(Online) learning in/at the margins

By now, our intentions of venturing into the MOOC space this summer are quite public. Privately, I have had the great fortune of planning/scheming with Gardner Campbell and Tom Woodward what that learning experience will look and feel like.  Last week, for nearly 2 hours a day almost every day, we sat around a table and brainstormed. The conversation went in eleventy billion different directions. It was messy and it was lovely. My only regret is that we didn’t fully capture those conversations on audio or video. [NOTE: Tom did try to capture some of the messiness on his blog.]

One idea I threw out continues to rattle around in my head. I’d read a piece in the New Yorker about a book project that J.J. Abrams did with Doug Dorst. Here’s how the New Yorker describes the project:

From the outside, it looks like an old library book, called “Ship of Theseus” and published, in 1949, by V. M. Straka (a fictitious author). Open it up, though, and you see that the real story unfolds in Straka’s margins, where two readers, Eric and Jen, have left notes for each other. Between the pages, they’ve slipped postcards, photographs, newspaper clippings, letters—even a hand-drawn map written on a napkin from a coffee shop.

To solve the book’s central mystery—who is V. M. Straka, really, and what does he have to do with Eric’s sinister dissertation advisor?—you have to read not just “Ship of Theseus,” but all of Jen and Eric’s handwritten notes. 

Here’s one of the “book trailers” A.J. Abrams team created and released leading up to the release of the book:

So, I asked Gardner and Tom if there was a way to think about riffing on this, but as an online learning experience. That is, could we create a learning experience that had a core “course” at the center (that stood on its own as a solid, well-designed learning experience) but that also involved additional layers and “mystery items?” Could we take this idea of the marginalia and supplementary artifacts as a parallel yet overlapping narrative and apply it to our MOOC?

Of course, the night after I mentioned this idea, I went out and bought each of us a copy of the book so that we might really grok what it is and how we might riff on the idea.

The more I think about it, the more my head hurts. But, in the spirit of openness, I’d really appreciate some thoughts on this. Is there something here?

2 thoughts on “(Online) learning in/at the margins”

  1. Thanks for writing this out. Yes, this has me thinking in a million directions. I want to read that book too! Do tell us how you like it. Overall, I just love the idea and how magical it could be if transferred into an online learning scenario. How, well I’m not so sure. Keep mulling, discussing, sharing.

  2. Sarah Cheverton says:

    Jonathan– would love to learn more about where you guys are going with the MOOC. Your idea reminded me of a small conference I attended in Boston a few years ago where I learned about the Future of the Book project and The Golden Notebook project. Both were based on exactly what you described– the importance of the marginalia. Take a look at the Golden Notebook project (last comment made in 2010): http://thegoldennotebook.org/

    I also can’t help but smile at your use of the word “grok.” I listed to Stranger in a Strange Land this summer while painting my new deck.

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