Why We Post – Introduction

Background

Discover the varying uses of social media around the world and its consequences for politics, relationships and everyday life. This free online course is based on the work of nine anthropologists who each spent 15 months in fieldsites in Brazil, Chile, industrial and rural China, England, India, Italy, Trinidad and Turkey.

The team of anthropologists, headed by Daniel Miller, produced eleven freely available books, which together with this course aim to disseminate their findings in a rather innovative way … socially?

This is a five week course, each week focusing on a particular theme arising from the different field sites:
Week 1 – What is the anthropology of social media?
Week 2 – What does social media look like?
Week 3 – The impact of social media on gender and politics.
Week 4 – The Chinese Challenge
Week 5 – Social media and social mobility

There are around twenty activities within each week; these consist of video provocations or readings, each drawn from the field or the findings. Each activity has an associated discussion thread where participants can post comments or observations, or answer the questions posed which formed part of the activity, Naturally they can also comment on each others’ posts and thereby enter into discussions. It will be interesting to see how successful this is, given the topic of the course. Will it have attracted people who are naturally more inclined towards online contributions and interactions?

My positionality

There are a number of threads behind my decision to participate in this course, beginning with my interest in MOOCs. From the early days when Siemens and Downes first coined the term to describe their innovative online offering, I’ve been intrigued by their (potential) massiveness, openness and potential for provoking teachers and learners to reconsider the way they teach and learn. What does it mean to learn (or teach) within a community of hundreds or thousands? How does the presence of learners from a wide range of cultures, of different ages and with different capabilities, needs and backgrounds with respect to the topic, affect the learning experience. To what extent is it possible (or necessary?) to build trust and learning relationships with peers and tutors/facilitators in such a densely populated environment? How does the baggage of expectations based on traditional educational experiences affect participation and completion? Might MOOCs sit comfortably alongside more conventional offerings as an alternative strand, or are they provoking us to rethink what we do and the way we do it? These issues are being discussed in formal academic circles1, the media and across the blogosphere, including my modest offerings.

I’ve already participated in several MOOCs, bucking the trend by completing more than those where I dropped out. Some have been through the MOOC aggregation platforms like Coursera and FutureLearn, and have including ‘Computer Science 101,’ ‘An Introduction to Dutch’ and ‘Qualitative Research.’ Others have been smaller scale, more niche and from individual or institutional providers. With only a couple of exceptions, I’ve found them to have served my needs more than adequately … but that hinges on what my needs and expectations were and what I had in mind as success criteria.

My reasons for embarking on this course then include extending my experiences with MOOCs from the participant perspective, but crucially this is a topic which currently of importance to me in my formal studies. (And I’m immediately struck by my use of the word ‘formal’ and how I set it apart from my participation in this MOOC. Is one formal and the other not? Something to explore further.). I’m also attracted by the fact that the course ‘leader’ is Daniel Miller, who produced one of the seminal works associated with the early days of digital/virtual ethnography2. I guess that if you are familiar with his works, it conveys a sense of legitimacy or gravitas for the course.

In a rather timely doctoral supervision meeting this week, when I mentioned that I’d’ embarked on the MOOC, it was pointed out that this might also present an additional opportunity. To reflect on my experience as a learner within a larger community of learners, who are all focused on social media and are brought together within an environment which has several parallels with social media. It was suggested that it might prove illuminating to journal my participation, so what follows over forthcoming posts constitutes that process.

Numbers

Although I don’t have access to any of the underlying data, it appears there are around 15000 participants, located around the globe (click the map to visit the ‘live’ version):

Locations of participants from around the world
Locations of participants from around the world

The distribution leaves much to discuss, as I’m sure the course leaders will be doing. Naturally, the UK features heavily and South America too, yet perhaps surprisingly, not its northern counterpart. Nor indeed Australia and New Zealand. I wonder if the map, representing only 10% of the participants, reflects the distribution of the population as a whole?

I’m participating in the English strand of the course, though I understand it is also being offered in several other languages, perhaps associated with the field sites? Any further observations then, will be based on what I’ve seen within the English strand and may not reflect what is happening across the others. Anecdotally, based solely on my observations in the discussion threads, I’d say there is a 4:1 female:male gender split, for which there may be a host of reasons. It’s hard to establish ages, but from profile pics (perhaps unlikely to be relaible for a number of reasons) there appears to be a range spanning young adults to those of us with more … experience.

In the next post, I’ll focus on the exercises within Week 1.

1LIYANAGUNAWARDENA, Tharindu Rekha, ADAMS, Andrew Alexandar and WILLIAMS, Shirley Ann (2013). MOOCs: A systematic study of the published literature 2008-2012. [online]. The international review of research in open and distributed learning, 14 (3), 202-227
2MILLER, Daniel and SLATER, Don (2000). The Internet : An Ethnographic Approach. [online]. Oxford, Oxford : Berg.

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