Yes certainly in some cases, but in most of our field sites it’s force is quite limited.

Our primary theorisation of social media is instead as a form of sociality and the formation of small groups for internal discussion. It is not generally a means for trying to reach new or different people but rather for consolidating social groups that are largely known. Some platforms such as LinkedIn and Twitter clearly command a wider presence but even here, social media generally works best for groups that are linked by common interests such as devotees of Star Wars, rather than in reaching a generic audiences.

We are not alone in this. Fore example, even people in business are starting to appreciate that Twitter is not always effective in driving traffic in the direction that they would wish.

So yes, we do envisage a role for social media in the dissemination of our project findings but mainly other than as a tool for mass marketing. We see social media as an important instrument for interactive learning. So people who take our online course will be encouraged to form small groups in which they can discuss the material and make and receive comments about what they are learning.

People who cannot meet physically in class rooms can use social media for discussion. Social media can also harness one’s personal networks to disseminate information in limited ways, and much of the more successful commercial usage we observe in our field sites relates to businesses where personal interaction is also important.

What people seem to imagine is that a project that studies social media will – for that very reason – concentrate on using social media. But we have never been advocates for social media.

The point of our research is to remain open and cautious about our findings, and we are just as comfortable noting the limitations and negative effects of social media as its potentials.

Using storytelling to build online courses

By Tom McDonald, on 21 July 2015

The project team filming a video for our online course

The project team filming a video for our online course

Recently we have been filming a new online course on the anthropology of social media that will be available on a major online platform.

Putting together such an online course has been a real challenge. I am sure this would be the case for any such course, however it is especially so in the case of the our own offering, which will draw heavily on this research project.

Our initial attempts made us realise how difficult it is to combine findings from our nine different field sites and nine different researchers into a single coherent experience for learners.

The concept of learning through storytelling has been quite useful in this connection, helping us to think through how the individual points we hope to teach link together and build on each other throughout the course. In turn, this has helped us to decide which bits of our incredible range of discoveries and insights should be included or excluded.

Learning to write English

By Daniel Miller, on 30 June 2015

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Image courtesy of Sharon and Nikki McCutcheon (Creative Commons)

Our research team is made up of nine anthropologists, of whom less than half are native English speakers (two from England and one from the US), so one might not be blamed for imagining that the problem suggested by the title of this post relates to the other six researchers. Actually this is not the case. In fact this is an issue which relates to each and every member of the research team.

The problem is this – we are currently filming our MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) and creating the website for Why We Post which is the title we will use for publishing our research results. These are intended for audiences, very few of whom we anticipate will be anthropologists.  Therefore we want to ensure that all our findings are accessible to people who are, by any definition, not academic. This means that the language must be entirely colloquial and in the form of everyday speech. When you are trained as an academic,  it is very hard to refrain from using words in a manner that takes meaning from one’s own academic experience. It is not just that we need to avoid words that were invented as jargon,  such as positionality and precarity, but also terms that are used in everyday speech but take on new forms of meaning in an academic context, such as subaltern or even critical.

I actually don’t think I am able to write anymore (though I find I can speak) with this kind of English that everyone outside of academia uses pretty much all the time. Something about the act of writing automatically shifts my use of words back into academic usage. So we have decided to employ Laura Pountney, who recently wrote the text book on anthropology for schools and specialises in explaining anthropology for English school children and and  further education as well as writing textbooks on sociology level, to go through all our written texts and check them for accessibility.

I don’t believe this constitutes `dumbing down.’ After all, novelists often express complex and profound discussion and dilemmas using ordinary English to great effect, so we ought to be able to do the same thing. It is possible we have swung the pendulum too far. I noticed that we had a script which translated homogeneity and heterogeneity as sameness and difference, these are colloquial words and could get tedious for educated readers.

On the other hand, all of the text used on these sites will be translated into six languages.  This is despite the fact that many of the audiences we hope to reach also use English as a second language, such as regions of India and Africa. From the beginning of the project,  our commitment has been to have our findings fully accessible to the people in the regions where we conducted fieldwork. I have felt for some years that the debate on Open Access is partial if the focus is only on cost rather than genuine accessibility to people who, so far, we have excluded through the use of intimidating and obfuscating language. So perhaps we should aim to err on the side of greater accessibility. Having said this, the issue really is very much about trying to strike a balance.

Fortunately, I think the actual material we are presenting is fascinating and whatever is lost by simplifying language will be gained by the richness of what is being described. Since I am also starting to receive requests from schools to speak, for example about the work I did on social media and school banter, this is also a skill I think I need to develop and is perhaps something that all anthropologists should be encouraged to develop, especially the ones who assume, like myself, that we already know English.

Our timetable and publishing plans

By Daniel Miller, on 3 June 2014

Photo by XinYuan Wang

Photo by XinYuan Wang

With all of us (apart from Nell who started later) having completed a year’s fieldwork, we met in London for consultation for the month of May. On 1 June everyone returned to the field for 3 months of further research. During May we also discussed our plans for publications and wider dissemination.

We don’t just want to research new media, we also want to use its unprecedented capacities for ensuring that our work reaches audiences who we believe will be fascinated to know more about how social media operates across the world.

We also want this exercise in E-education to move beyond official education institutions, such as university and school, to reach anyone who would wish to be better informed about social media.

Obviously since we haven’t even finished the initial research phase this is very tentative and likely to change and evolve as we proceed. But at least this provided us with some guide as to what we might hope to achieve, and an approximate answer to the increasingly common question by others as to when they might expect to see results from the research. We certainly aren’t promising to abide by either the dates or the scale of what follows here, but who knows – we just might.

By Sept 2014, all fieldwork will be complete (other than Nell who finishes in May 2015).

Danny Miller and Jolynna Sinanan will have largely finished work on a book called What They Post, that is a comparison between what people in Trinidad and England post on social media, showing the marked differences between the two places.

By May 2015, We aim to complete the drafts of nine additional books (one for each fieldsite) of around 70 thousand words each. These will be popular and accessible accounts of what we have learnt about social media in each site. They will all have the same chapter headings, but our ethnographies have shown that the content will remain extremely diverse. Tentative chapters we have discussed might include Facebook/QQ, Polymedia – relating these to other social media, the impact on relationships, and answers to 10 questions people typically ask us, e.g. impacts on politics, inequality, gender and education. Also there is likely to be a chapter in each book on quantitative surveys and questionnaires. Most of these chapters will include 2 or 3 stories about individuals from our fieldsites who help us to illustrate the points being made.

January 2016 Launch of all our materials as Open Access to the general public through a site designed for web/phone/tablet. We hope that this will include a considerable amount of material designed to be more accessible and less academic. This will include a) short YouTube videos taken in our fieldsites by a mix of professional film makers and local informants, b) (if we can afford them) animations and infographics to explain our more theoretical points, c) a presentation of our main general insights with qualifications and caveats given the diversity of our sites. d) data from our more quantitative materials e) shorter texts that make some of the book material available in clear language. We hope to provide various guided routes through these online materials, e.g. organised by fieldsite or by theme. Our ideal would be to have much of this more accessible material available in all the languages of all our sites. Though we don’t expect these translations will be complete at the launch in January 2016.

As part of this site we would include the ten books already mentioned and (if finished) an additional comparative volume. All will be published under a Creative Commons licence. In addition we are considering the idea of creating a free MOOC or Open Access university course, possibly with UCL or perhaps Coursera. This will include lectures enhanced by these others materials such as the books and the films. We would also consider a paid version of this course for credit, including interactivity and examination within the UCL system. But this depends upon many other forces outside of our control.

At this point we believe we can achieve some version of the above. But the quality will be much better if we can gain additional funding or sponsorship which we are currently seeking (so if you know of anyone…….). We are also happy to work with volunteers who would like to contribute to these aims, e.g. helping with infographics or translation.

Further/Future Publications:-

The initial books are to be written in a popular rather than academic style and concentrate upon what each site has taught us about the use and consequences of social media. All the members of the team would also, however, wish to write a second, more academic book, in which we turn this around and ask how working with social media and ethnography has allowed us as anthropologists to learn about the fieldsites and the people who live there. Each of us also has particular themes we are interested in such as gender, education, the hospice, work/family balance, visibility etc. We also expect to write more academic journal papers, and potentially  comparative edited volumes on particular themes such as education, politics and gender.

A final component would be more theoretical academic publications that consider the implications of this study at a higher level, for example, our conceptualisation of sociality, what this teaches us about being human and the potential for comparative anthropology. But this is on the far horizon and we may have a better idea of such mountains when we have successfully navigated the foothills.