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Tutors and gatekeepers in sustainability MOOCS

Danish Mishra (Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath, Bath, UK)
Steve Cayzer (Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath, Bath, UK)
Tracey Madden (Faculty of Engineering & Design, University of Bath, Bath, UK)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 13 February 2017




The purpose of this paper is to explore the nature of interactions between learners in a massive open online course (MOOC), particularly role of the tutors in such interactions. For educators concerned with sustainability literacy, the authors are necessarily both affected by, and effectors of, digital pedagogies. The call for papers for this special issue challenged the authors to consider whether digital pedagogies are “supportive of sustainability or perpetuators of unsustainability”. As might be expected, this question is not a simple binary choice and the authors have chosen to address it indirectly, by considering the nature of interaction in a global, digitally connected community of learners. In particular, the changing role of tutors in these communities, and the possible implications of this change on sustainable literacy, are examined.


The authors focus on the “Sustainability for Professionals” massive open online course (MOOC) delivered by the University of Bath on the FutureLearn platform which hosts the “Inside Cancer” MOOC, also from Bath. “Sustainability for Professionals” is pedagogically connectivist, with “Inside Cancer” being more traditional and instructor led. The authors used social network analysis (SNA) for the research. It is a key tool to understand interactions in an online environment and allows quantitative comparison between different networks and thus between courses. In the context of digital pedagogy, the authors used a number of relevant SNA metrics to carry out analysis of MOOC network structures.


It was found that MOOCs are different in their network structure but tend to adapt to the subject matter. Digital pedagogies for sustainability result in a qualitative as well as quantitative change in learning where course design affects the learning process and gatekeepers are critical for information flow. These gatekeepers are distinct from tutors in the network. In such a network, tutors’ role is limited to course delivery and verifying, depending on course content, the information within the network. The analysis shows that network learning is dependent on course design and content, and gatekeepers exercise influence over the information within the network.


This study has implications for sustainability literacy. The authors examined the extent to which patterns of interaction in the network affect the learning process, and how this can help participants engage with the concept of sustainability. They used SNA to explore the nature of interaction between learners in a MOOC, particularly the role of the tutors in mediating such interactions. They also found that tutors can and do take a central role in early runs of the MOOC; however, with the subsequent runs, the removal of tutor nodes has little effect, suggesting that different modes of learning driven by participants are possible in a MOOC community.



Emma Patterson and Momna Hejmadi are the course leaders for the MOOCS under study, and gave invaluable assistance during this project. Marie Salter provided technical assistance with the data sets. Mr Tony Locke provided technical assistance with the Python syntax.


Mishra, D., Cayzer, S. and Madden, T. (2017), "Tutors and gatekeepers in sustainability MOOCS", On the Horizon, Vol. 25 No. 1, pp. 45-59.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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