Critical Examination of MOOCs by Jeremy Knox

Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education was published early this year.  I bought the book soon after it was published but have only this summer got round to reading it.

It’s a pity that this is not an open access e-book, which might have received more immediate attention and discussion. I think it does deserve to be discussed since Knox questions whether MOOCs really have been revolutionary and disruptive saying in the introduction,

‘MOOCs have emerged simply as the latest in a long and established line of educational endeavours premised on the nurturing and refinement of a particular kind of human being: one that thinks in a reasoned way; has a natural capacity for independence; and which shares these exclusive traits with all others assumed to be of the same species’(p.2).

He argues that despite the differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, ultimately they both promote humanist assumptions of universalism, essentialism, autonomy and transcendental subjectivity.

The problems with these assumptions are explored through Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the book, in which he develops the following arguments.

The assumption of a universal humanist subject:

  • has been at the heart of the design of MOOCs which emanate from the West, thus resulting in a new form of colonialism, where instead of acquiring geographical territory MOOCs acquire data. Knox calls this ‘data colonialism’ and uses visualisations of the globe and global barriers, with visualisations of global enrolment numbers in MOOCs to support this view.
  • homogenises MOOC participation and ‘[…] forbids internal difference as well as societal difference, and acts to continually close down the possibilities for alternative, immanent relations with the richness and diversity of the world.’ (p.212)

Knox argues that participation in MOOCs is measured through visible activity, retention and completion rates and ‘lurking’ or associated non-visible activity (i.e. difference) is seen as problematic. This view is supported by the number of research outputs that focus on completion and retention rates. ‘[…] ‘lurking’ is made visible only in the form of a negative response to the specific data capture and quantification strategy’ (p.101). Rather than embrace the diversity of MOOC participants a lot of research has focused on categorising participants. Knox sees the attempt to quantify participation as another colonisation practice.

He also sees the promotion of personal learning networks (PLNs) as a promotion of a focus on the individual humanist subject, which seems to be at odds with the open, sharing, networked learning that MOOCs, particularly cMOOCs, aspire to.

‘[…] the PLN seems to reinforce the idea of MOOC education as a self-determining and self-centred endeavour.‘ (p.115)

  • privileges bounded and located place and face-to-face teaching and learning, maintaining institutional elitism and inequality and promoting in/out boundaries and campus envy. Knox uses the very successful MOOC, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry as an example of a MOOC which uses the campus–based location to promote a sense of place.
  • fails to take account of ‘the complex relations between human action and algorithmic execution, resulting in an impoverished grasp of the way MOOC spaces are enacted’ (p.213) and the influence they can have on each other, how they ‘contaminate’ each other. To support this argument he uses examples from the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC) which with colleagues from Edinburgh University he helped to design and deliver in partnership with Coursera. He writes of how learning spaces in this MOOC were not stable but produced through movement and transition and ‘the entanglement of human users and non-human algorithms which create contaminated spatial orderings’ (p. 178).

Given my own involvement in MOOCs and MOOC research since 2008 I can see lots of parallels between Knox’s work and my own research. The notion of MOOCs promoting a new form of Western colonialism makes sense to me, as does an ethos of ‘tyranny of participation’ which I first started to think about in 2007 after a discussion with Vivien Hodgson about the paper she was to present with Debra Ferreday at the 2008 Networked Learning Conference.

My research has also highlighted concerns with the homogenising tendency of MOOCs (Tschofen & Mackness, 2012; Mackness & Bell, 2015)

And from recent research with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (Bell, Mackness & Funes, 2016) I know that social media algorithms can contaminate spatial orderings and that technology is not neutral.

Even the discussion that the ModPo MOOC’s promotion of a sense of place might result in a form of elitism seems a reasonable argument, but it was this argument that made me realise where I stand in relation to Jeremy Knox’s points of view.

I have been a participant in the ModPo MOOC twice and it stands out for me as one of the best and most stimulating MOOCs I have enrolled in. Having had this experience and looking back through Chapter 4 of the book – Housing the MOOC – I find I have 10 different notes in the margins stating that ‘I don’t agree’ or words to that effect. Whilst, when participating in the MOOC, I was aware that the Kelly Writer’s House (the physical space and place from which the ModPo MOOC was filmed) was inaccessible to me in terms of location, not for one minute did I experience this as exclusion. In fact it had the exact opposite effect. I thought that creating such a unique and ‘real’ but virtual sense of place greatly increased my involvement in and positive experience of the course. It was one of the elements of the MOOC that impressed me.

This means of course that in Jeremy Knox’s terms I must be invested in the humanist subject in relation to education. On thinking about this I realise that that is exactly what I am. I believe that first and foremost learning is a human endeavour, one that relates to issues of identity (Wenger, 1998) and a transformation of ‘being’ (Barnett, 2007; Freire, 1970). Currently I am learning ‘to be’ a researcher. This is turning out to be a very long on-going protracted process. I network, collaborate and engage with a wide range of people and technologies and am at least somewhat aware of the effects of algorithms; I know I am not an island. I am influenced by whatever is in my environment, just as whatever is in my environment is influenced by me.

But for me, learning is ultimately about me. I am unique, not in an arrogant sense, but because my experience of learning, the community, the environment, the technology is unique to me. It can be similar to someone else’s experience but not exactly the same. I think this is what Stephen Downes recognises in his work on personal learning networks and in his talk The MOOC of One.

There are paradoxes in the delivery of MOOCs which I think Jeremy Knox has been successful in uncovering. His book is a thought-provoking critique of humanist assumptions surrounding the design and delivery of MOOCs, which I think are well worth engaging with. His concerns related to homogenisation, the tyranny of participation and the influence of social media algorithms on social interaction and learning in MOOCs are very similar to my own.

If you are interested in MOOCs then I can recommend reading this book.


Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press.

Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Routledge

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Tschofen, C. & Mackness, J. (2011) Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Wenger E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.