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Is “Let Them Have Pentiums” More Practical than “Let Them Eat Cake”?

Last week in another course, we had the privilege of hosting a young guest speaker, Rastraraj Bhandari, who described his experiences as a teacher among the rural villages he visited in his home country of Nepal. The stories he shared made me think about Paul Attewell’s article, “The First and Second Digital Divides.” More than fourteen years after Attewell’s article was written, many of the digital divides he discussed still exist. Rastraraj explained, for example, that many villages still lack fast and stable internet connectively. Even in places with computer equipment, the ratio between computer and student was close to 1-to-20.

Adding to this dilemma, much of the equipment was out of date or in disrepair. In one of the villages Rastraraj visited, all the computers were broken. When he opened up a computer to see what was wrong, he found quite a few broken pencils lodged inside, probably inserted through the CD drive, severing wires and damaging the motherboard. Most of these rural villages had no one properly trained to fix the computers or even to serve as knowledgeable instructors to show the children how to use properly use them. And available teachers were often not the best; sometimes, because of the existing caste system, they could not even interact with some of their students!

Rastraraj shared his views about how the government has blindly accepted the western educational tradition. This same government would rely heavily on the use of standardized testing to determine who would have the opportunity to continue their education in different tracks, mainly focused on STEM education. This method basically creates additional disadvantages for the poor as compared with their more affluent peers. The strong focus and singular drive necessary to pass these tests, a potential ticket out of poverty, are so critical that privileged groups just have more resource to utilize.

Having access to computer equipment is important, but as Attewell points out, how the equipment is used and the available resource support are just as important. The children from poorer villages do not have enough teachers or educated parents available to provide the guidance and engagement to ensure that their students use the resources properly. Rastraraj explained how in one village, students would take three physical breaks during the school day just to go into the fields to chase away monkeys who would eat or otherwise destroy the local crops. This story is a bit extreme, but such life realities do exist! Providing access to technology, therefore, does not fully address “cyber segregation,” especially for the most disadvantaged.


MOOC Interrupted: Harvard Loses 225TB of Video Data.
(News in Brief – Local – ISSUE 50-42 – Nov 4, 2014)

During the sixth week of the new HarvardX MOOC course, “How To Make a Global Disaster Recovery Quilt,” a “technical malfunction” unwound this popular course. The massive collaborative group project assignments crashed the Harvard servers over the weekend. During the recovery process for the lost video data, it was discovered that the local backups were corrupted. When university administrators went to retrieve the backup tapes from two of the offsite document and record storage facilities hosted by Iron Mountain, the tapes were found to be unreadable. This series of unfortunate events led many university insiders to question why there was not a more comprehensive video archiving infrastructure in place instead of relying on physical backup tapes. The University Librarian, Marian Dustmantelpiece, was quoted as saying she was surprised by the volume of data and was disappointed that the Harvard Library System was not consulted concerning HarvardX’s archiving needs for preserving the university’s intellectual assets. Interestingly, most large-scaled learning relies on video as a main method for disseminating course content. However, most of this video content is not automatically integrated into digital archiving solutions.

Enrollees hoping to receive their online MOOC certification this December with the completion of this course have taken to Twitter and blogs to complain. With some 140,000 students signed up for this particular course, many are left in limbo, prompting critics to wonder if we are seeing the tip of the MOOC divorce proceedings, since the honeymoon has been over for a while now.

UPDATE, Nov. 4, 2014 8:53am:

Justin Reich, Richard L. Menschel HarvardX Research Fellow at Harvard University, responded in an email that he views this minor mess “not as a failure or development oversight but rather as an opportunity to learn and improve things for future development.” Mr. Reich said he is committed to championing a universal video archival initiative and will voice his recommendation that the university invest $10-15 million to tackle this run-away teaching and learning omission over the next five years.


  • Librarians Overjoyed by Potential Funding to Address the Growing Video Archiving Issue.
  • US Supreme Court Agrees to Take Up AAPD Discrimination Case Against edX.
  • RuPaul a Harvard MOOC Degree Graduate?
  • 57TB of Cat Video Footage Discovered in edX Backup Tapes. (Video)
  • Honey Boo Boo is the youngest celebrity to be accepted at Harvard.


Isn’t competency-based education just skills certifications or is it the next step of blended learning targeted for adult higher education and workplace education?

Three Big Ten-affiliated institutions (University of Michigan, Purdue, and the University of Wisconsin System) recently announced they will be offering a new competency-based bachelor’s degree. This degree is specifically targeting “adults with some college credits but no degree.” One goal for this offering is to give businesses concrete proof that these students have specific skillsets (competencies) that has real-world application rather than just theoretical ones.

These degrees are flexible online offerings. Users set their own pace and participants can test out of some skills based on what they already know. Students will have mentors and “each student’s experience and learning are reviewed by a “competency assessment panel,” which assigns credit for existing competencies.” Degrees will be earned by satisfactory credit completions along with performance reviews of sample works from the student’s portfolio. Learners will “learn through doing relevant, education-related activities and not by sitting through a series of lectures.” The process “affirms the emphasis on student learning outcomes,” said Michelle R. Weise, a senior research fellow with the Clayton Christensen Institute.

What’s interesting is that this type of learning has been around for decades. It’s a common practice in certain professional industries to get vendor certifications. In information technology, it was and still is a method for individuals to get Microsoft, Cisco, Solaris, etc. certification as a way to demonstrate to potential employers that they have the appropriate knowledge to advance their careers. However, what is unique is that competency-based degree is being adopted by three Big Ten-affiliated institutions. Their initiative is worth keeping an eye on as they are re-imagining and tinkering with existing models (degree accreditation and financial aid, to name two) to integrate this type of offering targeted towards adult higher education.

Fain, Paul. “Big Ten and the Next Big Thing”, October 28, 2014.

MOOC’s global reach, access, and altruistic goals of transforming education are ideal but are we there yet? My current opinion is no, at least not right this moment, maybe in two to three years from now. One common goal of MOOCs is to provide quality education for individuals who are ill served in society. This makes me wonder how successful this has been, especially in addressing the learning needs of individuals with permanent or temporary disabilities. From what I have seen in a few highly produced courses, costing between $20-$30K per course, there are not many features have been incorporated into the design of the curriculum or the web platform that is friendly for the disabled.

I should not generalize, but the MOOCs I have seen do not have Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in mind or as a standardized norm. There are features here and there, such as closed-captioned transcriptions of video lectures or audio option equivalents to fulfill federal disability requirements. But beyond these mandated web accessibility guidelines, MOOCs have not fully incorporated UDL into the development life cycle. What is there feels more like an afterthought that was added later. Given the cost to produce a single course, I wonder if the MOOC providers are willing or prepared to invest additional funds to include features that addresses all three UDL network principles: recognition, affective, and strategic. The very nature of a virtual platform can be a safe environment where physical barriers and prejudices are reduced because all students are on the same equal footing. Content can be tailored and delivered as per an individual’s preference; enabling students more time to interact with the materials presented. There are definitely many potentials and benefits of MOOCs for the disabled, but until there are standardized UDL mandates, MOOCs might not be universally equal for everyone.

Pouncey, Ian. “Web accessibility for cognitive disabilities and learning
difficulties”, August 4, 2010.

From the short readings this week concerning peer review, I was secretly hoping the articles would denounce this practice and sentence it to a quick painful death. The consensus, from my take, is that there are benefits especially in specific contexts and within the conditions laid out in Debbie Morrison’s blog post titled “Why and When Peer Grading is Effective for Open and Online Learning.” Now don’t get me wrong, I still have reservations and feelings of dread because I immediately think about obstacles such as language barriers, cultural differences, non-constructive “nice nice” feedback (because you don’t want to come off as a jerk), insufficient knowledge, lack of peer review practice, and so forth. However, I do recognize the value of the collective, crowd sourcing, and community collaborations. After all, in most work environments, teamwork and collaboration are the norm (or should be). Plus, peer review is an activity of Connectivism that we read about in session 3.

The exercise of having to do peer reviews this week did make me want to stare blankly at the chalkboard and whisper “really?” What was funny is that I really appreciated the feedback I received. It showed me perspectives and things I missed or thought I had vocalized, but in fact had not communicated adequately. The feedback sparked ideas. I might have gained more than I was able to offer to my fellow classmates on the exercise. Still, I like to tell myself it was the learning process that was more important than the actual feedback I gave (my classmates might disagree). Maybe the medicine was not as bad as I had thought after all.

Interesting article “The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy” by Audrey Watters posted back on July 9, 2011.

I’m not sure how I can get back the hours spent on Khan this week. The exercise was interesting. I can appreciate the flashcard drills, the sly popular culture inclusions of Hogwarts characters and references of Legolas to help frame problem-solving questions, or the whole gamification of learning math. I did manage to get the dragon avatar I wanted, though the whole process did make me think of Chantek the orangutan alongside me as I performed the Skinner praise and reward thing for those virtual badges.

There is instant feedback for correct/wrong answers and a mission progress bar. “Hints” are available if desired and the occasional video pop-up along with a cheerful, yet annoying, background tune. Still, I found the experience very cold and alienating, like something was missing. I am not sure if I was really learning, or just going through some neat review tool of lessons learned a LONG time ago. The interaction made me wonder if this platform was ideal for an individual, who has no prior exposure to the content, to really learn the material (yes, it’s simple math, but still). There is no community for this particular “World of Math” module. No collaboration or “live” communication with anyone that I can easily find unless I invited a classmate through the “add a coach” checklist. Plus, after 15 minutes or so on the platform, I have to sheepishly admit that I was less focused on the content and more interested in accumulating reward points. Was it just me and this particular “World of Math” module?

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