Widening the reach

MOOCs are to education what images are to written communication – a beautiful tool to widen reach and understanding.

It is often said that a picture can say a thousand words, and many have recently joked why use pictures at all! Words, whilst blessed with the ability to conjure vivid imagery and concepts in the minds of reader, are limited by their own accessible promise – if the reader does not know the meaning of the word, the meaning is lost and the words fall short. They are elitist in their accessibility. An image, in contrast, can be enjoyed by all, irrespective of the viewer’s lexical repertoire.

So why not just use images?

Although images enrich understanding, they too are subject to interpretation – the author of the communication may deem a single image the sole component necessary to convey the intended meaning, yet this will be subject to prior understanding of the context (if context at all is made explicit). Take for example the image above – the potential educational metaphor is less apparent when buried within a piles of holiday pictures or on a fishing website! If only images were used, they would require additional information in their profile to be fully appreciated in the intended manner.

Balance is important.

Kress (2005) makes a important point of change, especially in the nature of communication – the build on, chapter by chapter original book format > the hyperlinked, read what you need, dynamism of digital texts. Text has become more accessible. Pictures, format, tone, length… all contribute to improved engagement.

When I first started University, I would come across articles every now and again which were difficult to read. Now, as a fairly competent reader, this was not due to an inability to process the words, but rather to parse the sentences – each verbose section adding nothing but complication to the already tenuous prose. At the time I would think ‘wow, one day, I will understand this difficult concept’ then find another source that said the same thing in half a dozen words, with a simplicity to aid uptake. Who are the former designed for? If your purpose of writing is to communicate, why make it more difficult than is necessary?

The majority of this was status – you wrote in a particular style to impose status in the field. A write of passage (see what I did there!) which acted as an unofficial filtering system for future academics – if you can read and understand it, great you’ll succeed; if not, you’re out.

However, over time through a number of initiatives (including drives to widen access to education and increase numbers entering University) this verbosity is less tolerated – peer reviewed journals (although still stylised and largely inaccessible to the general public) have an appreciation for clarity of expression and new academics are encouraged to get those outwith their field to read their papers prior to submission.

The nature of text has changed – not just the mode of delivery (paper > digital, more images and less text) but the method and tone too. And as a result of these changes, so has the reach of the text – an estimated 2.4 billion use the internet today, which can communicate information to a larger audience than a paper book due to improved speed of information transference.

This made me think more about MOOCs. Their potential is as revolutionary as the Plain English campaign or the internet itself with regards to extending the reach to the general public. Another chip away at higher education elitism. Another way for people to engage with Universities, which in turn improves purpose of an institution – more people connected to actively exchange knowledge with!

MOOCs aren’t perfect and they’ve got a lot to learn but they have potential and that’s exciting!

Networks, my boy, must be two things: one, like a net, they must catch everyone; and two, they must work.
- Prof John Smyth

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