Thursday, December 13, 2012

Coursera is a mess

And I mean that less negatively than the statement might convey. The main problem is when I sign up for a course I don’t really know what to expect. In many ways this is because everyone involved - students and professors are all experimenting and testing but in some ways this is also becoming frustrating.

This post focuses on video quality. This ranges from mediocre to great. In this category is the streaming experience as well as the lecture quality.

Using Chrome, the quality is sometimes degraded - requiring a full download in order to watch without blurring lines. It also requires the use of VLC player rather than WMP (although other players could also work). This is a technology problem and can and should be fixed. The degraded streaming experience is annoying and frustrating. Just as some text is being highlighted all I see are a bunch blurry lines. this problem varies across institutions within Coursera so the ball is definitely in Coursera’s court.

Lectures range from a video of a professor standing in front of a whiteboard a la ‘chalk and talk’ (and doing derivations on the board) to the (slick) use of Powerpoint/slides with videos within slides and or use of pen and highlights to draw attention to particular areas of the slides. The effectiveness of this approach varies with its extent and in general there is no real agreement for me which is the best approach. Having taken 5 courses I would think that it depends on the subject matter.

Again, the experience has ranged from mediocre to great. Unfortunately, some mediocre courses are need to somehow be flagged for attention. Coursera seems to have taken a franchise approach to MOOC in the sense that they provide the technology and platform and the professors/colleges provide the content. This approach has allowed them to expand course offerings at a rapid clip but quality may have been affected.

Perhaps Coursera feels that with the institution/professor’s reputation at stake, quality is self-enforcing in that no professor would be caught dead with mediocre lectures. Unfortunately, this can and has happened (my opinion only). Which leads to another problem - if a course undergoes some changes in the next round it is difficult to know what if any improvements have been made.

I would tend to generally file these under growing pains but the pace in which course offerings have expanded makes me think that the boys at Sand Hill Road are in the drivers seat - and driving recklessly. This pace could end up driving Coursera into mediocrity.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

What should be the goal of MOOCs

Without a doubt - one of the goals should be to reduce the total cost of a college education by at least a third if not more - and to do this by the end of this decade if not earlier.

Some have implicitly argued that the problem is not the total cost but the productivity of the education sector. By this argument, as long as average productivity rises (perhaps even as tuition continues to rise) the education sector is not doing too badly. The strategy therefore is just to have as many people watch their videos as possible.

Average Productivity = Number of people watching videos / time needed to make videos. With a fixed denominator, average productivity will naturally rise.

This argument is detached from the usual widget argument which also claims that as total output expands costs per unit drops. In a perfect competition, prices also fall. Certainly the education sector is as far from perfect competition as I can imagine but any claim that MOOCs increase productivity must also be accompanied by a fall in tuition.

The clearest way to decrease college attendance costs is to substitute expensive college courses on campus with free MOOC courses. Next comes the details - how to transfer the credits. The MOOCs have honed in on two: accreditation and certification. They are different sides of the same coin to me but essentially the idea would be to make the student pay in order to receive a piece of paper (electronic or otherwise) that allows credits to be transferred. This would be accompanied by (most likely) a proctored exam that the student has to take in order to prove competency.

Of course this assumes that college education as we know it now continues to have the same relevance not just in the workplace but in our lives. By this I mean we go to school, graduate, get a job, and forget almost all about what was taught in the classroom. Somehow, the ideas that MOOCs have spawned should require them to reach higher than that.

Unfortunately, it seems that they may have been captured by the vultures of Sand Hill Road and need to monetize their experiment as quickly as possible. If this is what is to be then the goal of reducing total cost of attendance could even be considered redeeming.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Is College Worth it (again)

The BBC and NYT ran two similar stories within a day of each other. This is the ‘Is College Worth It?’ debate slightly recast-ed:

The BBC:
Today's young Americans have a below-average chance of becoming a graduate, compared with other industrialised economies.

One commenter - Adam, Knoxville, US - noted:

I am a secondary school Math teacher. I have a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a M.S. in Education. I would go on to earn a Ph.D., but it is too expensive. One reason my students don't want to go to college is they don't see any value in it. They read and watch stories of people making millions without ever going to college: athletes, musicians, stars, models, innovators, self-trained programmers. And then there are skilled technicians who don't need college (plumbers, security specialists, hair stylists, etc.). We also hear in the news about companies leaving US soil because they cannot find people to work in their factories - high paying jobs that don't require a college degree. Apparently our young people don't want to go to college, but at the same time they don't want to work in a factory environment either. Another issue with value is that students are well aware of the fact that teachers and other college educated people don't make that much money. A starting teacher in our district (with a family of four) makes approximately $28,000 a year (poverty level). Students look at us and ask 'Why should I go to school to earn a degree to be poor? We are already poor, so what benefit is all that extra work?" I am at the point where I agree with them. Salaries of the middle class have not changed much in 20 years, while the rich are now measured by billions, not millions. There is staggering inequality and students are not blind.

In fact, he has nailed the reason down: The perceived relative returns to college have come down. But in fact, the earnings gap between college and high school graduates has actually increased. While median college earnings have not moved much in the past 30 years, college tuition has been rising - both of which may have contributed to the perceived fall in the returns to college.

Another possible reason is from the NYT:
… compile a list of occupations that have shown the most “up-credentialing” in the last five years — that is, occupations whose job ads were significantly more likely to name college diplomas as a prerequisite in 2012 than they were in 2007.

Here is a look at the 10 occupations with the biggest percentage increases in requiring a college degree.
Occupation title2007-12* Growth in % of Posted Jobs Advertising for a Bachelor’s Degree2007 % of Ads Requiring Bachelor’s Degree2012* % of Ads Requiring Bachelor’s Degree
Dental Laboratory Technicians175%12%33%
Chemical Equipment Operators and Tenders83%6%11%
Medical Equipment Preparers55%11%17%
Buyers and Purchasing Agents, Farm Products43%54%77%
Electronics Engineering Technicians38%21%29%
Dental Hygienists38%40%55%
Architectural Drafters37%41%56%
Cargo and Freight Agents36%33%45%
Claims Adjusters, Examiners and Investigators35%48%65%

*2012 data is from Nov. 1, 2011, to Oct 31, 2012

Some of these occupations may actually require more advanced skill sets than they used to. Others may require the same old duties and skills, but employers assume that people who don’t go to college in this day and age must be inferior candidates. There’s also still an oversupply of workers, so employers know they can afford to be picky.

Many administrative jobs — human resources manager, property manager, school administrator, desktop publisher, security manager — also appear on the full list.

These tend to be jobs that require fewer technical skills, so it’s not clear why a college-level education would suddenly become more important — except maybe as a sorting device for narrowing down the deluge of résumés to the most qualified (or overqualified) applicants.

In most of these administrative occupations, hiring has fallen over the last few years, as you can see in the columns further to the right showing the total number of jobs posted. That could also mean that the openings that are left — the ones that have been harder to fill even when workers are abundant — are disproportionately the ones actually do require more advanced skill sets.
For other categories of jobs, it’s harder to tell whether the “up-credentialing” reflects changing job duties or mere degree inflation.

A lot of the jobs listed are medical technician positions, for example, which typically require some kind of technical skills that can be achieved with postsecondary schooling like an associate’s degree or a certification of some kind. It’s unclear whether these jobs have gotten more technically sophisticated in the last five years, or whether employers just want to narrow down the pool of potential applicants to those perceived to be more ambitious.

Not noted in the article is that many of these jobs also appear to be lower wage jobs, thereby contributing to the lower returns from college. However, as the article noted early on:

The wage gap between the typical college graduate and those who have completed no more than high school has been growing for the last few decades. In the late 1970s, the median wage was 40 percent higher for college graduates than for people with more than a high school degree; now the wage premium is about 80 percent.

Given these trends, the question is then - can you afford not to go to college - even for a lousy job? The ball seems to be back on the cost of college side of the equation.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Venetian curiousity

This picture of flooding in Venice last month reminded me about a previous story about how the population of Venice was falling because of constant flooding. If I Google “Venice population” I find this news story from 2009 in the Telegraph:

Official census figures show the city's permanent population was 59,984 as of last week.
The population has been sliding for years, from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996, prompting fears that the city's days as a sustainable community are numbered.

But many locals say that with the city besieged by an average of 55,000 tourists a day, residents are almost outnumbered by the day-tripping hordes.

One group of Venetians is to hold a "funeral" for the city once known as the Queen of the Adriatic.

A coffin symbolising the death of the city will be borne down the Grand Canal in a procession of three boats during a ceremony to be held on Nov 14.

It will be carried ashore and deposited outside the town hall, close to the famous Rialto Bridge.
Many Venetians are concerned that high property prices and rental costs are forcing ordinary people out of the city and draining it of normal life.

But the same search terms also return data from Google’s Public Data which shows the population of Venice has been rising. Since this data is in millions, I assume that the geographic area covered is larger than the city proper. A smaller geographic area is documented by Wikipedia which puts the population at 270,000 in 2009. (It also cites the 60,000 number in Venice as I think of it but it cites a news article rather than a statistical agency. A more recent NPR story is here (circa 2012) where the 60,000 number is also repeated.)

There is also a nice graphic here which sort of put my curiosity to rest although it lacks documentation on sources except for citing the city council of Venice. I find it a little perplexing that the raw data is so hard to come by not only because this is the age of the Internet but because Italy is supposedly an advanced economy.

Finding the population of Venice, Florida, however, was not as difficult.

Monday, December 3, 2012

In which economists delude themselves about their productivity

’ve been sitting on this post for awhile waiting for the negative energies that it assailed me with to abate but that hasn’t happened. Instead, I’ve decided to try ranting.

Productivity in education has lagged productivity in other sectors of the economy because teaching is so labor intensive. Where exactly in the typical classroom is there room for investment, let alone productivity improvement? More chalk? Prior to online education, the bottleneck through which productivity improvements had to pass was the teacher, and we know that improving teacher productivity is very difficult, which is why teaching methods haven’t changed in millennia. Online education vastly increases the potential for productivity increases because it greatly increases the size of the potential market.

I assume that average productivity is number of students taught divided by number of students taking the course. This concept, if it is indeed the concept of productivity seems absurd. It harks back to the time of the dot-com bubble when metrics such as ‘eyeballs’, pageviews and unique users were used to justify stock prices of companies.

Here a similar argument is being used to justify the superiority of MOOCs. (Another bad argument is here.) I’ll believe the productivity argument when average college tuition starts falling. Right now, it sounds a lot like an argument for continuing to pay these guys their six figure salaries (or even an argument for increasing their salaries).

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

In which economists know nothing about teaching and probably less about learning

This is a rant so I thought I’d blow off steam here instead of being rude on MR:

In an online lecture it pays to be concise. Online, the student is in control and can choose when and what to repeat. The result is a big time-savings as students proceed as fast as their capabilities can take them, repeating only what they need to further their individual understanding.

If I’m not making much sense the first time I say it, no matter how many times someone plays back the same incomprehensible words it’s still NOT going to make much sense. It’s the same idea as reading the same incomprehensible passage over and over again. Can’t you get it into your thick skull?

I’m swamped in coursework with Coursera right now (but enjoying it). There is huge IF in online education in general which goes something like this: Assuming that teaching at the college level at its current approach (which is mainly “chalk and talk”) then all educators need to do is bring the in-classroom experience online.

The big IF is the assumption that college level teaching is at its optimum or its current best and many (not all) online courses seem to assume that all the professors have to do is make a video of them standing in front of a blackboard (or a projector screen) available and all is well in the world. There is very little difference between this approach and just having power point slides with a voice behind it. If I don’t get something 5 minutes into the lecture, playing it back 100 times isn’t going to do much good.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Here we go again

Gretchen Rubin ponders the arrival of Hurricane Sandy. Meanwhile this constant flow of tweets and updates is just making me more anxious than it probably would if I just ignored it. After all, we can only sit at home and wait for the inevitable power outage that will come.

From the radar, Sandy looks impressive. (Picture from CWG.)

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The state of apple

Finally broke down and got an Apple computer. In order to receive updates I had to create an Apple ID. Okay. But … in order to do this I had to give them a credit card number???

Okay … I guess this is what Apple has come to - besides being a pussy and and a wussy it is trying to extract as much money as it can by coming out with incremental improvements in products that are about as imaginative as innovations in shaving blades.

I remember when it used to be single blades, and then double, and then wow! triple! and then … and so forth.

The iPad and iPhone was an innovative interface just as the shaving blade was an innovation at the time. The incremental improvements that have come from Apple is just as predictable - bigger brighter screen, smaller version - what next? A set of wet wipes attached?

Friday, October 19, 2012

When we censor ourselves what does it say about us?

I was looking forward to getting Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series for the kids. I had enjoyed them when I was in the pre-teen/early teen years. Here are some comments I found when I looked them up on Amazon:

By Titan
This book is not Enid Blyton's original text but an edited version. It is an outrage that this is not made more clear. If I want to read Enid Blyton, I want to read the original words, not a doctored 'modern' version. Apparently the original (first folio) version is still available so you might want to look for that instead of buying this one. I would give the original version 5 stars, incidentally. I loved the Famous Five books as a child.

By Tatyana A Privalova
Chapter one, this edition: She wants a good talking to.
Chapter one, older editions: She wants a good spanking.

Enough said.

By emma_e_brown
Like the last reviewer I am thoroughly disgusted that the publishers have "updated" the text. I was looking forward to a big nostalgia trip, but no lashings of ginger beer here by jove! This is hardly replacing a racially offensive toy with naughty teddies and I see no reason whatsoever for butchering these classic stories. What next - The Lion, The With, and the Ipod?!! Surely contemporary children are just as capable of appreciating a period story as we were?

These reviewers gave the book one star because of the edits. I’m not sure I’d go that far. I had noticed this ‘politically correct edits’ when the kids were younger. In Curious George Goes Fishing, the current edition has George seeing a large man go by. In an older edition of Curious George Flies a Kite (which we got as a hand me down) from which Goes Fishing was excerpted, it was a fat man.

What is the message that we are trying to send? That we don’t want to mislabel someone? Or is it that we don’t want the kids to think badly of us -- that we used to call people fat, that we used to spank? When kids grow up as they all inevitably do, they’ll know what fat and spank are - so what did we achieve by withholding these ‘truths’ from them?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Data scientist(?)

One of the apparently ‘hot’ jobs these days is the data scientist. So hot in fact that the Harvard Business Review has named it the sexiest job of the 21st century. I came across Rachel Schutt’s Data Science class at Columbia (HT: Andrew Gelman) and she has a description of what a data scientists does (or should do):

What is a Data Scientist?
Let me start with academia because that’s quicker. Then industry.
In Academia: No one calls themselves a Data Scientist yet in universities. There are 60 students in my class from across disciplines. I thought when I proposed the course it would be statisticians, applied mathematicians and computer scientists who showed up. Actually it’s them plus sociologists, journalists, political scientists, biomedical informatics students, students from NYC government agencies and non-profits related to social welfare, someone from the architecture school, environmental engineering, pure mathematicians, business marketing students, and students who already work as data scientists. Am I missing someone? They’re all interested in figuring out ways to solve important problems, often of social value, with data.

For the term Data Science to catch on in academia at the level of the faculty, the research area needs to be more formally defined. I see a rich set of problems that could be many PhD theses. My current working definition is a Data Scientist in this setting is a Scientist (from social scientists to biologists) who work with large amounts of data, and must grapple with computational problems posed by the structure, size, messiness and nature of the data, while simultaneously solving a real world problem. Across academic disciplines, the computational and deep data problems are the same. So if researchers across departments join forces, they can solve multiple real-world problems from different domains.

In Industry:
It depends on the level of seniority and whether you’re talking about the internet industry in particular. The role of data scientist need not be exclusive to the tech world, but that’s where the term originated so for the purposes of the conversation, let me say what it means there:

A Chief Data Scientist should be setting the data strategy of the company which involves a variety of things: setting everything up from the engineering and infrastructure for collecting data and logging, to privacy concerns; deciding what data will be user-facing, how data is going to be used to make decisions, and how it’s going to be built back into the product. She should manage a team of engineers, scientists and analysts and she should communicate with leadership across the company including the CEO, CTO and product leadership. She’ll also be concerned with patenting innovative solutions, and setting research goals.

More generally, a data scientist is someone who knows how to extract meaning from and interpret data, which requires both tools and methods from statistics and machine learning, as well as being human. She spends a lot of time in the process of collecting, cleaning and munging data, because data is never clean. This process requires persistence, statistics and software engineering skills– skills that are also  necessary for understanding biases in the data, and for debugging logging. Once she gets the data into shape, a crucial part is exploratory data analysis which combines visualization and data sense. She’ll find patterns, build models and algorithms, some with the intention of understanding product usage and the overall health of the product, and others serve as prototypes that ultimately get baked back into the product. She may design experiments, and is a critical part of data-driven decision making. She’ll communicate with team members, engineers, and leadership in clear language and using data visualizations so that even if her colleagues are not immersed in the data themselves, they will understand the implications.

Looking at the syllabus it sure sounds a lot like data mining. I guess being a scientist beats being a miner.

Friday, October 5, 2012

I’d like to share something with you

But you have to pay for it.
Am I the only one who thinks that this is ironic?

P.S. By the time I read MR's post on the book, the price had risen from $3.99 to $4.99.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Grades, quizzes, homework and Coursera

As I sit through some of the quizzes, homeworks and tests at Coursera I am reminded about why these things suck so bad. It sucks even though there is very little at stake (for me - except probably pride!) and undermines all incentive to learn. I'll bet that this wasn't what on-line educators had in mind when they launched.

There are several ways that assignments and quizzes are graded and these are applied in different combinations listed below:

  1. Multiple attempts are allowed, with hard deadlines and soft deadlines with penalty after the hard deadline has passed
  2. Only one attempt is allowed
  3. Feedback on a question-by-question basis explaining what was right and what was wrong
  4. No feedback at all - just a total score - not even an accounting of which question is right or wrong.
  5. Time limits are imposed (or not)

So (1) could be combined with (4), (2) with (3) and so forth. These are just from the courses that I’ve been in so peer grading is excluded and since there are no writing assignments I can’t comment on those. At this point, I'll just say that #4 really sucks! #3 is great although when it is combined with #1, the student already has the answer since the questions do not change. So in a way this sucks too.

The question that really needs to be asked is whether grades really reveal anything and reasonably minded people will have different opinions on this. What does an A reveal? What if the whole class got As? Does it make a difference? As the discussion in the embedded link points out, grades reveal as much as they can if there is a point of reference. By itself, my sense is that it is meaningless.

Again, Khan Academy is moving ahead of the curve on this front. The two relevant concepts are achievement of proficiency (either full, average or below average would be a starting delineation though Khan isn’t doing this just yet) and adaptive testing. In other words, achievement of proficiency via adaptive testing. Students learn through quizzes, tests, and exams. If they get it wrong an algorithm defaults to an easier question and steps the student back up to the harder question - either presented again or in a different form or even both.

If there is anything to be taken away from this approach is the following: grades do not penalize learning. As it stands now, grades are more of a penalty than a reward or an incentive. If there are two relevant measures that can be used to gauge a student it is these: persistence and length of time to achieve some proficiency level. These two measure reveal more than the grade itself. A student may have worked hard for an A while another one breezes through the class. A potential employer looking at an A cannot tell if the first person is a hard worker or someone just doing well because they are smart but with no work ethic.

Coursera can implement this type of approach to learning. It does encroach into the testing field where companies like ETS and Pearson may start feeling the heat and it isn’t clear if this is something that Coursera will want to get into (depending on the VCs). Unfortunately, Coursera is far away from implementing this approach although I believe the technology and the architecture are already in place. 

The  same problem that plagues teaching at the college level in the bricks and mortar setting carry over into the online setting. Adaptive testing needs a really large test bank and professors really loathe to do this since research is what they are more interested in. Perhaps it can be assigned to real teachers as opposed to professors and by this I mean the teaching assistants and those not under the publish or perish system. It could even be open or crowd sourced. And perhaps more importantly it forces teachers to think about proficiency in certain concepts - not just the course itself. In order for adaptive testing to work well the concept has the well defined so that the software can step back and present another relevant question. It is easier at Khan Academy since they focus on basic skills but much much harder at the college level.

It would make learning a little bit more fun and take away the feeling that getting a question wrong on a quiz is a penalty.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Are software companies pussies and wussies

Or more precisely, are Apple, Samsung, etc behaving like a bunch of above? This follows from the earlier post but the recent salvo from Samsung seems to indicate that things seem to be getting out of hand:

Samsung has added Apple's latest handset to a US patent lawsuit claiming the iPhone 5 infringes eight of its technologies.

HTC, Motorola, Microsoft, RIM and other tech firms are also involved in ongoing US lawsuits.
Legal experts have expressed concern at some of the tactics being used, including Judge Richard Posner who threw out a case involving Motorola and Apple in June, rebuking both firms.

He has now followed this up with a blog post in which he calls for an overhaul of the law regarding software patents.

"Nowadays most software innovation is incremental, created by teams of software engineers at modest cost, and also ephemeral - most software innovations are quickly superseded," he wrote.

"Software innovation tends to be piecemeal - not entire devices, but components, so that a software device (a cellphone, a tablet, a laptop, etc) may have tens of thousands of separate components (bits of software code or bits of hardware), each one arguably patentable.

HTC, Motorola, Microsoft, RIM and other tech firms are also involved in ongoing US lawsuits.
Legal experts have expressed concern at some of the tactics being used, including Judge Richard Posner who threw out a case involving Motorola and Apple in June, rebuking both firms.

He has now followed this up with a blog post in which he calls for an overhaul of the law regarding software patents.

"Nowadays most software innovation is incremental, created by teams of software engineers at modest cost, and also ephemeral - most software innovations are quickly superseded," he wrote.

"Software innovation tends to be piecemeal - not entire devices, but components, so that a software device (a cellphone, a tablet, a laptop, etc) may have tens of thousands of separate components (bits of software code or bits of hardware), each one arguably patentable.

Does it matter whom you plagiarise from?

According to Bob Dylan, it does:

Journalist Mikal Gilmore asked Dylan what he thinks of the "controversy" over quotations in his songs, stemming from the works of other writers, including Japanese author Junichi Saga and poet Henry Timrod.
"Oh, yeah, in folk and jazz, quotation is a rich and enriching tradition," he responded. "That certainly is true. It's true for everybody, but me. There are different rules for me. And as far as Henry Timrod is concerned, have you even heard of him? Who's been reading him lately? And who's pushed him to the forefront?... And if you think it's so easy to quote him and it can help your work, do it yourself and see how far you can get. Wussies and pussies complain about that stuff. It's an old thing - it's part of the tradition. It goes way back."


Meanwhile, Dylan, himself has been caught up in lawsuit involving use of his name. In 1994, he filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Apple, asking for a court order to keep the computer giant from using his name. There are also reports that Dylan reached an out-of-court settlement in 1995 with Hootie & the Blowfish over the band's hit song "Only Wanna Be With You." Dylan reportedly claimed frontman Darius Rucker borrowed some of his lyrics in the track.

It sounds as though it’s okay for Bob Dylan to plagiarise from a nobody but it’s not okay to copy from Bob Dylan.

Here’s some old news:

In interviews promoting Amused to Death, Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd, claimed that Lloyd Webber had plagiarised short chromatic riffs from the 1971 song "Echoes" for sections of The Phantom of the Opera, released in 1986; nevertheless, he decided not to file a lawsuit regarding the matter.[25] The songwriter Ray Repp made a similar claim about the same song, but insisted that Lloyd Webber stole the idea from him. Unlike Roger Waters, Ray Repp did decide to file a lawsuit, but the court eventually ruled in Lloyd Webber's favour.[26]

Coursera thoughts

Enrolled in a few courses and the method of presentations differ:
  1. Professor stands in front of a screen and projects slides with some notes made using a tablet PC which then gets thrown onto the screen
  2. Khan academy type approach with “real time” writing/slides with highlights as the professor goes through the points
  3. Slides with a background voice and occasional face time.

I’m a little undecided whether this is the way of the future. Method 1 is the most boring. It reminds me of being in class and doesn’t really leverage technology to the fullest. Perhaps its because this is the method most professors are used to. Similarly for method 3.

The Khan academy approach is the most engaging though probably the hardest to produce especially if the slides cover a difficult topic. I tend to drift off less in this approach.

The major problem I have with Coursera is when watching the videos I can’t ‘flip’ through the slides without rewinding the video. I almost need two computer screens or print out the slides. The split screen doesn’t work too well on my monitor.

The discussion forums are - well - discussion forums. There is a lot of noise to filter through though I’ve found it interesting and useful to look through them. I would like to participate more but time constraints preclude that.

The reason I am signed up for so many courses is that I am afraid the course won’t be offered again. Why not automatically re-offer the course? I am also worried that all the course materials will go off the server once the course is completed. Coursera isn’t very clear on the policies regarding course material - except to say it varies by professor. The main problem seems to be people downloading the videos and reposting them on YouTube and I can see why they wouldn’t want that. In which case they should just make the material available.

For instance I can’t really see what a course is like unless I enroll and if the material doesn’t look too interesting the I un-enroll. But what if a course is over and I would like to look at the materials? I presume I would have to do the same but would the material be available? I probably wouldn’t get a certificate but that isn’t my main concern.

Which brings me to another point: I was surprised to see the intensity in getting that certificate. Is there really a value to the certificate in a labor market? I’m in an academic bubble so I don’t really know. But because of the desire to get a certificate it is not unexpected to find that there are concerns about cheating and plagiarism.

In short, it is unclear what Coursera is really about - is it a substitute for college classes? I don’t think so. If anything it might be used to leverage some classes especially intro level classes. For instance, if I were a professor I might want to license with Coursera to have some courses made available - not because I’m too lazy to teach - but I can use it to double down on the intensity of the class.

One of my professors used to have us do the reading before class. The incentive was that the beginning of every class was a quiz that counted toward the grade on that reading. The quiz served as feedback as to what material was confusing or unclear - something that he wanted to know early on. I would substitute the background reading with Coursera videos.

One course that I am in is Scott Page’s Model Thinking. This is turning out to be a general overview/survey type course. Instead of doing Netlogo demos in class I would use Scott’s videos as pre-class assignment and spend class time actually doing Netlogo programming.

Is Coursera going anywhere? Yes and no. I am intensely grateful for these opportunities to learn something new and Coursera is the way to go. The quizzes and exams force me to go down a road and the certificate is an incentive, I’ll admit that. After all MIT’s OCW has been around for years and every year I say I’ll try it out but never did. Do I think that it will replace college level courses? Not entirely. It may cut down time to finish if some the courses can be substitute for intro level classes.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Malaysia thoughts

The violence in the Middle East due to the video made me wonder about the state of Islam in Malaysia. I did not hear of any protests in Malaysia about the film. In contrast to our time in Bahrain and Qatar when everything was closed because it was Ramadan, many Malays were seen walking about and even working in restaurants in the malls during the day. Is this the norm? Or is there a divide within the Malays with regards to how Ramadan should be observed? Where we were staying there were a lot of Malay stalls that were closed during the time. How would Malays feel about living the life that Muslims lead in the Middle East?

I’ve been away too long but think that these questions have some salience for the future of Malaysia.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Definitions of success

We each have our own and here’s a grab bag of thoughts triggered by books from some authors that I’ve been reading:
For instance, Nikola Tesla:

Lots of people don't know who Nikola Tesla was.

He's less famous than Einstein. He's less famous than Leonardo. He's arguably less famous than Stephen Hawking.

Most gallingly for his fans, he's considerably less famous than his arch-rival Thomas Edison.

But his work helped deliver the power for the device on which you are reading this. His invention of the induction motor that would work with alternating current (AC) was a milestone in modern electrical systems.
He died a penniless recluse in Suite 3327 of the New Yorker Hotel. The mainstream cultural fame of an Einstein or an Edison still eludes him.

Two ways to look at this would be external versus internal success. In the former case, Tesla was a success yet by his own measure he was not.

Push this concept into writers where there seem to be at least two versions of success - commercial and literary/critical. Commercial is pretty easy to grasp (e.g. no one does commercial success like JK Rowling or James Patterson) but the latter is harder to grasp.

From Gawker via Andrew Gelman:

RJ Ellory, award-winning author of crime novels such as A Simple Act of Violence and A Quiet Belief in Angels was blasted by fellow crime writer Jeremy Duns for posting glowing reviews of his own work on Amazon under the pseudonym "Nicodemus Jones."

Gelman comments:

I mean, sure, this is despicable behavior, I won’t deny that, but it’s gotta be harder and harder to make money writing books. Even a so-called bestselling author must feel under a lot of pressure. I was recently reading a book by Jonathan Coe—he’s just great, and famous, and celebrated, but I doubt he’s getting rich from his books. Not that there’s any reason that he has to get rich, but if even Jonathan Coe isn’t living the high life, that’s not good for authors in general. It’s a far cry from the days in which Updike, Styron, etc., could swagger around like bigshots.

  1. Elaine Ford’s Missed Connections was enjoyable and in my mind is what I would consider a literary success - I don’t really know whether it made the bestseller lists (commercial success) but it might have made that crossover. My measure would be some award either from a society of writers or won an award.
  2. Margaret Atwood’s Blind Assassin - again enjoyable and like Oryx and Crake, Handmaid’s Tale and so forth it is clear that she has managed to straddle both commercial and literary success.
  3. Karen Connelly’s Burmese Lessons and Dream of A Thousand Lives: Without doubt, Connelly is a talented writer and definitely in the critical category. Dream about her life in Thailand and Burmese Lessons about her time in Burma and Thai-Burmese border were entertaining and riveting. These were more autobiographical but the prose carried a sense of polish and finish that made reading parts of them almost lyrical and dream-like.

As Gelman points out it is harder to make money writing books these days and even harder to make a living solely from writing books. Does the author’s sense of self or the author’s goal of being a commercial success that determine the type of books they write?