As a prelude to starting my course, I recently enrolled on a separate Information Science course with Coursera. They host MOOCs in a variety of subjects, all provided free by various universities around the world. There’s been a lot said about MOOCs, and depending on whom you believe they are either the future of learning or yet another sign pointing to the end of civilisation. Of course I’m biased, having just signed up to an online Masters, but I do think there is something to be said for online courses. The traditional attendance-based way of learning is of course very good but for those who can’t attend because of time pressures or just practicalities, the online mode provides a vital access point to education which they wouldn’t otherwise have.
The key, I think, with online courses offered outside of university establishments, is that they need to be in a formal context with perhaps telephone contact as a backup. This will go some way to prevent problems like plagiarism and other ambiguities about who is actually doing the work. On some Coursera courses, you can opt to pay a small fee for ‘Signature Track’, which allows them to confirm your identity via webcam images and typing tests. This is one way of dealing with the perceived lack of authenticity which online courses carry, though it’s not entirely fool-proof of course.
The course I’ve chosen is all about metadata, and so far it’s proving to be the perfect preface to my Masters, both in terms of subject and the way in which it’s delivered. Having completed the first few weeks’ units, it’s turning into a very interesting and accessible introduction to the area. The course lecturer is excellent and engaging, and it’s reassuring that the other students are from all walks of life and have different levels of knowledge. Sometimes distance learning can seem like a lonely way to study, but in reality there’s a lot of interaction involved with the lecturer and the other students. I can communicate with them via the course forum, which has proved a really useful and fun way to engage with people from all over the world who are all interested in Information Science and who have varying degrees of experience in the field.
As for metadata itself, from what I’ve studied so far, it’s a complex and fascinating subject which covers many disciplines outside the traditional information fields of libraries and archives. It can also involve some interesting philosophical thinking about what information is and what constitutes information about a thing rather than the thing itself. We even had a discussion about whether or not an antelope can be a document!
In short, metadata can be anything from a library shelf catalogue to a medical subject reference to a hashtag on a tweet. It allows physical objects, computer files, images or even ideas, to be classified and arrayed according to their broad or narrow elements, thus enabling people to find the required object or information by giving a set of parameters. Yet, I’m also just starting to find out that it’s about much more than just classification and organisation. We’ve also touched on the uses metadata has in data manipulation and research, so I’m really looking forward to exploring the topic in more depth.