Monthly Archives: October 2013

MOOCs and the Walking Dead

Walking zombie

Zombie

I restarted this blog in anticipation of a Coursera class “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” which starts next Monday. A few weeks ago I started my first MOOC outside the Coursera umbrella, “Society, Science, Survival: Lessons from AMC’s The Walking Dead” from Canvas Network and I want to make a few observations about the two systems.

The first distinction is that where all of Coursera’s classes are (so far) free and the best you can get from taking their classes is a Certificate of Completion (you can get a Verified Certificate for some classes for about $80). With Canvas Network some classes have tuition costs and for some you can earn credit for. Some only offer Continuing Education Credits, others do offer full college credit but require a proctored exam, both cost extra.

Both systems offer a mix of job related classes and what I call real education, language arts, mathematics, and the humanities, classes that teach you to think and learn, more than simply how to earn a paycheck.

Since this is my first Canvas class I can’t say anything about their overall quality. I can say that although this class could easily be written off as fluff based only on its name so far it has been quite good. It is a multidisciplinary class using the television series “The Walking Dead” as a cultural touchstone. It is not necessary to watch the show but it gives those of us who do, this includes the professors, a shared frame of reference for discussions.

Much of the learning in any class, online and in a brick and mortar classroom, takes place during discussions. The discussion boards on both sites could be improved but the one on Canvas is bad. It was bad when it was designed. Which I imagine was a decade ago from its look and feel. They should look the discussion boards on LibraryThing.com for inspiration. Those boards are easy to navigate, buttons to go back to the top or down to new posts make long threads usable. Numbered posts that identify the author make it easy to carry on a conversation even when someone else’s post separates your comment from the original.

I am glad to see that Canvas offers MOOC’s that reward the student with credit even if it is at a price. Without income these sites will disappear and without a tangible reward most people are not going to pay.

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Stop Confusion don’t Eschew Obfuscation

20 volumn OED

Oxford English Dictionary

     I really, really dislike gobbledy gook and jargon. Although I understand that at times there is a need to use multi-syllable words I believe that most of the time they are used to impress, not to inform. Like large diamonds and flashy cars are used to show off wealth polysyllabic words are used to show off a big vocabulary as if that was an indication of wisdom. I have preached about it in several of the book reviews I have done over on LibraryThing.com and I expect that I will again.

     There was a great example of when it is necessary to use big words to get your point across in a recent episode of Modern Family. Ed O’Neal’s character was playing, and winning, Words with Friends with his granddaughter, the smart one, and she was convinced he was cheating. When she confronts him he simply explains that he has a large vocabulary. Not in those words of course, he explains it in a sentence packed with an impressive number of syllables, giving indisputable evidence of the truth of the statement. That is the only reason, in my unhumble opinion, to use those words, when nothing else will work. Why is it we see the value of the common man but not the common word? 

     A teacher I used to work for once told me that the reason we learn language is to communicate. If we try to communicate with words that people may or may not understand are we sure we are communicating? Howard S. Becker in his book Writing for the Social Scientist, said much the same thing. Over use of technical jargon and obscure words interferes with communications. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an article  on much the same topic this week. However I have never read the book in question and although I agree with what Mr. Gladwell is saying I also have to allow for the possibility that Christopher Chabris is correct in this instance. There are times when some obscure word that requires the reader to grab a dictionary and read all the way to the final, most obscure, definition, is exactly what the writer needs to express their idea.

     Like curse words, technical jargon and academic speech need to be reserved for when they are truly needed. Common words, comfort words that fit like an old slipper are almost always the best choice to express your ideas. However if your hammer slips and you split your thumb open like a grape “Gosh!” will not be enough to accurately express the moment.

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Bones in the Basement

    Late in the summer of 1989 workers renovating a building in Augusta, Georgia found a large number of human bones buried in the earth of the Bones BAsebasement floor. What they found was not evidence of mass murder but it was evidence of crime. Bodysnatching. From its construction in 1837 until 1912 the building had housed the Medical College of George where in spite of dissection being illegal in Georgia until 1887 and cadavers were impossible to acquire legally, but anatomy was still taught by dissecting human bodies. Possibly because disposing of the bodies was as dangerous as procuring them the cellar became the final resting place for many of the human subjects.

    Robert Blakely was then teaching forensic anthropology at the University of Georgia in Augusta, hearing about the discovery he organized his students for hands on learning by performing an archeological “salvage” dig at the site. Almost eight years later “Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth- Century Medical Training”, the synthesis of what was learned out of that salvage dig, was published. Edited by Blakely and Harrington the book is a collection of twelve essays that examine the finds from as many different perspectives.

    My interest in medical history brought me read to this very worthwhile book. My background is in history, not archeology, and the emphasis on explaining the research procedures on the more technical topics was a pleasant surprise for my techy nerdish side. I can’t say I understood everything about the spectrographic analysis of trace elements in the bones and how they relate to the diet the person had in life but I did understand the implications and the limitations of the findings. Reading this essay was also a humbling experience. My sophomore paper on nutrition on Jamaican plantations was not original but at least I didn’t make any major errors.

     I was on firmer ground with the essay on the life and work of Grandison Harris,  who the college purchased to procure bodies for the dissection tables and to insulate the professors and students from the legal consequences of discovery. Even here, in what could have been a simple biographical sketch the anthropological perspective was, for me, an interesting and fresh approach to biography.

     This is the best example I know of  interdisciplinary research being used to advance historical knowledge. I learned about medical and social history and this book showed me things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. For instance there are procedures to identify the sex or race of a body by bones besides the cranium and pelvis but they depend on knowing either the sex or the race to determine the other. How do you sex a pile of disarticulated bones? Now I know.

     I enjoyed this book, it was at times a challenge but one that J thought was worth the effort. It covers a very narrow object but it covers it very thoroughly. If you are interested in medical history or modern archeology I recommend you take a look at it.

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