Week Two. MOOCs And Metaphors #edcmooc

future citiesThis week on the MOOC we are being asked to look at and consider utopian and dystopian visions of the future through a different lens – the ways in which metaphor influences and shapes our views of technology, and specifically the world wide web. The course materials take the same format as before: a selection of short films (in this case two adverts for future educational technology products and two fictional representations of a technology and communications-enhanced world in which the ‘Internet of Things‘ becomes increasingly pervasive and digital communication is ubiquitous), core reading materials and extended reading on the present and future roles of MOOCs in education. Participants, of whom there are now apparently something in the region of 8,000, are encouraged to respond to a number of reflective questions on their personal blogs, via Twitter, and on the online discussion forums.

To begin to understand how attitudes to the Internet are shaped and embedded in the collective consciousness through the metaphors we use, Rebecca Johnston, a PhD student at Texas Tech University, conducted a micro-study of newspaper and magazine editorials in the US with the term ‘Internet’ in their titles in the period September-November 2008, and concluded that those which occurred repeatedly fell into one of four categories – those of physical space, physical speed, salvation and destruction – the latter two coinciding naturally with notions of utopia and dystopia respectively. Most of them, however, related to images of destruction:

“Multiple metaphors compared the Internet to nature, usually comparing the Internet to phenomenon (sic) that caused destruction and death in nature. In these articles, Web sites were flooded, experienced a wave of hits, eroded revenue, acted like fast–flowing waters, and had comments poured on them. These metaphors all related to water, a moving, powerful, life–giving force. However, these metaphors particularly emphasised water’s ability to break elements down and cause destruction (erosion and floods)…Multiple metaphors gave the Internet negative human traits, emotions, and practices, painting the Internet as a villain or an enemy…

As these Internet and computing metaphors, such as ‘the Web’, become embedded in our society, they in turn spawn new metaphors for understanding our experiences. For example, computer and Internet metaphors now determine our very sense of selves: We describe ourselves and others as binary; we describe our brains as hard drives or storage systems; we talk about thoughts as being coded in memory (Denny and Sunderland, 2005).”

softwareThe last point is a fascinating one. The suggestion here is that not only is there a preponderance of ‘internet as extended or collective human brain’ metaphors, but that in fact the metaphor works the other way as well. Often, we will see or hear the human brain defined in computing or technological terms, with references to ‘software’, ‘hardware’, ‘hard-wired’ and so on. This kind of thinking has been around for a long time. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian story ‘There Will Come soft Rains‘, first published in 1950 and reflecting the Cold War tensions of the era, memorably features a fully-automated house which continues to function for a while after its occupants have been wiped out in a nuclear disaster, the ‘computer brain’ (appropriately located in the attic at the top of the house) finally imploding in the ultimate metaphor of destruction by technology.

It is also true that much of the metaphorical language we use to describe technology is related to the human body, bodily functions, and in many cases the breakdown of these functions. A very good example can be found in the 2009 short thriller ‘Virus‘ by Simon Hynd, a clever exploration of the relationship between the physical and the technological spaces, with a fairly obvious metaphor in the title.

Under the heading ‘Perspectives on Education’, further reading assignments this week are designed to address the potential development of MOOCs themselves, with a focus on literacy and assessment, raising two major questions about the future of this kind of learning – how are online courses changing the nature and definition of ‘literacy’ and what does effective assessment look like in this relatively unexplored context? Consider first of all this arguably utopian view of new literacies from Bonnie Stewart of the Faculty of Education at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada:

“The studies in new literacies (Barton, 1994) established the use of the plural ‘literacies’ rather than the singular ‘literacy’ in order to push beyond the binary of ‘literate’ and ‘illiterate’ that still shapes our cultural threshold-based conceptions surrounding literacy (Belshaw 2012). Lankshear and Knobel (2007) frame new literacies as follows:

The more a literacy practice privileges participation over publishing, distributed expertise over centralized expertise, collective intelligence over individual possessive intelligence, collaboration over individuated authorship, dispersion over scarcity, sharing over ownership, experimentation over ‘normalization’, innovation and evolution over stability and fixity, creative-innovative rule breaking over generic purity and policing, relationship over information broadcast, and so on, the more we should regard it as a ‘new’ literacy. This is what Gee (1996) calls ‘literacies as social practices’…

It is particularly in the shifting of teacher and student roles that I suggest MOOCs may inadvertently create conditions for the development of new, participatory literacies. First, in all MOOCs that enable voluntary, open, free registration, learners set some of their own terms for participation in a way that differs from conventional higher education offerings. The fact that a learner need not qualify nor complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course creates a very different relationship to course requirements and to the instructor, and alters learners’ agency over the terms of their experiences. This decentered, fluid notion of what a course is corresponds with the participatory ethos outlined by Lankshear and Knobel (2007).”


The idea that ‘a learner need not complete a MOOC in order to be considered a legitimate student within that course’ – allied to the fact that only around 10% of learners who enrol in larger MOOCs actually complete the course (Balfour 2013), would no doubt have traditionalists working themselves into a lather, as it brings into question not only the nature of assessment in learning, but the very definition of ‘success’, a topic which excites me greatly and which I will return to in the very near future.