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eLearning and Digital Cultures: A multitudinous open online course

By Jeremy Knox / September 2013

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As has been rightly pointed out in response to the recent media hyperbole surrounding massive open online courses or MOOCs, the fields of eLearning and distance education are long established. Some advocates of the proposed learning theory of "connectivism," which underpinned the first MOOCs, claim MOOCs themselves have a history often glossed over in the rush to celebrate or condemn the current "xMOOC" model. Peter and Deimann provide a historical account of "openness" in education [1], while others have contextualized this mainstreaming of the MOOC with respect to the work of established institutions, such as the Open University in the UK, as well as the influential Open Educational Resources (OER) movement (see Martin Weller for example). These much more experimental connectivist MOOCs, or "cMOOCs" as they have come to be labeled, predate the offerings affiliated with elite universities and are driven by a commitment to self-directed participation and the model of the network as a theoretical basis for learning. However cMOOCs, while being structurally innovative, have not achieved the kind of enrollment numbers of the subsequent xMOOCS, and are largely populated by eLearning enthusiasts and established educators [2, 3, 4].

Historicity aside, technical innovation and institutional disruption notwithstanding, there are things to be said about MOOCs that are somewhat new—or at least significant—to education and educational research; "massive" participation.

This is something that we at the University of Edinburgh encountered when developing one of the first non-U.S. collaborations with Coursera earlier this year. The "E-learning and Digital Cultures" MOOC was one of six presented by the University in partnership with the prominent Silicon Valley start-up. Through our work, we, the teaching team behind this course, have experience with fully online programs and facets of what might be considered "open" education. Typically courses within the M.Sc. in Digital Education program had never risen above 40 students and had been underpinned by a belief that contact drives good education (see the manifesto for teaching online created by the Digital Education team at the University of Edinburgh). However, what may have been the most significant outcome of our first venture into the world of MOOCs is this idea of massive education involving thousands of participants on a single course. It is my belief that this massiveness is something that may be profoundly significant for understanding the kind of scaled education we are witnessing with the rise of the MOOC.

Designing the First "EDCMOOC"

The five-week "EDCMOOC," as our course became known, was developed around the theme of "the digital" across education and popular culture. The course was divided into two blocks—utopian and dystopian themes, and notions of the human—which were contextualized with a selection of public domain short films and open-access academic literature as the course content. The resources were curated and annotated by the teaching team as the basis for student activity, which included discussing themes in the Coursera forum, personal blogs, or other forms of social media. Two live Google Hangouts took place, during which tutors summed up the weekly themes as well as highlighted emerging and prominent topics from the forums and blogs. The final assignment for the EDCMOOC asked students to create a multimodal "digital artifact"—an image, video, or Web resource—that represented or explored any of the themes encountered during the course. These artifacts were to be made visible online for subsequent peer assessment.

What participants immediately noticed was the lack of video lectures, which is normally the primary content found in the vast majority of Coursera MOOCs. Our design was an intentional challenge to this prevailing tendency for transmissive pedagogy; we wanted to foreground student writing, discussion, and interpretation. Central to our encouragements was decentralization: We wanted participants to make use of social media outside of the Coursera platform to engage in course activity. This resulted in a number of student-created or maintained spaces, such as a Facebook group, Google+ group, and a still lively Twitter feed (#edcmooc). Additionally, there were no predetermined learning outcomes, or formative quiz testing, features that are somewhat standard in many other Coursera offerings.

While the curation of resources was intended to encourage students to explore the course themes with some level of independence, it was not our aim to erase the role or significance of the teacher—a stance often encouraged in self-directed and student-centered approaches. Rather we considered the design of our course to be part of our teaching presence. Alongside our efforts to devise a particular type of educational experience in the EDCMOOC, the Coursera platform played its part in structuring access and participation through the specific design of course pages, navigation, and, importantly, the discussion forum. This heady mix of educational experience and computer interface design produced a course that, I suggest, is a noteworthy site for considerations of what happens when education is conducted at scale, and what might be beneficial or detrimental to learning in a MOOC. Deprived of the experience of watching video lectures as the primary course activity, which is in most cases a solo pursuit; the comfort of small group sizes; or the sanctity of a centralized platform, the EDCMOOC invited a kind of "massive" participation uncommon in the typical Coursera offering.

Massive as Multitude

As a way of trying to understand "massiveness," we might look to Hardt and Negri's recent book Multitude: War and democracy in the age of empire (2004). It offers a tantalizing vision of an increasingly connected and globalized population. One in which commonality is achieved not through similarity, but difference. Their central argument is for a complex and irreducible understanding of the world's population; not the people or the masses, but the multitude. While "the people" suggests a single identity and "the masses" implies uniformity, Hardt and Negri advocate the maintenance of plurality when considering the inhabitants of the earth:

The multitude is composed of innumerable internal differences that can never be reduced to a unity or a single identity-different cultures, races, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations; different forms of labor; different ways of living; different views of the world; and different desires [5].

Although their work is motivated by political and social action, this nuanced consideration of population is acutely important for educational endeavors that attempt to engage an increasingly global audience. "Students," just like "the people" or "the masses," may be an oversimplified term that masks the variances, dissimilarities, and contrasts that exist between those participating in large-scale MOOCs. Getting to grips with a fuller understanding of this potential multitude may work toward a better understanding of what MOOCs are, and how they relate to established educational offerings.

The particular contingencies that came together to make the EDCMOOC, revealed this massive diversity to a greater extent than the standard Coursera offering. While these contingencies may be many, I will highlight three here. Firstly, in designing the EDCMOOC without predetermined outcomes, promoting student discussion as a fundamental activity, and avoiding designating a central space for engagement, the conditions were set for participants to choose different strategies and spaces to interact with the course. Secondly, in the early stages of development the Coursera forums did not have the functionality to support discussion at scale. While this proved to be an annoyance for some, the lack of functionality served to lay bare the magnitude of activity that a more sophisticated system may have disguised. Thirdly, the specific features and (lack of) interoperability between the various social media services adopted by participants created a fragmented, disjointed, and shifting course space. Alongside others, these factors combined to enact a situation in which not only the volume of participation, but also its lack of uniformity, was foregrounded and at times intense. Indeed, the massiveness of the EDCMOOC was for some participants its failure, and the forums and blogs contained many references to being overwhelmed, flooded, and exhausted by the experience.

While our evaluation survey indicated that 82.8 percent of respondents found their experience good, very good or excellent, for this article I want to highlight some of the criticism. It is precisely by focusing on these negative reactions to the massive that significant insights about MOOC education can be revealed, and allow us to begin to think productively about the diversity and irreducibility of the multitude.

Multitudinous Results

The quality of conversation in the EDCMOOC forums was sometimes described as disjointed and incoherent, and some participants portrayed the distributed activities of blogging and tweeting as unstructured, sometimes isolated, and often impenetrable. Without the guidance of a visible teacher to arrange activities and instill some stability, many participants described feelings of disorientation and confusion about how to engage. These sentiments were often expressed through visual metaphors, particularly during the image competition we organized in week 3 of the course (for example: "All Lines are Open" by Mullu Lumbreras, or "Pre-course Doubts" by Cikgu Brian). Furthermore, the peer assessment also came under criticism for lack of rigor, where the sheer diversity of approaches to feedback and grading was pronounced by some to be muddled, inconsistent, and thus worthless. While acknowledging the nuances of this feedback, there is a common thread: positioning disorder outside of "normal" education.

While Hardt and Negri go on to consider the multitude in terms of its potential for insurrection, I refer to their work merely to highlight the irreducible differences of the multitude. Therefore, in developing MOOCs as teachers, and participating in these courses as students, we perhaps need to acknowledge the ways that we institutionalize and immunize the massive in our practices. While we might contend that disorder is definitely not education as we know it, this doesn't necessarily mean it isn't useful. However, rather than ponder what might be learned from the massive multitudes of the MOOC, there appeared to be a tendency to domesticate and pacify this "noise of the streets."

With great haste, solutions and strategies for managing the massiveness of the EDCMOOC began to populate the discussion forums, blogs, and various collaborative spaces. How-to-guides became de rigueur, alongside numerous calls for smaller groups to be allocated, such that the volume of participation could be managed and controlled in order to resemble more recognizable class sizes. A number of participants took part in "quadblogging," a strategy in which writing and commenting duties are shared and timetabled amongst a quartet of students. The same impulsive desire to structure the massive into manageable communities has been seen in other MOOCs, for example the ill-fated "Fundamentals of Online Education," another Coursera MOOC on eLearning. This MOOC, which was eventually cancelled as a result of the failure of an attempted crowdsourced group allocation method, is massively important in this sense, not because the allotment of groups failed, but precisely because that was the attempted solution. It is a salient example of what happens when something new comes into conflict with established educational practices: immunization.

The multitude was designated a danger to the perceived learning of the course, and to the reputation of the stakeholders, and measures were put in place to tame it. I'm not suggesting the allocation of groups is wrong, but it is a process that moderates, reduces, and sterilizes massive participation—what might be positive as well as what might be negative. To tame the MOOC, to organize it into the familiar public or the accustomed community serves to purify and regulate the very things that might be new, exciting, and valuable about education at scale in a globalized world.

Embracing the Massive

One productive way forward for MOOC participants, as well as designers and teachers, may be to work with, not against scale; to embrace the multitude. So, alongside the valuable work that is seeking to standardize MOOC experiences and create rigorous and credit-worthy assessment, I propose we also pursue experimental course designs that attempt to explore and harness scaled participation. I want to challenge the common-sense reaction that labels unmanaged activity as chaotic, disorderly, and worthless. I don't claim to have an exacting list of useful properties or benefits of the massive, and furthermore such a move would perhaps contradict the kind of sensitivity I'm calling for. However, one way we might begin to approach MOOCs is to rethink the individualism and autonomy of assessment. The vast majority of MOOCs—no matter how they engage large numbers during the course-ultimately censor the collective through an individual, solitary, and often concealed assessment exercise.

While the low stakes digital artifact assignment of the EDCMOOC was just such an individual affair, our request for participants to make their work public quickly revealed the tremendous volume of work that happens during MOOC assessment. Where EDCMOOC work was collected and displayed together, the observer begins to get a sense, not of the individual merit of a single piece, but of the collective energy and intensity of the multitude. This gathering of multimodal digital work was not cohesive or uniform, and neither was it comprehensible or measurable as a totality. It seemed to perform a shift away from thinking about individuals to thinking about connections, flows, and relations that exceed us as human beings. In this way, it hinted at something that is exterior to everything education is. If MOOCs are to be disruptive and revolutionary in any real sense, it is to this multitudinous, unfamiliar outside that we need to direct our gaze.


[1] Peter, S. and Deimann, M. On the role of openness in education: A historical reconstruction. Open Praxis 5, 1 (2013), 7-14

[2] Fini, A. The Technological Dimension of a Massive Open Online Course: The Case of the CCK08 Course Tools. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 10, 5 (2009).

[3] Kop, R. The Challenges to Connectivist Learning on Open Online Networks: Learning Experiences during a Massive Open Online Course. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning 12, 3 (2011), 19-38.

[4] Koutropoulos, A. et al. Emotive Vocabulary in MOOCs: Context and Participation Retention. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-learning (2012), 1-22.

[5] Hardt, M. and Negri, A. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, Penguin, New York, 2004.

About the Author

Jeremy Knox is a Ph.D. student at the Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh and a tutor on the M.Sc. in Digital Education. He is also a member of the "E-learning and Digital Cultures" MOOC teaching team.

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