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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 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.”

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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 an #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.

Screen Shot 2013-02-24 at 4.50.02 PMIn 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.

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

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

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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 edcm forums ss4which 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, and 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 here on The Wheel. 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”s class and my eLearning and Digital Cultures digital artifact.

community profile4I 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.

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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.

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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.

edcm forum emails

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.

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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.

edcm fb comments

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.

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