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MOOCs will kill books? Ceci tuera cela

What do I know? What do I want to know? A learning journey takes place between these two questions.

During thousands of years, the learning journey took place by speaking to each other. Until the invention of writing. Umberto Eco in his 1996 article “from Internet to Gutenberg” tells us that according to Plato (in Phaedrus) when Hermes, the alleged inventor of writing, presented his invention to the Pharaoh Thamus, he praised his new technique that was supposed to allow human beings to remember what they would otherwise forget. But the Pharaoh was not so satisfied. "My skillful Theut, he said, memory is a great gift that ought to be kept alive by training it continuously. With your invention people will not be obliged any longer to train memory. They will remember things not because of an internal effort, but by mere virtue of an external device."

What if the Pharaoh was right? “Ceci tuera cela”. This will kill that. In Notre Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo shows us a priest, Claude Frollo, pointing his finger first to a book, then to the Paris cathedral, and saying "ceci tuera cela". The book will kill the cathedral, reading will kill images and listening. Today, the same fear occurs with learning. Will MOOCs kill books or at least text books? Will MOOCs kill universities and schools?

This is not a new debate. Back in 1996, Eco wrote that “a good educational tv program can explain genetics better than a book.” This is exactly what the new massive open online courses - MOOCs - pretend to deliver: a new learning experience more powerful than a textbook that should help the learners learn and even remember better.

Eco again writes, “even if it were true that today visual communication overwhelms written communication, the problem is not to oppose written to visual communication. The problem is how to improve both”. This is what can be said about learning: even if online learning can in some circumstances be more effective than face to face learning, the problem is still how to improve both.

What do I know? Que sais-je? French students remember this famous collection of short books covering almost any subjects, a pocket encyclopedia made up of thousands of titles where one knew that he or she could always grasp pieces of knowledge. This collection Que sais-je? almost disappeared from bookshelves as reprinting titles turned out being too expensive. The solution could have been to convert them into ebooks, creating one more on-line encyclopedia.

According to Alberto Manguel, “every change of instrument implies a change of action, but not perhaps in the way we imagine. E-books, virtual libraries, i-pads allow us to read in ways we never read before: we can now carry whole libraries in our pocket and, from our own bedroom, we can access volumes ensconced in the remotest libraries.”Manguel laments at the same time that a library that contained everything has become the library that contains anything.

Que sais-je? The french collection didn’t turn digital as the publisher decided to invest in print on-demand creating a new type of personalized relationship with its readers.

Personalization is at the core of the new learning paradigm.

MOOCs understood as social learning make possible another type of reading that we will call “social reading” i.e. the possibility for thousands of learners to explore knowledge together and share a new form of social experience. Imagine a MOOC for every Que sais-je? A MOOC for every book that will create a social experience shared by thousands of readers.

The Pharaoh was maybe right. Learning is about speaking to each other.