MOOCs – are they really working?

Over the next month or so I will digress from my normal diversity topic to talk about MOOCs (Massive Open, Online Courses – I am sure you already knew this given the hype about them in the past twelve months). I am about to embark on being a tutor in a MOOC for the first time. This has prompted some reflection on MOOCs.

First a disclaimer, I like the idea of openness but am somewhat sceptical of MOOCs, their hype and their power to change anything important in education. I have participated in a few MOOCs and feel that my participation has been somewhat unsuccessful. I have found it a frustrating experience. So I am hoping my own difficulties will help me be a decent tutor but I need to know why I have found it difficult. I think there are two key reasons:

1) The topic – I have engaged in work-based MOOCs (MOOCs about MOOCs and MOOCS about vaguely interesting work topics) when in hindsight I should have started with topics that I found inherently interesting.

2) The type of MOOC – they have all been cMOOCs (connectivist MOOCs which place the emphasis of learning from each other). I prefer this style of learning in face to face situations but would probably get on better with the more structured xMOOCs.

3) Learning Design problems – this is the one that really bothers me. There is an interesting article written on Inside HIgher Ed that sums up my own frustrations. The description of the MOOC 1.0 is very apt. I really struggle with the idea that it is fine for so many people to not complete. The sense of feeling overwhelmed in a MOOC seems to be a common occurrence. Sue Folley offers some very practical tips of dealing with this and I heartily agree with most of them but I have a serious problem with the idea that “No one can engage with everything”. That strikes me as a serious design flaw of a course. It seems to be the fashion that a MOOC must provide loads of content / activity / discussion and no one is expected to do everything. It is no surprise students get overwhelmed. I wouldn’t do that to my face to face students and I haven’t done that on any of the online courses that I have previously taught. It feels like, as mentioned in the Inside Higher Ed article, we have thrown out much of what we know about learning and learning design in these MOOCs.

My thoughts on this at the moment are, how can be make the massive seem smaller and more intimate? In a large lecture theatre you want to encourage engagement and you can do that by making the environment feel smaller by using group work and other techniques that don’t involve students having to speak in front of 300 of their peers. Can we use those ideas in a MOOC? Would we want to? Is it a way forward?

Multiculturalism or what really is this diversity thing?

As this is a learning journey, there is always the risk you read something that changes you views / previously held beliefs and makes you rethink. A new colleague introduced me to the writing of Kenan Malik yesterday. He has some interesting ideas on multiculturalism and why both sides of the debate are wrong.

Malik notes a serious flaw in the debate; that it fails to disconnect the lived experience of diversity from multicultural policy. The first is something we should celebrate whilst the second has been somewhat of a disaster.

One of his key arguments is that multicultural policy has exacerbated divisions based on race or other defined characteristics. In a drive to respect all difference we have ossified certain differences. That the very categorisation of certain characteristics essentially creates them as fixed aspects of identity. The example Malik uses is political representation of minority groups in Birmingham, England. The groups chosen to represent their communities were divided along race/ religious lines. In order to access funds and have your community voice heard you would have to use your most relevant group. Only of course no group speaks for the entirety of any community. The Bangladeshi and Pakistani communities were represented by a Muslim group, but what if you were a Pakistani atheist or Christian or Hindu and so on; you get the idea. The result is a gradual move towards identifying with a particular group in order to fit it and secure your own identity. This to me seems to undermine diversity and difference not celebrate it.

Malik highlights the inherent tension then for equality. “Equality cannot be relative, with different meanings for different social, cultural or sexual groups. If so it ceases to be equality at all…” (Malik 1998) It rather leaves us in the same absurd situation that George Orwell highlighted in Animal Farm, “all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”. Whose equality is better? Does religious equality trump sexual equality or vice versa? The current passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill in England and Wales is a good example of how easy it is to get tied up in knots with our current multicultural policies. In order to maintain both religious freedom and freedom for sexual preference we get the legalisation of gay marriage as long as religious groups don’t have to do it. Which begs the question, either gay marriage is a societal value which we respect or it isn’t? Instead we have a fudge which fails to answer the question. We sort of respect gay marriage unless you don’t and then that is OK as long as it is a religious belief and not some other sort of belief which is prejudiced.

So how might this effect us on the individual level? For me, there is one single object which highlights the problem; the equalities monitoring form. Such a form asks for certain characteristics, all of which are social constructs, and offers limited choice as to the options we are allowed to identify with. We are so used to them that we probably don’t think much about filling them in but I suspect that over time they have subtle effects on our concept of our own identity. When I tick the white, british box I am forced to reaffirm my British nationality. The form is saying to me “remember you are British” or to others “remember you are Black African” and so on. We think the form reflects who we are. That it is a simple measure of an objective reality instead of it actually creating our identity and defining us in ways we might not want it to.

And why these certain characteristics. Why does what I do in the bedroom matter but my choice not to kill and eat animals doesn’t? (and before you jump on me for being racist, homophobic or anything else. Let me be very clear. I fully support diversity and equality but I think the way we go about it is wrong. I genuinely don’t understand why anyone would discriminate against another for the colour of their skin or their sexual preferences.)

Identity is a complex and shifting aspect of our lives. It changes over time. Yet multicultural policies seem to assume immutability. In my research, I wanted to collect demographic information (although now I am not so sure of that idea) but I did it in a way that for gender and ethnicity there was no choices. There was just a blank box that allowed the participants to put whatever they wanted to in order to define their own identity. The result, every single one of them listed a category from an equalities monitoring form! Even though none of those categories were present on the form. That just demonstrates to me how pervasive this official categorisation has become. How strongly it seeps into the rhetoric of diversity and colours notions of our own identity.

So to action, well firstly I think a personal boycott of forms that expect me to categorise myself by predetermined categories. On a more serious level, I would be intrigued to know if anyone has already tested the hypothesis about whether removing the categorisation of people can actually start to eliminate inequality. I know psychologists have discovered the ‘stereotype threat’ effect (The comment section of my previous post has a link to an excellent talk explaining this.) I wonder how much this plays out in educational inequality. What this means for my own research into educational inequality I still need to reflect further upon. The research seems to show race / ethnicity is a factor but now I wonder if it is a factor because we have made it a factor by placing so much emphasis of differences. And how do we solve the inequality? Does the act of actually researching BME attainment and completion rates actually end up perpetuating the inequality or making it worse by once again emphasising crude categorical differences? Even though I have tried my hardest to make sure it is not about crude categorisation of people yet the BME / white division is exactly that.

On a personal level, I am still left pondering a question posed to me two months ago. I had been talking about my work on my course and a fellow student made a key observation. She asked “what colour her skin was?” A seemingly simple question which I couldn’t answer. Do I base my answer on her religious affiliation which is often tied to ethnic affiliation? Do I base my answer on actual colour and if I do is my view of any colour actually accurate? By answering the question, I would be imposing my view of her identity. It gets to the heart of race and ethnicity for me. I can tell you my identity but I refuse to let that define me (Yes I know about the invisible white knapsack but this post isn’t about power inequality but about how we view identity and difference.) and I refuse to impose your identity onto you. Naive maybe but I can always hope for a better more equal world.


Malik, K. (1998) ‘race, pluralism and the meaning of difference’, new formations no.33, available online [accessed 19th April 2013]

Orwell, G (1945) Animal Farm

On being a student

I have been listening to my research interviews with students this morning and reflecting on my own experiences of being a student. It has prompted a number of thoughts which I am struggling to put into a narrative so in no particular order:

Fear – fear of failure, fear of non-completion. Myself and others have described the fear that your success depends on the judgement of an individual. It depends on a set of complex rules and regulations which you don’t always know and may fail to use them to your advantage. It is described as survival. Making it through the module, passing and moving on to the next one. Hoping each time you pass and can progress. What sort of learning experience is this?

Being different – I always thought that exploring who you are and being different was what university was about but the reality is that being different can be a bad thing. Whether that difference is your culture, the way you think, the colour of your skin; these all place risks on you. We say we value original thought but what it seems most want is for student to be like us, to think like us, to conform.

Us & them – in reference to students and lecturers. I struggle with this one because as a lecturer, I don’t see this but as a student it feels like us and them sometimes. Having sat through subject committees as both, I felt pushed into an us and them mentality when in the role of student. My job is to advise lecturers on teaching, learning and assessment practices and I know a heck of a lot about learning technology. As a student, all that expertise was pushed aside. I was a student, how could I possibly know better than the lecturers how to teach and how technology should be used?

This makes me wonder about how we get students to evaluate. I think it has to be as partners. We should see students as the talented adults they are. We should view them as new colleagues just starting off in their careers. They have a little less experience and knowledge in the particular area we work in but they also have vast skills and experiences in other areas. Some of our students have set up and run charities or social enterprises or businesses as students, whilst they are studying.

Anyway, a bit rambling but what I conclude is that we need to really think about how we view students. I think we need to have more respect for them and value what they bring to our institutions. Partnership!