A MOOC mega-man pulls back on the promise of online education

FastCompany offered a great long-read article a couple weeks ago about Sebastian Thrun, the Standford professor & Google geek who got so famous a few years ago by offering Standford-level coursework like Computer Science, Machine Learning, and Introduction to AI to anyone on the Internet who wanted to take it.

The whole article is here – I highly recommend taking the time to read it.

Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, the godfather of free online education, changes course

Thrun initially got excited because hundreds of thousands of people across the world stepped into his virtual classroom to study (I was one of them). Even though most of them didn’t finish (like me) to earn the online certificate, still the scale was vast. the ability to bring education to anyone with a connection was intoxicating. And so Udacity, one of the largest providers of MOOCs (massive online courses), was born.

Th author traces how Thrun’s initial enthusiasm took him and Udacity into a partnership to offer math and remedial math to San Jose State students.  But the vision tarnished when even students in those smaller cohorts likewise dropped out before completion.

Thrun’s enterprise has turned more toward partnering with businesses to offer particular kinds of training that are useful more for employees than for undergrads.

What might we learn from this?

Well, first I think we shouldn’t leap too quickly to any conclusion about online learning. The field is so young and we’re just now beginning to gather some actual data about the students, the course structure, or the quality of learning.  It’s hard to compare the results of online courses with their more traditional counterparts — it’s not quite apples to apples.

However, it’s troubling that the most needy and underserved populations don’t seem to be much helped by  the invention of MOOCs. You need more educational motivation, not less, to work through an online course.  (Many folks who commented on the FastCompany piece noted that online courses are easy for about the first ⅓ and then the difficulty rises sharply. I experienced this too in Thrun’s class on AI. And when you hit that wall, even with online forums or teacher-mentors, you’re left very much on your own.)

Put simply, we are too quick to treat new educational technologies as saviors when really they’re just tools.  The core of providing a good education will remain in the hands of people who dedicate the blood, sweat, and tears to make it happen.  Especially for students who would otherwise miss out.


Cross-posted to Teaching Redemptively



Staying Power by Jeanne Murray Walker : Poetry Magazine

Staying Power


In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International Convention of Atheists, 1929

Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside to the yard and question the sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say

all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t there

that makes the emptiness flare like a forest fire
until I have to spend the afternoon dragging
the hose to put the smoldering thing out.
Even on an ordinary day when a friend calls,

tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,

wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which—though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.

Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.

You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbery
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up

and a voice you love whispers hello.

Source: Poetry (May 2004).

via Staying Power by Jeanne Murray Walker : Poetry Magazine.

Uh, so I’m pretty much bawling over here.

To Feel Like a Kid Again.

^ That.  That post.  Nails it.

Jack has been a dear friend of ours for quite a while now.  I think his post about the death of his father manages to capture the empty feeling that lingers on through your life once a parent is gone.

And it’s also a beautiful and touching description of a holy moment – the separation of the veil between heaven and earth. Aslan’s country. Further up and further in.

I lost my mom 17 years ago, fresh out of college and naive to the world. My dad followed 3 years later. I still feel like a child sometimes.

You can live without your parents. But I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten over losing them.

My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.

On Life, Brief yet Abundant

It’s certainly been a thrill ride of emotions these past few days. I’m not sure whether the swirl of thoughts will slow down for me to tame them, or this exercise leaves me chasing the whirlwind.  Guess you’ll find out along with me (if you’re willing to take the ride).

Our live are short. Ecclesiastes tries to pound that point into our stone-hard brains but I figure life itself must serve as the teacher for such a remarkable lesson.

My friend’s dad has died.  We all knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept when it finally came. Cancer is an evil beast, a scourge that I hate. “Dying well” has a great ring to it until one comes to the dying part.  Getting to enter Aslan’s country (“further up and further in!”) must be a remarkable journey, but this is still the valley of the shadow of death.  Not full darkness, but definitely a deep shade.  The hope of the resurrection lights our walk through that dark place, but it doesn’t release us from the hard task of trudging through.

So my heart has been heavy for them.

On Sunday morning, a young man at Erskine took his life. It is a tragedy that shook us all.  Recent memory cannot identify a similar incident in the college’s history; if it’s happened before, it was back in the days before Kodachrome or radio.

My office, being the hub of “communications” (so says my job title), found itself wrestling to come up with the words to say to “everyone out there.”   Though I didn’t know the victim, I could not help but be moved by the deep sorrow of our entire Erskine family. Death is not a welcome visitor in our world. It was not meant to be here.

I went to a crisis counseling workshop hastily planned for the day following the student’s death. Any faculty or staff who wanted to understand how better to help the grieving community were invited to attend, and I found myself there. Not really sure why, to be honest — I’ve spent my times in the foxholes of tragedies.  But there I was, listening.

And then the waves started — unbidden memories flooded my brain of every tragic upheaval that rolled through the NCS world during my years there. The work was so relational, so communal, that those experiences are ground deep into my soul. I didn’t expect them to show up for this meeting. I was emotionally unprepared.

It’s November. Even as a fringe member of the Clemson community, I pause and remember Luke Perry two days before Thanksgiving. Every year.  I remind myself of the hard and painful lessons we learned as a faculty in the wake of Luke’s death – that you need to pull grief into the open where it can be faced, named, embraced, eventually reduced to something a little more manageable.  It’s like physical therapy but in the emotional realm – and no one recovering from an injury loves their physical therapist. Not when the therapy itself is causing more pain than the original injury.

Erskine takes criticism for not being as Bible-y as a Christian college is supposed to be.  Nobody stands around and takes attendance at chapel; the dorm staff don’t keep tabs on who went to church last Sunday and where. But there’s a vibrant spiritual life on campus, one that has risen to a flood and washed over the campus in recent days.

There’s nothing like seeing young people rise to the challenge and love one another. I hope that any struggling student, alienated and alone, will now have the hope that someone at Erskine truly loves them.  You don’t have to face life alone.

I went to my Barth class today as usual, but feeling even more behind at work than usual. (It gets ever harder to walk away from my desk on Wednesdays at 12:50, knowing I won’t be back till 4:00p.)

Mind. Blown.

Seriously. This was one of the most intellectually rigorous days in the course, the day we marched at rapid pace through Barth’s doctrine of revelation. The one that gets him shot at by liberals and conservatives alike.

What I actually have found, having waded through more pages of Barth’s dogmatics than I’d like to count (but way fewer than assigned – I keep leaving my reading for the last minute, and then keep falling asleep over it at 11:30pm on Tuesday nights), is that Barth’s view of the 3-fold Word of God is just stunning.  It’s a masterful, beautiful reflection of Trinitarian truth, the power of God, the immense Grace of God.

And terrifying. But that’s another post.

Barth wailed away against the Modernism that cut the legs from under revelation at every turn in the 20th century (to be fair, this was merely the just fruit of the Enlightenment run rampant). Barth was no friend to the rationalist, empiricist hubris that insists God get inside the test tube before the Enlightened man will believe. As if God can fit in our test tubes….

Last evening, Coart & I took an hour or so to see an interesting show at Centre Stage in Greenville, SC.  Their Tuesday evening “Fringe” series takes a chance on unusual or new scripts. This one, titled Freud’s Last Session, posits a fictional conversation in 1939 between the 80-something Sigmund Freud and the brilliant C. S. Lewis.

Ron Pyle, whom I remember from my BJU days, played Freud brilliantly.  Brilliant!  Really.  He was a delight to watch. The character of Freud serves as the quintessential Modern man, refusing to believe in a God who allowed Hitler, cancer, and war into this world.

C S Lewis, by comparison in the play, never really found his footing (to me). I wondered if perhaps the playwright just could not grasp Lewis’s literary brilliance (which is a totally different matter than philosophical or theological brilliance). Or perhaps this particular production missed the spot here.  I’ll have to read the script to find out. (It’s sitting on my dining room table, patiently waiting for me to get off the computer.)

C S Lewis, who so wisely recognized the fulness of God’s revelation in Christ — a God never bound by Modern Man’s petty demands for “science” and rational proofs — would not have let Freud silence him with the threat of evil.

The Problem Of Evil.  It deserves all caps.

The death of a loved one, the suicide of a young man, the bombs that ravaged London throughout the War with Germany, cancer, the genocides that mar human history, the selfishness that dogs my every step through this world — it’s all related.

Jesus came that we might have life, and that we might have it more abundantly.

Our short lives. Our puff-of-air lives. These vapors that linger on the wind for a moment and then dissipate in the sun.

No, if Lewis had met Freud, really — they would have smoked together, with Big Questions About Life hanging in the haze near the ceiling. Lewis understood Abundant Life.

To know the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is NOT to get an answer to all of your questions. Sometimes it barely even gives you the question. But …. it is enough.