Third Learning Spaces in Open Online Courses: Findings from an Interpretive Case Study

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Third Learning Spaces in Open Online Courses: Findings from an Interpretive Case Study

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In this case study, I present an interpretive exploration of five open participants' learning experiences in a massive open online course (MOOC), which was offered by a higher education institute in the United States as a general education course in research writing. There were two types of enrollment in the course: formal (students who enrolled in the course for credit, six sections) and informal (open participants). Open participants had access to the public activities of the learning community, but they did not receive any academic certification, evaluation, or grading from the instructors. Blogging was central to all educational activity in the course. In this study, participant blogs are conceptualized as social spaces created by a multitude of interactions (e.g., with content, instructors, other learners, the imagined audience). These spaces were the starting point for the researcher to examine five open participants’ learning activities in the course. Primary data sources were participant blogs, semi- structured interviews, and a case study journal with analytic reflections. Secondary data sources included participant observations, course documents and artifacts (e.g. the syllabus, course videos), and the course Twitter feed. Thematic analysis of data illustrates how open participants participated in the course in multifaceted and unique ways and created third spaces of learning—spaces that are neither informal or formal and that create opportunities for learning to occur in emergent and authentic ways (Cronin, 2014; Gutierrez, Rymes, & Larson, 1995). These spaces were possible because learners' informal identities, skills, and networks were welcomed into formal learning and capitalized on as important learning resources. I present three typologies that point to the self-directed and authentic nature of open participation within those spaces: (1) open participants created unique course histories through their blogs, (2) open participants did not follow the formal learning path, (3) instances of meaningful learning were visible at different times in the course and beyond. These findings led me to strongly align with scholars who suggest that the traditional markers of success in formal education (e.g., sustained engagement, course completion, directly measurable outcome) are insufficient to frame participants’ involvement in open online courses. The diversity in learner goals and roles calls for a need to shift the focus of open online courses from the end product to the learning process and challenges formal narratives of success and failure in open online courses. I particularly highlight the contextual and shifting nature of openness and argue that it is crucial for learners to be aware of and develop open literacies, which I define as the skills and attitudes needed for successfully navigating and participating in open online spaces. The three design principles I offer—(1) give voice to the authentic self, (2) recognize the contextual nature of openness, and (3) be cognizant of multiple layers of digital literacies, such as open and networked literacies—might be of interest to anyone interested in designing open online courses as spaces for individual and collective dialogue.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2016. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Cassandra Scharber. 1 computer file (PDF); x, 160 pages.

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Koseoglu, Suzan. (2016). Third Learning Spaces in Open Online Courses: Findings from an Interpretive Case Study. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy,

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