MOOCs are to Higher Education as _________ are to __________.

MOOCs are to Education as __________ are to ___________. I’m in the process of trying to figure out an apt analogy. Feel free to offer your own.

First you need to know what a MOOC is: Massive Open Online Course. Next, you have to understand the wave (tsunami, it’s been called) these courses are riding, a wave big enough to carry hundreds of thousands of digital natives into the academies of higher learning and the workforce. As a result, the idea that one must follow a traditional path to learning and earning (elementary, secondary, college, (perhaps) graduate school, job) is quickly becoming obsolete. Sites like Uncollege have erupted and argue for potential learners to access the skills and knowledge to pursue their dreams in alternative ways. Uncollege’s “Hack Your Education” is a subtitle I love for the consonant shove. Although one could fathom that hacking an education might result in becoming a hack, I admire the way the Uncollege folks are vying for a different connotation of “hack,” a connotation understood by the digital natives more as “rebellious” or “rough-and-ready” rather than “dull and uninspired.”

On Coursera’s Twitter feed, I ran into this Inside Higher Ed article about possible funding sources for MOOCs. The article is interesting, yes, but what’s even more interesting to me is the first comment on the article.

The basic unseriouness [sic] of all this in regard to anything recognizable as education, is the stunning disregard for librarians, teachers, and scholars that is apprent [sic] in the idea that money might be made by “providing — or outsourcing — library resources, tutoring services, and other accouterments of collegiate academic life.” Accoutrements? Provide, outsource? As long as it looks like a Prada who cares? I wonder if they’ll send the police around every once in a while to check on things. A decent knock-off will serve just as well. After all, it’s just an accessory anyway, next year it’ll be old news.

The writer is comparing his Harvard degree to a authentic Prada handbag. And he is reviling MOOCs for being in the business of offering knock off Prada handbags. I don’t think his analogy works that well, though. It’s not visionary enough. I want something better than a handbag (although, if what a Harvard degree buys its students is higher paying salaries, then perhaps the Prada bag analogy is apter than I want it to be).

I’m intrigued with the bitterness of the above comment. When I followed the linked name of the commenter to his Facebook page (because that’s where it took me), I found out that not only did he graduate from Harvard, but also University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Washington University, damned good schools, at least one of which is considered “elite.”  His flippant “next year [Coursera} will be old news” is probably right; next year Coursera will be old news. But is he correct in his comparison of MOOCs like Coursera, Udacity and edX to knock-off Prada bags?  MOOCs are an entirely different thing than counterfeit luxury handbags.  MOOCs are to Education as ______ are to _________.

Well, what they do have in common — Harvard and Prada — is that they are both in the luxury brand management business. In his 2005 essay, “Getting In,” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that

Ivy League admissions directors … are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” [the book Gladwell is reviewing by sociologist Jerome Karabel]  in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years.

As a teacher at a private Independent Day School, I am well-aware of the belief that getting into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, or another school of their ilk is the pinnacle of academic and social achievement among many of my students and their parents. I’m interested in MOOCs in part because of their potential to liberate more people from ignorance, poverty, basic “stuckness” through access to education, a potential which the above commenter seems to overlook. The people who are signing up for these courses — motivated to do so in part by the schools’ “eliteness” — are not the students who are going to attend Harvard or Princeton or Yale or Stanford. Not yet, at least. The people signing up are ones — like me — who would not have the chance to attend those schools, either because of their station in life, their geographical location, their GPA, their age, their SES. And for those students whose families can afford Princeton, I believe that MOOCs could lead to alleviating some of the pressure of having to get into a good school in order to have a satisfying and successful life, a fallacy if ever there was one.

Read more:

Inside Higher Ed

Twenty Well-Spent Minutes that Could Alter Your Perspective

This article by Professors Erica McWilliam and Peter Taylor packs a bunch of powerful mental punches.

Australia has an abundance of energy to share with the world, literally and metaphorically. Their article, Why our kids need a powerful disposition to be self-managing learners when they finish their schooling, why they are unlikely to have it, and what we can do about it, provides a lot of fuel for thought, as you might guess by its title alone. Kudos to McWilliam and Taylor for their incisive, cogent synthesis.

Might MOOCs Contribute to the Demise of Standardized Testing?

Stanford professor Andrew Ng, who with his colleague Daphne Koller, founded Coursera is interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

Ng challenges the primacy of “testing” as a way to evaluate what students have learned. Ng suggests (and most worthwhile educators know) that testing must be used as one type of practice exercise, not an end-all-be-all assessment of what the student knows or can do. Ng says,

When we think about grading, we often think about assessing or evaluating students. But it turns out that as educators, we know that the far more important purpose of quizzes and homeworks [sic] is not to test the student but to give students the opportunity to practice with the material and thus remember the material longer.

This point, of course, is extremely relevant in the current debate in primary and secondary public education. Perhaps one benefit of Coursera is that it will help put “testing” in its proper place. It could, because what these elite MOOCs are illustrating is that people are innately drawn to learning, ESPECIALLY when they’re given choices in how they are able to interact with the material.

Standardized testing provides students with the exact opposite of “choice.” No wonder the drop out rates in traditional educational settings is increasing by the moment.

Why MOOCs Might Provide the “Most Powerful Learning Experience” Ever

In this post, I invite Philippe Adjiman, Ph.D, a Researcher and Engineer from Tel Aviv, whom I met virtually yesterday via @Coursera and @Twitter, to expound upon his claim that MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) provide a learning experience more powerful than traditional education. He originally posted the following as a comment on this blog post, and because of the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of his response, I wanted to re-post it to make sure readers don’t miss it. 

I’ll start by listing what I think are all the weaknesses of a traditional class one can take at the university and how something like the Coursera or Udacity experience blow those away. I’ll also argue why I think that those two sites are starting a revolution in education. As my main point of comparison thus far is a pure Computer Science/Maths class, please assume that the following points hold at least for such a context, though I believe they should apply for most fields of science.

From the least important to the most significant:

(1) In a traditional class, if you come late to a course and miss, e.g, the first 5-10 minutes (it happens…), you might end up being lost, or just behind, during the whole duration of the (up- to-few-hours) course, seriously not optimizing or, rather, wasting your time. No need to argue why an online course solves that.

(2) In a pure math or very technical class, your first step to understanding the course deeply is to get the best notes you can during the course, and most of the time, you wish that you could do “pause” for few minutes, to write down how you understood a certain concept. Instead, you often try to write down what you got while the professor continues speaking and moves to another concept, which could result in you having a hard time catching up after you’ve captured your idea about the previous point.

(3) is a corollary of (2). Many times you feel that a certain part of the course/class is easy for you, and you wish you could do “fast forward” to get to the next concept. Instead, you start being distracted, and often you’re not concentrated enough when the class reaches again a point that you need to follow.

(4) In assignments and/or final exam, in a traditional class, if you happen to be having a bad day or are stressed and do a stupid mistake, you might ruin your exam, even if you labored for days and nights and are super serious during the entire course, the grade you’ll get won’t accurately represent your understanding of the class.

With Coursera/Udacity, you can submit your assignment, fail, sometimes get feedback, understand your error, and retry (made possible thanks to automatic/instant grading! impossible with a “live” professor).  Trying, failing, improving. This is how you get better. Failing the final exam in a traditional class because of a stupid mistake can cost you a year!!

Think also about a student who fails in an early assignment. In a traditional class, he’ll get penalized for the whole course because of that, as his grade will be bounded by this early failure. This is stupid. If you give him an unlimited amount of retries until he gets a perfect score for each assignments (as with Coursera/Udacity), you’ll not only end up with much less students giving up early, but also with much more highly motivated students who will try to get the perfect score, just because they have the opportunity to get to it (don’t get me wrong, not everyone is like that, but the ones that are will flourish in Coursera/Udacity while they could have potentially withered in a traditional class).

(5) If you get stuck in any assignment, in a traditional class you won’t necessarily find someone (who is successful in the class) who is willing to help you. In Coursera/Udacity, if you get stuck in something, with virtually up to 100k students in your class, it is *highly* likely that someone else has had the same problem and shared it already or is willing to discuss it with you in the forums. This is powerful.

(6) Depending on which university you are at, you can end up with the best or the worst professors. It is obvious that your learning experience will be dramatically different depending on the quality of the professor and the content he’s teaching. Coursera/Udacity offer courses from arguably some of the best possible professors of each discipline and/or from the most influential folks in the computer science industry. E.g., even if I can’t prove it, I believe that most of the Introductions to Machine Learning or AI [Artificial Intelligence] classes around the world in traditional universities are of lesser quality (or at best of equivalent quality) than the one taught by Professor Andrew Ng at Coursera (or Peter Norvig/Sebastien Thrun before he founded Udacity) — of course, if you compare similar covered material/concepts.

(7) I grew up and studied in France, where university is mostly free. As you know, it doesn’t work that way in the rest of the world, especially in top universities. The fact that with Coursera, e.g., I have free access to the quality of professors and content of Stanford is simply amazing. Before Coursera, only a handful of lucky (and talented and/or rich) students had access to such a privilege every year.

(8) To strengthen point (7), think about it at large: your country/city of origin may be far from being a capital, or may be a place where you’re unlikely to get good or even decent professors in very specialized disciplines. In these cases, with these websites (Coursera/Udacity), you jump from mediocrity to excellence. I don’t see how universities in the world teaching sciences could ignore that fact long term: what’s the point in attending the class of an average teacher with average content, maybe even pay a lot for that, when the best professors and content are available for free and online? I’m not saying that universities will disappear of course 🙂 but they will need to adapt, and to find a way to combine the benefits of Coursera/Udacity-type programs into their own programs in some way.

(9) When you make available online the best possible material on Machine Learning or AI from Stanford, it means that the available “baseline” knowledge is already at the level of excellence. The most solid foundations are available to anyone willing to acquire them. The result will be much better educated/sharper people in a given field, making everyone starting from the best basis possible and thus raising the level up significantly.

(10) You actually don’t need to wait for university until you take those courses. I’m sure any geeky teenager (maybe even younger) could attend the so-awesome Introduction to Computer Science by David Ewans, which introduces the core basic concepts of computer science based on a compelling project of building a functional web search engine (yes yes, with crawling, indexing, search, etc.; it is really the most compelling way to get introduced to computer science you can think of). Same applies for any professional who already started a career in a non-related field, and would like to acquire important technical knowledge about how to program, etc. Long term, I think it will create new kinds of entrepreneurs and impact positively the career of millions.

Points (1) to (5) illustrates why I think the likes of Coursera/Udacity give that superior learning experience that surpass by far all the ones I got or observed among my fellows at university.
Points (6) to (10) illustrates why I think Coursera/Udacity are starting a revolution in education.

You can learn more from Phillipe by following him on Twitter, @padjiman, and vising his blog,

Sailing Beyond Previous Horizons

It’s 9:43 am. (-5 GMT), and already I’m fighting mindnumb. There are hives of buzz around @coursera, and I’ve been following the noise, as well as maybe six other “trends” since 8:30 am. (-5 GMT), including a Youtube video featuring the CEOs at StumblUpon, and the flight fares to a certain North American city.  This morning, one of the things I followed was a link to Jiquan Ngiam’s blog post on Coursera’s site, where he said

I’m continually blown away by our students’ passion to learn, drive to make it through difficult problem sets, and willingness to help their peers in the forums and study groups. We all are building an amazing community of lifelong learners that bridges age, nationality, and language.

“Passion,” “Lifelong learners,” “helping…peers” “bridges”: these are all phrases with mostly positive connotations.

For some reason, though, I feel a shade of foreboding while reading them. First of all, that the global is now local is only one of the ideas (fairly neutral) that sweeps through my neural network while considering Ngiam’s statement. Another idea that comes to mind is Kevin Kelly’s thesis (in his book What Technology Wants) that what technology “wants” is for us to share. It’s this thought that raises the doom-spectre in my mind, wafting like a potential gas leak fated to be discovered when the building explodes. Here are a few questions that arise for me: As people of the screen, can we share too much? Might we share our way into a monoculture that is an Orwellian, Huxley-esque or Kafka-esque dimly lit nightmare? The chatter/buzz feels threatening because the extensive “diversity of ideas” begins to sound and feel like a mind-numbing suzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzazazaaaaaaaa. I become intoxicated with information, and I fear being  taken advantage of in my intoxicated state. But maybe this spectre I sense is merely my own idiosyncratic projection. More will be revealed.

In my Coursera/Princeton Intro to Sociology course, I’ve been reminded of the idea that personal troubles can mirror societal issues.  However, says Duneier, regarding the development of a sociological imagination, “It is really not enough to just imagine. It’s important that we sort through the evidence so that we don’t connect the individual experience to social structure in a baseless and fanciful manner.”  The trouble I sense at the personal level is inchoate, and I know that I’m experiencing it within — and because of — the framework of my idiosyncratic history; nevertheless, the trouble is there, here. I feel it pulsing within my psychic radar, and it’s been pulsing for at least a year. Call me Cassandra, but this “pulsing,” for lack of better word, is why I fought to have 1984 and Brave New World put on our school’s Summer Reading list. It’s why I’m going to re-read Kafka’s The Trial. Yes, the incipient revolution inspired by MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses, an acronym I learned only yesterday), is exciting, but I don’t want to miss the potential deadly parasite shuttling inside of it.

At heart, I have to fight against a tendency to see conspiracies (networks of malfeasance).

On the brighter side:

One of my fellow @coursera-mates responds to Ngiam’s blog post with this:

The only course i’m intensively following so far is the machine learning one, and even if it is a subject i’m already very familiar with, it is without any comparaison [sic] the most powerful/beneficial learning experience i ever had in my life.
  •  comment on the Coursera blog by @padjiman (Philippe Adjiman, who identifies himself as an Israeli-French Ph.D/Engineer in his Twitter bio)

That’s an amazing statement: “the most powerful learning experience” he’s had in his life! I don’t know much more about @padjiman at this point except for what he’s written in his Twitter bio: as a Ph.D  at least, he’s probably had many, many learning experiences so far. So there is something unique happening in with these MOOCs, and I’m wanting to understand the texture, color, tone and frequency of what it is. What characterizes this @coursera learning experience that makes it sail beyond previous horizons?

Why, @padjiman, is this the most powerful learning experience you’ve had thus far?

The Beginning of a (Cours)era

I’m signed up for the “Intro to Sociology” course being taught by Mitchell Duneier at Princeton via Coursera. This course, one of many free, open-to-the-public ones offered through the platform, will consist of one “lecture” per week (via video) and one seminar discussion per week, where a few people from the online community will be included in a seminar discussion along with Princeton students (via Google+). Duneier invited members of the online community to apply for slots in the Google+ seminar discussion, and I activated toward that opportunity the way some people do towards a chance to be on Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune. I have no clue how many people have signed up for the course so far. What I know (from Dunenier in an email) is that “This is quite a diverse sociology class: your fellow classmates bring together a wealth of experience from around the globe!”

I learned about Coursera a few weeks ago from an article in the NYTimes by Thomas Friedman. I had not even finished the article before I’d followed the Coursera link and signed up for three courses: “Intro to Sociology” with Duneier (June), “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World” (July) with Eric Rabkin from University of Michigan, and “Greek and Roman Mythology” with Peter Struck of University of Pennsylvania (September).  My goal is to be stimulated intellectually and to have fun.  I’m totally intrigued by the blended/online education movement happening, especially with the elite institutions in America. Blended Education has been happening for a long time at places like Houston Community College and San Jacinto College.  The entrance of elite colleges onto the playing field is new and fairly subversive. It used to be that you had to pay thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars in tuition to have access to the faculty members of these elite schools. Now they’re offering their expertise to the masses for free. How will it work? I aim to find out by participating.

In preparation for the course, Duneier sent us two articles to read: “The Sociological Imagination” by C. Wright Mills (1959) and “Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions” by Malcolm Gladfly — I mean, Gladwell (2005).  On Saturday, I spent about three hours reading and annotating these texts, fourteen pages total. My kids were listening to Harry Potter in their bedroom; my husband was snoozing in an afternoon nap; and I was on the couch luxuriating in annotating my assigned texts!

There are few things that I find more absorbing than annotating a text. Yesterday on the plane ride back from an educator’s conference in Atlanta, I was reading a book by a Dutch Catholic priest, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, by Henri Nouwen, and my colleague (also an English teacher) seated next to me noticed what I was doing and asked, “Do you annotate everything you read?” I answered without hesitating, “Yes. Yes I do.”

Just this morning I was reading and annotating a pamphlet I’d recently picked up at a neighborhood association meeting. I annotate newspaper and magazine articles. I annotate direct mail from people running for public office. I annotate novels that I read for pleasure, New Yorker short stories, daily horoscopes. If the text I happen to be reading appears online and it’s provocative enough, I will print it out and cut it up to fit the pages of my journal so that I can annotate it with pen or pencil.

I’ll be blogging about my experience with my “Intro to Sociology” experience here. Check back for updates and more pics of my insane annotations and evidence of my graphomania.