Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Days Are Long But the Years Are Short

My son will be starting his high school classes in a few days, and I think we are both experiencing the same mixed feelings one typically has in any new endeavor:  excitement about the possibilities and trepidation about whether we will be able to handle the new challenges.  And I think we both, but me more so than him, are also experiencing some grieving over leaving what has been behind.  Our earlier years together seem easier, less complex, filled with the notion that we had plenty of time to get around to studying all the things we wanted to cover.....eventually.

But in high school, it feels like the clock starts ticking.  Now we only have a few more precious years to cover not only the school subjects required for college admission, but all the life skills necessary for him to live his life on his own.  And now we must face the reality of test scores and grades and deadlines that had been a lot less important in his earlier years of schooling.

Plus, the high school years provide me with the added challenge of beginning the process of letting him go.  Each year I must step back more and more so that when it comes time for him to leave the nest, he is ready to fly.  Which, of course, is what we all want for our children.  But it is not always easy to prepare for the day when the ones you love so much and have made the center of your life are not there any more.

But I was thinking, it is easy for us to see how much our children have changed over their years with us, but much harder for us to recognize how much we have changed as well.  I'm not the same person who started this parenting journey, and I'll be a different person once my son has left home.  So when that happens, I hope I'll be able to let go of my image from my past as a parent and embrace the new person I'll be with my son on his own in the world.

I just happened upon these videos this morning, and they gave me some encouragement about stepping up to my new future.  The first is of the queen of reinvention herself, Madonna.  It is a video of her performing the song "Vogue" over a span of 22 years.  Some years she is wearing virtually nothing, one year she is dressed in full 18th-century regalia, and many other phases in between.  But she is an inspiration about how she can keep singing the same song, but keep it fresh, year after year.  Check it out on YouTube at:

Then there is a similar video of Elton John, singing one of my very favorites of his songs.  His performance is quieter, but perhaps more profound.  But it was wonderful to see that the song remains equally powerful as Sir Elton has transitioned from long hair to white hair:

So where ever you are in the journey of teaching your high schooler....whether you are just beginning and worried about getting it right, or exhausted by it all and can't wait to get it done.... I hope you find these videos as comforting as I did.

Good luck for the coming year!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Failed Experiment at San Jose State Shows the Down Side of MOOCs

One of the hottest new topics in higher education these days is the MOOC--that is, a Massive Open Online Course.  Tens of thousands of people have signed up in EACH of the hundreds of MOOCs being offered for free by such top-tier universities as Stanford, Harvard, Duke, and the like.  It is such a trendy thing among American colleges that the recent debacle at the University of Virginia, where the Board first fired, and then was forced to reinstate popular President Teresa Sullivan, was largely due to the Board Chair's perception that Sullivan wasn't moving aggressively enough into the online arena.  (For more information, see my blog post Doing The Right Thing at the University of Virginia.)

As I stated in that blog post, while I understand the exciting potential of MOOCS (and am participating in three different MOOCs myself this summer), its place in undergraduate education is far from clear.  Having ten thousand or more people like me--people who have already completed their college education and are doing MOOCs for self-enrichment, professional development, or just pursuing a personal interest--are entirely different creatures from students trying to graduate from an accredited college program and start their professional careers.

A recent news event gives some proof to the cautions I mentioned in that earlier blog post.  On July 18, 2013, officials at San Jose State University suspended a highly-vaunted experiment with MOOC provider Udacity to lower the cost of a college education by placing their students in MOOC course, which were less expensive than the SJSU standard classes ($150 per online course compared to $620 for the traditional ones).  The problem?  Their local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, reported that the SJSU students were failing the MOOC classes at alarming rates--from a 56% failure rate at the best, down to a 76% failure rate at the worst.  I couldn't find any exactly comparable rates for their traditional classes on campus, but in 2011, SJSU had a first-year retention rate among freshman students of 82.9%, so it clearly can't be anywhere close to those failure rates.

But am I surprised by those rates?  No.  In my opinion, SJSU picked the wrong population with which to begin to experiment with MOOCs.  The five courses in the experiment were all considered to be remedial classes--basic math, elementary statistics, college algebra, introductory computer programming, and psychology.  Remedial classes, by definition, are supposed to supply students with information and abilities that they are already expected to have, but are deficient in.  In most cases, this means that they have already been exposed to the material, but failed to comprehend it.  But if you have students who have demonstrated a problem in a particular curricular area, why would you enroll them in a type of course in which they get LESS support when obviously they need MORE support?  Plus, these students did not get to choose to participate in the MOOC; they were simply assigned to it.  Successful online learning requires a special kind of learner.  To my mind, people taking remedial classes are the least likely to benefit from MOOCs, at least as I have experienced them.

Do you know who has been doing an exemplary job in online education, not just since Time Magazine dubbed 2012 as "The Year of the MOOC," but for decades?  It's not Stanford, whose first MOOCs enrolled over 100,000 students apiece and whose faculty started the MOOC companies of Udacity and Coursera.  It's not MIT, with along with Harvard, Berkeley, Georgetown, and a few other universities of that ilk, launched edX.  No, the higher education institutions that have been doing this well for years and years and years colleges.  Community colleges, with their commitment to universal access and serving all populations of learners, have been doing online learning for years, and doing it well.  But if you talk to community colleges, they will tell you that online learning is not cheaper than their traditional classes on campus.  Sure, maybe you can reach more students with one lecturer projected to a broad population, which might be cheaper.  But community colleges have made their online courses successful because they invest significantly in student services that support the distant learners in keeping up with and completing their courses.  

So while I understand the motivation behind the SJSU effort, I think it was a foolish decision.  For MOOCs to have high completion rates, colleges need to spend a lot more time, attention, and money in student support, which has been completely neglected in all of our love fest with MOOCs.  After all, spending $620 for a class that you complete and get credit for is a better deal than spending $150 for a class that only gets you an F on your college transcript.

And I can tell you from my MOOC experience that they are not that easy to follow.  Of the three that I am taking, in only one of them am I completely clear about what I am supposed to do, when I am supposed to do it, and what I am supposed to do with my assignments once I complete them (and that one is only a mini-MOOC with fewer students and a greater amount of personal interaction with the MOOC leaders).  A second one I'm pretty sure I'm keeping up, but not 100%.  And with the third one, I was lost a lot of the time.  The thing was, I didn't really care.  I was getting some good information, I felt I was contributing to my fellow MOOC learners, but I'm not fully invested in any of these classes (although pretty invested in the first one).  They all offer certificates of completion, but I don't care about earning those; they have no particular value to me.  So I do the best I can with the time I have available, and feel what I've learned (and hopefully what I have contributed) is enough for me without necessarily completing the course.

But if I were depending on these for a foundation part of my college education?  I would be way more stressed out about even figuring out whether or not I am doing what I am supposed to be doing (except for the first MOOC).  And I am someone who has completed both undergraduate and graduate school and successfully completed a couple of community college online classes!  Can you imagine what it is like for a less experienced learner trying to navigate this online environment with thousands of other confused students?

So I don't mean to trash MOOCs.  I've really enjoyed and have learned a lot from the ones I've been doing this summer.  But I do believe educators and the public need to think through more carefully the application of this new educational possibility to accredited programs.

After all, just listening to a talking head from Harvard, accompanied by all the technological bells and whistles they can design, is one thing.  Getting an education--that is another.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

New Book Explores How College Got So Expensive

I assume that most of you who are looking at the price of current US college tuitions, especially among top-tier schools, have a reaction similiar to mine, which is--This is insane!  How in the world did colleges get to be so expensive?

There is a new book out that tries to answer that question, written by an author associated with the Chronicle of Higher Education, the premier newspaper covering American colleges and universities.  It was reviewed recently by the economic columnist for the Washington Post, Michelle Singletary.  I have excerpted part of her article below.

So while I haven't read the book, it sounds like it does a good job of analyzing how things got to be so ridiculously expensive.  It also may be a good vehicle for helping your family and your potential college applicants to sift through what college benefits are worth the price tag, and which ones you might want to reconsider, no matter how attractive they may seem on the surface.  Jeffrey Selingo, the author, also has some predictions about what we can expect in the future--which, thankfully, is NOT that prices will keep rising at such a step rate.  However, future college configurations may look very different to the ones we had when we were undergraduates....

Why college has become so costly (excerpts)
By Michelle Singletary
The Washington Post
July 12, 2013

(Jeffrey J. Selingo) - Book cover \"College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students.
Jeffrey J. Selingo, editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written a compelling book that looks at the state of higher education: “College (Un)bound: The Future of Higher Education and What it Means for Students” (Amazon Publishing/New Harvest, $26)....
Part of the reason higher education is in trouble can be traced to the “Lost Decade,” as Selingo calls it. He defines it as the period from 1999 to 2009 when colleges were “chasing high-achieving students, showering them with scholarships to snatch them from competitors, and going deep into debt to build lavish residence halls, recreational facilities, and other amenities that contribute nothing to the actual learning of students.”
But the decade of more has come to an end, leaving many people in debt. In 2003, according to Selingo, only two colleges charged more than $40,000 annually for tuition, fees, room and board. By 2009, 224 had crossed the mark, and another 58 had passed the $50,000 plateau.....
Selingo’s historical tour of higher education is important in order to understand how to resolve the problems in the scholastic industry. You come away with a keener understanding of why college costs so much and how schools have been able to get families to ignore prices. His research is peppered with real-life examples of high-school students sold on colleges they couldn’t afford....
Moving forward to the future, Selingo talks about the forces that are and will continue to change higher education. Schools are in debt, state funds to colleges have been cut, and fewer families are willing to pay skyrocketing prices. Such developments will force schools to deliver their product in increasingly different ways, such as providing more online courses. He profiles a program that allows students, especially older adults returning to college, to demonstrate the mastery of a subject through a series of assessment tests, thereby reducing the time and money they need to spend to get a degree. He sees an unbundling of the traditional structured college experience.
Click here to read the original review in its entirety.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Great Gatsby and CGI

After my article on The Lone Ranger, I thought I would add this post that also relates to movie-making.  A few months ago, I went to see The Great Gatsby movie after re-reading the book (which I have always loved) with my book club.  I thought it was a visually-entrancing and interesting interpretation that did justice to the book.  I loved Toby Maguire, found Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby to be a credible version, and found my doubts upon hearing that Carey Mulligan was playing Daisy to be confirmed (however, that may be the hardest role in the book--certainly, the previous attempts I've seen to capture Daisy have been similarly unsuccessful).

Of course, viewing all the Baz Luhrmann excesses of the roaring Twenties would not have been possible without CGI.   But I didn't realize how much that was true until I saw this video by Chris Godfrey, who was the Visual Effects Supervisor for the film.  This video displays some of the scenes as  before and after shots--before CGI, that is.  It is really amazing!  I knew some, even lots, of this stuff was computer generated, but there were other elements that I never imagined weren't there in real life.

Watch it for yourself below:

The Great Gatsby VFX from Chris Godfrey on Vimeo.

Friday, July 5, 2013

A Postmodern Lone Ranger and Johnny Depp's Empowered Tonto

We kicked off our 4th of July weekend by seeing the latest Johnny Depp movie, The Lone Ranger.  While the reviews haven't been stellar, I found the move to be both enjoyable and thought-provoking.  But I guess the problem is that I've ended up thinking more about why the movie makers included some of the things that they did, so that I'm focused on the process or message of the move rather than the movie itself.

In some ways, while the movie reunited some of the main players who produced The Pirates of the Caribbean (which I really loved, despite my initial skepticism about what sounded like the most ridiculous premise for a movie ever--an amusement park ride?), this is almost kind of an anti-Pirates movie.  Why I mean is that Bruckheimer and company just went whole hog with that movie, making it an outrageous and  rollicking tale that reinterprets pirates as not thieves and murderers, but as incarnations of the American spirit of freedom and non-conformity against the British formal restrictions  against individuality and independence.  What's not to love?

I think that the issue with The Lone Ranger is that the point, at least the one expressed by Johnny Depp in the interviews I've read, was to reinterpret Tonto not just as a faithful sidekick, but an equal partner who incorporates Native American perspectives with our typical Caucasian hero fare.  But to do justice to the Native American experience, the movie can't simply be a fantasy Wild West story that whitewashes the mass slaughter of people who inconveniently were already occupying land that we wanted to claim for our own purpose.

Hence, the dilemma.  Buddy tale, or political statement?  Summer action blockbuster with a conscience?  Not an easy thing to pull off, and we'll have to see how it all fares.  But I think it was a more interesting attempt to use a star vehicle for something more than just making boatloads of money.  And so I would recommend it.

I found an interesting review of the movie by Richard Brody in The New Yorkers, and I've reproduced it below.  It contains spoilers, so go see the movie first, then read his views about how this movie is more of a reflection of our times than of our Western history.

July 3, 2013

“The Lone Ranger” Rides Again

Gore Verbinski’s “The Lone Ranger” is the Western for this age of meta-cinema, a time when viewers see beyond movies to their making and their marketing. In effect, “The Lone Ranger,” like other recent tentpole movies, is a work of conceptual art. The high concept, delivered at the imagined pitch meeting, becomes part of the story, and, as a result, the script dominates the experience as surely as if it were pasted onto the screen, page by page. (The budget is also displayed, in the form of the images and the so-called production values that they convey.) “The Lone Ranger” says little about the American West but a great deal about the virtues and failings of our time and of contemporary big-scale Hollywood filmmaking.

The first shot of the movie, depicting the Golden Gate Bridge in a state of ruin, is a shocker. It seems to be taken from a postapocalyptic political disaster movie, but a superimposed title setting the action in San Francisco in 1933 reveals that, instead, the bridge is under construction. The association is clear enough, though—it puts the modern West under the sign of the Wild West. The shot continues, in a sinuous crane, to a boy (Mason Elston Cook) who gazes into a life-size diorama featuring a statue-like rendering of “The Noble Savage,” a Native American who turns out to be not a mannequin but, rather, a living man standing stock-still on display—none other than Tonto. Well past eighty, he tells the boy a story, set in a Texas outpost in 1869, that turns out to be the bulk of the film, in flashback.

The action of the story that Tonto tells gets under way with a prisoner’s escape from the train that’s bringing John Reid (Armie Hammer), ultimately the Lone Ranger, home to a Texas town to serve as prosecutor after his stint out East in law school. Tonto’s tale has the authority of the first-person account as well as the exaggerations of an avuncular performer and the distortions of time. This accounts for its overtly political elements and its occasional forays into goofball comedy, as well as for its wildly impossible set pieces, which are designed to amuse rather than inform his young audience of one.

The plot (spoiler alert) involves a railroad executive (Tom Wilkinson) who hires a bloodthirsty criminal (William Fichtner) to stir up trouble with the peaceful Comanches in order to get the U.S. Army to dispose of them and free up land for the rail line’s westward passage. This story replaces the triumphalist legend of the westward expansion with a troubled and guilt-ridden tale that reflects its guilt forward, into the present day. But the politics of that plot are subordinated to its main purpose: to set up the two backstories of how Reid became the Masked Man and how Tonto became his partner (not his sidekick).

Backstory is an essentially democratic mode of storytelling; it defines people by their personal particulars rather than by their social station or other outward identifiers, and it explains action not in terms of situations but in terms of individuals’ needs, conflicts, desires, dreams, and troubles. Popular Hollywood movies are the avant-garde of this liberal idea (“Man of Steel,” for example, is nothing but backstory), which converts the present into destiny and the future into a vision of redemption, whether making good on a past error or sin (that’s Tonto’s story) or seeking some sort of vengeance.

With Westerns, backstory makes sense: history is to society as backstory is to character, and the country is as tethered to its past as are its citizens to their personal stories. The simple didacticism of “The Lone Ranger” is to grant Native Americans their rightful place in the national narrative, and to find a way to make good on the injustices on which the nation developed. The Western is an inherently political genre because it renders as physical action the functions of government that, in modernity, are often bureaucratic and abstract. But that’s exactly where the highly constructed conceptualism of “The Lone Ranger” disappoints: it renders the physical abstract. Despite the elaborate and often clever gag-like action stunts (or C.G.I. contrivances) and the occasionally grotesque violence, the movie seems not to be there at all, replaced throughout by the idea of the movie.

In fact, “The Lone Ranger”—which features many of the elements of classic Westerns, including an all too brief view of the majestic landscape—is not a Western but a collection of signifiers of Westerns that are assembled in such a way as to attract audiences that would never be attracted to a Western. It’s almost beside the point whether its elements are “good.” Johnny Depp brings a sonorous voice and a dry humor to the role of Tonto, and Armie Hammer, who specializes in the soul of the Wasp (and should have played Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby”), offers just the right genteel naïveté to suffer the disillusionment that counteracts the popular Western myths of 1933 and their vestiges today. Verbinski takes pains to meticulously recreate crusty details and directs the action sequences with a graphic academicism, a bland eye-catching cleverness that communicates action without embodying it—which is exactly the point. For those who love Westerns (and I do), “The Lone Ranger” winks at them consistently enough to elicit warm reminiscence of the moods, the gestures, the styles, and the themes, even as it averts the sense of time and place to convey a sturdy and generic substructure of modern storytelling akin to that of other superhero blockbusters.

Read more:

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Holst's Planets Suite Beneath the Stars

I believe I'm mentioned before that one of our favorite summer traditions is the Summerfest concert series.  Summerfest is an annual concert series by the North Carolina Symphony held at Koko Booth Amphitheater, which is a mostly outdoors/uncovered performance space.  We go with another family that we've been friends with since our boys were in a playgroup together over 10 years ago.  We bring lawn chairs and a picnic (including wine, which is allowed for this series), and usually hang out for a couple of hours before the concert starts at 7:30.  It is a perfect place for children to begin their classical music education, because it is affordable (kids under 12 are free!) and they can eat and run around and such in addition to listening to the music.  Plus, the concert themes are often geared to family interests--for example, a couple of years ago they did a whole concert on pirates music!

This past Saturday, the keystone of the concert was The Planets Suite by Gustav Holst.  However, in addition to hearing the entire suite played live by the Symphony (with some unusual additions, like the celestra, the instrument most famous for the opening tones of the Harry Potter theme song, but which means "heavenly" in French and thus is perfect for this music), they were projecting high-resolution images from NASA of the planets in the music.  And, of course, we were under the open heavens ourselves, on a beautiful warm North Carolina night (that part of the concert didn't start until 9:00 PM).

I have to say, it was one of the most powerful concerts I have ever attended.  The transporting music, the compelling images, and the wonderful atmosphere all came together to make it really a magical experience.

So while I can't reproduce the sensations for you, below I have included some videos of the London Symphony, who apparently recorded the Planets Suite using the same images we saw.  Even without being in the night sky, they are still pretty powerful.  Enjoy!

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Richness of Education

The following is a graduation speech given by Richard Cohen, a columnist with the Washington Post.  I appreciated what he had to say about the value of a college education, and so have posted his address here:

President Jones, members of the faculty, assorted notables, proud parents and financially indebted graduates. I come before you on this auspicious day to say something about the degree you have just been awarded. You have been told it is not worth the papyrus it is printed on. I am here to tell you it is worth a fortune.

 In preparing for this commencement speech, I assembled a file of newspaper stories about the cost of college, the burden of student debt and how much you can expect to earn in your first year after graduation — assuming, of course, that you can even find a job. The numbers are daunting. Unless you are graduating from one of those name-brand elite institutions — Harvard, Yale, etc. — you’re probably not going to make much your first year out. In fact, we now have many examples of community college graduates earning more than those with bachelor’s degrees. In Virginia, the difference can be $20,000 a year.

 What’s more, people often come out of school burdened with debt — about $24,810 on average, but an astounding $41,230 in Washington, D.C., where many residents have advanced degrees. This is hardly small change, of course, but aside from Washington, we are talking the price of a new car — without the premium package. This is a debt your average young person gladly takes on without whining to Congress. I add that just to provide some perspective and get you riled up.

The figures concerning salaries and debt are not to be dismissed. But they, too, need some perspective. College, after all, is not solely about earning power — although you are forgiven for not knowing this. College, believe it or not, is about education — and that, boys and girls, is not something you can put a number on. Let me give you a word: anthropology.

This is a word I’m not sure I ever heard in high school. But when I got to college, I had to take a year of it to satisfy a science requirement. I did one semester of physical anthropology and one of cultural — and about 40 years of both ever since. I became enthralled with the study of evolution, with paleontology, with my pal Australopithecus africanus and with the “sexing” and “racing” of skulls. Give me a good skull and to this day I can give you the sex and the race of the dearly deceased. I was CSI Cohen before there was CSI anything.

 I still keep up with anthropology. I try to stay somewhat current in sociology and psychology, my major and minor before I lost my way and took up journalism — and I do these things not for credit but for fun. College taught me how to have fun with knowledge. It enriched my life in ways that cannot be quantified. I came out of college with a debt, but my real debt was to my professors.

When I wanted to become a writer, I found teachers who showed me how. One of them, John Tebbel, a former newspaperman turned author, took me aside. He praised. He criticized. This is how it’s done, kid. The man changed my life.

See, this is the part of college no one talks about anymore. It’s all about numbers — what it costs and what you can earn. It’s all about a financial investment — how much in and how much out, as if value is always about money. But there’s value in the discovery of fine art or cinema or literature or . . . anthropology. And — very important — you will get an overview of the world, not just your little area but all the rest. This will make you a better citizen, which is nice, and will give you greater control of your life, which is also nice.

About a month ago, a hostess at a dinner party asked the table what college had done for them. Absolutely nothing, one person instantly responded. I braced for a cascade of negativity, but to my surprise it never came. Guest after guest praised their education and how it had made them a richer, happier person. I was gratified.

I know what you’re thinking: It’s fine for you to say, Cohen. You’ve got yours. You’re not poor and scratching for a job. True enough. But you will find truth in the cliche that money cannot buy happiness. This has been the case for thousands of years — or, as I like to put it, since Australopithecus africanus.

You can Google that.

Link to the original Washington Post column