A favorite childhood story, Are you my Mother? by PD Eastman tells the story about a baby bird whose mother leaves her to secure food. The impatient baby bird embarks upon a journey to discover who her mother might be and where she would find her. Like the baby bird in search of a “mother,” I have spent the last several years taking graduate courses, exploring different universities with the desire to discover “My Mother.”
Unlike the mother bird is this story, my professors at Virginia Commonwealth University have not left me in search of food but have prepared a platter of delectable entrees from the social media and adult literacy menu. My mother, in the form of a structured learning environment, has prepared me to venture into the world secure in knowing that I can always return when lost, when in need of redirection, or to share my new adventures. I feel confident to say that I have a mother. I am now in search of my “people.”
The most significant by-product of higher education and learning is the knowledge derived from study and interaction with media tools and the ideas proposed by forerunners in the field of networking and adult learning. Entree choices from the “social media” menu energize me as a learner. Wednesdays night class sessions provided something new to taste and savor. Dining adventures, while encrusted with frustration, confusion, and a wide learning curve were congenial. My frustration rarely involved theories and tools, but rather where to continue the conversation in real-time with the real people in my life. Friends often ask about my studies. The “deer in the headlights” look surfaces when the discussion involves digital media. The adage,” Tweet to connect, blog to reflect,” asks me to consider the new ways in which I interact using the network. No longer am I tied to Facebook and the social conversations among friends. Social media is a ripe place to hunt and feed. (My apologies to Stephanie Myer!)
During the summer of 2012, I learned about MOOCs, Massive Open-Online Courses, as a result of the University of Virginia’s controversial near dismissal of their president. Discussion about free courses through an organization called, Coursera, became a topic of discussion in periodicals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education. DIY education is the basis for my philosophy, “The broader the base, the higher the tower.” E-Learning and Digital Cultures, a Coursera program offered through the University of Edinburgh, complements the Social Media course I completed in the fall of 2012. Teaching and Learning with Technology should certainly involve exploration and study that engages the skills learned I developed. I was game for anything, particularly when coupled with digital literacy and global connections. Friends and acquaintances continue to express a polite level of interest in my graduate studies. Conversations quickly move to safer, more tangible topics, when puzzled expressions surface.
Two months before the beginning of the course, the organizers conveyed a hearty welcome along with ideas about media tools that we should consider for January 28th. Connections began through Twitter and moved quickly to a Facebook Group. No formal assignments were given, yet members began to create tasks to do. (Remember when the children who created homework were those who “played school” in their free-time?) What has unraveled over the last two months certainly doesn’t resemble anything that I have read about MOOCs. Where are those people who are looking for a “free” Ivy League education? Where are the slackers who have less than a distinguished grade point average? Where are those students who were “unable” to make it in a real collegial setting?
An editorial in the December 4, 2012 edition of The Guardian reflects similar ideas across the pond. I responded by referencing my engagement with the members of my MOOC. The level of commitment to educational pursuits, the wish to learn, and the willingness to share knowledge is exciting! Our collegial group transitioned from the Facebook page, to small, quad blogging groups. Facebook is a form of media that I did not include in my Personal Learning Network presentation in at the end of the semester. I have always considered it a private place. What I did recognize and share with my graduate class, was the current transition of my tribe from published writers and academics to the members of my MOOC. After several weeks of chatting and sharing, I have done what I considered the unspeakable. I have “become friends” with relative strangers on Facebook!
In the late 1980’s, the public library in my community provided a public service forum about a new idea that would soon be available to the average person, the Internet! I remember calling my father to convey my excitement over the idea of being able to use a machine to send messages to people. I purchased my first MacIntosh Apple Computer in 1994 and entered the world of AOL Chat Rooms. With these memories still fresh in my mind, I wondered how this new community of practice would function? I recall how every chat room seemed to contain a Howard Walowitz, character who cornered me with a list of recycled one-liners. I have found the members of this group to be professional, well-educated and thirsty for knowledge. Nearly everyone is beyond busy, yet takes the time to look at a video clip, explore a social media program or read and reflect on an article. this morning I sent a message to a member of my quad blog wishing her a happy first day of the second semester!
Thirty years ago, my friends and family members would be alarmed to discover that I spend hours in front of a machine, talking with people whom I had never met. We share ideas and a laugh. We recommend movies to watch and programs to try. The idea of synchronized YouTube, watching videos simultaneously with people we have never met remind me of the relationships that Russell Crowe’s character created in “A Beautiful Mind’.”
When I refer to the MOOC that I will take, the new friends that I have made and the relationships that I have formed, I realized that I am like the little bird in the story. The bird, who upon meeting the power shovel shouts, “I want my mother.” I want to shout, “I want my people!” My people are not the individuals in my life who are unlike me, with dissimilar interests, reading lists and social media apps. While I recognize that many of the members of this MOOC will move to different horizons when the course concludes, I am hopeful that a few will linger and remain as “my people.” I am reminded of the relationship between Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. The two women engaged in a cross Atlantic pen-pal relationship for years before they actually met. Imagine how “servant-less” Americans would have mastered the art of French cooking if not for the correspondence between these two women? Two key ideas that encapsulate their relationship, be generous when you can help someone, don’t hold back and collaborate with people who share your passion are important ideas when networking. Their writing, while confined to the limitations of the postal service, created a new way of thinking about cuisine for generations of cooks. Who knows what the relationship between me and the networks of individuals who reside in my computer will produce? Perhaps not a new cookbook, but certainly novel ways to connect with learners around the globe. I’m happy to say that I think that “I’ve found my people!”