Studying online…a journey into two ‘dark ages’

Train track by unsplash 


What was supposed to be a monthly blog entry has seemingly turned into a quarterly one.  Two online courses captured not only my interest, but any free time I might have had a claim to.  One dealt with records of up to 1500 years old that are (in many cases) still well preserved, able to be studied and continuing to release their historical secrets – the world of medieval manuscripts, belonging to the so-called ‘dark ages‘.  The other looked at resources from a mere 4 decades ago up to the present, which were either already lost, difficult to preserve, or in danger of being lost forever – the digital domain, threatening a digital ‘dark age‘.

On a gloomy day in January, while picking myself up from proverbial rock bottom, I enrolled for both courses.  Initially unfazed by the thought of doing two simultaneously, I had felt that personal experience with studying online would be helpful.  I needed a challenge, after all, and I had time on my hands, so I’ll handle it!  Well, I did.  Just!  They overlapped during the final two weeks of the 7-week Deciphering Medieval Manuscripts MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), and the first two of the 3-week ALIA/TAFE course, Born Digital.

Tip 1: it’s unwise not to plan for the courses you enrol for…these two just grabbed my attention on the day, topics that have interested me for some time. They ended up taking a load of my time and leaving me frazzled on some days.

Some will say that’s a no-brainer, but it’s amazing what we can do on impulse. Avoid impulsive planning when it comes to online training. :/

Motivation was twofold… or so I thought. Firstly, to remain ‘in the learning zone’ (with LIS related topics) to avoid brain-rust; secondly, to maintain an ALIA PD portfolio, which, against all odds, I yet have high hopes for.  But as I started reflecting on this, other motives became apparent which, admittedly, I didn’t enjoy owning up to:

  • a desire to become ‘really good’ at some area of librarianship… so I continue exploring;
  • the nagging knowledge that joblessness equates to digital-skills-lossness! (Relax, that’s not a word, I know.) 😉  Digital technology is moving faster than  we frail humans can keep up with, so how could lil ol’ me expect to walk into the job market if I don’t make a personal effort to at least try to remain informed on current tech;
  • loneliness.  As an unemployed expat, in relative isolation (albeit due to personal circumstances), I seek like-minded company whenever I can…it is really rewarding to study and chat with people across the globe… to be skill-challenged, to practice new terminology, discussing newly-learned concepts.


It’s a week later as I continue writing at 35,000 feet above sea level, en route to Brisbane for 6 weeks, to welcome a new granddaughter into the world. This is a huge privilege as an expat, because so often we are separated from loved ones whom we seldom see. A privilege I would not enjoy, if I were employed. So, with every cloud comes a silver lining, although, oft times we are too wrapped up in the cloud to see the lining.  My January blog post drew an email response from a reader… a special person who always goes out of her way to encourage others … who cannot know the impact her comment had on me.  She motioned that many secretly long for what I had been griping (my word, not her’s) about. It made me sit bolt upright and opened my eyes to the positives of my circumstances.  For several weeks I wanted to respond, but felt that whatever I said would sound flat or patronising.  Thank you now, Cherie, for opening my eyes and changing my attitude.

Back to online learning.  MOOCs are a great way to spend (daily) free time if you have some that you can commit to.

Tip 2: The time factor varies from person to person and also depends upon the level of difficulty of the course, but roughly 6 to 8 hours a week should do it.

I have used Open University, Coursera, and Canvas.  Weak points will be found in all, but I am loathe to gripe about courses offered for free…these are institutions and individuals who give of their time, technology and expertise to help others and to spread knowledge. Certificates are available for some once the course has been paid for, but there have been a few that I have completed free of charge and received a certificate for.

Tip 3: Engagement is the key… forum discussions are a must to cement new learning. Engage, engage, engage!

I needed to ‘take the plunge’ initially, being part-introvert and often insecure in my own abilities.  It is especially challenging when the activity is mandatory, and contributions are only displayed once you have submitted yours.  I have cringed in embarrassment, but also floated on feelings of victory. Engagement makes for a more lasting learning experience.

Whether pursuing personal, or career, development, let me encourage you to jump in and try a course online.  If it is approached with an attitude of ‘let me make this fun’ half the battle is already won, and you are less likely to become one of the many who drop out and contribute to poor completion rates.

Tip 4: Do something outside of your field…aim for new knowledge.


Two months have passed.  The quarterly blog post has now morphed into a half-yearly contribution. Back home, with jet-lag finally shaken off and clarity returned to a rusty brain, I shall now attempt to complete this post.  The taste of life in Australia served only to make my mood more dodgy upon returning to the Middle East. (Suffice to say I’ve been like a bear with a sore head; or is it a mamma bear yearning for cubs!? Please don’t blame me, the Aussie granddaughters are sooo cute!)   heart

A few notes on the two courses mentioned above:

Deciphering Medieval Manuscripts was a journey of uncovered mysteries. Periodically I heard myself exclaim: “is that how/why/when it was done!”.  Absolute bliss, especially for those who, like myself, constantly desire a window to peer into the past!


Manuscript held by the Archivo Municipal de Burgos (Spain) catalogued as SJ-1/2


Well done to Coursera and collaboration between University of Colorado, USA and Universidad Complutense, Madrid.  The video lectures contained loads of information, illustrations and examples, often challenging in terminology, depth and detail.

sewing pic

Example of ‘couture à deux aiguilles’ – sewing quires together. (Image borrowed from the course)


I initially enrolled for the “free” course, thinking that if I don’t make it, I would not have wasted money.  But as each week arrived with new concepts in manuscript production I was enthralled and couldn’t wait to complete the module.  In the end I paid for the course, receiving a certificate as evidence of 7 weeks well spent.  Not being the artistic type, I avoided the hands-on practical, choosing the option to make story-boards on Pinterest instead.  At times even these were a challenge to complete before the given deadline, often taking longer than the suggested 2 hours. (Re-pinning someone else’s pin wasn’t an option for me, so I trawled through resources to find examples of the week’s concepts.) Here is the link to my Pinterest account where you would find story boards for the assignments.  If you’re interested, here is a great video to watch (6 mins) on the process of making a manuscript. Amazing! 😀

still from video lecture

Part of a still from the video lecture discussing exceptional types of MS illustration

Valuable knowledge was gained, even though I may never work with manuscripts.  I now look at these beautiful documents with different eyes and loads more appreciation. Sadly, the lecturer mentioned throughout that cataloguing records are not consistent and descriptive data is often shortcoming, making it difficult to search for particular facets of these primary resources, within online databases.  However, the chance to explore these wonderful  items up close from my home PC was amazing.  Kudos to wonderful efforts from many quarters (one of many sites available online) in getting so many of these resources into digital format, for more folk to study and/or appreciate them.

Here is a link to Medievalbooks, an amazing blog by Erik Kwakkel, a professor specialising in Codicology, Paleography and Medieval manuscripts.

Tip 5: Have fun, but approach online learning as you would a regular course – take notes, read from extra sources, meet deadlines, ask questions and study for quizzes (if there are any).

The second course I did was Born Digitalpreservation of digital information.

File 11-06-2017, 09 29 07

Screen grab of the course’s home page


ALIA/TAFE courses are amazing, not least for the information and hands-on practical they contain, but especially for the helpful, knowledgeable instructors presenting their courses. I usually approach them with a mix of trepidation and excitement, but have always managed to hold my own. This time it was harder, though. The forum discussions, comments and suggestions from others were as much part of my learning as the course material was. Every so often I was ‘googling’ to find out more about a concept (…that effect of being unemployed).  Nevertheless, I seemed to know a little more than some…so found the ‘imposter syndrome’ start to wane after the 2nd week.

The curriculum began with a rather clear definition of digital preservation, working through relevant methods of preservation, hardware/software involved, conversion process, preservation best practice, to social media and what is on offer in the digital domain to save your Tweets, Facebook posts, Instagram pics, etc. Valuable knowledge that anyone working in the LIS sector needs today.  I’m thrilled to have done the course. However, after a year it will probably look vastly different due to the rate of change in technology.

Some vital points were stressed…

  • Digital preservation is a must! Preservation of everything – our ubiquitous mobile images, emails, social media chats, blogs, websites, forums, reports, diaries… whatever is comprised of those 1s and 0s, online and offline.
  • Our tendency to carelessness in ensuring the longevity of our digital data. How blissfully we create and delete;  we store info yet fail to regularly back up to current media formats. (Here is a handy how-to guide from OCLC.)  We relegate those annoying BU tasks to a day in the future when we may have both the time and the inclination, but which never seems to come around.  This results in a loss of valuable knowledge, frustrating for sociologists, historians, archivists yet to come.
  • Apart from a lack of backups, we are facing an unprecedented loss of data due to rapid changes in hardware and software, with no surety that even our best efforts at preservation will actually be effective a mere 10 years from now.
  • So another reality becomes increasingly apparent: paper is best! Yes…paper. If it’s something you really need to preserve, print it!!

print icon

Print icon image courtesy of Stuart Miles at


This course made me view my personal digital activities with new eyes.  I began to make plans to save, store and backup my digital data. To buy cloud storage, to leave a digital legacy, and to backup on those pesky hard drives as well.  With it the realisation dawned that Flickr may not, after all, live in cyberspace forever.  Shock and horror! I may just have time to retrieve and save the most precious images I have so faithfully stored there for the past 6 years. Ugh!

Tip 6: Complete assignments. Do all the activities. Don’t quit.

This turned out to be a rather long read.  If you’ve read this far, thanks for stopping by. 😀

Happy blog-June to all who are partaking – I admire you, immensely. You rock!