Who is “We” on #edcmooc ?

We, as tutors in this MOOC, are learning a tremendous amount; both in the matter of the substantive topics that that MOOC seeks to address, but also in the matter of what a MOOC is (or might be) and how its environment and processes can be configured in conception and design, and orchestrated in practice. One important area of learning for me has certainly been about the business of cultivating and managing the expectations of course participants. Not that one doesn’t know, as a teacher from other areas of one’s practice, how important this is, but rather that such planning is usually able to be predicated on one’s knowledge of the learner group. One makes assumptions, of course, but the domain knowledge in which those assumptions are grounded, is usually relatively sound. In the context of the massive, all bets are off.

I was particularly helped in this thinking by a strand of forum conversation started (my thanks) by Gary Kirk. The tone was generous, accepting that this was probably (it is) the first time that this course has been offered. One respondent (Elizabeth Hayden) on the thread indicated that the disconfirmation of expectations might not be the worst thing that can happen – one might be pleasantly surprised. There were other important issues raised, such as “time” (how much of it to devote) from David Alexander Young, and “evolution” (of a course, as a work in progress) from donnastitches. Perhaps another post.

One particular suggestion from Gary Kirk, although clearly helpfully offered, I would be reluctant to run with. The suggestion is that the descriptions of the course, and the briefings about its conduct, should be edited to remove references to “we” and to substitute them with references to “you”. The expectation that should be cultivated then, would be that the tutors would not be present; would not be very visibly joining in. That manipulation would provide a more helpful set of expectations of what could reasonably be found to be the case on a course with some 40 thousand participants.

There has been a great deal written about “presence” online in general, and the notion of “teacher presence” in an online course in particular. That is not where I want to go with this brief post. Rather, it is a simple appeal. We, as tutors, would like to remain “We” as members of the total participant group. Even though we (the tutors) are a tiny minority (the “staff/student ratio” here is 0.0001 – I calculated it) we don’t want to be “Them”.  I, for one, have found much that I feel affinity with in the forum posts, blogs and Tweets, although I have not been able to go everywhere in the course, or even to leave a trace in those places that I have gone. I’m assuming that that is the experience of everybody. But I would still want it to be “Us” on this particular exploration. Of course the role of the tutor is different. And I also see other people who are taking up distinct and different roles within this corporate group. But we are all in this together.

I was encouraged by the Tweet from Sheila MacNeill (@sheilmcn) – that the word “believe” has been prominent in our discourse. I want to believe in the possibility of “us” in a MOOC.

Now off to research Fox Mulder, and The Lorax.

Hamish Macleod



10 thoughts on “Who is “We” on #edcmooc ?

  1. Thanks Hamish for that thoughtful post. Having been a tutor for a few years while studying I understand the inclination to be perceived as part of the ‘we’/’us’ of a student body. And you are students as well as tutors/facilitators, so it seems appropriate to use the inclusive pronoun. But there’s no getting around the fact that the tutor group is also situated in a different space, a space that overlaps both with other students and with lecturers/staff; and a space which is discrete, a space for which you pay fees and from which you will receive a Masters degree. These are important distinctions that should not be underestimated (by yourselves or your university).

    Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any particular clarity to be gained (at least in these early days) in changing the pronouns used in the course description, because the tutors – and lecturers – are indeed also learning and growing with the course, and are also learners in this environment, albeit not in quite the same vein as the MOOC participants. Perhaps that point could be made more overt while still retaining the democratic inclusive tone.

    I do think it would be useful, in the course description, to find a way to foreground that, to make the make most of this course (and complete it), the MOOC participant needs to be highly self-motivated and independent, highly proficient in English, ideally able to commit and preferably with some prior experience of a HE learning environment.

    If you haven’t already read these letters to the editor about MOOCs, you may be interested in the discussion and divergent views:

  2. Thanks for this Lisa, and for the link. Yes, this is an aspirational statement; about “ground” that I would be reluctant to relinquish. There does remain a very big and interesting question about just how we do set things in motion the next time around to ensure maximal clarity. Overt and explicit – absolutely right. So now, I see the task as being about paying attention to the range of assumptions, and starting points, that participants seem to be bringing, and framing our introductory guidance to take account. As I say, we are learning a lot.

    • I feel we are all learning a lot about e-learning and digital cultures, in theory and in practice. Very interesting to participate in a learning experience that has almost as much meta-discourse and reflection on the course itself as it does engaging mind-expanding content.

    • (Post script, re-reading at the 4 Feb email from the Course Team I realise I probably confused tutors with TAs (MA students). In the South African academic system there generally isn’t a distinction, but I think in the English and Scottish systems these roles are distinct, and tutors have usually completed their postgraduate studies and may be part of permanent academic staff?)

  3. Pingback: It’s a course, of course #edcmooc | Teaching 'E-learning and Digital Cultures'

  4. Interesting point about “labels” here Lisa. We have probably been reluctant to use the customary UK term “lecturer”, as our experiences of teaching online – where there are no “lectures” as such – has inclined us to the term “tutor”. The term “professor” might be better understood, and better – in that we “profess in our subject” – save for the fact that this term has a particular “reserved” meaning in the UK. For me, “tutor” has it. It is a term that describes what one does, rather than being about one’s position or status. Then what tutors do is provide “tuition” – which I gather means something completely different in North America. Ho hum.

    • Yes, good point, I was left pondering my own response to the de-emphasis of labels, and to the variations of titles in different countries. And also rather surprised by the impulse to want to categorise and situate the tutors/lecturers/course conveners in terms of the hierarchical institutional discourse familiar to me. The MOOC environment seems to challenge participants – especially those who have already ‘done time’ at a traditional university – to focus on content and co-operative learning, rather than relying on teacher-led instruction and what ‘the experts’ say. Something which initially causes a bit of discomfort and disorientation if one is used to hegemonic learning practices. (Despite the global emphasis on learner-centredness and co-operative learning, I think the reality often lags behind the ideal.)
      This is only my first MOOC, but it struck me that online learning could provide an environment where titles/labels are not foregrounded, affording a real opportunity to work within a collaborative, dialogic learning space. I’m interested to see how other MOOCs deal with this.

  5. Hi Hamish: I’m the aforementioned Gary Kirk. Very interesting article and comments. Just thought I’d chime in.

    I’m encouraged by your comments about wanting to remain part of the “Us”. And your comment that “we are all in this together”.

    The part I disagree with is the commonly conveyed suggestion that we are all equals in this class; that “we don’t need a teacher, we’re learning from each other!”

    Well, maybe so. But I’m hard pressed to think of a way to learn that’s more inefficient. Wading through hundreds of posts and blogs in order to find a relative handful of truly insightful and thought-provoking ideas. Yikes.

    The term “teacher”, as in “teacher-led” – not to be confused with “teacher-dominated” – seems to me to be getting a bad rap in many of the EDCMOOC comments. I think that, given the size of the class, in some ways the teacher role is as important, if not more so, than in a small, brick-and-mortar classroom because the teacher has (or at least should have) unique qualifications:

    (1) He/she should know more about the subject than most students. There may be a few students with comparable knowledge in the MOOC but I need to be good or lucky enough to find them in all the chaff. “Expert”, as in subject matter expert, is not a four-letter word.

    (2) He/she has deliberately researched the subject and is knowledgeable about the subject from a number of different perspectives. Few students are likely to have done the research beyond their individual experiences (and for those who have, see “chaff” comment above). This enables the teacher to challenge students’ opinions and beliefs during group discussions. Sometimes it seems like there’s an overabundance of “I agree” comments on the discussion threads.

    (3) His/her primary objective is to make sure that each student learns and to the extent possible provides help where needed. The rank-and-file students don’t have the time and, in some cases, the inclination to do so.

    (4) As a student I’d like to see some aggregation of the blogs and posts, helping me to see the “bigger picture” as well as exposing me to ideas and perspectives that differ from mine. It makes sense that I would look to the teacher(s) for that perspective.

    (5) He/she brings “lessons learned” from previous instances of the classes. This benefits subsequent classes. For the students it’s a brand new experience.
    There’s more but you get the idea. I just don’t think teachers should abdicate their role as facilitators, aggregators, protagonists, mentors, advisors…in short LEADERS! This is particularly true in a MOOC where time is a factor. Good leaders lead, they don’t dominate or dictate.

    Let me be clear: I don’t have any problem with strictly student-led, leaderless interactions. But I see them more applicable to discussion groups than a university “course”.

    And thanks for the mention in your post.

  6. Thanks for this detailed set of comments Gary. I appreciate your engagement here. And you make some excellent points, many of which I have to agree with – in part. These conversations are helping me to clarify my thinking about the MOOC relationships. And I fully agree that there is an issue about what we mean by “equal” in the classroom (any classroom). Not “equivalent” of course. I like to think of this as a matter of negotiation; least that is the way that I would try to orchestrate things in teaching settings with which I am familiar. Both online, and off. But clearly, this is less than feasible with the present size of group.

    And I think that you make a good point about the difficulty of finding the guidance that one might be seeking within the volume of comments and ideas flying about. One of the things that has struck me has been about the different *sorts* of discourses that are going about. Different people are addressing the topics under discussion in different ways, and from different perspectives and traditions. My background is in biology and psychology, so I can “connect” to conversations in those traditions, but those from, say literary, or cultural studies, while intriguing, but difficult for me to fully appreciate. In that, I guess that I feel the potential lost-ness of the student.

    So I very much take the points that I think you are making here about structure, support and guidance. We see much of this being about the assemblage of resources and questions. But I was struck by the points that Jeremy was making elsewhere in the blog about the difference between the MOOC in “design stage” and in “lived experience”. I find your observations very helpful in that regard.

    Another Douglas Adams reference if I may – and I have been resisting this one. I feel a little bit like one of the mice.

  7. Thanks to Hamish, Gary and Lisa for this discussion. I have had comprehension difficulties with some readings and I cannot find an easy way to overcome them with my colleagues/tutors and the current proliferation of threads/blogs/tweets. So I have had to go the hard way of searching the Internet for comparable readings and revues. Having said that, maybe the ‘hard’ way is the best way because it helps me, ultimately, to (sort of) comprehend! Hence the ‘time’ factor that I spoke of earlier

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