Audience, User, Producer: MOOCs as Activity Systems

Audience, User, Producer: MOOCs as Activity Systems

Jason Chew Kit Tham
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 24
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1718-4.ch016
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While some studies have looked at the suitability of MOOCs as an emerging mode of delivery, many seem to miss the mark on the question of usability in the MOOC context. Without a clear understanding of user roles in MOOCs, it will be challenging for course providers to evaluate the effectiveness of their designed systems and thus may negatively impact MOOC participants' experience with the course platform. With an eye toward a user-centered technological design philosophy, this chapter situates MOOCs as socio-rhetorical systems within a large complex ecology of learning. Through the lens of Activity Theory, I investigate the intricate roles of audience, user, and producer that MOOC participants play interchangeably while scrutinizing the relationships between these roles in an online social learning environment.
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Since the successful completion of George Siemens and Stephen Downes’ open course, CCK08: Connectivism and Connected Knowledge in 2008, and the founding of venture ed-tech company Coursera in 2012, the term “MOOC” (short for massive open online course) has become an echoing buzzword in higher education (Lowe, 2014). Technology entrepreneurs, higher-ed administrators, and mainstream media alike are gushing that MOOCs might be the best thing to happen to education since the movable type (Brooks, 2012; Friedman, 2012). The New York Times even named 2012 “The Year of the MOOC” to evangelize the potential of MOOCs to topple the ivory towers of higher education and enlighten the masses. Nonetheless, amidst the popular media’s trumpeting of the MOOC mania, there are those who remain skeptical about the effectiveness of MOOCs as a sound pedagogical platform. Joseph Harris, former editor of College Composition and Communication (CCC), has remarked in The Chronicle of Higher Education that MOOCs are nothing more than digitized textbooks (2013). Some detest the absence of “serious pedagogy” due to the lack of instructor-student engagement in MOOCs (Vardi, 2012); others––mainly untenured and adjunct instructors––fear that their positions might be replaced by online talking heads through an inevitability of corporatization of MOOCs (Shirky, 2013). As far as these conversations are concerned, most efforts have been spent on wrangling over the suitability of MOOCs as a replacement of traditional education models. Alas, little attention was given to the question of usability in the MOOC context. While several convention presentations (Adair, 2013; Taylor, 2013) have attempted to explore specific course design approaches to applied to MOOC models using heuristics such as the ones developed by Quality Matters, there still lacks a more global discussion on course development and the rhetorical decisions in various design approaches.

Coming from different parts of the world, MOOC participants join every course with varying intentions and expectations. A recent study from Stanford University, the birthplace of the first Coursera MOOC, concludes that not all online students are the same (Kizilcec, Piech, & Schneider, 2013). The study identifies at least four subpopulations of participants with different engagement trajectories in their MOOC-taking experience:

  • Completing Learners: Participants who complete the majority of the assessments offered in the class.

  • Auditing Learners: Participants who do assessments infrequently (if at all) and engage instead by watching video lectures.

  • Disengaging Learners: Participants who do assessments at the beginning of the course but then have a marked decrease in engagement, generally in the first third of the class.

  • Sampling Learners: Participants who enter and exit the course quickly, watching a minimal number of videos at some point during the course.

Burdened by the public exigence to respond to the relatively low completion rates in MOOCs today, this finding calls for research into the usability of MOOCs as designed systems that cater to different types of participants. The urge for a usability turn to MOOC research signals the importance of understanding users in MOOCs and their experience with the course (Stathopoulou, 2014; Lau, 2014). Without a clear grasp of user roles, it will be challenging for MOOC providers to evaluate the effectiveness of their designed systems and it may negatively impact MOOC participants’ experience with the course platform.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Activity Theory: A conceptual and methodological framework for studying individual subjects and the social reality they reside within through socio-cultural examinations of the mediating activities.

Audience: A group or an individual who encounters a given form of communicative artifact, be it oral, textual, visual, aural––or a combination of these––analog or digital.

Social Learning: A theory of learning that posits learning as a cognitive process that takes place in a social context.

Participatory Culture: A culture that challenges the consumer culture, wherein individuals do not act merely consumer but also participate in cultural commodities as contributors or “prosumers.”

Coursera: A for-profit educational technology company that provides a platform for massive open online courses.

Pedagogy: The method and practice of teaching.

Connectivism: A theory of learning that emphasizes the social and cultural aspects in the process of learning within networked, complex, and self-organized environments.

Usability: The study and practice of use and learnability of designed objects or systems.

Agency: The rhetorical capacity and emergent process enacted through which individuals create meanings.

Produser: A hybrid term that combines “producer” and “user” to refer to an individual (or a group of individuals) who is engaged in the culture of peer production amid the emergence of new information environment.

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