Analysis and Support of MOOCs


How do we analyse and support the networked interactions of thousands of people learning together?


These are two very different questions and I’m not sure it’s useful (or even appropriate) to ask them together.

With respect to the analysis of the networked interactions, it’s not clear to me that we should even be doing this, at least, not in the sense suggested by the question. If someone had said “how do we analyze the conversations of university students one to another” or “how do we analyze the thousands of phone calls between people” we would quite rightly question the breach of confidence required to undertake such a task, beyond very gross calculations about the numbers of calls and conversations (and even then, we’re treading on dangerous grounds). One of the differences between mass courses (at least the way I see them) and more traditional forms of online learning is that students discussions are not automatically located in the LMS not subject to ownership and use by the institution.

I’ll leave discussion of the second point until later.


I’m not strongly opposed to learning analytics (LA) as such. Analytics might be one of the tools one can use as relevant information about a system.
The problem with LA is that the analysis is always dependent on the design and what is analyzed is more the design of analysis than what it analysis was design to analyse - if that make sense. Big Data is still a way of looking at a phenomenon and it will only analyse what the parametres are targeting. Data will be indication of processes and the outcome will be strongly dependent on interpretation of both the available data and consideration what is missing from a dataset - that which is not measured.
I do agree with @Downes that supporting network interaction and analysing them are two very diffrent things. Analyses doesn’t support learning networks.


Aren’t MOOCs more so based on communities of practice - that is where legitimate peripheral participation and networked individualism takes place?

I do not see MOOCs existing as the empathic communities spoken about by Jenny Preece, but more like what I call autistic communities - they have a function and when people have utilised that function they move on to their next experience, whatever that may be.


MOOCs are many things and not just one. I agree that one way of participating in a MOOC is like you describe. From a ‘user’ perspective its an offer at the same level as say libraries; you go to the library, browse the materials and use what you find useful.
From a learning/teaching design perspective it looks different. As the sender you have certain intentions by offering a MOOC. These intentions can be - I don’t say that the always will be - connected with understanding of learning (also) is social or should also be social in this particular MOOC. Either because of the group of learners or because of the subject matter.


@jonathanbishop I’m sure we can find a better (more appropriate) name for transient communities based on a current need.


You might want to find your own term, @paigecuffe, but that is the name I like to give to functional online communities. I have published a paradigm at the following link (Figure 2), which shows the others I use:


@jonathanbishop I would be more inclined to say that Etienne Wenger was drawing some the same foundational concepts as George Siemens and I, though I was aware of Wenger’s work as far bacl as 2004 (you can hear me mispronounce his name through this entire presentation, the first I ever recorded, from 2004 )

The ideas of connectivism, communities of practice, etc., are derived from a network view of the world, and are rooted in ideas of network theory, ‘small pieces loosely joined’, the computational theory of connectionism, and the work of people like Francisco Varela, Paul and Patricia Churchland, Stephen Kosslyn and J.J. Gibson.

It has been occasionally suggested that MOOCs have their origin in the work of Ivan Illich. I’m sympathetic with his view, but his work has no influence on the development and design of either connectivism nor the MOOC. If people must credit someone writing specifically in the educational domain, then I would say I was far more influenced by John Holt’s How Children Fail. But for me, the origins are from the scientific and philosophical domain, not from educational theorists or social scientists.


@jonathanbishop your attached paper is very interesting and even on a quick read, I can see many points we are in agreement on, notably your central argument that ‘disability’ is contextual and the same features of a person that results in that categorisation in one context might be an advantage in another. On this topic, on this point, we are in agreement.
However, your extrapolation to suggest a strictly functional view of people and relationships as an inarguable and defining feature of autistic spectrum disorders, and to therefore use this as a label for types of communities, is not something we will agree on. However, this is an argument that is pulling away from that in this thread and isn’t likely to add to the conversation here. For that reason, I would prefer to quietly exit this particular discussion.
I repeat, however, that we are in very strong agreement about such differences being socially and contextually constructed as disability or advantage.


@Downes Connectivism is another neologism. It is essential Barry Wellman’s work from the 80s and 90s with the rhetoric of Vygotsky, and indeed Ivan Illich.
However, I somewhat see myself as a contemporary embodiment of Ivan Illich, because deinstitutionalisation is very much where I see technology being used in education beyond being the focus given to blended learning over technology enhanced learning. The Emotivate Project I ran, for instance, brought together pupils and teachers from different schools to blend multimedia education with community regeneration:
The people in this project as a result of institutionalisation would never have been part of one another’s social networks had it not been run. So I guess I see MOOCs more like schools that are using the same library rather being linked up in the way my Digital Classroom of Tomorrow Project promotes, where social networking is a given:
Maybe MOOCs and Connectivism are a new way for you to try to sell E-Learning 2.0?


No it isn’t. Wellman is interested in the formation and definition of community, and social network theory. This work is interesting, but is not the same as connectivism, which is a theory about knowledge and learning.

What you’ll find in connectivism, but not in Wellman:

  • ‘to know’ is to be organized in a certain way, as in a set of connections (such that ‘to know x’ is to recognize x)
  • ‘to learn’ is to to grow, adapt and change that organizations, ie., to grow and shape connections

Contrast with Wellman, who when he talks about knowledge, talks in information-theoretic terms, such as ‘knowledge transfer’ or ‘knowledge mobilization’. He depicts networks as conduits of knowledge, rather than as instances of knowledge.

Finally, though I am indeed the person who coined and described e-learning 2.0 (based on the earlier concept of web 2.0) I am not trying to “sell” it, or MOOCs, or connectivism. People can decide for themselves, based on the evidence, whether any of these concepts has any merit.


So all I missed out then was Jacques Derrida, Immanuel Kant, Don Norman

Derrida devised the concept of difference to say that we understand concepts by distinguishing them from others. He also created differance to explain how in order to understand one word we need to understand those that make up that word. We learn by understanding the meaning of words through the link between them. We therefore shape meaning through existing meanings we give to signs/symbols.

Immanuel Kant devised the concept of epistemology, which is about how to understand how knowledge forms and develops. It is the essence of knowing. Equally, computer scientists like Don Norman have long spoken of the difference between knowledge in the head and knowledge in the world. Finally, the GROW model, attributed to Graham Alexander, Alan Fine, and Sir John Whitmore, is based on the premise that coaches (including virtual coaches) can assist in helping others to learn, adapt and change. The GROW model has a long history in organisational learning.

I agree with the problems of Wellman’s “knowledge transfer” - My MSc in E-Learning thesis, based a lot of Don Tapscott’s work opposed the broadcast model. I prefer to use “knowledge transformation.” In terms of “knowledge mobilisation,” you might be taking it too literally. Maarten De Laat’s work on “praxis,” for instance, draws on understanding what exists in a networked learning environment in terms of learner contributions and forming strategies based on those. It is perhaps only by understanding concepts familiar to Derrida and Kant that one can design systems that make use of the connections you refer to. In this paper I try to develop a systematic approach for devising definitions of words based on the subjective meanings of experts and non-experts, using Derrida’s concepts:


Thanks for bringing this up Stephen. Jenny Mackness and I have done some work recently (currently under review) that looks, amongst other things, at the impact of the Facebook stream on participant interactions. Not surprisingly, algorithms designed to maximise user-generated content may not be ideally suited to promoting interactions for learning. And then there’s the ethical issues around learning environments that inform targeted advertising.


@francesbell and @Downes: I don’t think it is that simple. I see MOOCs as “Closed Educational Resources” for the reason that they are stand alone, unlike say SCORM packaged learning objects. They are more like HyperCard than the World Wide Web. If one cannot embed a course on a MOOC into one’s own LMS, whether that is Moodle or WordPress, BlackBoard or Drupal, then how can one call it Open? Truly open educational resources are those envisaged by advocates of re-use of online learning materials like Allison Littlejohn and myself over 10 years ago.


@jonathanbishop I do worry about absolutism in educational technology, and phrases such as “truly open educational resources” ring alarm bells. Despite some efforts to set up dichotomies, there’s a wide range of MOOCs and of OERs. Some MOOC providers offer content under CC licences. Some MOOC platforms provide content that is web searchable and can be embedded into other platforms. Conversely, to be of educational value, OERs need to be more than ‘truly open’ - they need to be discoverable and educationally valuable. MOOC platforms have the value of promoting some openly accessible content to millions of people worldwide, in ways that (with some exceptions) hasn’t happened for OERs.


I see MOOCs as “Closed Educational Resources” for the reason that they
are stand alone, unlike say SCORM packaged learning objects.

This may be true for xMOOCs. It is certainly not true for the cMOOCs George Siemens and I created. Indeed, you could attend one of our MOOCs from beginning to end without even visiting the platform, solely through the use of syndication technologies like RSS. Moreover, our MOOCs were not in one place, like an xMOOC, but were distributed across a web of connections linking students resources, OERs frpom multiple locations, groups and conferences, and more.


@jonathanbishop @Downes Agree that ‘connectivism’ is not Wellman’s work (his is networked individualism that does has relevance to learning.) One of the key differences is not so much the conduit idea (because social network relations can be co-constructions, not just information transfer), but that connectivism ala Downes [please correct me if I’m wrong on your interpretation!] and Siemens includes the learning resources. Much more like ideas of personal learning networks, particularly in the way that Rosemary Luckin at Institute of Education uses the idea as a framework for design of pedagogical support tools. The connectivism viewpoint opens up a new perspective to reconsider both the ego-centric and whole learning network, with people and resource nodes.


Hi @Caroline,

So essentially what you are saying is that Siemens and Downes have re-invented that which was in my MSc Thesis in 2004?

Like connectivism my theory was based around Vygotsky, involved the use of social networking services like buddy lists and peer-to-peer-interaction, and an essential part of it was the use and re-use of learning objects (I call them artefacts).



@jonathanbishop have a look at this and then tell me if we’ve reinvented what was in your thesis.


@Downes Not on its own. Your document contains lots of chapters, which collectively make up my pre-existing research:

My 2005 paper on mediating artefacts in e-learning:

My 2007 LLM Thesis on the E-Learning Industry, including its history:

My 2007 paper on evaluation-centred design of e-learning:

My 2009 paper on ecological cognition learning theory:

My 2011 MScEcon Thesis on Knowledge Transformation:

My 2012 co-edited book, “Didactic Strategies and Technologies for Education: Incorporating Advancements” contains lots of other historical case studies by others and myself also.