The Narrative as Theoretical Construct to understand Digital Realities

Having been recently confronted with “what do you study in Second Life” yet again, I have felt the need to come up with a useful theoretical tool.  While I have been collecting data in SL since 2011, almost entirely video capture along all the roads in the mainland areas of SL, interpreting the use of space, concepts of place and the built environment in SL has been elusive.  Existing theories in geography and archaeology are lacking in that they seem to come from two polar POVs: 1) the group defines all [think vernacular architecture studies in U.S.]; 2) the entirely autonomous individual [the stereotype of SL in popular media].  Neither works for what you can see walking (or flying) down a road in SL.  What you see is strange patterns of conformity, largely mundane architecture (especially bungalow homes with garages, yard, fence…) with occasional highly exotic builds that are almost entirely in 3 genres: European fantasy/gothic; urban grunge; semi-Japanese.  The vast majority of SL residents buy objects/homes from crafter-residents in SL (at SL Marketplace).  Therefore while you can ‘reinvent’ yourself in SL, your home will be a purchase, and frequently a mundane one.

This is the big conundrum in SL: If you can be who/whatever you want, and live in whatever you want, why are the choices so mundane?  There is no centralized zoning, regulations on builds, or other ‘group control’ at work–this is the result of individual choices.  I should note that he cost of the build is almost invariably quite small compared (between .25-5.00$ US) to the monthly rental costs of owning property to put the house on, so cost isn’t an issue.  There are a large number of cheap strange structures, and some quite expensive (and very accurate) California bungalows c. 1955.  So we are looking at market-constrained individual choice.

So I present the construct of the “Narrative”.  A Narrative is the sum total of an individual’s self identity.  Note that others contribute to the Narrative through interaction, criticism, providing models to emulate, etc.  Individuals are not free to write their own Narrative–all Narratives are collective in nature.  Having said that, the individual in the Narrative is always the central player–they choose how to engage with other forces, they constantly make choices in what to look like, sound like, act like, in many cases where multiple choices are available.

In SL this means when you look at a bungalow residence in Sansara, that represents a complex intertwining of individual choice (the resident chose the house, the property, and rezzed it on site) and the group (builders who constructed the house/furniture etc.).  But it also involves the past of the individual in reality–where they live, what aspirations they have, media they have consumed that promotes ‘the bungalow’ as a HOME (an emotional/value based concept), their perception of how others view houses, etc.  So an SL residence does reflect a virtual choice by the owner, but it also reflects the various forces in the past-present that made that choice more likely.

Thoughts after the MOOC

Just completed the materials for the U.Edinburgh “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” MOOC.  As I mentioned earlier, very well done, very sophisticated.  But this leaves me with several conclusions about MOOCs as they stand today:

1) MOOCs seem to be most effective when centered around a single concept (a ‘learning outcome’).  There can be subsidiary concepts, but they interlink into a single general concept.  Getting the students to understand the concept is the goal of a MOOC.  MOOCs that try to cover multiple concepts don’t do well, nor appear viable when you go through them.

2) A good MOOC is the equivalent (estimated) of 1/3-1/2 credit worth of a regular class (our standard 15 week, 3 credit course).  As an example my AN 340 ‘Peoples of Hawai’i’ class has a number of concepts that we have to cover and grasp.  I estimate that it would take from 7-12 MOOCS (at 4-5 weeks each) to cover the material adequately, this with a greater depth of reading (full texts such as Tengan’s Native Men Remade / Rohrer’s Haoles in Hawai’i) rather than short articles as the complexities or nuances of issues are central to a sophisticated course.  So the concept of efficiency is not there: a 15-week seat class or 10×4 week (40 weeks) multi-MOOC sequence.

3) The reason for concept-driven MOOCs is the diversity of students.  Given lack of control over participants, there can be no assumption of commonalities of background, subject knowledge, technical skills (such as internet search skills / level of reading comprehension) or available time.  Putting the focus on a specific learning outcome/concept allows the time and energy needed to herd all these diverse students to a common goal.

4) So the negative is the 1:1 switch of courses into MOOCs does not seem at all realistic for highly conceptualized/intellectualized subject matter.

5) The positive is that once a concept/learning outcome MOOC is built, it can be seen as a modular unit, which can then be ‘plugged into’ various courses as appropriate.  The Edinburgh course did a great job of covering the concept of humanism and it’s impact on education, so if you have a course where this is a key learning outcome, just plugging in the Edinburgh MOOC would be a very effective way of including really good material into a course.

All of this helps to explain why MOOCs in subject material that is very data driven, ‘low concept’ are highly effective, while other MOOCs, equally high quality productions that are highly intellectualized, multiple concept are not doing as well.

The MOOC World Part 3: Faculty and Staff Benefits and Costs

Probably the most confusion and emotional content around MOOCs comes from the academic community, which is understandable given that much of the rhetoric is about both increasing the quality of course material (which implies that faculty currently do a poor job) and also cutting costs (which again translates as faculty pay).  So many faculty see themselves as beset by unfriendly forces, buried in the digital threat.  So what are some of the benefits and costs?

  • Benefits: Presents materials globally vs. a traditional small classroom setting
  • Allows innovative or highly specialized course offerings w/o concern of immediate profitability
  • Promotes global student participation, interaction
  • Steep learning curve to course development as have a need to design compelling intellectual questions to drive analysis/learning process in very diverse student body

Costs: Very high labor costs up front w/o ability to predict revenue stream

  • Need to update-maintain course materials, can be very intensive depending on course material
  • Labor costs to process-analyze-feedback-grade student materials [Edinburgh MOOC class ~300 students each week must have all materials processed so can proceed with dialogs]

As with the other groups, the reality is rather complex.  In many ways the discussion has more to do with current social perceptions of the elitist status of higher education and also the perceived limited value of such education.  This is also conflated with the stereotype of faculty as overpaid and underworked.  The MOOC is just one of the manifestations of this larger social issue, but this is also why it is so threatening to many faculty.  This is especially true of the MOOC platforms begin to compete directly with classic on-campus ‘seat’ students, especially in the “general education” courses that provide the economic backbone for many faculty salaries.  However, if the situation is flipped, it can be said that participation in the MOOC world can actually free up faculty from generic GedEd courses and allow them to teach to their special interests and skills, since they are now looking at a global pool of potential students.  This is probably the central area where management groups such as Boards of Regents have to step in and become active forces.

University administrations (at least in Europe and the U.S.) have become consumed by the need to make revenue in a world of declining government/foundation largess.  In essence universities have become ‘for profit’ entities, as they need to cover their current and future costs based on tuition and revenue sources.  In this logic, cutting labor costs (i.e., faculty) has become commonplace, with the number of tenured positions vanishing, replaced by contracted short-term or part-time faculty.  MOOC development requires stable faculty participation, both for initial development and persistence.  This will only continue when faculty have some guarantees both that they will have the freedom to develop unique course MOOC offerings, and also that they have negotiated substantial revenue to enable them to develop and manage MOOC courses.  Intellectual property rights, especially given recent Supreme Court decisions related to software, suggest that faculty have substantial rights to the materials they develop, irregardless of signed contracts.  In addition as these MOOC courses gain in age, questions of persistent rights which can be seen as syndication rights will come into play.

MOOC Costs-Benefits: The Student-Consumer

The student (or more accurately for most) or consumer is supposed to be the big beneficiary of the MOOC environment.  The 2012-13 hype was of unlimited access to every course, all taught by the best in each discipline, leading to effortless learning by any one globally at their own time and pace.  As with almost everything, the reality is of course much more complex.  So part 2 of the Benefit-cost list:


Benefits: Consumer-driven model, customer driven selection, consumption

  • Comparison shopping-course materials available to all, 24/7, no risk of unknown in taking class
  • No distance issues, no limitation of ‘only nearby campus’
  • Ultimate ‘commuter student’, little wasted time

Costs: Student must be self-motivated, have excellent time-task discipline

  • Steep learning curve with a lack of support services (writing assistance)
  • Need to have language/grammar skills in place prior to class—all courses are writing intensive (via blog/text dialogs/email posting)
  • Able to work effectively w/o group support, w/o strong social interaction

From the standpoint of an educator at a very unique institution, one of only 3-4 institutions listed as Hawaiian-Pacific Islander focused, I see a major failing in the current MOOC model.  The large proportion of the student-consumers that Hewlett Foundation and other groups built the original MOOC model on the desire to provide access to quality higher education to the global community, specifically those who would otherwise not have access to such education.  From our standpoint in the Pacific, a major problem is that this same population does not have the language/grammar skills to maximize their investment–while they can consume some of the materials, though comprehension may be an issue, the main problem comes with the desire for proof of completion (certification-credits).  Their ability to communicate effectively (and more importantly their perception that they can do so) is compromised.  Realistically in the modern world the validation of knowledge is as important as the consumption-understanding gained.  The use of exclusively elitist institutions globally in the initial MOOC development makes this gap even more striking, and is the major factor driving our initiative to move institutions with a richer understanding of these challenged potential scholars into their MOOC world.

A quick and dirty Cost-Benefit analysis of the MOOC world, Part 1: Universities

Much of this blog will be devoted to the ‘world of the MOOC’ as this is a major direction we are taking on at Chaminade Behavioral Sciences.  To make sense of what is going on in 2015 globally, I have been consuming materials generated about MOOCs and also enrolled in a excellent MOOC offered by Univ. of Edinburgh’s Education Dept. entitled “E-Learning and Digital Culture”, available on Coursera.  Not only is the course interesting, but the quality of the video productions and course materials shows a great deal of thought on the part of the course faculty.  As a result I came up with a short benefits-cost list which I will present in parts below.  The first is the University POV–they are the drivers in the MOOC ‘movement’?? with a number of different agendas, the most recent being the ASU undergraduate initiative [].  I see the following as key issues:


Benefits: PR—current MOOC model is based on elitist institutions, so membership implies elitist status

  • The Institution can advertise products to a new global audience for little cost
  • Image of intellectual competencies in course offerings
  • The Institution can present and develop a brand image
  • Online visibility can be useful in driving traditional enrollment
  • Avoid physical plant limitations—infinitely large classes (UEdinburgh MOOC 20,000+ enrollment/less than 300 active students)
  • Collapse of location/distance issues—a small regional campus now has global visibility and accessibility
  • A common perception among college administrators that MOOCs of major cost savings and lower risk (don’t need minimum number of student seat-time for course to be profitable)—
  • On-demand education, all courses automatically offered as needed, all ready to go 24/7

Costs: Substantial persistent infrastructure costs (server housing, digital maintenance)

  • Persistent ‘back-end’ costs (persistent tech support)
  • Video production costs
  • Direct labor costs (faculty-TA-staff time)
  • Intellectual property rights costs, “syndication rights” to persistent MOOC presence by ‘builders’ [i.e., faculty]
  • Smaller, less prestigious institutions are now in direct competition with the top national and international universities (i.e., ASU undergraduate initiative attraction to Nevada community college students)

There are certainly other benefits-costs, but in reviewing the literature I see little discussion of all the cumulative factors, especially as the MOOC issue has become both polarized and simplified, with highly emotive (oftentimes moving into evangelical) diatribes on both sides.  The Edinburgh course does a good job of illustrating the simplistic nature of much of this discussion.