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Thursday, March 28, 2013

Me and my 25,000 Classmates

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A few weeks ago, I decided to apply to go back to college--to one of the 20 top liberal arts colleges in America. It turned out to be deceptively simple: No SAT exams, no mammoth tuition fees, no huge student loans, no nail-biting wait to see if I was admitted.  

I simply signed up and now I’m now taking a course at Wesleyan given by Michael Roth the President of the University, a brilliant, entertaining lecturer, an expert, among other things on the Enlightenment and
Modernist thought.

The current fees for tuition and housing at Wesleyan are about $60,000 a year. I’m taking this course for free.

Wesleyan is located in Middletown Connecticut. I’m taking the course in my home office in Paris. Professor Roth is not here on sabbatical. He’s on my computer screen. Whenever I want him.

The course is a product of a brave new world of education called MOOC, which stands for Massive On Line Courses. Massive indeed. I was one of more than 25,000 students across the globe, of all ages, all nationalities, all with different goals, who signed up to take this course which began last month.

This could be the beginning of an enormous revolution in education. Or maybe just a very glitzy but ultimately ineffectual technology.  Rather than write about it from the outside. I decided to sign up for a course myself.

I logged on to the site of Coursera, a startup founded just a year ago by two Stanford University professors, which now has more than three million students taking 320 university courses in 210 countries.

I scrolled through the catalogue of hundreds of on-line courses offered by professors from Stanford to Cal Tech to Duke to the University of Pennsylvania—Astronomy, Advanced Calculus, Marketing, Music, Art, Creative Writing, Computer Engineering.

One survey course given by Wesleyan University caught my fancy: “Modernism and Post Modernism”. 

We’d be covering the likes of Kant, Marx, Manet, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Virginia Wolfe, and so on. The last time I’d been confronted with such a challenging intellectual array was in college fifty years ago. To my shame, I’ve shied away from such reading ever since.

The course would be starting in a few days. It would run for fourteen weeks.

Signing up on line took about two minutes.

We’re now a little more than half way through the course, and it’s been great. I’m already recommending it to friends.  There’s nothing to lose but your own time.

This is the way it works: Ever Monday, Professor Roth uploads an hour’s video lecture to the course site, the lecture usually split into four 15 minute segments.  Whenever they choose, course members simply log on, download a segment, and watch it on their PC’s or laptops or IPads or whatever.

We’re not in the classroom with the professor, true. Many years ago, my father paid a pile so I could study at a top ivy-league university. I sat in cavernous lecture halls, often with hundreds of other students, listening to different Great Minds on the podium, scribbling notes as I tried to stay awake and keep up, jotting something down even if I wasn’t sure I understood it. I had precious little personal contact with those Great Minds.

I also take notes as Professor Roth talks. He’s on the screen just in front of me, most of the time, full-frame, dynamic, entertaining, comparing Emmanuel Kant with Jean Jacques Rousseau, reading poetry by Baudelaire, analyzing Sigmund Freud.  

But if I drift off or the telephone rings, and I need to review what he’s said--no problem. I put the professor on pause, go back a couple of minutes and play it again.

I also download written material—essays or articles or books by the figures we are covering that week. That material is also free.

True, most university courses usually break down into sections, giving students the chance to discuss what they’re studying face-to-face, directly with teaching assistants and each other.

There’s no such possibility with the kind of massive on line course I’m taking. Nor can we go personally to the professor at the end of class or during office hours to ask our penetrating questions.

On the other hand, there is an on-line discussion forum that any of us, from anywhere on the planet, can log on to and create a new “thread” related to the material we’re studying.

Some threads are predictably pedestrian. Others, more provocative. “What would Karl Marx have thought of the Arab Spring?”

The obvious interest and maturity of many such threads keeps me reading, thinking, and commenting myself. With some of my fellow students, a bond is already forming.  

Several threads were launched by students looking to hookup with others from their area to form their own study groups—from India, New York City, Seattle Bulgaria, Melbourne, Turkey, Iran. There are Spanish-speaking and Russian-speaking groups, but the most active is : “the Online, Older Study Group.”

What about exams or tests? There are 8 written assignments, limited to a maximum of 800 words, the subject given by Professor Roth at the beginning of the week; the essay due about five days later.

I do a lot of blogging, but I was surprised by how warily I approached the task of writing a cogent 800-word essay about such daunting figures as Darwin, Flaubert, or Nietzsche.

Because of the thousands of people taking the course, there is no way that Professor Roth and his two teaching assistants can grade the mountain of essays. Instead, we grade each other.

After submitting our own essay, I download the essays of three other students. i have no way of knowing who they are, but, furnished with instructions on how to evaluate them,  I proceed to pass judgment. I probably learn as much by agonizing over the essays of my peers as by writing my own assignments.  

I was also surprised by the tightening in my gut as I logged on to the site to find out what kind of marks my own essay received.

In a breathless blog, Coursera has just notified me that, though their company is less than a year old, students around the world have now signed up fro a “staggering 10 million courses.”

What Coursera doesn’t say, is that, though millions may sign up for free courses, millions also drop out before finishing. Of the 25,000 who signed up for the course I’m currently taking, probably only about 10% will finish.

Where is this phenomenon headed? If the courses are free, how can Coursera and the universities who are flooding into this market make money?

What’s in it for them? What’s really in it for the students? 

And how am I going to deal with the essay I’m supposed to write on Freud and Virginia Wolfe?

More on all that in my next blog.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

An Arab dictator gases his own people. Then and Now


America's outrage over the use of chemical weapons by Arab dictators depends on which dictator did the gassing and when they did it.

For instance, the regime of Syrian tyrant Bashar Al-Assad is exchanging accusations with Syrian rebels over the use of chemical weapons in their increasingly deadly battle. Both sides cite, among other things, video footage that apparently shows attack survivors—soldiers and civilians--gasping for breath.  

So far, investigators say evidence of a chemical attack by either side is far from convincing. But proof that Assad was indeed using such weapons of mass destruction would represent a major turning point in the conflict. 

The Obama administration—which has long been reluctant to intervene directly—has warned the Syrian dictator that the use of  chemical weapons would “constitute a red line for the United States.”

Republican Senators John Mc Cain and Lindsey Graham are particularly outraged. Their feelings are understandable-right? How could any U.S. administration stand by as an Arab dictator gassed his own people?

President Ronald Reagan not only turned his back on such ruthless attacks, though they were substantiated by grisly video evidence, but continued to aid the tyrant who was ordering the savagery.   

The dictator in question was Saddam Hussein. That of course was before the invasion of Iraq ten years ago when the George W. Bush acted to topple the tyrant he compared to Hitler .

It was in the 1980’s when the U.S. secretly backed Saddam after he invaded Iran. (Along with Michel Despratx I did a TV documentary covering on this subject)

When word first broke in 1983 that Iraq was using mustard gas against Iranian troops, the Reagan administration (after a verbal tap on the wrist delivered by then Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld) studiously ignored the issue. Saddam, after all, was then the West’s de facto partner in a war against the feared fundamentalist regime of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini.

Saddam’s chemical weapons were provided largely by companies in Germany and France (these days, France is also outraged that Assad may be using chemical weapons).

For its part, the United States provided Saddam with –among many other things — vital satellite intelligence on Iranian troop positions.

U.S. support for Saddam increased in 1988 when Rick Francona, then an Air Force captain, was dispatched to Baghdad by the Defense Intelligence Agency. His mission: to provide precise targeting plans to the Iraqis to cripple a feared a new Iranian offensive. Shortly after arriving, Francona discovered that the Iraqis were now using even more deadly chemical weapons — nerve gas — against the Iranians. 

He informed his superiors in Washington.

The response, he said, was immediate. “We were told to cease all of our cooperation with the Iraqis until people in Washington were able to sort this out. There were a series of almost daily meetings on ‘How are we going to handle this, what are we going to do?’ Do we continue our relations with the Iraqis and make sure the Iranians do not win this war, or do we let the Iraqis fight this on their own without any U.S. assistance, and they’ll probably lose? So there are your options — neither one palatable.” Francona concluded, “The decision was made that we would restart our relationship with the Iraqis … We went back to Baghdad, and continued on as before. ”

This policy continued even after it was discovered that Saddam was using chemical weapons against his own people, the Kurds of Halabja.

Fourteen years later, in March 2003, attempting to justify the coming invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush repeatedly cited the Halabja atrocity. “Whole families died while trying to flee clouds of nerve and mustard agents descending from the sky,” he said. “The chemical attack on Halabja provided a glimpse of the crimes Saddam Hussein is willing to commit.”

 But President Bush never explained the assistance that the United States had given Saddam at the time.
When news first broke about the atrocity in 1988, the Reagan administration did its utmost to prevent condemnation of Saddam, fighting Congress’ attempt to impose restrictions on trade with Iraq.
President George W. Bush’s father was then vice president. Another key administration figure involved in the fight was Reagan’s national security advisor, Gen. Colin Powell.

A few years later, with their former ally in the Gulf now their targeted enemy, George W. Bush (assisted by Colin Powell) brushed this history of complicity with real weapons of mass destruction under the rug, while using nonexistent WMD as a reason for war.

Could the issue of chemical weapons propel the U.S. into yet another bloody Middle Eastern conflict?

[On the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, you might be interested in checking out other chapters of the documentary I did with Michel Despratx of Canal + on America’s complicity with Saddam.]