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The Unfulfilled Promise of MOOCs

23 May
MooMassive Online Open Classes (MOOCs) will make higher education more accessible. They will bring courses and teachers to the most remote corners of the world (assuming the corners have Internet connections). If you agree that ignorance is a key cause of many of our biggest problems, you can immediately see the appeal of MOOCs on the macro level. Accessible higher education will bring us closer together, help us with a common global viewpoint that can narrow the gap between ideologies and (hopefully) economies. And that is what made The New York Times proclaim in November that this is the year of the MOOC (not very clear if they meant 2012, or 2013). Ivy League schools jumped in with classes, startups launched and investors started drooling at the smell of investment opportunity. People like me, with somewhat grown kids, and well-on-their-track careers, rejoiced that there was finally something intellectually stimulating that goes outside of the book club experience.
MOOC notes

I learned to outline my thoughts like that in the analog American University in Bulgaria. Still waiting for a better/digital way to do so.

And there lies the problem with MOOCs — it is a great way to enrich your knowledge, to broaden your intellectual foundation and explore subjects adjacent to your field or that you have a personal passion about. What MOOCs fail to do is inspire the initial desire to learn, or offer a straightforward path to a comprehensive base of knowledge.

First, there is the issue of content. At the time of this post Coursera lists 374 classes available from a long list of colleges and universities. While the number is impressive, and there is a pretty good varierty of content — from Introductory Physics, to Growing Old Around the Globe. What is missing is a path —what do I do when I finish my Intro to Psychology class? Would there be a follow up course that will help me delve deeper into a subject I loved? EdX, which is a MOOC platform funded by Harvard and MIT, offers only 51 classes. Wouldn’t it make sense to have some standards that identify where the class fits within a full curriculum, so that you can chart your own path? And how do you determine which class is worth your time and which isn’t? How do you know what you do not know?

Second, the course may be massive and open, but it sure does not feel like there is a community around it. By the social media standards of today, courses are using a “first generation” technology. It does not help that each course brands the tools they are using with their own creative names and each has slightly different capabilities. One class I signed up for sent me to three different websites for the homework, for the lectures and for the discussions. I tried this class exactly once, for 10 minutes. Instead of innovating on top of what is available in terms of community and social networking technologies, MOOCs seem to be relying on the most basic of these technologies.

And here is the third challenge. This kind of learning requires very little commitment and investment. That is what makes the courses attractive but it also what makes dropping out painless and guilt-free (and guilt is a big motivator for me). It does not help that you cannot see ratings of previous classes or the professors that teach them so that you know what to expect — we did not have that system of reviews in our analog colleges either, but the real social interactions we had in the dorms and between classes told us which professor to avoid and which class was a drag. So I blindly sign up for mildly interesting classes, knowing fully well I would stick with one.

Helping people find the right classes and encouraging them to stick with their choices will be key if MOOCs want to become a valid educational option. What motivates us is knowing that we are investing our time, even if we do not invest our money, in something meaningful. And this is where the MOOCs fail — they are intellectually titillating, but not that meaningful. Yet.

Three Weekend Randoms

6 Apr

The Forgotten Midlife Crisis

I came across an article in Harvard Business Review on Friday on how marketers are missing the opportunity to target women over 50. It has been something I have been pondering as well. Not that I am close to 50 but having started early with the kids, I am in the category of women HBR is writing about. My kids are old enough and the hours that used to be occupied with soccer practices, chess, and playdates are now blissfully free. So how do I fill this time that I had forgotten exists? Other than writing blog posts, I have done art classes, French lessons, and short of buying a Porsche, other fun activities. None of them were marketed to middle aged women and, to be honest, that is how it should be. I am more interested in finding things to do on my own, and I am slightly terrified of activities that focus exclusively for the post-mommyblogging generation (my term is the born-again housewives).

cialisAt the same time, you would think that there would be more concerted effort to market and sell activities to this large group of consumers. Think about it – there are three types of commercials that show women between the age of 40-50. The first is about soft toilet paper (as if I have nothing more important to obsess about, even if my sole purpose of being is the comfort of my family). Then we have the commercials for depression or medications targeted at older women. Since everyone in commercials looks great, the women used to portray the arthritis-ridden older lady is actually 45. And the last is the erectile dysfunction series. The women in these are blissfully smiling, patiently waiting for the medicine to take effect before they float into a misty romantic dream (which if it lasts longer than X hours, requires a doctor’s intervention).

Just for the record – I also buy cars, go on vacation without the kids and work…

The Importance of Labeling

The New Yorker had a brief article about how the term “entitlements” came to be used in association with social security and health benefits. Entitlement implies something that you take for granted, that you did not work for to deserve it. Yet you have been paying for these benefits all your life. There are other examples where misfortunate naming taints the effort, initiative or idea. Supporters of abortion rights have come to regret the pro-choice term that defines them. You hear more and more advocates for gun reform distancing themselves from “gun control.”

It was just another personal reminder that you can rarely over-think a word choice.

Roger Ebert, an Example for Critics (of Anything)

Ebert died this week. “Thoughtful,” “respectful,” “fair” were the words repeated in many of the obituaries and opinions I read. He was not out to bury or denounce a movie maker even if he hated the movie. While his opinion was personal, his criticism was not.

People understand, forgive and respect passion when it is sincere and authentic, even if they do not agree with your opinion. More critics should consider following Ebert’s graceful style.

The Bottomless Glass of Evgeny Morozov

4 Mar

Eastern Europeans have a natural (or, as we will argue, historically necessitated) proclivity to be negative and I fit that stereotype pretty well. I am not a glass-half-full person. “Tell me what you are doing, and I will tell you what is wrong with it” is a pretty accurate description of my attitude. So, you can’t blame me, if I get fixated on someone whose glass is so empty that it makes mine look like it’s overflowing.

Meet Evgeny Morozov – a fellow Eastern European and “a writer and researcher, who studies political and social implications of technology.” It is an amazing field to dedicate your career to. On one hand, technology changes so quickly that, by the time you have discovered a phenomenon to study (music sharing via Napster, anyone?), it is gone. At the same time, our understanding of individual and group psychology and behavior is growing exponentially. One would imagine that the combination of these two factors would provide a researcher with plentiful opportunities to observe, investigate, develop and test hypotheses, build and tear down assumptions.

And then you have Morozov. He does not exactly study and research technology, he speculates about its impact. All of us in the tech world do a lot of that, but his bias is so strong that to describe him as a researcher is as accurate as to say that the American Family Association is about family. Judge for yourself:

  • In his latest New York Times piece, The Perils of Perfection, he argues that we should not use technology to fix our imperfections unless we are confident that the technology solutions Silicon Valley comes up with have pure intent. On the surface, that makes sense. And then you think about, where medicine would be right now, if we took the same approach with pharmaceutical research. Should we ignore progress, if it is driven by the desire for business success?
  • Earlier in 2012, he lamented about the Death of Cyberflaneurism, that ancient art of browsing the Internet for useless information. I guess, sites like Brain Pickings, which does an amazing job of finding interesting information; Prismatic that curates news content for you, or even Facebook (let alone Pinterest), where friends share a lot of useless stuff, make the art too easy.
  • And then there is his recurring column, Future Tense, on If someone reads his posts a hundred years from now, they would conclude that the Internet is killing us.

ImageTo be fair, Morozov does have a nose for the silliness and over-the-top enthusiasm of technologists. His ridicule of pointless services that Tweet after you die, products that “erase” the homeless from your view, or forums (TED) that make a communist parade seem propaganda-free, are absolutely on target. Yet, when I read his pieces, I can’t help but think of agent Nelson Van Alden, Boardwalk Empire’s puritanical government official, whose obsession seems a tad unhealthy. Does Morozov denounce technology because he likes it too much?

In one of his pieces, Morozov quotes Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski, who argued that being inconsistent is the only way to avoid becoming a doctrinaire ideologue. Morozov writes with admiration:

“For Kolakowski, absolute consistency is identical to fanaticism.”

Smart man, that Kolakowski.

Books as a Fashion Accessory

9 Mar

This month’s Vanity Fair features “embroidered canvas classic novel clutches” for only $1,330/each. I am pretty sure that none of the people who buy the Dr. Zhivago clutch would have read the book.

Just Books

9 Feb

“They are just books!”

This is the quote that inspired me to write today. It is taken from The New York Times article on consumer reaction to increasing eBook prices. So a Mr. Wagoner expressed his dissatisfaction by stating: “They’re just books. I do other things other than reading.”

So what are the things that can occupy 2-3 days of your time and cost less than $14.99, which is the price that set people off on Here are a few:

  • Facebook — endless entertainment, free, arguably intellectually stimulating. Afterall you can talk to smarter friends, play FarmVille, or have fun drawing fortune cookies
  • Twitter — succinct entertainment, free, you do not waste time reading things you do not like or that are too hard to comprehend. Ashton thanking God for semi-naked Demi can fuel your imagination for a long time.
  • TV — cable is not free, but you can get a month worth of it for less than $100. If you do the math, this is less than $4/day. And you can watch Jersey Shores.

There are other activities of course, but they are way above Mr. W’s price range.

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