#SOCRMx: Week 3 – Working with images

I have found the working with images resources in the Introduction to Social Research Methods MOOC very stimulating. According to the information provided in this course, visual methods are becoming increasingly popular.  I have always been interested in images, knowing that they can elicit ideas and feelings that words cannot. John Berger in his series of programmes on “Ways of Seeing” showed that the relation between what we see and what we know is never settled.

There are three kinds of visual data

  • researcher created, e.g. diagrams, maps, videos, photos
  • participant created, e.g. video diaries
  • researcher curated, e.g. a photo essay, cultural anthropology

Digital technologies have greatly increased the possibilities for working with each of these kinds of data. Images can also be used to elicit information in interviews.

Key considerations when working with visual images for research are: Why use this method? How can it address the research question? What are the best images for the given question? How can the image/s be accessed? What are the ethical implications of using images, e.g. research participant anonymity and right to privacy?

With respect to photos, further considerations relate to how a photo is conceptualised. Is it a copy or is it a more complex construction? Does the camera never lie or do the eye and brain perceive differently to the camera? Do we accept that the photo is evidence or do we consider how the photo was produced, what choices were made, what is included/excluded, what was around the photo that cannot be seen?

The strengths of visual research methods are thought to be that they can:

  • Generate more talk
  • Evoke sensory, affective and emotional responses
  • Encourage reflection on what is taken for granted, what is hidden, what is visible, what is not visible
  • Engage with people who find talk challenging
  • Reduce power differentials
  • Are inherently collaborative and interpreted through communication

This week’s task

The task for this method is to spend an hour or two engaging in a small-scale image-creation research activity. I have not taken a photo specifically for this task, but have trawled back through my own photos to find one that might fit the task and raise some of the issues that need to be addressed.

I have selected this photo that was taken in 2012. I could envisage this photo being used for example with Indian tourism students to explore perceptions of inequality.

Source of photo – here

We have been asked to consider six questions.

  • What is depicted in the image(s)?

I think this would be an interesting question to ask the tourism students. For me the image shows an Indian woman carrying a small child apparently unaffected by a white woman sunbathing. This appears to be a normal situation and each appears oblivious of the other, maybe indicating that they live in separate worlds even though they are inhabiting the same space.

  • What were you trying to discover by creating your image(s)

At the time I was on holiday in Mamallapuram, South of Chennai in India. This photo was not planned, but I noticed the incongruity suggested by the scene, probably because I am a white woman and was a tourist. Neither subject was aware of me taking the photo. I don’t think there were any ethics concerned with taking the photo – lots of unknown people appear in my holiday photos. I’m not sure what the ethics would be of using this photo for a real research project, given that there is no way that I could identify or contact either of the subjects.

  • What did the process of image creation involve?

I was in the right place at the right time with my camera ready. This photo was not staged. It was a snapshot in time, but nevertheless I was aware at the time that it conveys a message beyond a beach scene.

  • What is not seen, and why?

The photo is as it was taken. It might have been cropped and sharpened – I don’t remember, but just looking at it through this frame makes it appear that there are just two people on the beach. In fact I was sitting in a restaurant on the edge of the beach, full of tourists, and the beach was full of people, both Indians and tourists from around the world. There were also fishermen with their boats on the beach. It was a lively location and was situated within walking distance of the exquisite Mahabalipuram stone carvings. Does knowing this change how the photo is perceived?

  • How is meaning being conveyed?

Through the proximity of the two subjects who are so near but so far from each other. They are back to back, facing in opposite directions, but don’t appear concerned, or even to have noticed this ambiguity. Further opposites are conveyed through their clothing and through their posture – one is walking and the other lying.

  • With respect to the photograph, how might the image convey something different to your experience of ‘being there’.

The image appears still and quiet without sound, or the sound of the sea, but it was busy and there was plenty of sound, chatter, laughter, shouting, music, the sound of the sea and so on. Indian tourism students may have seen this type of scene so often that they do not notice it or if they do it may not concern them. Alternatively it may concern them greatly. As tourism students are the contradictions evident in this photo something they should be concerned about? What issues are raised?

#SOCRMx End of Week 3 Reflections

This is the third week of the Introduction to Social Research Methods MOOC, which I am finding both very useful and frustrating at the same time. It is very useful, because the resources provided (as mentioned in a previous post) are really excellent, but unfortunately some of them are locked down in closed systems so only accessible to course participants. I wish there was more time to engage with them all properly. Their high quality has left me wondering whether I should spend time making sure I have seen them all or whether I should focus on the weekly tasks and trying to follow other participants.

The course is frustrating because there is little social interaction, or have I missed it? The majority of participants seem to be doing a Masters or a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, so completing the tasks and getting feedback from a tutor on those tasks must be a high priority for them and the tasks take quite a bit of time, not leaving much time for discussion. In addition, it’s difficult to respond to the task requirements in short posts, leading to long pages of text which are demotivating in terms of discussion. I find the design of the edX discussion forums terrible – very time consuming and difficult. I feel as though I have wasted time trying to follow what little discussion there is in these forums.

I wondered whether there was more discussion on participants’ blogs than in the forums, so I have spent some time collating all the blogs I could find. If blogs are going to be used in MOOCs, then my view is that it’s essential that these are centrally aggregated. This was realized as long ago as 2008 in the first MOOC – CCK08. This is the list of bloggers I have found.

There are probably more than this. I am finding it very difficult to get a sense of who is doing this MOOC, from where and why. The map that we were all asked to add our names to in the first week, no longer seems to be on the site (or if it is, I can no longer find it), so I have no sense of how many people are on the course. From the forum posts that I have read, there seem to be people from the States, Latin America, Australia and Europe, but I’m not clear about whether they are students of Edinburgh University or not.

I am going to persevere with the MOOC because of the high quality of the resources and I will also try and follow the blogs I have found, although I suspect that not all participants are blogging that much.

However, on reflection I have decided that I probably won’t engage fully with the tasks. My response to last week’s task on Surveys was, I acknowledge, quite half-hearted, whereas I can see that some participants made a really good job of it. One participant has commented that it is difficult to engage in tasks for which there doesn’t seem a real purpose. I agree. I find it difficult to get motivated to write survey questions or complete some of the other tasks with no intention of doing this for an actual research project. This is not helped by the fact that I am actually, at this very time, completing writing a research paper, so my ‘head’ is in another zone.

Nevertheless this process and reflection have been helpful – because I have realized, even more clearly than before, that in all my research I have worked backwards rather than forwards. This means that I haven’t decided ‘I am going to go out and research that’, these are my questions, this is the methodology I will adopt, and these are the methods I will use. All my research has emerged, almost serendipitously, from my experience – mostly experience of participating in MOOCs. At the end of the MOOC (or equivalent experience) I find I have met people who, like me, have unanswered questions and want to probe further and then it goes from there. It is messy. The questions keep changing, the data is difficult and messy to gather and it takes months and months to make sense of. The survey we designed to research the use of blogs and forums in the CCK08 MOOC, took months and months of convoluted discussion. We didn’t concoct these questions from thin air, we drew them from our data, endless hours of trawling blogs and forums for what participants had said. We then spent further endless hours debating these statements, their language, whether they made sense and yet we have been asked in this MOOC to write a set of hypothetical survey questions in one week. In addition, all my research has been collaborative, so it feels strange to be working on the methods tasks in isolation, however half-heartedly.

To end on a more positive note, I have thoroughly enjoyed going through all the Visual Methods and Ethnography resources this week, which have been very informative.

And to end on a fun note, one of the participants, Helen Walker (@helenwalker7) has just posted an infrographics quiz on her blog –  The ‘who old are you? quiz shows me to be at the limits of my creative zenith, career and worldly success. Maybe that accounts for this post 🙂

PhD by Publication – Selection of Papers

In her book, PhD by Published Work, Susan Smith writes that one of the disadvantages of this route to a PHD is that ‘it is tricky to retrospectively shoe-horn diverse papers into a post hoc theme’ (p.34).

This statement seems to suggest that researchers jump from project to project that have no direct links between them. Maybe this is the case for researchers, associated with universities, who may have to work on projects which are not their principal area of interest, either because these projects bring in funding, or because papers from these projects will contribute to their University’s research excellence framework (REF). I can see that this might lead to diverse papers that are difficult to pull together, but neither of these constraints applied to me, since I have always worked as an independent researcher.

Despite this, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me which papers I should select for this PhD by Publication or what the focus of my supporting statement should be. I think there were at least three possible routes I could have gone down, depending on which and how many papers I selected for submission and which papers I left out. As Ian McGilchrist says on p.133 of his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World:

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find.

Perhaps not surprisingly, in order to select papers, I first had to refresh my memory about these publications. Once a paper has been published I tend not to go back and reread it multiple times, but instead move on to the next research project. Although I knew the general gist of all the papers, I didn’t remember all the detail. So I started by working on a mini literature review of my own papers, critiquing them, summarising them, checking the number of citations and how and where the work has been disseminated. Looking back at my journal, I can see that I didn’t find this process particularly easy. It was time consuming and my first summaries were streams of consciousness rather than summaries. Ultimately, I ended up with the summaries of the papers I selected that are in Appendix 3 of the thesis – Jenny Mackness PhD (Pub) 2017.

To decide on which papers to select, I used Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool, which allows you to enter text into a mapping tool and look for links between the entered texts.

Since 2009, I have published 20 papers and one book chapter. I entered the Abstracts of all these publications into the Think Tool and as a result was able to create 6 groups of papers and identify cross-paper themes.

Interrelationships between all publications by group and keyword. (Figure 1 in the thesis, on p.16)

I blogged about this process at the time – A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes. From this process it became clear to me that whilst a large body of work was related to emergent learning, and I could have focussed solely on that, in fact even those papers resulted from participation in MOOCs and a deep interest in how learning occurs in these open environments at the level of the individual learner. I felt there was only one group of papers that diverged from this and that was the group that looks at whether and how learning design can be influenced by an embodied view of the world and a view of perception and action as enactive perception using all the senses, but even these papers originated from an interest in the design of learning environments.

Having decided on which groups to focus on there still remained the question of how many papers to select. For Lancaster University, there was no advice on the number of papers to be submitted other than that the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.” At this stage I went into the department to look at the PhDs by Published Work already awarded, to discover that there had only been three since 1999 (1999, 2003, 2010) and each of these was awarded to a member of staff in the department, who submitted 9, 11 and 10 published works respectively together with a supporting statement of around 40 pages, although I have seen other examples from Lancaster University considerably shorter than this. Ultimately, I submitted 13 papers and a supporting statement of 101 pages. I mention this not to suggest that the number of pages is in any way significant, but just to illustrate that it seems that at Lancaster University there is a wide variety of practice. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the case across universities. The uncertainty associated with this was not easy to work with, but on the other hand seemed to mirror the unpredictable learning environments I have researched, where I have worked with no externally imposed rules or expectations.

Throughout this process I felt I was working in the same way I have always worked, i.e. working it out as I went along, and letting the process and structure emerge. One of my ‘critical friends’ who gave me feedback on the thesis after I had submitted but before the viva thought that my important work was related to the ‘Footprints of Emergence’ framework and emergent learning rather than the empirical papers and I think that my colleague Roy Williams, probably thinks the same, although he hasn’t said this. But the analysis of my papers, using Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool,  revealed my ‘golden thread’ (as Susan Smith calls it) to be ‘learners’ experiences in cMOOCs’, so that is what I focussed on.

On reflection and given the open structure of the PhD by Publication, I can see that in different circumstances at a different time, I might have selected a different set of papers and ended up with a different thesis. Now there’s a thought! But I’m not going to test out this idea  🙂

Why do a PhD by Publication?

Why do a PhD at all?

I have considered this question many times since I completed my MA in 1997 when I was asked by the awarding University department to continue to do a PhD. I declined. My job at the time was demanding and the MA, despite having really enjoyed it, had been a strain on me and my family’s patience! But a PhD was always in the back of my mind. In 2010, I considered it again and rejected the idea once more . During these years, I continued to work as an independent researcher with a variety of colleagues, producing a number of papers. At the end of 2015 I didn’t have any more research projects planned, so my mind turned again to the possibility of doing a PhD. It seemed it was a niggle that just wouldn’t go away. My eldest son sent me an email saying, ‘For goodness sake Mum, you’ve been talking about it for years – just get on with it.’

Source of image 

(I didn’t discover this book until after I had submitted, but I wish I had discovered it earlier)

There are many reasons for doing a PhD. I have friends who have completed or are working on research PhDs, i.e. they research a topic of personal interest for three or more years, or taught PhDs, where six taught and assessed modules are completed over the first two years, before embarking on a shorter thesis which takes two years or more. Reasons seem to be a combination of personal interest in the chosen topic and career incentives/ambitions and from what I have seen the award of a PhD can lead to new career opportunities. My reasons did not relate to my career, but they did relate to changing personal circumstances.

I have recently reached my eighth decade (70 as of last November to be precise) so a PhD as a career move was not relevant for me. In fact, it might mark the end of my research career. I haven’t decided yet. I needed to do it for myself. Although I knew that it was possible to do a PhD by publication, I thought I probably wasn’t eligible. Many Universities will only take members of staff to do a PhD by Publication.   When I went to Lancaster University in January 2016 to enquire about doing a PhD, I went with the intention of starting a full research PhD. It was Professor Paul Ashwin, Head of Department, who ultimately became my supervisor, who asked me why I wasn’t considering a PhD by Publication. Interestingly the Educational Research Department at Lancaster University, which has awarded my PhD, has no mention of a PhD by Publication on its website , but Paul found out for me that I was eligible at Lancaster University to do this, since I am an alumna (my MA) and I worked for nine years for an associated institution.

I didn’t fully realise until well into my PhD that this was the perfect route for me. Not only was it a wonderful act of retrospective coherence, a pulling together of eight years’ work, but it also came at just the right time and only cost me £600, which now that I am rarely paid for work I do and am living off my pension, was an important consideration. On reflection, although this was not a consideration at the time, it was also important that it didn’t take as long (18 months in total); at my age time is short and I have a lot of things on my bucket list to fit in 🙂

So what did I have to do for this PhD?

PhDs by publication in the UK don’t seem to be very common – and I am not talking about the kind of PhD which is assessed by the papers that are written and published as part of the PhD study. That kind of PhD seems quite common in some countries in Europe and in Canada. My PhD by Publication was different. It involved drawing on existing published papers and making the case for a contribution to the body of knowledge in the field studied (in my case – learners’ experiences in connectivist MOOCs). This act of retrospective coherence was particularly apt for me, since a lot of my research has been into exploring how emergent learning occurs in complex adaptive systems – namely open online learning environments.

Different universities have different requirements both for entry and for the thesis submission, for a PhD by Publication. In my case the application was as much work as the thesis submission, although that was partly my own choice as I decided to try and do most of the work (i.e. the Literature Review and mapping analysis of papers) upfront, leaving me less to do after acceptance.

The application requirements for Lancaster University were as follows:

  • a list of the publications to be submitted: these may include refereed articles, authored chapters, authored books, and edited works. They may not include course readers, internally published material or unpublished seminar/conference papers, and 
  • a supporting paper: this should summarise each publication submitted, outline their interrelationship, give a critical review of the current state of knowledge and research in the applicant’s field and indicate how his or her work has contributed to the field.  It should also comment on the standing of any journals and the reception of the publications as indicated by citations and reviews

In relation to the length of the submission, there are no set word limits for the supporting paper which should accompany the submitted publications. The supporting paper must cover all the areas outlined in section 53(b) of the criteria (bullet points above) and the material submitted must be “sufficiently extensive as to provide convincing evidence that the research constitutes a substantial contribution to knowledge or scholarship.”  

If the application is successful, you would then work with an internal adviser to expand on the supporting paper, so this is not the final submission, basically it’s the starting point in order to ascertain if your work is at the appropriate level, i.e. PhD.

During the PhD I kept a comprehensive journal of all my thinking and progress on a private wiki which I only shared with Matthias Melcher, who was wonderfully critically supportive and encouraging throughout the whole process. What is so amazing about this is that we have never even met face-to-face. Matthias was there at the very start of my research into connectivist MOOCs. We ‘met’ in CCKO8 – the first ever MOOC.

Looking back at my wiki notes I see that I started to think about applying for a PhD in December 2015 and had my first meeting with Paul Ashwin at Lancaster University in January 2016. I submitted my application at the beginning of June 2016 and my thesis (supporting statement) at the beginning of December 2016. My viva was at the end of March 2017 and my final submission with minor revisions in May 2017. These were accepted June 2017. Through most of this time, I worked full time on the PhD.

Now that it is over, my family are proud but relieved that life can finally go back to normal. My eldest son’s response this time was, ‘Well who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks!’

A-Z of authors I have learned from this year


To follow my last post – A-Z of my year – I have been thinking about my reading this year.

Unlike the last one, this A-Z is not a complete list. For some letters of the alphabet there is more than one author. For others, there are none. Nearly all these references relate to my work, but a few are related to personal interests. Only one is a novel.

I have read a lot more than this over the year, many more journal papers and novels, not to mention many blogs. Several of the references listed here are not new to me, i.e. I have not read them for the first time this year. I have included references that stand out as having in some way influenced my thinking this year. The references have, in some cases, also been selected because for one reason or another the author has been significant in my learning this year. For many authors I could have selected more than one paper. Unfortunately, I have had to be selective, so the list doesn’t do justice to all who have influenced me, but it has been interesting to compile.

Here is my list.


Ashwin, Paul – Analysing Teaching-Learning Interactions in Higher Education: Accounting for Structure and Agency


Baggaley, Jon – MOOC Postscript

Barnett, Ron – A Will to Learn: Being a Student in an Age of Uncertainty

Bates, Tony – Teaching in a Digital Age

Bayne, Sian & Ross, Jen – The Pedagogy of the Massive Open Online Course: the UK View

Biesta, Gert – The Beautiful Risk of Education


Cilliers, Paul – Complexity, Deconstruction and Relativism


Downes, Stephen – OLDaily  and Half an Hour 

Dwyer, Sonya & Buckle, Jennifer – The Space Between: On Being an Insider-Outsider in Qualitative Research 


Edwards, Richard – Knowledge Infrastructures and the Inscrutability of Openness in Education

Esposito, Antonella – Research Ethics in Emerging Forms of Online Learning: Issues Arising from a Hypothetical Study on a MOOC


Farrow, Robert – A Framework for the Ethics of Open Education


Gourlay, Lesley – Open Education as a ‘Heterotopia of Desire’ 


Haythornthwaite, Caroline – Rethinking Learning Spaces: Networks, Structures, and Possibilities for Learning in the Twenty-First Century


Knox, Jeremy – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course 


Littlejohn, Allison, et al. – Learning in MOOCs: Motivations and Self-Regulated Learning in MOOCs


Marshall, Stephen – Exploring the Ethical Implications of MOOCs

McGilchrist, Iain – The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World

Melcher, Matthias – Connectivist Think Tool


Noddings, Nel – Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education


Osberg, Deborah & Biesta, Gert – The Emergent Curriculum: Navigating a Complex Course between Unguided Learning and Planned Enculturation 


Polit, Denise & Beck, Cheryl – Generalization in Quantitative and Qualitative Research: Myths and Strategies


Raffaghelli, Juliana – Methodological Approaches in MOOC Research: Retracing the Myth of Proteus 

Rolfe, Vivien – A Systematic Review of the Socio-Ethical Aspects of Massive Online Open Courses 

Ross, Jen – Speculative Method in Digital Education Research 


Sousanis, Nick – Unflattening

Sharpe, Rhona – 53 Interesting Ways to Support Online Learning

Snowden, David & Boone, Mary – A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making


Tschofen, Carmen – first novel completed


University of Edinburgh – 2016 Manifesto for Teaching Online


Veletsianos, George & Shepherdson, Peter – A Systematic Analysis and Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015 


Weller, Martin – The Art of Guerrilla Research  

Wenger, Etienne – Learning, Technology and Community. A Journey of the Self

Williams, Roy – The Resonance Project

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.

Third Research Paper on Rhizomatic Learning

Slide 3

Source of image: Making sense of the Rhizome Metaphor for Teaching and Learning

Today our third paper about learning in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (commonly known as Rhizo14) has been published. Here are links to the three papers.

Third paper: 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.

Second paper: Mackness, J., Bell, F. & Funes, M. (2016). The Rhizome: a problematic metaphor for teaching and learning in a MOOC. 32(1), p.78-91 Australasian Journal of Educational Technology.

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

At the end of our first paper, in which we explored alternative perspectives of learners’ experiences in this MOOC, we wrote:

In future writing, we will explore:

  • Interrelated processes of community and curriculum formation in Rhizo14
  • The positive and negative effects of emotion and alienation
  • Moderation and leadership roles in the design and conduct of de-centred courses
  • Distributed spaces, technologies and services in a multi-platform MOOC
  • The rhizome as a metaphor for teaching and learning

I think we have written about all these points, although not as separate points and some have been covered more implicitly than explicitly.

All these papers have been published in open journals and have been openly discussed by a group of Rhizo14 participants. I think most researchers would be gratified that their papers are noticed and discussed. At the beginning of the year Veletsianos and Shepherdson (2016) published a systematic analysis and synthesis of the empirical MOOC literature published in 2013-2015 in which they commented ‘that a select few papers are widely cited while nearly half of the papers are cited zero times’. In other words a lot of research goes unnoticed.

It is too early for this research on Rhizomatic Learning to have received a lot of citations. I know from an early paper that colleagues and I wrote about CCK08 (the first MOOC) that it took two years for the paper to be noticed, but since then it has been cited a number of times.

In the meantime these three papers on rhizomatic learning have not gone unnoticed. Currently they are being discussed in the Rhizo15 Facebook group. This is rather ironic, since this third paper raises the problems, based on evidence, associated with using Facebook for discussion. For this reason we have asked for comment and discussion of the papers, which we welcome, to take place on our blogs. Here is the link to Frances’ blog post – http://francesbell.com/research-in-learning-technology/participant-association-and-emergent-curriculum-in-a-mooc-can-the-community-be-the-curriculum/

I have learned a lot, on so many levels, from these two years of research, which has all been voluntary, unfunded and collaborative and which will inform my future work.


Veletsianos, G., & Shepherdson, P. (2016). A Systematic Analysis And Synthesis of the Empirical MOOC Literature Published in 2013-2015. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning. 17(2), Retrieved from: http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/2448/3629