Category Archives: Commentary

A brief political digression

One of the less fulfilling parts about being abroad is that I’ve had few opportunities to engage in American politics. I absolutely love being in Korea, but as a political studies major, born Washingtonian, and all-around politics junkie, sometimes I feel pretty withdrawn from my passion here. While I’ve done my best to engage in the international politics side of things and follow American policymaking from Korea*, it’s much harder to gauge the political sentiment towards candidates and policies when your many miles and timezones away.

Honestly, when I think about my impending return to the USA, I’m a little apprehensive about the culture shock and the whole process of figuring out what’s next. Sure, I’m excited to see my family and friends, but America, as exceptional as it can be, just seems a little bit less exciting than living as an expat. However, since Rep. Eric Cantor’s loss the other night, my view is changing.

When I saw the notification on my twitter account, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing; such was the reaction of every pundit. To quote the DNC fundraising email I received shortly after the loss:

“Eric. Freaking. Cantor.”

For those outside of politics, I equate Cantor’s loss to CalTech’s basketball team, a team that lost every game for 21-years straight, making it to the Final Four. As has been reported on extensively, Cantor raised over five million dollars for the campaign while his opponent Dave Brat, a Economics professor from tiny Randolph-Macon College, spent $200,000. Folks, the House Majority Leader just got primaried in a big way. Even Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight didn’t call this one.

So, in some ways, now feels like the perfect time to be preparing to head back to the States. Although Cantor’s loss means an all but indefinite hold on comprehensive immigration reform and is perhaps a sign that the Tea Party is rising again, it’s a reminder that there’s a lot of policy on the line this election season. No time to wait in the wings.

*I still haven’t fully accepted the routine of receiving the POLITICO Playbook at night.

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!

Shame on the Senate | A time for change

Today, the Senate failed to pass commonsense legislation on background checks for gun purchases. It was bipartisan and a good example of the kind of governance that can come with compromise. Unfortunately, some members of the Senate are out of touch with the American public or beholden to interest groups. In the wake of Aurora, Newtown, and countless tragedies involving firearms in the United States every day, now is the time for action.

Courtesy of Georgetown University student and former colleague of mine, Josh Zeitlin (blogging at The Ayes and Nays), here is the list of those senators who voted no today who are up for election in the coming years.

“Senators up in 2014 who voted No on Manchin-Toomey (12 Rs, 3 Ds): Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Mark Begich (D-AK), Mark Pryor (D-AR), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Jim Risch (R-ID), Pat Roberts (R-KS), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Max Baucus (D-MT), Jim Inhofe (R-OK), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tim Scott (R-SC), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), John Cornyn (R-TX), Mike Enzi (R-WY)”

Senators up in 2016 who voted No on Manchin-Toomey (start organizing, many are beatable, lots of swing states): Richard Shelby (R-AL), Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), John Boozman (R-AR), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Johnny Isakson (R-GA), Mike Crapo (R-ID), Dan Coats (R-IN), Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Rand Paul (R-KY), David Vitter (R-LA), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Richard Burr (R-NC), John Hoeven (R-ND), Rob Portman (R-OH), Tom Coburn (R-OK), John Thune (R-SD), Mike Lee (R-UT), Ron Johnson (R-WI)”

Let’s hope that a good number of them either a) change their ways on guns or b) are out of office soon.

First Appearance on HuffPost Live

Today, I had the opportunity to appear on HuffPost Live, the Huffington Post’s new streaming network. It’s a very cool concept–from 10 am to 10 pm ET each day, they broadcast on the stories generating a buzz. The best part of the platform is that it is entirely interactive. Using Google Hangouts, comments, tweets, and video recordings, anyone can join the conversation.

I was a guest for three segments along with Karla Trotman (@karlatrotman), Dave Silverstone (@dwsNY), and a number of HuffPo editors and reporters. You can check out the segments below:

Jay Leno Channel Swap?

Lake Erie Prison Plague

North Dakota Outlawing Abortion

It was a great experience, and I hope to be back soon!

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. 

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