February 8, 2013


Volume 7, Issue 21 – February 8, 2013


Happy Birthday!

Tomorrow is my son Mark’s birthday.  My father’s birthday is today.  I remember when Jill was expecting and the due date made it clear that she would be delivering close to my father’s birthday.  He decided that he wanted our child born on his birthday, so that they could celebrate their birthdays together.  So, on February 8, 1984, I got home from work, and as I had been doing every day, asked Jill how she was feeling.  Fine she said.  No labor pains?  No.  So, I called my father to wish him a happy birthday, and I told him it looked like he wasn’t going to get his wish.

I was going to bed early that night, because first thing in the morning, I was doing a chemistry magic show at a school in Methuen, MA, and the local newspaper was coming to cover the show.  About one minute after I got undressed and got into bed, in comes Jill, saying “It’s time.”  I was positive she was wrong and it was false labor, but she said her water broke, so down to the hospital we went.

Sure enough, she was in labor, and at 2:30 AM, Mark was born.  I called Jill’s parents to tell them the good news and then I called my parents, telling my father we didn’t miss by much.  “What are you talking about?” he said.  “I was born in Poland and there’s a seven hour time difference between the east coast and there.”  So, Mark had made it on his birthday after all, after a fashion.  I called the school to cancel the magic show, called the newspaper to cancel their coverage, and called my college to cancel my classes that afternoon.  I don’t know how they got it in there so fast, but when I read the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune that day, there was a small article in the “Goings About Methuen” column.  Here’s what it said (I saved a copy):


The students at the Central School on Ditson Place were scheduled to get a magical chemistry show from Merrimack College Professor Zvi Szafran this morning, but something came up. Dr. Szafran became the proud father of a baby boy early this morning.

So Mark was in the newspaper the day he was born.  Happy birthday, Mark and Dad.


Mark, at five months old, with proud mother!


I’m getting so tired of seeing articles in the press and on TV about MOOCs.  In some of the articles, the MOOC is the oncoming end of the world and in other articles, it’s the salvation of mankind.

For those who don’t know, a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course and some have been offered over the last year or so that have had more than a gazillion participants.  Well, at least 100,000.  I’ve written about various aspects of MOOCs in previous BLABs, and have been tracking their relentless progressive trek through academia.   Most of the articles are much ado about nothing, but the latest story seemed to be different.  It appeared in the Chronicle yesterday and was a story about how the American Council on Education’s (ACE) College Credit Recommendation Service had just reviewed five MOOCs, and was recommending them for credit.  This is news because ACE is the real thing—they review all kinds of courses and evaluate their academic quality, and lots and lots of colleges and universities follow their recommendations.  So, the Chronicle said in its headline, “Approval of the Coursera-provided classses could be a major step toward bridging the gap between massive open online courses and traditional higher education.”  Yes, the headline misspelled the word ‘classes’, or maybe they were just hissing at the idea.  To read the Chronicle article, click here.

What are the five courses, you ask?  First up was “Algebra (Math 1A)”, which ACE viewed as a being in the vocational certificate category, 3 semester hours in developmental math.  “This course should not be counted as meeting a college level General Education Requirement for mathematics.” they concluded.  No problem there.  The course was developed by the University of California—Irvine.

Next was a course in “Bioelectricity: A Quantitative Approach”.  ACE put this in the upper division baccalaureate division, recommending 2 semester hours in biology or biomedical engineering.  The course was developed by Duke University.  Hmm…

Calculus: Single Variable” (University of Pennsylvania) was next, which ACE put in the lower division baccalaureate/associate division, recommending 3 semester hours in mathematics.  Fourth came “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution” (also Duke), another lower division baccalaureate/associate division, recommending 2 semester hours in biology or general science.  Last came “Pre-Calculus (Math 1B)” (California-Irvine), another lower division baccalaureate/associate division, recommending 3 semester hours in mathematics.

I breathed a sigh of relief that no chemistry was there, and wondered what was up with the two 2-semester hour courses (Is a 2-hour course common now?  I know we have two of them in Area B, but it’s still a rare configuration).  The Chronicle article then took a strange turn.  It went on to say:

But if some colleges follow through, the council’s recommendations could go a long way toward straightening the crooked path from free college courses to valuable college credits. Simplifying that process could make the economic significance of MOOCs more tangible.

“This could make it much easier for students to get credit for MOOCs, and they don’t necessarily have to figure out the complicated, back-roads way of doing so,” said Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation, a research organization in Washington. “Making it easier is a big step toward making it happen at scale.”

Huh?  Sorry, but literally nothing has changed.  Students taking a MOOC still have to prove that they completed the course and actually learned enough to meet the course outcomes.  I don’t know what the average for these five courses is, but a MOOC that has a 2% completion rate is not unusual, and completion and learning are two different things.  Students will still have to go through “the complicated, back-roads way” of getting credit, be it by taking a challenge exam or by creating a portfolio and having it be evaluated.  And, they could always have done that.

The article continues: Andrew Ng, a co-founder of Coursera, said some of the company’s university partners have been wary even of submitting their own MOOCs for consideration by the council’s credit-recommendation service. “For students to receive credit, even if that credit is sponsored by a different institution—that’s a big step,” said Mr. Ng. “I think it’s still so new that a lot of us are getting used to the implications and what this means.”

Huh?  Students get credit sponsored by a different institution all the time—that’s called transfer credit, and that’s been around since forever.

Now here’s the actual important part:  The council said it had confidence in its process for approving the courses for credit. Each course was reviewed by two independent faculty members, who looked at a number of aspects, including the tests and anticheating measures, which, in this case, involved a remote monitoring service called ProctorU. “Our reviewers,” said ACE’s Ms. Sandeen, “found their controls and techniques to be sufficient.”

Now we’re talking about something.  If, in fact, the offering university (Duke, California-Irvine, U. Penn) is willing to certify that the students completed the courses, took rigorous tests, and ISSUE THEM CREDIT, there is no obvious reason to not grant transfer credit for the course in any way different than any other course offered by that university.  So here’s the big question: are Duke, California-Irvine, or U. Penn offering THEIR OWN CREDIT to people who complete these courses?  Oddly, the article does not say.

The courses are offered by Coursera, a for-profit company, in which several major universities are course providers (Participating Institutions in their jargon).  So, I got curious.  What does Coursera’s website say about course credit?  In their “Terms of Use” section, it says (at least as of 10:17 PM on February 7):

For some courses, subject to your satisfactory performance in the Online Course as determined in the sole discretion of the instructors and the Participating Institutions, you may be awarded a statement acknowledging your completion of the class (“Statement of Accomplishment”). This Statement of Accomplishment, if provided to you, would be from Coursera and/or from the instructors. You acknowledge that the Statement of Accomplishment, if provided to you, may not be affiliated with Coursera or any college or university. Further, Coursera offers the right to offer or not offer any such Statement of Accomplishment for a class. You acknowledge that the Statement of Accomplishment, and Coursera’s Online Courses, will not stand in the place of a course taken at an accredited institution, and do not convey academic credit. You acknowledge that neither the instructors of any Online Course nor the associated Participating Institutions will be involved in any attempts to get the course recognized by any educational or accredited institution. The format of the Statement of Accomplishment will be determined at the discretion of Coursera and the instructors, and may vary by class in terms of formatting, e.g., whether or not it reports your detailed scores or grades in the class, and in other ways.

You may not take any Online Course offered by Coursera or use any Statement of Accomplishment as part of any tuition-based or for-credit certification or program for any college, university, or other academic institution without the express written permission from Coursera. Such use of an Online Course or Statement of Accomplishment is a violation of these Terms of Use.

Huh?  Huh? Huh?  I’m probably going to have to consult a lawyer to figure out exactly what this actually means, but it seems pretty clear that Coursera is saying they may or may not give you a certificate, that the certificate doesn’t get you credit anywhere, that no one is going to try to help you get credit for it, that your certificate may not even mention your grade, and [what’s up with this?] that you can’t even try yourself to get credit without first getting permission from Coursera.  In other words, maybe ya got nothing.

Coursera’s FAQ notes that the courses are free, and in answer to the question “Will I get university credit for taking this course?” indicates “You will not get credit with our partner universities.  However, some students who are currently enrolled at other universities have been able to get credit for taking these courses at their own university (sometimes as individual research units).  If you are a currently enrolled student, you might want to check with your university to see if this is an option.”  They don’t mention in the FAQ that if you don’t get the “express written permission” from Coursera, you are violating their terms of use.  So, it’s back to “the complicated, back-roads way” of getting credit—by taking an exam or having a portfolio evaluated.  Same as always.

Now, don’t read this article as me saying that nothing will ever come of the MOOC.  Some colleges are planning on using them as loss-leaders and apparently are willing to give the first intro course away for free and also grant their own credit for it.  Will they give a transcript to a student who doesn’t ultimately wind up enrolling with them?  Not for free, I betcha, but we’ll see.  I do think we’ll see some number of students heading our way who have taken a MOOC (for free or having paid) and will be seeking to convert it into SPSU credit.  When they do, we should be prepared to assess whether they’ve met our course outcomes via an exam, a portfolio, or whatever measure is appropriate to the relevant department.  It’s called prior learning assessment (PLA).  Of course, we’ll charge the student for the assessment, and grant credit if we determine that the outcomes have been met.  Hey—we do that now.  How big will the number of students heading our way having taken a MOOC be?  Sorry, I’m out of time.  On to the Trivia Contest.


Last Week’s Trivia Contest

Questions last week focused on the word “hot”, and our winner was Kelli Tracy, secretary to President Rossbacher, who got all five right within three minutes of the BLAB going live.  A jazz CD is on its way to her.  Here are the correct answers:

  1. Someone who brags a lot is full of it.  Hot air
  2. Current show starring Betty White.  Hot in Cleveland
  3. Pastry traditionally eaten on Good Friday.  Hot cross buns
  4. Like a brand new newspaper or news item.  Hot off the press
  5. Song by one-hit wonder Nick Gilder.  Pat Benatar sang it later.  Hot child in the city.


This Week’s Trivia Challenge

For reasons that will be obvious to people who have read this issue of the BLAB, this week’s quiz centers around the words that rhyme (or should, more or less) with “MOOC”.  As usual, the first with the most takes the prize.  No looking up the answers now!  SEND ALL ENTRIES BY EMAIL TO zszafran@spsu.edu, since if you put them as a response on the BLOG, everyone will be able to see them!

  1. What you call someone who acts crazy.
  2. John Wayne.
  3. Darth Vader was his father.
  4. Wealthy king of Egypt who was overthrown by Gamal Abdul Nasser
  5. The first selective one was introduced in 1928 by the Automated Musical Instrument Company.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to February 8, 2013

  1. khopper2012 says:

    I visited Athabasca University (Alberta), a long-established and large Canadian distance learning provider (http://www.athabascau.ca/. Originally paper and telephone based, they have moved rapidly to put most everything online. Their basic philosophy is “easy in but not out” and this seems sensible to me. They accept the critical nature of rapid, abundant feedback and do not settle for dishing out content and giving a quiz. They resolve the feedback need with an army of tutors, up to and including the university President, who mans the phones on a regular schedule, with everyone else. The machinery cannot handle the feedback obstacle. Try getting a useful answer from the IKEA avatar of Apple Siri. FAQs rarely suffice. Even Microsoft, which has labored for decades to automate tech support, still falls short and leads you on long searches that reveal everything but the answer you need.

Comments are closed.