Category Archives: College

Coursera and MOOCs: Learning for the masses?

Coursera interorg 2013-page-0If you run in tech-savvy circles, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are heralded as the future of higher education. If you run in the liberal arts academia crowd, MOOCs are vilified as a great enemy to the personal nature of a liberal arts education. MOOCs themselves are an interesting premise—convert a university course, often lecture-based, into an online entity with self-grading assignments, and open it to anyone with a strong Internet connection for free. I find myself in between these two groups often.

As a graduate of a liberal arts college, I believe in the power of the small classroom. The experiences I had during college—grappling with classmates over an intellectual disagreement, asking professors questions, and leading group discussions made a valuable impact on the way that I approach the world and my work. I emphatically believe in the merits of having a relationship with your professors and the chance to have meaningful small-group discussions. So, can MOOCs replace this form of education?

Today, I received my first SoA. For the uninitiated, SoA stands for a Statement of Accomplishment, the digital document that one receives for successfully completing one of Coursera’s online courses. Coursera is one of a few private companies that collaborate with well-known educational institutions to put courses online. In simple terms, the universities provide the knowledge while Coursera provides the platform. For my first course, I chose to take International Organizations Management, offered by the University of Geneva. Given my background interning at an organization based on public-private partnerships, it seemed like a good match. The course was five weeks long: compared to many of the offerings on Coursera, it was short—an Introduction to Finance course from the University of Michigan clocks in at 15 weeks long.

The course material each week consisted of about 1 1/2 hours of video and a multiple-choice quiz. For Week 2, the instructors substituted the quiz with three discussion questions that one had to respond to in the course discussion forum. The lectures themselves were actually quite good and of high production value—this was not just a camera stuck in the back of the lecture hall, the University produced these videos specifically for the MOOC. The quizzes were fair, but the discussion forums were large and unwieldy—think of them as a more civilized version of the Huffington Post comments section. Discussion becomes difficult when thousands of people are involved.

International Organizations Management was not my first attempt at a MOOC. A few days earlier, I signed up for a course on Global Health, also from the University of Geneva. In comparison, that course had a heavy external reading load and the lectures totaled 3 to 4 hours a week. It more closely resembled college, sticking to a strict week-by-week set of deadlines for credit. If one held any kind of full-time job, it would be hard meet the requirements. I ended up watching some of the lectures and did the reading for the first week, but quickly fell behind.

Finishing my first MOOC, I can confirm what that I left the course knowing more than I did when I began. That is one key measure of success for the platform as an academic tool. However, MOOCs are far from being at the level where they can replace the classroom experience–they have little credibility. Although I feel good about having a document that says I completed the course, it comes with a hefty disclaimer at the bottom:

“PLEASE NOTE: THE ONLINE OFFERING OF THIS CLASS DOES NOT REFLECT THE ENTIRE CURRICULUM OFFERED TO STUDENTS ENROLLED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA. THIS STATEMENT DOES NOT AFFIRM THAT THIS STUDENT WAS ENROLLED AS A STUDENT AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA IN ANY WAY. IT DOES NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA GRADE; IT DOES NOT CONFER UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA CREDIT; IT NOT CONFER A UNIVERSITY OF GENEVA DEGREE; AND IT DOES NOT VERIFY THE IDENTITY OF THE STUDENT.”

Kind of a buzz kill.

Coursera has started to address this by offering a verified certificate that checks your identity and typing patterns for around $50 per course. However, it is not accepted for any sort of credit, even by institutions that offered the course in the first place. Coursera is investigating other options, but as a for-profit company that opens up another debate for critics of education’s corporate shift—is a MOOC free when the benefits of verification cost money?

I have finished this course convinced that MOOCs are mostly beneficial. For those with degrees, they offer the chance to keep learning from the best. That I can access this material all the way in South Korea from experts in Geneva is a testament to the platform; it’s a great way to supplement my Fulbright experience. For those without access to college, MOOCs are not enough. Sure, they offer the knowledge and even a piece of paper, but they come without official recommendation of the university. MOOCs also seem to be having a sort of identity crisis; just who are they for? The courses follow the same week-by-week deadlines of a traditional college course, but the majority of students come from lifestyles precluding them from a full-time student workload and schedule. They are offered by some of the world’s best universities, but those same schools reject the credentials. If MOOCs are to be open to everyone, how rigorous should they be? How do we ensure academic integrity? And, do some subjects fit better with the MOOC model than others (STEM versus the social sciences/humanities)?

MOOCs are an interesting digital experiment that could have large benefits, but they are still in a beta stage. MOOCs still aren’t sure who they serve. As long as society and bureaucrats see MOOCs as a supplement to classroom-based education, rather than a full-on replacement, they will continue to offer learning opportunities to would-be students from around the world. There’s a lot of controversy to come as these profit/non-profit partnerships develop further. One hopes that we find a way for these innovative technical platforms and academia to peacefully coexist, rather than remain in tension as foes.

Have you ever taken a MOOC? What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments!

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What’s next?

IMG_2452Well, it happened: I’ve graduated from college!

After four years of wonderful friends, fantastic professors, caring administrators, and a ton of new/fun/challenging experiences, on May 18 I graduated from Pitzer. Like others in the Class of 2013, I moved home to pursue job opportunities in DC.

So much for job searching. Last friday, I received notification from the Institute of International Education that I had been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to South Korea to teach English for 2013-2014!

I leave the U.S. the first week of July, so I plan to spend the next month catching up with friends, savoring DC, and mentally preparing myself for the experience ahead. Just as I did during my study abroad experience in China, I plan to blog and capture as much of my year as possible right here. I’ll categorize the posts under a Fulbright or South Korea label, so they’re easy to find.

Many thanks to the friends, family, colleagues, and social media peoples who have offered support over the past few years. Being a college graduate is better than I expected.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) chose to highlight me as their featured Student Spotlight. The work that FIRE does for individual rights and free expression on college campuses is highly important, no matter your place on the political spectrum. Many thanks for them writing about my work at Pitzer!

You can read the entire interview here: http://thefire.org/article/15852.html

Women’s Colleges, the Real World, and a Failed Comparison

Shannon Miller, a first-year student at Claremont McKenna College, posted a controversial piece on the CMC Forum yesterday entitled “Don’t Like the Gender Gap? Don’t Encourage It.” She was responding to a Huffington Post op-ed by a Scripps College student who argued that women’s colleges empower young females. Miller claims that they are the opposite; unrealistic safe havens that do more harm than good.

As of 11:00 PM, there are over 250 comments on the article. Forbes online published a Scripps’ student’s reaction. Why did Miller’s op-ed provoke this response?

The article is a ruse. Shannon Miller’s piece is not about the failures of women’s colleges; it’s about crudely stereotyping Scripps and lauding Claremont McKenna.

“I argue that CMC has better equipped me and other female students to tackle the gender gap than most women’s colleges would have,” writes Miller. “I chose not to apply to women’s colleges…I wanted to enter a school that would push me to be stronger and bolder, not indulge my weaknesses by protecting me from “injustice” in an inaccurately idyllic setting.”

Miller blindly claims that students who go to coeducational colleges come out strong and bold, while those who go to women’s colleges, specifically Scripps, emerge weak, misguided and unprepared for life after college.

“The real world is nothing like the shelter of a women’s college, and I don’t care to indulge the fantasy that it is,” writes Miller, in closing.

No college, including CMC, is like the real world. All of our nation’s top liberal arts institutions shelter their students, especially those in Claremont. Each of the colleges maintains a “bias related incident” policy and speech codes to ensure that no one feels offended; every school offers top-rated dining halls and some even offer maid service. Liberal arts colleges—and most American universities – unequivocally fail at representing the real world. 

Moreover, Scripps is not representative of most women’s institutions. The College has its own campus, but it’s part of a coeducational consortium. Scripps shares social life and academics with the others. That’s right; there are men in the classroom with the female students! Why did Miller use an effectively coed women’s college to make her point? Miller and every other Claremont student will cross paths with Scripps’ students in classes, dining halls, and parties. Scripps is anything but isolated.

What was the intention behind the piece? If it was really to prove that women’s colleges are disadvantaging female students, Miller’s effort failed spectacularly. She only proved that it’s easy to stir controversy with baseless judgments and one-sided comparisons. 

A new kind of publication: Seersucker.

Traditional media is made up of a hierarchical structure. The best publications of our time, or at least the most widely respected, cull their content from a specific contingent of “qualified” writers. To get published, you need to work your way up the traditional structure; attend J-school, do beat reporting, and, even then, you need some luck. The Internet was supposed to shake up media, but the way it has done so is more reserved to the realm of how media is consumed and disseminated. Sure, with the Internet everyone can be a creator, but the hulks of the media industry still seem to somewhat rely upon finding traditional writers.

In rare cases, such as that of NYTimes reporter Brian Stelter, younger voices break through and get hired by the old media. This was one product of the Internet. A side effect, however, was that in creating a platform for the dissemination of content, there ended up being a ton of it…and much of it not very good. Essentially, the Internet has allowed anyone to write (both good and bad) and let the older publications push their content out faster. However, there’s a gap here.

Where is the voice of the ever coveted 18 to 24 demographic in the media? It feels like so many publications seek to cater to these individuals, but don’t trust that same audience to write or create on a large scale.

Enter Seersucker.

Visually beautiful, with a clean layout for reading content, Richie Siegel’s new online publication seeks to offer a suave platform for young voices to add their say to the media. Equating it to “The New Yorker for our generation,” Seersucker looks like a publication to be taken seriously. While it’s the content that matters, perhaps this kind of effort will make the higher-up media moguls take notice of the young talent out there.

While it was just recently launched, and content is looking a bit thin, you can take a look at Seersucker by visiting http://seersuckermag.com

Disclosure: I have discussed some of the aspects and strategy of Seersucker with the site’s founder, but the views here are mine alone.  

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