Metaphorically #edcmooc

I have been reading “Metaphors of the Internet; salvation or destruction” and several thoughts came to mind. I am a linguist and I am constantly amazed at the evolution of language. Even in the few decades that I have been consciously aware of language development, vocabulary has changed. Words that my contemporaries and I used as school kids are no longer common parlance. As a teacher I have heard “wicked” “cool” “boom” “brill” used to express pleasure at something.

New words and phrases enter the language with each generation, with each technological change, with each new decade. The way we communicate reflects the world we live in and so, of course the metaphors we use will incorporate the vocabulary of the internet and computers.

Jessica Courtney explores some of the vocabulary that entered our lexicon during the Industrial Revolution. The word Mackintosh ( not the computer) came into being in the 1820s when Charles Macintosh developed a waterproof cloth and the first “Macs” as they are now known were made. Neither the process nor the word “pasteurisation” was known or used until Louis Louis Pasteur discovered a way of treating milk and wine to prevent it from causing sickness.

Latin and Greek had an influence when it came to inventing words during the Industrial Revolution; thus streptococcus, stethoscope, ambulance, diptheria all entered the English language. But European languages and culture also had an effect on English especially when it came to food and fashion; salami, toffee, pasta, peignoir and lingerie to name but a few.

A whole range of new words came with the goldrush in Australia, California and NZ; the phrases “to pan out”, “to stake a claim”, a “long tom”, even “denim”, “jeans” and “Levis” are purported to have come into the language around this time.

The French have been characteristically protective of their language and the Academie Francaise has staunchly resisted the natural, popular urge to assimilate English/American vocabulary into French. They still persist in pushing the long winded “courrier electronique” despite most of the poplulation using “le email”. The lingua franca no longer resides in Middle Europe and whereas, in the past European words found their way into English, now it is English which is bulldozing its way through languages of all nations.

Metaphors are coined according to experiences and the cultural context is significant. Other linguistic features also develop in the same way. Why is it, for example, that in English to express the unlikelihood of something happening we say “and pigs might fly”, yet the French say “quand les poules auront des dents” (when hens get teeth”)?

How we describe things depends on our experiences. How we interpret events is contingent on where we have lived, who we have come in contact with, the jobs we do, the tools we use. Our experiences influence the way we evaluate situations, they influence our thoughts, our beliefs and our philosophies and the way we act. An individual’s attraction or aversion to new technologies may well be a result of prior experience, although personality and disposition also has a large part to play.

The language that is used to sell new technologies is crucial. In the Corning ad and the Microsoft ad we can see that the language which is suggested by the images is just as important as the images themselves. Utopia, dreams coming true, perfect world, clean and green, healthy, successful, family; these are words evoked by the images and they aim to seduce.

A lot of the language around technology and the internet revolves around communication, sharing, collaboration,, networking, building communities. “Kent determines that current metaphors shaping the internet keeps us from using it in educational and political venues”. Why? I wonder…. Education was (and possibly still is in many places) the bastion of the rich and powerful, from the church, to the landowners, to the politicians. Not to be shared with the masses lest they get ideas above their station. Information was kept with those in power to keep them in power. The idea of sharing knowledge was an anathema, divide and rule, information on a need to know basis.

Then the printing press came along and changed everything. It has been said that the Internet is the next biggest thing to effect change after the printing press. Now anyone can read, learn, write, publish, share their ideas, disseminate information. In schools “copying” is frowned upon. It is still difficult to get teachers to accept that collaboration is not cheating, that it offers learners of all levels the opportunity to develop their skills and work within Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. Most countries still have an examination system that advantages the “haves” and disadvantages the “have-nots”.

Somebody asked me the other day how I envisaged MOOCS affecting universities and schools in the future. How do we authenticate the work that a student produces in an online collaborative environment? As an educator, and it has taken me almost 28 years of teaching for me to have the confidence to express this view, I believe in lifelong learning, in learning just to learn and not to pass exams. I believe that my role is to enthuse a love of learning in my students, not just my own subject but all areas. Don’t get me wrong, lots if teachers also believe in lifelong learning. But learning has been hijacked by qualifications, by the need to standardise, quantify, assess, prove competency. I see MOOCS as being able to redress the balance a little especially now that employers cannot distinguish between Student X with grade As or Excellence in every subject and Student Y with the same grades. There has to be some way of finding the best candidate. Anybody can sign up to a Mooc, engage in it at whatever level is appropriate for them, explore ideas, expand their knowledge, learn, for the simple pleasure of learning. Too many students nowadays are “credit hunters” ; their primary motive for learning is to gain credits towards their exams; their parents too, push their children to work for their exams but don’t necessarily instil a desire to learn.

So.. Learn because you want to.

Learn because you can.

Learn because you are curious.

Learn for fun.


“Education!” said Eeyore bitterly, jumping on his six sticks. “What is Learning?” asked Eeyore as he kicked his twelve sticks in the air. “A thing Rabbit knows. Ha!”
A A Milne

Leave a Reply