Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Healthcare.gov Controversy

Folks who hope that technology will save us from the problems we have created for ourselves (e.g. Climate Change) should take a closer look at the current Healthcare.gov website controversy. As you must know by now, the rollout of the Affordable Health Care Act (aka ObamaCare) has been rife with technical problems. Users have experienced long wait times, they are getting inaccurate information and even the insurance companies are having difficulty getting information about who has signed up as well as incorrect information. In short, people are annoyed, confused and, consequently, unhappy. Most Republicans and many Democrats are criticizing the operation of the website and the President is taking heat. However, I’m pretty sure that by the time you read this some of the technical problems will have been solved.

But how and why did this mess occur? When Google rolls out a new application, while it is not perfect, there is a general acceptance of its adequate performance and this, coupled to a trust that bugs will be identified and fixed on a timely basis causes very few ripples. Sometimes Google issues a “Beta” version that invites sophisticated users to try it out and report bugs before the actual application is released. This is a useful accepted practice in software development that will generally improve the product. So why did the US government not follow this path? Many pundits have proposed answers to this question.

Some think that anything the government attempts is doomed to be inefficient as well as costly while others quote the old saw, "To err is human; to really foul things up requires a computer." But like most complex problems there are no easy answers. Private corporations like Google have fewer accountability regulations restraining them than does the US government. When I worked for the US Navy we had a saying to the effect, “when you award the contract to the lowest bidder, what kind of results do you expect?”. While this is an overgeneralization and is unfair, it is true that choosing the lowest bidder requires less work because you will not have to justify the choice as much as you would the higher bidder. So even though the government outsources the product to a private firm to implement, not only are these restrictions passed down from the government to the subcontractor (and to sub-subcontractor etc), the communication and accountability necessarily becomes diluted and this can only cause problems. To make matters worse, the main contractor, CGI Federal has a past history of bungling at least 20 other government IT contracts: (http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/health-care-web-sites-lead-contractor-employs-executives-from-troubled-it-company/2013/11/15/6e107e2e-487a-11e3-a196-3544a03c2351_story.html).

To make matters even worse, although CGI was awarded the contract in Dec 2011, the government did not give them the specifications for the project until this spring causing a hurry-up implementation that would almost surely be buggy. The programming process is similar to building a house for a client who keeps changing their mind about everything from how many rooms and their locations to the type of faucets in the bath. In other words, in addition to driving the contractor crazy, he will be unable to estimation the completion date because the specifications keep changing.

For an excellent graphic description of the problems encountered at HealthCare.gov, go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/what-went-wrong-with-healthcaregov/2013/10/24/400e68de-3d07-11e3-b7ba-503fb5822c3e_graphic.html but be forewarned that the reference to the other main contractor, QSSI, is based in Columbia, MD, a suburb of Washington, DC and not in the country of Columbia.

In the meantime, what can be done to mitigate the debacle? Unfortunately not much unless someone slips a large patience pill into the national water supply. And we don’t have a national water supply.

A rule of thumb for software engineers is that once the code (software) reaches a certain size, it is no longer useful to make correction patches to it because they usually cause more new problems than they fix. If this is the case, it’s time to do a full rewrite and if the HealthCare.gov project has reached this tipping point, expect a loud and bumpy ride.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Negative Aspects to Internet Technology

In this column, I play the role of curmudgeon, grousing about certain aspects of the Internet but, like many other irascible critics, offering no solutions.

Across from my September eighth column was an AP story, “Samsung unveils new Smartwatch.  and I’m beginning to notice TV commercials for it.  The  main purpose of the smartwatch seems to be to alert the user to incoming messages on their smartphone.  I had read about this new tech marvel earlier but this particular article got me to thinking about the need for such a device costing 300 dollars. Does the world really need a device to tell them to go to another device to read a message from another human being? Do we need a smartwatch to connect to our smartphone which we can use to program our TV just to we can mitigate our boredom?  How about this as an alternative: Send a check for 300 bucks to Doctors Without Borders and either wait until you see your friend to talk with them or, if you’re not that patient,  wait until you get out of the meeting to consult your missed calls.

Franz Kafka has said that most of our problems stem from laziness and impatience and perhaps Karl Marx got one thing right when he claimed, “The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”

We seem to have forgotten that the root of the term “ technology” is from the greek “techne” which translates roughly to “craftsmanship” and because craft is usually the practical application of an art, it is much to be admired. Certainly the Samsung corporation is crafty but that’s a whole ‘nother use of the word.

It’s a reasonable premise to argue that the Internet has had the most powerful effect on global societies than any other single technology. And it’s even more reasonable to claim that it’s been particularly effective  on our youth.  Beeban Kidron, a British filmmaker, was interviewed by Tim Adams  of the Guardian which resulted in the article, “We need to talk about teenagers and the internet”.

The article starts off with a bang. "What is the best thing about the internet?" Kidron wondered. One of the boys, a 15-year-old called Ryan, answered her without hesitation. "Porn," he said. She goes on to point out the dehumanizing aspects of this easy access to pornography and the interesting conclusion that most of the boys are aware of this. The porn fix is not only addictive, it leaves the boys unfulfilled, somewhat depressed and most importantly, still ignorant of the human condition and their place in society.  "I've ruined the sense of love," one of the boys tells Kidron.   

Girls are affected as well.   Kidron interviews a young woman who tells her how attached she is to her BlackBerry and when a gang of boys takes it from her how she allowed herself to be sexually assaulted in order to get it back. These children are not special needs or “kids with an issue”, Kidron goes on --- this subculture is pervasive. She is speaking about her native country, England, but it’s not too difficult to extrapolate this depressing trend to any society that has reached a certain technological level.

On the other hand, I  recently read in my Sigma Xi newsletter the headline:

Technology transforms sewer water into electricity” which describes how engineers have developed a system to generate electricity using the microbes from sewage water. It appears to be about as efficient as solar technology with the added benefit that it also cleans the water. I don’t go so far as to think to myself, “What a Wonderful World!!!”, but I do see that while being a curmudgeon can be fun, it’s not a useful way to view this complex, amazing universe of ours. I believe that you can choose to be happy or you can choose to be unhappy and the world is ready to back you up 100%.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Neuroscience and the new assault on Privacy

Recently, I came across a Reuters article (http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/27/net-us-science-brain-idUSBRE97Q0XZ20130827) with the headline: “U.S. scientist operates colleague's brain from across campus” which, as you may suspect, piqued my interest. All sorts of wonderful and horrible fantasies were triggered ranging from professors being able to lecture to their classes without preparation to students taking exams for each other. However, after actually reading the content which began with the claim that they had achieved the first “mind-meld” , I found a much more mundane but still potentially exciting scenario.

Scientist A ,wearing a cap with electrodes, was sending his brain’s electrical signals to a colleague on the the other end of campus. His colleague, scientist B, wearing a similar cap, received the signals directed to the left motor cortex which controls right hand movement. When A  imagined moving his right hand to press a space bar on on his keyboard, B involuntarily moved his right index finger in response. While this hardly qualifies as a bona fide Star Trek mind-meld, the scientists are hopeful that this technology when fully developed could be used productively using the example that  “it might one day be harnessed to allow an airline pilot on the ground help someone land a plane whose own pilot is incapacitated.”
As I previously mentioned, this aroused my interest and further research led to an interesting destination on the web where one can view a two-part video hosted by Alan Alda (Hawkeye himself).  Actually Alda’s presentation is excellent, combining thoughtful interview and analysis on a well- constructed PBS video: (http://brainsontrial.com/watch-videos/video/episode-1-determining-guilt/) with just a soup├žon of mischei
The premise of this video is a mock trial of an attempted robbery and shooting that raises questions about the law, neuroscience and privacy. As the trial progresses, Alda breaks in to examine a new technique in neuroscience that raises privacy issues particularly in the law profession.
. As background, we first learn about the technology that makes all of this possible: the fmri (and no, it’s not the stock symbol for a new form of government-backed mortgages) --- it stands for “functional mri” and and if you’ve had an mri you may already know that it’s “magnetic resonance imaging” and doesn’t hurt at all (unless you’re claustrophobic like me). The “functional” part comes in because the fmri can show the locations in the brain that are working hard and researchers are mapping the brain to match up a unique function with its precise  location. For example, the fusiform face area location of the brain has the job or function of recognizing and categorizing faces. If a person suffers brain damage in that specific area, they will have difficulty recognizing faces. And most importantly for this discussion, if this fusiform area lights up (shows activity as evidenced by more blood flow) during an  fmri, then we can reasonably surmise the subject is in the face recognition mode.This is one school of thought in current neuroscience ---  the other important school is that while functional areas exist, they are not so centralized and actually several locations may collaborate. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Functional_specialization_(brain)). In either case, the scientist’s goal is to correlate active physical parts of the brain with human behavior and great progress is being made.
Using the above as the backstory, the video proceeds to raise the following questions:
The process of eyewitness identification is murky at best; the jury must decide whether prosecutor or defense attorney makes the better case. Suppose frmi technology could examine the relevant brain area to determine what the witness actually saw? What if it could decide whether the witness or the defendant was lying? What if it could detect which members of the jury were showing racial bias?  And even if a person, say the defendant, voluntarily submitted to the frmi procedure, what about the fifth amendment to the Constitution which protects a witness from testifying against themselves?

All interesting and provocative questions, and if neuroscience technology evolves to the point where we literally can read another’s mind, what are the implications for society? Will it destroy it, will we pass more regulations to protect privacy, or will  we learn to live in a fishbowl?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Metadata = Data? You bet. (for Sept 8 PR column)

As I mentioned in last month’s column, the story of NSA’s domestic surveillance made public by Edward snowden has legs. In fact, if the story were an insect, it would be a millipede. Now before you send me a nasty correction, let the record show that I know that, by definition, an insect is limited to six legs but “millipede” sounds so much better than “arachnid. It would seem that in this brave new digital age there should be not only millipedes but mega, giga, tera and even petapedes. No matter. Suffice to say that this story shows no signs of ending well or soon.

As of Aug 21, the latest twist to this thriller revealed that two years ago the FISA court strongly admonished the NSA for sweeping up domestic along with foreign intelligence gathering. The crux of the issue was that, without a warrant, the NSA had no authority to spy on US citizens and in fact, were violating the fourth amendment protecting citizens from unreasonable search.

I have spent some weeks researching the method that NSA must have used to intercept US citizen’s phone calls, emails and other Internet transactions and could only find the political and economic aspects --- how they pressured Internet providers like Verizon and AT&T to “share” their data unbeknownst to US users. There was very little information about the actual techniques applied to the data once the NSA had it in their hands.. So I decided to abandon the experiential approach and apply deduction instead. After all, I had taught the Database Management course in my career as Computer Science professor so why not put to use what I had learned? Here’s the way I think it went.:

Once the NSA had all of this data safely stored on their collection of disks they could make the first pass over the data to create their database. The three main functions of a database system are: Create, Update, and Interrogate. In the Create phase the raw data is usually indexed for rapid retrieval during the Update and Interrogate phases. Indexing is a fairly straightforward operation; if you’re of a certain age, you remember thumb-indexed dictionaries to faciitlate the Interrogate function. For example if you needed the definition of “mendacious” you could start your search immediately in the “M” section of the dictionary thanks to the handy thumb indentations rather than begin on page 1 and search sequentially from there. Techniques similar to this are embodied in computer programs whose job it is to update and interrogate large databases --- similar in kind but not in degree. These programs not only allow for multiple indexes as links to the database but are degrees of magnitude faster than manual methods.

For example, if I am the program looking at one of your emails, I can record the time and date it was sent, your and the recipient’s email addresses as well as any keywords that have been deemed important like: “bomb”, “Egypt”, “Syria”, “China”....you get the idea. Next, I determine the location in disk memory where this email will be stored but before I store it I make a note, in the form of a list which associates each of the keywords with that disk location. This process is repeated for all of the emails in the database and when it’s finished we have created a table of keywords and the disk locations of the emails that contain that word:

Keyword / Location

aardvark 636542

bomb 124679, 001489, 789325

... ...

zygote 987654, 123321

Now imagine that I’m the Interrogate program and my human NSA agent wants to look at all emails that contain the word “bomb”, all I have to do to make him happy is consult my table of associations between keywords and disk locations, go to each location (124679, 001489, 789325) and display the full email located there.

By this time dear reader, you may have surmised that these keywords that link to and allow rapid access to individual emails are the metadata the NSA originally claimed to be outside the purview of the fourth amendment as they are not the actual data itself. If you believe that, I have a lottery prize for you to claim.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Privacy, Security and Sympathy

I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me today, Friday July 19, as I sit on my deck, temperature 95 in the shade, sweating out yet one more column. You can if you wish but I don’t want you to. I do this not only to let my editor know that I don’t always write the column the night before but to call your attention to the fact that the Privacy vs Security issue that I discussed in last month’s column is a news story with legs (that’s what we in the news biz call “persistence”) and I want to continue it in this column even though you won’t be reading it until August 11 when, if the current trend continues, the temperatures will hover in the 135 degree range. Or not --- they could be in the thirties and I would not be surprised.

To mix a metaphor, lots more words have flowed under the bridge/over the dam since we first learned from Edward Snowden’s leaks to  the Manchester Guardian about how the NSA was, if you’re of the liberal or libertarian persuasion, invading our right to privacy and if you’re not then “enhancing our security” might be the way you would describe it. In either case,  Snowden’s actions may have the unintended side effect of uniting the left and the right, the liberals and the conservatives, the Democrats and the Republicans in Congress under the banner of “Freedom to be Left Alone”.“

By the way, I just want all my readers to know that I’ve decided to move me, my fan and iced coffee from the deck down to the basement where it’s a frosty 80 degrees and I should  be able to concentrate better.  Please, please do not worry about me. I’ll be fine. I’m fine, really. Ok, where was I? Ah, yes,, the story with legs.

The Aug 1 edition of the PR published an AP story that the surveillance had “3 hops” to it. That is, NSA could, if they felt it was necessary, search your phone calls for up to 40 people and, for each of those 40, 40 more, and for each of those 1600 oblivious souls, 40 more --- resulting in up to “12.5 million” searches..By my calculation: 40 + (40x40) + (40x40x40) is only 65,640 searches --- nowhere near the 12.5 million but still enough to get excited about.

If you feel that your privacy is in jeopardy, there are several things you can do:

Sign an online petition against this surveillance  at: https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/stop-government-snooping#petition or at:

If you are web-savvy you can use a proxy or anonymous remailer service.

You can use self-destructing emails similar to the mobile photo apps http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-57591562-1/this-e-mail-will-self-destruct-in-five-seconds/?part=rss but this app may still be in the review.

In more recent developments, on July 24, 2013, Representative  Justin Amash, a Republican from Michigan presented the House this question: “Do you oppose the suspicionless collection of the phone records of every American? “.

Here's how they answered: 94 Republicans and 111  Democrats agreed (they voted Yes) while  134 Republicans and 83 Democrats disagreed (they voted No). So the vote was 205 For and 217 Against (12 members did not vote).(http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2013/roll412.xml). It’s easy to conclude that if our Representatives truly represent us there is no consensus on this question.
While I basically oppose dragnets, I have mixed feelings on this issue. When I receive an automated call from my credit card company questioning purchases I have made that do not fit my spending “profile” should I be enraged that my privacy has been violated or thankful that they’re looking out for me?  Frankly, I’m thankful because I know about and have agreed to this policy. In the case of the NSA vs Snowden, to be honest, I was not surprised but I was disturbed that a government agency, even a spy agency, is spying on me under a “law” that I didn’t know existed.. One of the hallmarks of a representative democracy is transparency, is it not?

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Privacy, Security: Pick One

The tradeoff between privacy and security is once again making headlines. In case you’ve been hibernating, allow me to summarize this story which pits our personal privacy, nay our very freedom, against the security needs of the government of the United States of America.

The way I understand the situation is that all of this NSA (National Security Agency) phone tapping and Internet snooping started with the Bush administration shortly after 9/11 and has continued to the present Obama administration. The government claims that it is not an infringement of your fourth amendment protection against “unreasonable search” because it does not use the use the actual data (your phone conversations and internet communications), instead it captures just the “metadata”.

What, you may ask, is “metadata”? It’s data which describes the original data or information about the information in the call or email and might better better be called “meta-information:” It usually includes the date and time the information was transmitted or, if it was a phone call, the calling number and the number you called as well. So although, your phone conversation or email or visit to that racy website is accessible to the government computers, they are not examined unless a “national security” flag is raised. And what, you may continue to ask,is a  “national security” flag? An example of that might be the phone number or email address matched the phone number of someone on a terrorist list. Then, and only then (according to the government) do the wheels of justice engage. The NSA contacts a  FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) Court  for permission to access the actual data (in our example, the audio of the phone call r) to follow up this lead and begin an investigation. However, critics of the FISA Court claim that it is merely a “rubber stamp” and too easily grants requests to snoop.

The technology that allows all of our phone, Internet and financial transactions to be tracked by the government is called “Big Data” by the Information Technology community. In simple terms Big Data is a shorthand phrase denoting the (computer programs and hardware that can search very large databases such as phone calls, credit card and other banking transactions to expose patterns and connections that would otherwise be impossible for humans to do by themselves..  

Timothy B. Lee, in his article for the June 16 Washington Post, “The High Cost of Encryption” quotes computer scientist J. Alex Halderman, “Security is rarely free. There are trade-offs between convenience and usability and security.”  By convenience and usability he means that most everyone uses the encryption offered by their email provider which only protects the transmission on the way from your computer to the main server where the emails are decrypted and stored and thus accessible by the provider and also by the NSA. While there exist encryption apps that keep your message encrypted from your end to the other end, they are not convenient to use and difficult for the providers to implement so most users have opted for convenience over tighter security.
In the same edition of the Washington Post is the article, “How PRISM (a clandestine national security electronic surveillance program) could destroy the tech giants” by Farhad Manjoo who raises another important point. Manjoo claims that many have adopted the attitude, “Hey, I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t really care if the NSA is reading my email...” But, he continues that is no reason for us not to demand a fuller accounting of what data the government is gathering on us. That way, at least, we’ll be better able to make an informed decision as to whether the tradeoff between privacy and security is really worth it. As he says, “It’s perfectly fine for us to decide that we’re OK with this invasion of privacy...But we can’t decide if the trade-off is worth it if it’s all secret.”

The President seems to want to start a conversation about the tradeoffs between privacy and security and our senator across the lake, Patrick Leahey, Chair of the Judiciary Committee is pushing legislation to condense, clarify and curtail the reach of government into our freedoms.

That’s a good start.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Changing Face of Education Part 3

June 9, 2013

In Part 1, what a MOOC was and compared it to a prototype that I implemented in the 70s to see if we had made any educational progress over the past half-century. Don’t laugh, it took 25 years for the overhead projector to move from the bowling alley to the classroom.

In Part 2, I compared present-day MOOCs to present-day classroom environment and concluded that although current MOOCs have downsides (what doesn’t?), they will probably be addressed and solved and they will be the wave of the future.

In Part 3, this column, I want to wrap up the discussion and address some pedagogical and political issues associated with MOOCs:

They don’t yet solve the classic problem of pedagogy: Every discipline requires mastery in two areas: theory and practice. We need both because they strengthen each other: practice helps you better understand the theory and a better grasp of the theory makes you a better practitioner. But which aspect should be taught first? The pedagogical model I grew up with was always: present the theory with a lecture and give the practice as homework and while this worked fine with me I know that it failed miserably with many of my peers.

In graduate school I was lucky enough to be taught by a professor who used a minor modification to great benefit for me: he always ended a lecture with a brief introduction to the next topic, then for homework we were to read the text’s explanation and practice with some homework problems. In the following lecture he would answer any questions we had on the theory that he and the text had previously covered as well answer any questions we had on the homework assignment. Years later I realized that his solution to the “theory before practice or vice-versa” problem was to make it  into an A-B-A process where A stands for theory and B for practice.

There are also B-A-B theories where the students begin by trying to discover the theory for themselves by attempting to solve problems which fit under that theory (as you might expect, this can be very effective and/or very frustrating). A wag friend once told me, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”  So how does all of this mumbo-jumbo relate to a MOOC?

Many MOOCs have adopted a hybrid approach. This pedagogy has the student first acquire the theory online through video lectures and other resources such as online books. Next the students meet in online chat rooms as well as live lab sessions where they are helped by teaching assistants and by each other as well to solve the assigned problems on the current topic. This is a variant of the current hot pedagogy in education, the “flipped classroom” where the lecture is delivered outside of the classroom (over the Internet) and the “homework” is done communally with guidance by the instructor(s) during class meeting times.

With regard to the politics, there is a very interesting article, “Who Owns the MOOCs?” by Ry Rivard, March 19, 2013 on the Inside Higher Education website (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/03/19/u-california-faculty-union-says-moocs-undermine-professors-intellectual-property) which examines not only the intellectual property issues involved when a university faculty member relinquishes their ownership of course materials they have developed to a for-profit MOOC provider like Coursera, it also raises the issue of a Union contract renegotiation. While University administration may claim that the faculty member voluntarily gives up their intellectual property rights, the union argues that this is a broader issue and affects the livelihood of all faculty. In fact, I remember an advisor on my doctoral committee who had grave doubts about my designing a Computer Managed Instructional system which could then be used by administration to let faculty go.

On a lighter note, the Inside Higher Education website  has an entry by Ted Fiske, Feb 12, 2013,   which suggests new college songs for those institutions using MOOCs.

Here’s the one from Cornell:

“Far above Cayuga’s waters with its waves of blue,
Stand our noble M-O-O-Cs, glorious to view.
Massive Open Online Courses, loud their praises tell.
Hail O dig’tal Alma Mater, now called e-Cornell.”


Scout Report: March 22, 2013 -- Volume 19, Number 12

Colleges Assess Cost of Free Online-Only Courses

The Professors Who Make the MOOCs

Google Will Fund Cornell MOOC

California’s Move Toward MOOCs Sends Shock Waves, but Key Questions Remain Unanswered

UW-Madison to offer free public online courses starting in fall

Who Owns a MOOC?

The new wave of technology-based education has now gone one step further: colleges and universities, large and small, are develop! ing prog rams to offer massive open online courses (MOOCs). The ensuing debate over how these courses can alter the future of higher education is ramping up: while more institutions are signing on to pioneer MOOCs, there is controversy over whether credits should be applicable to degree paths, as well as over proposed legislation that forces institutions to accept MOOC credits. Companies such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity are already offering MOOCs for college credit, while universities such as Cornell and the University of Wisconsin-Madison have plans to consider this option in the near future. Many interested parties have been wondering whether MOOCs will bridge the education gap, or simply become another roadblock to the coveted college degree. [MP]

The first link will take users to a New York Times profile on how colleges are responding to this new development. The second link is an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that decodes the hype behind MOOCs and the professors who are leading the way in creating them. The third link is an announcement from the Cornell Sun about its new venture with Google to create MOOCs at the prestigious institution. The fourth article, from the Chronicle, covers the recent debate in California over SB 520, a proposal to use MOOCs outside of the state higher-education system for credits in the system. The fifth link goes to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article on the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s plans to offer MOOCs .

Friday, May 10, 2013

The Changing Face of Education, Part 2

The Changing Face of Education, Part 2
May 12, 2013

In the previous column, I discussed some of my reactions to the arrival of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course ) into the world of Education. Initially I was interested in comparing online courses of yesteryear with this new entry and particularly in comparing ACCOLADE (A pretty good online computer-managed instruction system that I designed and implemented in the early 70s) with them. Like many comparisons in real life, there were tradeoffs --- pros and cons on each side of the ledger --- but I had to give the edge to the MOOCs. In this column I want to examine the next and more important question: What are some of the Pros and Cons of using a MOOC vs the traditional classroom?


  • In theory, a MOOC allows Mastery learning. Unlike a conventional course where the learning period is fixed (usually one semester or 15 weeks) and the grades vary between E (failure) and A (Excellence), Mastery Learning has only two outcomes: Mastery of the subject or Not Yet Mastered and the time period allowed for completion of the course varies amongst the students. Like the US Army: you keep at it until you’ve mastered the subject; some take longer, some don’t. In a nutshell: conventional classes vary the grades and fix the time period while Mastery Learning varies the time period and fixes the grade. Additionally, the student has opportunity to engage in self-paced learning and evaluation.

  • Students in large classes are more likely to speak out on the email/chat room portion of a MOOC than they would be in a live classroom.

  • Ability to reach a truly massive number of students in one course --- while there is a low bar for admission, to receive credit the bar can be set as high as the instructor wishes.

  • In a large, globally offered course there is going to be much more diversity in age and culture and thus each student benefits from being exposed to diverse and different points of view. Student’s perspective is broadened.

  • Cheating on exams can be controlled in some ways better than large conventional courses through the use of video cameras and computer software.

  • MOOCs offer a way for administrators to lower the cost of college.

  • Students are less polite in their communications. While a face-to-face encounter softens our criticisms, electronic media acts to disassociate personal responsibility from the conversation and the results can range from uncomfortable to downright nasty. This behavior, seen also on bulletin boards, blogs and chat rooms is known as “flaming”.

  • When students take a live class they usually have the opportunity to meet with their advisor  and teachers; they live in an environment that supports the goals of learning and are thus more motivated to attend the course.

  • A video lecture provides no nonverbal feedback to the teacher from the students (blank stares, gazing out the window, sleeping) and thus the teacher cannot take steps to make the presentation more interesting (take a few minutes break and ask the student next to you to explain a concept that is still puzzling)

  • It takes a teacher in the range of 100 to 200 hours  to produce one hour of video; this requires a huge startup cost and commitment by the teacher. Interestingly this has not changed much since the 70s.

  • Although MOOCs may be a way for administrators to lower the cost of college, they threaten to replace teachers --- thus jobs are lost and the unions are busted.

  • Initial data show completion rates are low --- in the 10 to 20 percent range.

Assuming the Cons can be addressed, MOOCs seem to be the wave of the future, but take a moment to recall the promises made about TV in the 1940s and even into the 50s. TV was going to replace bricks and mortar schools and we could all be educated from home. And what do we have now: five hundred channels of Infotainment, at best. My guess is that we will see hybrid systems with a mixture of live and online classes which will vary by discipline --- there are good reasons to deliver a poetry and a science course in different ways.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Changing Face of Education Part 1
April 14, 2013

So I’m reading page A2 of the Feb 8 edition of the PR and this headline catches my eye: “College credit recommended for free online courses”. Reading further,  I learn that Duke University is offering a course, “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” --- a topic that has long interested me but I’ve never had enough time to investigate fully.

I was also curious to see how much progress has been made in the past (roughly) 40 years in the area of Computer Managed Instruction (CMI) which not only delivers courses but manages the total learning environment by assigning resources (e.g. books, videos, teachers) and evaluating the student’s progress through exams, labs and other learning experiences. In fact in the mid-seventies I had designed and implemented a CMI system named ACCOLADE around a course in Computer Literacy.

Next I went to my favorite search engine (rhymes with “frugal”) and entered, “ “Genetics and Evolution Duke University” and before I could  lift my coffee to my lips,  I was presented with a page of links that beckoned and promised to guide me in my quest. I also learned that these massive, open, online courses were referred to as a MOOC and that the New York Times, about six months ago, named the “Big Three” MOOCs as  Coursera, Udacity and edX  (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/the-big-three-mooc-providers.html)
while The MOOC List website which claims to be: “A COMPLETE LIST OF MASSIVE OPEN ONLINE COURSES (FREE ONLINE COURSES) OFFERED BY THE BEST UNIVERSITIES AND ENTITIES.” seems to have a more comprehensive list (http://www.mooc-list.com/).  I strongly suspect both lists are not current since the content of the Internet changes so rapidly that nothing is ever really up-to-date.

I chose to register with the Coursera Corporation and while only moderately badgered to join the “signature” edition of the course which accredits the experience for only a small sum I suppose, I soon reached the Home page  which looked  as follows:

Welcome to Introduction to Genetics and Evolution!!!

As you begin the course, please do the following:
  • From the menu, select "Philosophy" and read about what we are offering and what we expect from our students.
  • Review "Due Dates" to see when problem sets and exams will be open and due, and "Grading Policy" to find information about grades.
  • Look over the "Video/Topic Schedule" to get a sense of the overall plan for course topics and the key ideas in each lecture.

... and much, much more including information on lectures, problem sets and exams, discussion forums (like chat rooms) and so on and so forth. (Due Dates presents an interesting problem as students register from time zones all over the world.) I eagerly began the course and my initial impressions were twofold:

1.CMI had changed a lot
2.CMI had not  changed very much at all.

Impression  number 1 was based on the slick presentation and the sheer quantity of resources available to the student under the newer system.  Impression 2 was the realization that while the quantity and speed of delivery of the resources had radically accelerated, the type and kind of resources were pretty much the same. My ACCOLADE system of the 1970s contained a “Yellow Pages” of resources which comprised: Printed Material (books, magazines, journals, etc), Other university courses, Other lessons on the computer, People, Movies, Videotapes and Audiotapes. These resources were linked through a Semantic Network that displayed the topics to be learned as well as the relationships between them.  Like Coursera and similar MOOCs, ACCOLADE also provided an email and a Bulletin Board system so that Learners and Teachers could communicate as well as the opportunity for students to take self-paced tests and evaluations.

While Coursera can provide its resources online to truly massive class sizes (claims of over 100,000 are common), ACCOLADE had a more tightly integrated navigational system via the semantic net. Overall, I would choose the modern MOOC over older CMI systems, but the really important question is would I choose a MOOC over a standard college course with live students and a live professor?

In the next columns, I will explore the future of MOOCs and the interesting politics of changing education.

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