Thinking about a sociological on-line course

After a few somewhat problematic and unsatisfactory experiences as a student on MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses; the problems largely relate to the massive and open components)  and an increasing involvement with the University of the Third Age (U3A) and its educational philosophy and practice I have been thinking about what sort of on-line sociology based or informed course I could imagine help setting up and participating in.  To help think about this and get some ideas and opinions from others I posted a message on Facebook:

This is a question for my FB friends with a background or interest in sociology but I’d also be interested in ideas and comments from all my other FB friends. If you were to take part in a consultation of some sort to look into the possibility of setting up or participating in a small group on-line sociology ‘course’, perhaps limited to 20 or 30 individuals but possibly even smaller, what topics or subjects would you be interested in? For instance, what’s happening with educational policy, or the NHS, or the issues around a so-called ageing society, or alternative life styles, or changes in the relations between men and women, or forms of inequality in an increasingly marketised and individualistic society, or what is the Big Society, etc. Or even taking a look at some key and influential social thinkers and what if anything they have to say about our current problems, how we understand them and what, if anything, we should be doing. The idea would be to explore a small number of topics, perhaps even just one if there is sufficient interest in it, within a course that is collectively specified and collaboratively researched and studied and therefore hopefully relevant to people’s lives, experience and problems. The emphasis would be on developing an engaged critical sociological perspective. Any thoughts about topics, sorts of content, what the collaborative learning process might consist of in practical terms, why people might be interested, or not, etc.?

The immediate response was both very interesting and very helpful. This post is an attempt to fill out the idea so far and hopefully involve others who are not on Facebook or at least not my Facebook friends.

Without here going into any detail about the problems I experienced with MOOCs what I have in mind is an on-line course that is restricted to a fairly small number of participants, maybe a dozen or so with 20 to 30 being ideal. Taken from the U3A model, but much discussed in many other educational circles, it would be a course that was collaboratively specified by the participants – its objectives, contents, procedures and processes. There would also be no, or at least minimal and provisional, distinction between teachers and students – the model is one of collaborative learners. However, it must be recognised that different individuals will bring different forms of knowledge and experience to the group. The group of learners would also, and this amounts to much the same thing, a group of collaborative researchers. One of the principles of the U3A is that study groups can be formed without necessarily having a subject specialist as a leader (although this is often the case in practice). Any U3A members with a shared interest or activity can form a group and undertake between them to share research tasks and collaboratively develop the knowledge of the group. There are many examples of this working very successfully.

Another aspect of my thinking about this potential course has been influenced by an increasing concern with the relevance of sociology and its relationship to public and personal problems – the shade of C Wright Mills may be sensed lurking in the background. I am a sociologist by inclination, temperament and profession but I do not envisage this as a sociology course per se. The idea is that the course will be relevant to and focussed on specific issues that impact on people’s lives and concern them. However, the approach to exploring and understanding these issues would be essentially sociological. Sociology is seen more as a tool, a framework of specifying and understanding specific issues, and to this end sociological perspectives and concepts are deployed strategically. Sociology is seen as a means of orientation rather than an academic subject. This would not preclude the relevance and use of other perspectives such as history, political economy, politics, even social psychology. But the approach none-the-less would stress the nature of all these as aspects of and embedded in social and cultural processes, certainly in terms of how they impact upon public issues and private problems. I think a very strong case can be made, given the probable aims and objectives of such a course (yet to be specified), to adopting a sociological approach that none-the-less can embrace and exploit the insights of other related disciplines and perspectives. A provisional specification of what I personally sees as a working sociological framework will be the topic of a yet to be written sister post to this one. I’m sure this will be something well worth discussing.

Which brings me to the subject of ‘ownership’. My hope is that if anything actually materialises from all this it will not be seen as owned by anyone other than the community of learner/researchers. My thoughts and ideas are only the starting point and everything is up for discussion. Clearly decisions will have to be made if anything is to come of this. Options taken will also will be options rejected. In the end, individuals (including myself) can vote with their feet and, if they are not interested in the outcome, do something different and explore other possibilities. The remainder of the post is a transcript of the discussion so far on my Facebook page. I would welcome any comments, ideas, thoughts, sharing of experience, etc. here. Please note the last comment reproduced below that raises the question of the platform.


Chris: This sounds great. Perhaps Big Data, debt, resistance movements, neoliberalism?

Clive: If there’s room around the table for a social policist, I’d be interested in examining the inter-dependency of moral panics and labelling theory.

Terry: Always room for you Clive. I think yours is a very good suggestion. It ties in with a whole range of issues around social control, manipulation of public opinion, prejudice and stereotyping, identity formation, etc. I am thinking more of a sociological course rather than a sociology course if that distinction makes sense. Do you have any particular issues in mind where a moral panic/labelling theory perspective would be useful, perhaps immigration, or the demonisation of the poor, or something else?

Terry: Thanks for sharing this post Chris. I’m not sure how FB works with friends of friends but they would be very welcome if they want to contribute. If they can’t comment on this thread then I’ll keep an eye on yours. As my comment above to Clive, what I have in mind is something that engages with specific real world issues of concern but through a sociological lens. The emphasis would be on sociology as a tool, as a means of orientation perhaps, rather than the focus of any discussion although the elaboration of sociological theories and concepts would inevitably be part of this. The sociological imagination in action? In the range of interesting areas you identify do you have any specific topics in mind?

Ali: I like theory. Bourdieu, Foucault et al float my boat, but I appreciate that they are a bit heavy. I suspect that Craig Calhoun (now President of the LSE) would be with me on this. Beyond this, I can’t help thinking that many of the examples of things that you think people might be interested in discussing aren’t simply sociology but also politics and political economy. You have the makings of a truly interdisciplinary course here.

Terry: I’m with you on Bourdieu and Foucault Ali Kocho-Williams, and a few others beside! And I’d be very keen on encouraging and developing an interdisciplinary approach. I think this is what I mean by adopting a sociological approach (rather than it being a traditional sociology course, although I don’t think ‘course’ is exactly what I mean) given that political and economic processes have in common the fact that they are both embedded in and dependant upon social processes. The notion of power in its various guises is central to everything as well. So I’m thinking of a broad sociological perspective as an organising principal perhaps but this would easily extend into linked frameworks of understanding, including history and maybe even social psychology. All of this could usefully be discussed by the putative group – the collective specification of the course would entail these considerations hopefully. I would be keen for whatever we might end up with to be inclusive and to be wary of being too abstract and esoteric, too narrowly professional and academic in its concerns and focus.

Terry: On a related matter, any ideas on what platform would be good to set up and conduct such a course? It would need as a minimum to have uploaded content of some sort (documents, videos and images…) and a means of structured discussion. My preference would be for something easily available such as a Google group, or perhaps even a FB group, but I’m sure there are options available I’m not aware of. Again, all suggestions and tales of experience with various approaches would be very welcome.

In addition to the above Sarah Amsler has reminded me of the Social Science Centre in Lincoln that has run a f2f course Social Science Imagination which anticipates many of the ideas and considerations above. It is based on a close reading of C. Wright Mills ‘The Sociological Imagination’ and is designed encourage an understanding of the connections between individuals’ problems and concerns with wider social developments.