Tag Archives: technology

Are venture capital funded MOOCs a good idea?

Guest post by Bill Ferster

The pressure from skyrocketing costs and competition from e-learning efforts at universities have made online educational technology a source of much discussion. Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia, was summarily fired in a coup d’etat in 2012 (and subsequently rehired because of protests from an outraged faculty and campus community) ostensibly because the university’s governing board of visitors perceived her not to be embracing online education rapidly enough.

If one is to believe the press, from obscure educational journals to the New York Times, the teaching machine for the start of the twenty-first century is the MOOC. Massive open online courses are the latest contender, where courses from commercial companies and prestigious universities such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are offered online to huge numbers of participants, often thousands at a time. There are those who view MOOCs as the savior to managing the ever-spiraling cost of higher education, and others who see them as sowing the seeds of the demise of the university as we know it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

It is important to see some of these potentially threatening educational innovations (such as MOOCs) in the same way that their providers see them: as experiments. Daphne Koller, co-founder of venture capital-funded MOOC developer Coursera, views the MOOC as an unprecedented opportunity to use large numbers of people to scientifically test what works. She proposes conducting controlled experiments she refers to as “A/B testing,” wherein a change is made to instruction for some population of students and not for others. Because of the large numbers of students not typically available in traditional educational research, the results of the change can be tested empirically for its effectiveness and the overall instruction changed accordingly.

To me, the more concerning issues about the commercial MOOC providers is the source of their funding: venture capitalists. Venture capital is provided by investment firms to fund early stage companies. These firms typically invest in a large number of startups with the assumption that 90 percent of them will fail, but the 10 percent that thrive will yield a return on investment of at least 300 percent (known in their parlance as a “3-bagger”). This strategy has been extremely successful in the high-technology sector and in large part is responsible for the phenomenal products and companies that have emerged from Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms provide a strong support network to help guide new entrepreneurs, but their model has its darker side.
There is an inherent instability in any “disposable” relationship. The funded companies typically cede a significant amount of control in exchange for the millions of dollars they receive. When the company delivers the kinds of profits that the funders see as significant, that control can be very constructive and nurturing. But if the company underperforms or takes longer to deliver, it can find itself among the “walking dead,” with just enough capital to stay in business but not enough to grow, closed down completely, or merged with another of the firm’s portfolio of funded companies.

The venture funding method has worked well in high-technology, but I worry about the effect of this volatility on education. Students have traditionally relied on the longevity and stability of their institutions, and the basic venture capital model may weaken those properties. This issue will become all the more important as MOOCs inevitably begin to offer accreditation and other forms of credentials validating student efforts.

fersterBill Ferster is a research professor at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and the director of visualization for the Sciences, Humanities & Arts Technology Initiative (SHANTI). He is the author of  Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology and Interactive Visualization: Insight through Inquiry.

 

Comments Off on Are venture capital funded MOOCs a good idea?

Filed under Academia, Education, For Everyone, Higher Education

Q&A with the authors of THE AMISH

kraybillRead on for an informative, sometimes surprising Q&A with Donald B. Kraybill, Karen M. Johnson-Weiner, and Steven M. Nolt, authors of The Amish, the definitive portrayal of the Amish in America in the twenty-first century.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: Mainstream Americans are fascinated by the Amish—and so are we. But despite the rise of Amish-themed tourism, television shows, and romance novels, there is surprisingly little authoritative information available about them. Although there are books about the Amish in specific locations or particular practices, there was no book that provided a comprehensive picture of the enormous diversity of Amish life. There are more than forty types of Amish in 460 communities across North America. We’ve spent more than a quarter century getting to know these people, and wanted to share the remarkable diversity and resilience we’ve found.

Q: What do you think would most surprise the average American about Amish life/culture?

A: Their friendliness and humor when you learn to know them. How satisfied they are even without the latest household conveniences and online technology. Also, people would be surprised by their creativity and inventiveness when it comes to technology. They’re not dour folks left over from the 19th century.

Q: Is the Amish population shrinking?

A: No, the Amish are growing rapidly. Their population doubles about every 20 years, and today they number more than 275,000. So they are thriving even in the midst of a hypermodern, high-tech society.

Q: What exactly is Rumspringa?

A: Rumspringa is the time when Amish youth can “run around” and socialize with their peers away from the watchful eyes of parents. This typically occurs between the age of sixteen and when they marry, which is usually around 20-22 years of age. Rumspringa is a time to find a spouse and to decide if they want to join the Amish church and make a lifetime commitment to it. During this time youth live at home, but on weekends hang out with their friends. Most of them are not yet baptized church members, so they are not yet accountable to the rules of the church. In some communities rowdy groups engage in “worldly activities” which may include driving cars, using alcohol, and participating in the nightlife of public entertainment. In other communities these activities rarely happen during Rumspringa.

Q: Why do you think the Amish have become the darlings of Reality TV?

A: For starters, the Amish are interesting because they appear so different from the rest of us. Outsiders have trouble imagining that anyone would be satisfied living without a car, a smart phone, or a high school education. So Amish-themed reality TV sets up lives that are radically different and “Amish” characters who then rebel against Amish ways of life, smashing our stereotypes of quiet, reclusive, rural pacifists.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from reading The Amish?

A: The fact that Amish society has enormous diversity and complexity and is not simple or simplistic. The Amish are a robust and ingenious American group that has creatively developed ways to negotiate with the outside world to both maintain their traditions and tap many benefits of modern life.

Interested in learning more? Take a look at The Amish and Technology and From Rumspringa to Marriage, chapter excerpts from The Amish that explore two of the most fascinating aspects of Amish culture.

2 Comments

Filed under Amish, Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, For Everyone

“If I Stop a Shell, Send My Things Home”

Guest post by David Hochfelder

During the Civil War, the War Department operated a U.S. Military Telegraph (USMT) network that handled 6.5 million messages between Washington, D.C., and commanders in the field. At its peak in 1865, the USMT managed 8,000 miles of military lines it had built and another 5,000 miles of commercial lines in occupied Southern states. About 1,200 operators and linemen ran this far-flung system. Union generals were unanimous in their praise, universally claiming that it was a major key to a Northern victory. Just as importantly, the military telegraph enabled political leaders to maintain civilian authority over military operations and to control the flow of news. President Lincoln, as is well known, spent countless hours in the War Department telegraph office.

This Matthew Brady photograph, "US Military Telegraph Operators, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac," captured both the youth of military telegraphers and their living and working conditions.  National Archives NWDNS-111-B-7208, July 1863.

This Matthew Brady photograph, “U.S. Military Telegraph Operators, Headquarters, Army of the Potomac,” captured both the youth of military telegraphers and their living and working conditions. National Archives NWDNS-111-B-7208, July 1863.

Of the 1,200 who staffed the USMT, about 200 were killed, wounded, or captured by the enemy. Many operators occupied front-line positions. Consider the experiences of Luther Rose, a USMT operator assigned to the headquarters of General Winfield Scott Hancock of the Army of the Potomac. Rose’s papers (held at the Library of Congress) describe the dangers many USMT operators faced, as well as the value of the telegraph as a military tool. Take, for example, the May 1864 battle of Spotsylvania, a major part of Ulysses Grant’s Wilderness campaign.

Rose set up his sending and receiving instruments at 3:30 AM, an hour before Hancock began a pre-dawn attack on the Confederate lines. This allowed Hancock to coordinate the attack with other corps commanders. Favored with a heavy early-morning fog, Hancock’s advance was successful. Later in the day, however, the Confederates desperately counterattacked. Hancock telegraphed to his superior, General George Gordon Meade, that he was unable to hold his gains unless the 6th Corps on his right came to his support. Ten minutes later, as Rose recorded in his diary, “the 6th Corps was thundering away & Hancock held his own . . .  Here the Telegraph came forcibly into play, showing to what great benefit it could be used.”

Rose later described his telegraph instrument as “the principal channel” through which passed the orders determining the movements of Hancock’s corps during the Wilderness campaign. Similarly, Meade later recalled that, on July 30, 1864, he had sent or received over 100 telegrams during the ill-fated, five-hour Battle of the Crater at Petersburg, or one every three minutes. Rose himself operated from an artillery battery during the engagement, demonstrating the utility of the telegraph for real-time battlefield use.

Such positions exposed Rose and other operators to the same enemy fire experienced by front-line troops. Although Rose came through the war unscathed, he endured artillery fire on several occasions. He and a companion operator were so close to the front at Spotsylvania that heavy shelling frequently broke their wire. The two took turns splicing the breaks, remarking, before setting out, “If I stop a shell, send my things home.” At Cold Harbor in June 1864, he nearly did stop a shell. Confederate barrages killed a nearby mule and took off the camp provost marshal’s leg. Rose was especially exposed to enemy fire because when the headquarters moved, telegraphers were the last to move out.

Despite the dangers and hardships USMT operators faced, both the Grand Army of the Republic (the largest organization of Civil War veterans) and the Federal government denied them recognition. The GAR continually denied telegraphers admission into their ranks because USMT personnel were civilians with no military rank. For the same reason, Congress refused to offer veterans’ pensions to USMT operators. Only after the turn of the century did wealthy steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie (himself a former telegrapher) set up a pension fund for them.

hochfelderDavid Hochfelder is an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York, Albany, and author of the recently published The Telegraph in America, 1832–1920.

1 Comment

Filed under American History, Civil War, History, War and Conflict

Amish Immersion, Part III: A community of traditions and beliefs

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen Johnson-Weiner and Steven Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicked-off this three-part blog series on Wednesday.

By Greg Nicholl, acquisitions editor

A few colleagues and I joined the authors of The Amish for a three day trip to Lancaster County, which the group affectionately dubbed our “Amish Immersion.” In the days prior, I wondered what I would need to do to prepare for the excursion. I have been working on Anabaptist books for some time now, but this was new territory. This was physically placing the reader face-to-face with the subject of our books without the distance afforded by the printed page. I was worried that I would speak or act in a way that would offend our Amish hosts. I also certainly didn’t want to be seen as just another tourist who had come to ogle. But in a sense, wasn’t that what we were doing? The phrase “Don’t tap on the glass” ran through my head again and again.

As the editor of Amish books, it is important for me to see and experience Amish culture firsthand in order to better understand the books that we publish. This insight also allows me to be a better editor for our authors. But this trip offered me even more: it provided me with knowledge of a community not often experienced on such a personal level. The three days I spent in Lancaster County—during which I visited Amish stores, such as a quilt shop and a flower shop; thriving businesses, including a stove factory and wood shop; and the dining tables of everyday families who opened up their homes to us—will forever rank among the top five experiences of my life.

The excursion was coordinated by Donald B. Kraybill, Distinguished Professor and Senior Fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. I continue to be in awe of the respect this man has garnered within both the scholarly community and the Amish community. This trip was no different. Every person we met in every house and business invited us in, offered us coffee, and opened up their personal lives to us. One Amish gentleman even mentioned that he turns to Don’s books to learn why he and his family do the things that they do. (He may not know the reason behind a particular tradition, but Don and all the authors in the series certainly do.) This is how knowledgeable our authors are about the Amish.

Coauthors Karen M. Johnson-Weiner (read her take on the immersion trip here) and Steven M. Nolt were invaluable in providing information as well. When we asked our three experts questions, we always received a well-rounded answer. Karen informed us about the ways of the more conservative Swartzentruber Amish, who live in upstate New York. While the Lancaster Amish may use battery-powered lamps above their dining room tables, for instance, the Swartzentruber communities rely solely on kerosene lamps or candles. Steve, who grew up next to these Lancaster farms, was also able to give us insight into the local traditions as opposed to the traditions of Amish communities in Indiana, where he is a professor at Goshen College.

While the things I experienced in those three days could fill multiple blog entries, I will distill it down to this: Yes, we ate lots of pie. Yes, we rode in a buggy. And, yes, we were tourists looking in on a community most of us had only ever heard about. But ask any one of us what happened on October 2, 2006, at the West Nickel Mines School, or tell us to locate the town of Nickel Mines on a map, and we will tell you about the five pear trees planted alongside the road and what they stand for, and about how a community turned to forgiveness in the wake of the shooting. We can also tell you that there is much more to the Amish than what is portrayed on television: they are a community that embraces family and friends and holds tight to their traditions and beliefs as they continue to move forward.

KraybillRumspringaShortKraybillTechnologyShortInterested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each. And read Kathy Alexander’s take on the trip here.

1 Comment

Filed under Amish, Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, Behind the Scenes, For Everyone

Amish Immersion, Part II: What should we wear?

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen Johnson-Weiner and Steven Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicked-off this three-part blog series on Wednesday.

By Kathy Alexander, head publicist

As I prepared for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I peppered our authors, all leading experts in the field, with questions. What should we wear? When we have dinner in Amish homes, will we sit at the same table? Any major no-no’s we should avoid? I certainly didn’t want to unknowingly offend our hosts! Their instructions were: wear dark colors; avoid makeup or flashy jewelry. Beyond that, we should be ourselves—but don’t use the word “publicity.” (Note to self: Leave my business cards at home.)

Finally, the day arrived. I couldn’t believe how excited I was. I’d visited Lancaster County numerous times in my life, but it had always been as a tourist or as a shopper (there are great outlets in the area). Our authors had arranged for us to tour a couple of farms, a wood shop, a  stove factory, a quilt shop, a bookstore, a school, and an Amish restaurant; we’d also have dinner with a couple of Amish families. They’d even obtained permission for me to go for a buggy ride and to help with the chores: feeding and brushing the horses, sweeping out the barn. Normally, this is not what I would consider fun, but, in this instance, it was all part of the immersion experience.

I went to Lancaster looking for the differences between the Amish and the non-Amish world, and there were many: the presence of gas lamps, horses and buggies, and homemade clothes in muted colors that all looked alike; the absence of family pictures, street lights, TVs, and radios. What I didn’t expect was the openness! Our hosts welcomed us into their homes and workplaces as friends. When we entered a house, they brought out a stack of folding chairs and put them in a circle so that we could talk. They explained how they converted 120v electricity from 12v batteries, how they purchased material for quilts, how far they shipped their products, how they taught their children, and on and on. Nothing seemed to be off limits.

They had only one question for us: “Have you seen the show about the Amish mafia?” They were very concerned with the way the media was portraying the Amish, and had no way to counter the perception. Our authors, Donald B. Kraybill, Steve M. Nolt, and Karen M. Johnson-Weiner (read her take on our immersion trip here), have studied the Amish for over twenty-five years. They have assured me that the Amish mafia is a fabrication of the media.

Now, as I look back on the experience, my lasting impression is not of the differences that I found but of the similarities. The Amish belong to a close-knit community. They love their family and friends, and cherish their children. They are also very happy to help others. In shop after shop, I saw mimeographed flyers asking for volunteers to help rebuild houses destroyed by Hurricane Sandy (the Amish had hired buses to take them to New Jersey and New York). They also have an annual fundraising event to help the people of Haiti (and no, they have no mission in Haiti to recruit new members). They do these things because someone needs help, and they are happy to provide it.

What an absolutely eye-opening experience. I can’t wait for our new book to come out. There is so much more I want to learn about this loving people.

KraybillRumspringaShortKraybillTechnologyShortInterested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each.

1 Comment

Filed under Amish, Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, Behind the Scenes, For Everyone

Amish Immersion, Part I: An author confronts the diversity that is the Amish world

The JHU Press has been publishing books on Amish and Anabaptist culture for over 45 years. With this in mind, Donald B. Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College and the driving force behind our groundbreaking series in Anabaptist and Pietist studies, invited editor Greg Nicholl and head publicist Kathy Alexander to spend a few days immersed in Amish life in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They were joined by Karen M. Johnson-Weiner and Steven M. Nolt, both prominent scholars of Anabaptist culture and coauthors, with Dr. Kraybill, of the Press’s forthcoming book, The Amish. This week, we’re happy to share the impressions Greg and Kathy took away from their “Amish immersion” this past January, as well as Professor Johnson-Weiner’s take on the whole experience, which kicks off this three-part blog series.

Guest post by Karen Johnson-Weiner

In preparing for the “Amish immersion” in Lancaster County, I wondered a lot about what my JHU Press colleagues would think. I had stayed in different Amish homes in the course of doing fieldwork, and only one of these experiences seemed like something one could do with folks who’d never experienced Amish life. I’d spent time with Amish friends in Southwestern Michigan, and their home had indoor plumbing. It was the most upscale Amish home I was ever in. Most of my Amish stays have been far more primitive. There was the home in Ohio, for example, where the outhouse was about 20 yards away and could be reached only by using the little plank bridge to cross a little stream. Not user friendly at 3 a.m.! And there was a stay in Missouri with folks so plain they used no machines. In the Mohawk Valley, New York, I took my bath in a galvanized steel tub in the wash house—not something one could do every day. In fact, in the past when traveling for fieldwork, I routinely brought a scarf to cover my hair and planned a hotel visit at the end of my stay so that I could stand under a shower for a long time. (I thought that would be only fair to anyone I sat next to on a plane!) Somehow, I didn’t think the Lancaster County visit would be like this.

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect from our immersion. I’d spent a lot of time doing work in Lancaster County, but mostly with Mennonites in the Groffdale Conference—the so-called Wenger Mennonites. Like the Old Order Amish, Wenger Mennonites use horses and buggies (all black, in contrast to the Lancaster Amish gray), but their homes have electricity and telephones. The Lancaster Amish were new to me—and much different from those with whom I work.

Harvested iceblocks being pulled by a horses at a Swartzentruber community. Photo by Karen Johnson-Weiner.

Harvested ice blocks being pulled by a horses at a Swartzentruber community. Photo by Karen Johnson-Weiner.

From the beginning, there were surprises. I found it hard at first to recognize Amish homes. The presence of multiple homes on the same site—dawdy houses indicating multiple generations—was a giveaway, but there were fewer obvious indications of Amish ownership than I am used to. I have done much of my work in ultra-conservative Swartzentruber communities, where all homes are built to the same pattern. In fact, when someone buys an “English” or non-Amish home, they quickly begin making renovations so that it will look like a Swartzentruber home: white, two-floors, a front porch that runs the width of the house. The Lancaster homes were all different! And landscaped! And many had solar panels. Businesses, too, were different—larger, powered by large generators, some with a sizable work force, all with telephones, some with computers. These are a sharp contrast to the small family businesses of the most conservative communities, in which the size of a generator—if one were even permitted—would be strictly controlled. I remember that once, in a conservative Swiss community, a young furniture maker installed a larger generator. (In contrast to Lancaster builders, who use pneumatically-driven machines, his powered belts that ran machines.) This brought a visit from the ministers, who basically told him that his generator was too big and violated the Ordnung, or discipline, of the church. The young man ended up leaving his community. Yet his big generator would have been swamped by some we saw.

In the guest house there were propane lights, which were new to me. These aren’t permitted in many more conservative communities, and I appreciate their brightness. From minute one of our immersion, I was confronting the diversity that is the Amish world!

kraybillKaren M. Johnson-Weiner is a professor of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam, coauthor of the forthcoming The Amish, and author of Train Up a Child: Old Order Amish and Mennonite Schools, published by the JHU Press, and New York Amish: Life in the Plain Communities of the Empire State. 

Interested in knowing more about the Amish now? Check out our two digital shorts taken from The Amish, From Rumspringa to Marriage and The Amish and Technology, for only $2.99 each. 

3 Comments

Filed under Amish, Anabaptist & Pietist Studies, Behind the Scenes, For Everyone