Category Archives: My MOOC Experience

These posts were written as a reflection on my experience in the “eLearning and Digital Cultures” massively open online course, offered through Coursera in the winter of 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.

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.

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:

My MOOC Experience (#edcmooc) – Week One

It’s been an interesting week! The topic was utopian versus dystopian views of technology—we explored this by watching four videos, reading a couple of articles about technological determinism, and exchanging ideas via the discussion forums, blogs, and twitter. The five instructors also hosted an hour-long Google Hangout on Friday.

While I found the videos and articles interesting, I find myself more intrigued by the structure of the MOOC. I expected a self-motivated environment, but I was surprised at just how much the learning depends on my willingness to participate. There is an implied expectation that we watch the videos and read the “core” article (there are also quite a few “advanced” articles in the Week One Resources), and there is a clear directive that we are to engage in two of the various conversations happening in the forums and on social networks. But no one is checking to make sure we do this.

I found the structure strange at first, but ultimately empowering. I began by watching each of the four films and making notes. Then I started reading the core article. And I just wasn’t into it. So I stopped reading. I skimmed a few of the advanced readings, watched another video, browsed the discussion forums. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this nonlinear survey of the materials, and I soon found myself connecting the ideas to my own preoccupations (in this case, what readings to assign my first-year composition students next quarter).

I did not choose to post in the forums, but I was impressed with how many of the responses were expanding upon what others had said, and with how many students were starting their own threads to take the discussion in new directions. I can’t help but assume that this positive engagement is the result of thousands of people having the flexibility to choose how to engage—it seems to foster an environment where we only contribute if we actually have something to say. For me, being a passive observer was sufficient because it led me to a very active (though private) application of the ideas.

Clearly, I will get out of this MOOC what I put into it. No one is monitoring me or grading me, and that’s not why I’m taking the course. Without the grades and expectations, I’m free to engage with the material and use it in a way that actually applies to my life. On the other hand, I feel like my approach makes this MOOC a supplement to work I’m already doing; I don’t know how much I would be getting out of it if I wasn’t already interested in elearning and digital cultures. But, of course, I wouldn’t have volunteered to take the course if I wasn’t interested.

Before signing off, I want to make a quick comment about the Google Hangout (which I’ve embedded below), partly because it was fascinating enough for me to sit through the full hour of recorded video. The five instructors addressed common questions they had seen arise from the community throughout the week, and gave their reactions to and reflections upon the community’s discussions, often drawing from specific blogs or forum posts. It felt like a panel at a conference, and I walked away feeling confident that the people who developed this MOOC are truly experts on the topic of elearning and digital cultures. Listening to them made me feel like I was part of something. It was exciting. The only thing I would change is to have had that Hangout on Day 1.  

My MOOC Experience (#edcmooc) – Day One

day 1 ss3

Monday was day one for “E-Learning and Digital Cultures,” the University of Edinburgh course offered as a MOOC via Coursera. I have decided to participate in the course and blog about my experiences here and on The Wheel. From what I can tell, I will be watching a series of films and reading at least one article every week, and I am expected to demonstrate my engagement with the materials in two of five ways:

  1. Contribute to the asynchronous, threaded discussion form
  2. Blog
  3. Join a synchronous video discussion with my peers
  4. Post a visual representation to a social media network
  5. Tweet

Note that only one of those five options requires me to actually operate within the course site. The rest of the communications are elsewhere on the web. To keep track of everyone, they ask that we tag all images, blogs, and tweets with #edcmooc. We are also invited to submit our blogs to EDC MOOC News.

day1 ss2

There has been quite a bit of interaction happening between my peers already—there’s a Facebook group with 4,054 members, a Google+ group with 1,357 members, and a lively twitter feed. As seen in the below screenshot, they have embedded the Twitter feed onto the course website, so even when I am within the confines of the “course,” I am aware of the wider Internet community.

day 1 ss1

I was also intrigued to learn that, in the second week of the class, we will be joined by students who are taking a physical e-learning course at the University of Edinburgh.

In addition to engaging with my peers and reading/watching the materials, I will be completing a final assignment, which appears to be the only “graded” part of the course. The instructions are fairly vague—we are to create a “digital artifact” that relates to the course concepts and post it somewhere on the web (they recommend about 800 words if it is a textual artifact and about 5 minutes if it is a video artifact). We will paste a link to the artifact within the course and receive feedback from peers.
I’ll let you know how it goes!