Retrograde MOOCS and Other Points of Educational Agreement

So Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University, graciously and thoughtfully responded in the thread to my post complaining about his disruptive understanding of education that reduced to the “traditional” college to some mixture of medievalism and animal-house decadence.  He admitted that his rhetorical flourishes left him vulnerable to my kind of criticism, and he went on to explain, often quite rightly, that there are many points on which we agree.  Here’s one of his paragraphs of agreement:


We do not use CBE to defend MOOCs. We also agree that “disruption” is an overused term and I tire of the insurgent rhetoric we often hear by the disruptors, one that is dismissive of the decades of really good and smart work by all of us who have had our professional lives in higher education. Actually I am not even sure I think disruption aptly describes MOOCs, at least yet. I think MOOCs are rather retrograde and I remain mostly a critic of them. They are mostly content, albeit high branded content, and the “talking head” quality of them feels like We do not use CBE to defend MOOCs. We also agree that “disruption” is an overused term and I tire of the insurgent rhetoric we often hear by the disruptors, one that is dismissive of the decades of really good and smart work by all of us who have had our professional lives in higher education. Actually I am not even sure I think disruption aptly describes MOOCs, at least yet. I think MOOCs are rather retrograde and I remain mostly a critic of them. They are mostly content, albeit high branded content, and the “talking head” quality of them feels like a very poor substitute for being in a genuine learning space and community. It is a time of enormous change in higher education and we are seeing an onslaught of new providers and models and I think what I was really trying to say is that accreditation is not well designed to assess and fend off the frauds and we need an accreditation path that holds the new models to a high standard of rigor and transparency. I don’t know if I sound any more like an “educated person” than I did last time, but I do know we actually agree on more than it seems.

We agree on having low opinions of MOOCS as ways of “delivering” higher education.  Our reasons might be different, though.

Paul’s calls the MOOC “retrograde” because it’s “mostly content,” and he’s less about education as content than about education as acquisition of skills—such as critical thinking.  His understanding of education is about getting working adults the competencies required to get on what he “the on-ramp to better earnings and improved circumstances for their families.” For the population he means to serve, there’s a lot to be said for this skills approach, although I’m still with E.D. Hirsch that a very important way of improving anyone’s chances in life—and critical thinking—is the expansion of vocabulary and conceptual sophistication that comes through carefully attending to content.

So I’m suspicious, to say the least, of all the efforts to abstract skills from content in education.  It could be that analytical skills come best as a result of the rigorous learning about the real world that comes from reading “real books”—as opposed to intentionally teaching those skills as such.  But I gladly admit that Paul’s adult learners are in a hurry, and short-cuts have to be taken and can readily be justified.

Everything Paul says about the need carefully to assess credit-by-examination educational innovations to separate his noble efforts from the frauds is change I can believe in.  And, as I said before, I’m for different accreditation tracks for “competency-based” and traditional colleges.  But Paul adds that he’s actually for transforming traditional accreditation too in the direction of assessable skills.  That’s where we disagree.  Those transformational or “disruptive” efforts in “general education,” for example, are inevitably at the expense of content, especially of the idea that there are certain things about the world and ourselves that every educated person should know.

So the competency-based movement has been at the expense of liberal education, when its standards are applied to “traditional” colleges known for their excellence.  Paul is perfectly right that it may be sad but it’s very true that not every American has—or even can be afforded—the leisurely luxury of liberal education.  But that doesn’t mean such education is not a human good that’s responsible for much of the genuine intellectual diversity and leading thought in our country.  Paul’s grads aren’t going to be intellectual leaders, at least in the overwhelming majority of cases.

My objection to the MOOC is to the method of delivery of content.  Why watch a MOOC when you can read a book?  Many Americans benefit from listening to “audio books” in their cars.  But surely nobody uses the audio version of the book in a college class.  MOOCS are usually kinds of audio books with the talking head attached.

Paul and I agree that the MOOC, especially in its present state of development, seems “like a very poor substitute for being in a genuine learning space and community.”  So does education online in general.  That doesn’t mean these innovations don’t have a place in giving people access to higher education who couldn’t get it otherwise.  But they ain’t making higher education better.  A genuinely disruptive thought would be let’s use them as little as possible by working on making “traditional” higher education more accessible and affordable.  Let’s work on those pointless amenities and bloated administration issues, as well as making sure college professors aren’t too indulgent on how much and what they teach.

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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  • Stories are at the heart of learning, writes Cleary Vaughan-Lee, Executive Director for the Global Oneness Project. They have always challenged us to think beyond ourselves, expanding our experience and revealing deep truths.
  • Vaughan-Lee explains 6 ways that storytelling can foster empathy and deliver powerful learning experiences.
  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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