UoS Web Science MOOC

As part of one of my iPhD modules Ive been encouraged to join and take part in a MOOC that is run by my department (Web and Internet Sciences, and also Electronics and Computer Science).

For those of you who are unaware, MOOC’s are massive online open courses that focus in a singular subject area or aspect of a discipline, and are free to join. They offer teaching, further reading, discussions and assessment of the knowledge learnt: which once completed may provide you with a certificate of completion.

MOOC’s have become massively popular throughout the past 5 years, and are continuing to grow both in number available, and also in the number of participants. They can be completed at any time, from any location, and usually feature 2 – 6 hours of teaching material per week. The Web Science MOOC run by the University of Southampton was released in 2013, and quickly became one of the most popular on the Futurelearn site.

The Web Science iPhD course run at the University has experienced similar expansions of interest, which has resulted in numerous changes to the 2014 course: these range from a new Web Science Institute, increased DTC funding, to a higher global ranking of the top course for Web Science in the UK.

Whilst completing the MOOC myself I’ll be writing some blog posts as I go along which will compare the online course to the face-to-face one I will be experiencing at the University. I will also go into a bit more detail about why MOOC’s are a revolutionary educational change to the web and to the many Universities and institutions globally.

A great example of the changes MOOC’s bring is questioning why current education costs so much in the UK. If MOOC’s are free, why cant higher education be switched to online courses? In what ways would this affect academia?

Firstly, here are a few things Ive noticed now that Ive completed week 1 of the MOOC:

– The introductory videos are presented and summarised in much the same way as the face-to-face lectures. Although shorter, they succinctly address the key issues, and give the participant the option of further reading to expand on this knowledge. The only difference with these is that the interaction between lecturer and student is not the same: in the face-to-face introductory lectures there was much more audience participation, humour, general interaction and group discussion. Obviously this is a lot hard to do over the web, but I was surprised at the amount of encouragement people receive to comment and discuss on posts, but also the willingness and number of people who complied with it. It certainly made me feel like part of a community rather than taking part in a solitary pursuit of knowledge.

– Much like in the face-to-face lectures there are clear avenues of support which are discussed well. Having completed several MOOC’s prior to this one I feel that it is better structured, with clear areas and people designated for support, rather than one and two sole host lecturers coping on their own with all kinds of issues.

– The first few hours of video material and text explanations really encourage the participant to play around with some of the ideas that they have been told about. I was pleased to see areas of week 1 dedicated to discussion already. I feel that it gets the ball rolling straight away, but also is a great way to learn about other people’s views of the web before the have gotten really stuck into learning about the course. Comparisons of opinion taking into account human factors such as age, gender and citizenship are certainly intriguing and is a large area of discussion in Web Science academia.

– Some of the participants may not fully take on board that the people in the video lecturers are actually senior staff. Very senior staff in Dame Wendy Hall’s case. In fact, during face-to-face lectures I will rarely encounter some of these staff as they are too busy with being an important person. These are literally the people the set up a new institute, are leading academics in this area globally, and are the faces of Web Science nationally. It was nice to see that they have invested the time to talk about their subject and interests, and I look forward to hearing from them again in future weeks.

– So far the only general issue I have with the course is that the navigation could be improved upon. It would be handy to have an option to go back to the home page at the bottom of each page, and a bar that states how far and how many pages you had left complete for that week when on individual pages.

That’s about it for my initial thoughts of the course. The posts regarding the MOOC will hopefully be once every two weeks and are really only for me to track my thoughts and to form some discussions and arguments I can mould into coursework later on. Youre all more than welcome to discuss things with me as well, Id be interested to hear anyone’s opinion on the course.

I advice you all to sign up for the MOOC as well – it can be found on the Futurelearn site here https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/web-science-2014 and is free. Increase your knowledge!

Minecraft and Social Constructs

I’ve been meaning to discuss the idea and applications of social constructs of Minecraft for a while now. When the game comes up in conversation I’m very used to friends and colleagues not only telling me a bit about what they have achieved through Minecraft, but also that they find there are social constructs and a sense of community at play in addition. Kids reaaaally seem to like it.

This post will untangle the idea of social constructs within the game by looking at qualitative and social analysis from research groups that are aiming to define how and why participants regard the game as providing an affinity of space. It’ll also discuss some ideas about how traditional social constructs are now being translated through servers.

A basic theory within the idea of social constructs is that of affinity of space. This speculates that certain spaces, whether they are physical – for example within a city – or virtual, can offer certain traits. These range from the positive such as welcoming and nurturing of social connections, to exclusive and elitist.

There are a number of studies that have published strong evidence for Minecraft being a positive medium for affinity of space, and also in education, creativity and other desirable applications. The interesting aspect is why the game has advanced in virtual social constructs where others have not.

Certainly in MMO’s and RPG’s there will always be some kind of social order – after all we are still individual human beings controlling what happens in a virtual environment. In social orders participation is the first key, as there must be participation to develop a functioning social structure. Further aspects required include:

– Personal contribution

– The sharing of information

– Social support and guidance

– Discussion with other members

– Individual assignment and completion of tasks to fulfil larger planned goals

An excellent representation of social structures within Minecraft can be illustrated by Pellicone and Ahne (2014) who applied qualitative analysis on forum threads to generate visualisations of structures that may also be present within the game. An example is shown below in Figure 1.

Source: Pellicone and Ahne (2014)
Source: Pellicone and Ahne (2014)

Additional theories of online structures, most notably Butler (2000), argue that structures similar to figure 1 are applicable to larger volumes of games. He argues that the presence and usage of servers are most likely to have a defining role in this as they allow for greater levels of communication and delegation of resources, therefore resulting in more complex social structures.

This ties in neatly with the affinity of space theory, connoting that servers are constructive and encourage positive space and social interactions. Dedicated players are usually content in their constructs. Dave is happy to farm, Brian enjoys doing magic, Larry likes to build. No-one is sure where Colin went. They work together for a common cause, and usually because a social connection has been formed between them in the physical world.

However, in addition to the immediately visible contours of the affinity space, there also exists a broader community of people who identify as Minecraft players, with some further identifying with the elite level of producer found within the larger Minecraft meta-game (Maccallum-Stewart, 2013)

Minecraft unfortunately is not exempt from the way that a perceived gamer culture often results in unwelcoming attitudes towards those who fall outside of that culture (Pellicone and Ahne, 2014). The difficulty is identification of gamer culture norm’s in comparison with Minecraft norm’s. Norm’s in themselves are defined by the actions and interactions translated into the virtual environment, which provide a level of anonymity for players.

A critical aspect of the social structures within Minecraft is whether the game or indeed any social orders within it can overcome physical social inequalities (for example race, gender, income, upbringing) of players. This is pretty difficult thing to analyse on a scale that is representative of the whole Minecraft gaming community, but it’s certainly a focal point for social-based research in the future.

Assessment whether there is a connection between the overcoming of social inequalities and the production of positive space within Minecraft can certainly be inferred. The game features very few negative aspects that would impact the development and sustainability of social networks, which in turn lend to the continual production of affinity of space.