More from Snowden…

On what British intelligence can do:  sure, listen to your phone calls, read your emails, etc.  But how about reshape the web you think you see?

From an IEEE Spectrum report:

Some of the most intriguing spy tools show the UK spy agency’s desire to control and manipulate both online and cellphone communication, including emails and popular social media networks such as Facebook. In the latter case, a tool named “Clean Sweep” can “masquerade Facebook wall posts for individuals or entire countries.” Another tool called “Burlesque” can send spoofed (faked) SMS text messages. And “Scrapheap Challenge” can send fake emails that appear to originate from a target Blackberry device.

Other tools can inflate page views, or drive you to particular YouTube videos, or change the outcome of online polls, or….

Sure, that makes sense, you go to the movies (uh, watch movies on Netflix), you know how it works.  Don’t you?  Aside from the privacy and policy-making questions for today, makes me wonder how we will consider all this a few decades from now: which parts will we find most interesting, most appalling, most bizarre, most ho-hum-in-retrospect….


Al-Jazeera: Is the developing world MOOC’d out?

Hannah Gais offers insights on the shortcomings of MOOCs from the developing world’s perspective.  Chief among them, (1) lack of accessibility and (2) their anti-democratic nature.

On the one hand, the article notes that a large percentage of many MOOCs are from students in the developing world.  But, it clarifies, that access to MOOCs are still limited to people with broadband for video – still a difficulty in much of the world.

Additionally, MOOCs are criticized for being a high-tech sage-on-a-stage.  MOOCs present rather than engage, talk to rather than with, and elevate the already-elite schools rather than partner with the rest of the world.

MOOCs, some argue, are focused on only expanding access, not fostering cross-cultural understanding or improving local educational institutions.

“In an era when higher education is making significant advances in becoming global and helping to build educational capacity within developing nations, MOOC’s play the center against the periphery,” noted Jason Lane and Kevin Kinser in a 2012 paper. “They strengthen the ivory towers by enabling a few elite institutions to broadcast their star courses to the masses from the comfort of their protected perches.”

Progress in these includes new projects in China and Rwanda and elsewhere, the article notes, concluding with the now familiar caveat that MOOCs are still in the early stages of development with uncertain paths ahead.   Worth the read here: 


The Great Courses, Part II

I was intrigued by The Great Courses ad in the Economist last week, between articles on the impact of technology on changing education.   And then The New York Times offers us an updated view of the company.

The Great Courses has now produced 500 courses, and has sold over 15 million copies, usually a dozen or more 30-minute audio or video lectures each.  Students are motivated by personal or professional interests, or simply “expanding their minds.”  “We have binge watchers like Netflix does,” The Great Courses said.

Of particular interest is that the full production studios deal with an increasing number of professors who don’t usually sage-on-the-stage lecture.

In addition to professors who have to be purged of classroom habits that don’t work on screen, an increasing challenge for the Great Courses staff is professors who don’t know how to lecture at all. The “flipped classroom” model that is taking hold in academia — in-class time is devoted to hands-on activity rather than one-way instruction — means that some professors have little experience with organizing and delivering a traditional 30-minute talk.

“Now, fewer and fewer people lecture,” Ms. McDonald said. “That’s making it harder for us.”

Putting a course into a lecture-only format has difficulties, but he experience is also more than a paycheck or recognition:

“It had a transformative effect on me as a teacher,” said Jennifer Paxton, who teaches at the Catholic University of America and has recorded two history courses for the company and is working on a third. “One of the things they told me is that I should not hold back from really demonstrating the enthusiasm that I felt for the material. I think that, in a sense, I had drunk the academic Kool-Aid: You present something in a serious, sober manner.”

For instance, her Great Courses coaches encouraged her to demonstrate graphically what happened in a medieval battle.

“It was really like being unchained,” she said. “That experience was very profound. I came out and demonstrated the act of chopping the head off a horse. I had never done anything like that in lectures before.”

The article didn’t say whether it was a simulation or a real horse.  We’ll have to buy the DVDs for that.



If you’re sleeping well at night, you’re not paying attention.

Sure, your credit card, social security number, and mother’s maiden name are being stolen right now, probably, and your passwords are all QWERTY, 1234, and letmein (maybe your are extra clever: LetMe1n).  But the “scary” stuff, well, the good people in Washington are taking care of that, right?

In class, we ask how long you could survive if the ATM and credit card system failed.  Most people don’t have emergency cash in any real amount.  But the nightmare isn’t just the ATMs, the credit cards, even the stock markets.  It’s the whole electrical grid, or even just decent-sized parts of it.

Symantec says you should be paying attention:

Dragonfly bears the hallmarks of a state-sponsored operation, displaying a high degree of technical capability. The group is able to mount attacks through multiple vectors and compromise numerous third party websites in the process. Dragonfly has targeted multiple organizations in the energy sector over a long period of time. Its current main motive appears to be cyberespionage, with potential for sabotage a definite secondary capability. [emphasis added]

The Dragonfly group is technically adept and able to think strategically. Given the size of some of its targets, the group found a “soft underbelly” by compromising their suppliers, which are invariably smaller, less protected companies.

So enjoy the soccer (eh, futbol) game today – unless your cable box/wifi router lose power…


Creative Destruction: the Economist on MOOCs

Can the Internet do to education what videotapes, television, radio and the post office could not?

I do all sorts of things online: news, network, Netflix, read, write, research, etc.  But I still like my Economist in my hands.  And since I don’t get it in the mail until Monday afternoon, you may have already seen the pieces on MOOCs in the June28-July4 edition.

With a leader, a Briefing, and a story on Brazil, there is much to enjoy.  As usual, the treatment includes recognizing the effects technology and the Internet have had/are having on many industries, embracing technology for scalability and cost savings, and looking at what some leading organizations are doing.  MOOCs might help as an alternative to higher costs and deeper debts.  The problem of credits counting toward useful degrees remains, but is beginning to be addressed. And so on.

Perhaps the most jarring note to higher education administrators and faculty was the comparison to the newspaper industry, with massive bankruptcies, closures, and job losses.  The Brazil article notes that there are large, coordinated efforts with some real success, many in a “hybrid” fashion combining online and in-person course work and discussion.

Perhaps most interesting was the ad in between the two stories.  The ad was for the The Great Courses ( DVD on “mastering differential equations” – 24 lectures from a professor from Boston University who happens to be former president of the Mathematical Association of America, winner of several teaching awards, with 14 books and over 100 scholarly articles to his credit.  Courses are also available on the Civil War (from a University of Virginia professor with seven books from university presses, incl. two from Harvard Univ Press); and other highly-decorated faculty on the history of European art, world religions, behavioral economics, Russian literature, and much more.

Twenty years ago, in an article “Ivy League Courses fro the Price of a Video,” the New York Times extolled the virtues of choosing the very best teachers at the best schools and making their lectures available to anyone with a VCR:

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, one of the company’s clients, says, “These tapes are outstanding, the teachers are brilliant and the educational value of the material is excellent. It’s like going back to class with the best teachers I ever had.”

The cost for the courses, ranging from $90 to $250, is about one- tenth of what a student would pay in tuition to follow such a class at an Ivy League school. However, the tapes do not lead to any recognized university credit.

(Wait, what’s that math – how much was Harvard’s tuition 20 years ago?)  Ted Kennedy and the New York Times loved The Learning Company (as it was then called), but universities survived.   Since that article, Netscape,, Google, wikipedia, and many others have transformed the landscape of nearly every industry.  It will be great fun to watch higher education as we know it struggle to evolve.