MOOCs in the Machine, Part I

December 29th, 2012, by § 4 Comments

Digital technologies are transforming communication practices in many settings, and higher education is no exception. In particular, “massive open online classes” (MOOCs) have been garnering attention and provoking questions about the future of college education, in the U.S. and elsewhere. MOOCs could potentially “disrupt” current models of education, according to some like Clay Shirky, but their growing popularity owes much to the current state of the economy (in the U.S. and more globally) and the neoliberalization of the academy, as some critics contend. The conversation about MOOCs needs to take place in the context of broader structural changes in academia, to recognize both their promise and their limitations.

In his recent blog piece, Shirky avers that MOOCs will disrupt education just as MP3s and other digital content disrupted established “old media” industries like the recording industry, by changing the “story” of what’s possible:

Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First, the people running the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.

Shirky advocates MOOCs not as a replacement for elite institutions but as a better way to educate everybody else – non-elite students at flagging public institutions or exploitative for-profit programs: “The possibility MOOCs hold out is that the educational parts of education can be unbundled. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.”

Despite the numerous and worthwhile critiques of Shirky’s technological optimism, one point stands out to me as meriting further discussion. He suggests that large introductory lectures are largely about saving money, rather than offering the best instruction, and that relying on grad student TAs “let[s] a college lower the cost of teaching the sections while continuing to produce lectures as an artisanal product, from scratch, on site, real time.” There are many reasons for faculty to develop original lectures, of course, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences like anthropology. Shirky’s understanding of education also appears instrumentalist in some ways, presuming that professors at elite institutions offers the best quality lectures and that non-elite students would benefit from hearing these lectures instead: “Sometimes you’re at a place where the best lecture your professor can give is the best in the world. But mostly not. And the only thing that kept this system from seeming strange was that we’ve never had a good way of publishing lectures.” This strikes me as a reductive approach to what constitutes lecturing. At the same time, I’ve often wondered why it makes sense to create introductory courses from scratch when teaching them for the first time, rather than building on the work of others (as we do in many other contexts). How might online or digital resources make it easier to share course materials among faculty, without replacing the value faculty bring to each class they teach?

Over at Inside Higher Ed, Aaron Bady takes up some of these issues to level an in-depth critique of the assumptions informing Shirky’s views. According to Bady, Shirky’s assessment reflects a technological optimism in which digital technologies will inevitably transform teaching and education. Academe (faculty and administrators) will be the last bastion of resistance because they are inherently (and tautologically) self-serving—they must justify their own existence. Yet, as Bady points out, Shirky nowhere provides evidence for the effectiveness of MOOCs. Bady construes this as resulting from the speculative bent of venture capital:

While Shirky can see the future revolutionizing in front of us, he is thinking like a venture capitalist when he does, betting on optimism because he can afford to lose. He doesn’t know that he’s right; he just knows that he might not be wrong. And so, like all such educational futurologists, Shirky’s case for MOOCs is all essentially defensive: he argues against the arguments against MOOCs, taking shelter in the possibility of what isn’t, yet, but which may someday be.

On the contrary, Bady reminds us to ask why desire for education has outstripped its availability and affordability, and suggests that Shirky’s emphasis on “non-elites” reinforces the distinction between elite students and institutions and everybody else. MOOC providers like Udacity, a for-profit service described by Shirky, can justify offering mediocre courses because they are free. In Bady’s view, we should instead focus on how defunding public education is eroding the mass higher ed system that provided accessible college educations to middle-class (and aspiring middle-class) Americans for many decades.

While I don’t find Shirky’s arguments without merit, Bady is right to bring the focus back to why higher education has changed as it has. The larger conversation about “disrupting” college education often lacks this dimension – it’s well and good to ask whether it makes sense for many young people to take on thousands of dollars in debt when they still may not get a job, but the reality is that this situation is the product of growing economic inequality and vastly reduced state budgets. The concentration of wealth among elites is part of the same process that has led to high unemployment and reduced tax revenues, despite soaring corporate profits.

The debate over MOOCs, then, needs to take place in the context of the increasing flexibilization and neoliberalization of the university. There are certainly legitimate critiques of higher ed and elite institutions that MOOCs might potentially address. As an anthropologist of digital and online media, I’m also intrigued by the possibilities of online education. It would be useful to think through what it is teachers actually provide, which is much more than simply transmitting information. But I also want to link these issues to larger problems in graduate education and the changing structure of the academy. For example, the job market is still in shambles, at least from my perspective as a new Ph.D. Clearly, this situation is unlikely to improve if universities continue replacing tenure lines with temporary positions—or MOOCs. Fewer tenure-track positions also mean fewer opportunities for conducting research, and neither Bady nor Shirky address the importance to teaching of staying current with recent research. How can we challenge these shifts in academia while taking advantages of the possible benefits and advantages of online education, especially massive and open courses?

In Part II, I take up these questions further and consider how we might rethink some aspects of graduate training in relation to broader changes in the structure of academia.

Call for STM/CASTAC Panel Collaboration

December 20th, 2012, by § Leave a Comment

The Science, Technology & Medicine special interest group on the Society for Medical Anthropology is interested in collaborating with CASTAC to put together a double panel for the 2013 AAA meeting in Chicago. We will be putting out a call for abstracts for the panel in a few weeks. In the meantime, we are seeking a co-organizer for the panel from the CASTAC membership. This position will include working with co-organizers from STM to invite senior scholars to participate in the panel, solicit and review abstracts from other potential participants, and help determine the final composition of the panel. Interested parties should contact Christine Labuski ( or Jennifer Jo Thompson ( by December 28, 2012.  

Working abstract:


In keeping with the 2013 AAA meeting theme of ‘Future Publics, Current Engagements,’ this double panel brings junior and senior scholars into dialogue in order to explore how current engagements with (bio)technologies shape attitudes, behaviors, and subjectivities, and thus affect–or have the potential to affect–future publics and future bodies in meaningful ways.

Panel topics might include:

  • Genetic testing: How is the emergence of genetic testing technologies affecting public understanding and discourse about concepts of ‘race’ and ‘risk’ for disease? How does access to information about increased genetic risk for future disease(s) shape future bodies through identity, practice, and policy? As access to this technology becomes more widespread, how will consumer genetic testing products and whole genome sequencing (e.g., the $1000 Genome) affect reproductive decision-making and parenting practices?
  • E-health: How is the use of technology in e-health and telemedicine influencing the way patients and providers define and experience clinical interaction and the doctor-patient relationship?  How does this technology shift notions of what constitutes successful consultation and efficient treatment?
  • Robotics: How do we evaluate the spectrum of robotic technologies – from prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons to full-bodied robots designed both to provide care to and receive care from socially isolated individuals? How are these devices incorporated into the bodies and lives of the patients they are intended to serve?
  • Pharmaceutical technologies: What kinds of bodies are being shaped by the early and/or long-term hormonal manipulation of reproductive-age women and transgender youth? What role do assumptions about gender and heteronormativity play in the distribution of STD vaccines and technology?

Access to (bio)technologies is unevenly distributed across the kinds of differences with which anthropology is engaged. This panel looks at access in bidirectional terms, where technology is insisted upon the bodies of some and withheld from others. For example,

  • How does unequal access to (bio)technologies (such as dialysis, contraception, or abortion) interpolate distinct future publics?
  • How do the states of limited and excessive access to medical technologies contour the emerging bodies and futures of unevenly located individuals and groups?
  • How will the Affordable Care Act impact the deployment of and access to medical technologies?

We will invite senior scholars to participate as presenters or discussants in relation to this broad theme. The specific panel abstract will reflect the composition of participants and junior scholars will be invited to submit abstracts on related topics.

Why Do Eight Comparative Ethnographies?

December 19th, 2012, by § 2 Comments

I suspect that the initial response of most anthropologists to this kind of comparative study will be negative. Our model of work is incredibly specific, insisting upon the integrity, even the holism, of a fieldsite. It is almost as though we try to deny the often almost arbitrary nature of that particular village or town as our selected place of study, by the sheer devotion we have to the integrity of this place – which can become an account of ‘how my people do things’. It’s a bit like marriage, where, in truth there are thousands of people we might have married, but once we are married we create a relationship that is as though it is impossible to imagine that it could have ever been anyone but the beloved spouse. The idea of a comparative anthropological study can also feel like a betrayal of anthropology itself, and of our relationship to ethnography.

So it is important to assert that we intend to confront this prejudice. That we do not intend simply to do eight ethnographies that are just eight times a single piece of work. That would be a betrayal of a different kind. It means that we would be failing to recognise that it is almost unheard of to get the kind of funding that allows for eight simultaneous ethnographies. If this is a most unusual opportunity then we have responsibility to understand what kind of opportunity this in fact is. Elisa in an earlier blog post talks about the excitement of sharing discussion at this early stage. Here I want to refer rather to the potential for analysis at the later stage.

So let’s start from the other end. What can an eight-fold ethnography do that a single ethnography cannot? A blog is not the space to unfold this in any detail but let’s try one example. We will all be studying social network sites, and a core question anyone engaged in such studies must ask themselves, is to what degree the particular usage we observe is a product of the nature of the fieldsite where they work, or the social network site that they also observe. Is this because it is Brazil or because it is Facebook? The problem is that a single ethnography can only surmise on the basis of the evidence of that site which is always a conflation of these two (and of course many more) facets.

By contrast, when eight sites are being studied simulteneously, the individual who is working in Brazil knows far more than just what a Brazilian is doing on Twitter. At pretty much exactly the same time they will know that people in five other places are doing pretty much the exact same thing on Twitter. Or they will know that people in five other places are doing someting rather different on Twitter. Now we are hopefully too sophisticated to simply draw mechanical conclusions. It is possible there is another factor: a common sense of modernity says that all sites share, which prevents us from merely assuming that commonality means we look for a more technological foundation for this behaviour. Nevertheless the way in which our evidence is cited comparatively means that the level of discussion and analysis can start from a significantly higher level than if we were an isolated study with no idea of how our work related to similar investigations in other places.

Furthermore, this situation precisely fits the difference between our project and most traditional projects in that our core focus is on something that, in its infrastructure, does not vary other than the contrast between QQ in China and Facebook which conveniently gives us another way of trying to decide what is because of Facebook itself and what from other factors. So a study that looks at this simultaneously in eight sites works particularly for something that has been introduced across the whole world within a very short time period. All this would at least suggest that a comparative study can actually deepen rather than take away from each individual ethnography. You are not betraying your fieldsite you are actually giving it a much greater significance than it otherwise might have had. At least that’s the idea….

(Cross posted with permission from the UCL Blog:

Some Thoughts on Computing, Materialism, and the Virtual

December 11th, 2012, by § 4 Comments

In the past decade, social scientists have paid increasing attention to a series of novel approaches to the analysis of materiality. Lately and loosely grouped under the rubric of the “new materialisms,” work by scholars such as Jane Bennett, Graham Harman, and Hans-Jorg Rheinberger has pushed for a robust expansion of our understanding of the social to include the material world. While engaged in a polyvalent intellectual undertaking, these materialists are bound together by their shared assertion of the significance of matter, its properties, and its effects for truly robust social analysis. In a sense, this should be old news to anthropologists; the analysis of material culture has been part of our stock in trade since the foundation of the discipline. However, the new, interdisciplinary focus on the material by these thinkers seems to me to offer an occasion for anthropology to revisit certain issues in the anthropological study of science and technology.

Clearly, a short post such as this isn’t the place to go into an in-depth exploration of the (often contradictory) positions held and research programs endorsed by these scholars. Instead, I’d like to take their work as inspiration, and look at just one arena in which I think seriously expanding the field of what counts for social analysis to include material objects in their specificity could make a big and productive difference. Lately, I’ve been thinking about how this growing body of work might push some of our common-sense disciplinary thinking about computers and computation in an interesting new direction. Since at least Escobar’s “Welcome to Cyberia” (1994), the anthropology of virtual spaces has been producing fascinating analyses of their human inhabitation. This tradition of anthropological thinking about the social life of computing has produced a timely and important body of work, attuned to the shifts in subjectivity and collectivity wrought by our increasing imbrication with digital worlds. However, I think, this work has tended to be read by many scholars as demonstrating that the only, or at least the most, salient and novel feature of contemporary digital technology is its virtuality.

Most of us working on digital technologies are likely aware of Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life (2008). This ground-breaking work demonstrated the rich world of anthropological insight available to those willing to commit to full-scale ethnographic fieldwork in virtual spaces. These spaces, according to Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: a Handbook of Method (Boellstorff et. al 2012), are defined by their sense of “worldness,” their existence as shared social spaces open to multiple users at once, their persistence after a given user leaves them, and the ability they afford users to embody themselves in the world (7). Of course, there are at least two different possible meanings of the term “virtual”: on the one had, the anthropological refashioning of the folk use of the term virtual to describe these digitally constituted world in which subjects become absorbed; on the other, the precise philosophical sense of the virtual as that which exists without being actual. Clearly, Boellstorff’s project charts a careful interrelationship between these two senses of the term. His argument in Coming of Age, as I understand it, turns on the way that technicity itself opens human experience onto the virtual, insofar as it is then removed from the immediate givens of actuality; that, further, the self-conscious experience of this gap in virtual worlds allows for play with new possible articulations of humanities.

There seems to be a tendency among his readership, however — us anthropologists — to both extend his argument to cyberspaces generally and to read his work as unproblematically conflating these two senses of the term. It seems to me that one of the intellectual consequences of this equivocation, of the identification of “virtual worlds” such as Second Life solely with the non-actual, has been a lack of attention to the very actual technologies, arrangements, and processes which support them. I’m not trying to say that an anthropological engagement with digital spaces sui generis, as more or less self-contained worlds, hasn’t produced good work. Coming of Age alone stands as sufficient example of this. Alongside the study of these virtual realities as worlds unto themselves, however, I’d like to suggest that thinking more materially might allows us to return more concretely to the actuality of the assemblages that support them in their virtuality.

Some reviewers have suggested that Coming of Age would best have been supplemented by a turn to the “real lives” of Second Life’s users, to ascertain how the digital world they inhabit through their avatars is (or is not) integrated into their day-to-day lives. To my mind, however, this misses the elegance of Boellstorff’s project. Boellstorff treats the Second Life milieu as field in its own right, and analyzes it as such. In a sense, the most interesting thing about Second Life is that the avatar qua actor exists and acts within this system mostly without reference to the putatively “real” identity of its system-external user. Further, this alternative approach ironically grants too much virtuality, in the exclusively philosophical sense, to Second Life as world. It accepts, much too uncritically, the imaginary separation between the “actual” of real life and the “virtual” of the gameworld by its users – and its creators, Linden Labs.

Looked at through the lens of a revivified, thoroughgoing materialism, however, this confusion of virtual and actual might resolve itself somewhat more clearly. It would be interesting to take seriously the material bases for the experience of digital worlds as properly virtual, that is, as truly separate from the “real life” world. That would mean, for example, taking Linden Labs itself seriously as a fieldsite, and the technology of Second Life seriously as an object of empirical study. Unlike Malaby’s Making Virtual Worlds: Linden Lab and Second Life (2009), however, this project could not confine itself to an organizational ethnography of Linden Labs qua company. In his review of that work, Boellstorff (2010) points out, I think rightly, that little attempt is made therein to present an ethnographically rich view of the interactions between the Linden Lab and the actual worlding of Second Life. This view would demand a focus on the Labs’ day-to-day work in running the Second Life software and server farms; on the mechanics of the transactions in cash which link the “virtual” economy of Second Life firmly to actually existing flows of globalized capital; on the ways in which the limitations of the software and end-user hardware shapes the types of fantasies that users are able to act out; and on the experience of the virtual by users as a culturally-produced effect of branding and historically specific arrangements of human-machine interaction.

In short, I’m interested in foregrounding that the computation behind the production of digital worlds and media takes place somewhere, using real technologies. My wager in my own work, on machine intelligence, is that careful ethnographic investigation of these sites and technologies can open our eyes to the actuality of these worlds; the ways in which they are powerfully shaped and constrained by material considerations and processes occurring outside of cyberspace. Clearly, there remains a need for similarly diligent investigation of the system-internal dynamics of “virtual realities” such as Second Life. In closing, however, I’d like to suggest that these can also be understood in the context of their conditions of production. By looking at the covariance between changes in modes of experiencing the virtual and in their material supports, we might stay abreast, theoretically and ethnographically, of broader changes in contemporary arrangements of science and technology.

Anthropology and Outer Space

December 4th, 2012, by § 6 Comments

This past summer had some pretty big headlines for the space science community. Venus passed between Earth and the Sun, not to do so again until 2117. Scientists announced that Pluto (the dwarf planet formerly known as planet) had a fifth moon, making it the envy of those of us with a single paltry satellite. Most celebrated, was the landing of a new Mars rover, Curiosity, on the red planet’s surface.

Why should we (earthlings, anthropologists) care about Venus, Pluto, or Mars? My current project considers this question by focusing on the planetary science community, those who study planets both in our solar system and beyond. Specifically, I am interested in the role of “place” in the work of these scientists. I don’t mean just the places that these scientists inhabit, but if and how scientists transform planets from objects into places.

Scientists understand other planets as places because it allows them to become explorers. Curiosity is not a static machine, but a rover, a wanderer that must, by definition, go from place to place.  Like the rovers Spirit and Opportunity before it, Curiosity has a lively twitter account. On September 29th, Curiosity tweeted, “Ahh…Springtime begins today in the Southern Hemi of Mars.” This simple message bridges our two worlds; Curiosity is experiencing a familiar season, though likely in an unfamiliar way as it would be much colder than our Spring.

While it does not seem like much of a stretch to imagine the seasons of Mars, I often encounter astronomers who study planets in other solar systems (exoplanets) similarly speculating about weather. These planets are so distant and so faint that telescopes cannot take an image of them.  Scientists study data they collect about the host star in order to infer the properties of exoplanets. And yet, these invisible planets come to be quite complex worlds. They speak of these planets as having windy surfaces or temperamental seasons. An astronomer might ask, “What is January like on this planet?” This language makes the strange familiar and does the important work of conjuring an imagination of the kind of place this planet is. These planets begin to seem like places because the astronomers establish linguistic bridges between what it is to be on an exoplanet and our experience of being on Earth.

Conceptualizing astronomers (and other scientists) as place-makers allows us to witness how spaces become social even though humans will never visit such planetary places. The latest planetary headlines were over an NPR story that misunderstood a quote from a rover scientist and erroneously reported that there was game-changing news from the Red Planet in the offing. In the days before this rumor was debunked, the news media and excited tweeters imagined how the new finding might make Mars seem even more like a place: more inhabitable by us in the future or other entities of the past.

From trees to networks (and back): in praise of desktop wikis

December 3rd, 2012, by § 4 Comments

I would like to respond to Patricia’s questions about tools and techniques by reflecting on my journey regarding qualitative data organisation and analysis, from a hierarchical tree-based approach to a wiki-based network approach. Like probably many other qualitative researchers using Windows, I started out with standard software packages from household names that had come pre-installed on my home and university PCs. But as the amount of my collected data grew, and as I started to get a better sense of what I wanted to do with my data, the limitations of my initial “system” (or rather, lack of it) started to become apparent.

One problem had to do with storing information in hierarchical folder structures, whether in the My Documents folders or in other two-pane outliners and personal information managers (PIM). The inherent limitation of most two- or three-pane viewers of data (such as Windows Explorer) is that in the hierarchical tree you can usually only see the contents of one note or folder at a time. Once you have hundreds and thousands of files and notes, you reach a point after which it becomes increasingly difficult to browse the archive, find things, remember where they are, and retain a general sense of the shape and contents of the data. Having to decide about the place of a note or a piece of data in the tree too soon in the analysis can also reduce the chances for alternative interpretations and subsequent conceptual discoveries.

I thought my problems would be solved once I had imported and reorganised everything in NVivo 8 (and later 9), the computer assisted qualitative data analysis software (CAQDAS) I had selected out of the two that were recommended and subsidised by my university (the other one being Atlas.ti). I threw myself into the coding process with great gusto, only to realise after having coded half of my data that I still ended up being locked into yet another hierarchical system, where despite the ample availability of tools to cross-reference and connect my documents I started to lose a sense of where everything was and what I were to do with the hierarchical tree of codes that emerged out of the analysis.

I needed help and I found it in the Outliner Software forum, a wonderful community of information management software users, many of whom confess to suffering from CRIMP, “a make-believe malady called compulsive-reactive information management purchasing.” Following their recommendations I have assembled  an arsenal of helpful software tools over the years. It was also through them that I have discovered that there was a cure to my condition of being “hierarchically challenged,” and it was called a desktop wiki.

A desktop wiki (also called a personal wiki) solves the problem of “not seeing the data forest from your hierarchical trees” by enabling you to create a flat, network-based representation of data. Essentially you end up creating your own mini-Internet – or more precisely, intranet – on your desktop computer, by connecting up all your data in the manner of interlinked webpages.

There are a number of immediate benefits to a flat, network-based wiki organisation over the hierarchical structure that I described above. First, a wiki requires you to set up a homepage, which is very helpful, as it can be used as the research project dashboard, the alpha and the omega from which and to which everything else can be connected in one way or another. Should you feel overwhelmed by your data or lost in the bowels of your project, all you need to do is hit the Home button, and you can get your bearings again.

The second benefit of using a wiki is that the hierarchical folder structure is absent (at least from view). When you can create a new document you don’t need to make a decision about where it needs to fit in within a hierarchy upfront. A few links or categories inserted here and there will keep it anchored in the network, and the implicit hierarchy of the linked documents gets rearranged dynamically every time links between documents are altered.

This is not to say that hierarchies are inherently bad and that seeing them cannot be helpful at times. The desktop wiki solution that I have adopted – ConnectedText (CT) – has visualisation tools like the Navigator, which enable you to construct very purposeful hierarchies. What sets CT apart from the standard hierarchical folder system is that you can switch this visualisation off at will and immerse yourself in the flat network structure of your interlinked pages whenever you feel like it. Besides the Navigator, CT has a number of other ways to find what you are looking for within the database, including a powerful search tool. You have both your own Internet and your own search engine.

As Manfred Kuehn suggests, a wiki can be described as an electronic version of the traditional “index cards in a slip-box” system that qualitative researchers have long used for taking, keeping and coding notes. Each wiki page represents an index card with notes on it. The advantage of an electronic (wiki) version is that the “index cards” can be freely associated with each other via hyperlinks, without the need for a separate catalogue to keep track of how your index cards are related conceptually.

As I gradually delved into ConnectedText, I realised that not only can it serve as the main project dashboard and database for most of my data (reading notes, participant observation notes, collected files, including PDFs and images etc.), but that it also has tools that allow me to code my data, making NVivo redundant. I ended up using CT to develop my own system for coding that suited my specific needs and which was more consistent with the methodological approach I wanted to pursue.

My key requirements were 1) the ability to store, retrieve and rearrange data without a hierarchical tree emerging and obstructing my view too early on in the process; 2) the ability to carry out analysis, abstraction and synthesis; and 3) the ability to maintain a complete and easily navigable audit trail from the raw data to my final conclusions and back.

It is true (and may seem paradoxical) that by using a wiki to avoid a hierarchical structure I still ended up with a hierarchical organisation of my data and findings. However, this eventual hierarchy emerged through a deliberate process of induction, in line with my chosen research philosophy, rather than being the result of unintentional deduction imposed upfront by the technical constraint of hierarchical folder organisation.

Where Am I?

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