I’m taking a MOOC

I’m taking a MOOC


According to Wikipedia, a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC; /mk/) is an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. MOOCs are a recent development in distance education which began to emerge in 2012.

Distance learning, however, has been around since the 1890s in the form of correspondence courses. Over 4 million Americans – far more than attended traditional colleges – were enrolled in correspondence courses by the 1920s, covering hundreds of practical job-oriented topics. Their completion rate was under 3% – a reality that holds true for today’s MOOCs.

Widely seen as a major part of a larger disruptive innovation taking place in higher education, MOOCS allow for and at times demand an “unbundling” of services the traditional academy once owned, controlled, and delivered. These services include research, curriculum design, content generation (such as textbooks), teaching, assessment and certification (such as granting degrees). MOOCs threaten existing business models by potentially selling teaching, assessment, and/or placement separately from the current package of services.

There are arguments on both sides of this issue and the conversation has only just begun. I think it is safe to say that MOOCs are here to stay in one form or another because their benefits outweigh their risks and the environment for education has been irrevocably altered. Some of the benefits I see to Connectivist pedagogy that shapes many of today’s MOOCs is the remixing of materials created within the course with each other and with other materials; the re-purposing of aggregated and remixed materials to suit the goals of each participant; and the Feeding forward, or sharing of re-purposed ideas and content with other participants and the rest of the world.

MOOCs can be accessed anywhere there is a web or wi-fi connection, in any language or multiple languages, they escape time zones and physical boundaries, peer-to-peer contact can trigger serendipitous learning, making it easier to cross disciplines and institutional barriers. Their contextualized content can be shared by all which enhances personal learning environments and improves lifelong learning. These are all good things in my book. A great thing is the potential to produce and deliver content in a short timeframe (e.g. for relief aid).

Drawbacks include the massive disruption they are causing the education landscape. Change can be healthy but massive and sudden change is unnerving. Enormous personal responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the learners in this setting and most of the course prep has to happen ahead of the class, which can be a heavy load for teachers. Digital literacy is necessary for both students and teachers and the socio-economic barriers for MOOCS are similar to those for other forms of education. A generation gap in skills for older teachers is also a very real barrier to adoption.

MOOCs are organic, which means they tend to take on their own trajectory. The sages on the stages do not like this model. Student participants create and curate content, also challenging the model of a professor at a lectern.

Grabbing the organic by the horns, a few creative and ambitious folks at Virginia Commonwealth University have designed a “digital engagement pilot titled “Living the Dreams: Digital Investigation and Unfettered Minds” as part of their summer program.


Loving a challenge and interested in bringing best practices in education to RBC, I signed up! The official name of the course is UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument. Officially, we will be reading and working with five essays, learning new concepts that will help us build better questions, and creating better learning networks on-line.

In order to engage in the course, all participants need a blog with an RSS feed which allows comments to be aggregated on one site for tracking and commentary. Like most on-line classes, participation takes the form of posting comments and commenting on others’ posts, threaded discussions, and synchronist virtual meet-ups. My blog for this class is tarpaperpress if you have any interest in following along.

What’s particularly fun about this class is well captured in their catchphrase, thought vectors in concept space. Freeform prompts have been tossed our way and people are responding with pictures, quotes, and screenshots that represent their wandering around the internet. “Class” started on Monday with the prompt “How Do I Feel When I Think?” The screenshots of web browsers or reddit pages are fascinating archives of the modern mental process of inquiry. These thought vectors are jumping off points for further rumination and research. The mapping of these trails of thought is fascinating. As of this morning, Thought Vectors included 555 total post(s) syndicated for all 121 blogs on its site.

Keeping up with this is going to be difficult. Deciding whose trail to follow and taking the time to thoughtfully comment is going to be time consuming and demand concentration. Focusing in an environment of sprawl can be trying. But sprawl is our new world, our on-line world anyway. We are overrun with information. It doesn’t matter what you know, it matters what you do with what you know.  Focused inquiry is perhaps the most important skill an education can support. The world is changing; jobs are changing; our skill sets and the way we keep up with these changes have to change too.

A comment in this morning’s New York Times from an article about student debt struck this cord rather succinctly:

J. Rogers

San Jose 12 hours ago

“Most of these arguments dance around the fixed and unchallenged notion of a four-year college *degree* with a more or less fixed curriculum and flexible but cut-and-dried timeframe… “Degreeism” ignores the rapidly changing nature of knowledge and its utility, which fits uncomfortably with the fixed degree and leaves the diploma’s semi-educated owners only indifferently prepared to meet the challenges of work and other aspects of modernity. A redesigned set of mini-curricula that can be adapted to individual needs in an agile, recombinant fashion, more *certification* and less cap-and-gown formalism, would be more appropriate for today’s global economy. The indigestible bulk of the four- or even two-year degree is a huge fixed cost with rapidly diminishing benefits that is clearly burdening US society and its fiscal future for nearly two decades. It is long overdue to challenge at least to question conventional belief/practices on this matter.”

For more information and to see the scale of this Massive Open Online Course disruption, visit this “MOOC List”.

People without Jobs and Jobs without People, Advanced Manufacturing Needs a Makeover

People without Jobs and Jobs without People, Advanced Manufacturing Needs a Makeover


According to a recent story on PBS and overheard at almost every high school I’ve visited lately, advanced manufacturing needs an image overhaul. When people hear the word manufacturing, they think dirty, sweaty, and covered in a constant film of oily slime. Yuck. They also think of very boring rote work, standing at a loud machine making the same widget day in and day out.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Today’s factory environments are high-tech and high tech means clean! Modern industry is about computer software, complicated electrical machinery, robotics, and multi-tasking. As technology in manufacturing becomes more sophisticated, customer expectations more demanding, and quality system requirements more exacting, shop floor employees are required to possess skills and knowledge far surpassing those of past generations. New training processes are necessary to replace old training paradigms.

This seems daunting, particularly for older workers. The education paradigm is shifting in all sectors as almost no jobs exist today that won’t require continuing education and training. We all need to be lifelong learners to stay afloat professionally. Manufacturing is going through a sea change as baby boomers retire and the needs of the workforce shift and grow. Seems like a perfect time to attract young people. With salaries between $10,000 & $160,000 and a clean, high-tech work environment, you’d think they’d be beating down the doors. But manufacturing has a lingering image problem and entry into today’s factory isn’t as easy as it used to be. Most jobs require more than a high school diploma but less than a Bachelor’s Degree and industry certifications that validate “middle skills” attainment.

It seems like American colleges, trade schools, and industries are tripping over themselves to connect resources to jobs in a desperate effort to bolster our chances of staying competitive in the global marketplace. Stories about apprenticeships academies and associate degrees combined with industry credentials are beginning to compete with the wave of media reports about students graduating with liberal arts degrees to work at Starbucks. I loved my liberal arts education but I know some very smart people who would rather tinker all day than spend as much time in an office chair as I do.

This quote from the PBS article referenced earlier sums the sentiment up beautifully.

So what if they’re not reading Shakespeare? These guys want to work with their hands. They want to get into the theoretical knowledge, not of the iambic pentameter. They want to get into the theoretical knowledge of Ohm’s law.”

Virginia Manufacturers Association has some pretty compelling information on their website. Did You Know…

•In 2013, manufacturers contributed $2.08 trillion to the economy, up from $2.03 trillion in 2012. This was 12.5 percent of GDP. For every $1.00 spent in manufacturing, another $1.32 is added to the economy, the highest multiplier effect of any economic sector. •Manufacturing supports an estimated 17.4 million jobs in the United States—about one in six private-sector jobs. More than 12 million Americans (or 9 percent of the workforce) are employed directly in manufacturing. •In 2012, the average manufacturing worker in the United States earned $77,505 annually, including pay and benefits. The average worker in all industries earned $62,063. •Manufacturers in the United States are the most productive in the world, far surpassing the worker productivity of any other major manufacturing economy, leading to higher wages and living standards. •Manufacturers in the United States perform two-thirds of all private-sector R&D in the nation, driving more innovation than any other sector. •Taken alone, manufacturing in the United States would be the 8th largest economy in the world.

So, why the skills gap? Why the lag in interest? Why the image problem? Maybe we should call it Production Technology and talk about robotics and that very attractive wage and leave the word manufacturing out of the title? We need to make it cool. We need to market it better. We need to think like good capitalists. If we want to attract teens into the training pipeline, we need to speak their language. When looking for their language, I found Gatorade. Gatorade speaks to teens. Their ads are based on exploding athletes, competitors, winners, strivers, and comic books. Their ads are cool, their sales are hot.

If we want the next generation of manufacturers to come knocking on these academy doors, appealing to their patriotism may not be enough.


Like so many other areas of our life as we transition into the 21st c., we need a hybrid approach. We can combine the draw of good paying jobs with the caché of continued education; the fascination with gadgets, computers, and robots with the satisfaction of making something, tinkering, and innovating. We have a hugely successful commercial economy based in large part on our ability to manipulate people through ad campaigns. Let’s put those creatives to task on an image upgrade for advanced manufacturing and we might just close that skills gap and really put America back to work.

We can do it. Let’s just think a little more like Gatorade.



Chance Favors a Prepared Mind

Chance Favors a Prepared Mind


RBC chemistry teacher, Shawn Holt, in partnership with his mechanical engineer neighbor had a bright idea, kept fiddling with it, pitched it to a few investors, and voila – It’s off to the races.

Like most great ideas, it started out kind of messy and ill-defined. They had this goo that hardened on impact but regained its flexibility after the shock. When they considered infusing athletic tape with their magic sauce, they found their “A ha” moment. They got a patent, an investor and now a product – Impax brand of impact-resistant athletic tape. The product lifecycle begins anew.

The best inventions move the needle, like the best works of art – we are changed by them. We grow as a species, we evolve because of them. Not only can we think differently post epiphany, we can do differently.

Another recent example of a new way to treat an old problem is this amazing (re)design of the plaster cast. In its concept phase but certain to gain traction is this 3D-printed cast by Victoria University of Wellington graduate Jake Evill. An elegant solution for broken bones, this model replaces the usual bulky, itchy and smelly plaster or fiberglass solution that I’ve had to wear more than once!

According to an article in de zeen magazine, “The prototype Cortex cast is lightweight, ventilated, washable and thin enough to fit under a shirt sleeve. A patient would have the bones x-rayed and the outside of the limb 3D-scanned. Computer software would then determine the optimum bespoke shape, with denser support focused around the fracture itself.

The polyamide pieces would be printed on-site and clip into place with fastenings that can’t be undone until the healing process is complete, when they would be taken off with tools at the hospital as normal. Unlike current casts, the materials could then be recycled.”

If there were a Kickstarter for this idea, I’d pledge.

What other great ideas are out there and how do we find them, fund them, and inspire more of them? How can we inject this kind of entrepreneurial spirit into and onto our campus more at Richard Bland College? In what ways can we promote this type of inventive, collaborative, experimental thinking in our students, our assignments, and our learning outcomes? How can we use this model to ramp up the next Student Expo?

Some universities are already putting policies into place that will make their institutions more open to supporting and nurturing this type of collaborative entrepreneurial inventiveness. The University of Virginia’s School of Medicine was one of the first programs in the United States to incorporate entrepreneurial activities in its promotion and tenure criteria for faculty in the same manner in which technology startups reward employees for innovating new projects, products, and ideas.

We need to be creative about the schooling of business and the business of schooling to teach real world skills to solve real world problems. Whether those problems are personal – how do I pay my rent, build a company, or write a modern play? Or, humanitarian – can we replicate photosynthesis and save the planet? As usual, we need a hybrid approach fusing the 3R’s with the 4C’s. Reading, writing, and ‘rythmatic, meet critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.

Pop-ups, Startups, and the Triple Bottom Line

Pop-ups, Startups, and the Triple Bottom Line


Entrepreneurialism is in the air, on the streets, and quickly becoming a mainstay for diverse programs across college campuses. America’s higher education institutions are engaged in a variety of exciting programs to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship as part of the education of their students, faculty and alumni, and as a tool to leverage their assets to create economic value in their communities.

An amazingly detailed report was issued recently by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce. The Innovative and Entrepreneurial University: Higher Education, Innovation & Entrepreneurship in Focus has some very specific examples of programs across the country that are creating innovation ecosystems critical for the long-term success and quality of entrepreneurial activity on campus and off. There is a focus on a triple bottom line (environmental, social, and economic or “planet, people, and profit”), which encourages cross-curricular, interdepartmental collaboration. Today’s challenges are more complex than they have been in the past so the solutions need a diverse set of experts at the table or in the lab.

The dynamism and fluidity of current trends and those yet unimagined will continue to influence and shape higher education’s future.  How do we design a change process nimble enough to make significant widespread change at all levels? I heard some fantastic ideas from University of Michigan President, Mary Sue Coleman, who gave this year’s Atwell Lecture.  Sponsored by the American Council on Higher Education, her address, “Innovate, Disrupt, Repeat,” focused on the need for universities to become more innovative and entrepreneurial, using her own institution and state—which was hit early and hard by the 2008 recession—as an example of what can be done.

This kind of freeform energy channeled into a product or market-based solution reminds me of pop-up culture and guerrilla art. Often put together on a wing and a prayer or a whim and a couple of good friends, pop-ups can act as informal, unacknowledged market research projects to try out a new store location or a new product. Artists and musicians create pop-up spaces to release new work or just to engage with their community in a more intimate and direct way.

These “events” are a lot like Startups, there is a strong fascination with the temporary, the here-today-and-gone-tomorrow. This urgency can be the perfect energy to foster ideas and reactions, a place to test business models developed around new solutions.

How can we bring this dynamism to Richard Bland College? We’ve definitely been bitten by the innovation bug and we’ll see evidence of our creativity at the First Annual Student Expo on Friday, April 25th. Sponsored by the Friends of the Library, the Student Expo features students from across disciplines presenting their projects and research to the entire campus community.  Let’s build on this energy and initiative with more programs that foster innovation, interdisciplinary research, and that triple bottom line.