Pages Navigation Menu

Open Classes, Closed Circles?: Cosmopolitanism In the Age of MOOCs

Below is my inteview with Ethan Zuckerman, the author of Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection which makes a case for more cosmopolitanism and argues that we sometimes paradoxically use digital tools meant to open up the world instead to close ourselves off in the same old circles. He digs into some fascinating research to illustrate this tendency and gives some advice about how to counteract it. Though most of Rewire is about journalism and social media, we talked about how some of these ideas can be applied to MOOCs.

cosmopolitanism MOOC rewire

Alvin Jewett Johnson via Wikimedia

You can use the player to listen to the audio from our phone interview or, if you prefer, read the transcript.




Audio of interview with Ethan Zuckerman [Download]



Hello everyone. This is Robert McGuire from MOOC News and Reviews. Today I’m talking with Ethan Zuckerman who is the Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT.

He’s also a cofounder of Global Voices, a community of citizen journalists from around the globe. That website is really fascinating, because it covers places in the world your local paper is probably overlooking, and I highly recommend it.

Ethan is also the author of a new book titled Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection. It makes an argument for more cross-cultural exchange – that we need to be more cosmopolitan – both for the civic benefits that accrue and for the business and economic benefits. But, he argues, that increased connection that is enabled by the Internet doesn’t necessarily create a broader exchange. Sometimes just the opposite.

Most of the examples that Ethan uses in Rewire come from journalism and from social media, but he’s agreed to talk with us about how his analysis applies to MOOCs, the latest form of online connection.

Thank you very much for being with us, Ethan.


It’s great to be with you, Robert.


The book just came out in the last few weeks, right?


That’s right. It’s about two weeks old. It’s fun. We’re just starting to get the reactions and the questions coming from people. It’s great fun, because I’ve been working on these ideas for about four or five years, and it’s very interesting to see what I missed and to see what resonates with people.


What does resonate with people?


I think a lot of people are finding that this makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to them, that they thought at first that the Internet would automatically lead to a wave of international connection. And in truth, what it really seems to have done is make it a little bit easier for us to stay in touch with people that we’re already familiar with.

And I think people are interested in this idea that I talk about late in the book, of cognitive diversity, of this idea that all of us could probably use more variety in both our influences and also in our patterns of thinking, and that by having more diverse ways to solve problems, we may become more skillful problem solvers and more interesting creative thinkers.


You also talk about how we tend to exaggerate what’s happening with our own lives – that we think we have more cognitive diversity or more cosmopolitanism in our lives than we tend to. What makes you say that?


That’s an idea that I call imaginary cosmopolitanism. I think that this is an interesting trait of an Internet that is globalized but not necessarily connected. What I mean by that is we have on the Internet a space that all of us are using to make connections to what we’re interested in, the people that we care about, the people that we pay attention to. But we are not necessarily connecting to the unexpected, connecting to the unfamiliar. Those connections aren’t taking place in the same space.

Let me give you an example of this. Google has just put together a lovely tool that visualizes search trends, and if you set it up to search worldwide, you’ll see people searching in a wide variety of languages, people searching for topics that you’ve never heard of and never thought about. They’re using the same tools that we are. They’re using them in very different ways to look at very different things. We can be aware that those other searches are taking place, but unless we take some big steps to bridge our way into those conversations, we’re never going to have an idea of what’s going on in those conversations.


Let’s talk “offline” for a minute, because I think it might be interesting to think about how much we connect without Internet resources. And let’s talk about education. You work in an educational institution yourself. I assume you went to college.


I did. I have an unusual path through all of this. I finished a BA a long time ago, 1993, and I actually haven’t finished a higher degree beyond that. I teach in an interesting capacity. I’m a principle research scientist at MIT, but I have no degree beyond a BA.


In traditional campus-based environments where you work now and when you were an undergraduate, how much intercultural connection do you think is happening in those situations?


I think this is one of the really interesting things of face-to-face universities, is that it is one of the major things that universities try to do. So one of the pieces of research that I examined in Rewire looks at how university students connect to one another on college campuses. And it’s using data sets from Facebook. It’s not disclosed in the study, but it’s believed to be Harvard University. And it looks at this question of homophily. Homophily is the tendency of human beings to flock together. It’s the tendency of people who share an ethnicity or a religion to form a friendship. And there’s a huge amount of social science research that suggests that this is one of the most powerful human tendencies.

In looking at Facebook, what the researchers do is they ignore the notion of a Facebook friendship. They basically say, “Everyone is friends with everyone on Facebook.” But they look for whether people appear together in a photograph, and that’s usually a much stronger indication that you really are friendly with someone.

They basically say they see massive homophily effects. They see them much more specifically than you would think. It’s not just Asian American students hanging out together. It’s the Vietnamese American students hanging out together. It’s not just students born in the U.S. hanging out together. It’s students born in Michigan hanging out together.

They also find a really interesting and a really promising finding in this, which is that this university in the study tries very hard to introduce diversity into environments based on who people room with in their freshman year. So they try very, very hard to make sure that you’re getting some diversity out of your roommate. And that turns out to be a very, very powerful lever toward diversity.

People usually end up remaining friends with their roommates. They also end up building friendships with people through their academic department. So having that face-to-face capability seems to be a very, very powerful tool for fighting homophily in university settings.


When you were talking about the tendency for us as individuals to exaggerate how much of a connection we have or how cosmopolitan we are, I recognize that myself in the sense that I would think, “Okay, I feel conversant in Middle Eastern affairs,” or “I can feel conversant in Asian culture.” And part of the reason I feel that is because of something that happened in a few days time a quarter of a century ago when I was an undergraduate in a class I took, or people I met and talked to on campus. And I wonder if that’s how you see it too. Do we tend to exaggerate what happens in offline environments or exaggerate how beneficial college campuses are?


It’s a really interesting question. I think on the one hand, that having that human connection, having someone in your life, whether it was that experience in the classroom years ago or whether it’s someone you know who is from Bahrain, for instance, probably makes you more open and more receptive to news and information from that place.

One of the conversations I have in the book is with Cameron Marlow, who is the in-house sociologist for Facebook. He and I are discussing whether Facebook is making us more global or not, and he admits that Facebook is very, very good at connecting you to your friends and to what news your friends are interested in.

But he argues that you may be more likely to pay attention to that news story from Bahrain if it affects one of your friends or the friend of one of your friends. So he makes this case that Facebook, in the long run, is actually going to connect us to more people which will connect us to more visibility of news.

I’m on the other side of it. I think that we may take those little incidents of exposure and say, “Okay, I have knowledge. I have connections with this,” and we may systematically overestimate. So I think your concern is probably about who we’re following.


Taking that analysis of yours, let’s take a look at online education, MOOCs and other forms. So as education starts to move online and more and more students have their educational experiences in online environments, including in these massive environments with people around the world, do you think that’s going to have an effect on how much we’re connected?


I think it has a really interesting challenge for us. Really the reason that I ended up writing this book is a ton of my work is in West Africa. And I continue to visit Nigeria and Ghana and Senegal almost every year. I have a lot of friends over there. I’m very aware of what’s going on in educational environments over there. They are profoundly excited about the idea that they might be able to have the same educational experience that my students in the U.S. are having. So they’re enormously enthusiastic about the potential of MOOCs.

In some ways so am I. I’m really interested in this possibility that I can have Nigerian and Ghanaian and Senegalese students follow along with the sorts of students who come to MIT and that they could learn an enormous amount from having that exposure to one another, and it gives me the possibility of having much more interplay and interface between those students than I normally get in the classroom.

Now the flip side, of course, is that it’s quite challenging to ensure that students are really encountering one another, that they’re interacting, that they’re learning from one. And [pullquote position="right"]I think this gets us to some of the challenges of MOOCs, of making sure that it doesn’t end up feeling like a solitary experience, of feeling like you’re just encountering the content but you’re not getting some of the other aspects that you’re trying to get out of web-based learning.[/pullquote]


This is my personal opinion. The thing that excites me most about MOOCs is just that first moment that I entered one I almost immediately started encountering people around the world. So I can count among my acquaintances at this point, and hopefully my friends, many, many people from many different parts of the world that I didn’t know six months ago. Do you think that that’s genuine or meaningful, or is it more like what you’re warning us about when it comes to social networks? That there’s an opportunity there, but it’s not necessarily going to lead to more connection and cosmopolitanism?


I think the way that I would put that question to you is to ask about your own behavior. What I end up doing when I talk to people about this book and I talk about these questions, imaginary cosmopolitism, I ask people to keep a media diary. I ask them to look at what media they’re paying attention to, what websites they’re spending time on, what they’re listening to, what they’re watching. One of the reasons I do this is to ask people questions about where you’re getting information about the rest of the world. It’s not the only question to be asking about media. We might want to be asking questions about local versus national. We might want to be asking questions about left and right. But it’s a really good way to ask for a proxy. How broad is that news that you’re getting?

[pullquote position="right"]One way to do this would be to say, if you are finding a lot of people from around the world, if you are interacting with a different set of people, is it changing your information behavior? Is it changing what news you’re getting? Do you find yourself paying different forms of attention to that news?[/pullquote]

If it is, that might be a very strong indicator that those are relationships that are changing your behavior in one fashion or another. And in some ways those might be relationships that you might want to take more seriously or let yourself off the hook for imaginary cosmopolitanism. If you find that your immediate behavior really isn’t changing, it’s worth asking that question, “How important are those relationships really?” Are they mostly just reassuring you that you’re getting a global view of the world?


What are examples of information behavior?


I use a couple of different tools to monitor my information behavior. One is a tool called RescueTime. This is something that simply sits on my web browser, looks at what websites I’m looking at and then gives me a weekly report of what I spent my time on.

I find that, particularly during football season, I end up spending an inordinate amount of my time following my team, the Green Bay Packers. Usually what happens is that starts spiking in August just as the season is getting started, and then I find that I often have to trim my behavior. I look to say, “Well, what am I missing when I’m spending all of that time on football? Do I want to try to figure out how to change my behavior a little bit and diversify it?”

I often, at that point, will find myself digging for resources that I know are going to give me a global exposure. That might be a really good publication like the Christian Science Monitor, which does a terrific job of having global views. Or it might Global Voices, the publication that I help put together, which gives a lot of citizen views from the ground.

Once of my students, Nathan Matias, along with a collaborator, Sarah Szalavitz, has built a wonderful new tool called FollowBias. And this looks at who you’re paying attention to on Twitter. And it’s interested in gender. I get a lot of my news from Twitter. I follow about 1,100 people. Nathan’s tool automatically calculates the gender of who I’m following. It tells me that I’m following a lot more men than women. What it’s done is it’s really changed my behavior as I add new users to Twitter. I’m a lot more sensitive to gender.

And I find myself asking these questions of, “Am I going to get anything new from this person or are they going to reinforce what I already know about the world?” It’s just an interesting way of asking that question about your behavior before you move any further.


What’s your hunch about MOOCs? Do you think they will make use more cosmopolitan or not?


I think it’s an enormous challenge. I’ll say I’m coming from MIT where we’ve made the heavy investment in edX. We take really seriously this idea that we can bring education online. Rafael Reif, our president, is deeply committed to this. But we have this ongoing conversation at the university where we basically say, “Look, there’s three ways that we teach.”

We teach in the classroom, and we’ve figured out fairly well how to bring some of those courses into the MOOC space. We learn via projects, and that’s the work my grad students are doing. They’re working with me on projects and they’re learning an enormous amount from actually building and engineering tools. That’s a little tougher to bring into the MOOC space. Then the third is pure learning. [pullquote position="right"]At a place like MIT, you’ve got incredibly high quality peers, and you’re learning from each other. I have really tough questions about how we’re going to replicate that in the MOOC space.[/pullquote]

I don’t think any of this is impossible. I’m really interested in the work of my colleague, Philipp Schmidt, who has been working on Peer 2 Peer University. This is an attempt to try to get people teaching their own MOOCs, finding some way to teach each other. He has a lot of ideas about how we can get to the point where people are sharing their own knowledge, and I think that would help us take on the third.

But I guess what I would say in all of this is I’d like to get out of a paradigm where a MOOC is built by a professor at a university, and it’s one way. I think to get this cosmopolitan effect that we want to have out of this technology we really have to make sure that it’s bi-directional and that we’re learning from the other students in the class, because there’s a real paucity right now of scholars in the developing world who are building and creating MOOCs, and I really want to learn from the students in the developing world who are reaching out and using these tools.


One of your arguments is that we have to consciously design for more interaction across borders — that we have to rewire for that goal. What do you mean by rewiring?


I talk about this mostly in the context of social network tools and news discovery tools. So, on the social network side of it, one of my observations is that social networks like Facebook work very differently than the Internet worked in the early 1990’s.

I came online for the first time in 1989. At that point the dominant social networking tool was something called Usenet. And it was a topic-based message board. So if you were interested in a topic like photography, you would find yourself in the photography group, and you would interact with a fairly wide range of people who were also interested in photography. You probably didn’t know a whole lot about where they were coming from. It would come out in the course of conversation. But I remember making friends from different parts of the globe based on a common topical interest.

When you join Facebook, you get something actually quite different. The first thing that Facebook does is it says, “Where did you go to university?” Then it says, “Where did you go to high school? Where did you go to elementary school? What places did you work?” It tries very, very hard to find your offline social network and bring it online.

I think that that’s a little dangerous. [pullquote position="right"]We might think with social media tools, do we just want to replicate those offline social networks or do we want introductions to new people? Do we want to take advantage of the fact that we can have rich interactions with people in different parts of the globe? I think topic-based interaction might be one way to get there.[/pullquote]

That’s one place where I am interested in studying about MOOCs. You can imagine that if you have a subject that a lot of people are interested in, like digital photography, you might end up with a class of people from different parts of the world, and while they’re united by that common topic, they might have that experience of working together cross-culturally.


Yeah, that’s an interesting idea. What’s happening now is that in the absence of any other guidance, people in the MOOC space tend to organize themselves by language and by region. The class has a topic, obviously, but if the instructors or the designers were suggesting sub-topics and saying, “Here is a project,” or “Here is a problem” or “Here is a research question,” or “You guys should be developing your own research question,” and people started to congregate around that one interest, that might generate more interaction across cultures than in the absence of that guidance.


Sure. Or we could consciously go after it and basically, say . . . imagine if we’re doing a MOOC on global news or global topics. I do a class called News in the Age of Participatory Media, and this brings together often mid-career journalists who are in Cambridge on fellowships and young programmers who are interested in these questions of “How do you build tools for journalists?” One of the things that’s worked best in this is when I have a student, say, from Nigeria, come up and say, “I’d really like to work on this question of how do we report corruption in Nigeria,” and ends up working with a U.S. based software developer to build some tools.

You end up having really interesting cross-fertilization. You have a lot of learning about the technology, but you also have a lot of learning, both about that issue, in that you have an American team learning enough about Nigeria that they can work with a journalist on the topic, but you also have that journalist learning how to bridge – essentially learning, “What does someone who’s not Nigerian need to know to be able to interact with that story?” And that turns out also to be a valuable learning experience.

[pullquote position="right"]I think there could be ways to build this into MOOCs and really go after this question of diversity and cross-cultural encounter as an explicit part of what we’re trying to do with the new technology.[/pullquote]


What you’re suggesting there is that people are finding their own line of inquiry. Or maybe you’re suggesting lines of inquiry. One of the quibbles I have with many MOOCs, not all of them, is that they’re not inquiry-based in many instances, that they’re more information transfer-based.


That’s right, and that’s a project-based class that I’m teaching. And I’m teaching is as a seminar for 20 or fewer. And in fact, one of the open questions has been, “Is there a way to turn that into a MOOC?” So far I’ve been a little cautious with it. It’s really a workshop class where I spend a lot of time reading student work and I don’t know how far I could go in opening it up.

On the flip side, what is really powerful about it is that most of the lessons actually come from students. I think, for me, that’s maybe the biggest challenge. I think what MOOCs have figured out how to do fairly well so far, is to take a class where a professor really knows what she or he wants to teach, has some well-developed lectures, has problem sets and work it out in a way that a lot of people can take it simultaneously.

What I’m really curious about is how do we build MOOCs around a different model of learning? When I build my classes based around the idea that I’ve got a rough outline but a lot of the learning is going to come from the students, that seems like something we really want to do with MOOCs. We really want to get to the point where we’re benefiting from all of the people who are taking the class. But that’s also an incredible challenge to think about, “How do we get there?” So I’m really interested to see how we’re going to tackle that challenge of it.


Thank you very much for taking time to talk with us about this. I read the book myself and I recommended it. It was very interesting, and I wish you luck in finding an audience for it.


Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s great to think about these questions of imaginary cosmopolitanism in a different space, and I’m glad that you’re asking these hard questions about the MOOC world.


Good luck, and keep us posted about your MOOC. I’m sure there’s going to be one some day.


I absolutely will. Thanks so much for that.

Robert McGuire (51 Posts)

I’ve been a graduate student in English literature, a newspaper and magazine reporter, an ESL teacher at home and abroad, a marketing consultant and a grants and outcomes measurement specialist in nonprofits. Currently, I provide higher education MOOC consulting services and teach writing at a local university, and my “other job” is volunteering for several local nonprofit organizations. I started this project because I believe MOOCs are going to be an important – not to mention fascinating – social development, and I want to ensure that students and teachers could participate in lively critical dialogue about it. You can find me on G+.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>