About Julian

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I teach math to kids. They teach me a lot of things, too. I think it's an even swap.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Do Professionals Require Tenure?

Here in California, the election last November included the race for State Secretary of Instruction, pitting the incumbent Tom Torlakson, with strong backing from the teacher's unions, against Marshall Tuck, the former head of a system of turn-around charter schools in L.A. and a poster boy for the corporate reform movement.  I will get into the issues of corporate reform in a later post, but in this post I want to limit the focus to the defining issue of these two candidates, or at least the one issue that I saw plastered on campaign materials leading up the the election, their positions on teacher tenure.  Torlakson vowed to protect teachers and their right to tenure while Tuck promised to do everything he can to ensure the enforcement of the recent Vergara v. California ruling which said tenure and other teacher employment rules violate the state Constitution by denying students a quality education.  These two candidates represented the polar extremes of one of the most hotly contested issues in education today, and I was expected to choose between them.  So what, did I do?  Obviously I wrote myself in as a write-in candidate, of course.

While I did, in fact, write in my own name for fun and for protest, I mostly did so because I do not feel it is productive to take either one of these candidate's positions on tenure.  I do not believe tenure needs to be the polarizing topic it has become, and with some discussion on the topic, my hope is we can move one of the most divisive issues off the table.  And I feel if we are going to get anywhere in this discussion, we first need to ask, "Do teachers as professionals actually need tenure?"

I am writing this series of blog posts with a theme of professionalism, and in doing so, I always ask myself, as a way of testing the professionalism of teaching, "what other profession does this?"  Now, we will get to other measures of professionalism in later entries, but what other profession grants tenure, and do any of them do it so readily as public school teaching?  What are the benefits and harm in granting tenure?  What would happen if we didn't have it?  Very few other professions offer tenure; in fact, I couldn't really think of any when I started asking these questions.

The other night I was having dinner with a teacher friend who has recently been awarded tenure at his school.  Like me, he is a second-career teacher who has never actually had tenure in anything he had done prior to teaching.  He also had a new principal arrive at his school recently, and with that principal came a feeling of the new sheriff coming to town to clean house, but with his recently granted tenure, he knew he was safe.  This was an odd realization to him, as he had been subjected to house-cleaning episodes in his prior career, but now with tenure as a shield he could still focus on his job and not worrying about pleasing the new boss. 

I found this argument of my friend very intriguing and it took me a while to figure out why, then it struck me - I have never worried about pleasing my boss.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing.  My motivation in any job I have had is to work my butt off for the mission of the company or the school, and I figure if I did that my boss would be pleased anyway.  This technique of mine hasn't always been successful, and in fact, in my first teaching gig, this method of operating came in direct conflict with my actually getting tenure.  I was the guy who never knew how to play "the game", and I still don't.  I am not very politically savvy nor diplomatic; I call things as I see them.  So, when I saw things like the practice of scheduling students who failed Algebra 1 their freshman year into a single class together during their sophomore year, and I told the principal this is flat-out wrong, I did not get on the good side of the person who would be ultimately approving my tenure.  

Oh, the principal there had other issues with me, too, such as a couple of unorthodox classroom management techniques, and ultimately I was not granted tenure after the customary 18-month stint of teaching that traditionally leads to a de facto lifetime guarantee of employment, so I was asked to leave the school.  Even though I was a new teacher I was supporting the other teachers in curriculum development and my students were very responsive and successful with my approach. I had been incredibly successful  and very well-liked at this school.  When others learned that I would not be granted tenure, every single tenured math teacher at the school along with nearly every single student of mine, signed a petition to reverse the decision, and ultimately the principal changed her mind.  But here's the key - I left anyway.  Why would I ever want to work in a place in which my own beliefs and methods were in such strong opposition to the manner in which things were done?  I felt the professional thing to do was find a placement where my views on education were more compatible.  

If the tenure decision had not forced the hand of the administration, I may have stuck around for another year or two until either the administration changed or I determined it wasn't going to and one of us determined it was time to move on. That is the natural process in any other profession; if you aren't a good fit for a system, either the system changes, you leave the system, or the system gets rid of you, but once you have tenure as a teacher that natural process of a professional institution is severely disrupted.  Unions will tell you that tenure only ensures that due process is upheld if an incompetent teacher must be removed, but it does far more than that.  Tenure locks in incompetence in three ways - first, by providing disincentive for teachers to leave a bad situation, second by enabling a system of "due process" that is far too cumbersome and expensive for most districts to take on should they wish to remove a teacher, and third by putting in place a "last hired-first fired" process should layoffs be required.

If teaching is to be respected as a profession, tenure must change.  I don't think it needs to be eliminated, but I would even be open to its elimination provided other measures of professionalism are also implemented - employee dispute recourse, better compensation, autonomy, training, etc.  Unlike the backers of Vergara, such as Students First, I don't feel there is an epidemic of bad teachers out there, and I absolutely don't believe eliminating tenure is going to magically increase the quality of our kids' teachers.  In fact, in the absence of other initiatives to increase the professionalism of teaching, eliminating tenure will do more harm than good.  Without tenure, one more amenity will be removed from a career that already has trouble recruiting and retaining quality candidates.  If you remove tenure without also providing adequate compensation or other amenities, you are telling teachers that they are worth that much less to our children's education.  

In my previous profession, engineering, there was no system of tenure, and in my nearly fifteen years of teaching, I have never had tenure, and I like it that way.  I do not feel bound to my system.  I am not trying to rack up years and seniority so that I have job security.  I have job security because I am doing a damn good job, and tenure or not, I will only stay here if I am happy with my administration and my administration is happy with me.  I do not want wish to work in a place where I am in opposition with the desires of the administration, and I fear tenure would actually limit my sense of professionalism. I have a responsibility to myself, my students, and the schools in which I teach to make sure I am a good match.  If not, as a professional, I will choose to move on.  

I realize some people do not have the option or opportunity to leave their positions as flexibly as I do, and I realize in some cases, such as a science teacher teaching evolution in a district with a school board pushing creationism, tenure offers a necessary protection, but I feel those protections should exist separate from tenure.  As a team of professionals, we should collaborate on the best ways to teach our students using the best pedagogy and curriculum and hiring decisions should be based on facts, not beliefs.  

If we do grant tenure, I feel it should be a difficult process to obtain, akin to tenure at the college level.  Teachers should demonstrate, over the course of many years, that they are not only adequate at what they do, but that they are exceptionally valuable to the school.  There are many people, teachers included, that believe tenure should be more difficult to obtain.  Of course, tenure is a form of compensation, and if we do not offer tenure, adequate compensation would need to take other forms, most obviously as higher salaries.  But therein lies there real issue in this discussion of professionalism - tenure is just another gimmick used to ensure teachers are not adequately compensated.  It locks people in and competition for talented teachers out.

My next post: How do we actually attract talented teachers? Hint: It doesn't need to be super expensive.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The "Professional"

I've never seen the movie "The Professional", about a hitman who takes in an orphaned 12-year-old Natalie Portman, but I know it is a thriller in which everyone is out to get him and I can only assume he escapes alive and all evil is vanquished and the child with whom he has been charged to care for gets the protection she needs.  I'm not as handsome or as cool as Luc Besson, nor can I handle heavy firearms the way he can, but there are times in my role as a teacher that I can kinda relate to this guy.  

I have a job to do, and I have a very particular set of skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you - Oh wait, that's Liam Neeson.  Anyway, I have indeed been trained very well for what I do, and throughout my career I have earned the respect of students and colleagues and repeatedly been validated that I am good at what I do.  And there are millions of other highly trained teachers in this country who are also very capable, if not better at what they do than me.  So why is it teachers are leaving the profession in droves?  Why do less than 50% of teachers survive five years in the field?  

The children I am charged with - girls the same age as Natalie Portman in "The Professional" - are in danger.  Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I am using them as a metaphor mostly because it amazes me that they are the same age as Natalie Portman in that movie; in reality I teach at a very affluent independent school in which few of the kids are struggling.  But I do feel under siege as a member of a profession that has been disparaged, ridiculed, and blamed for the problems in education in America.  Much has been written about how problems in the education field came about.  A very good summary of the story of the teaching "profession" is The Teacher Wars by Dana Goldstein, and I recommend anyone who thinks they know how to fix education read that book before jumping into the debate.  I also recommend anyone trying their hand at fixing education try working in education for at least a decade before claiming they know what's right.  

Well, I have now been in education for about 14 years, beginning with teaching undergraduates at UC Berkeley many years ago, then moving on to public high schools - both a large traditional school and a small charter - for nearly a decade, and now teaching middle school girls at a private school.  I've witnessed many different approaches, studied many more, and I want to hold a discussion on how to fix education.  Though I hope this discussion can leave politics aside, I know any time money and social issues are involved, politics sticks its nose in.  

I first will be focusing on returning professionalism, assuming it was once present, to the teaching profession.  What does it mean to be a professional?  Are teachers really professionals?  Why do they leave the profession?  What can be done about it?  And frankly, why does it matter?  

My next entry: Ask me what I think about tenure (Hint: I've never had it.).

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Equity and Mathematics

Well, my last post was fun.  This one will probably only interest math educators.

Back in 1985 and '86, long before my current students were even born, I had the honor of leading freshman calculus workshops at UC Berkeley under the direction of Uri Treisman.  At the time, the workshop program, the Professional Development Program, was considered revolutionary, demonstrating that through a system of collaboration and high standards, students of color could perform as well or better than their peers.  Though I primarily took that gig to help pay for college, it served as the foundation for my beliefs in education and the power of education to address equity issues in our society.  Teachers don't often realize the influence they have on their students' lives, but Uri Treisman was one of the most influential people in my personal and professional development.

Recently, Uri gave a talk at the National NCTM meeting about equity and mathematics education.  It's data-heavy, which we math-wonks love, and it's rather long, but it is one of the most important talks on math education I have ever heard.  I have embedded a video below which Dan Meyer put together linking the slides with the talk.  Thanks, Dan!

In the talk, many major issues in math education and our society are addressed succinctly and convincingly.
  • Equity and poverty
  • Common core 
  • Assessments
  • Teacher performance evaluation
  • Charter schools
  • School reform
There are so many remarkable takeaways, that I suggest you view the video yourself, a few times if possible.  Dan Meyer gave a very good summary of the most quotable points, so read his post on this as well.  I would like to highlight the primary takeaway for me - the effects of poverty and the increasingly pernicious problem of wealth inequality masking any efforts to quantify the benefits of teacher evaluation, charter schools, or the Common Core on education improvements.

Treisman points out that in our society, the only real wage increases in the past forty years have occurred in high-skilled jobs, and the primary indicator of whether or not you will obtain a high-skilled job is your math education level.  It is the single biggest factor in our upward mobility.  Math educators have one of the single most important jobs in this country. The "Land of Opportunity" depends on us.

Favorite quote:
As citizens, we need to work on poverty and income inequality or our democracy is threatened. As mathematics educators … we need to work on opportunity to learn. It cannot be that the accident of where a child lives or the particulars of their birth determine their mathematics education.

Poverty sucks.  Treisman was able to disaggregate PISA test scores by percentage of Free and Reduced Lunch students at the schools.  In doing so, he showed that students in the U.S. actually outperform European states with comparable poverty rates.  It is not crappy teachers, crappy curriculum, nor crappy facilities that bring down the average U.S. score, it's poverty.  The education system appears to be doing pretty ok.  Our social system needs work.

Improving education in America will need to take on the battles of poverty, income equity, and social justice.  It will not be fixed solely by changes in curriculum models, teacher evaluation systems, or by testing kids even more.  As math educators, we need to do what we can to ensure all students have mathematical opportunity; as Americans, we need to do what we can to ensure all citizens have social opportunity.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Why I love my school - and why I'm leaving

I love Summit Prep Charter School.  For seven years, I have toiled, sweated, and laughed as I have worked to get hundreds of kids into college.  I have taught algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and AP Calculus - both AB and BC.  I have been the official mentor to two different groups of students and the unofficial mentor of dozens more.  I have visited kids in the hospital, I have helped runaways reunite with their parents, and I have bailed kids out of jail.  I have spent multiple wedding anniversaries on camping trips and I have missed family dinners for expulsion hearings.  It has been the most stressful, lowest paying, and best job I have ever had.

Unless you have been a teacher, you do not understand the rewards that come from making connections with kids that aren't your own.  The love I feel for these kids, the heartache I share with them, and the joy I experience from seeing these kids grow has enriched me more than I ever imagined it could, far more than the wealth I gained from my previous career as an engineer.

I love my job.  And I am leaving it.

I came to Summit because it was an oasis in a vast desert of public schools that have lost their way.  Unions and administrators alike at my previous school were focused on their bottom lines, whether or not these bottom lines had anything to do with the best interests of the students in their schools.  Unions hellbent on protecting teachers and their salaries, administrators evangelizing about the importance of test scores; no one asking if students were really learning or really enjoying learning.

Summit has been a community of teachers and students working in common to provide the best college preparatory education possible in the the Bay Area on the pittance known as the revenue limit funding of California public schools, less than $7,000 per year.  It hasn't been easy, but for three years in a row we have been named one of U.S. News and World Report's top 100 public schools.  Newsweek magazine named us one of the top 10 transformative schools in the country.  This year, 100% of our sophomores passed the California HS Exit Exam, unheard of in a Title 1 school.

While Summit's stats are impressive, even more impressive - and more important in my opinion - is the community we have established.  Because we draw students from all over San Mateo County, our student body is incredibly diverse.  There is no ethnic majority and the socio-economic status of the student body is even more diverse than their ethnicities.  And it's important to note that, because we don't track, each and every classroom is equally diverse. This past weekend, I hosted an AP test prep party at my house for my AP Calculus students.  Twenty-one students took me up on the voluntary retreat.  For nearly twenty-four hours, students worked together on calculus, swam in my pool, did more calculus, played an impromptu game of "red light-green light", tackled even more calculus, hung around the campfire, did yet more calculus, and generally had a great time.  This group of twenty-one students consisted of  seven latinos, three asians, a pacific islander, eight white kids, and a couple of kids whose ethnicities would trip me up if I tried to guess.  It was a very special weekend illustrating the power of community on learning, learning that extends well beyond the textbooks.  These kids enjoyed each other and worked their butts off at the same time - together.  They are kids whose paths would never cross in most any other school, all working towards a common goal.  I simply cannot imagine such a scene repeating itself at any other high school I know.

And I doubt it will ever happen at Summit again, either.

You see, Summit itself has been co-opted; we have been a victim of our own success.  We are growing - we'll be opening our fifth and sixth schools next year - and as a result, we have grown into the bureaucracy I left when I came to Summit.  Even worse is that this bureaucracy is being run by "reformers" and "innovators".  The "Global Education Reform Movement" or GERM as Pasi Sahlberg refers to it, has taken over Summit Public Schools.  Well-meaning but (and I mean no offense by this) ignorant reformers are dictating the future direction of our school.  Summit is glomming on to the latest ideas in "competency-based learning" and technology in the classroom while community and enjoyment of learning are secondary.  People who focus on quantifiable results will never see what I saw happen in my backyard this past weekend.

Furthermore, Summit is being irresponsible in its implementation of these new ideas in education.  Perhaps the day will come when I am proven wrong in my estimation that this individual-focused movement does more harm than good, but until that day comes, dismantling one of the best systems known to anyone will certainly do harm in the short-term and perhaps in the long-term.  Why does anyone feel it is best to work alone?  Education should not be an individual sport.

Summit Public Schools (SPS) has been doing a great job documenting data and student feedback on their pilot program in San Jose, and they have been making nearly continuous iterations in the model to improve it over the past year.  But it isn't ready, and the quantifiable data isn't as good as the data coming from Summit Prep (the original Redwood City School that I work at).  By their own measures, SPS data indicates Summit Prep students show greater improvement and have higher test scores than do their counterparts in the San Jose schools, despite the fact that all San Jose students are working on math two hours a day.

I like the idea of students working on what they need to best help them learn each and every day, as competency-based learning offers, but there are larger issues that competency-based learning misses out on.  In my AP Calculus class, there are students who honestly would never get to that level of a class in a competency-based model - at least not in a four-year high school program - and that is what makes my class so special.  There are students discussing high-level analysis problems that can't really factor a quadratic equation consistently.  But think about it - what's more important to these kids once they get out of high school - analyzing the rate at which a graph is changing or factoring a quadratic?  Which are you more likely to encounter and need in the "real world"?  These students will unlikely become engineers, but they will be able to see a graph of a stock's price and argue intelligently about the rate of growth of that stock.  They can describe inflection points and local versus global maximum values.  Would they have been able to do that if they had been locked in a competency-based program which forces them to master each and every Algebra 2 standard before they move on?

But I haven't gotten to the real reason I'm leaving yet.

Believe it or not, I feel if there is a school that can pull off competency-based learning and maintain some aspects of a community-focused - rather than individual-focused - program, it's Summit Public Schools.  They are very thoughtful, intelligent, and experienced educators.  Most are former classroom teachers.  My primary objection to what is happening to Summit, and reason I am leaving, is that I have next to zero say in how this transition takes place.  When I started working at Summit, teachers developed curriculum, hired other teachers, developed school calendars and policies, reviewed budgets, and generally ran the place.  Now, decisions are made from on high, consensus is lip service, and dissent is silenced.  When I spoke up in January that I felt there is no compelling evidence to make a switch to the SPS competency-based model, I was nearly fired. That is not an exaggeration.

Teachers have somehow lost the respect of our society, and this is the number one reason teachers leave the profession before five years.  It is why it has become harder and harder to attract highly-intelligent, highly educated people to the profession.   It can hardly be called a profession; we aren't treated as professionals.  Competency-based and online education seem to be dedicated to taking the teacher out of the equation.  But it's through my relationships with my students that I find my greatest joy and my greatest successes.  There is research to back-up my own observations as well; my students learn because I know them and I know what they need - both in the classroom and outside the classroom.  I spend time with them and I get to know them.  And I grow to love them.  This will not happen in an individually-based, online-centered system.  And Summit will be making the transition to this system regardless of what the teachers at the school believe is best.

I have been depressed ever since I announced I was leaving.  Every time I think of the current Summit kids who I will not get to teach I get choked up.  I am moving on, but I feel like I am turning by back  on the school I love so much.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Poor Sal Kahn

Anyone who has been at all connected to math education - whether as a student, a parent, or an educator – is aware of Sal Khan and the influence his Kahn Academy videos and exercises have had on the progression of online education and independent learning.  The work he has done is incredible, and people have noticed.  The Gates Foundation, Google, O'Sullivan Foundation and others have donated millions to his company to further develop the idea of online education and self-help instruction.

So, why would the title of this entry imply that things are going poorly for Mr. Kahn?  Well, they’re not, but education in general appears to be at a crossroads, with differing opinions on which road should be taken, and Kahn has – wittingly or not – put himself right at the center of the crossroads.  Or is it the center of the crosshairs?

Kahn believes that his website provides a good supplement to the critical work that teachers do on a daily basis, and use of his materials can free up teachers to do more personalized, targeted instruction with smaller groups who require more intervention.  Others believe that Kahn’s materials can be used to replace teachers, reduce staffing and cut costs. One rather controversial report that took this position was released by the Pacific Research Institute and argued that is precisely what Kahn Academy should be used for, and governments should reduce the red tape and bureaucracy, including the influence of teachers unions, that is limiting large-scale changes like this.

While Kahn has earlier presented some similar arguments about the videos providing primary instruction, he no longer feels that reducing the interactions with teachers would be beneficial for students.  He envisions Kahn Academy dovetailing with a flipped classroom in which meaningful interactions with teachers fill the day while lectures can be done at home with the aid of his videos.  However, PRI is looking to trim government – read, teachers – and is essentially using his words and his tools to further their agenda of busting unions, shrinking government, and privatizing schools.

And on the other branch of the crossroads are teachers who criticize Kahn’s pedagogy.  A viralvideo put out by Dave Coffey and John Golden critiques several of Kahn’s methodologies.  Sal Kahn is a very smart person who creates mostly very clear videos on an incredibly wide variety of topics.  But he is not a teacher – he even felt his short stint as a teacher was disastrous, and teachers are attacking him, perhaps out of fear for their futures, but also because he does make several pedagogical mistakes and mathematical miscues.  The Coffey/Golden video led to a lot of back and forth on the internet, including much from the author of one of my favorite blogs – Dan Meyer.  

I think we need to find ways to embrace technology, but as soon as the technology is used to eliminate teachers instead of supporting teachers, education is doomed.   

Friday, February 15, 2013

Math Anxiety - Blame me

For most of my career I have pushed back - gloriously unsuccessfully - against the onslaught of standardized testing.  From the time Americans start learning addition, they are subjected to timed tests. Having myself been a parent of second- and third-graders forced to complete hundreds of addition and multiplication facts in five-minute increments, I have been a first-hand witness and, if I really want to be truthful, a perpetrator of the stress-induced onset of math anxiety.  My kids seemed to have survived this traumatic period in their lives, but there is considerable research that shows these timed tests are the beginning of the "I just can't do math," mindset that so many people in this country suffer from.

Jo Boaler wrote in an Education Week article last July how stress-inducing time tests have a physiological response on the brain and that kids as young as five years old show signs of math-related stress.  She writes
. . .and the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low. This is a result, in part, of schools in the United States heading down a fast-moving track in which the purpose of math has been reduced to the ranking of children and their schools. Math has become a performance subject. Children of all ages are more likely to tell you that the reason for learning math is to show whether they “get it” instead of whether they appreciate the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest.
More and more we are applying a corporate model to education where everything except student satisfaction in their learning is quantified.  It is as if we have come to believe that students improve by assessing and ranking them, rather than through the actual instruction.

Number of external standardized tests students in my high school take in their four years: 25 - 30
Number of external standardized tests students in Finnish high schools take in their four years: 2

Finland, which is regularly touted as one of the best, if not the best school system in the country, has gone the opposite direction from the U.S.  And the few tests students do take (with the exception of their summative test at the end of high school) are low-stakes tests used for teacher professional development and a means to measure student growth, but not teacher nor school accountability.

In Finland, only 7% of students state they feel math anxiety.  In the United States, the number is greater than 50%.  While there are many, many reasons the Finnish school system is more successful than the US system, and I encourage people interested in delving into those reasons further read Finnish Lessons by Pasi Sahlberg to better understand those reasons, certainly the obsession on testing in the U.S. is inconsistent with the successful approach employed in Finland.

I want to teach in a way that students "appreciate the beauty of the subject," but I so often feel I am employed by a test-prep center, knowing that I am doing harm to my students' long-term appreciation of the subject I love.

Friday, February 8, 2013

I MOOC, therefore I am

MOOCs (massive open online courses) are all the rage these days.  I have been curious - and a bit skeptical - about them, so I thought I would give one a try myself.  In the interest of full disclosure you should know that I am a skeptical thinker by nature.  I consider myself an early adopter and I have always made efforts to incorporate technology into my teaching where I think it makes sense, but I always feel there needs to be a compelling reason to try something before I expose my kids to it.

Call me compelled.

I am currently enrolled in Robert Ghrist's Single Variable Calculus course out of Coursera and the University of Pennsylvania. I have found Dr. Ghrist's approach to teaching calculus interesting, relevant, and refreshing. His introductory lessons were on Taylor Series of all things, and he expands (pun intended) on their use and meaning in his subsequent units on differentiation and integration.  He demonstrates how calculus is used in the ever-so-lofty "real world" with approximations and other applications.  He has given me great ideas for how I will be teaching the topic of series in my Calc BC class.

But, I remain skeptical.

I am a very disciplined person - not crazy, but disciplined. I floss daily.  Yet, I am having a hard time maintaining focus, staying on schedule, and doing all the work.  I have found myself skipping videos and homework.  Yes, I already know calculus pretty well and I am not learning a lot of new stuff, but this course is intended for someone who has previously seen calculus and the material is quite challenging, and I really do want to participate fully.  It's just that in my busy schedule, I find it easiest to jettison something to which I have no financial or social commitment.

I'm not the only one.

Dan McFarland, a professor in Stanford's Graduate School of Education recently offered his Organizational Analysis course as a MOOC.  He required his Stanford students to sign up and take the course and provide feedback. They were among the 44,501 students who registered for the course.  The vast majority had the same commitment issues I have with my MOOC.  Of the initial registrants, only 2,375 took the final (I couldn't find out how many actually passed), and only 291 actually wrote a paper for the class that would give them an advanced certificate of completion.

McFarland's students had mixed feelings about the course as well.  Some found the isolation difficult; when they wished to ask a question, no one was around; many found it difficult to focus on the video lectures as they sat watching them alone.   MOOCs attempt to deal with this isolation in different ways. There are discussion forums in MOOCs, but they require you to post a question and wait for a response.  Some have live lectures where you can participate in live chat, but chat rooms with thousands of people are never efficient and often distracting and can do more harm than help.

I want MOOCs to work.  They would be a great way to offer students at my small, poorly-funded school more learning options.  And they can offer access to high-level educational opportunities to people that would never dream of having such access.  Think of a poor farmer in Bangladesh learning programming or a Tibetan teenager discovering democracy through a social sciences course.  I do see them as potentially transformative.

But much work needs to be done to motivate participants.

I'm encouraged by a recent development in the course I am taking. It appears that Dr. Ghrist's course and a few other Coursera courses may be receiving accreditation which could lead to offering credit for these courses.  That would be a big step in the right direction.  But I don't see that motivating me; after all I didn't sign up for college credit in the first place.  I, and the students in Dr.  McFarland's course, have a different issue with MOOCs - the lack of social interaction.  I learn best as part of a collective, bouncing thoughts and questions off of each other.  I feed off the collective energy of a group of students working together toward a common goal.  This is true whether I'm the student or I'm the teacher.

MOOCs have potential, and that potential, in my view, includes the effect of propagating an ever-increasing malady in our society, the illness of individualism. Learn alone, achieve alone, fail alone. The "I built it" theme at the Republican convention this past summer was emblematic of this disease of "me."  I fear MOOCs and other trends in education like competency-based learning could contribute to this problem, and I worry the primary reason I got into teaching - to develop better human beings - is going to suffer if individual achievement is stressed over the accomplishments of society.  Yes, I am a "It takes a village" kind of guy, and I suspect I am a bit paranoid, but I love seeing my students collectively do great.  And I want to be part of that whenever I am a student, too.  I'm not ready to embrace the MOOC phenomenon yet.

 If you're going to MOOC, MOOC responsibly.