Good Blog to Watch if Curious about MOOCs

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back porch

Earn your stripes from the back porch

The Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) phenomenon continues to buzz in and around higher ed. MOOCs may seem heaven-sent for folks interested in DIY learning: by simply harnessing one’s internet connection (combined with a strong dose of motivation) one may enjoy taking college-level courses from various prestigious institutions for FREE. What’s not to love?, you may ask.

Turns out there’s a whole lot of talking about, and various degrees of love for, MOOCs: plenty of skepticism and forecasting (what does this mean for the future of education? Online education?) together with a general welcoming sentiment for what the courses are trying to do (expand knowledge and world-class teaching; make these more accessible to whomever is interested). If after browsing the news you’re still a bit confused over what, exactly, a MOOC is, though, you may find this website particularly helpful: Degree of Freedom, a first-person account of the MOOC experience. Its author, Mr. Jonathan Haber, offers thoughts on his attempt to, in his words,

“learn the equivalent of what I’d get from a liberal arts Bachelors Degree entirely through free, online resources (with a focus on the Massive Open Online Classes, or MOOCs that have been in the news lately).”

The catch: his timeline is one year (he’s taken a year off from work to do this).  Wow!  It’s an intriguing quest and a website well worth visiting.

I particularly enjoyed this post, which touches on who, seemingly, is best cut out for MOOC learning, as well as on the use of MOOCs:

The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote about Mr. Haber and his blog in this article. We’ll be interested to keep watching!

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Smart People, Manual Labor, and a College Education

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chiselIf college affords us the life of the mind wherein we are liberated to think, philosophize, and plan, do we thereby lose sight of the necessary work of survival, and if so, is this a problem?

This article, “The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands” (Scott Carlson, 2/5/12, The Chronicle of Higher Education), addresses these issues, argues that more college instruction should “include more hands-on, traditional skills,” and discusses some colleges where such traditional skills play a critical role in student education.

It’s an intriguing conversation, and it’s clear that beyond the academy, honing one’s hands-on skills and getting in touch with tradition seem quite fashionable: “DIY” in general is trendy, backyard and urban chicken farming are enjoying popularity, and families are taking “haycations” to introduce their kids to life on a farm. Even so, the article’s title is interesting to contemplate: if colleges’ futures are in students’ hands, I still see a common attitude among college students that manual labor is beneath them. Skilled craftsmanship and understanding how to make things seem undesirable to students who aspire to be thinkers, or as the article notes, the “designers” of society. While this article explicitly addresses this attitude among university engineering students, I’ve seen the same pattern of thinking among community college students. They’d like to study themselves up and out of jobs of manual labor.

While this may, indeed, be one attraction of college, students should be realistic about what college can do for them. Putting aside the intrinsic value of skilled craftsmanship and understanding (to borrow a TV title) “How Stuff Works,” let’s say college student X doesn’t end up being a janitor full-time, cleaning for a living. Let’s also say this student X is very smart and capable of achieving in a variety of fields. It’s still unrealistic to imagine student X, or any of us, could or should be full-time thinkers. In fact, very few of us can afford to do that. In addition, we shouldn’t digest the idea that by virtue of being smart, we should disregard the foundational tasks of basic survival: growing food, cooking, constructing. For one thing, if we do wash our hands of these tasks, we’re not at all self-sufficient. (See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithedale Romance.*) Additionally, concrete problem-solving affords a well-rounded person the opportunity to apply creativity and abstract thinking; and besides, immersing oneself in learning a new, old skill (one that isn’t computer- or even book-related) is enjoyable, rewarding and centering, and connects us to other fields and to ancient traditions.

So as you think about summer DIY college prep, think about planting a backyard garden, learning to cook, or building something small. If you don’t know anyone with these skills, you can find instructional videos on sites like eHow and YouTube, and don’t forget about your local library’s selection of instructional books.

*You can find this book at Project Gutenberg:

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These Sentences Contain No Harmful Fillers

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plate with forkWritten by a professor to professors, this article, “Diss ‘Like’” (Ted Gup, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/8/12), eloquently explains why usage of the verbal filler “like,” and perhaps worse, our general acceptance of it, significantly harm all of us.

The fine piece certainly is worth reading in its entirety. Notable excerpt:

“[Like] is a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, relieving the speaker of accountability. It tells students that the world is so intrigued by what they have to say that it is willing to clean up after them, to sift through the verbal refuse for the nuggets concealed within.”

As an English teacher myself, I’ve noticed a common retort to such arguments: “who cares?” But to dismiss this criticism of flabby, inexpressive language with a shrug is, it seems to me, to be complicit in the erosion, or “corruption” as Gup says, of language as a whole.

One could argue the erosion has been happening for awhile now. The extraneous “like” has been a problem since at least the early ‘90’s, when my own high school English teacher interrupted an offensive “It’s, like, really hot outside” with “Is it LIKE hot, or is it INDEED hot?” Prof. Gup in his article explains that he notified his students of their uttered “likes” by holding aloft a “LIKE” sign at each offense. Both methods call attention to use of verbal fillers on the spot, and emphasize slowing down and thinking about what we’re saying: that is, speaking with deliberation. Don’t expect the listener to “clean up after you,” as the quote above has it. This idea, of course, also applies to written expression; as Strunk and White’s venerable Elements of Style says about writing a paragraph,

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

So this year, consider working toward making your communications more concise and eliminating bad habits from your speech. A well-spoken college graduate more easily commands attention and, perhaps, credibility and respect; and speaking with grace and purpose is a significant personal accomplishment as well as a valuable, versatile life skill.

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The Best (Students) Never Rest?

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Sleeping with Bo

Sweet Slumber. (Image by Joi via Flickr)

This week, many students move out of a festive Thanksgiving weekend into an intense knuckle-down study season; after all, final exams loom in December.

Studying hard certainly is not unhealthy, and in fact I rather encourage it (as would your teachers and profs). Heed this advice, though: try to get proper rest into your study schedule. That’s not always easy at the college level, as anyone with a college degree can tell you. But it turns out all-nighters aided by massive doses of caffeine are not too good for you . . . so know when to say “when” and go to bed.

Before you do, check out this interesting recent commentary in The Chronicle of Higher Education about why students need more sleep. Its author, a professor at Brown University, directs studies in a sleep-research lab, and her advice bears repeating: “College students should sleep more.”

“Forget A’s, B’s, and C’s—What Students Need Is More Zzzz’s,” by Mary A. Carskadon, 11/20/11.

Also see here for a related piece on this blog: “Better Sleep, Better Student?

Texting in Class: “Ill-Mannered” or NBD?


textingAre you one of the student masses who texts while you’re sitting in class? Read on to find out more about this phenomenon, how college professors are reacting, and what you might need to consider as you prepare to enter those college classrooms yourself.

First, observe this recent commentary from The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Ill-Mannered Students Can Wreck More Than Your Lecture.” The piece is aimed at college professors, but note texting in the classroom is filed under “ill-mannered” student behavior. Here’s a quote:

“Now, the entire world via the Internet is a potential distraction—and with a cellphone, mp3 player, and laptop in almost every student’s possession, the temptation to become distracted (and thus to engage in discourteous classroom behavior) is overwhelming” (Joan Flaherty, “Ill-Mannered,” link above).

Using a gadget such as a cell phone to text is cast as a “distraction,” and further, is considered “discourteous.” Is that what all professors think? Well, based on my experience, conversations, and comments and articles I’ve read, I surmise electronic gadgets in the classroom are known elements. Instructors know students are fiddling with techie objects; they may or may not have explicit policies against it, but many frown on it. On the other hand, I know some instructors are using electronic gadgets as part of the class lessons: for instance, they may use Twitter or some kind of polling site in order to make class more interactive. If that’s the case with your class, then by all means embrace that technology as part of the learning experience.

In general, though, you’d do well to ponder these four points:

1)      Check the course syllabus’s policy on electronic devices in the classroom.
Such policies vary widely depending on campus and professor, but please note many courses will have explicit policies about your personal electronics in class. Some professors will forbid cell phone and even laptop use in class; some will ask you to leave or will mark you absent if they see you texting; some will simply factor your gadget use into the “participation” part of your grade. Why such policies? Because of the points below.

2)      Be aware that many professors consider texting in class to be flat-out rude.
We know texting is ubiquitous among American students: a recent Pew Internet study reports 95% of 18-24-year-olds have cell phones, and 97% of those young people text. And they text a lot: on average, they send or receive over 100 text messages per day (1). Texting inside the classroom seems to be quite common as well: one study shows 65% of college respondents report having sent at least one text during class; another study shows a whopping 91% have (2-3).

I’ve heard students are so attached to their phones, so accustomed to texting as a way of life, that they truly don’t realize texting in someone else’s presence is disrespectful or rude. But regardless of your intentions, and regardless of the idea that everyone seems to be doing it, and like it or not, here’s the message you send to the prof if you text during class:

“I do not want to be here. I have other, more important things to do than to pay attention to this class. Also, I am unable to delay techno-gratification for the 50 minutes the class is in session.”

You may say that you really don’t want to be in class (in which case you might consider delaying your college years until you are more goal-oriented); or that if the class is “boring,” you are entitled to mentally check out (an interesting line of thinking, but it is not taking responsibility for your own learning); or that you ARE able to pay attention to class whilst multitasking on the laptop or the phone. But behold the next point:

3)      Realize that multitasking is a myth!
Read more about the problems with multitasking here: “Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows” (from Stanford University News, Adam Gorlick, 8/09), here, and here.

Basically, trying to do several things at once means you cannot effectively focus on anything. And in college classes you need to focus, because the material probably isn’t going to be easy-breezy. You may be sure you’re a good multitasker; even so, ask yourself honestly if, in the classroom where you’re attempting to multitask, you’d pass a pop quiz at any given time with flying colors. Also, if you’re currently allowed to text or web-browse with impunity, take the initiative to try a week in class without using gadgets. See how your notes and, after class, powers of recall improve.

4)      Be aware of other students in the room.
Gadgets can be distracting to your classmates (outside of a computer lab environment where everyone is clicking at the keyboard and every face reflects the bluish glow of screens). In fact, “distraction to others” is a major reason professors disallow gadgets in the classroom. You’re in a public space when you’re in class – you do need to be aware that at least some others around you likely find texting, Facebook visits, and general clicking away to be annoying and distracting.

Overall, remember that you are responsible for your own learning. No one else can learn for you, and if you’re attending class where ostensibly lessons are to be learned, why not put yourself in a position to maximize that time?

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(1)                From “Americans and Text Messaging,” by Aaron Smith, 9/19/11. Pew Internet: Pew Internet & American Life Project, Pew Research Center.

(2)                “University Students Feel Guilty About Texting in Class, UNH Student Survey Shows,” University of New Hampshire Media Relations, 2/23/11.

(3)                “Wilkes University Professors Examine Use of Text Messaging in the College Classroom,” Wilkes University News, 11/29/10.

Regarding title: “NBD” = “no big deal.”

Knock, and It Shall Be Open?

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An intriguing editorial regarding Open Source educational materials appeared recently in the Chronicle of Higher Education; it discussed a Labor-Education proposal:

“Community colleges that compete for federal money to serve students online will be obliged to make those materials…available to everyone in the world, free . . . [as] . . . open educational resources, or OER’s.”

(Read the article here: The Quiet Revolution in Open Learning.)

Putting aside whether this particular event will come to pass, the idea is part of a larger debate about the very nature of open-source learning materials and the problems such OER’s present with regards to quality control, course credits, and credentials.

It also raises questions about teachers of the future: will instructors no longer be so necessary, and will their fate be similar to that of clerical workers losing jobs to increasingly automated business processes?  Also, is it possible for education to be a self-guided endeavor?  In the comments section of the article, you’ll see a small glimpse of this heated debate.

Now, I believe it’s quite obviously possible to learn on your own — in fact, studying and learning are pretty solitary tasks and always have been — but yes, it’s also true that at some point, we must have human guidance (i.e., good teachers!) in order to fully appreciate the resources we find.  There’s the issue of Wikipedia and information literacy, for instance (in short, one can’t believe everything one reads on the internet); and the simple fact that the person reading and studying must have the proper muscles, the proper critical thinking skills, to process all that material.

And then there’s willpower and work ethic (things nothing on the internet, so far as I know, can create in us).  I don’t agree with the title of a video seminar from a few years back, “Where there’s a will, there’s an A,” as I don’t think effort, much less desire, is necessarily equivalent to outcome; but on the other hand, without a will, there’s very little chance of an A (at least, an A in a class even remotely worthwhile).  Also, without hard work, real learning will not happen.

That’s the beauty of teaching yourself: it’s impossible to do it passively, just as it’s impossible to bake your own bread or build your own shed passively.

You’re problem solving and being creative just by seeking out ways to go above and beyond your classroom education.  So I say go forth!  And by the way, in future posts, I’ll share some existing open source materials for your perusal.

Image via / seemann

More Multitasking Murmurs…



Yesterday’s post discussed multitasking and how it affects the quality of study time.  Here are a couple of recent articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education that discuss multitasking within the classroom:

No Cellphone? No Internet? So Much Less Stress

From Professor Back to Student, With Complaint

(You can tell from the titles the tone they adopt; but in any case, they’re good reads for those headed to college or looking for ways to improve general academic performance.)

Image by Farai via Flickr

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