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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.

The Victim of Progress No One is Talking About

23 Apr

No, I am not talking about our brains, our ability to do math or concentrate on tasks that take longer than 30 seconds to accomplish or thoughts that require more than 140 characters to explain. I am talking about smells, pleasant or not, that are gradually disappearing as technology weasels itself into our lives to make them better, smoother, easier, less smelly but more sterile than ever. And as it does, it is also erasing some of the childhood memories.

I am writing random things down these days, and last week I just realized that I have compiled a list of smells that are disappearing. These were different smells – home cooking, bookstores and iron, but their archenemy, or reason they do not exist anymore is more or less the same—progress.

AC vs. Roasted Peppers 1:0

chushkopekMy home cooking observation requires a bit of background. Growing up in a Bulgarian city meant that the smell of summer was not the smell of sand and beaches, of wild flowers and summer rain. The smell of summer was roasted red peppers, fried meatballs, fresh garlic, onion, dill and parsley being chopped, minced and otherwise manipulated to elicit the maximum amount of flavor and smell. You would walk in a neighborhood and smell what everyone is cooking for dinner. That was because everyone would cook on their balconies, instead of their kitchens. Why would we do that, especially if the temperature could easily pass 100F? Simple — we just did not have air conditioning. Cooking outside was hot, but at least it did not heat up our bedrooms. It also livened up a lot the rather monolithic apartment blocks as neighbors chatted while waiting for whatever they were cooking to thicken, crisp up or boil over.

I went back to Bulgaria last year for a high school reunion in late June. Leaving a still soggy Seattle, I was looking forward to the heat and the smell of summer as I remembered it. Alas, that smell is gone. Instead, every apartment has an AC unit on it. Windows are closed. Nothing wafts from balconies when you walk by a building, no chatty neighbors gossiping about their day, work, friends, other neighbors. You just hear and feel the dripping of the ACs.

The old “just books” bookstore

Another lost smell is that of the bookstore. Granted, bookstores in general are endangered species, but even the ones that remain do not smell the same—of new or dusty books, of paper that is getting brittle with time. They smell either of coffee (because is there a bookstore without a snacking station anymore?), of magazines which have perfume-y scent from all the inserts in them, or the book smell is diluted from all the toys, music, Nooks and non literary gifts that occupy more and more of the bookstore’s inventory list. I did not realize that the smell is missing until, on a trip to Prague, I walked by a small bookstore. It was not an antique or used books bookstore – it was a regular no frills, no Starbucks dusty and comforting smell of things to read.

Iron – the smell you hate, until it’s gone

Have you ever touched a metal handrail and then, accidentally, discovering the discomforting smell of iron with hints of old blood on your hands? Or have you ridden an old train, and the smell of metal permeating your hair, your clothes and leaving a metal taste in your mouth? I hated it and still do, but I am also a bit sad, that I do not sniff this anymore. Am I missing the iron or the long vacations that the train took me to or the creepy iron cage elevator door that made me wonder if I would make it to the top floor?

Proust and Childhood Memories

It is not surprising that these smells mean so much to me. Scientists call this the Proust phenomenon – or the ability of odors to trigger really powerful childhood memories. But what about the smells that I have forgotten and that have disappeared? Are they locking other sweet memories? How can I recover them if the world has changed so much since I was a kid?

And what would be the smells that would open my kids’ memories 20-30 years from know? Kindles, iPhones and Facebook do not smell. Perhaps it will be the smell of airportis and pop tarts.

If only we could make Google Nose happen!

P.S. Dare to guess what the photo is? 


@Medium – The Next Big Thing in Content or a Snobbish Exercise in Self-Gratification?

7 Apr

Medium is not yet a fully launched or fully defined content platform but is popping up in all of my online reading places. When you check it out, it is distinctly clean, simple and minimal—no extra links, cute photos, too much sharing or navigation options. What is supposed to make you stay on the page is what is written on it. And the contributing writers are very, very impressive – Steven B Johnson, Sarah Doody, Felix Salmon, to name a few. In the world of busy Facebook, WordPress, Tumblr and BuzzFeed, Medium is like a breath of fresh air.

It is also very, very annoying in its current form.

We shall not cease from exploration

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 8.03.58 PMMedium is organized in collections. The person that creates the collection can decide if others can contribute to it. Yet there is no way to search for collections, or authors. If you happen to stumble upon an article you like you can click on its author and see his/her other posts and collections. For example, I found out that Steven Johnson is a contributor from a tweet of his. If I had not stumbled upon that (it is not like Twitter is designed to help you never miss anything), there was absolutely no way for me to know that Johnson was a contributor. Who else is writing for Medium? I don’t know and it is not possible to find out.

I am sure that Medium’s goal is to encourage visitors to immerse themselves in the content rather than jump around too much and to an extent it is succeed. But Medium should not be doing that at the expense of readers’ ability to find what interests them. Even in a library, this old fashioned mausoleum of slow reading and serendipity, I can search for the books I want.

If you hit a pony over the nose at the outset of your acquaintance, he may not love you but he will take a deep interest in your movements ever afterwards

Screen shot 2013-04-07 at 8.10.17 PMThat seems to be what Medium is trying to do with the persistent “How Do I Post” button. It follows you on every page, taunting you to ditch whatever inferior platform you are using for your blogs and become part of this elite writing community. You click it and then you are slapped in the face with the snotty “Creating new posts and collections will be open to everyone soon.” There is nothing wrong with not giving everyone permission to post this early. And the question about how you can post is important. But if you are not ready to give people access, do you really want to ask them on every single page if they want it?

As every parent will tell you, if you are out of candy, you do not ask your kid if they feel like chocolate.

If that is not frustrating enough, try to find information about the site.

  1. To get to About Medium, you need to click that same How Do I post button.
  2. That takes you to the Medium Help Center, which has some generic language about Medium still being in preview mode. There is also a link to the FAQ page
  3. The FAQ page has a list of questions, but most of them are NOT answered on the page.
  4. Instead you need to click a link to a blog post that answers each specific question. And guess what, there is no breadcrumb navigation to take you back to the FAQ page.

In short, if I have a question about Medium, I need to take at least four steps to get to an answer, and the only entry point is through the “You want some chocolate? Too bad!” button.

To Launch or Not to Launch: That Is the Question

To be fair, the site is still in closed beta and as many online entrepreneurs will tell you, it is a challenge to find the right balance between features you want to show early and get people excited about (great writers! minimal distraction!) and the ones that you are fine-tuning to work flawlessly before you unveil them (scale, search).

Medium’s motto is “Sharing ideas and experiences moves humanity forward,” but the preview site leaves me with the feeling that the creators meant to add “if, when and however we feel like it.”

I still love the idea and believe it has a huge potential to become a destination for thoughtful content. But until the official site is launched, I will only visit Medium when I think that my self confidence needs to be taken down a notch.

Note: The use of literary quotes undoubtedly qualifies me for a beta contributor. Should this happen, I reserve the right to change my opinion of Medium and re-center on its brilliance.

April 21 Update: Last week I was invited to contribute to Medium. To try it out, I used  my  Nostalgia Is Fake post. Unfortunately, the problem of discoverability remains. Other small and probably on the way to be fixed issues also remain. Go to and try to find me or the Analog & Antisocial collection. When you are ready to give up, here is the link:

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