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MOOCs – Multiple Open Online Courses (tracing a phenomenon multiple)

March 7, 2014

I have enrolled in Bruno Latour’s Scientific Humanities MOOC. The following is (in a more or less re-medied form) my blogposts from week two and three assignments in the course. I think they form a nice introduction to my present research into MOOCs as part of the larger ongoing research and development project “Læring uden grænser” (in English: Learning without boarders).

#2 Bubble Exercise (floating statements): If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 was the year when online education fell back to earth

I have selected a statement, which relates to my current research into MOOCs. The article “The Online Education Revolution Drifts Off Course” (NRP.org, December 2013) takes up on the latest movements in what has been referred to as the “MOOC hype”. The statement I have selected is:

if 2012 was the year of the MOOC, then 2013 was the year when open education fell back to earth“.

The article I selected can in many ways be viewed as central to the MOOC hype. However, this does not mean that by following traces from this article, I will get to the most relevant sites of productions for this statement… Since we are asked to trace productions of scientific statements (and my selection of article illustrates that media discourses are important actors too), I will now follow the link to the “recent University of Pensylvania study“…

As it turns out, the link I choose to follow, is really a PDF version of a PPT presentation on the reporting of research with the purpose to “Understand the movement of a million users through Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania, June 2012 – June 2013” (Perna et al., MOOC Research Initiative Conference, December 5 2013, University of Pennsylvania, page 1).

I decided for my bubble exercise (floating statements) to be about the tracing of the rise of a statement (perhaps several). The PDF version of course lack a lot of the verbal glue that probably stuck to it within the frame of reference and target audiences for whom it was first produced. Now, it has been recontextualized as it exists as a link in an article, where it takes on the agency as backup knowledge and verification for the statement: “If 2012 was the year of the MOOC, 2013 was the year when online education fell back to earth”.

Furthermore, it has been designated as an actor in my assignment in this Scientific Humanities course. However, the statement I am working with is clearly located in a particular kind of bubble (maybe more than one, but at least the MOOC Hype), and performed from somewhere (the year of the MOOC in 2012). Furthermore, it is a statement performed in a bubble going somewhere else (online education heading back to earth in 2013). Within this machinery of argumentary equipment, the statement rises as a monument – a matter of fact.

However, if one starts to open up the different constructions taking part in producing the statement, making it strong, and furthermore, making it convincing. It will rather quickly appear differently constructed. For instance, the article disseminating the statement, refers to the MOOC as one (the MOOC) measurable thing, while part of what makes the MOOC travel back to earth, in the PDF, is the re-presentation of the MOOC. The researchers from University of Pennsylvania are looking into and acknowledging, that we are in fact not talking about one but many MOOCs. Many different modes of existences of MOOCs. In (too) short: to bring the MOOC back to earth, implies: 1. looking at it in context, 2. as a matter of many different movements, and 3. recognizing that it then multiplies.

One curiousity. The PDF which reports on research aiming to “Understand the movement of a million users through Coursera courses offered by the University of Pennsylvania, June 2012 – June 2013” does not actually seem to take up what “movement of … users” actually means. Well, it is taken for granted that it is about going from A-Z in the course (from beginning to the end). But what about the ways users become affected by a MOOC? The ways in which a MOOC may affect users to become better equiped at learning and to become affected by some designated thing – the matter of learning? It is interesting that the matter of learning seems to take up little space in this MOOC bubble, while other forms of engagements gain much more weight in the debate as well as in research (so far….)

#3 socio-technical analysis: the case of the theory of science MOOC

Let me begin by stating an uncertainty as to whether my project “the theory of science MOOC” (an actual project I am working on/with) qualifies as a project here. I am asking myself this, because it is not a tangible object as in the case of airplanes, doorhandles and dolls. However, it is very much a socio-technical being emerging in-between relationships with the complex ecologies of today’s world. Furthermore, I choose this being, because it is the kind of being which I am (mostly) challenged with in my daily work as an e-learning researcher/educational anthropologist/techno-anthropologist/design-based researcher/(applied) science and technology studies researcher.

So how to begin the socio-technical analysis? Particularly when it is difficult to establish (to begin with) the boundaries of this project and it’s different forms of existences – it’s different materialisations. Danish STS researcher, Casper Bruun Jensen, has written a nice piece adressing this challenge “Researching partially existing objects”.

I would like to add myself into the equation. The theory of science MOOC comes into being through it’s partial engagements with me (not the least because I will here perform the articulations of it’s forms of beings). I am a researcher interested in MOOCs as educational phenomena, and furthermore I collaborate with diploma programmes about the development and launch of a theory of science MOOC (diploma programme) – the first MOOC to be launched by University College Zealand. The theory of science MOOC case is one case among several underway as part of the larger ongoing research and development project called “Learning without boarders” (running from September 2013-December 31 2014). I work as a researcher in Education Lab – Research Programme for Technology and Educational [instructional] Design (unfortunately we do not exist in English at the homepage).

Anyhow, I am not going to trace the actual beginnings of the Learning without boarders project here. I will try to articulate what I believe to be the fundamental analytical challenge of researching a MOOC that appears as an educational course. Benjamin Carett stated, in his analysis, that “to be technical means to be both designed and constantly reconfigured by its users” (Scientific Humanities course materials). Furthermore, in this section of the course, Latour stated that simplified visualizations: “helps you to grasp technology as a project and not as an object. Or rather, the object exists, but only as a cross-section that instant“.

I would like to engage with a few of the momentary existences of the theory of science MOOC in it’s so far rather short-lived live. In a cloud-supported world, installations and re-installations are becoming easier and hence we also see that educational evolution has gained speed. So we are already dealing with version 3.0 of the theory of science MOOC – to be launched on March 17 2014.

I am not the one developing the MOOC, really. I have a magnificent diploma programme colleague (Malene Erkmann) who has been spending huge amounts of working hours producing the different versions off the MOOC (run via Moodle). The theory of science MOOC, as you may already have noticed, has in many different senses been ‘born in captivity’. We are dealing with a form of being which is, on the one hand, deeply entangled with people and professional educational practices and institutions in Denmark – more specifically University College Zealand. On the other hand, we are also dealing with a form of being that carries expectations (riding a bit on the MOOC hype) to become an assistant in helping University College Zealand engage with ‘utopian horizons’ (I owe this formulation of a project – though a different one – emerging in-between being ‘born in captivity’ and moving towards ‘utopian horizons’ to good colleagues in University College Zealand – Anne Sievert and Helle Storm).

So how is it possible to identify the theory of science MOOC within this landscape of so many different actors? Any one description of the movements ‘of’ the MOOC would be highly political, in the sense that it would foreground some relationships rather than other. Also, in order to do any description, I must be positioned differently from e.g. the diploma programme teacher who has been sitting at home and at work, Mondays-Sundays, from morning til evening, developing (designing and compositioning) the different articulations and appearances of the MOOC. She is the designer and re-designer Benjamin Carrett is referring to. I may be designated as a kind of user. Though really I am not. I take part in the design proces, and I may participate in the MOOC while conducting research, but I am not the imagined actual user/participant of the MOOC.

Where am I going with all this? I should speed up and jump forward (thus skipping all kinds of important relationships). I will add some actors to this already complicated assemblage:

1. teachers with experience in teaching theory of science modules at different professional bachelor’s programmes and diploma programmes.

2. potential MOOC participants in the form of people from different professional work and education contexts.

3. other MOOCs and

4. existing knowledge about MOOCs represented in the form of various kinds of reports and articles.

[the following is much too short and more illustrative than accurate! and it does not entail anything about what it implies to “test” – ]

Version 1.0 Very raw MOOC with almost only digital ressources A teacher from bachelor in physiotherapy and a teacher from B. Ed. programme for primary and lower secondary school teachers testing one week (January 2014) Result: more emphasis on this theory of Science MOOC being an APPLIED theory of science MOOC. Less focus on it being a diploma programme MOOC.

Version 2.0 A little less raw MOOC with more metacommunicative text and materials, assignments and peer evaluation Five potential MOOC participants testing one week (January-February 2014) Result: Much more emphasis on collaboration, and narration of different sequences, assignments etc. – to frame with narratives that guides participants’ engagements.

Version 3.0 Eight week MOOC course fully developed and launched fully open for all Danish citizens to register by March 3 2014. Results: to be seen…

I hope that the above have illustrated that any form of description of the MOOC and it’s different forms of existence and movements/translations also entails positioning the MOOC in-between human actors that engage partially with the MOOC.

I am inspired by Marilyn Strathern’s book “Partial Connections”, when stating: that the MOOC must be understood both by what it momentarily partially contains and the ways it becomes momentarily partially contained.

The inscription of the MOOC into different descriptions is an endevour to be worked with all the time. There is no ONE theory of science MOOC to function as A frame of reference for moving around it with different perspectives on it. The MOOC itself is on the move through the different compositions and re-compositions of what it is made of, and how it becomes engaged under different circumstances, as it becomes entangled with various human-non-human actors.

In other words, in order to articulate the theory of science MOOC and it’s different modes of existences, one must engage with it’s shifting platformations (= as an alternative to engage with it as an already existing platform to move to and from – this is an argument and a concept I have tried to develop in my PhD thesis “Researching Relationships Between ICTs and Education – Suggestions for a science ‘of’ movements” (2009).

#3 socio-technical analysis 2: MOOCs and some of the automata of our time

I am re-allocating myself with regards to the assignment, and will now try to approach it a bit differently. The course material states:

“Now that you have understood the main concepts, you should prepare yourself to follow the socio-technical assemblage that surrounds you. The general idea is to build a mental space where you may register the following points to convert the object that you have chosen as your departure point in a project :

  • register some of the episodes of its history by listing what it relies on and what it fights against at various moments of time.
  • organize those successive lists so that they can be seen simultaneously.
  • detect what changes in the list of friends and enemies has made the project more realistic or less realistic”

Latour warns us, that enemies and friends may come in different disguises. Furthermore, a bit later, we are encouraged to pay attention to break-downs.

The Simon Schaffer BBC movie clips about clockworks (Scientific Humanisties course materials) and the strive for automata while co-constructing the industrial world, were fascinating.

I will try to connect some of these threads with the phenomenon of MOOCs.

According to much literature (insert ref.) the first MOOC can be dated back to 2008 (a so called connectivist MOOC – cMOOC – developed by Downes and Siemens – though coined by a third person). Because of the labelling, this “first” MOOC then became the beginning of the MOOC as a global event. The birth of the MOOC, however, did not just come out of nowhere. It was born in “captivity” with several allies and enemies, break-downs and a lot of workings that took part and still participates in making the MOOC such an out-standing event (to mention a few of the more obvious):

  • Open Education researchers and designers
  • the imaginary and quite common agreement of the 21st century world being a knowledge (sharing) world
  • ubiquitous and pervasive computing (everyday digitalization)
  • cloud computing (development and administration in the sky)
  • educational paradigm shift from instructivist to social constructivist pedagogy
  • the construction of education as a democratic venture
  • the construction of a world in crisis, with less resources (e.g. “less warm hands”)and the need to develop more cost-efficient societal forms in order to maintain Western wellfare societies’ living standards.
  • the belief in innovation and (new) digital information and communication technologies as the way forward…

According to literature (insert ref.) we can talk about a bifurcation of the MOOC (which is interestingly quite similar to the construction of an educational paradigm shift – I’m thinking that Latour’s “we have never been modern” point is interesting here!) which is related to some of the world’s largest and elite universities picking up on the idea of Massive Open Online Courses. They, however, did not pursue MOOCS along the lines of the so called cMOOCs but instead (to some extent) re-medied lecture based teaching into what could be termed as the second industrialization of education (in the form of so called xMOOCs).

Of course this portraying of the (twin) MOOC(s) points to particular (Modern/Western) ways to engaging with the forms of the forms of constructions we are (too often) making – the patterns of connections. We have a tendency to portray development and innovation as a particular form of progression, taking the form of revolution – a leap from one “lesser” thing to another “greater”.

The twin MOOCs are really a partial result of particular ways to enact the history of new technology and it’s relationships with(in) science and society.

Interestingly, the same story and movement can be portrayed and is currently being invoked in relation to the healthcare sector (also invoking the so called new paradigm of the health care sector). Of course, here we are dealing with real life and death, so this is a differently serious matter.

“Automata” is an interesting concept. Citizens of the future are expected to be more self motivated, self educating, self monitoring, self governing… And new (digital) so called wellfare (a curiously normative label) technologies are simultaneously becoming more smart and intelligent….

Just some thoughts on the workings of techniques and the various new forms of “automata” at play in today’s world…

P.S. DrewK2014 just posted “Project transformation: MOOCs meet World of Warcraft”. This post is a nice illustration of the “MOOC war” of the cMOOC and xMOOC currently taking place and playing a central role in keeping the event of the MOOC alive. Each side has it’s own enemies, allies, break-downs, automata, delegations etc.

#3 Socio-technical analysis 3: If you want to understand something, build it

Simon Schaffer begins in the first BBC video clip on Clockworks  (Scientific Humanities course material) by saying: “… If you want to understand something, build it.”

Latour tells us to be aware of break-downs.

We are neither being told what a break-down is nor what it implies to build.

Building things involves multiple break-downs. Breaking things into different pieces that can come together. Breaking up things in order to move to different places. Aligning matters in order to differentiate and create distinctions. Break-downs may be intentional disturbances and movements neither foreseen nor wished for. Many new constructions are anticipated to move things forward. In that same movement some things are left behind.

I think that what Schaffer really is pointing to is the fact that what is left behind, what is moved forward, what is added (AND) and substituted (OR) cannot be defined ahead of the concrete construction of things. It always emerges as things are gathered (and split).

This is the true difficulty. The future of things is (mostly) uncertain and unstable.

Each time we add a new actor we are changing both what is, what where, and what will be.

So we might want to pay attention to both new liaisons and enemies, new alignments and disengagements (dis-)appearing. In addition to that we should pay particular attention to the re-mediations of “automata” (that is: things taken for granted, natural things, things existing as stable forms).

In the case of the Theory of Science MOOC , this raises a lot of questions. If the actual movements are not to be positioned at the beginning of a project, but rather to be viewed as partial end-results, then we are dealing with very difficult stuff: we introduce a new technology to change things in particular places and for particular people, but what really happens is a fundamental alteration of a lot of relationships not anticipated.

E.g. We introduce a new educational form in University College Zealand, in the form of a MOOC. This MOOC is meant to align Region Zealand in Denmark with new educational tendencies in the world. This movement is envisioned to strengthen the educational competencies of the region.

A good opening question would be: what does it emerge as a concrete alternative to?

If it is supposed to lift the learning ecology of the region, it must lift it into better places. How is that performed, and what does it mean to lift?

Also, if it is supposed to be aligned with educational tendencies in the world, then what characterizes these?

If innovation is an end result – a momentary appearance of being-in-novation – then it must be central to keep alert to the past, present and future appearances of things.

So what is the Theory of Science MOOC momentarily aligned with?

I tried to show in my first blogpost relating to this week’s assignment that there is no one simple answer to this. It is a particular difficult question to answer with a fluid being like a MOOC.

I’d like to add here another important point: In spite of our MOOC work being part of and relatable to international MOOC workings; what MOOC actually appears to be (= it’s agencies) at University College Zealand and in Region Zealand – when understood as what I’ve termed a “constellations driven innovation” (Hansbøl, unpublished paper from 2011) – is also a very local accomplishment. There is no global MOOC with particular competencies to simply move into our region. It is a very different kind of phenomenon than knives and door handles.

It is interesting, that when talking about MOOCs, the conversation often becomes centered around two main kinds of MOOCs (xMOOCs and cMOOCs).

It would of course probably take part in breaking down the phenomenon if this was not the case😉.

Today (March 7 2014) I have stumpled upon two texts (adding to the many texts we are gathering for instance via Zotero) that illustrate and support my points:

“Reviewing the trajectories of e-learning” written by Professor Grainne Conole illustrates how MOOCs can be looked at as merely one emerging feature [one emerging momentary end-result] of the focus on e-learning that has several decades on it’s back.

“The pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC): the UK view” written by Siân Bayne and Jen Ross, the University of Edinburgh. This report illustrates the beginning more widespread acknowledgement of the phenomenon of MOOCs being a multiple phenomenon (not merely a matter of two kinds).

In addition: Summaries from The MOOC Research Initiative Conference (held on December 5, 2013) point to a new beginning in the area of MOOCs. Keynote Bonnie Stewart describes it as entering the post-MOOC-hype landscape. So perhaps we can now speak about three very different MOOC moments:

1. The coining of the first (c)MOOC (2008) – the MOOC singularity era

2. The cMOOC and xMOOC hype (2008-2012) – the MOOC duality and war era

3. MOOCs on earth (2013-) – the MOOC multiplication era

Too be continued…

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e.g. Hansbøl, Mikala (2014). “MOOCs – Multiple Open Online Courses (tracing a phenomenon multiple)”, published at Mikala’s Klumme – A researcher’s blog: https://mikalasklumme.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/moocs-multiple-open-online-courses-tracing-a-phenomenon-multiple/. Version March 3 2014.

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