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Posts For: July 1, 2013

On the MOOC Challenge to Traditional Higher Education

In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, worries about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Ginsberg is no softy about higher education. He has written a hard-hitting book on “administrative bloat,” the result of colleges and universities putting resources into management at the expense of instruction and research. But he is worried about MOOCs, which permit “one professor [to] lecture to tens or even hundreds of thousands of students with whom he or she has no interaction.”

In case you haven’t heard, MOOCs are online courses that enroll, typically free of charge, students who listen to lectures, do interactive, graded exercises, and engage in discussion forums. MOOCs are hailed as disruptors of a self-satisfied, overpriced higher education system and denounced as overhyped, poor substitutes for genuine education, which requires face-to-face teaching, mentoring, and discussion.

Ginsberg, though he has no beef with smaller online classes, is among the denouncers of MOOCs. He does not fear for his job‒senior Hopkins faculty will be fine come the revolution. But he does fear that cost-cutting administrators at other institutions will happily embrace a “curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams.” Such students “would receive a paltry and pathetic education.” I share Ginsberg’s distaste for the future he thinks administrators dream about. But I doubt his advice on how best to resist.

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In a recent Minding the Campus essay, Benjamin Ginsberg, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins, worries about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Ginsberg is no softy about higher education. He has written a hard-hitting book on “administrative bloat,” the result of colleges and universities putting resources into management at the expense of instruction and research. But he is worried about MOOCs, which permit “one professor [to] lecture to tens or even hundreds of thousands of students with whom he or she has no interaction.”

In case you haven’t heard, MOOCs are online courses that enroll, typically free of charge, students who listen to lectures, do interactive, graded exercises, and engage in discussion forums. MOOCs are hailed as disruptors of a self-satisfied, overpriced higher education system and denounced as overhyped, poor substitutes for genuine education, which requires face-to-face teaching, mentoring, and discussion.

Ginsberg, though he has no beef with smaller online classes, is among the denouncers of MOOCs. He does not fear for his job‒senior Hopkins faculty will be fine come the revolution. But he does fear that cost-cutting administrators at other institutions will happily embrace a “curriculum in which students watch canned lectures and take computer-graded exams.” Such students “would receive a paltry and pathetic education.” I share Ginsberg’s distaste for the future he thinks administrators dream about. But I doubt his advice on how best to resist.

First, Ginsberg recommends, those “willing to allow their lectures to replace real classes should be named, shamed and censured.” Second, professional associations should “challenge the accreditation of schools whose curricula are essentially MOOCified.” Third, colleges should deny credit “for classes taken away from the campus that are adjudged to be all-MOOC.”

Members of the philosophy department at San Jose State University have tried out a mild version of the first recommendation, taking Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel publicly to task for offering his course through Edx, a MOOC provider. Their open letter to Sandel explains why they refused to pilot a “blended” version of the course, in which face-to-face, instructor-facilitated discussions supplement online work.

But the San Jose professors make some unsupported, perhaps insupportable, claims about the limits of Sandel’s course. For example, they assert that “quality online courses and blended courses … do not save money.” But they have no evidence for that assertion. Must lowering costs always compromise quality? They also insist that their students cannot learn about justice “by listening to the reflections of the largely white student population from a privileged institution like Harvard.” But those students would also have participated in on-campus discussions, and it’s not obvious that they get more from courses in “social justice,” taught by their privilege-conscious professors, than they might have from Sandel’s course.

The letter concludes that professors “who care about public education should not produce products that will replace professors.” But since there is no moral law forbidding the replacement of professors, any more than there is a moral law forbidding the replacement of travel agents, professors need to show that they are irreplaceable. As Cathy Davidson of Duke University, with whom I rarely agree, says, “if we profs can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.”

That challenge touches Ginsberg as much as it does San Jose State’s philosophers. Before we name and shame, or oppose accreditation, or refuse to grant course credit, we need to think more seriously about the merits and limits of MOOCs.

William G. Bowen’s Higher Education in the Digital Age is an excellent starting point. While Bowen’s book is not primarily about MOOCs, it begins to address the paucity of hard evidence we possess about online education. Bowen, a social scientist and former president of Princeton University, led a careful study comparing a blended online (but not massive) introductory statistics course to comparable face-to-face courses. The study, which involved “more than six hundred participants across six public university campuses,” found “no statistically significant difference in standard measures of learning outcomes” between the blended and face-to-face courses. The finding held even for first-generation college students, rebutting the “proposition that only exceptionally well-prepared” students succeed in online courses.

Yet Bowen is cautious. Introductory statistics may be unusually well suited to online learning. And while Bowen has added to our scant knowledge of online courses, MOOCs have hardly been studied. Bowen concedes that there are intellectual virtues, like judgment, and subjects, especially those in which there is no formula for generating right answers, that may not lend themselves “especially well to being taught in a MOOC format.” His is a valuable beginning to a discussion of what brick-and-mortar colleges are for, a discussion that cannot usefully begin with the naming and shaming of those who, like Bowen, think high-quality MOOCs may sometimes be “real courses.”

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The Meaning of Gettysburg

Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, widely judged to be the turning point of the American Civil War, its pivotal moment, and the bloodiest battle ever in North America. Fought by more than 158,000 men on both sides over three days, 51,000 were killed, wounded or went missing. 

Today the outcome of the Civil War seems to many people to have been inevitable, but that was hardly the case. The first two years of the war–1861 and 1862–were a stalemate. Hopes of an early victory by the North were dashed. Both sides absorbed huge losses, but the South was making more headway than hardly anyone in the North imagined at the outset of the war. Abraham Lincoln was going through generals one after the other. And in May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had triumphed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His goal was to move north to Pennsylvania, where he hoped to draw the Union troops into a battle he expected to win. 

Before the battle Lee laid his hand on a map, over Gettysburg, and said, “Hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

Instead, it was a crushing defeat, quickly followed by Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, allowing the Union to control the Mississippi River and essentially splitting the Confederate Army in two. So what we’re commemorating this week was arguably the crucial week in American history–the week in which the Civil War winds shifted from direction to another. It paved the way for the North’s eventual victory in April 1865.

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Today is the 150th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Gettysburg, widely judged to be the turning point of the American Civil War, its pivotal moment, and the bloodiest battle ever in North America. Fought by more than 158,000 men on both sides over three days, 51,000 were killed, wounded or went missing. 

Today the outcome of the Civil War seems to many people to have been inevitable, but that was hardly the case. The first two years of the war–1861 and 1862–were a stalemate. Hopes of an early victory by the North were dashed. Both sides absorbed huge losses, but the South was making more headway than hardly anyone in the North imagined at the outset of the war. Abraham Lincoln was going through generals one after the other. And in May 1863 General Robert E. Lee, head of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had triumphed at the Battle of Chancellorsville. His goal was to move north to Pennsylvania, where he hoped to draw the Union troops into a battle he expected to win. 

Before the battle Lee laid his hand on a map, over Gettysburg, and said, “Hereabout we shall probably meet the enemy and fight a great battle, and if God gives us the victory, the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.”

Instead, it was a crushing defeat, quickly followed by Grant’s victory at Vicksburg on July 4, allowing the Union to control the Mississippi River and essentially splitting the Confederate Army in two. So what we’re commemorating this week was arguably the crucial week in American history–the week in which the Civil War winds shifted from direction to another. It paved the way for the North’s eventual victory in April 1865.

“The results of this victory are priceless,” George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary. “The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures…. Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least. … Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.”

The human carnage of the Battle of Gettysburg is almost impossible for us to comprehend. In the entire Civil War, the number of deaths has been revised upward from 618,000 to 750,000 in a nation of roughly 30 million, with more than one in five men aged 20 to 24 dying as a result of the war. And as Joel K. Bourne, Jr. has written, “For every man killed or who died from wounds in the Civil War, two more died of diseases like typhoid, diarrhea, and dysentery in crowded tent camps plagued by poor food and awful sanitation.”

But these horrific losses were hardly in vain. The Civil War, after all, achieved two monumentally important things: It ended slavery and it preserved the Union, which meant it preserved and extended liberty in America and the world. George Will refers to the Battle of Gettysburg as “the hinge of American, and hence world, history.” That seems to me to be a fair judgment–and today is a good day not only to remember the annihilation that began 150 years ago but also to give thanks for the courage and purpose that was on display on the grassy hills, the consecrated ground, of Gettysburg. If the North had lost instead of won at Gettysburg, America, as we know it, would have ended. And everything would be different. Instead this nation experienced a new birth of freedom–and a government of the people, by the people and for the people did not perish from the earth.

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Should the Government Decide Who Is a “Legitimate” Journalist?

In mid-May, as the IRS scandal finally warranted comment from President Obama, the president gave what would become an oft-repeated and justly mocked response: he learned about it on the news. But while mainstream news publications were indeed carrying the story, the Huffington Post’s media reporter Michael Calderone noted that the national political press had picked up on the story long after conservative blogs did.

The Blaze, Calderone said, raised the prospect that pushy and prying IRS agents seemed to be targeting conservative groups—in early 2012, more than a year before Obama was enlightened by the press. Two weeks after the Blaze report, Colleen Owens blogged about the letters the IRS office in Cincinnati was sending Tea Party groups, and she followed up with more reporting on the issue. Calderone’s explanation of Owens’s work is significant in light of a recent legislative push by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. First, Calderone’s description of Owens:

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In mid-May, as the IRS scandal finally warranted comment from President Obama, the president gave what would become an oft-repeated and justly mocked response: he learned about it on the news. But while mainstream news publications were indeed carrying the story, the Huffington Post’s media reporter Michael Calderone noted that the national political press had picked up on the story long after conservative blogs did.

The Blaze, Calderone said, raised the prospect that pushy and prying IRS agents seemed to be targeting conservative groups—in early 2012, more than a year before Obama was enlightened by the press. Two weeks after the Blaze report, Colleen Owens blogged about the letters the IRS office in Cincinnati was sending Tea Party groups, and she followed up with more reporting on the issue. Calderone’s explanation of Owens’s work is significant in light of a recent legislative push by Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. First, Calderone’s description of Owens:

Owens, a stay-at-home mom with no professional journalism experience, told The Huffington Post that she was especially interested in the 2012 IRS letters because of a couple previous instances in which she felt tea party activists were unfairly targeted. She said the IRS sent a similar list of demands in 2011 to organizers of the Virginia Tea Party Convention. Richmond Tea Party, Owens’ local chapter at the time, was audited by the city that same year.

Following the Richmond city audit, Owens asked Jeff Bayard, a friend and the publisher of Right Side News, if she could submit an article on behalf of the Richmond Tea Party. That story, published in Nov. 2011, got picked up by The Drudge Report, and Owens did a couple Fox News interviews.

When learning a few months later about tea party groups receiving IRS letters, Owens said she “started immediately researching, knowing this sounded like a huge story.” She went back to Bayard — on her own, not on behalf of a specific tea party group — and Right Side News published her second story, which included PDFs of letters that groups had received.

“I’m really just an amateur that wanted to write about stories that I thought were big stories,” Owens said, adding that she “just felt like, as a citizen, this was an important story.”

Keep those phrases in mind—Calderone’s description of Owens as a “stay-at-home mom with no professional journalism experience,” and Owens’s contention that she is “really just an amateur that wanted to write about stories that I thought were big stories”—as you read through Dick Durban’s op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times about a federal shield law.

The law would carve out specific protections for journalists to be exempted from having to divulge their sources. Reporters, especially those who cover national politics, would struggle to do their jobs if they couldn’t publish information provided to them anonymously. The concern is that if journalists couldn’t protect their sources, there would be a “chilling effect” on the public’s access to information, especially in cases when the source could be fired or prosecuted (or both) for divulging the information.

Most states already have such shield laws on the books, but Durbin wants a federal law. The problem is that in order to produce this law, the federal government would have to legally define who is a journalist, and who isn’t. And there would almost certainly be a national-security exception to the law (what’s often referred to legislatively as a “compelling public interest”), so the bill wouldn’t change much in practice. That means the federal shield law would really only serve to exclude from existing protections those Durbin and his colleagues don’t consider real journalists.

And that’s not an exaggeration, either. The headline of Durbin’s column is “Sen. Dick Durbin: It’s time to say who’s a real reporter.” It should be noted that the national-security exemptions are not without their merit, either. Even in this age of disclosure and transparency we should remember that there are plenty of secrets that benefit the public only by remaining secret. The government may be in the habit of over-classifying information, but that is not universally true.

Durbin asks: “But who should be considered to be a journalist?” He then seeks to answer his own question:

A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium” — including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture — for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.

Take a look at that definition, and try to guess whether someone like Owens would qualify. But as Calderone noted, Owens was the one reporting on the IRS story before those Durbin would consider “real journalists.” What if Owens found herself seeking to protect a source? This isn’t just about the occasional conservative blogger, either—though Durbin’s criteria would obviously benefit the largely liberal mainstream press. Last year the Romney presidential campaign sought to exclude BuzzFeed, a website that was at the time relatively new to political reporting, from the campaign’s press pool.

Calderone reported on this controversy as well, and pointed out that the journalists covering the campaign were uncomfortable with the politician, instead of the political press, determining who qualifies as a legitimate news source. A Romney spokeswoman told Calderone: “We do not have a separate blogger pool report.” Calderone continued:

Saul’s comment suggests the campaign may consider BuzzFeed a blog and, for that reason, not eligible to be in the print pool. While BuzzFeed reporters write exclusively online, so do others in the “print” pool, such as The Huffington Post and Yahoo! News. Also, newspaper reporters routinely file dispatches from the trail that only appear online.

It’s not so simple, in other words, to draw that line. And politicians don’t appear to be the best qualified to make that decision. They are often less informed on the changing digital media landscape than news consumers, and they have an obvious interest in excluding some journalists or news outlets from press protections.

Again, that doesn’t mean journalists should always be exempted from the laws that their fellow citizens are held to. And there is no doubt that cases of “compelling public interest” are not automatically a figment of Big Brother’s imagination; they exist. But in a country with robust free-press protections enshrined in the Constitution, asking the United States Senate to narrow those protections seems like a recipe for trouble.

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Kerry’s Middle East Folly Has a Price

Egypt is coming apart at the seams. The Syrian civil war has taken the lives of over 100,000 people and the Assad regime—which President Obama has demanded give up power—appears to be winning with the help of Russian and Iranian arms and Hezbollah ground forces. Iran has vowed to continue enriching uranium, as it gets closer to amassing enough to build a nuclear weapon. And the Putin government in Russia continues to thumb its nose at the United States by refusing—as did China—to hand over NSA leaker/spy Edward Snowden.

With all that on its plate, you’d think America’s foreign policy chief would be up to his neck dealing with these crises. But in case you hadn’t heard, Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t paying much attention to any of that in the last few days. Instead, Kerry was shuttling back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah like a low-level functionary attempting to craft an agreement that would finally bring the Palestinians back to the Middle East peace talks they’ve been boycotting for four and a half years. But at the end of his fifth such effort since taking office in February, Kerry left the region empty-handed again having failed to convince the Palestinians to talk while claiming that he is getting closer to success. He says just a little more effort will put him over the top, so expect him to be back again in the near future hoping to finally achieve his long-sought photo opportunity–though there is little reason to believe such an event would actually bring the conflict closer to resolution.

We’re supposed to think Kerry’s devotion to Middle East peace is admirable, but the more one looks at the situation, it’s clear the secretary is doing more harm than good. It’s not just that his obsession with the peace process is a mistake. It’s that he’s making it clear that he either doesn’t care much about what are obviously far more critical problems or illustrating that the president has given him the green light to concentrate on a dead-end diplomatic shuttle because in this administration the secretary of state doesn’t have much influence on American foreign policy. But no matter whether it is the former or the latter—and foreign policy is something that is run in this administration by the White House, leaving Kerry to chase his tail as much as he likes—it must be admitted that neither option inspires much confidence in this government’s ability to cope with a world in crisis.

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Egypt is coming apart at the seams. The Syrian civil war has taken the lives of over 100,000 people and the Assad regime—which President Obama has demanded give up power—appears to be winning with the help of Russian and Iranian arms and Hezbollah ground forces. Iran has vowed to continue enriching uranium, as it gets closer to amassing enough to build a nuclear weapon. And the Putin government in Russia continues to thumb its nose at the United States by refusing—as did China—to hand over NSA leaker/spy Edward Snowden.

With all that on its plate, you’d think America’s foreign policy chief would be up to his neck dealing with these crises. But in case you hadn’t heard, Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t paying much attention to any of that in the last few days. Instead, Kerry was shuttling back and forth between Jerusalem and Ramallah like a low-level functionary attempting to craft an agreement that would finally bring the Palestinians back to the Middle East peace talks they’ve been boycotting for four and a half years. But at the end of his fifth such effort since taking office in February, Kerry left the region empty-handed again having failed to convince the Palestinians to talk while claiming that he is getting closer to success. He says just a little more effort will put him over the top, so expect him to be back again in the near future hoping to finally achieve his long-sought photo opportunity–though there is little reason to believe such an event would actually bring the conflict closer to resolution.

We’re supposed to think Kerry’s devotion to Middle East peace is admirable, but the more one looks at the situation, it’s clear the secretary is doing more harm than good. It’s not just that his obsession with the peace process is a mistake. It’s that he’s making it clear that he either doesn’t care much about what are obviously far more critical problems or illustrating that the president has given him the green light to concentrate on a dead-end diplomatic shuttle because in this administration the secretary of state doesn’t have much influence on American foreign policy. But no matter whether it is the former or the latter—and foreign policy is something that is run in this administration by the White House, leaving Kerry to chase his tail as much as he likes—it must be admitted that neither option inspires much confidence in this government’s ability to cope with a world in crisis.

One might say that Kerry’s furious effort to do what all of his predecessors have tried and failed to accomplish does no harm and perhaps a little good. But as the Times of Israel’s David Horovitz rightly noted in a column today, what Kerry is doing is not just futile but an act that consciously ignores the real problem obstructing Middle East diplomacy: the need to change the climate on the ground that makes a commitment to peaceful coexistence impossible. But instead he concentrates his efforts on high-profile diplomacy that only sets the region up for disappointment that is more likely to lead to more bloodshed.

The problem isn’t that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas (who, it should be remembered, doesn’t speak for all Palestinians since Gaza is ruled by his Hamas rivals) can’t find a way to compromise. It’s that the Palestinians are still thinking and speaking in terms that show they aren’t willing to accept the permanence or the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. As Horovitz writes:

The path to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation does not run along the route much traveled by the well-intentioned Secretary Kerry between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Pulling Abbas and Netanyahu back to the table will only presage another failure — and the Second Intifada demonstrated how catastrophic the consequences can be.

Where the United States should be placing its energies, and its leverage, and its money, is in encouraging those frameworks that will create a climate in which the Palestinians actually recognize an interest in making true peace on terms that Israel can reasonably live with (terms that do not leave Israel vulnerable to military threat, and do not seek to alter the country’s demographic balance), because the Jews aren’t going anywhere, and Palestinian independence can only be attained in partnership with the Jewish state. The US should be supporting educational programs, and grass-roots interactions, and media channels that offer an honest perspective on the history of our conflict, and that promote a mutually beneficial future of co-existence. It should neither fund, nor encourage others to fund, institutions and organizations that perpetuate false narratives and consequent false grievances.

Change the climate. Gradually create an atmosphere of mutual respect, and a shared, fervent desire for an accommodation. Then you won’t have to be cajoling reluctant leaders back to the peace table.

But rather than concentrate on such productive efforts, Kerry is doubling down on what has failed repeatedly in the past. That he is unabashed by the humiliating nature of the repeated failure of his efforts says a lot about his enormous self-esteem and cluelessness (something that played a not inconsiderable part of his 2004 presidential election defeat). But that he should be subjecting the country to such a spectacle at the same time that he is conspicuously ignoring other problems which are far more urgent says a lot about his stature in the administration as well as his judgment.

President Obama is acting as if he thinks allowing Kerry to waste his time in this manner has no impact on how America is perceived around the world. But if so, it’s a terrible mistake. Rather than focus on genuine crises on which American policy can have an impact, Kerry is merely repeating the mistakes made by his predecessors with little consciousness that he will likely reap the same consequences. Though President Obama came into office convinced that he would raise America’s prestige abroad, the sheer volume of foreign policy disasters going on at the same time while the secretary of state is immersed in a fool’s errand makes it appear that it has never been lower. That the secretary of state would behave in such a manner at a moment in history when other regional crises require immediate attention graphically illustrates not only his incompetence but also that of the president.

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