Chips ahoy for MOOCs

In a post some time back I mentioned that academics now have to compete in an attention economy, and this isn't something we're used to doing (or very good at). It means making your slideshare attractive, or making your blog post punchy, or giving your paper a snappy title. Sometimes it works, sometimes it seems awkward and artificial.

MOOCs/Open courses will be the next in this line. I've heard more than one commentator say you have yo grab learner's interest in the first 5 minutes of a MOOC (maybe that's too long). That probably isn't true of formal education, where you have a captive audience. It may be a good tactic for a lecture, but it isn't a necessity. 

There are lots of lists of great opening lines to novels – this list puts "Call me Ishmael" at no 1, but I have to say I'd disagree, given the criteria I'm about to set out (Pride and Prejudice at number 2 is a better example I think, and Clavino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller at 14 is probably the best – how can you resist that?).

For me, opening lines (or shots in cinema) need to achieve three things:

1) Quality – you need to know you're in the hands of a gifted artist and it's worth investing the next few hours/days/months of your life in their work.

2) Content – is this something I am going to be interested in? Good opening lines will let you know what type of subject matter, or genre this is, although very good ones may well subvert this expectation too.

3) Direction – you don't have to give the ending away in the opening lines, but a tease about the direction pulls the reader in.

So, armed with my three criteria I thought I'd look at my favourite opening lines of a song (for this month anyway). It's not as lofty as the books in the list, it's The Hold Steady's "Chips Ahoy". The opening lines go:

"She put $900 on the fifth horse in the sixth race
i think its name is "chips ahoy!"
it came in six lengths ahead, we spent the whole next week getting high"

I make no pretensions that's poetry, but it's a good opening to a rock song. And it meets my criteria I think:

  • Quality – that number motif is carefully crafted, and the choice of the horse's name (after a biscuit) instead of some fancy name like Beauregard, sets the tone perfectly
  • Content – you pretty much immediately know what sort of life this is depicting, and the type of tale it will tell. This is not a story of middle class alienation in the suburbs. 
  • Direction – anything that starts with this positive note, you know won't maintain it, so it gives a good hint at the direction it will take (unusually, the song has a sequel too, called The Weekenders, which contains the great lyric "It's not gonna be like in those romantic comedies/ I bet no-one learns a lesson")

Now, I've just created a MOOC open course and it certainly doesn't start off with a carefully crafted opening line or snappy 2 minutes. It starts off with a course description, learning outcomes and an overview. All very worthy and useful stuff. I think it does meet my 3 criteria, but it does it too slowly. A question then for those developing and studying open courses is the extent to which we should deliberately craft these big bang openings? Do learners need them to decide or do they come with a different set of priorities? You may be prepared for the slow build in learning. Or is the attention economy online just too strong a force?

Just asking the questions. Oh, here's a video of Chips Ahoy while you ponder the answers.

7 Comments

  1. Perhaps “operating” would be a better word than competing. It needn’t be a race to the bottom – using words to write good books hasn’t caused a race to the bottom. Some of it just means picking up some new skills – how to make engaging videos, or write blog posts in a tone that isn’t the same as academic articles, or cultivate an online network, or use images to enhance presentations, etc.
    All of these can lead to better pieces – when I think it’s negative is when it becomes obvious and the main focus. When it’s a replacement for good content. Those opening lines of novels went on to be great novels, but I’m sure there are others that have been sold on a good opening line but is a dull novel. I’ve noticed a few journal articles trying to have catchy titles which have been a bit desperate recently.

  2. “Those opening lines of novels went on to be great novels, but I’m sure there are others that have been sold on a good opening line but is a dull novel.”
    For me, that is the key to the point you are making. It’s not about the catchy line and the dull follow through but about taking the time to ensure that what your learners experience is actually worth their time. Taking the time to deliver “the whole package” is, after all, the best thing one can do to create engaging learning experiences.
    How many times have academics relied upon the fact that they have a captive audience and do little or no preparation, stand in front of a class and yak away thinking they’re doing their job, and then wonder why email and Facebook steal the attention. The students roll up in the hope that something said might win through the attention space.
    Frequently the move to technology mediated learning, assuming any genuine concern for student experience, results in better content than many lectures, even by the same academic, because the former requires preparation, planning, consideration of the media to be used and how the communication is structured.
    My understanding of what you posted is a request that the academic community strive beyond the “captive audience” thinking and stimulate learners to achieve higher outcomes because they are inspired to do so.
    “A curtain finally closes, the lights fade out of this town.
    They’re cutting up yesterdays roses, they’re aint no circus without a clown.” Sacred Things, Vika and Linda Bull but unfortunately not on YouTube.
    (Maybe not your musical cup of tea, but the rest of the lyrics and music deliver… And it is near enough to Valentine for there to be enough roses 😉 )

  3. “using words to write good books hasn’t caused a race to the bottom”
    But academic books are a race apart from “books”. I don’t recommend Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown to my students. It’s not just words, it’s the choice of words. Likewise, I don’t want to compete for attention with what the online equivalent of 50 Shades of Grey is.

  4. You have definitely proved yourself right with this post title. While I can’t say whether or not I’d have read it with a different title, seeing chips ahoy drew me in. And I kept reading to see where you started talking Hold Steady. Here’s to more learning tech/Hold Steady crossovers.

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