MOOCs: The Future of Higher Education?

The growing presence of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has generated a lot of discussion among educators and in the news media about the future of higher education.

Some have hopeful visions of lower education costs and far-reaching accessibility.

“The shimmery hope is that free courses can bring the best education in the world to the most remote corners of the planet, help people in their careers, and expand intellectual and personal networks,” Laura Pappano wrote in the New York Times in a November 2012 piece.

Others have expressed disillusionment or fear about MOOCs. Completion rates are in the single digits and students’ level of engagement drops significantly in the first couple of weeks of a MOOC, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Additionally, some argue that MOOCs are not taught well.

What are MOOCs?

MOOCs are online courses that are free and available to everyone around the world, often taught by professors from top universities such as Yale, Stanford and the University of Michigan. MOOCs generally include video lectures, webinars or panel discussions; online discussion forums; quizzes on the course material; and peer feedback.

There are MOOCs on just about every topic imaginable: the health care system, negotiation techniques, Internet history, cataract surgery, thermodynamics, poetry, and many more. Coursera, one of the most prominent MOOC providers, offers over 400 courses. edX, another one of the main MOOC providers, offers nearly as many.



However, at its core, “MOOC’ is simply another term for “class,” according to Al Filreis, Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who has been teaching a MOOC called “Modern & Contemporary American Poetry,” or “ModPo,” through Coursera since the Fall 2012 semester.

“The problem with the media response to the phenomenon of so-called MOOCs is to think of it as a monolithic thing, one thing,” Filreis told me last week. “‘MOOC’ is the unfortunate, kind of awkward acronym, synonym of classes. It just happens to be online and it happens to be open as opposed to closed only to tuition payers.”

Who takes MOOCs?

MOOCs have been praised for their ability to give people all over the world – including remote regions of the world – access to content and instruction by professors at top universities, when many of them would not have had access to this content before.

Filreis believes that this is one of the greatest benefits of MOOCs:

“That’s my main reason for doing it,” Filreis said, “reaching out to thousands of people who would have little or no access to the kinds of poets and poetry that I admire.”

However, some have observed that the utopian notion that MOOCs are providing an education to people in remote parts of the world are far from reaching fruition.

As Jeffrey Selingo observed in the New York Times in October, “the average student in a MOOC is not a Turkish villager with no other access to higher education but a young white American man with a bachelor’s degree and a full-time job.”

Citing data that represents over two dozen Coursera courses, Selingo wrote, “Some 80 percent of MOOC students in Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa had a college degree, while in the overall population only 5 percent did.”



But MOOCs benefit other kinds of people too, according to Filreis. He said that “people who do not do well in traditional learning environments,” such as disabled people and retired people, “could do well in these massive open online courses.”

My mother, for example, recently retired from decades of work in public administration and has been exploring several MOOCs, some related to her career interests and some totally unrelated, such as Filreis’s poetry MOOC:

Is a real dialogue/conversation possible in the MOOC format?

One of the biggest criticisms of MOOCs is that they can’t replicate the in-person conversations and dialogues that occur in the real physical space of universities.

“Because anyone with an Internet connection can enroll, faculty can’t possibly respond to students individually,” Pappano argued.

“How do you make the massive feel intimate?” Pappano wrote. “That’s what everyone is trying to figure out.”

Robert Hernandez – a web journalist and Assistant Professor of Professional Practice at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, who taught a MOOC called “Introduction to Mobile Journalism” through the Knight Center during Summer 2014 – told me he doesn’t believe it’s possible for MOOC instructors to have the same kind of dialogue they would have with students in a normal university setting, but there are benefits to participating in a MOOC even without this dialogue:

I think that is possible in a classroom, where you have more vocal students [as] opposed to quieter students observing, but I don’t think it would be the same. Again, it depends on the expectation of the student. For my type of learning, I would prefer more direct and more frequent interaction with the student and professor, as opposed to, I’m in a sea of thousands of people and I hope that they see my questions and I hope that I learn something from someone else’s ones.

But again, access to that information, access to that classroom, might be so overwhelming that I accept the framework of being a sea of a thousand people. At least I’m among the thousand people to participate, [as] opposed to not being able to participate at all. So that’s basically the tradeoff. It’s not for everyone.

Filreis, on the other hand, disagrees with the notion that MOOC instructors can’t have a comparable dialogue with students in the MOOC format:

There must have been a time in the rise of educational institutions where the scholar or master [was] sitting around a manuscript with two or three acolytes, all looking at the same piece of paper, let’s say in Paris sometime in the Middle Ages, where that pedagogy turned toward a group of fifty or a hundred people sitting in a peered auditorium. I’m sure that people would have said at that time, you can’t possibly stand in a classroom with fifty or a hundred people and do the same thing – create a sense of intimacy or interaction that was achieved sitting around a manuscript with three people. Right? So it’s just a matter of figuring out different kinds of strategies of interaction. The students in my class will tell you, to a one, that they felt that it was an intimate experience, that it was not impersonal.

Additionally, some students taking the same MOOC meet in study groups in real space, as Pappano notes. This could be in addition to or instead of the online discussion forum in the MOOC.

Qian Jin, a lecturer of journalism at the Shanghai International Studies University who took Hernandez’s “Intro to Mobile Journalism” MOOC, told me last week that these “offline” study groups – in which MOOC students can talk to one another in-person, watch video lectures together and do assignments together – should be an essential part of MOOCs, particularly in countries with a different native language than that of the MOOC instructor.

How will MOOCs and higher education change in the years to come?

One general area of agreement seems to be that the days of professors simply dictating information to students in lecture halls are numbered.

“This is something that you can displace outside of class, so the students don’t have to waste precious time that could be used for qualitative interaction, seeing something that could be automated,” Filreis said.

He believes that this realization will improve the teaching that is happening on campus in real space.

Qian also predicts that professors who merely transmit information to students will “disappear,” thanks to MOOCs. Instead, he said, we need professors who can “put things into perspective” for students and turn “information into knowledge”.

He believes that in the future, the university campus will be a “space of interaction,” where students can meet and talk to each other, professors would serve as “consultants” or “moderator[s]” for the students, and there would be a “real dialogue” reminiscent of Plato’s Academy.

Qian Jin interview

However, it is difficult to tell what will happen twenty years from now, and that has sometimes contributed to fears about this technology’s impact on the future. But Hernandez said that these kinds of fears are nothing new.

“I’ve been in the digital journalism industry since the late 90s, and there’s always this fear or this discussion of ‘Will X replace Y? Are we dead? Are we the future?’ And the truth is, I have seen over time that it’s still inclusive to both,” Hernandez said.

He believes that MOOCs should be embraced in the years to come.

“The ones that don’t embrace this technology will simply die out like dinosaurs did, like all these other types of evolutionary things,” Hernandez said. “The traditional – those who put their head in the sand – will be left behind, but those that embrace it, that are constantly innovated, that are on top of this technology, that are not threatened by it, but are energized and empowered by it, they’ll succeed – wherever it evolves to, they’ll be present.”


Why Social Media Isn’t Making Us Dumb and Socially Awkward

Debate Question: Is social media making us dumb and socially awkward?

Position: No

Throughout history, every time a technological innovation comes on the horizon and begins to permeate our culture and how we interact with one another, people jump to utopian and dystopian conclusions.

Neither view has ever been fully correct.

In Human Services in the Network Society, Neil Ballantyne and Walter Lamendola describe the utopian and dystopian responses to the telephone’s arrival over a century ago:

“Early commentators on the likely social impact of the telephone put forward dystopian predictions that it would lead to the end of local community, or negatively influence the psychology of telephone users (the constant possibility of unannounced telephone calls making them tense, alert and edgy). These views were rivaled by utopian visions of a new telephonic ‘brotherhood of man’ made possible by a technology that enabled intimate person-to-person voice communication between individuals located anywhere in the world” (p. 6).

Neither of these predictions fully came true. Instead, “Americans simply used the affordances of this new communication device to pursue pre-existing social ends (mainly to maintain contact with existing family and friends) with greater vigour” (p. 6).

In other words, the technology changes, but people’s personal characteristics generally do not change in any significant – or harmful – ways.

As Steve Rubel, chief content strategist for Edelman public relations, told USA Today last year:

“The technology just magnifies what’s already there. It’s an accelerant. Social media hasn’t dramatically altered human behavior, it just makes it more apparent. If you incriminate yourself [with posts on social media], it’s more discoverable, more distributable and more embarrassing.”

Social media has not made us dumb

Similarly, social media has not made us dumb – instead, it simply makes our current level of stupidity more visible and permanent. As Rick Hampson wrote in USA Today:

“With social media, the problem is clear: Good, old-fashioned stupidity has become publishable, distributable, retweetable, immortal.”

It is true that social media may be distracting us. In a 2008 piece in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet is rewiring our brains to make us less likely to be able to focus on one task or piece of text for a long period of time. Many people have echoed these concerns about how the Internet is rewiring our brains.

However, distraction is different than stupidity. There are plenty of very smart people who multitask frequently and cannot focus on one task for an extended period of time. People can be very intelligent while still being distracted frequently.

And even if we were becoming dumber, it might be as a result of something other than social media, like the content of TV shows to which we expose ourselves – perhaps reality television.

Social media has not made us socially awkward

Additionally, social media has not made us socially awkward. Social media is changing how we communicate, but this isn’t awkward communication – it’s simply different communication.

Some segments of the population don’t fully understand the new lexicon, nuances and subtleties of communicating with these new technologies, leading to fears such as these from Forbes contributor Susan Tardanico:

“Further, because most business communication is now done via e-mails, texts, instant messaging, intranets, blogs, websites and other technology-enabled media – sans body language – the potential for misinterpretation is growing. Rushed and stressed, people often do not take the time to consider the nuances of their writing. Conflicts explode over a tone of an e-mail, or that all-important cc: list. When someone writes a text in all capital letters, does it mean they’re yelling? Are one- or two-word responses a sign that the person doesn’t want to engage? On the flip side, does a smiley face or an acknowledgement of agreement really mean they’re bought in and aligned? Conclusions are drawn on frighteningly little information.”

But this merely shows that some of us aren’t used to this new form of social interaction yet. Many people have already adjusted to it. Most members of my generation, for example, are well-versed in the subtleties of this form of social interaction and are able to communicate with fewer misunderstandings than older generations of people using the same technology.

Like the telephone, people will adjust to this form of communication as well – it will just take some time.


In short, social media makes existing human characteristics more visible and apparent, rather than fundamentally changing them. The fear that social media is changing us – making us dumb and socially awkward – is merely the latest dystopian reaction to the emergence of a new form of technology that is permeating our culture and our way of communicating with one another.

CBS Evening News: Broad Appeal, Sprinkled with Drama

Tuesday’s CBS Evening News broadcast mostly focused on issues that ordinary Americans would care about and used dramatic language to attract viewers’ interest and to keep them watching throughout the broadcast.

The main stories covered – highlighted in the 53-second synopsis at the very beginning of the broadcast – were a government recall of cars with defective airbags, the killings in a Jerusalem synagogue, the recent snowy weather, and rock musicians fighting Ebola with a new charity single. The placement of the first three of these stories early in the broadcast and the fact that these stories received some of the most extensive coverage in the broadcast suggest that CBS News thought that their audience would be most interested in these three stories.

Other stories that were covered by reporters were the Ebola charity story at the very end of the broadcast, a story about a terrorist reform center in Saudi Arabia, a story about the NFL’s suspension of Adrian Peterson after he allegedly abused his four-year-old son, and a story about Senate vote to stop the Keystone XL pipeline.

Finally, some stories were discussed very briefly by the anchor, Scott Pelley, almost in passing: the governor of Missouri swearing in members of a new Ferguson Commission, the Obama Administration reviewing policies related to overseas hostage situations, and a small plane crash in Chicago.

The broadcast’s target audience seemed to be ordinary middle class Americans, because many of the topics that were covered in detail – car airbags, snowy weather (including a weatherman at a Boston affiliate giving a weather forecast, very much like something on a local news broadcast), the NFL, and even rock music in the context of the fight against Ebola – seem to be topics than an average middle class American would be most interested in. This contrasts with a show on CNBC that would be catered more towards wealthy businesspeople, or a show on MSNBC or Fox that would be catered more towards political junkies or wealthy political insiders.

The dramatic language in the leads of several of the main stories covered in the broadcast stood out to me in particular.

The first sentence of the story on car airbags was, “If the government has its way, millions of American drivers will be taking their cars and light trucks into the shop to fix a defect that could kill them.” Three things come to mind from this first sentence. First, people have strong feelings about the government – whether positive or negative – so the mention of the government may spark the interest of viewers. Second, viewers will want to know if they will need to disrupt their day-to-day routine by taking their cars into the shop. Third, and most importantly, the notion that their car may be defective and dangerous to the point where they might die will make them want to keep watching. This latter point is further emphasized by images in the report of shrapnel scattered throughout the interior of a car and an extremely gory image of a piece of shrapnel piercing a woman’s eye as blood streaks down her face. I was surprised that CBS didn’t warn viewers of the gory image before showing it.

The story on the Jerusalem attack didn’t open with quite as much dramatic language, but the shock of the story itself was still impactful: “A fifth person has now died after the worst violence in Jerusalem in years. He’s a police officer who was wounded when he came to the aid of three American rabbis and another man who were murdered today during morning prayers in a synagogue.” The story was framed to appeal to American audiences because CBS News said that three of the victims were Americans, while another victim was simply referred to as “another man.” This story also contained some very graphic images of large amounts of blood smeared across the synagogue floor, even showing a copy of the Torah soaked with blood – again, without warning viewers beforehand, which surprised me.

Some other instances of dramatic language in the newscast (emphasis mine):

“It was a cliffhanger this evening, but Senate Democrats voted to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada to Texas. 59 senators voted yes, which was one short of the number needed to advance the bill. With that, the Democrats may have also killed the re-election chances of one of their own.”

“In Chicago overnight, the difference between life and death was eight inches. A twin engine cargo plane nose-dived into a house just after takeoff from Midway Airport. The lone pilot was killed. The living room was obliterated, but the bedroom, eight inches away, was untouched and an elderly couple survived without a scratch. The cause of the crash is not known.”

By using this dramatic language in the opening sentence of almost every story in the broadcast, it seemed to me that CBS News was practically pleading to its viewers, “don’t check your phone, don’t check other websites on the Internet, please stick with us – this is interesting, we promise!” This dramatic language seems to be a response to the need for provocative or dramatic headlines that draw readers in, as exemplified by newer, popular websites like the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. I wonder whether the old-school news anchors like Walter Cronkite would have used this dramatic language or would have merely reported the facts if they were reporting these stories today.

Khan Academy: The Future of Education?

The Khan Academy declares that it’s on a mission: “providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.”

Simple, right?

Yet in the eight years since former hedge fund analyst Salman Khan began posting short YouTube videos to tutor his cousin Nadia in middle school math, the Khan Academy has made its mark on the education landscape and does not seem to be going away anytime soon.

The Khan Academy is a collection of thousands of free online videos on a wide variety of subjects, including chemistry, economics, statistics, astronomy and banking. Most of the videos are about 10 minutes long, focus on a specific topic and are narrated by Khan, such as this video on standard deviation:

These sorts of videos were originally intended for Nadia and a few other relatives, but Khan’s YouTube channel quickly took off, with millions of unique users all over the world watching the videos each month. Today, the Khan Academy has 15 million registered students and almost 500 million YouTube views in 70 countries, according to Forbes.

The Khan Academy website uses innovative analytic tools to assess in real time which specific skills or topics a student understands well, which still need more practice and which haven’t been learned yet. Within a certain topic, like math, students answer a variety of questions in a pre-test, then the computer system calculates and provides a color-coded display of which topics a student does and does not know well:

Then, students work on practice problems until they understand the topic. The practice problems contain links to the Khan Academy video that teaches that topic if students are stuck.

Teachers can also look at their students’ data in real time and can pinpoint what students do and do not understand:


But Khan hasn’t stopped there. He is proposing a fundamental change in the way classes are taught. In the flipped classroom approach to teaching, students watch Khan Academy videos (the lectures) as their homework, and then they do their actual homework in class as the teacher walks around the room answering individual students’ questions. Several teachers around the country have used this approach.

One of the primary benefits of this approach is that students “can pause [the video], repeat at their own pace, at their own time,” instead of the teacher charging ahead with a “one-size-fits-all lecture” in class regardless of whether or not the students understand it, Khan said in a 2011 TED Talk:

But the larger point, Khan explained, is that teachers “took a fundamentally dehumanizing experience — 30 kids with their fingers on their lips, not allowed to interact with each other […] and now it’s a human experience. Now they’re actually interacting with each other.”

Khan’s efforts certainly have not gone unnoticed. He was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012 and the Khan Academy has received millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Google and venture capitalists.

And Khan has plenty of critics as well. As a former middle school math teacher wrote in the Washington Post, teachers are “concerned that he’s a bad teacher who people think is great; that the guy who’s delivered over 170 million lessons to students around the world openly brags about being unprepared and considers the precise explanation of mathematical concepts to be mere ‘nitpicking.’ Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a ‘revolution.’”

Still, the Khan Academy seems to be at the forefront of efforts to disrupt the longstanding practices of the education system using new technology. It remains to be seen whether the Khan Academy will help or hurt the education system in the long run, or if it will even last at all.

Photo credit: Khan Academy

rEDesign: Behind the Scenes

**Full disclosure: I am the Director of Operations of rEDesign.

rEDesign is a student organization at the University of Michigan that creates and implements innovative projects to improve the public education system.
rEDesign is a student organization at the University of Michigan that creates and implements innovative projects to improve the public education system.
The rEDesign executive board plans for the upcoming general meeting.
Sunday night, the rEDesign executive board plans for the upcoming general meeting.
Hugo Lawton, co-president of rEDesign, listens as an executive board member talks.
Hugo Lawton, co-president of rEDesign, listens to the executive board members.
Executive board members finalize details for the upcoming general meeting.
Executive board members finalize details for the upcoming general meeting.
Executive board members discuss the upcoming general meeting.
Executive board members discuss the upcoming general meeting.
Campus is humming with activity as usual on Tuesday night, when the general meeting takes place.
Campus is humming with activity as usual on Tuesday night, when the general meeting takes place.
The general meeting is held monthly in the University of Michigan School of Education building.
The general meeting is held monthly in the University of Michigan School of Education building.
The university's Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) provides a list of ground rules to help guide the activity that student facilitators are leading during the general meeting.
The University’s Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) provides a list of ground rules to help guide students during the workshop that student facilitators lead during the general meeting.
The general meeting begins with project updates.
The general meeting begins with project updates.
A student facilitator explains the IGR workshop for the evening, focusing on social identity groups.
A student facilitator explains the IGR workshop for the evening, focusing on social identity groups.
In the workshop, students explore social identity groups by playing the American Dream game, which assigns each player a character with specific racial features, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics. These characters encounter discrimination in various situations written on cards, which are drawn throughout the game.
In the workshop, students explore social identity groups by playing the American Dream game, which assigns each player a character with specific racial features, socioeconomic status, and other characteristics. These characters encounter discrimination in various situations written on cards, which are drawn throughout the game.
A student facilitator answers questions about the game.
A student facilitator answers questions about the game.
rEDesign members play the game.
rEDesign executive board members play the game.
An executive board member reads the scenario described on the card.
An executive board member reads the scenario described on the card.
rEDesign members play the game.
rEDesign members play the game.
Everyone gathers into a circle to discuss the game and reflect on what they learned from it.
Everyone gathers into a circle to discuss the game and reflect on what they learned from it.
rEDesign members listen to their peers as they describe what they learned and how they feel after playing the game.
rEDesign members listen to their peers as they describe what they learned and how they feel after playing the game.
The general meeting ends and members leave the School of Education.
The general meeting ends and rEDesign members leave the School of Education.

“Overview”: A Return of Investigative Journalism?

overviewThe winners of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge, which is “an open contest designed to accelerate innovation in the ways that we create, consume, and share news and information by developing new ideas to reach more people more effectively” (p.3), have created and implemented some very interesting, innovative projects. One that stood out to me in particular is the Associated Press’ “Overview” project, which was a 2011 winner of the News Challenge.

Overview is “[a]n open source tool that can make patterns within large document sets visible, helping journalists find stories in large amounts of data” and was designed primarily for journalists to use (p. 38). It is an “interactive system” that “produce[s] semantic maps that display the relationships among people, places, dates, and concepts,” sorting and grouping documents andmessagesby topic andcreating threads of those topics (p. 38). In doing so, Overview helps journalists produce more original investigative reports in a much shorter period of time (p. 38).

According to the Knight Foundation’s report, Overview has helped produce several substantive stories in short periods of time, including an article by a North Carolina reporter who “used the tool to analyze 4,500 printed pages of emails from various government departments to uncover the root cause of technical problems that delayed delivery of food stamps to nearly 70,000 North Carolina residents” (p. 40).

If a lot of news outlets start using Overview or a similar computer program, perhaps it would be a catalyst for a large influx of investigative news stories, which have been in short supply recently as news outlets have cut back on their investigative reporting because they require a lot of money and time to produce. By substantially reducing the time it takes to conduct research for an investigative report – the North Carolina food stamp article took only one afternoon to complete rather than several weeks, thanks to Overview (p. 40) – news outlets have fewer justifications to cut back on investigative reporting.

This would be particularly valuable for the struggle to combat poverty, which could benefit from more investigative stories that dig deep into the root causes of poverty, possible policy solutions, or chronicling the lives of people who are suffering from poverty.

NYT “Mapping Poverty in America” Interactive Map: Many Pros and Few Cons

The New York Times has a really interesting interactive map showing the amount of poverty in each county in the U.S. according to data from the Census Bureau. It was posted on January 4, 2014, so the data seem to be fairly recent.

The data is presented in two ways. First, there is a map showing the percentage of people living below the poverty line in each county in the U.S. Each county is a shade of teal, some darker or lighter than others. Each shade of teal is a different percentage of poverty: the lightest shade is 0-10 percent, followed by 10-20 percent, 20-30 percent, 30-40 percent, and greater than 40 percent is the darkest shade. When you hover your cursor over each county, a box appears next to your cursor that lists the county name, poverty rate (percentage) and number of poor people in that county. In Washtenaw County, MI, for example, the poverty rate is 16.1 percent and the number of poor people is 53,693, according to the map.


Additionally, there is a map that shows the number of people living below the poverty line in each county with circles whose size represents the number of people living below the poverty line. Predictably, the largest population centers tend to have the largest circles. For example, Cook County, IL – which includes part of Chicago and has a particularly large circle on the map – has a poor population of 926,826, according to the map.


You also can zoom in so far that you can actually see specific street names and you can hover your cursor over specific census tracts. For example, census tract 400500 – which covers the Packard St./S. Division/Hill St. area of Ann Arbor, has a poverty rate of 69.9 percent, which was surprisingly high, and a poor population of 4,481.


I don’t have many negative comments about this map. I think it’s an effective data visualization of a very important problem in the U.S. today. It’s easy to understand, easy to navigate, and reports the core information – poverty rate and number of poor people – in both large (each county) and small (census tract) areas of land. A traditional journalistic article might just list a few statistics, probably nation-wide or state-wide or just cities with high numbers or high percentages of poor people. This map is much more detailed and much more personalized because readers can zoom in all the way to the street level. As a result, readers may be more invested in visiting this page – and thereby driving online traffic to this page – because they can find out information that is relevant to their hometowns. Also, this map is more visually appealing than a paragraph in a news story with some statistics.

I think that the map could be improved by including the percentage above or below the average national and state poverty rate for each county. For example, if a county is 4.5 percent above the national poverty rate and 1.3 percent below the state poverty rate, then the box next to your cursor could say “National Poverty Rate: +4.5%” in blue font and “State Poverty Rate: -1.3%” in red font. Unless I missed it somewhere in the map, I didn’t see an average national poverty rate or average state poverty rate, and I would be interested to see how each county compares to those rates.

But overall, I think the NYT did a great job with this interactive map.

Technology in the Classroom: A Conversation with Hugo Lawton

hugolawtonIn this edited interview, I talked to Hugo Lawton, co-president of rEDesign – a student organization focusing on innovative improvements to public education – and a junior in the University of Michigan School of Education, about his experiences using technology in the classroom and whether technology helps students learn.

**Full disclosure: I am the Director of Operations of rEDesign.

Image courtesy of rEDesign.

NPR One: First Thoughts

Yesterday, I spent about an hour listening to the NPR One app. My efforts at customization worked fairly well, but I think it was more due to chance than through my customization efforts.

After I downloaded the app and opened it for the first time, I received an intro message from Guy Raz welcoming me to the app and briefly explaining how the app works. Then, the app somehow knew to default to Michigan Radio (specifically, WUOM in Ann Arbor). Maybe I had my Location Services enabled on my smart phone? I’m glad that the app defaulted to my local NPR station, but I was a little surprised that the app figured out this information before I had given it any information about my location.

First, I heard a summary of the top national and international news stories, followed by a summary of the top local and state news stories – both about 3 minutes long. I like that the NPR One app starts out with these top news summaries; it’s good to have the top news stories in my mind as a frame of reference as I listen to the rest of the NPR stories, some of which may further elaborate on some of those topics. Also, sometimes I just want to quickly find the top stories of a particular day and then close the news app I’m using and continue with my normal day.

I listened to a total of 13 news stories. Most of the stories were state and national political stories, which were what I wanted to hear, and the proportion of political stories stayed about the same throughout both halves of my listening period. Of the first seven stories, five were about politics (about 71 percent). And of the next six stories, four were about politics (about 67 percent).

I was surprised that the app correctly customized my stream of stories to mostly include political stories because I tapped the “interesting” icon for almost every story I heard, including non-political stories – not because I wanted to hear those types of stories in the future, but because each of those particular stories was interesting.

For example, I told the app that a story about an Indian spacecraft was “interesting” because I enjoy hearing space-related stories from time to time. Also, I said a story about research showing that our brains clean out toxins while we sleep was “interesting” because although I don’t listen to those types of stories often, I thought that particular scientific finding was interesting. However, that doesn’t mean that I want to hear a ton of science-related stories; I enjoy hearing them occasionally, but not all the time. Luckily, NPR One didn’t give me a bunch of science stories, even though I said every science story I heard was “interesting.” I’m not sure why it didn’t give me a bunch of science stories, since I seemed to be telling NPR One’s customization tools to include more science stories.

I only skipped two stories: one was Elizabeth Gilbert – the author of Eat, Pray, Love – on “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!”, and the other was a story about Mac Wiseman being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The customization worked fairly well – I didn’t hear any more stories like these again.

Overall, I enjoyed my first experience using NPR One and I’ll be curious to see if I keep hearing political stories as I keep customizing my stream of stories.

Live-Tweeting Sec. of State John Kerry’s Keynote Address at Frontiers in Development Forum

Due to my interest in poverty issues, I decided to live-tweet Secretary of State John Kerry’s keynote address at the Frontiers in Development Forum, which was hosted by USAID and was held Sept. 18-19 at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that some of my tweets were favorited and retweeted by people and organizations in the development community. However, as I periodically skimmed the Twitter feed of the hashtag #EndPoverty – which was being used by the forum’s attendees, the development community and the State Department – Kerry’s speech didn’t seem to generate a lot of online chatter except for a few comments and live-tweets from some members of the development community.

Here is how my live-tweeting went:

michaelspaeth14 retweet of State Dept. tweet

While I wait for the speech to start, I decide to provide some info from the press release:

Tweet 1

Tweet 2

A sprinkling of my own interests:

Tweet 3

It’s 9:30, the speech is behind schedule already. Not entirely surprised- that’s what usually happens with high-profile speakers.

Tweet 4

(Wishful thinking.)

Tweet 5

The lights dim and the stage is reset for Kerry’s speech. This goes on for several minutes, with what sounds like elevator music playing in the background.

While I’m waiting, I decide to provide some more background info:

Tweet 6

Then, a member of the House of Representatives introduces Kerry and says how great he is.

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And finally, the speech begins.

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As Kerry is saying that, I’m reminded of discussions we’ve had about social media, sharing and our current networked society that we’ve had in this class and in some of my other Comm classes.

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No big surprise there.

Tweet 13

I get a notification: my tweet has been favorited! By this organization:

Favorite 1

Although I’m happy that someone is actually paying attention to my live tweets, I wonder why a professional organization focusing on poverty issues has favorited my tweet. At the time, I hadn’t updated my profile to say that I’m a senior at the University of Michigan studying Political Science and Communication Studies and taking a journalism class. It just had my name and my profile picture. So how would they know if the information I was reporting was accurate? I could be some random person in some obscure part of the world making things up. Had they heard that exact quote themselves and knew it was accurate? Or were they just putting blind faith in the reporting of some random Twitter user (me)?

This ties back to our discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of citizen journalism.

Anyway, back to the speech.

Tweet 14

Favorite 2

Another favorited tweet! Again, by IDIN.

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I get another notification: this time, my tweet has been retweeted!

Retweet 1

By this person:

Retweet profile

Who is Executive Vice President of this organization:

Retweet org profile

This Twitter user is in a high-level position in a professional organization focusing on hunger and poverty issues, and he’s retweeting a tweet from a random Twitter user (me) who could be just making things up. Again, I think about what this means for the future of journalism and professional organizations in general.

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Furiously typing away, trying to capture as much info as possible…

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I thought that that last tweet might generate some favorites, retweets, etc., since I read news articles all the time about prominent politicians and government officials saying that Congress should or should not pass certain bills. But alas, the tweet remains untouched.

Tweet 24

Tweet 25

Go U.S.A.

Tweet 26

And…done! Whew. Time for a break.

Some time passes, and I engage in some brief post-game analysis with Louisa Lim:

louisa lim conversation 1

louisa lim conversation 2

louisa lim conversation 3

louisa lim conversation 4

And that’s a wrap! Looking forward to my next live-tweeting adventure!