21 Oct 2013

Life is lossy: a preliminary review of the current Coursera MOOC on metadata by Dr. Jeffrey Pomerantz

Guest post by Giada Gelli, LIS Professional

Who, by now, hasn’t heard of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses)? I certainly had heard of this relatively new phenomenon, but had never given it too much weight. After all, I was not in college nor working in the academic field during what can be considered the explosion of the open online education revolution. Wikipedia tells me that MOOCs were born in the form we know them today in 2008, but 2012 seems to have been their absolute year of fame with even the New York Times dubbing it the ‘Year of the MOOC’.

At the end of last month, as I found myself facing another spell of unemployment with nothing lined up in terms of work (thank you, recession), the sudden realisation of a lot of newly-gained free time prompted me to have a look at what MOOCs offerings were out there. I had a look at one of the major players in the field, Coursera, and I was struck by the breadth and depth of options of their free online courses. There are obviously other MOOC providers out there, but my search that day ended there.

In fact, it didn’t take me very long to fall in love with one of the Coursera offerings, a module on metadata taught by Dr. Jeffrey Pomerantz of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (quite a mouthful as Dr. Pomerantz puts it!). I had come across the University of North Carolina in the past few years for some of their work done in the field of digitisation and digital curation, so somehow I felt connected to them – the quirkinesses of the web. Also, after working with metadata for a while, I was eager to go back to basics and brush over all of the theory and conceptual models I might have forgotten while working on specific datasets and schemas, in order to get a fresher look on the subject and maybe even get to do some XML coding – happy days!

So, without thinking too much about it I set out to enroll on the Metadata: Organising and Discovering Information course (#MetadataMOOC on Twitter). Unfortunately for me the course had already started 3 weeks before. Nonetheless, the nature of the MOOC model allowed me to enroll at such a later stage without any real impairment to my learning, except for the fact that I would not be able to submit previous homework on time and get formal accreditation for it. But I didn’t mind this aspect, as I felt my main goal was to learn, not to gain points. The signing up process struck me as the easiest ever, similar to those online products we revere so much for their user-friendliness. In a minute I had created my Coursera account and I was subscribed to an awesome looking course.

I was immediately launched into the deep belly of a well-structured academic module. The video lessons neatly organised into units stacked in an orderly hierarchical tree, with only the ones done so far visible on the page, thus allowing for a bit of mystery surrounding future lessons still to come. The lessons’ titles were simply music to my ears: thesauri, Dublin Core, LCSH, HTML, DTD, CDWA Lite etc. In addition, some interesting links to be explored were grouped on the left of the workbench: announcements, downloads, homeworks, sillabus and even more appealing ones such as discussion forums. There was even a Mapping the Metadata MOOC link, where pins had been dropped on a Google Map to show the location of all course participants – thousands from what I could see, and literally from all over the world. This was getting exciting by the minute.

After the smooth, user-friendly experience of the signing-up process I went straight to the introductory video of the first unit of lessons. Even though my Mac uses HTML5 and a message popped up on the page saying that I should switch to Flash, the video launched without glitches and the course began. Dr. Pomerantz started with a welcome and a warning: this was going to be a course for total beginners, perfect for those with very little knowledge about metadata. At first that struck me as perhaps not very appropriate for me. However looking at the syllabus the course seemed to be so comprehensive, and judging by the lessons’ titles very detailed, that I was not put off by it and decided to plough ahead. The academic flavour of the MOOC experience was now beginning to tickle my taste buds. It was like being back in university, but without having to pay fees, how bizarre!

The introduction was quickly followed by a couple of brief lessons engineered around the idea of finding examples of metadata use in our daily lives: phone metadata and the NSA scandal of metadata harvesting (metadata *is* data), the new tagging feature of the latest Apple operating system Maverick, all tangible examples of metadata in action around us.

The lessons went on to explain what metadata is (data about data anyone?), with some very true statements such as:
“…this course is about something that's difficult and maybe impossible to pin down. In Information Science we study all of these weird subjective phenomena - no gravity, or electromagnetism, no well-behaved physical phenomena for us here in Information Science.”

The course then continued on to explore Dublin Core - there’s an entire unit dedicated to it - plus a whole host of metadata schemas and controlled vocabularies used to produce metadata for digital objects of all sorts.

This is how much of the course I have explored so far, and I have to say I am very impressed by it. The homework in the form of multiple-choice questions peppered with more practical exercises is very meaningful and the lessons are enriched by links, recommended readings and interviews with inspiring practitioners in the field of metadata and digital preservation.

In particular, I must mention a very good interview with historian and archivist, or rather free-range archivist (yeah!) Scott Jason (@textfiles) of the brilliant Archive Team and the even more brilliant archive.org. In a very insightful conversation with Pomerantz, Jason pointed out that through initiatives such as the Internet Archive computer history has changed forever. It is thanks to the dedication of various teams of professionals, but also of many amateur (read: nerd) collectors of all times out there, that an extensive library of videos, music, books, magazines and even software is now made freely accessible to everyone on the internet.

Such efforts are so important if we wish to preserve the current and recent history of computing technologies, while securing future access to the metadata that is being constantly produced. Faced with such a wide-scoped digital preservation task, we can only try our best to save as much as we can from oblivion, obsolescence and data corruption, without falling into the illusion that we can archive and preserve everything that has ever been created in the digital world. At the end of the day, in Scott’s words, ‘life is lossy, it is not a lossless protocol’. Preserve we can, but preserve everything shall remain mere utopia.

Screenshot taken from Dr Jeffrey Pomerantz's MOOC
Further reading about this library MOOC:

Metadata MOOC in the news by Dr. Jeffrey Pomerantz on his blog
A tale of two MOOCs by Steven Chang on Infoseer
MOOCs and Libraries by Abby Clobridge on Against the Grain


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