An Autoethnography The Brain and Space

A Course within a Course

As part of the Education and Digital Cultures course 2017, I was required to participate in a course within a course. The purpose was to create a mini-ethnography on a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). My understanding of ethnography was to describe a social world as a researcher while being physically or in this case virtually present within that particular social world. My choice of MOOC was ‘The Brain and Space’ through Duke University on Coursera. The reason for my choice was due to my biased interest in the body and how we relate to our surroundings.

Qualitative Approach

I planned to take on a qualitative approach observing discussion forums and looking at the perceptions and the opinionated data of participants. At the beginning of the course, mentors initiated introductions, and I soon found out that they would facilitate discussion forums due to the course professor (the academic rockstar) being unavailable due to her role within the university. The participants were of a range of occupations i.e. surgeons, neurologists, psychologists, and architects. They were explicit in that they were not there for credit but for their own professional development (Kim, 2014 p18). I gave a brief introduction. The mentor asked my reasons for my choice of course, and I was even directed towards a more suitable course in music also available on Coursera. I explained my presence and that I was there to research online education. I also informed the forum of my background in movement science and that I was genuinely interested in the connection between the body and space. I was perplexed, were qualifications necessary? I thought this was open? I began to feel intimidated by the more knowledgeable participants. However, over the first three weeks conversation did not exceed the introductions. My observation was limited. Was there another discussion forum on a different platform that required an invitation, one that I did not obtain?

An xMOOC Autoethnography

The realisation that I was participating in an xMOOC one that was institutionally-driven and content-focused forced me to rethink my approach. Should I create a Hard or Narrative Ethnography? Perhaps I should venture towards Autoethnography and keep statements in the air and let the reader interpret my findings?

'Show not tell' or 'Tell my showings?'

The ‘Autoethnography’ approach is very personalised and self–centered; my argument was that it resembled the xMOOC. It was empirical research, but there was a lack of discussion on the forum, and without access to the other participants, it was a closed learning environment. I, therefore, chose to look at the resources available on the course; its images, transcripts, video clips and the footage of the professor discussing each video. I began to assess my participation – this was tricky – how would I avoid being too descriptive, subjective and would it at all reach validation? It would be an introspective analysis.

Course content

Throughout the xMOOC, short video clips were used with professor narration and their visual presence at the bottom of the screen. The use of voice and the visual stimulus was necessary as social cues were given to minimise the content communicated (Kozinets, 2010) . Complex topics were made digestible to a beginner through the typical short videos of an xMOOC, and it's creative delivery. Although readings were suggested, the videos covered the topic in a way that covered all learning styles. As a visual learner, this made the participation enjoyable. I was an ardent participant. Video clips were kept short and engagement attained through pop-up questions that paused the video. Physical demonstrations, footage of experiments and physical, tactile exercises were given to provide an understanding of touch and sense receptors. The use of gestures from the professor while describing each slide gave another dimension to the delivery method. The professor highlighted a particular point in an image or keywords in the text through the use of a drawing pad. At one point goggles used in an experiment were placed in front of the camera lens to show how prisms affect the position of objects.


Although fully engaged after the first week, the completion of the multiple-choice quiz (that could be submitted as many times until pass mark reached) affected intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Due to my background in movement, I found the second week again fascinating; the content covered how the body acknowledges its presence in space. The delivery methods used were still both interesting and engaging. However, this time there was less pressure to take notes and retain the information. I knew I could re-submit if the answers were incorrect. As I sat down to complete the quiz an 'honors code' agreement was required to proceed. There was also a declaration that introduced a restriction of three submissions of the remaining weekly assignments every 8 hours. Morals and values played a part, and as a participant, the guilt began to ‘kick-in.' I was again motivated and found myself an active learner rather than a 'lurker' listening to the one-way conversation of the online professor. Overall, I found this an engaging and interesting course and valued the care, attention and preparation of the professor. The low level of discussion did not correlate with the professors high level of teaching input (Kim, 2014 p31).

Purpose of the xMOOC?

The xMOOC course is advertised on Coursera as a free course following the ‘open’ element of a MOOC. It’s accessible to all despite geographical issues, language barriers, gender, experience, qualification or financial situations. Once enrolled there is unlimited access to material for the duration of the course. However, full participation of weekly assignments requires participants to purchase the course. I began to acknowledge the economic benefits for the institution attached. The advertisement and promotion of the institution, the financial gain and the publicity attached to the professor’s book made me question the creation of a MOOC. Is it purely for the purpose of the learner? There was no community space to ‘lurk’ or to gain peer feedback as discussion was limited and regulated due to an ‘honors code’ agreement. As a beginner I didn’t want to just read the course content due to the complexity of the course and the accreditation of achievement was for me, desirable. Even if qualification was not on the participant’s agenda, feedback and assignment marks are not released until payment. I like to complete things, and as an individual I value feedback. My human drive for social interaction (Knox, 2015) craved discussion. I wanted validation, peer engagement and answers to evaluate my progress (Stewart, 2013); there seemed no point in continuing without purchasing the full course. The timeframe given for my ethnography meant that I, unfortunately, could not complete the course for my auto ethnography. Although, I am going to continue as a participant to gain certification. This may be due to the MOOC format, the delivery of content, the actual content or that I as an individual like to complete work. After all, out of a vast number of participants on a MOOC – it depends on the person, the reasons behind their enrolment and self-motivation.


Although tainted with my own perceptions I hope this auto ethnography will move some people out of their current stance on xMOOCs and the multiplicity of MOOC designs, purposes, topics and teaching styles. The descriptive nature hopefully refrains from an over-simplistic categorisation of a MOOC and brings another reflection to the discussion around the variety of Massive Open Online Courses (Kim, 2014 p25).


Kim, P. (Ed.). (2014). Massive open online courses: The mooc revolution. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.

Knox, J. 2015. Community Cultures. Excerpt from Critical Education and Digital Cultures. In Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory. M. A. Peters (ed.). DOI 10.1007/978-981-287-532-7_124-1

Kozinets, R. V. (2010) Chapter 2 ‘Understanding Culture Online’, Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage. pp. 21-40.

Stewart, B., (2013). Massiveness + Openness = New Literacies of Participation? MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Technology, 9(2), pp.228–238.


Created with images by Melle plante - "Vision" • chascar - "Tunnel Vision" • Maria Ruch - "Visions" • Alma Ayon - "Portrait" • burrows.nichole28 - "Motivations" • Unsplash - "light bulb lightbulb light" • Yogendra174 - "Enter Into My Brain"

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