Tag: education

Making Sense of the MOOC Hype

by on Nov.26, 2012, under general

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the managing editor at The EvoLLLution. He asked me to write two pieces for a special publication on the Internet and adult education. This article, an attempt to make sense of MOOCs, was originally posted to their site and crossposted with permission.

MOOCs are everywhere. They swarm and darken the sun. Those involved with education speak of them in tones hushed by dread (if they work for traditional institutions) or delight (if they wish to disrupt them). To hear them, talk, you would think MOOCs a surge rising up the seawall of some college citadel which it threatens to engulf and overwhelm.

But this dark vision of Massive Open Online Courses is a night terror, and, like all dreams, it follows the fantasy by eliding the facts. So let’s get specific. What, if anything, is new and different about MOOCs? What are their promises and perils for adult education?

Much of the buzz about MOOCs celebrates their Massive and Online aspects. But online courses, available at massive scale, aren’t anything new. The University of Phoenix enrolls over 400,000 students – more than the entire Big Ten – primarily through its online program. In fact, to the extent that “adult” education has come to mean something distinct from a “traditional” education, it usually refers to massive, online enrollment due primarily to the life constraints of the people who need it.

But what of the first “O” in MOOC? Isn’t one of the defining differences between, say, edX and University of Phoenix the fact that the first is open and the latter propriety? Well, it depends on what your definition of the word “open” is. As InsideHigherEd recently reported, all of the major MOOCs currently have restrictive terms of service compared to other “open” educational resources such as Wikipedia. Ian Bogost calls this “openwashing”: the practice of invoking a totemic word imbued with strong juju to appease apparently angry Internet gods.

For that matter, it’s not completely clear what the “C” – for “Course” – means in MOOCs. Are we talking about simply watching educational videos and reading papers? If so, then you can get just as good material for just as free in lots of places online (or, for that matter, at your public library). Perhaps they might design something more “interactive” to engage students? That might genuinely be a significant step forward, provided it can overcome the 97% attrition rate some early Udacity attempts have seen. But engaging interactivity remains a potential, not necessary or realized, condition.

The primary problem with the idea of Massive Open Online Courses, then, is that they aren’t meaningfully more “massive”, “open”, “online”, or “courses” than any of the other available adult education options.

So why all the hype over MOOCs? As Bogost has described: MOOCs are marketing. More specifically, starting or joining a MOOC consortium signals that a college “gets it”, “it” being an unarticulated but profoundly felt sense that the Internet will “disrupt” education. At the same time, the MOOC movement differentiates itself from operations like University of Phoenix primarily by its association with prestigious institutions like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and UVA. In other words: fancy colleges join MOOCs because they are important; they are important because fancy colleges join them; they join them because they are important…and so on, and so forth, ascending from idea to reality via the bizarre bootstrap characteristic of self-fulfilling startups.

MOOCs are a hustle. But, with a few notable exceptions, they are a mostly harmless hustle. In fact, they might even be a good hustle, because they’re muscling in on the turf of one the worst hustles of all: the for-profit colleges which presently provide the bulk of adult education.

MOOCs may market themselves with some false pretenses, but for-profit colleges are scams all the way down. This language may seem strong but I believe that it is accurate. Sure, some people really do get decent educations through them, but, then again, some people really do get rich on Ponzi schemes. For-profit colleges enroll 12% of the nation’s students but produce 50% of its defaults while taking 75% of their money in the form of federal dollars. In 2010, 57% of students in for-profit schools dropped out while the CEO of one leading for-profit chain made $40 million. Meanwhile, the dysfunctional online curriculums are often no better than the worst of MOOCs, wrapping dull videos and readings in duller discussion forums.

Maybe MOOCs can’t compete with a interactive, interpersonal education offered by a quality brick-and-mortar institution. But they also don’t need to. They can, and should, compete with the existing online education alternatives available to adults. Because, especially for this market, the most significant word in MOOCs isn’t “massive”, “open”, “online”, or “course.” In fact, the most significant word isn’t even contained in the name.

That word is “free.” MOOCs can provide the liberty to learn as adults so often must. Without relocating. Without reorienting. Without unpaid, unpayable debt. If MOOCs can simply educate adults for zero cost as well as the expensive for-profit colleges upon which people presently rely, then their admittedly imperfect enterprise will still do real good in the world by chasing real evil from it.

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The First Step is to Understand Your Audience

by on Nov.23, 2012, under general

A few weeks ago I was contacted by the managing editor at The EvoLLLution. He asked me to write two pieces for a special publication on the Internet and adult education. This article, on how to best use social media to speak to potential students, was originally posted to their site and crossposted with permission.

Quick: what comes to your mind when someone says “social media”?

If you’re like most people, you’ll probably first think of products and platforms. And it’s easy to see why. From Facebook to FourSquare, Twitter to tumblr, YouTube to Yelp, the apparently inexhaustible supply of web developers and venture capitalists produce a torrent of toys to use and amuse. Social media managers, in turn, are defined (and define themselves) by their ability to master multiple media, surfing the crest of the technological wave.

This mental model of what “social media” means is powerful, prevalent, and precisely backwards. It emphasizes the wrong word. The key to understanding social media isn’t understanding the media. It’s understanding the social.

Allow me to illustrate by intentionally invoking an unfashionable example: mySpace. Ask any “social media guru” what mySpace is (or was) for. They will probably say something like “it’s a place for people to hang out and share information with their friends.”

This is both correct and incomplete. You might as well ask what a living room is for. It’s a place for people to hang out and share information with their friends. But what people, and what information?

“Bands, goths, and porn stars, all talking about hookups and bling”, your imagined interlocutor might reply. Also correct. Also incomplete. In a 2007 talk, the researcher danah boyd described how, while conducting interviews for her dissertation, a group of midwestern youth told her that mySpace was “for” organizing Bible studies. These teens were using the exact same medium, with the same formal properties, as the bands, the goths, and the porn stars. But they were a fundamentally different community using (and understanding) it in fundamentally different ways.

Let’s shift to an another example more immediately relevant to the question of adult education. Pinterest is a rising star in part because people believe it to have cracked one of the toughest markets in social media: women. A post on TIME.com declares “Men Are from Google+, Women Are from Pinterest.” TechCrunch claims that Pinterest’s demographics skew disproportionately female.

Suppose these claims are true. Why might that be?

The answer, according to the business and tech press, is found in the formal properties of the medium. Forbes speculates that it is because “women trust other women in their circles more than anyone else.” BusinessInsider makes a beeline to to evolutionary psychology explanations. “Males get a hit of happiness-inducing dopamine to the brain upon the completion of a task whereas females get a continuous stream of dopamine throughout the task,” writes author Dylan Love. “In other terms, males are neurologically rewarded for hunting while females are neurologically rewarded for gathering. As a social pinboard site, Pinterest is the perfect platform for gatherers.”

This is pure bollocks. Who uses Pinterest has nothing to do with the formal properties of Pinterest itself and everything to do with the people who are using it. Tapiture is technologically indistinguishable from Pinterest yet is almost exclusively male. Why? Probably because of significant community overlap with TheChive.com, a male-gazing hub featuring funny pictures and pretty girls. And indeed, in the U.K. at least, even Pinterest itself is mostly male. So much for dopamine streams.

The point I am trying to make is that social media are constituted by the communities which preexist and animate them. The formal properties of the media – or even the media themselves – are, at best, second order concerns.

Here’s why this matters:

The misplaced emphasis on products and platforms isn’t just an epistemological error. It actually interferes with the ends to which social media are employed. It’s not that each new product or platform overpromises and underdelivers (though that happens, too). It’s that they seduce and overwhelm. For any need, no matter how specific, there is or soon will be a corresponding service. Each, on its own, seems a useful, even indispensable, solution to help meet or facilitate some important goal.

But, in the aggregate, the sheer volume of solutions develops a debilitating gravity. For Silicon Valley, frequent failure is cheap and productive. For the communications professional, however, trying to master all these media incurs cognitive costs with compounding interest.

Instead, the key to a successful social media strategy is focusing on the community. Identify your audience. Figure out where, and through what, they are already interacting. Find someone who can relate authentically with your audience and hire them. Then, let them just interact as members of that community customarily do in a given medium.

There is a reason that top startups like Kickstarter have positions like Director of Community Support. It’s because they know that no shiny bells or whistles can replace quality content and conversation. The bad news is that you still have to create quality content and conversation. The good news is that you don’t have to try to keep up with Silicon Valley. All you need to do is understand your audience.

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Educating Global Citizens

by on May.02, 2011, under general

From the Telegraph:

HOLLIS – Brookline resident and parent Valerie Ogden talked dirty to the School Board on Tuesday night.

In the two minutes she was allotted during the public comment part of the Hollis/Brookline Cooperative School Board meeting, Ogden recited a run-on sentence of sexually explicit words excerpted from a memoir on the high school reading list.

“I’m astounded by what we’re allowing our students to get their hands on,” Ogden said.

The audience cheered.

Over the past year or so a small group of puritanical parents have emerged from the ooze to terrorize my old hometown. Beginning with last year’s challenges of various books and documentaries – one parent, “disturbed after learning students viewed a film about drug use in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina”, is apparently disturbed by just plain learning – and continuing through the stunts at school board meetings this spring, this small group of radical anti-intellectuals have attempted to strip the school curriculum of anything that would teach senior students about important issues.

Unlike many stories, which become more important the closer you get to them, the problem of small minds in small towns becomes even more urgent the further one draws away from them. Because these crusades aren’t only happening in Hollis. They’re happening all over the state, region, and country.

When I worked on the banned books map I thought that book challenges would be concentrated in certain areas – the South, the Bible Belt, etc – that we elite, effete liberals of the northeast think of, snobbishly, as cultural backwaters. I was wrong. Anti-intellectualism is endemic, and present wherever there are people:

View Book Bans and Challenges, 2007-2010 in a larger map

A few weeks ago, one of the book banners published a similarly stupid op/ed in the town paper:

To the Editor:

I recently came across a draft of the SAU 41 mission statement. It read like a United Nations charter for global childhood education. There were references to a global society, to a world community, to environmental initiatives, and to philanthropic activity. The students apparently will become stewards of the environment and will appreciate diversity and complexity.

Although training good global citizens is, of course, an admirable goal, I would be more impressed if there had been more emphasis on academics. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe that a school’s primary function is the education of its students, not the development of global citizens.

I would suggest that students first learn to be good American citizens, and the first lesson should be why they are so blest to live in this country. In a world full of war, poverty, and starvation, only a relative handful of nations enjoy freedom and prosperity. The United States has enjoyed more freedom and prosperity than any other nation in the history of the world. Millions of people have come to our nation to live a better life, and no other nation has attracted anywhere near the immigrants that we have. Students should understand the reasons why.

Our success derives from our adherence to the Constitution and to capitalism. The prosperous nations around the world are those who have adopted capitalism. The Constitution is unique among world documents in that it guarantees our citizens individual freedoms and liberties. I know that this may not sit well with people more interested in developing global students, but students need to first be stewards of the Constitution and of capitalism. Only then will their special role in the world be clear: to continue to be a shining beacon of hope and encouragement for people living in less fortunate nations.


I wrote the following in response, which was published the next week:

In last week’s issue of The Journal, Alfred F Chase Jr criticized the SAU 41 mission for being too globally minded. A school, he said, should function to educate its students, not to develop global citizens. He then praised capitalism and the Constitution for awhile, before thrillingly concluding that these domestic institutions were the true proper subjects of study so that students might understand their “special role in the world.”

As a proud alumnus of SAU 41 I dispute Mr Chase’s first premise: that a global perspective is incompatible with a proper education. Indeed, as the unresolved internal tensions in Mr Chase’s own letter demonstrate – after all, what is our “special role in the world” if not a function of our global citizenship? – they are in fact inseparable.

When students graduate from SAU 41 the vast majority of them leave home for school or work. Outside of our small, safe, sheltering community, they confront actual problems in the world: problems of the poor, the disadvantaged, the subaltern. And they become members of a broader, interconnected society that operates locally, nationally, and globally.

What are we educating students for if not to prepare them for this world in which they will live? For that matter, what meaningful distinction is there nowadays between “education of students” and “development of global citizens,” beyond a knee-jerk reaction against anything that sounds vaguely un-American?

Mr Chase calls his opinion “old-fashioned.” It isn’t. It is merely ill-considered, with more good snark than good sense. It is of a kind with the sentiment to sanitize our schools of any allergens from the actual world that may have contaminated the curriculum. Both do much more damage to the development of our students than any global education – or banned book – ever could.

Hollis/Brookline is pastoral in its landscape, but it need not be provincial in its perspective. Our small towns should not be small-minded. Whether Mr Chase likes it our not, graduates of SAU 41 will become citizens of a global society. It is the duty of the schools to prepare them for it.

I’ve been encouraged by the hundreds of HBHS alums who have joined a Facebook group to voice their support of teachers and education and against censorship. These issues are small and local, but there are many small localities; fight them where you find them.

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