Monthly Archives: February 2013

MOOCs as Participatory Communities: My Experience with “eLearning and Digital Cultures”

For the last month I have been participating in a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) offered by Coursera, “eLearning and Digital Cultures,” which was developed and is taught by a team of five professors at the University of Edinburgh. I have simultaneously been enrolled in a graduate seminar, “Learning in a Digital Age,” taught by Dr. Cynthia Carter Ching at UC Davis. This essay is both a multimodal paper for Dr. Ching’s class and my final digital artifact for the MOOC. In writing for multiple audiences, I hope to emphasize the way in which my MOOC experience crossed into multiple arenas of my life.

Inasmuch as we can define a typical MOOC, eLearning and Digital Cultures does not fit the mold. Most MOOCs require students to watch a series of recorded lectures and take quizzes or exams that demonstrate their understanding of the material. Students may also be encouraged to participate in asynchronous discussion forums or engage in interactive online activities, depending on the subject matter, but these activities are not required.

In contrast, eLearning and Digital Cultures is not designed to impart fixed facts to students; it is designed to be an experience, where students learn about digital culture by discovery and experimentation. To this end, eLearning and Digital Cultures takes the MOOC tendency toward flexibility to an extreme. In the weekly “Resources” sections, there are four or five short films and 6-8 articles or TED talks that students are encouraged to read/watch. However, students are not expected to engage with all possible resources. On the contrary, the course homepage recommends that students “’sample’ the films and one or two of the readings.” Participants are also encouraged to reflect upon what they read/watched by engaging in two of five activities:

  • Contribute to the Discussion Forums on the course site
  • Blog in response to the weekly topic (if students choose this option they are encouraged to also submit their blog to the EDC MOOC News RSS feed)
  • Participate in a Synchtube study group with peers
  • Create an image or visual representation and tag it with #edcmooc
  • Share thoughts and links on Twitter

By the time the course began, a sixth option was also available—students had started a #edcmooc student Facebook Group.

Beyond the suggestion to read or view the materials and engage with peers in one way or another, there are no “required” activities in the course until week five, when students submit their final projects for peer review. The final is to create a digital artifact; the only requirements are that the artifact be some combination of text, image, sound, video, and links that can be “experienced digitally, on the web,” and expresses something important about one or more of the course themes.

In many ways, the design of this MOOC exemplifies ways of learning that are highly valued by scholars like Henry Jenkins. In Confronting the Challenges of a Participatory Culture, Jenkins expands upon James Paul Gee’s definition of affinity groups, explaining that participatory communities “offer powerful opportunities for learning” because they are “sustained by common endeavors that bridge differences” (10). Instead of being grouped by age, nationality, and geographical location, participants are brought together by a common interest. Because MOOCs are voluntary and are taught online, the features that traditionally dictate the make-up of a classroom are irrelevant—quite literally, anyone with internet access and a few available hours a week can participate. In eLearning and Digital Cultures, the one thing we had in common was an interest in the topic, and the only reason we were compelled to complete the MOOC was sustained interest in the community.

Jenkins also explains that participation in the community varies according to interest-level and skill. More expert members tend to guide and instruct novice members, and all participants are encouraged to continuously refine their skills or expertise. The result, Jenkins argues, is that “each participant [feels] like an expert while tapping the expertise of others” (10). The idea of novices and experts is applicable to MOOC participants because some people are more technically savvy than others, and some know more about the course topics than others.

I noticed that many of the posts to the eLearning and Digital Cultures Facebook Group in week one were pleas for help from overwhelmed or confused students, and the response rate was impressive.

There was also one student who wrote a blog post about how to survive the MOOC,

and there is a Discussion Forum Thread about dealing with the massiveness of the MOOC.

Awarding participants who make particularly positive or helpful contributions is another crucial feature of participatory communities. As Ito et al. note in Living and Learning with New Media (2009), unlike when students are “graded by a teacher in a position of authority, feedback in interest-driven groups is … one of peer-based reciprocity, where participants can gain status and reputation but do not hold evaluative authority over one another” (64). Instead of “grading” a community member, participants are awarded status for contributions that other participants appreciate. Importantly, these rewards do not devalue others in the community; instead, they encourage all learners to refine their skills so they may also earn community rewards. In eLearning and Digital Cultures, such awards abound in each of the different mediums through which you can interact with peers: in the discussion forums, you can “vote up” responses that you find particularly helpful (similar to Reddit or Digg), you can “like” posts on Facebook, you can “favorite” or “retweet” posts on Twitter, and the winners of the week three image contest were determined by Flickr’s “interestingness” rating (which is based on comments, favorites, and clickthroughs).

The lack of centralized authority is one feature that leads Jenkins to argue that participatory communities foster informal learning and are thus distinct from formal education systems. Jenkins says formal education is conservative, static, institutional, difficult to change, bureaucratic, and fixed; he says informal learning, on the other hand, is experimental, innovative, provisional, easy to evolve, ad hoc, and mobile (11). eLearning and Digital Cultures encourages informal learning, but it also occurs during a fixed time period and contains some of the trappings of formal education like specific reading assignments and forced conversation about those readings. However, each student chooses how formally she approaches the materials, a luxury that is rarely part of formal education.

Choice is especially present in eLearning and Digital Cultures because there are so many different ways to engage. Each student determines which readings and videos to review and in what detail, and she chooses which feature of the material to focus on in her reflection. She also chooses where and how to will make her reflection public, if she does so at all. I chose to write a weekly blog entry. Interestingly, this choice meant my participation extended into non-MOOC arenas because I published my weekly reflection on both my personal blog, Twenty-One Pages, and The Wheel, UC Davis’ instructional technology blog. Consequently, I was simultaneously writing for multiple MOOC and non-MOOC audiences. The result was a surprising merger of my identities as Wheel author, graduate student, friend, and MOOC participant. Another outcome of this choice is my decision to write this essay for both Dr. Ching and my eLearning and Digital Cultures peer reviewers.

I also chose to participate in the discussion forums and Facebook group. The Discussion Forums in Coursera are similar to asynchronous discussion forums in other learning management systems. Students select a sub-forum, such as “Redefining the human: Week 4 discussion” or “General Discussion.”


Within the sub-forum, you can start a new thread, or you can contribute to an exiting thread by posting a reply or adding a new comment in response to another student’s reply.


What makes the forums different from other LMSs is that they are built for thousands of people. To manage this, there is a “vote” option for each post, and there are organizing features within each sub-forum and each thread that allow you to view the most popular discussions. In the screenshot below, you can see that the popularity of a thread is determined by the number of votes, posts, and views.

You can also organize the threads by “last updated,” “last created,” and “subscribed.” The “subscribed” feature means you receive an email every time someone posts in the thread (and the default is to subscribe to any thread to which you post). I found this helpful at first, but ultimately overwhelming, so I tended to unsubscribe from the threads and manually check the ones to which I had contributed.

The student Facebook group is much less formal than the forums and less topical. Participants post comments about the weekly materials, but they also post information about their lives and the course in general. Facebook also only shows the most recent posts, which makes the community temporal as well as asynchronous. And Facebook sends notifications when someone interacts with a post that you interacted with, thus keeping your personal participation front and center.

In week four of eLearning and Digital Cultures, I posted a response to the “Why do we expect technology to transform education?” discussion forum thread, which became the top thread of the sub-forum. My contribution received six comments and seven total votes, becoming the third most popular in the thread. I wrote a three-paragraph response using formal language; the comments were from four people and occurred within two days of my initial post; and there was not much back-and-forth between the participants.

In contrast, my contribution to Facebook in week four consisted of two brief questions about one of the films. I received 10 comments, most of which are between me and one other student. All but two of the comments occurred within two hours after I posted my questions.

In addition to my weekly blog posts and participation in the forums and on Facebook, I also participated in the week three image contest and watched recordings of the two Google Hangouts (the five instructors reflected upon the week and responded in real time to questions from students who were posting to the twitter feed).

It is my opinion that I have fully engaged in an online participatory community over the last five weeks, and I can’t imagine a better outcome from a course on eLearning and Digital Cultures. Consider my experiences in light of Jenkins’ five characteristics of a participatory community:

  1. “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,
  2. strong support for creating and sharing creations with others,
  3. some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices,
  4. members who believe that their contributions matter, and
  5. members who feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least, they care what other people think about what they have created)” (5-6)

The asynchronisity of the forums and the fact that I was already a Facebook user and blogger made the barriers to engagement low (#1); the flexibility in how and where I posted my reflections encouraged me to share my creations with others (#2); the discussion forum dedicated to dealing with the massiveness of the MOOC and the culture on Facebook allowed experts to support novices (#3); and the votes in the forums, likes on Facebook, and comments to my blog and to my image on Flickr made me feel that my contributions mattered and that other people cared about what I created (#4 & #5).

While one could argue that Facebook and the forums and Flickr are all distinct participatory communities, I believe it is the combination of mediums that makes eLearning and Digital Cultures a participatory community. Part of this is because the mediums reinforce each other. For example, one student tweeted a request for others to complete a survey that she posted to her blog, the results of which became part of her digital artifact. For me, browsing the discussion forums helped me think more deeply about the readings and videos, which influenced the contributions I made to the Facebook Group; similarly, watching the Google Hangout influenced the reflection I wrote and posted to my blogs, which then became part of the EDC MOOC RSS Feed. And I could have been a much more active participant in this community. I could have watched the Google Hangouts live and contributed questions on Twitter, or participated in the weekly #edcmchat twitter chats, or joined a study group. There are any number of things I could have done; each would have altered my experience in the MOOC, and each would have further reinforced the informal learning that my peers and I were experiencing in this participatory community.

There is also something about being able to pop onto Twitter or Facebook or the Forums at any time and know that someone will be there who wants to talk about the things we have been collectively reading, watching, thinking about, and experiencing. I didn’t know these people and I didn’t need to; who we were outside of the course didn’t matter. And who we were inside of the courses was somehow changed because we were part of something much bigger than ourselves. That’s a participatory community.


I’m enrolled in a Survey Methods course this quarter and have really enjoyed it! I’m designing a survey to describe the uses of educational technology at UC Davis, with the hope of being able to draw conclusions about the digital literacy skills our instructors expect from our students.

It’s kind of incredible how much detail goes into designing a survey. First I drafted the questions, then had a focus group with seven professors, revised my questions, sent them to ed tech experts for review, revised again, and am now actually building the survey on a webplatform. I’ve opted to go for SoGoSurvey, partly because it was recommended by a survey expert who presented to our class, but also because I found the demo video incredibly useful.

Plus, if I like their page on Facebook and put up a blog post about them, they’ll give me a student license for free!

I’d been playing around with the program and it’s pretty nice—easy to use, lots of color schemes and question types, and it seems like it will be easy to track who has and has not responded to the survey once I send it out. The program also lets me export my data to SPSS, or I can conduct analysis within SoGoSurvey.

Thanks for the student license, SoGoSurvey!

My MOOC Experience – Week Three (Being Human)

This week in eLearning and Digital Cultures was all about being human. In addition to watching videos and reading articles, there was an Image Contest. We were invited to create an image that illustrates a theme in the course and upload it to Flickr with the tag, #edcmooc. Using Flickriver’s “interestingness” rating (based on comments, favorites, and clickthroughs), the instructors will identify the top five images, and the winners will receive a Gelaskin cover for their phones, customized to depict their winning image.

Instead of providing a narrative about my experience this week, I am going to share my image, which I’ve titled “Perspective”:

You help my interestingness rating by viewing, commenting on, or favoriting my image on Flickr and you can view the other student’s images.

Angry Birds: A model for learning

Renown literacy scholar James Paul Gee is the author of What Video Games have to teach us about Learning and Literacy, which outlines 36 principles for good learning. Gee derives the principles from what he’s observed as a gamer and from interviews with gamers, and he argues that the same things that make a video game good could (and should) be applied to school learning. Gee specifically focuses on immersive role-playing and first-person-shooter games, but many of his learning principles about basic skills, practice, and rewards apply to much simpler games, including Angry Birds.

Basic Skills

Two of Gee’s principles about basic skill acquisition are prominent in Angry Birds: the “Bottom-Up Basic Skills Principle” and the “Discovery Principle.” The bottom-up basic skills principle states that skills are not learned in isolation; instead, the learner discovers the skill as she engages in the activity. As Gee puts it, “by the time new players are aware of what are basic skills in a given type of game … they have already mastered them” (140). That said, throwing learners into an unknown environment without any overt instruction is not advisable. As Gee explains, humans “need immersion in actual contexts of practice, but they can find such contexts confusing without overt information and guidance” (114). This is where the discovery principle comes in—overt instruction exists, but is kept to a minimum, allowing the learner to experiment and explore.

In Angry Birds, the overt instruction happens every time we are introduced to a new bird:


Notice the subtlety of this “instruction”—there are no words, the image doesn’t fully demonstrate the bird’s capabilities, and once you press the check, you don’t get the image again. You learn the rest through actually playing the game. As you experiment, you find out that the red bird is good at breaking wood, but not anything with metal around it, and the blue birds are especially adept at breaking through ice. The “training” for the yellow bird makes it look like the bird will change directions when you tap your finger, but it actually speeds up in the direction that it was already heading and thus very good for breaking through dense structures.  

Situated Practice

As you continue playing the game, you learn more about the different birds’ abilities, and you are introduced to more birds. You are also forced to adopt more sophisticated strategies, which is all facilitated through practice. Angry Birds’ approach to practice is particularly indicative of Gee’s “Practice” and “Regime of Competence” principles. The key to the practice principle is that engaging in a task over and over is not boring because the learner experiences ongoing success; she needs to feel like she is moving forward and not simply repeating the same skill. Part of what makes practice enjoyable is illustrated by the regime of competence principle, which states that the learner is operating on the outer edge of her abilities such that the task is challenging, but not impossible. (Gee 65-68)   

Practice is built into every aspect of Angry Birds. The first levels only involve the red bird, and often multiple red birds, so the player repeatedly practices positioning the slingshot so that the bird hits the structure at the desired angle. Furthermore, players are encouraged to play the levels multiple times either because they were not successful on the first attempt or because they only earned one or two out of the three possible stars. This repetitive practice is further reinforced because most levels take less than a minute to play, so it is not a big commitment for the player to repeat a level and experiment with different strategies. This repetition does not seem dull because success is constant; players are rewarded with points any time their birds hit a structure or a pig, they are rewarded by the three-star system, and they are rewarded by the potential for earning new high scores when they repeat levels.

The regime of competence is similarly ingrained in Angry Birds, and is especially noticeable from level to level. For example, I learned from the first few levels of Angry Birds Rio that aiming my bird at the base of a structure was sure to knock it down and it meant I earned more points because I received points for breaking up the structure as well as for releasing the birds from their cages.

However, when I tried the same strategy a few levels later, it didn’t work, partly because the base was made of metal, which the red bird can’t break through.

After several unsuccessful attempts, I finally tried shooting the red bird high over the structure, and found that, in this instance, a dive-bomb was better than attacking the base. 

Charles Mauro, president of Mauro New Media, argues that practice in Angry Birds is particularly enjoyable because the designers cleverly managed response time. Instead of making the flight of the birds fast, players watch a slow progression along a clearly marked trajectory, which gives the player time to think about error correction. In my case, it meant I attempted to shoot the red bird at the base in a variety of ways because I hoped a different angle would produce better results. There is also a time delay between when your last bird hits the structure and when the screen comes up to allow you to retry the level or continue to the next one. Mauro argues that this delay gives the player “time to structure an error correction strategy.” In my case, it meant I considered the structure more closely, ultimately deciding that I needed my bird to dive-bomb into the middle of things.

It didn’t take much for me to try a new strategy and I was certainly capable of finding a solution, but it took longer to pass this level than any of the others in that first episode. Success was well within my regime of competence, but the game was forcing me to experiment until I was willing to shift my previous assumption that there was one “best” way to bring down a structure.


Rewards are a crucial part of motivating players to practice skills within a game and to continue playing the game when they are brought to the edge of their regime of competence. Games also cater to players with various skill sets, which is precisely what Gee’s “Achievement Principle” is about: from the beginning, there must be intrinsic rewards for all learners, and the rewards should be customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery (64).

Angry Birds most prominently accomplishes this through points and through the three-star system. The points are important because even if you don’t hit the pigs (or cages in Rio), you can still earn an incredible amount of points by hitting the structures and making things explode, which makes the levels satisfying even if you don’t win.

When you do win, you pass the level with one, two, or three stars, thus allowing players of various skills to play through the entire game. Interestingly, the points and stars are separate reward systems—as you’ll notice below, I earned almost the same amount of points for a one-star win as I did for a three-star win on another level.

So what makes players go for three stars? In the case of Angry Birds Rio, the answer is bonus levels. After I completed the first 15 levels, I had earned 26 stars; bonus levels were available for 30, 50, and 70 stars. 

Immediately, I replayed a couple of levels and earned four more stars. A better player might have been closer to the 50- or 70-star levels, and probably would have felt the same nudge to go ahead and get those few remaining stars required to claim the reward. I should also note that I didn’t feel bad for being at the lowest level—I was pleased to be able to unlock a bonus at all.

For the players who easily collect stars for level completion, Angry Birds offers additional challenges—players can hunt through the levels and collect special rewards that are tracked in the Awards Room. 

Closing Thoughts

Angry Birds is a lot of fun to play, and Gee’s principles show that what makes it fun is that it both requires learning and rewards learners at various skill levels. I find this interesting in part because I don’t think many people would call what they do when they play Angry Birds learning. But what’s even more interesting is that I could have done this analysis on any game. These principles aren’t specific to Angry Birds or to first-person-shooters or to video games; they are generalizations about the way humans learn, generalizations that prove that learning even the most menial task can be quite fun if it’s framed with ample rewards and an appropriate balance of instruction and discovery that pushes learners to the edge of their individual competence levels.

Unfortunately, Gee argues, in school, “many so-called advantaged learners rarely get to operate at the edge of their regime of competence … [and] less advantaged learners are repeatedly asked to operate outside their regime of competence” (68). The solution is not to create an Angry Birds-type game that teaches math or grammar. The solution is to apply Gee’s principles to school learning; one way to start is to create a reward system that acknowledges and incentivizes learners at various skill levels.

My MOOC Experience (#edcmooc) – Week Two

This week in eLearning and Digital Cultures was rather meta. We read two opinion pieces about MOOCs, Napster,Udacity, and the Academy and QuestioningClay Shirky, and watched a lecture about open education byGardner Campbell.

In “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” Clay Shirky compares higher education with the music industry. He argues that Napster and MP3s told the world that you don’t have to buy a whole CD; you can just buy one song. He claims that MOOCs are similarly offering a new narrative: education doesn’t have to be something that only the elite can access, and maybe we don’t need to buy a whole degree; maybe we should just download the courses we need. Shirky points to the inhibiting expense of a college education to bolster his argument: “an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it.”

Aaron Bady responds to “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy” in “Questioning Clay Shirky.” He criticizes Shirky’s lack of evidence that online education is valuable or that MOOCs are truly “open,” and argues that a comparison of higher education and the music industry is problematic. He further contends that Shirky is dividing students into “elite” and “non-elite” and then not expecting MOOCs to offer the same quality of education as institutions like Harvard, but Bady’s arguments get a little confusing because it seems that he’s advocating for quality online education while at the same time condemning MOOCs for being the equivalent of “a link to WebMD as a replacement for seeing a real doctor.”

I wasn’t particularly impressed with either of the articles, mainly because both authors are so defensive of their positions that their arguments lack balance. Instead of pitting MOOC supporters against the academy, I’d like to see the conversation back up to more fundamental questions: What is the purpose of higher education? What intrinsic value do students gain from a four-year degree? Is there something in the four-year experience that’s inherently valuable, or is the value tied to the specific institution?

In his keynotelecture at Open Ed in October 2012, Campbell approaches these questions, claiming that there is a tension between what education is supposed to do (he draws on Bateson’sHierarchy of Learning to argue that education should push students to think differently and creatively), and the structures built into institutions of higher education that force students to “play the game” of learning to satisfy the teacher’s expectations and earn an A.

I think Campbell would say we need to not only ask, what is the purpose of education? But also, how can we change our education practices and structures to actually accomplish that purpose? With this framing, I don’t think it needs to be Higher Education versus The MOOCs. Instead, MOOCs, for-profits, non-profits, ivy leagues, community colleges, state schools are all part of a larger conversation that is trying to solve a very real problem.  

PS: Students from the University of Edinburgh joined the MOOC this week; they created digital artifacts and posted them on the course site. Here is my favorite, by Amy Woodgate: