MOOCs evolve


Would Abe have been a MOOC student? (Cover of a publication from the International Correspondence Schools, c. 1908).

Now that we are half a decade or so into the MOOC revolution it’s interesting to see it sort out and calm down a bit. Although it hasn’t quite fulfilled the utopian aspirations of the early evangelists, it has provided a useful means to get content to learners (particularly in tech areas).  While it’s unclear how the business models are doing (probably not all that well), people and institutions have benefited.

As somebody who is interested in curriculum, class structure, and the rhetorical forms that educational content take (why 13 weeks? why lectures? etc.), I was puzzled by the slavish effort of MOOCs to reproduce the highly artificial structure of an on-campus course. This seemed to me a clear example of the Marshall McLuhan adage that the first thing that happens with a new medium is that you use it to deliver an old form. (Radio shows were the first thing on TV.)

There still is an excessive amount of ‘course-ness’ to the average MOOC, but Dhawal Shah reports that the format is moving from scheduled semesters to basically on demand. A “Netflix” of education.

He writes, “MOOCs are gradually being transformed from virtual classrooms to a Netflix-like experience. Many courses are no longer offered just once or twice a year, but rather are now available as a self-paced, sign up whenever you want experience Coursera courses are now offered regularly throughout the year, with new sessions starting automatically on a bi-weekly or monthly basis.”

A very welcome development, not just because mapping academic calendar conventions on MOOCs was silly, but because opening up things on demand may lead to content innovation. It happened with Netflix, and helped usher in new blood, and arguably even new formats into fiction and non-fiction television.  Education could do worse…



Why there will always be a Chicago Manual of Style

From their droll Q&A.

screen-shot-2016-12-06-at-4-58-33-pmQ. A sentence in a manuscript: In a landmark collection of essays, The Division of the Kingdoms: Shakespeare’s Two Versions of “King Lear,” a range of scholars made the case . . . The book title is of course in italics—but then how does one treat that comma after Lear, and then the quote mark after the comma? Would the comma be in roman, and then the quote mark in italics?

A. This situation is a sticky wicket. The quotation marks must be italic, since they are both part of an italic book title. But the comma doesn’t belong to the title. According to Chicago’s preference for putting punctuation into the same font as the “surrounding text” (6.5), the comma would be roman. But this comma is “surrounded” by italics! If only we could use “logical punctuation,” whereby the comma would go outside the quotation marks, to render the issue moot. But that would be un-American. Editors here disagree on the best solution, so style the comma as you wish with the hope that its tiny size will allow readers to ignore it.

Are Platforms Services that Should Be Regulated?

A New York Times story frames the continuing debate about Uber as platform versus service. In Europe, Is Uber a Transportation Service or a Digital Platform?”

The short answer is that Uber is asking to be considered as digital service, and thus not subject to regulations,  instead of taxi service, which would.

That Uber is not a taxi service seems an absurd position, although it may prevail legally. Its drivers are also plausibly employees, and its business structure should be subject to the same tax&regulatory regime as any other.

But the larger question (I can’t resist calling it the uber question), is why don’t we regulate platforms in the first place? at least platforms that are companies too. And as a company, their incentives are not necessarily in the public interest, or in the interests of those of  its workers or customers. It exists to make money. That’s reasonable, but Uber’s a company, and why not regulate it as such–and in all of its businesses? Does its technical product entitle it to some fuzzy emotional “feel good” hipster exemption from the norms. If it starts selling insurance, for example, should it be exempt from the rules concerning insurance markets?

Why this should come off as a heretical position perhaps has to do with the low esteem collectivism and regulation have had over the last decades. But if the digital sphere is where we live our lives, and there are signs that at least some of it has sort of been a degenerating sphere (whether Uber contributes to that or is agnostic), do we have no standing to ask governments to say wait a minute? Platforms are not outside the pale of general activity, and are not agnostic with respect to their effects on the commonweal.

I grant, it’s not going to be an easy calculus, but not doing it seems foolish not even to ask the question.

And for enjoyable foolishness of another sort, here’s stand-up about spreadsheets.

(I do play with spreadsheets for fun, and I knew what he was up to with 255! Yikes)

“If you can draw this you can be a famous columnist”

Matt Taibbi has some fun (justified in my view) at the expense of Thomas Friedman’s last tome.

See, if the first line represents change, and the second line represents our ability to adapt to change, all we need to do to bring ourselves up to speed is move the first line up a little. Problem solved!

As numerous people on social media have commented, the second graph seems to suggest that the solution to “enhancing humanity’s adaptability” involves time travel. But that’s nitpicking. These two hilarious diagrams are pure Friedman, and a challenge to fans of the genre. Can you make a more meaningless graph?

T-shirts for the winners. It’s a fine genre…reminds me of a cute book, “F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers.” Cover illustration is not to shabby in the meaningless/misleading graphic category.


30 Days of Performing Arts

Day 7: A Symphony Concert: It’s not what you think

A general aim of these posts is to provide some sense of what to expect at  performing arts event, and to answer the questions, “what’s it like?” & “what’s in it for you?” Both turn out to be a little hard for me to answer–in part because of the wide variety of what people want to do with their recreational time, but also because my perspective is informed, and limited, by already being interested in this. The insider status doesn’t always help.

(If somebody were trying to convince me I would enjoy watching cricket, and came at it from the perspective of an intense expertise and enthusiasm, I would appreciate the fervor, but that probably wouldn’t, in itself be persausive*).

So that end, sharing something that caught my eye this morning, the last episode of a a PBS web series on the Louisville Orchestra and their charismatic young conductor (is there any other kind) Teddy Abrams,

He, and they, may or may not grab you, but I’m betting it’s contrast with what you might have had in mind as a conductor from central casting, to wit:

The great Arthur Nikisch conducting one of the earliest recordings of Beethoven’s 5th (with a expressive elan and freedom of tempo that even the most renegade of conductors today probably wouldn’t dare). Reports of of Nikisch disclose that he controlled the orchestra mostl with his extraordinary eyes.