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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 Immigrant Novel

15 May

At a recent conference, a tech guru said something interesting (probably not original, but it was well put). What drives us are two conflicting desires — the need to be unique and the need to belong. While in different cultures one of these desires may be slightly more dominant than the other, overall, it is a pretty accurate way to sum up a universal truth about people. It is also a source of a permanent conflict for immigrants. What we have in abundance is uniqueness. What we strive for is to belong. But in order to do that, we have to leave behind, unlearn, forget and even denounce some things that make us who we are.

Molding to a new culture can make you question yourself as if you are a teenager, rebuilding the idea of who she is every time she passes a mirror, a real one or her reflection in someone else’s eyes. It is exhausting. It is an impossible conflict between who you are, who people think you are and who you want to be. Perhaps, that is why it is such a fruitful topic for good novels — because it is complex and human, and requires a mastery of language to express the nuances of emotions that paint even the most mundane situations a deep rich blue:


imagesEven when you escape a war-torn place, a part of you always remains there. Like your reflection in the shards of a broken mirror, you are not whole but a sum of overlapping, skewed and twisted images, each from a slightly different angle, in slightly different light. Even when you manage to put the pieces together, the cracks remain, like permanent scars. Ismet Prcic’s scars are much deeper than mine. 


brooklynThis is a book about hope and about love and the sacrifices people that leave and people that stay make in the name of hope and love. It makes you think about the cost of change and wonder (on gray days) if the choice and freedom to build a new and better life might be a Pandora’s box, better left unopened.


ruThis lyrical book is not as much of a novel as it is a reflection on identity. Tragedies are described in simple words, a stream that sometimes almost feels monotonous and that is what makes them more striking. A key recurring theme is the power of extended family in retaining your identity. Ultimately, this is what grounds you, whether you are in the country you are born, or on the other side of the world.

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