Miscellaneous Thoughts on Paris

Annette and Will and I came back home from Paris yesterday, which means I am uncertain as to what time it is right now. My clock (when I started this) says 5:50 AM, six hours behind where I was yesterday morning. My body thinks it is somewhere in-between. So before I get back to work (there is this whole pesky “job” thing that is going to start demanding a lot more attention) and to the gym, a series of miscellaneous observations about our trip.

  • We stayed in a fantastic apartment right next to the Lamarck-Caulaincourt metro stop which is very near Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre. It was two bedrooms with a small kitchen, a large living room area, and rock-solid wifi. There were plenty of grocery stores, cafes, bread stores, etc. within about a block. There was no air conditioning, but we didn’t have hot weather, and when we opened the windows and the doors, it was positively windy. Honestly, I have to get pretty nit-picky to complain about it. If we ever do this trip again we’ll for sure try to stay here, and I’d recommend it to anyone and everyone.
  • We took the Paris Metro everywhere; in fact, Will and I took a taxi to the airport and we all took a taxi back to the airport when we left, and that was it. The metro system was very easy and reminded me a lot of getting around DC. Though if I go to Paris again anytime soon, I would probably try out the bus system. I hear that too is pretty easy, and it has the added advantage of having a view.
  • One of my main fears concerns about the trip was my complete ignorance of French. You’ve heard the stories before about this, about the French peoples’ ‘tude regarding people who don’t speak French, etc., etc. This wasn’t an issue. The scariest lack of French problem was in the taxi from the apartment because the driver got lost, but with my iPhone (thanks, Google maps!) and some pointing, it all worked out. Everyone else we dealt with spoke at least some English, some quite a bit.
  • I was also worried about the famous French/Parisian rudeness. Also not a problem. Oh sure, wait staff doesn’t hover or try to form a “personal relationship” like the do in the U.S. (as in “Hi!! how you doin’?!?! Welcome to T.G.I.Fridays where we believe in a fun and happy time! My name is Staci and I am so happy to be waiting on you! Can I interest you in any of our fantastic deep fried appetizers?!?”) But our politeness and patience was always warmly returned. I think the best way to avoid the problems of the language barrier and rudeness is don’t be an asshole American and all will be well. And for what it’s worth, we did see a few groups of asshole Americans.
  • In many ways, Paris reminded me of New York and Washington, D.C.: a diverse and international population, very touristy, and lots of monuments and museums. Also a surprising (to me) number of beggars and street people of various sorts, and a lot of graffiti. There were lots of warnings about pickpockets, but I didn’t see anything that made me worried. I’ve been a lot more concerned about my safety at times in Detroit or Chicago. About the same costs for meals, not counting some of the more specifically French efforts at sticking it to the tourists– a lot of places charged for tap water, for example.
  • Needless to say, we saw many of the usual sites.  We went to the Eiffel Tower, though we don’t go up it because waiting in line for several hours for a view not as good as the one we had from climbing to the top of Sacre-Coeur didn’t seem like a good idea. We of course went to the Louvre, which is quite impressive indeed. Of course we kind of saw the Mona Lisa, but given the crowds and the way it’s displayed, it would not surprise me at all if it turned out that what we saw was a duplicate. No way as impressive as Dave in Florence. We toured Notre Dame, took a Seine Cruise, went to Versailles (which I liked better than Annette and Will, though I would agree that there was better stuff we did), the Orsay (probably my favorite in terms of the kind of art I like), and the Pompidou (which had some art that was quite cool and some art that was quite silly). I think our favorite museum was the Rodin Museum because it wasn’t crowded and it had lovely grounds.
  • And we ate and ate and ate and ate and ate and ate. We ate at one fancy restaurant and one really good bistro recommended by Clayton, but for the most part, we just ate at cafes and bistros that were all quite good. Every morning, I went out for baguette and croissant that were always fantastic. I feel a little withdrawal this morning. Being a vegetarian in France would be challenging and I think vegans would starve.

Speaking of all that eating, it is now time for the gym and a return to reality.

MOOCs for classrooms, feminists, corporations, computer science majors, etc.

I’ve been traveling a lot lately, so my reading, writing, and editing about MOOCs (and pretty much everything else) has been pretty scattered to say the least. This is a post I’ve been writing off and on for about a week and a half, for example.

I think the most interesting development(s) are summed up within this CHE piece, “The MOOC ‘Revolution’ May Not Be as Disruptive as Some Had Imagined.” It’s mostly a recap of some of the ways that MOOCs have stumbled as of late– the shelved bill in California, the lack of interest in the program at Colorado State where students could have taken a MOOC for credit, etc.– but there were two other points I thought were interesting and worthy of sharing/remembering for later. First, this:

All three providers [that is, Coursera, Udacity, and EdX] have indicated that they are not satisfied to operate at the fringes of the higher-education system. They want to be a part of online education in the main. But given the institutional monopoly on credit-granting privileges, that means catering to colleges rather than attempting to undermine them.

“Credits are the coin of the academic realm,” says Russell Poulin, deputy director for research and analysis at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education’s Cooperative for Educational Technologies. “And if that’s where the coins are, these companies are going to drive there.”

To that end, the products and services those providers could supply colleges in the future have little to do with MOOCs. Rather, they resemble products and services that technology vendors like Blackboard and Pearson have been selling to colleges for years—”many of which,” says Mr. Horn, “are not disruptive at all.”

And this:

The closest Udacity has come to bringing MOOC-like economies of scale to the credit world is a proposed partnership with the Georgia Institute of Technology on a master’s degree in computer science. Over the next three years, the program aims to enroll 10,000 students, each of whom will have the opportunity to earn a degree for less than $7,000—a fraction of the cost of a traditional master’s program. To save on faculty costs, Udacity would hire “course assistants” to help Georgia Tech instructors with “academic and nonacademic tasks,” according to a contract between the company and the Georgia Tech Research Corporation.

But that plan, too, could encounter institutional challenges. Benjamin Flowers, chair of the university’s graduate curriculum committee, says he and his colleagues have “at no point been given, to review, any written proposal for any new graduate degree program.”

Officials seem to have circumvented the committee by casting the Udacity partnership as a “modification” of an existing computer-science master’s program, says Mr. Flowers. He says his committee is not done with the Udacity proposal, and may raise the issue in the university’s faculty senate when the body reconvenes this fall.

The New York Times has a slightly more upbeat version take on the Georgia Tech computer science quasi-MOOC, “Master’s Degree Is New Frontier of Study Online.” And I recall reading someplace Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng saying that they were just an “online education platform company.”

Besides being a long LOONNNGGG way away from the initial vision of companies like Coursera and Udacity to educate the masses in South Africa or find untapped geniuses in Mongolia, Coursera is entering a market that is already pretty crowded (e.g., Blackboard, Pearson, etc.) with a platform that is frankly not very good.

As far as Georgia Tech’s computer science program goes: let’s just table for a moment the question as to whether or not this kind of program is a “good idea” in the larger sense– that is, can such programs be effective, what are the implications relative to higher education as we know it now and into the future, etc., etc. And let’s just assume that the academic bureaucracy at Georgia Tech eventually approves this MA program, though the CHE article makes that sound like it’s not exactly a sure thing.

It seems to me the hype for this online MOOC program sounds a lot like what I recall reading about online programs  a dozen years ago– that is, students from all over the world will enroll and they will prove to be profitable. That turned out to not be the case then, and it’s difficult for me to imagine how this will be any different with this program.

For one thing, as I have blogged about before, there seems to me to be a serious disconnect between the audience of students/users that are actually enrolling in MOOCs and the students/users that the MOOC providers want.  While the people enrolling in MOOCs are typically folks looking for free personal enrichment and edutainment and not for some kind of degree or credential, this Georgia Tech MOOC aims to attract students who want an advanced degree and who are willing to pay for it. That’s a little attracting would-be diners with a McDonalds but then trying to sell that same clientele $20 entrees.

For another, I think it’s still too expensive. No offense to the fine folks at Georgia Tech (a great school for sure), but if I was seeking an MA in computer science and I was willing to spend somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000 for it, then I’d probably attend a program where I was going to interact with faculty (and not “course assistants”), where I was going to have something akin to a “real” graduate experience with small classes and lots of interaction with faculty and fellow students, and where I thought there might be some chance at employment at the other end. Fundamentally, this is why students study in programs like the ones at EMU, even when those programs are online: because of geographic proximity and because of costs.

So I think we’ll be reading in a year about how this program has failed to meet expectations. Then again, my predictions are often wrong.

In other news:

“The Classroom Experience Re-Imagined,” by Mohamed Noor, which is from some Duke University magazine.  I took part of Noor’s “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” MOOC last fall/early winter; I thought it was a pretty good textbook or supplement to an actual intro to genetics class. It turns out that was his intention:

MOOCs allow recorded video lectures to be presented asynchronously with interactive features (e.g., “in-video quizzes”). Students determine how well they understand the material through various assessments online. They can interact with other students through online discussion forums. Hence, well-constructed MOOCs offer significantly more than watching videos in, say, YouTube or Khan Academy.

For me, the “flipped class” concept is a conceptual extension of what happens in small humanities courses. My Duke students use my MOOC as a means of mastering the basic content before coming to my classroom. The video format allows me to tailor the material and make it far more approachable than through just textbook reading, and the online assessments help the students identify gaps in their comprehension. I add a question to the daily pre-class quiz specifically asking students to report concepts they found confusing. The night before the class, I receive direct feedback on student performance and understanding related to the basic class material.

Nowhere in this piece does Noor talk about the MOOC as credit in and of itself, but I suspect he wouldn’t be crazy about the idea.

“California Puts MOOC Bill on Ice” from CHE. This is old news; basically, a bill in California that would have required state schools to award credit for MOOCs and other “nonuniversity providers” has been shelved.

I don’t know if I’ve linked to this before or not, but here’s MOOC List, which is (surprise-surprise!) a list of MOOCs.

Forbes has had a couple of kind of wacky MOOC pieces as of late. A few weeks ago, Doug Guthrie (who is a business professor at George Washington University) wrote “MOOCs are Toast or at Least Should Be.” He seems to be suggesting the downfall of the corporate xMOOC in favor of “Big Data:”

Now don’t confuse MOOCs with online learning, which isn’t going to disappear and isn’t a failure. Online learning in all its many flavors will fundamentally transform higher education, bridging distances and creating access in ways that have not been possible before and have not been imagined yet.

Big Data in the online learning space will give institutions the predictive tools they need to improve learning outcomes for individual students. By designing a curriculum that collects data at every step of the student learning process, universities can address student needs with customized modules, assignments, feedback and learning trees in the curriculum that will promote better and richer learning.

I’m not completely sure what he means by “Big Data,” but you get the idea.

Meanwhile, there’s this Forbes piece by Jeanne Meister, “How MOOCs Will Revolutionize Corporate Learning And Development.” She gets some of the history of MOOCs wrong and I’m not sure Khan Academy is the source of the so-called “flipped classroom” either, but I think she has a point: MOOCs may prove to be most useful for teaching things outside of/beyond the realm of institutional credit.

Last but not least, there were a couple of articles about a feminist MOOC.  When I first read about this, I thought what was being described sounded not really that different from the first wave of “cMOOCs” about connectivity, community, flattening hierarchy, etc. But as the Inside Higher Ed article “Feminist Anti-MOOC” describes it, the “distributed open collaborative course or DOCC (pronounced “dock”)” is more than that. Here’s a quote:

The DOCC aims to challenge MOOC thinking about the role of the instructor, about the role of money, about hierarchy, about the value of “massive,” and many other things. The first DOCC will be offered for credit at 16 colleges this coming semester, as well in a more MOOC-style approach in which videos and materials are available online for anyone.

“We’re not saying bad bad MOOCs, but we’re asking how else we might innovate,” said Anne Balsamo, co-facilitator of the DOCC and dean of the School of Media Studies at the New School.


So each week, a video presentation — typically a discussion with one, two or three thinkers about feminism and technology — will set a theme for the week. The first week’s video will feature Balsamo in a discussion with Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science whose 1991 book Feminism Confronts Technology led many feminist thinkers to focus more on technology issues. That video is designed to provide a historic overview. Subsequent weeks will feature discussions about more focused topics — feminism, technology and labor one week; feminism, technology and sexuality another, and so forth.

At participating colleges, professors will base their own courses on each weekly theme, sharing course materials and assignments, but customizing them for their own students. The courses will vary, as some are undergraduate and some are graduate, and the institutions (see list at right) vary widely by mission and geography — including institutions in Australia, Britain, Canada and the United States. The class sizes will be between 15 and 30 students each, decidedly non-massive. “There is another pedagogical commitment here,” Balsamo said. “Who you learn with is as important as what you learn. Learning is a relationship, not just something that can be measured by outcomes or formal metrics.”

Kind of interesting– I could see a model like this working for first year writing too, either as a sort of “intra-MOOC” for a program or, like this one, to share ideas, lectures, materials, and discussions between institutions.

A little gardening update

A break from all the MOOC posting (though I have a brief another one of those in me I might get to yet today) to share a Flickr set and an update on the gardening for 2013. Part of what prompted me to post this  is this article I came across via the book of face, “Reclaiming the front yard with edible estates” from the public radio show The Splendid Table.   Basically, it’s a little story about a gardening/art project for turning front yards into food gardens. There are even plans for one garden that features an earthen bread/pizza oven. Hmm, maybe next year….

Anyway, a couple of quick observations:

First, it all continues to be a huge hit with neighbors. When I’m out there doing stuff, people walking by routinely stop to chat, to say how much they like what we’ve done, etc. A few other people in the neighborhood have even given the front yard veggie garden a go for themselves. So it’s all very very good.

Second, it grows quick.  Here’s a picture of the flower/perennial part from last year:


Things were just getting established. Here’s the same view from almost exactly a year later:


Pretty jungle-like now.

Third, it seems we’ve had a fair amount of “wildlife” this year. I tried to plant some beets and cauliflower as a “second crop” in part of the veggies but I think the rabbits got to it, unfortunately. But we have more pleasant critters too, like big fat bees and this particular butterfly, which I seem to see out there all the time:

Oddly, it could be a little warmer and drier this August, but it looks like we have a lot of tomatoes coming at us in a couple weeks.