Let’s curate and preserve our digital/virtual heritage

Today I made a presentation about my MOOC-experiences for a Blended Learning Symposium. Turned out I only had ten minutes, this text is the elaborate version. Blended Learning is about learning in the physical, digital and social space. My question: what about the virtual? A university can think it is out of reach for competition by monsters such as MIT or Stanford because of the importance of face-to-face contact, especially for undergraduates. What if in five years time we have a super high quality immersive experience, sharing highly sophisticated virtual spaces (think Oculus Rift and a Second Life 3.0). At least we should keep such possibility in mind on a conceptual level: the virtual is a kind of deconstruction of “the physical” and “the digital”.

Also, I think these developments deserve a thorough historical analysis (not by me, but I really hope a real expert would write the history of MUDs and MOOs, MMORPGs, VW…). Virtual entities are vulnerable. They can disappear suddenly or on quick notice. I think we should curate and preserve these cultural artefacts as good as we can. If such projects exist already, please let me know!

Anyway, here is the text of the presentation (it repeats parts of what I posted previously but I just publish it anyway for the record and consistency and to keep a record):

I was fascinated early on (meaning the nineties and the first years of this century) by bulletin Board Systems (BBS), the early consumer networks such as Compuserve and by MUDs and MOOs – Multi-User Dungeons were text-based virtual environments where people could socialize and roleplay. The author Julian Dibbell had a huge success with his work on a very specific case: a rape in cyberspace, about sexual harassment in LambdaMOO (1993, 1998). However, these environments were also used for educational purposes.

The reason I was fascinated was because these environments imply the death of distance. They allow us to go beyond the borders of the nation-state. Finally, they were very cheap or even free.

This strange new world of global networks became even more fascinating as the graphical capabilities of the web increased. While the text-based adventures made a select bunch of geeks very happy, a new kind of online games would captivate millions of people. World Of Warcraft (2004, Blizzard Entertainment)  became a huge success as a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game or MMORPG.

The next step for me was Second Life (2003, Linden Lab). This virtual world was a real hype in 2006-2008. Schools, colleges, governments, spooks, media organizations moved into this huge user-generated virtual world.

I discovered authors such as Howard Rheingold, the man who learned the world the words “virtual community”.

One of the major attractions for me in Second Life (during my more intensive stay there in 2007-2009) was the Metanomics show about all things virtual economies, media and culture. The host was Professor Robert Bloomfield (Cornell University). Among the guests were many scholars involved in virtual worlds studies. There was a live in-world audience and people could also watch via video. One could consider the show as an interactive radio-show, but with the extra bonus of sharing the same virtual place. This enabled informal discussions before and after the sessions.

In 2008 educators in Second Life told me about something new: a Massive Open Online Course. For virtual world people it was obvious that MOOC was somehow related to the Massive Multiplayer Online Games, so of course we were very interested.

My first MOOC, and I guess it was also the very first time a MOOC was facilitated, was CCK08 with the education researchers Stephen Downes and George Siemens. Back then we lived in full euphoria about the power of virtual communities and I participated with a group of Second Life residents. It was a bewildering experience and when it was all over, I had far more questions than answers. These days I must admit it was of the most enriching experiences of my life as a learner.

Downes makes a distinction between community-based connectivist (cMOOCs) courses and the so-called Stanford branch (xMOOCs, companies offering massive online courses such as Udacity, Coursera en edX).

While communities are about sharing, co-creating, mash-ups and remixing, institutions are about consuming. “Open” does not just mean put if for free on the internet. cMOOCs are about harmony through diversity, about unstated and multiple learning objectives versus concrete and stated objectives – or this is as least what Stephen Downes says. Anyway, it was also my experience: there was no pressure to conform to some stated objectives. Maybe this was different for a group of people who participated in the context of their academic career (there was a special track for them, if I remember correctly).

The learning in a cMOOC is also a distributed process. People share status updates and blog posts or make videos and other digital materials about the course. I used my blog MixedRealities and a meeting venue on Second Life, but of course the participants used a wild variety of other platforms. The cMOOC organizers typically try to harvest all these materials through aggregation engines and by letting the learners use tags. A list of relevant blog posts is published on a daily or even more frequent basis.

CCK08 had the benefit of a daily blog post on the official site, in which the facilitators tried to make sense of the proceedings. I remember many participants considered that post being very useful.
The learning on xMOOCs tends to be exclusively on one platform, or at least most activity is located on that platform. However, various courses on xMOOC-platforms such as Coursera try to incite learners to use other platforms as well. The clear-cut opposition made by Downes is in reality less obvious.

The cMOOC learning is also totally learner-centered. Learners are told to do as much or as little as they want, or to tweak, change or combine learning materials in order to make it fit their individual objectives. There is a very strong recommendation to connect to other people inside and outside the course.

This leads often to an avalanche of learning materials as the course can easily split up in a number of groups each organizing their own version of some of the main topics, or even adding new main topics. For instance, the group active in Second Life  was very interested in the educational use of virtual environments.

This information overload and the fact that not everybody is familiar with the specificities of the main digital platforms makes it necessary to teach and learn about digital literacies: blogging, the various social networks, social media dashboards and filters, organizing feeds, detecting bogus information… In my experience this learning process was already well-established for many ‘residents’ of virtual worlds. Those residents tend to be very active on forums, social networks, blogging and video platforms.

All of which means that cMOOCs are strongly embedded in web culture, and this is often explicitly part of the course content.  The recent web-based cMOOC ConnectedCourses (2014,  25 instructors) for instance starts out with a mini-course about blogging and linking up blogs.

Later on during the course, these are some of the questions asked:

How do we maintain trust and a sense of security in open networks? How do we build our networks? What is social capital? How do we enable at-large learners to engage in our courses? Where should we teach our classes?

And also:

What is this thing called the World Wide Web? What are the values and ambitions that gave rise to its design? If “the medium is the message,” what is the message of the web? What are some threshold concepts that help us to understand what is meant by “the web”? How is it reframing learning and education? What do we stand to lose or gain in pursuing the possibilities opened up by the web?

Open source practices and culture – as observed in open source programming and knowledge production (Wikipedia) are clearly very important here.

Another example of this is the course e-learning and digital cultures… (2014) on Coursera. Even though Coursera is often considered a typical xMOOC platform, this course is facilitated by a group of instructors of the University of Edinburgh and requires the learners to use blogs and a number of other digital platforms and techniques. The learners explore how digital cultures and learning cultures connect, and what this means for the ways in which we conduct education online. The course is not about how to ‘do’ e-learning; rather, it is an invitation to view online educational practices through a particular lens – that of popular and digital culture.

My sympathy for cMOOC-styled courses does not prevent me from participating in more classical courses – meaning more top-down and often taught by one professor. I enjoyed courses about gamification, Buddhism and modern psychology, computer sciences and Google and the Media. However, the connectivist background helps me to organize this learning in a more relaxed way, taking into account primarily my own objectives.

Or for instance, one can take an xMOOC course and adapt it. We participated with a group of newsroom colleagues of De Tijd in a course on the Canvas-platform about Data Journalism. We simply organized weekly lunchtime sessions to discuss the course and we published the proceedings on an internal wiki.

There are two less-massive experiences I’d like to mention which seem interesting in the context of blended learning.

The first experience was online learning in a small group and in a closed environment. 

One of the communities facilitated by Howard Rheingold is the Rheingold U learning community. The courses in which I participated – sometimes several times – included Toward a Literacy of Cooperation: Introduction to Cooperation Theory, Think-Know Tools and Introduction to Mind Amplifiers. In these courses we used asynchronous forums, blogs, wikis, mindmaps, social bookmarks, synchronous audio, video, chat, and Twitter.

The courses were neither free nor massive: about thirty people worked together and had intense interactions, culminating in a last session which was self-organized by the co-learners. I particularly liked how we collaboratively made mindmaps and how a group of people, dispersed over several continents, created thought-provoking maps in minutes.

The second non-massive learning was entirely project based. In yet another group facilitated and inspired by Howard Rheingold, I contributed to an online Peeragogy Handbook (Peeragogy as in how to learn peer-to-peer). We started from scratch, discussed without a clear leader what and how we should write about how to engage in peer-to-peer learning projects. This involved once again intensive use of social media such as wikis, blogs and video platforms.

So, what did I finally learn? What impact had all this on my life? 

What I learned was to put myself in the center as a learner and to have my own objectives, while reaching out to others who I assume have different objectives and perspectives.

Mostly my objective was to learn new concepts and ways of thinking in order to look at the world in a different way. For instance, I learned that computers and networks can amplify our brains. I discovered that people can learn a lot outside of the traditional institutions: fan communities learning Japanese in order to immerse themselves in the world of manga culture, people who learn scripting and 3D-building as ‘residents’ of virtual worlds, or youngsters learning everything about video as part of some YouTube subculture.

Often these informal ‘educations’ are far more efficient than the programs prepared and implemented by professional educators. It reminds me of Ivan Illich and his book Deschooling Society, but then again I must admit I went to college myself were I graduated in applied economics and philosophy. I still feel very grateful for that ‘institutional’ education.

I also learned what the value could be of social networks and virtual communities, how to find sources and friends online and how to collaborate. These skills and knowledge are becoming more common these days, which is a good thing, but because of my immersion in online learning I was ahead of the curve. It helped me to contribute to the innovation of our newspaper. Even though I’m far from being a digital native, I feel I can communicate fairly easy with those who are and even help them to sharpen their digital literacies. Needless to say, online learning goes beyond advantages on a professional level – it made my life far richer.

It is our responsibility to enhance online learning, for make it better, to reach far more people in our own country and worldwide. It’s not only a responsibility of the universities, also media and the people formerly known as the audience – all of us – have to contribute. It’s the only way for people to flourish in an increasingly complex and interdependent world, and the only way to find solutions for the problems of that world.



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