Tuesday 12pm, 4 November 2014


The social organization of MOOCs: the relationship between work-roles, work-places and institutions

Shreeharsh Kelkar (@scritic)

PhD Student - MIT


MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, are the free, open, online courses offered by many universities through platforms like edX and Coursera, and often taken by thousands of students. While they are interesting experiments in scaling up higher education, they are also produced through an arguably unique form of social organization. The production of MOOCs involves labor at multiple sites: from the startup where the software is written and tested, to the university where the course team prepares the course material and executes the class, to the many different research labs where researchers build and test new software tools to augment and measure learning. My ongoing dissertation aims to document this new form of social organization ethnographically, paying particular attention to on-the-ground work practices, particularly the interactions between different experts (such as instructors and software engineers, or educational psychologists and computer scientists), and understand how these encounters are shaped by professional identities and institutional relationships. Specifically, I aim to do this by tracking the evolution of particular projects (courses, new software features, A/B tests) around the MOOC platform as they are conceived and executed by different actors. I hope to do similar observations at Berkeley in fall 2014 and spring 2015 and am seeking out possible collaborations.
For the last 8 months, I followed course teams, research groups and software developers at MIT and Harvard working on the edx platform. In this talk, I use my preliminary findings to suggest that MIT and Harvard's different organizational styles lead to different outcomes for research and course teams. For instance, course teams at MIT are funded by departments; they are however "managed" at MITx, an organization that is part of the newly formed Office of Digital Learning (ODL). At Harvard, course production is carried out centrally in the HarvardX offices (rather than simply "managing" the course teams, as at MIT). Learning research at MIT is mostly carried out by engineers and computer scientists, at Harvard, by education researchers and social scientists. This dissertation asks about the implications of these differences.


Shreeharsh Kelkar is a fifth-year PHD student at MIT's Doctoral Program in History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology and Society (HASTS). He is interested in historical and ethnographic studies of computing, especially in understanding the relationship between the making of software and the organization of the workplaces in which it is made. Before coming to MIT, he received his Masters in Electrical Engineering at Columbia University and was a Research Scientist at Avaya Research, working on merging social computing technologies (blogs, wikis, annotations) to enterprise voice communication.