In Which Justices Do Not Understand Institutional Discrimination

So, this Alabama county does not think it needs to still implement provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the case is now before the US Supreme Court:

“Shelby County says it is no longer necessary to require places with a history of racial discrimination to get approval to modify election laws.

The requirement is part of the Voting Rights Act, extended for 25 years in 2006 with wide bipartisan support.

(…)

The Voting Rights Act, passed at the height of the US civil rights movement, requires strict federal oversight of election laws in nine states, most in the US South, as well as in a few jurisdictions in other states.”

So, first this:

“Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote on many politically charged issues, said during arguments that “times change”.”

And then this:

“Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, who represents the Obama administration, whether the administration thought Southerners “are more racist than citizens in the North”.

Mr Verrilli replied no.”

Well, maybe not but both Kennedy and Roberts miss the point of the deep, long-lasting, and not individually-based power of institutional discrimination. So whether or not Southerners are more racist than others is beside the point and irrelevant. It is the same denial of institutional realities always invoked against affirmative action as well. And “times change” means diddly squat.

Sociology As The Science of Slow Violence

Via Global Dialogue (a newsletter from the International Sociological Association), South African sociologist Jackie Cock explains how the task of sociology is to expose what she calls slow violence:

“The social structures and processes which shape our experience are often hidden or obscured by conventional beliefs, powerful interests, and official explanations. One of the most dangerous of these is how violence is usually understood as an event or action that is immediate in time, and explosive in space. But much destruction of human potential takes the form of a “slow violence” that extends over time. It is insidious, undramatic and relatively invisible. By slow violence I mean what Rob Nixon calls “the long dyings,” a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Both environmental pollution and malnutrition are forms of this slow violence. Both instances are relatively invisible and involve serious damage which develops slowly over time.

Food is where many issues converge – inequality, climate change, globalization, hunger, commodity speculation, urbanization, and health. Food is not usually associated with violence except in relation to riots and the social protests which, in 2008, took place in some 30 cities around the world in response to dramatic price increases. However, malnutrition involves a form of “slow violence” because its damaging effects on the human body are often hidden and involve an erosion of human capacities and potentials that occurs gradually over time. This is most dramatically evident in the one billion of the world’s people who are malnourished or the reality, in contemporary South Africa, that one in every four children under the age of six shows signs of stunted growth (both physical and intellectual) due to chronic malnutrition.”

How this matters for sociology?

“The potential of sociology for human emancipation goes beyond “exposure” to “explanation.” Both examples of “slow violence” cited here have social causes as well as social consequences; in the case of environmental pollution the externalization of environmental costs by a powerful corporation, in the case of malnutrition the operation of a food regime focused on profit rather than human need.

“Slow violence” is not a class-blind concept. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to the slow violence of malnutrition and of environmental pollution. They often struggle alone as atomized individuals. But demonstrating how individual experience is shaped by broader social processes is part of C. Wright Mill’s rich legacy. The “sociological imagination” implies sociologists engaging with “ordinary men” (sic) in the real world (and, I would urge, with the basic issues such as access to nutritious food and clean water).””

Obviously, this concept of slow violence is very similar to that of structural violence, that is, violence that is based in unequal social structures and that are often at the root of the much more studied mass and/or interpersonal violence. However, mass and interpersonal violence is often explained without reference to causal factors rooted in structural violence. That is what is needed.

Of course, structural violence is often sustained through what Bourdieu called symbolic violence but also powerful ideological apparatuses incarnated in culture and social institutions. Take this, for instance:

“The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country. Study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity. This is especially tragic: While Americans may differ on the desirability of equality of outcomes, there is near-universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, America might have rightly claimed to have been the land of opportunity, or at least a land where there was more opportunity than elsewhere. But not for at least a quarter of a century. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of complacency, they might as well have been.

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According toresearch from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.”

How did this happen? Persistent racial and gender discrimination, of course, but something else as well, for Stiglitz:

“In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects; with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough; one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.”

Stiglitz argues that Americans are beginning to see the myth of social mobility but I am not so certain. There is no groundswell for change. There is no class-based social movement. In the meantime, structural / slow violence (of which crushing student debt is only a more contemporary form) continues.

More than this, Jordan Weissman argues that inequality in the US is worse than in Europe, as illustrated by this:

As he notes:

“That said, there’s a case to be made that U.S. income inequality is in fact exceptional, and not just because of its severity. I was reminded of that last night, when I saw this graphic from a 2008 report by the OECD making its way around Twitter. In broad terms, what it tells us is that in many developed countries, a rising tide has truly lifted all boats, with the wealthy rising a bit faster. In the United States, the tide is lifting up the rich, while drowning many of the poor.

(…)

That’s what’s so frightening about the way the U.S. economy was changing even before the Great Recession. It’s not just that the rich saw their finances improve faster than everyone else’s. It’s that many Americans were seeing the value of their work, and in some cases their standard of living, decline. And that makes us at least a little bit special, in a very unfortunate way.”

Changes in the economy – digital capitalism – also contributes to this summarized in four expressions: thin margins +vast volumes + huge revenues → inequality + poor employment.

“First, margins. Once upon a time, there was a great company called Kodak. It dominated its industry, which happened to be chemistry-based photography. And in its dominance, it enjoyed very fat profit margins – up to 70% in some cases. But somewhere in the depths of Kodak’s R&D labs, a few researchers invented digital photography. When they put it to their bosses, the conversation went something like this. Boss: “What are the margins likely to be on this stuff?” Engineers: “Well, it’s digital technology so maybe 5% at best.” Boss: “Thank you and goodbye.”

(…)

Then there’s volume, which in the online world is astronomical. For example: 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute; more than 100bn photographs have been uploaded to Facebook; during the Christmas period, Amazon.co.uk dispatched a truck filled with parcels every three minutes; to date, more than 40bn apps have been downloaded from Apple’s iTunes store. And so on. Margins may be thin, but when you multiply them by these kinds of numbers you get staggering amounts of revenue.

These vast revenues, however, are not being widely shared. Instead, they are mostly enriching the founders and shareholders of Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook et al. Of course, those who work at the heart of these organisations – the engineers, developers and the executives who manage them, for example – are richly rewarded in salaries, stock options and lavish perks. But these gilded employees constitute only a minority of the workforces of the big tech companies and most of their colleagues have decidedly more mundane terms of employment – and remuneration.

Then there’s the question of employment, a topic on which the big technology companies seem exceedingly sensitive. Facebook, for example, is given to engaging fancy consultants to produce preposterous claims about the number of jobs it creates. One such “report” claimed that the company, which at the time had a global workforce of about 3,000, indirectly helped create 232,000 jobs in Europe in 2011 and enabled more than $32bn in revenues. And Apple, stung by criticism about all the work it has outsourced to Foxconn in China, is now driven to claiming it has “created or supported” nearly 600,000 jobs in the US.

The really tough question that none of these companies really wants to answer is: what kinds of jobs exactly? Anyone seeking an insight into this would do well to consult a terrific report by Sarah O’Connor, the Financial Times‘s economics correspondent. She visited Amazon’s vast distribution centre at Rugeley in Staffordshire and her account of what she found there makes sobering reading.

She saw hundreds of people in orange vests pushing trolleys around a space the size of nine football pitches, glancing down at the screens of their handheld satnav computers for directions on where to walk next and what to pick up when they get there. They do not dawdle because “the devices in their hands are also measuring their productivity in real time”. They walk between seven and 15 miles a day and everything they do is determined by Amazon’s software. “You’re sort of like a robot, but in human form,” one manager told Ms O’Connor. “It’s human automation, if you like.””

That too is slow violence.

Cultural Hegemony and Nostalgia

Matt Bruenig offers an interesting analysis of reality show Dance Moms and cultural hegemony:

“In simple terms, cultural hegemony refers to the way in which the powerful shape a society’s norms, values, and other institutions, and how that particular shaping becomes accepted as default, natural, perpetual, and inevitable. That is, people tend to regard the way we currently run things in society as the only way to run things in society. Instead of regarding our background systems as just one set of institutions among thousands of possibilities, people appear to think of them as default constants.

One consequence of cultural hegemony is that when people think about changing things, they only think about how they can make change within the parameters of the existing institutions. That is, they rarely think about changing the fundamental systems that structure our society; they only think about making changes within the confines that those systems have established.”

He then relates this to a particular development on the show: the pyramid.

Bruenig connects the two (cultural hegemony and pyramid) by arguing that the mothers initially resented the pyramid when it was first introduced by the person with the most power (Abby Lee Miller), but once they got used to it and accepted it, then, their thinking was centered around securing the best position for their kids on the pyramid. It had become the hegemonic frame through which their strategies were formulated. Thinking outside the pyramid was not even an option.

Bruenig then makes a broader point:

“That’s cultural hegemony in a nutshell really. Instead of looking beyond the system you find yourself in, you accept it as somehow constant and perpetual. Having assumed it fixed and unchangeable, if you think about change at all, it is only within the narrow confines that the system allows.

For a real life example, consider the way we think about poverty reduction in the US. Income inequality is, after all, a kind of socially constructed pyramid. Instead of rejecting our system of economic distribution that leaves so many in poverty, we assume that it has to stay. Therefore, the only thing we can hope to do is make other kinds of changes that might reduce poverty without altering our present system of income distribution. For the most part, that has led people to advocate cramming more kids through college and a number of education reform gimmicks.”

Yes and no. This is too detached from agency. I would want to add that cultural hegemony is perpetuated through social institutions (family, media, education, religion, etc.) as used by the power elite (to use Mills’s formulation). Cultural hegemony does not just happen. It is shaped and structured by the powerful (in this case, Miller) and, through institutional practice, accepted by the subordinate categories (here, the mothers and the daughters) who then operate within the field (to mix it up with Bourdieu), vying for less subordinate position within a frame they have not created and that maintains and reproduces their subordinate status (instead of overthrowing Miller’s pyramid frame, they just individually compete withing it). It does not threaten Miller’s authority and it reinforces her status as dominant.

At the same time, this analysis does not account for the phenomenon of nostalgia both that cultural and political trope. Nostalgia is yearning for a return to a – mostly imagined and mythical – past. Nostalgia reconstructs the past in an idealized fashion and uses then that mythical and imaginary standard to deplore the awfulness of the present. In Bruenig’s analysis, hegemony is always the present and therefore, it cannot account for nostalgia. Nostalgia is also used by the powerful to reject progressive social change, arguing that present social issues would not happen if we were still living in that imaginary past. It is then the (imaginary) historically-grounded set of justifications to reject further changes that would benefit the disadvantaged.

Dumbing Down The SOTU

Apparently:

State of The Union Speeches Reading Levels from SocProf on Vimeo.

The interactive graphic from the Guardian is here. The Flesch-Kincaid reading level measurement is here.

The real question is why this is happening, especially considering the fact that Americans are more educated now than they were in the days of Washington or Madison. One suggestion might be that the SOTU is now a TV spectacle, written by communication specialists, not for an educated audience. Early SOTU were probably heard and read only by a few. The spectacle dimension directly alters the content.

The Visual Du Jour – Wage Gap

On NPR:

As the article notes:

“Part of the gap in pay is driven by choices, even within single job categories. Among physicians, for example, women are more likely than men to choose lower-paid specialties (though thisdoes not explain all of the pay gap among doctors).

And among all workers, women are more likely than men to take a significant time off from work to raise children, and they tend to be re-hired at lower wages than their counterparts who remained in the workforce.

But not all of the difference be explained by choices such as these. And some of the gap could be due to simple discrimination, Ana Llena-Nozal, an economist at the OECD, told me.

One other detail worth noting: The jobs where the gap is biggest pay more, on average, where the jobs where the gap is lowest. The average weekly pay is $1,087 for jobs where the gap is biggest, and $773 for jobs where the gap is smallest.”

I believe the sentence is meant to be read “The jobs where the gap is biggest pay more, on average, THAN the jobs where the gap is lowest.” It would be nice if the article provided an explanation for this.

Internet in The US: Slow and Expensive

Watch and get angry:

A few morceaux choisis:

“It’s fair to say that the U.S. at the best is in the middle of the pack when it comes to both the speed and cost of high speed internet access connections. So in Hong Kong right now you can get a 500 megabit symmetric connection that’s unimaginably fast from our standpoint for about 25 bucks a month. In Seoul, for $30 you get three choices of different providers of fiber in your apartment. And they come in and install in a day because competition’s so fierce. In New York City there’s only one choice, and it’s 200 bucks a month for a similar service. And you can’t get that kind of fiber connection outside of New York City in many parts of the country. Verizon’s only serving about 10 percent of Americans. So let’s talk about the wireless side for a moment, you know, the separate marketplace that people use for mobility. In Europe you can get unlimited texting and voice calls and data for about $30 a month, similar service from Verizon costs $90 a month. That’s a huge difference.”

And:

BILL MOYERS: Why is there such a disparity there?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: The difference in all of these areas is competition and government policy. It’s not magical. Without the intervention of the government there’s no reason for these guys to charge us anything reasonable or to make sure that everybody has services.

BILL MOYERS: How do you explain that in the course of one generation, from the invention of the internet in this country to falling way behind as you say the rest of the world in our access to internet? How did that happen?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Beginning in the early 2000’s we believed that the magic of the market would provide internet access to all Americans. That the cable guys would compete with the phone guys who would compete with wireless and that somehow all of this ferment would make sure that we kept up with the rest of the world. Those assumptions turned out not to be true. It’s much cheaper to upgrade a cable connection than it is to dig up a copper phone line and replace it with fiber. So the cable guys who had these franchises in many, most American cities, they are in place with a status quo network that 94 percent of new subscriptions are going to. Everybody’s signing up with their local cable incumbent. There is not competition for 80 percent of Americans. They don’t have a choice for a truly high speed connection. It’s just the local cable guy. Competition has just vanished.

BILL MOYERS: Well, the 1996 Telecommunications Act was supposed to promote competition and therefore protect the consumer by bringing prices down. That didn’t happen?

SUSAN CRAWFORD: That didn’t happen because it’s so much cheaper to upgrade the cable line than it is to dig up the copper and replace it with fiber. The competition evaporated because Wall Street said to the phone companies, “Don’t do this, don’t be in this business.” So you may think of Verizon and AT&T as wired phone companies, they’re not. They’ve gone into an entirely separate market which is wireless.

They’re the monsters on the wireless side that control two thirds of that market. So there’s been a division. Cable takes wired, Verizon/AT&T take wireless. They’re actually cooperating. There’s a federally blessed non-compete in the form of a joint marketing agreement between Comcast and Verizon. And so the world is perfect for them, not so great for consumers who are paying more than other people in the rest of the world for slower service.

BILL MOYERS: Since the 1996 Telecommunications Act which I thought was going to lower the price of our monthly cable bill, it’s almost doubled.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Well, that’s because Time Warner controls Manhattan. There’s no competition. The cable guys, long ago, something they call “the summer of love,” divided up—

BILL MOYERS: “The summer of love?”

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Yeah. They clustered their operations. It makes sense from their standpoint. “You take San Francisco, I’ll take Sacramento. You take Chicago, I’ll take Boston.” And so Comcast and Time Warner are these giants that never enter each other’s territories.”

The political consequences:

SUSAN CRAWFORD: Comcast is not only the nation’s largest broadband distributor with tens of millions of customers, it also now owns and controls one of the four media conglomerates in America, NBCUniversal. That means that it has a built-in interest in making sure that it shapes discourse, controls programming all in the service of its own profit-making machine. As both the distributor and a content provider, it’s in its interest to make sure that it can always charge more for discourse we would think isn’t controlled by anybody. So it’s a tremendous risk to the country that we have this one actor who has no interest in the free flow of information controlling so much of high speed internet access.

(…)

SUSAN CRAWFORD: This is a moment when we have to separate out content from conduit. It should not be possible for a local cable actor or any distributor to withhold programming based on volume. That’s what’s going on. The programmers say, “We’ll sell to Comcast cheaply ’cause they’re big. But if you’re an upstart we’re going to charge you three to four times what Comcast is paying for the same programming.” That should not be legal. Everybody should get access to the same stuff at the same price and they should be announced prices.”

And we also find the familiar revolving door in the power elite:

BILL MOYERS: You describe something in your book that we’ve talked about often at this table. Quote, “The constant easy, friendly flow between government and industry in the communications world centered around Washington D.C.” Describe that world.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: It’s a warm pond of familiarity. Everybody knows everybody else. They’re all very nice people, you’d like to have a drink with them. They go from a job inside the regulator to a job in industry to a job on the hill, one easy flow, nice people. Outsiders have no impact on this particular world.

And it would be– I talked to a cable representative not long ago about the need to change this regulatory state of affairs. And she looked at me and said, “But that would be so disruptive.” And she’s right, it would be disruptive.

BILL MOYERS: Well, you know, the F.C.C. was supposed to be the cop on the beat of the communications world. But for example Michael Powell, who served as F.C.C. chairman for four years in the mid-2000s, is now the cable and telecom industry’s top D.C. lobbyist.

Meredith Attwell Baker who was one of the F.C.C. commissioners who approved Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal, left the agency four months later to join Comcast as a highly paid lobbyist. That move infuriated media groups.

SUSAN CRAWFORD: But that warm pond of familiarity in Washington sees this as absolutely normal behavior. Just yesterday the former chief of staff of the F.C.C. left to be the general counsel of a regulated company. It happens all the time. And so in order to change this you’d have to make regulation of this area not be carried out by such a focused agency. Right now, the F.C.C.’s asymmetry of information is striking. They only talk to the industry. The community is all so close. In order to break that up you’d have to make sure you had a broad based agency seeing lots of different industries.”

The Military-Surveillance Complex

It is rather scary:

“A multinational security firm has secretly developed software capable of tracking people’s movements and predicting future behaviour by mining data from social networking websites.

video obtained by the Guardian reveals how an “extreme-scale analytics” system created by Raytheon, the world’s fifth largest defence contractor, can gather vast amounts of information about people from websites including Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.

Raytheon says it has not sold the software – named Riot, or Rapid Information Overlay Technology – to any clients.

But the Massachusetts-based company has acknowledged the technology was shared with US government and industry as part of a joint research and development effort, in 2010, to help build a national security system capable of analysing “trillions of entities” from cyberspace.

The power of Riot to harness popular websites for surveillance offers a rare insight into controversial techniques that have attracted interest from intelligence and national security agencies, at the same time prompting civil liberties and online privacy concerns.

The sophisticated technology demonstrates how the same social networks that helped propel the Arab Spring revolutions can be transformed into a “Google for spies” and tapped as a means of monitoring and control.

Using Riot it is possible to gain an entire snapshot of a person’s life – their friends, the places they visit charted on a map – in little more than a few clicks of a button.

(…)

Riot can display on a spider diagram the associations and relationships between individuals online by looking at who they have communicated with over Twitter. It can also mine data from Facebook and sift GPS location information from Foursquare, a mobile phone app used by more than 25 million people to alert friends of their whereabouts. The Foursquare data can be used to display, in graph form, the top 10 places visited by tracked individuals and the times at which they visited them.”

This is the part that is always missing in cyber-utopian and cyber-centrist accounts: the part when new technologies turn out to – surprise, surprise – not all be used for good and populist goals.

The Visual Du Jour – Foreign-Borns: Then and Now

Check out this great infographic from The Census Bureau on migration:

Foreign Born infographic image

[Source: U.S. Census Bureau]

There is a lot that is interesting here. First of all, the percentage of US population that is foreign-born is lower now than it was in the 19th century so, even though the foreign-born population is larger in numbers, because the US population has also grown larger, that percentage has varied in a different direction than the raw numbers.

What is not surprising is the shift in countries / regions of origin. The 19th century was the time of European migration while the more recent trends have shifted to Central America and Asia. That migrating population is also younger and distributed more widely across the US rather than concentrated on the coastal areas.

[As a side note: thanks to the Census for providing full embedding code for this infographic.]

More On The MOOC Thing

After completing my first MOOC (I reported on it here), I decided to go try out the major MOOC platforms out there. The dataviz MOOC I took with the Knight Center on Journalism in the Americas was offered in-house, so, I decided to go look up the big MOOC providers: Coursera, Udacity and EdX. I have signed up for a Coursera course but the start date is TBD. I have also signed up for a course in EdX scheduled to start on 2/20. I also registered for Introduction to Statistics over at Udacity, taught by one of Udacity founders, Sebastian Thrun. I have now completed this course and just started another statistics one there.

So, how is a Udacity course different from the MOOC I have taken with the Knight Center? First of all, it runs continuously. It is self-paced, so, students can jump in and out at any time, take as much time to complete as they want. The course itself is a series of very short Youtube videos (the longest ones are around 2-minutes long) where students are introduced to a series of statistical concepts and have to apply them and answer questions that are instantly marked (correct or not). These bite-sized lectures are a big difference with the Coursera model of putting entire existing college courses online.

At regular intervals, mainly, the end of a logical unit, students have to complete a problem set as well as as optional programming units using Python to program the statistical concepts introduced in the immediately preceding unit.

The lessons themselves are a bit uneven. Some are really easy and then, all of a sudden, you get hit over the head with something brutal. Also beware. A lot of stuff is not standard. The other downside is that there is a gap between the lessons and the problem sets. It is very possible, I think, to complete the lessons without difficulty but get stuck on the problem sets. I got stumped a couple of times simply because the styles of the lecturers (Thrun does the lessons and Adam Sherwin does the problem sets and the final exam) is very different and I could not figure out what I was being asked to do in the problem sets. I also gave up on the programming units (they are optional anyway) after the first few because they required some knowledge of Python that I don’t have. And besides, I was in the middle of learning R and I did not want to confuse myself with learning another computer language at the same time.

Also, I must say that I very much doubt that anyone taking this course for the first time would be able to pass the statistics course in our program. It is not statistics 101. It is a lower level stats course. If you want a real take-down of the course from a statistics expert, read this blog post from someone who also took the course. The population v. sample issue is the one that most jumped at me. Every so often, I would go back to my stats texts for the proper formula and written explanations.

As with all other Udacity courses, there is a wiki to go with it, although there isn’t much there. And then, there are the discussion forums where students can post questions and other students are expected to contribute answers. The course assistant popped in in some to resolve issues with the units themselves.

At the end of the course, there is a final exam consisting of 16 questions, you need 8 correct answers to pass “with proficiency”, but you can take and submit your answers as many times as you want.

As I mentioned, the course runs continuously and is self-paced, so, compared to my previous MOOC, it was a pretty lonely experience because, by definition, you work on your own. Also, it looked like the course had been offered for the first time last Spring/Summer, so, the bulk of the forum activity dated back from that time. As I was going through the course (it took me about a month, total), there was not much activity in the forums. Not only that but, as I perused the forums just to see the kind of questions asked, I realize that the bulk of them were not so much questions as people who already knew the subject and offered feedback on the pedagogy (a better way to understand Bayes theorem!). So, I don’t know if Udacity discloses user statistics but it looked to me that the main population of students (from the forums) was, as in my previous MOOC, composed, not really of college students, but of more advanced (older?) people who already knew statistics and were, like me, getting a taste of the platform and the pedagogy.

One last thing on this. Udacity upgraded its platform in the middle of my taking the course. This was a nice improvement as I initially kept getting error messages and had to constantly refresh the page.

The million-dollar question is this: how often will the course be updated? Some students in the initial version noted a few errors and corrections were placed in the video notes / comments but the videos themselves were not changed. Are these videos recorded once and for all, never to be updated? If that is the case, then, it is pretty ghastly. And though the course does not require a textbook, I would recommend to get one anyway, even something like Statistics for Dummies.

The Udacity course I am taking now is in its first offering but has me chomping at the bit because, even though it is self-paced, they instructors only post one lecture / problem set per week (for 16 weeks, as I understand it) but these first ones, at least, are pretty easy so  I usually complete them on the day they get posted and then, I have to wait a week to get the next one, which seems to be a waste of time for me. Maybe once we are past the initial offering of the whole course, future students will have it truly self-paced.

Maybe this once-a-week format is because it is the first offering of the course is simply because the entire course is not yet ready. If that is the case, then fine. After all, one would not want a repeat of this Coursera fiasco:

“When word spread this weekend that a massive open online course about online education had to be suspended due to technology problems that left many students angry, officials from Coursera and the Georgia Institute of Technology were not available for comment. In interviews Monday, however, officials of both Coursera and Georgia Tech confirmed that the major issue concerned the ability of the 41,000 students to discuss topics in small groups, and that the technology for that feature indeed was not working. The officials also said that they were confident that fixes would be made in a short time period, and that the course would then continue.”

If you want an in-depth, first-person account of what happened in this course, you should read this blog post:

“There are three key factors contributing to this course calamity and all link to the group assignment. The first, a ‘technical glitch’ was big enough to cause one of Google’s servers to crash. Another, causing considerable distress to students is the lack of instructions for the assignments and the group activity—there was no clarity provided on the objective or purpose of the groups.”

Who could have guessed that to have thousands of people edit Google docs at the same time would not work out so well. And for once, you can break the Prime Directive of the Internet and read the comments from other students. They are very interesting.

There is a bit of schadenfreude about this when it started bouncing about the Internet. This was the failure we had been waiting for, hadn’t we? The one that would finally get us past the hype and get us a bit more realistic about the format and its possibilities.

But we’re not there yet. MOOCs are still riding high for now and Coursera’s fiasco may be to Udacity’s benefit as it is the platform that seems to have the most wind in its sails right now, especially with recent California deal:

“Now California state universities are set to begin enrolling students in MOOCs for credit. Earlier this month, the president of San Jose State University, Mo Qayoumi, announced that his institution will commence a pilot program: 300 students will receive course credit for online classes in remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics. Qayoumi was joined at the press conference by California Governor Jerry Brown and Sebastian Thrun, the controversial ex-Stanford prof and co-founder of Udacity, which will supply classes for the program at the cost of $150 per customer, er, student.

“This is the single cheapest way in the country to earn college credit,” Thrun “quipped.”

It’s not quite free, as early MOOC proponents began by promising. It is worth mentioning, too, that Udacity is a venture-funded startup, that classes will be supervised not by tenured profs but by Udacity employees, and that Thrun declined to tell the Times how much public money his company will be raking in for this pilot—or what more may have been promised should the pilot prove “successful.”

Okay, fine, but let’s get this straight: public money has been mercilessly hacked from California’s education budget for decades, so now we are to give public money, taxpayer money, to private, for-profit companies to take up the slack? Because that is exactly what is happening. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just fund education to the levels we had back when it was working?

Emphases mine, and good question at the end.

Because, let’s face it, the format is far from being the perfect model for education. First off,  again, from my limited experience, I see a lot more people in there for professional development than strict college education, and yes, a lot of people from developing countries. Also, the completion rates are still atrocious. Isn’t it insane to turn over a lot of money for a format that looks like it has potential but is far, far from proven to be effective.

It also seems that a lot of the course offerings are in maths, computer sciences, STEM more broadly. But there is little outside of the technical fields. Is it because these are easier to automate, with instant, automated grading? When I took the dataviz MOOC with Alberto Cairo, I don’t know how much time he and his assistant spent patrolling the message boards and reviewing projects, but they seemed very hands-on. Take a Udacity course, and you will be likely if you bump into an instructor in the forums. I am sure there are more Humanities / Literature courses out there, I would be curious to see if they just rely on peer-grading and discussion boards.

What bothers me, and that is why I highlighted it in the quote above, is that one could argue that the problems with MOOCs don’t matter because the courses are free (and therefore, you get what you pay for) and they don’t give credits… well, now they might. And the possible trend of pushing undergraduate education online through MOOCs is problematic to me on several levels:

  • it seems that then states abdicate their commitment (financial or otherwise) to public education.
  • It creates an additional form of inequalities: those with the means to do so get themselves an on-campus education and those who cannot just get what they can online (and I am willing to bet that quality control will be problematic because the point will be to save money).
  • MOOCs are, by definition, one-size-fit-all. This does not work for everybody. There is value to interactive education that the Udacity model cannot capture. MOOCs may represent another form of standardization rather than an innovative model. It is actually a very passive way of learning.
  • And again, what becomes of the latest obsession with retention / completion with MOOCs failing so badly at both?

But, in times of administrative bloat, one can see how the model would be attractive to administrators in search of cost savings.

And ultimately, when investors dump $15 million into Udacity, they will want something in return and that “something” will not be some fuzzy, idealistic, “free college education for all”.

Overall, I think there is still a lot that needs to happen to MOOCs for the format to be the real revolution that it is being touted to be. It is not. At least not right now. And I would not be so quick to bury the “old” university model. Every new technological innovation was once touted to be the death of the university from the early correspondence courses in early 20th century to online. None of this has happened. The real, serious fear would be for  short-sighted politicians and clueless administrators to use this as the obvious cost-cutter it seemed to be, but that would be at the expense of the mission of public education. That has to be fought at all costs.

The Visual Du Jour – Open Governance (Or Not)

I found this interesting set of data via The World Bank Dataviz Tumblr: some good interactive visualizations based on the Open Budget Survey (full report here):

Open Budget Survey from SocProf on Vimeo.

Here are some static images.

The map:

The rankings:

The overall view:

The categorized rankings from the report:

The infographic:

These are all good examples of the changes brought about by global governance mechanisms that allow different international organizations, non-profit, civil society groups, etc., to demand accountability from governments, in this case, on budgetary issues and processes.