Citizen Open Online Networks: Engaging Communities Actively

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Citizen Open Online Networks:

Engaging Communities Actively

Vanessa Camilleri

Faculty of Education
University of Malta


Engaging citizens in activities aimed to improve their quality of life and that of others in the community is one of the key strategies driving lifelong learning policies in a number of countries. According to a UNESCO report (2014), lifelong learning “represents a paradigm for continuous, seamless, multifaceted learning opportunities and participation that deliver recognised outcomes for personal and professional development in all aspects of peoples’ lives.”(pg.5) This tallies with a view of learning in the 21st century that is modelled from a Connectivist theoretical lens (Siemens, 2012). This lens views learning as a self-directed process driven by online and offline connections, and residing in communities, networks, as well as various databases. Various initiatives involving online and virtual communities have been emerging in the forms of massive open online courses (MOOCs) or social alternate reality games. MOOCs emerged from a need driving education that is open, accessible, flexible and just-in-time modelled around the learners’ needs. In parallel social alternate reality games emerged as a response to using games to solve world problems by enlisting the intelligence of the crowds to create a positive impact on people about some of the current global issues. The scope of this paper is to discuss in more depth the benefits and challenges associated to MOOCs as well as social alternate reality games and to emerge with common factors that can contribute to a different learning phenomenon residing in self-organised networks and communities.


online networks, citizen engagement, lifelong learning.


21st century has brought on many advances notably in the field of innovation and technology. However this fast-paced development has also given rise to a number of challenges, which the world is facing on the global scale. Such issues concern migration, labour divide, poverty, energy and sustainability of resources, conflict and natural disasters as well as unemployment crisis amongst many (Laying Foundation for Equitable Lifelong Learning for All: Medium Term Strategy 2014-2021, 2014). Despite these issues we find that many people take to the online world for a number of reasons, namely for leisure, as a form of escapism from everyday realities, to share their knowledge and information, and to make others more aware of what is happening around them. This new phenomenon is referred to as citizen journalism, and it is one of the ways in which information nowadays is diffused in real time (Bruns & Highfield, 2012). One of the key features of this journalistic diffusion is the voluntary nature of the citizens’ engagement with news. This coupled with increased access to reception and production of information gives rise to a more active contribution within society. However this is not without its challenges. Without a knowledgeable contributor, information may come across as disruptive and the cause of greater conflicts. Such knowledge of current societal issues and development may not always emerge from schooling, but can be directed through lifelong learning initiatives. According to the UNESCO report on Lifelong Learning (2014) having individuals capable of discerning the right information, with an emphasis on current human and societal development is imperative for the wellbeing and the future of society. The same report states: “We need people-centred development approaches driven by humanist values, through which all people can be equipped with the tools to realise their full potential” (2014, p. 5). Such development is what drives the Connectivist theory proposed and developed by Siemens (2004) and Downes (2008). This theory places the learner at the centre of a self-directed process driven by online and offline connections, and residing in communities, networks, as well as various databases. Social media have gained popularity in augmenting such communities and supporting networks for exchange of information. However more recently different phenomena have started emerging in an attempt to harness collective intelligence and gather tacit knowledge that may reside in the networks. Such phenomena use communication, social connections and reflection to create a directed learning experience that is designed around a problem or a topic of interest. In the sections that follow we shall discuss in more detail two of these phenomena, namely MOOCs and Alternate Reality Social Games to identify the common factors driving citizen engagement, and leading to a possible identification of a model that can harness the wisdom of the crowds for a deeper understanding of global issues affecting society.


The theoretical framework for this paper stems from the Connectivism theory coined by Siemens (2004) and Downes (2008). In their theory the authors view learning in the digital age as a result of diverse opinions and interactions coming together through the online medium, where each individual contributes to knowledge in one form or another. Knowledge is seen as a process of creation as well as consumption reflecting the changes in learning processes as a result of the impact of today’s technology practices. In light of the various epistemologies that exist, it was felt that none of the previous theories could best adapt to learning in the digital era, due to the complexities that make up the learning environment thus affecting the processes, which the learner would use to learn. This theory emphasizes the importance of cognition and affection in individuals as two domains that are interdependent and which cannot be mutually exclusive. In this frame of mind, the theory presupposes that learning is dependent on the ability of the individuals to harvest online connections, including managing peer networks, harvesting the right information from a number of different sources presented over different media, and making meaning from the diverse opinions, values and facts that roam the online medium. Both Siemens and Downes were responsible for experimenting with Connectivism in learning, using the online environment during an open online course delivered in 2008. The innovation in this course could be attributed to a number of factors, from the ways the course blog and the course wiki were used to deliver online classes to free enrolment, to the concept of learning whenever we wanted, whatever we wanted, in the order that we felt suited us most as learners.

2.1MOOCs – Benefits and Challenges

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are not a new concept. In 2012, the New York Times published an article describing that year as ‘The Year of the MOOC’ (Pappano, 2012). Following this article many others followed highlighting the successes, benefits, challenges and trends that have characterised MOOCs. In 2011, Daphne Koller, had in her TED talk, highlighted the motivations for providing open and accessible education to everyone (Koller, 2012). Koller, together with Andrew Ng, were the individuals responsible for setting up Coursera, as a provider of MOOCs. To this date, Coursera is still one of the more popoular MOOC platforms and boasts around 15million learners, 1300 courses and 122 partners. Aside from the various motivations that have prompted the launch of MOOCs, we look first at the impact and consequences such courses are having.

In 2011 Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun from Stanford, both world renowned experts in the field of Artificial Intelligence, started marketing a course in ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ with a free enrollment, with free course materials and resources, as well as weekly assessment methods for the course (Norvig, 2012). In addition, the course was 8 weeks long and people would be free to take it whenever they wanted in the order they wanted, and retake tests for as many times as the learners felt necessary. This was revolutionary. It still is. This journey culminated in the 160,000 registrations for this course.

One of the main concerns of such MOOCs was primarily on the University and Higher Education Business Model. The fact that MOOCs were free can be perceived as a threat to courses and programs delivered by higher education institutions. However the concerns increased with the issues of accreditation. Because of the nature of MOOCs the learners participating may have different motivations as well as subject to different experiences. This raises questions as to the quality of MOOCs. Conole (2013) discusses how design can indeed affect the effectiveness of the quality experience for a MOOC and attributes the quality of each open course to the individual learner experience. Such experiences cannot be measured only by drop out rates, or by engagement surveys, but one has to analyse the motivation of each learner for following the MOOC. Taking into account 3 case studies, Camilleri et al (2014) trace common practices in MOOCs that offer strengths and challenges for the learner experience. Amongst the common trends discussed, we find the social aspects of MOOCs, together with space for reflection and discussion. One of the challenges which is often encountered by MOOC participants, is that featuring a large number of learners, most often removes the interaction between the tutor and learners that is most frequently present in other online courses.

How successful MOOCs will continue to be and whether these will continue the growth trend, is a matter that will keep causing various debates at academic, economic and socio-political levels. However, what we are seeing is only a bird’s eye view of the real scene. What we are witnessing is a joint multiplication of networks, set in a specific context driven by education.

2.2Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) for Social Issues

Another modality that has exploited user participation for engagement involves alternate reality games (Bonsignore, Hansen, Kraus, & Ruppel, 2013). One of the main characteristics of these alternate reality games involves the transmedia narrative that is the focus of the game-based experience. One of the pioneers who has experimented with alternate reality games is Jane McGonigal. According to McGonigal, ARGs are represented by an “interactive drama played online and in real world spaces, taking place over several weeks or months, in which dozens, hundreds, thousands of players come together online, form collaborative social networks, and work together to solve a mystery or a problem, that would be absolutely impossible to solve alone” (McGonigal, 2004, p. 9). McGonigal has also contributed to one of the more popular ARGs, that has been launched in 2010 as a response to African University needs by the World Bank. The ARG, EVOKE, can be seen as a tool for citizenship education (Waddington, 2013) in which the game outcomes directly affect and reflect the individuals’ roles within society. The main difference between ARGs and other traditional digital and video games, lies in the ARG’s potential to overlay real world structures on to the virtual world constructed within the game. In this way the gamers transpose their real to the virtual identities, enabling a deeper translation of their behaviour from the game world to the real world. Such behaviour modelling is also described by Yee & Bailenson (2007) and is termed as the “Proteus Effect”. According to the authors, given a virtual representation, any individual can modify his behaviour to reflect the persona modelled within that virtual environment. In an ARG like Evoke, where citizens are enrolled on a mission to solve issues afflicting the planet, the player’s identity becomes transformed into that of a superhero that enlists the other players’ help to reach solutions, that can also be implemented in the real world. Waddington (2013) describes in great detail one of the first episodes in Evoke, where the player is first introduced to a story, and then asked to get more acquainted with its details. The most important requirement of this game, is that it asks the players, that in order to undertake each mission, each one of them has to become a social innovator – who not only brainstorms possible solutions, but acts upon his/her imagination. Such imagination prospects are required to be listed within a personal blog and forum board. This would help the player, complete his mission, and progress towards the final Evoke. The ultimate “Evokation” took the form of a social innovation project, as a product of 10 weeks of solving missions for Evoke. In all it was considered that the challenge for the players to complete this final mission was not as world-changing, as the game itself professed to be. Ultimately the project which started in 2010, had some impact, if not the expected impact for an investment of $500,000. One has though to be cautious when attributing such responsibilities to ARGs. Although citizen engagement plays an important role the 21st century society, there is the risk that such a game, with outcomes that are easily achievable might trivialise the functions of citizen engagement rather than help overcome the challenges identified for the current society.


Taking on McGonigal’s (2004) definition of an ARG and overlaying it to the functions of a MOOC, we can identify a set of common trends and patterns emerging. In the first instance an ARG takes place over a period of time, and is inherently collaborative and social with a large number of players involved. MOOCs most often are spread out over a period of 6-8 weeks, and involve a massive amount of people interacting over an online environment. However the two learning experiences differ over a number of instances. Whereas the ARG is driven by a specific problem or set of challenges that the players are asked to solve or overcome by collaborating together, a MOOC is driven by the participants’ learning needs, offering a just-in-time learning experience which they exploit to further their personal growth and development. The points of convergence for the two experiences seems to centre around a number of principles that are manifested in the Connectivism Learning Theory (Downes, n.d.):

  1. Both ARGs and MOOCs, target the integration of cognition and affection, viewing meaning making as something that goes beyond knowledge transfer, and extends towards values (such as communication and responding to peers);

  2. Both ARGs and MOOCs view learning as a process that may not always reside in humans but may be affected by digital objects and virtual interfaces;

  3. Both ARGs and MOOCs focus on networked communities where the capacity to learn from others becomes more important than what one knows;

  4. Learning in ARGs and MOOCs is directly affected by the use of different media throughout the experience;

  5. In order to function within ARGs and MOOCs an individual needs to show adaptability and strategic skills approaching learning in different ways;

  6. Both ARGs and MOOCs emphasise creation as much as consumption of knowledge – this increases participant activity throughout the experience.

Moreover both ARGs and MOOCs function using communication networks. When such networks are utilised for citizenship issues, then they extend from mere socialisation and exchange of knowledge towards citizen engagement. Such citizen engagement networks take learning to another dimension which is not based on traditional and formal schooling. These networks use participatory media which enable citizens to self-organise into small groups or communities oriented towards civic engagement. Mascaro & Goggins (2011) list requirements of citizen communication networks based on propositions by Dahlberg and Habermas (in Mascaro & Groggins, 2011, pg. 2). The authors posit that for such communication networks to be established, and for the necessary engagement with political issues to happen, there needs to be the space for an exchange of values, reflection, discursive equality and deliberation. Most of these can be achieved through the social technologies that are already existent. What we believe is that unless there is a strong and robust design incorporating the ultimate goals, the mere presence of social technologies is not enough to mobilise citizens into the necessary action to overcome societal issues and challenges. The promise of ARGs and MOOCs lies in the deliberate direction of their focus, and the clarity of the objectives, rules and guidelines that are disseminated amongst the participants.


Camilleri et al (2011) explore the notions of social interactions within multiplayer games, and emerge with a model that integrates elements in game design.

In their model (Figure 1) the authors view interactions within a game as starting with a narrative. The players interact with the game not just by consuming levels but also by contributing to the knowledge belonging to the game. Once players receive feedback from the game, they revert back to the game but in a multiplayer game, the experience becomes shared. As McGonigal (2011) describes in her ‘Reality is Broken’ a shared experience within a game world, means collective strength that is triggered by a sense of belonging stemming from the contribution that an individual can give to the community.

Figure - Elements for social interaction in multiplayer game design (Camilleri et al., 2011)

In a second instance, Camilleri et al (2014) propose a network enabler (Figure 2) emergent from an analysis of best practices in MOOCs to support network formation. In this model, the cooperation is viewed as a collective scaffolding, with communities enabling the growth of the individual’s knowledge through the mastery of the content emerging from the group. Although this enabler proposes ways in which human networks in MOOCs can be supported and maintained, it does not explain how social organisation in MOOCs or ARGs can give rise to citizen engagement.

Figure - The Network Enabler; supporting and maintaining network formation in MOOCs (Camilleri et al., 2014)

One of the major drivers of citizen engagement is the allowance for public broadcast. According to Mascaro & Groggins (2011), public access through social media was a major contributor to Obama’s victory in US politics. Engagement was not just about citizens keeping themselves informed about what was happening in politics. Social media not only gave a voice to the individuals, but it also empowered them to broadcast their thoughts and opinions and share political discourse equally. Before the advent of social media, political discourse was reserved only to people in office or people entrusted by office to diffuse news and information. The authors analyse one such civic group called the Coffee Party Group, present on Facebook to determine how its network structure evolved prior to a democratic election. One of the findings from the authors’ study is that any issues discussed within the group on social media, are delegated in terms of roles, rather than on geography or nation. Another finding is that throughout the group posts, discourse is deliberately directed to issues decided by the group thus establishing leadership not just from the promoters of the Facebook group, but also from commentators voicing their views. More so, discourse snippets reveal the presence of direct reference to individuals transposing private discourse to the public sphere using the available network. This is done with the use of the @ sign. The authors also note that the use of the personalised symbol has as much potential of being constructive as it has of being destructive for a democratic discourse.

Such issues that have been raised and discussed by the authors cannot go unnoticed in a model for citizen engagement.

We propose that in addition to elements of creation and collaboration, a model (Figure 3) that is used in novel learning experiences such as MOOCs and ARGs, takes into account public broadcast, and the self-organisation of emergent discourse that can happen over public broadcast channel. The network enabler can change towards a model where citizen networking is facilitated and directed towards the co-creation (transformation of tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge) of possible solutions targeting global and societal issues. This co-creation needs to give the space towards deliberate discourse as directed by Habermas (in Mascaro & Groggins, 2011, pg. 2). Such discourse is not only reflexive in nature, but it is also democratic giving the opportunities for dissent as much as assent amongst the community formed. This needs to be mediated and facilitated by social technologies, such as online social media channels, to extend beyond discussion boards and fora established during the ARG and MOOC experiences and reach the general public. This gives rise to increased citizen networking closing the cycle for engagement.

Figure - A model for Citizen Engagement in MOOCs and ARGs


In this paper we have discussed the importance of citizen engagement and how this can emerge from a series of lifelong learning initiatives that go beyond traditional and formal schooling. Such initiatives can manifest themselves through experiences such as MOOCs and ARGs. Whilst MOOCs may follow a traditional course-like structure containing media for learning as well as being tutor-led and facilitated, ARGs overlay real world instances to a game world. Although both experiences share common trends, such as the duration of the experience, the social and collaborative nature, and the large number of participants involved, there are also differences the distinguish the two. Whilst ARGs are notably centred on an issue or a problem, MOOCs focus on learner needs and just-in-time learning. However both experiences can relate to principles emergent from the Connectivist Theory viewing learning as dependent on communication networks. Such networks may be established either directly through a human-human interaction and mediated by technology, or by the computer-human interactions using different media sources. Whatever form of technology, media or networks established, citizen engagement needs additional requirements, that go beyond cognition of global issues. These include the provision of a space for deliberate discourse on political, and social issues, as well as the opportunity for public broadcasting. Such broadcasting brings about empowerment to citizens, but enables the setting up of increased networks that may be in a position to create solutions for societal issues and challenges without trivialising them. Feedback, and community practices strengthen the ties and the collaboration within the networks. Using alternate reality games, or massive social courses, may be the trigger to help citizens make the leap and engage more deeply with issues that are affecting society, for which the only solution is to act together.


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