Demystifying MOOCs: An Eye-Opening Ethnographic Study of Online Education

wasson Christina Wasson (Professor of Anthropology, University of North Texas) investigates communication, collaboration, and community-building in face-to-face and virtual settings. She was a founding member of the EPIC Steering Committee.

Editors note: A collaboration of social, economic, and technological factors have contributed to the flourishing of MOOC’s – massive online open courses. With public universities’ tuition more than tripling since the mid-80’s, fewer people have been able to access a traditional four-year undergraduate education. While this seemingly places MOOCs in a position of strength, this fast-moving frontier of education is still young, and suffers from design issues.

One such issue lies in the fact that while students are beginning MOOCs in record numbers, far fewer actually finish. This and other challenges plays to  Christina Wasson’s strengths, and particularly her penchant for researching “communication, collaboration, and community-building.” Here, she gets beneath statistics and surface level assumptions, employing ethnographic research techniques to study the students in her course. Her ethnographic study of online learning revealed serious limitations to the potential of MOOCs.

As one of the founders of EPIC and lead developer of the online Master’s in Anthropology at the University of Texas, her considerable experience in academia and online education come through in her post this month.

For more posts from this EPIC edition curated by  editor Tricia Wang (who gave the opening keynoted talk at EPIC this year), follow this link.



The coexistence of destruction and creation,
Image 70 in Jung’s The Red Book

People are inventing creative ways to respond to today’s economic and technological upheavals. In the American educational sector, we see the extraordinarily rapid rise of MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses – as a potential way to manage escalating college costs. The New York Times declared 2012 the “Year of the MOOC,” and Time Magazine heralded MOOCs as “revolutionary, the future, the single most important experiment that will democratize higher education and end the era of overpriced colleges.”

But what do MOOCs look like from the students’ point of view – the users? Considering that typically 85% of students drop out, it would be useful to find out how they experience MOOCs. As of fall 2013, no substantive studies had been published about MOOCs targeted at college students. However, I did lead an ethnographic study of a small-enrollment online course, and its findings have clear applications for MOOCs.


MOOCs have captured the imagination of the business press, venture capitalists, and university leaders because they seem to solve knotty problems created by shifts in educations costs, while generating business opportunities.

In the US, states have increasingly reduced their subsidization of public universities, shifting the financial burden onto individual students. As states provided less funding, tuition went up. This graph from the College Board shows that even adjusted for inflation, tuition at public universities has more than tripled since 1984.


The increase in tuition means that students need to work many more hours to pay for their education. That has resulted in a longer average time to graduation, which in turn has meant that more students marry and start families before they graduate. In this context, distance education has gained popularity because its temporal and geographic flexibility helps students manage their work and family commitments. At the same time, improvements in technology have made distance learning more accessible; computers have become cheaper and internet connections have speeded up.

Forbes - The $1 Trillion OpportunityTo university administrators and venture capitalists, MOOCs seem like a great opportunity to address these problems. A single MOOC can serve large numbers of students; previous MOOCs have enrolled as many as 160,000. Universities could contract with MOOC start-ups to provide courses that would be a lot cheaper than regular courses. This would somewhat change the MOOC concept, since the O of “Open” originally meant “free and available to anyone,” but no one seems to be talking about MOCs.

I became involved in distance learning as professor at a university where online courses are regarded as a promising way to manage resources. In fall 2006, the University of North Texas launched an online master’s program in anthropology – the first such program in the United States. I had taught ANTH 5010, our course on the history of ideas in anthropology, face-to-face since 2001, so it fell to me to develop the online version of the course. When I taught both online and on-campus versions at the same time, I became fascinated by their similarities and differences. I was inspired to do research comparing them.


I studied an online class with nine students, so it was far from “massive,” but it was ideal as a first step to examine online learning. The course used WebCT, a widely used learning technology that operates through web browsers. Each week, students read a short lesson online (as shown below), and then engaged in seminar discussion using discussion boards and a weekly teleconference. For research purposes, the online discussions were downloaded, teleconferences were transcribed, and all students were interviewed after the end of the semester.


My study used an “autoethnographic” approach, meaning that I studied students’ experiences in a course that I myself taught. There is a long history of autoethnography in applied anthropology – for instance, it was used by the early anthropologists at Xerox PARC – and my study was organized as a formal research project, approved by my university’s Institutional Review Board.


I will just share two key findings here.

1. Students perceived online discussions as high quality

One finding was that students perceived online discussions as really high quality, maybe even higher than on-campus class discussions. This is surprising to many people who assume that face-to-face seminar discussions would be better than online ones. Here are some typical interview quotes:

  • “Deep and collaborative, there was a real sense of building on ideas”
  • “I don’t think I ever got this quality of discussion in any class I ever took on campus, because I think people have so much more time to mull over what they’re thinking and when you write it out you see what you’re thinking and you get to whittle it down”
  • “It does seem a lot more thought provoking”
  • “I can think about what they are saying more. As opposed to on-campus, someone can just be talking and then someone jumps in and someone else jumps in, they’re not really, it just goes like all over the place”

You can see that one factor in the quality of discussions was the affordances of the technology. Two affordances were particularly relevant:

  • Reviewability, meaning that students were able to re-read each other’s messages and reflect on them as they were constructing their replies, and
  • Revisability, meaning that students were able to edit their messages until the text expressed exactly what they wanted to communicate.

2. Learning is social

The other key finding was that high quality discussions were facilitated by the relationships students developed with each other and with the professor (me). Here are some typical quotes:

  • “In the first few weeks of the class we talked constantly… and you know, you get really comfortable with people… it was like a little community”
  • “I felt comfortable talking to other people in the class simply because of the environment Christina created, and by that I mean the sense of openness and I think we seem to have embraced that in the way that we kind of took that from her”
  • “We were all very encouraging to each other, supportive of each other even if we didn’t agree”
  • “Christina was very encouraging of the discussions and nobody ever felt judged”

These quotes point to a fundamental insight in the education literature, namely that learning is social. Theories of distance learning pedagogy argue that successful online courses weave together three kinds of “presence”:

  • Cognitive presence, which is the collaborative exploration and construction of ideas;
  • Social presence, the cohesion, trust, and open communication that develop within a community of learners; and
  • Teaching presence, the instructor’s facilitation of the group’s learning processanth-5010-presence

While cognitive presence is what people commonly think of as learning, it can only occur effectively when supported by the other two kinds of presence. ANTH 5010 scored high in all three areas because the number of students was small, and because of how I designed the pedagogical approach.


moocs-presenceSo what does the insight that learning is social tell us about MOOC pedagogy? Of the three kinds of presence required for effective online learning, only cognitive presence is easily supported by the MOOC learning environment.

The potential for social presence is severely limited by the high MOOC drop-out rate, 85% or so for MOOCs that target college students. You can mitigate the large class size by arranging students into small groups, but they can’t form bonds if most of the members drop out.

And teaching presence is obviously not going to be effective when you have one instructor for, say, 10,000 students.


Students at SJSU

Ironically, the students who most need social presence and teaching presence are also the most likely to enroll in MOOCs. Economically disadvantaged students tend to arrive at college less well prepared than those who are well off. At the same time, the companies developing MOOCs for universities are marketing them as more affordable alternatives to face-to-face courses. So economically disadvantaged students are more likely to get tracked into MOOCs. Without the support of a sound pedagogy, these students are then more likely to fail. This irony has led to passionate critiques that college adoption of MOOCs will reproduce and exacerbate class differences in our society. San Jose State University recently “paused” its use of three remedial math MOOCs because of poor student performance; half the students failed the MOOCs, while only a quarter of them failed the same face-to-face classes.



Christina Wasson presenting at EPIC 2013

MOOCs are an extremely fast-moving phenomenon. It’s hard to offer conclusions that won’t be outdated almost immediately. However, understanding the pedagogy of online learning does lead to key insights for each of the three groups involved in MOOCs.

A key insight for MOOC start-ups is that students who are just starting college may not be the ideal users of MOOCs, since they may need more learning support than MOOCs can provide. MOOCs are a more obvious fit for professionals who have already developed strong independent study skills. The high failure rate of MOOCs may make them unattractive to universities in the end. And in fact, no one has formulated an effective business model yet for partnerships between universities and MOOC start-ups! There may not be one. The idea that MOOCs will transform university education could turn out to be another example of short-lived media hype, celebrated today and forgotten tomorrow.  A lot depends on the next point…

A key insight for people who study, design and teach MOOCs is that social presence and teaching presence are the biggest challenges that need to be resolved in order for MOOCs to fulfill their promise of democratizing higher education. Some of the people working in this field have realized this and are looking for solutions. But the challenges will not be easy to solve. It may be impossible to create adequate support structures for students who don’t have advanced skills in independent learning. On the other hand, this could be an exciting and fertile field for creative experimentation! Researchers and educators may generate a completely new paradigm for collaborative online learning. I am currently overseeing a small ethnographic pilot study on MOOC pedagogy; the topic is so intriguing that I am considering a larger study.

Finally, a key insight for students who take MOOCs is that they need to be fairly self-motivated. In order to obtain the learnings offered by the course, they need to stay with it to the end, and engage in independent problem-solving where necessary. If the course is free and not offered for credit, there will be a strong temptation to drop out, especially if the pedagogical design is not that engaging. But it could be a convenient way to learn a valuable workplace skill or acquire deeper knowledge about a topic of interest.

Secondly, in order to be successful in a MOOC, students need to be independent learners who require little support.  Some students may need more support, for instance if they come from schools that were not strong academically, or if they are the first in their family to attend college.  Students who think they might do better in a course with more support should compare failure rates between face-to-face and MOOC versions of the course they are considering.

In conclusion, MOOCs are still early in their evolution. They may lead to exciting and creative developments in collaborative online learning techniques that open educational opportunities to a broader cross-section of learners and significantly change the educational landscape.  Or they may end up being regarded as a minor innovation with limited applicability. Time will tell.


Other posts in the EPIC 2013 theme:

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7 Responses to “Demystifying MOOCs: An Eye-Opening Ethnographic Study of Online Education”

  1. Amiso George
    February 21, 2014 at 6:11 pm #

    Very interesting topic. Will explore further. Thanks.

  2. January 28, 2015 at 12:44 pm #

    The biggest challenges of MOOCs in the next phase of education changes, will definitely be the pedagogical model, or the educational framework.

    After attending more than 12 MOOCs on various platforms, in order to watch what educational model was used I was somehow disappointed to note that:
    – MOOCs are for the moment a simple facelift of a traditional linear descending educational model (yes the social offering is present yet it does not differ from the team work at conventional campuses)

    – Delivery: still linear top/bottom model, where MOOCs would )could) ne a certain answer to the “need for change”, and use the bottom to top, students and learners being at the center of the educational process (The biggest motivational trigger resides in having students from all over the world who do not necessarily know or understand a given educational model)

    – Assessment is still lacking added-value (quizzes and assignments as in regular class but through an online form)

    There are many initiatives that have started yet very limited but also in need of exposure to the appropriate influence centers and people who could actively promote what real MOOCs are about.

  3. Ferry Boschman
    December 9, 2016 at 10:39 pm #

    Though the humm-drumm about MOOCS is winding down, in the Netherlands there are still institutions opting for a MOOCS as a solution to increasing student enrollment. From an educational researchers perspective, your ethnographic study provides relevant and convincing arguments that plea for an approach that caters to students.

    It is very nice to hear from a seasoned ethnographer that there is a pressing need to be more critical towards MOOCS. So thanks for sharing this!

    Kind regards,

    Ferry Boschman


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