Monthly Archives: December 2013

This Is Not Science

Today is more about science than education. Here are two links to recent stories of bad science. The second one is rather larger, but the first one reminded me of it.

I’m not going to go off on some kind of “science is bad and the scientific method has has failed us” rant here, not because I have “faith in science”, but because the failures that those articles are describing are not science.

Lack of randomized studies, lack of control groups, pay-to-publish, prestige publishing, these aren’t science. They’re trying to wear science’s clothing like it’s some kind of game. It’s not a game. People use these results to create, to build, to teach, to treat and heal. When someone uses a medical study to treat patients and then finds out that the study was a fraud, the cost for that is measured in corpses.

I’m against people pretending that their research is solid when it turns out to be primarily opinion. I couldn’t care where they’re faking it. Weakening one area of scientific endeavor weakens the whole, even if only in the realm of public perception.

There’s a comment from the second article about the need for “naming and shaming”, and a suggestion for a Consumer Reports-style journal that reviews other journals. In the interest of that, here’s a link to Jeff Beall’s list of predatory journal publishers.



The two boarding schools I worked at, Northfield Mt. Hermon and Hyde School, both lost some great people in recent weeks. NMH lost David Demaine, and Hyde lost Paul Hurd.

Paul died in a car crash – he had apparently had a heart attack while driving. Luckily, no one else was injured. I barely met Paul, but I knew him by reputation. He was one of the Old Guard at Hyde, a staunch advocate of character education and someone who really knew how to jump in with both feet.

David died due to complications from cancer surgery. His wife Gail died in January of last year. I knew David tangentially from my time as a student – Gail was my Sophomore english teacher, and their son David and I took Russian together – but also from my time as a faculty member. David and Gail both were very warm and helpful to me in my year at NMH. They always had time to listen, and were there with a hand on the shoulder when I needed encouragement.

Boarding schools see their share of grief. Tragedies can take children and adults of all ages. As both a student and teacher, I appreciated that these diverse but tight-knit communities would come together in the face of loss, to remember the good that people brought to the world. Some people had their church or family or neighborhood to turn to. We had our teachers and classmates, students and colleagues, and in that time they were family.

I think you never really know someone until you see them through someone else’s eyes – it is a shame that we so often wait until people are gone to share what we see in them. Hyde and NMH are both poorer for the loss of these teachers, and richer for the things they left behind.

David’s obituary

Joe Gauld’s goodbye to Paul


“Lots of students” is not a course format.

As many of you know, I’ve worked on a mid-sized online course. Mid-sized means about 15,000 registrants – we’re much larger than most distance-education courses, but smaller than the really huge courses with 50,000-100,000 registrants. It’s interesting to note that in terms of students who pass the course, we’re on par with some of the bigger courses at ASU or Texas A&M. Massive indeed.

There are a lot of articles about MOOCs these days, including those that say (already, not two years into the process) that their days are numbered. There seems to be a fair amount of confusion about what makes something a “MOOC” and what that means about the course itself. Let me break down the acronym.

M – Massive. Large numbers of students.

O – Open. No prerequisites, no cost, preferably reusable materials.

O – Online. Fairly obvious.

C – Course. Intended for education.

Nothing in that acronym says anything about how the course is to be run. There are some substantial differences between how, say, 8.01X and PoetryX are delivered. Both follow the typical lines for on-campus courses for those two departments, but 8.01 is a physics course that involves a lot of lectures, homework, and mathematics, while poetry is taught in a more conversational manner, focusing on discussions and writing assignments. The online versions of these courses follow the on-campus versions fairly closely.

There are two reasons that most MOOCs follow similar formats, with some combination of lecture videos, texts, discussion boards, and computer-graded questions. One is that some of the professors who want to move their courses online are most interested in duplicating the on-campus experience as closely as possible. The other is that the professors who want to do something unique and different find themselves stymied by the available tools. edX is one of the more flexible systems out there, and still I complain a lot about its lack of flexibility. I’m working on a few more courses right now, mostly in advanced areas in the sciences. The professors I work with want to create something exceptional and useful and powerful and – frankly – not that difficult to do, and the system isn’t up to it yet. (Yet.) The more powerful the underlying systems become, the more unique and interesting things we’ll be able to do. We just need to keep pushing for more development and more features.

Don’t confuse “class with lots of students” with “class involving lecture video and computer-graded questions.” We do little courses too (SPOCs – Small, Private Online Courses) and we’re limited by the same tools. Within these tools we have some flexibility, but we’re stretching and pushing for more as hard as we can. If we manage to keep the same enrollment numbers, the definition of MOOC will spread out fantastically as we develop more and better tools.

If the numbers drop, people might claim that “the MOOCs failed,” but there’s nothing in that acronym that’s a process – there’s nothing there to fail.

College Acceptance Required?

Corbett High School in Oregon requires students to get accepted to college in order to graduate from high school:

What a bizarre requirement. They don’t have to go, they don’t even have to want to go. They can still choose to go into the military, travel the world, get a job, what-have-you. They just have to fill out at least one college application and get accepted. (Oregon community colleges apparently accept everyone who applies.)

The phrasing emphasizes the words “every” and “all” to the point where I almost cut-and-pasted the whole thing into something where I could downcase all of the letters. The word “choice” appears continuously, in what have to I assume is unrecognized irony. Yes, yes, I get the idea that removing students’ choice of whether or not to apply to a safety school opens up a choice for them later on, but I doubt that any of them were unaware of that particular choice.

This school, in particular, is likely to have a ~96% college entry rate to begin with. I’m not sure why this wasn’t just handled as an internal college counseling requirement, but perhaps that wasn’t easy to do with their current setup.

It’s fascinating to compare this to events in Texas, where Algebra II just came off the graduation requirements.

Wonderful quote from that one:

A 2003 Stanford University study (PDF link) of six states found that less than 12 percent of high school students were aware of course requirements for their local universities. In fact, simply mailing high-achieving low-income students more college-enrollment information increased the number of applications those students sent to selective colleges, researchers at Stanford and the University of Virginia recently found.

I added the PDF link; I’m fairly sure it’s the one they’re talking about.

I would say that I have nothing against every student applying to college, but I know how overloaded college admissions officers are. Applying for a dozen schools is not unusual these days. Even the college board now says “five to eight is usually enough.” Even if things stabilized at that number (and the average number has been climbing), if every high-schooler in the US were required to apply to college, the number of applications would be essentially impossible to handle well. From everything I’ve heard from admissions folks, the applications they receive now are not handled well, due primarily to a lack of manpower.

This post intentionally left without a concrete conclusion.