Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Metaphors for a MOOC

Browsing through the stream of information, links and data attached to and associated with this MOOC, I noticed that some time is spent amongst participants discussing and trying to decide what a MOOC is. I have
been thinking about it too and come up with the metaphor of an interactive library. Part of the learning in a MOOC or from a MOOC is figuring how to 'tame' a MOOC and manage it - deciding on a metaphor is one way that helps me tame it and manage it.

Information overload is a danger that can overwhelm people participating in a MOOC (and being online or on Twitter or just about anywhere on the internet  - therefore learning to manage this environment is a 'transferable' learning and really valuable one). I read about the dangers of information overload in one of the first introductory blogs. But it occurred to me that we don't suffer from information overload when we walk into a library - even though there are thousands of books and many millions of pieces of information lurking in the data bases. We don't suffer from information overload in a library (although we can) generally because we go there with a purpose in mind, even if our purpose is just to browse the shelves. That is why the organisers of the MOOC encourage participants to set goals or give themselves a direction - its a potential way of navigating the maze of information and data that appears and is part of a MOOC.

A MOOC is a library that's similar and different to a bricks and mortar, dead trees library. It's different because for one thing some of the 'books' and 'bits' (tweets, etc) can talk back to you and you can talk to them - hello Harry Potter, this is the amazing world we're living in - more than J.K. Rowling could dream of.  Its similar because although the information doesn't come bound and printed on paper, a MOOC is a collection and a curated collection, of information that expands, exponentially, as it goes along. This is perhaps the nature of knowledge in this era too. Knowledge expands as it changes as it expands. Its not fixed, static or stable - which is itself a dizzying concept to get your head around at first. But you could argue that knowledge has always been like this - its just that the pace of change has accelerated exponentially and the online environment literally gives us a window into how this happens - we haven't been able to properly conceptualize it until we can see it in more or less concrete terms and see it more or less with our own eyes.

Because it feels a bit like walking into a library perhaps explains why a MOOC is exciting too. Its full of things to browse and explore, new things, unfamiliar things. And because I am lover of knowledge and learning a MOOC seems full of possibilities and potential new discoveries. The thrill of the unknown and the new is why I love learning and the life of the mind. A MOOC (and a library) is kind of like a vast intellectual department store but everything is free.

But the tech stuff associated with the MOOC - setting up this blog, trying to learn how to post and link and find and browse and store - can be treated like a game, if you have the time. I feel like I walk down the same path and come up against a door that won't open. I try another path and come up against another door that won't open. I shut the game down. But I come back the next day because I know that lots of other people have figured out how to open that door and are way, way past me and having more fun than me because they've been through level one, two, three, four, five or whatever and its become second nature to them. But to get to play with the fun stuff you have to learn to master the basic stuff. I want to play but you have practice before you start to get the pleasure - like tennis or scrabble.

As one my favourite educators, Ellen Langer, (a Harvard University psychology professor) said a long time ago, if you can turn something into a game it doesn't feel like learning, it feels like fun. So there's another metaphor to help manage and cope and tame a MOOC - its a (learning) game.

What other metaphors are out there?


  1. I do like " , if you can turn something into a game it doesn't feel like learning,"
    As for metaphors to tame a MOOC, I think of kite surfing, using the power of the heavy winds to ride on the waves. The fun is in trying to surf when the waves are high and the winds are almost to heavy. You do not tame the waves and the winds, you try to use them. and always the waves and the winds do make you fall over and you must try again.

  2. Interesting metaphor!

    I think it's probably a library with conference rooms that people can meet it, it's not your typical "shhhhhh!!!!" type of library ;-)

  3. I think of a MOOC as a ride through Complexity Learning Galaxy. It is purposeful chaos, self-organizing, comprised of continual reciprocal relationships and continual reciprocal processes. The visual is a star strewn galaxy with knowledge emerging as bright bits of connections made by the traveler.