Story Craft

Like a lot of other information professionals I am involved in a MOOC, one about storytelling. While it will explore mostly digital storytelling, we did start off at the beginning, with our own experiences of stories. One of the highpoints of this for me was the sharing of stories from different cultures. Everything from their favourite movies to stories told to them around the campfire.

Storyteller Under Sunny Skies - Rose Pecos-Sun Rhodes

Storyteller Under Sunny Skies – Rose Pecos-Sun Rhodes

One of our first tasks was to think of a story. Any story. No, not just any story. You have to be able to remember it fully without using wikipedia. That complicated one which was amazing but which you just cannot remember fully, that doesn’t count. Now tell it.

In ancient Ireland there was a man called Finnegas. He was looking for a magical fish in the rivers. A salmon. This salmon contained all the knowledge in the world. Finnegas had a young boy as a helper. No more than twelve or thirteen. Eventually Finnegas caught the salmon of knowledge and he built a fire to cook it. He left the salmon on a spit and went off to get some herbs to eat with it. He warned the boy not to touch the fish, that it was very important. The boy was a good lad. He took care of the fish while his master was away. After a while, the salmon began to cook on one side and to burn. The boy went to turn it on the spit but the hot flesh burnt his thumb where he grabbed it. Without thinking, he stuck his thumb in his mouth to cool it down. Immediately, the knowledge was transmitted from the salmon to the boy. When Finnegas returned he saw that the boy was changed and that the salmon was now like any other. The boy’s name was Fionn MacCumhaill and he grew up to be the leader of the legendary Irish warriors, Na Fianna. In the future, whenever he need to know the answer to something he would just suck his thumb and the answer would come.
stamp salmon of knowledge
What fascinated me most about this story was that Fionn became a hero by accident. He did not want the knowledge and it was his efforts to save the fish for his master which changed the course of the story. I like that sort of twist. I also liked the fact that his superpower (Sorry, I read too many comics when I was young) involved him engaging in very un-macho behaviour. The other aspect of this story which made an impression on me was the fact that there was not much background to it. Like a lot of Irish stories, back story is neither here nor there. Finnegas and Fionn always appear in an Ireland that is empty of other characters. It is like history is waiting for them to appear and then all the fun starts. This could be just that this story is from the oral tradition. They tend to neglect the interesting details that we take for granted in written histories, such as who was king at the time, what sort of trade model they had and all that complicated stuff that makes up life. The location of the story is usually a generic ideal Ireland full of rivers and campfires and mystical druids fishing all day. Sounds very relaxing. Of course, this is based on the story that I learned in primary school. The original texts may have been very much more detailed and were probably changed to engage under 12s. My recollection of the story of the Salmon of Knowledge is probably reflected through years of looking at primary school drawings.
As an added bonus here is my updated version.
It was an interesting exercise to do, to recall a story fully like that. With the amount of media growing all the time, it can be hard to do without the aid of an external memory device. What would your story be?


What the MOOC?

One of the interesting changes that has been happening in recent years in the world of information is the rise of the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course). Heralded by many as a revolutionary and disruptive, they are like a lot of things on the internet, actually not that new. Online learning has been one of the drivers of the web since Tim Berners Lee first started creating networked webpages to share information. One of the great promises of the internet is education and increasing access to it and the MOOC seems to meet this demand.
A MOOC is essentially an online learning course created by teachers and amplified by social networks. Always fancied going to Harvard, but couldn’t afford the bus-fare from rural Ireland? Sign up to their MOOC, watch their top lecturers on video and discuss what they are talking about with your new classmate from down the road in India on a a forum or through twitter hashtags. Or don’t.

Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado Creative Commons Licence.

Based on ‘la vaca de los sinvaca’ by José Bogado Creative Commons Licence.

Online Education has traditionally been managed by Learning Management Systems such as Moodle or Blackboard. These are usually closed systems and they give the educator more control over the learning experience.

However, the rise of smart phones, video and web 2.0 tools has let the cat out of the bag. Education academics are arguing over the pedagogy involved and its impact on the future of universities. The high drop-out rate is a feature of MOOCs and so is the fact that those who do well are those who do well with self directed learning anyway. Are video lectures not just a high tech version of the teacher in Ferris Bueller droning on and on? There is also a  concern that some courses are just dumbed down general introductory modules for those who cannot afford university and that the end result will be a two tier education system. That has not been my experience so far, but it is a concern.

Business people are wondering who is going to pay for all this content. I am sure that it will not take them long to figure that out. Yes, MOOCs do increase access to education as long as you have access to technology so there is that ongoing struggle, but that is not new. Librarians are worried about copyright issues and how to manage the distribution of the content. Students are worrying about credits for their courses, but on the other hand that new module on Big Data in Archaeology looks like it could really add to my own specific learning needs and let us not forget the network that we are being introduced to (Big wave to all my virtual classmates) and how MOOCs contribute to lifelong learning.


Coursera is the leader in this field. It was set up by Stanford after they saw the success of their online lectures. They chop up their lectures and offer online quizzes for students to complete. Some of their courses have gained accreditation this year. However, they got a lot of negative publicity after one of their courses crashed due to technical problems, leaving 40,000 students without any course. Ironically the course was in Fundamentals of Online Course Design. A good learning experience for everyone.

Udacity was set up by another Stanford professor who could not go back to face to face teaching after his online lectures were so successful. It currently operates as a commercial enterprise.

EdX is a MOOC that was set up by Harvard and MIT at a cost of 60 million dollars. Along with video lectures, it has interactive virtual labs, etextbooks, and online discussions. It currently operates as a free service. offers hundreds of free courses, mostly in basic multimedia, office skills etc and it is used by a lot of US employers to upskill their employees. This is actually a growth area for online learning.

FutureLearn is a new initiative which has been set up between Open University and 23 universities in the UK, including Trinity College.

Google have already released a free open source course builder as an experiment. It allows courses to be created by webmasters using Python and Javascript code. They have partnered with Edx to create

WordPress have developed a plugin (Sensei) which creates courses with built-in lessons. You can put videos or pdfs in them and then run a quiz that people have to pass in order to advance to the next lesson. There is the option to tie this in with e-commerce plugins to facilitate paid courses.

Personally, I think MOOCs are great. I am a big fan of DS106 although they will probably argue that they are not a MOOC. I like that I can pop in and out of there at my own pace. I can see a lot of what other participants are doing and I never fail to get inspired to try out new things. For this sort of content (digital media), I like to take my time. I am also participating in a more traditional MOOC with weekly lectures and academic readings about storytelling. Both these two and the one that I dropped out of (metadata – sorry Coursera, it wasn’t you, it was me) were three areas that I wanted to learn more about.

What has been your experience of MOOCs?