The First Turning

A worldwide climate of positive change and hope for the future.

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MOOCs and the Intention of Education

The other day I read a U.S. News & World Report piece titled Where Do MOOCs Fit in Higher Education? The article mainly showcased the view of detractors of MOOCs—specifically focused on the coalition of faculty leaders that comprises The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), which last week issued letters to the heads of Coursera, edX and Udacity, and produced an accompanying video.

The central criticism in the letters and video was that these companies assert their online platforms to be a fix-all for education, particularly for underdeveloped areas and underserved populations—a claim that CFHE vehemently rebuts. The article goes on to highlight how the issue isn’t just with providing access to remote residents, but the lack of follow-through that occurs in a less social online environment: “… nearly all (90 percent) of those who register for MOOCs fail to complete them. Those who do complete the courses often already have a college degree.”

The letters and video do not mark the first time this group has voiced skepticism of online education providers—last fall it released three papers questioning the interest of private companies in these ventures, the promoted cost-savings, and whether or not the courses block access for people in some cases.

I am well aware of related and other criticisms of MOOCs, many of which I touch on in the chapter “From Malala to MOOCs: Educating the Planet” in The First Turning. Below is an excerpt in which I outline the concerns I’ve observed.

There are very few MOOCs offered for credit. Traditional universities are hesitant to give the seal of approval to this newcomer.

They highlight the Digital Divide. MOOCs are great as long as the enrollee has Internet access. The idea of “wiring the world” by providing Internet access in every part of the planet is fast becoming an issue. It is argued that online education needs to be provided for all citizens of the planet.

The business model for MOOCs remains hazy. Venture capitalists are eager to invest, however, there will come a day when MOOC providers must be self-sustaining. There is no current business model to suggest that a viable profit is in the offing.

Many university professors are leery of a platform that they see can potentially eliminating their jobs. The pushback from tenured faculty has been especially vocal.

While all concerns are valid, I think that detractors are missing the mark, particularly with regard to the aforementioned article and the issue of Internet access. One example of this repeated sentiment in the article is a quote by Frederick Kowal, president of United University Professions, who says, “The idea that you’re going to get underresourced individuals into a MOOC is based on unreality.”

Online education companies and MOOC platforms don’t claim to be broadband service providers or to perfectly support participants in completing a course, for that matter. What they seek to do is provide opportunity and access where once there was not, and to do it with the intention of people across the world being able to participate as suits their individual needs and interests. Anant Agarwal, chief executive officer of edX, sums it up well with one small phrase found within a quote in the article: “promoting the advancement of education.”

It seems to me that, at least at this point when the MOOC concept and pertinent technological infrastructure are still emerging and evolving, it is unproductive to argue the finer points of exactly who has access and where. What about focusing on the intention behind MOOCs instead?

The bottom line is that everyone can and should have access to education, no matter who they are or where they are from.

Highlighting this intention is precisely why I paired MOOCs with Malala Yousafzai in The First Turning. She has become emblematic of the power of education, particularly in underserved areas, and, as a result of her experience with the Taliban, is a crusader for universal education. Her voice isn’t that of a Silicon Valley capitalist. It is that of an innocent but informed girl who sees how a deficit in education and lack of dialogue about learning negatively impacts people and cultures in every corridor of the world – including her own. It is the voice of someone who sees the powerful potential for change.

Online education platforms are not a perfect product. Yet. But, the article does reference Daphne Koller, cofounder and president of Coursera, as expressing awareness of the challenges and taking measures to eliminate some of the obstacles—such as developing the Learning Hubs program to provide locations around the world with free Internet.

It will take time to put systems in place that reach everywhere and everyone, and people are working to make it happen. For now, though, the fact remains that access to education is expanding in ways that are unprecedented. Whether an individual already has earned a degree and lives in a Westernized country or has never gone to school and lives in a developing nation, people with the appetite to learn are finding sustenance.

And in my mind, any opportunity to grow and cultivate knowledge and understanding in the world is a good thing, and is something that should be encouraged for all citizens of the world.


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The Power of #BringBackOurGirls

In The First Turning I wrote a chapter titled “Social Media: Not Your Neighbor’s Front Porch” in which I examine how social media has linked the world’s citizens and given people a launch pad for more than just social interaction. In recent years, social media sites have become a powerful platform for calling attention to real issues in the world – mobilizing humanitarian aid efforts in such instances as the devastating earthquake in Haiti and rallying behind the rights of those whose civil liberties are being transgressed by their nation’s own leaders, as seen in Egypt and China.

Today I am once again reminded of how social media can be used to run to the aid of those in need. On April 14, nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls were herded out of their beds at their school by Boko Haram militants and abducted into the area’s dense forest. As of today—May 8, 2014—276 remain missing.

Though media outlets have given, and continue to give, the story some real estate in their programs and on their pages, it is largely the digital chatter that has led to increased attention on the matter. In the days since their disappearance, people across the globe have been adding their voice to a rising chorus calling for the girls’ freedom. On Twitter, #BringBackOurGirls has become one of the trending digital chants. Upon news that the girls would become shared wives among the militants, the hashtagged exclaim exploded—it has now been tweeted more than 1 million times.


Not one of us can know what the Nigerian girls are experiencing, but certain things come to mind. Alone. Frightened. Terrified. Worse yet, forgotten. In this moment, we cannot stave off their fear. In this moment, we cannot make them feel less terrified. We are not yet able to say with certainty that they will be saved.

But one thing we can do is to let the 276 girls and their families know that they are not forgotten.

We can sound the alarm on this gross violation of human rights and urge those with the power to affect change to do just that. We can build this worldwide campaign to epic proportions such that it envelopes the strife of the Nigerian girls and their families in a message of strength and solidarity, in a message of compassion and love.

And eventually, we can use the powers of social media among other measures in a globally coordinated surge to uncover the elusive dealings of the ruthless Boko Haram and put an end to the terror Shekau and his militants are igniting across the land in Nigeria. We can continue using our powers for good; we can continue applying them toward a new, better, more peaceful world.


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Delving into a Tough Topic: The U.S. Combats Sexual Assault on College Campuses

In starting this blog I felt the need to address one of the foremost issues in the national news today—that being sexual assault—but I debated over whether or not to start out the blog with a topic of gravitas or if this new beginning should be marked more by levity. Then I reflected on why I wrote The First Turning.

I wanted to call attention to significant moments in our recent history, to the people involved, and to the modern infrastructure that connects it all as a means of capturing the march forward to a new time… to a new First Turning. Ultimately, the book outlines a story of hope and change for a better, brighter future. It indicates a world more attuned in its relationships, whether they be among people or between nations or with the environment. And, as it goes with such an outlook, it’s important to realize that, often, good comes from bad, peace follows war, success is born from hardship, and so on.

With that in mind, I think it would be remiss not to mention the current issues of sexual assault on college campuses across the nation. As of May 1, 2014, there were 55 U.S. colleges and universities under investigation for potential violations of Title IX, which prohibits gender discrimination at colleges receiving federal funds. This marks the first time that such a list has been made public by the Department of Education, which in and of itself marks a significant change from the past.

As a New York Times article published on May 3, 2014 asserted, “there is scant evidence that sexual assault is more or less prevalent than in the past.” But clearly there’s been a shift in terms of people feeling a responsibility to bring the topic forth. That is not to say there aren’t still barriers preventing people from feeling able to share such difficult and disturbing personal accounts; there are deeply entrenched cultural perceptions and misperceptions regarding sexual assault that are hurtful and dismissive to those who have been affected by such acts. But as the same article points out, individuals are now asking for aid and justice from the institutions meant to protect and serve them. There is a boldness that has emerged, with brave individuals inspiring each other and giving a collective voice to such a serious issue.

Views of sexual assault and how it should be accounted for and handled differ—specifically in the context of college campuses and the drinking culture that surrounds college students—but no difference in opinion can ignore the fact that it occurs with more frequency than ever acknowledged or realized, and that it warrants the attention of institutions and their administrators, of the public and the government.

One of the chapters in The First Turning focuses on The Velvet Armada—the group of women senators in the U.S. who have been forging ahead as their own critical mass in an attempt to reform federal legislation across a variety of issues. These women senators are bridging partisan lines to do what is right for the nation, as opposed to what each side deems is right for the party. Sexual assault—not just on college campuses, but in the military and elsewhere—has become one of their primary focuses.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D – NY) has been at the forefront of the effort to combat sexual assault on college campuses. In April 2014 she penned a letter with a bipartisan coalition of seven U.S. senators encouraging the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to consider three proposals that outlined immediate ways to address the prevalence of the issue. Gillibrand has teamed up with Senator Claire McCaskill—fellow Democrat but former adversary on plans to address military sexual assault—to lead the charge advocating for greater protections for victims. The fact that these two women can work together less than two months after divisive work on another major issue illustrates what a First Turning represents: collective strength emerging from crisis.

Though the story is yet to play out fully, the tenacity with which these senators are pursuing change—alongside sexual assault victims and advocacy groups—is giving a glimmer of light to a shadowed arena. In considering what it means to find ourselves on the brink of a better, brighter future, their work is a sure mark of the next First Turning.


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