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University of the People Gets Accredited

Posted February 19, 2014 By Steve

Preemptive Note: As a disclaimer, I should add that I’m not an unbiased observer here. I believe I know a better model to reach students in low and middle income countries in a scalable, financially sustainable way, and that way is New World University, which cooperates with partner organizations to reach students in person rather than solely online. I’m the president of this new institution, and we’re in the midst of a slow rollout. I’ll be making a major announcement about it soon.


accredited seal
My friend Michael Strong asked me what I thought about the University of the People becoming accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council, and my response grew a little too long to be a Facebook comment, and I thought it might be of general interest, so I thought I may as well post it here.

To start, and most importantly, I think it’s always good when students have more choices, and I’m hopeful that University of the People will become a good choice for many. It’s clearly a legitimate institution that is dedicated to bringing higher education to those who really need it, and that’s praiseworthy.

However, in the midst of all the accolades I do have a few observations that are a little less bullish. First, UotP’s model of using online learning coupled with volunteer instructors will limit their ability to grow rapidly to meet the needs of the billions-with-a-b students around the world who need better access to quality higher education. Many people have asked questions about their financial viability: they can keep going so long as founder Shai Reshef continues to bankroll them. But is there a plan for the institution to become self-sustaining?

Second, they cleverly market themselves to students and even more so to the media as a “tuition free university”. Technically this is true, although this is a case where the large print giveth, and the fine print taketh away. They don’t charge tuition, but they do charge an admission fee of up to fifty dollars, and each of the 40 courses required to complete one of their degrees is assessed by a proctored examination that costs one hundred dollars to take. That means the “total cost of ownership” of a degree from University of the People is not zero, it’s $4,050.

Now, in a sense that’s a very weak objection. After all, no university will ever really be able to do this for free, and four grand is obviously still an order of magnitude less than most degrees from U.S. based universities. But it’s not necessarily less than attending university costs in countries where UotP seems to be attracting a lot of interest, countries where most people don’t have four large lying around. They say that they’re keen to raise funds to provide scholarships to defray those expenses for as many students as they can, and that’s great, I hope they raise millions, but that alone is not a novelty, and even the wealthiest education philanthropist in the world has said that non-profits cannot meet all the world’s educational needs.

Finally, accreditation by DETC is real, but the U.S. system of accreditation is very complex and warrants explanation. There are two categories of institutional accreditation in the U.S. The first is regional accreditation, which is universally recognized in the U.S. and around the world. The second is national accreditation, which is legitimate and is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, but for historical reasons is less well recognized by better regarded universities in the U.S. and is often not accepted by university systems in other countries. Personally, I respect DETC and think that a school they accredit is fine and that objections to them are mostly academic snobbery, but I hope this choice doesn’t limit the options of UotP’s graduates..

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Once More Unto The Breach, Dear Friends….

Posted January 29, 2014 By Steve

I’ve been a little nervous about sharing this, because I know I’ve enrolled in quite a few doctoral programs in the past only to decide they weren’t right for me, or, more recently, that I just wasn’t at the right time of life to get through such a program.

However, I’ve always kept my eyes open for an ideal doctoral program in educational leadership or educational technology, one that had very low tuition rates, very liberal transfer credit allowances, and that seemed to have its act together organizationally.

I decided that school is the University of the Cumberlands, and I’ve enrolled in their doctoral program in Educational Leadership. I applied somewhat on a lark — actually, they sucked me in by responding to my filling out a web form that I meant only as an inquiry by thanking me for having filled out an application and saying all I needed to do was submit the materials to accompany it, e.g., recommendation, transcripts, test score, and essay. Since they did such a great job making it sound like I was already in progress, I found myself going ahead and submitting everything else. Very smooth, UC.

Now, that alone wouldn’t have been enough to get me to enroll, but they did a number of other things right. Their admissions person was helpful and informative but never pushy. She offered to let me submit additional references in lieu of a test score, but since they accepted the Miller Analogies Test, which takes like an hour, I just went and took the test. They went out of their way to accept all my previous doctoral work rather than look for ways to reject it like some schools, and as a result I got the maximum of 18 semester-hours of transfer. Since the whole program is 60 semester-hours, that means I walked in being 30% done.

Then there’s the money. At $375 each, my 42 remaining semester-hours will cost a total of $15,750. And those courses can be taken one at a time, six terms per year, which is the sort of scheduling I prefer.

I’m a few weeks into the first course now, and the instructor has presented the material in an engaging manner, and she’s flexible about when assignments are submitted. There’s a weekly synchronous component, but so far it’s been about an hour each week, and it’s actually been useful and fun to participate. It’s decent material, but the workload is entirely manageable and the expectations are reasonable. I also appreciate they talk about the dissertation from the from course, and that their completion rate is very high — unlike some schools, they actually want people to finish.

It’s also nice to do this sort of thing on the buddy system, and my friend and my fellow Virginian Matt Brent has also signed up for the same program, although we’re in different classes this term.

Anyway, that’s what’s up.

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Pirates Be Here!
Once again Antigua is in the news for threatening to allow open distribution of materials that have been copyrighted by U.S.-based entities. This stems from a ruling by the World Trade Organisation that by forbidding Americans from accessing gambling web sites in other countries, but allowing them to go to Las Vegas and Atlantic City instead, the U.S. government was protecting their own industry by limiting access to foreign competitors. Even though they’ve lost as much as a billion dollars from U.S. protectionism here, the Antiguans haven’t yet taken advantage of the ruling, and it’s widely believed this is the case because of the fear of dire reprisal from the Colossus to the North.

It’s a fascinating case, and one that anyone interested in international trade should follow. In the meantime, though, to help one gain an understanding, one of the more amusing analogies for explaining why the Antiguans have such a strong case comes from Greg Sabino Mullane, who wrote:

They’re doing it flagrantly because it’s explicitly tit-for-tat. It’s their way of pointedly asking “Do we have rules or not?”



Let’s say you and I are sociopathic assholes, so whereas most people might have some kind of implicit social contract, and a sense of how people should act decently to one another, we’re jerks and write up and agree to some formal rules. Among these rules are things like “Neither party will ever hit the other in the head with a hammer and then steal their wallet while the victim is incapacitated.” Call that the WIPO rule.



We have another rule too. It’s “Neither party will ever vandalize the other’s car.” Call that the WTO rule.



Then I go and vandalize your car, totally in violation of the rules. I don’t deny it, either. Instead, I explain I had good reasons to do it. “I really wanted to vandalize your car, and it looked so vulnerable. I just couldn’t help it!” but whether I had a good reason or not, you claim I broke our agreement. You might not feel all that hurt about the car, but breaking the agreement… oh dear. We’re sociopaths, but we’re not uncivilized, are we?



After my amazing explanation for why I did it, you ask me: “Are you going to do it again?” and I answer “Yeah, probably. Your car still does look pretty vandalizable, and I really like vandalizing cars.” You answer “What about our agreement?” and I just shrug. You ask, “Are our agreements important?” and I shrug again!!



You go see our mutual acquaintances, perhaps some people with whom I also have some agreements. They’re a little concerned to hear I value our agreements so little. Will their cars be next? They think it over and say, “Yeah, Sloppy broke his agreement to not vandalize your car. You should get even.”



So you do. You hit me in the head with a hammer and I wake up without a wallet. You do it openly, too. Our acquaintances nod with approval, even though you’re breaking the agreement now. I ask, “How can you do that?!?”



You explain: if I think the rules are so important, and I have such a problem with being hit with hammers, THEN MAYBE I SHOULD STOP FUCKING AROUND WITH OTHER PEOPLE’S CARS.



I don’t know what I’ll do. I still really do like vandalizing cars. I’d like to vandalize your car again, and that other dude with whom I have a no-vandalize agreement. But I’m not sure I like this hammers development. OTOH, I don’t know, maybe it’s worth it. The hammers hurt and I don’t like losing my wallet all the time, but the cars! Oh, the cars! That’s so much fun.

Now, the analogy isn’t quite apt because the Antiguans haven’t actually allowed open redistribution of copyrighted materials, at least not yet. But if they do, then the American mainstream media are sure to slam them as the next incarnation of Somalia, so it’s important in advance for people to understand who really started the trouble — and it’s not Antigua.

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Crazy Baldhead

Posted September 20, 2013 By Steve

This one is for Marcia Bright, Alula Raphael, and Scratchie Lloyd.

One Love Hippie Bus Seattle
Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me nah want your cabin
Me nah want your corn
Me nah want no slave
Me have respect, not scorn

Let’s build hospital, not penitentiary
Let’s use schools to make us free, not fools
Let’s have one love as our religion
Let’s leave God to one’s decision

There is always some conman
Coming with some con plan
But these words are not a bribe:
Let’s help each other stay alive.

Don’t chase this crazy baldhead
Out of town

Me, I not running

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Two Wrongs Making… Something

Posted September 2, 2013 By Steve

“There’s a Sucker Born Every 60,000 Milliseconds” — Robert X. Cringely

The scam truck
Do you ever get those strange spam email messages promoting some little company of which you’ve never heard before, saying that its stock price is about to go up and you should buy it?

These are called “pump and dump” scams. Basically, the scammers buy the stock when its low, spam people so that a few dumb people will buy a lot of it, and when that drives up the price then the scammers sell at a profit. So with that in mind, check out this one I got today:

How do you feel about enriching yourself by means of war? It`s right time to get this done! As soon as the US takes military action against Syria, oil prices will rise as well as MONARCHY RESOURCES INC. (M_ONK) share price! Begin earning dollars on September 02nd, purchase M_ONK shares!

Okay, scams are bad. I’m clear on that. Still, I can’t help but appreciate that the people who will lose money on this are the same ones who, by definition, have no ethical quandary about enriching themselves by means of war. Those who live by the sword cry by the sword, and all that.

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“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” — Oscar Wilde

Shitty Advice
I’ve been pretty busy with a cool project I’ll be announcing soon, and that means no time for blogging. But something I read really jostled me into taking a few minutes to respond. It’s no secret that while I like MOOCs, I think they’re way overblown. Now, a blogger for Harvard Business Review named Leonard Fuld has succumbed to the hype, and gotten a few other things about higher education wrong as well.

The premise of the article is that one should Embrace the Business Model That Threatens You. Not bad advice on the face of it, although unfortunately it doesn’t appear to be working very well for Barnes & Noble. Is such an approach necessary for traditional providers of higher education? Let’s see a few selections from the article.

It soon became clear to the teams and to the observers in the room that neither the online nor the traditional college “education delivery” model alone could prevail.

False. There are plenty of successful schools that only offer one mode of instruction, both liberal arts schools that don’t do online, and distance learning schools that don’t have a campus at all, but just an office.

Traditional brick-and-mortar schools suffer from a high cost base that has resulted in tuitions reaching stratospheric heights.

False. Tuition is where it is because federal financial aid programs have made tens of thousands of dollars available to the least sophisticated and creditworthy students. Rates have outpaced inflation because there’s an artificial ocean of money to soak up.

Meanwhile, the alluring proposition of the online offerings — courses you can take anywhere, anytime, at a lower price point — is tainted by high drop-out rates and the somewhat lower credibility of their certificates and degrees.

False. The credibility gap isn’t with online study, it’s with for profit schools, two categories that drive-by commentators often confuse since in the early days of online higher education for-profit providers were the only ones nimble enough to give working adults the convenience they demanded.

At the same time, this solution called for the MOOC to serve as a student lead generator and revenue producer for brick-and-mortar university partners.

I don’t have data &emdash; no one does, MOOCs are too new &emdash; but I expect they’d be a terrible lead generator for brick and mortar schools. Maybe that’s okay, if they’re inexpensive enough and your tuition is high enough then even an extremely low conversion rate would be considered success. But I can’t imagine it’s the best possible investment.

So, anyway, just another reminder that just because advice is offered earnestly doesn’t mean it’s actually any good. Caveat lector!

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Using Wikipedia Articles To Make OER Textbooks

Posted February 4, 2013 By Steve

“We are going to have to invest in our people and make available to them participation in the great educational process of research and development in order to learn more. When we learn more, we are able to do more with our given opportunities.” — Buckminster Fuller

open educational resources
Yesterday was pretty busy. We had a slightly belated family party for my eldest son’s sixteenth birthday, a trip to Warrenton and back to drop off my daughter, and, of course, watching the most excellent and exciting Superbowl in years, complete with a victory for the Baltimore Ravens, who I’d chosen as my favorite based more or less on proximity. D.C. and Baltimore are basically one big area, and they had to root for our football team during their years in the post-Colts wilderness, so when they make it to the big game it seems good to return the favor. Besides, D.C. people were in Orioles’ territory until the Nationals showed up, so rooting for a Baltimore team isn’t all that strange around here.

But enough about all that. In between those other events, I made a presentation for the online CO13 conference on how to use Wikipedia’s Book Creator tool to make quick, easy OER textbooks from Wikipedia articles. I “um” and “uh” too much — as a presenter I’m not exactly Frederick Douglass. But the information is there. I plan to distill it into a working paper for the Free Curricula Centre when I get the chance, so if you’re not in a hurry you may want to just wait for that.

If you are in a hurry, though, there is a recording of the presentation.

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Note: A friend of mine in Tamil Nedu wanted to speak out about the censorship of Vishwaroopam, a film from Indian cinema legend Kamal Haasan, but he’s concerned about retaliation. The following are his remarks.

Support Kamal HaasanWell the dictator we have as Chief Minister Jayalalitha has used minority religious groups (Islamic groups) to stall the release of Vishwaroopam because Kamal Haasan once said the Congress minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material. Now this has triggered a ban on the movie in its principal revenue making zone, Tamil Nadu, a 65 million populous state in India where there would be houseful shows shown so the film maker and actor Kamal can get back his money as he has pledged his property and assets all together in this film. The pyrotechnics in the film are of Hollywood standards and in his vision to take Indian cinema to global standards, has lavished money in production costs. Most Indian celebrities are trying placate and express their views but none of them stand against the state government.

Spoiler alert: Well it is a film about an Indian muslim spy who is an undercover Indian cop who sneaks as a mole into the Taliban camp in Afghanistan and turns a traitor and have the American forces gun them down eventually foiling the ploy to have bio and nuke bombs planted into doves and pigeons and sent all over the world by Afghan terrorists. There are a few instances of holy Quran verses chanted as soon as a killing scene. (Or probably that’s what the politicians have been using to instigate minority religious groups to stall the movie’s release).

Now the irony is they have shown such themes in many such movies however this has been picked by the government because our Chief Minister Jayalalitha is against the central government and since Kamal once said in a function openly that central minister P. Chidambaram is Prime Minister material and also to the fact that the satellite right went into the hands of he opposition parties owing to their higher bid, she wants blood and has create a needless controversy by provoking the minority Muslim groups.

Now the film has been made at a budget of a billion Indian rupees. Thats two times the assets owned by he producer and actor and superstar Kamal Haasan who has been a huge contributor to Indian cinema industry. He is an ant, if you understand my analogy, who does not stop working and has an amazing filmography and is worshipped in these parts of he world. But sadly is fragile as the government is playing spoil sport.

Vishwaroopam’s piracy hunt has been in huge proportions lately as millions of Facebook fans have been reporting torrents and download sites 24/7/365 and have been standing guard. Each one of his fan has taken an oath that until he gets out of debts through the good box office show of his movie released world wide we would not indulge in piracy and would only watch films in theaters. And we have travelled far and wide just to watch the movie in our neighboring states. But still those are worth peanuts and only Tamil Nadu release can see through his debts.

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Questions About Copyright

Posted January 15, 2013 By Steve

It's a Nina Paley tribute
In an online conversation, an acquaintance who supports copyright asked a number of questions about how things would work in its absence. Obviously I’m not chair of the anti-copyright committee, but there are some possible answers. If you have a better one, please leave a comment!

Q. I don’t think anyone answered my question above about who will fund drug research if scientists & researchers don’t give their time for free?

A. Universities, philanthropists, generic drug companies (some are very large, and the last thing they’d want is no pipeline), and (alas) probably government.

Q. should a publisher (small or large) have a choice of whether they give content away or not?

A. This is a semantic problem. They’re not giving anything away because copying and taking are two different things. It gets back to what I was saying about scarcity, and how information isn’t property. Nina Paley’s song Copying Is Not Theft explains the sentiment, although it’s not exactly a dissertation and obviously leaves unanswered questions.

Q. Should Gary Trudeau be entitled to syndicate his column however he wishes? Or should he be forced to give his “product” away?

A. Same answer. And the repeated presumption is that artists, musicians, and writers won’t produce content without copyright, even though historically we know that’s not the case.

Q. is a local newspaper entitled to charge subscribers for either its print edition or its online edition? (the only difference is in the method of delivery)

A. Sure, if subscribers will pay, then that’s between them. Also, remember that a print copy of a newspaper is a physical item, subject to scarcity, and really is property.

Q. is a reporter entitled to be paid for his research?

A. Entitled? No. Otherwise I would research things that interest me all day and demand payment from someone.

Q. is Bruce Springsteen entitled to sell his works? Or does he have no right to make that choice?

A. He’s entitled to do whatever he wants. This isn’t about telling artists what they can do, it’s about not telling everyone else what they can’t do. Incidentally, though, musicians make more money on tour than they do from CD sales, so this is a pretty big red herring.

Q. if you look at the credits of any given movie, you’ll see 100s of people helping put that together. Do they deserve to be compensated?

A. They’re unlikely to work on the movie otherwise. But you don’t need a copyright regime to make that happen. Iron Sky, a movie that came out earlier this year, was specifically meant to be free for others to copy, yet it’s made money from voluntary subscription, logo merchandise, etc.

Q. if a publisher (movie, music, journalism, art, whatever) or research company (bio-technology) invests heavily in something and it bombs, should the government bail them out?

A. Not in my opinion. But that’s not a copyright issue.

Q. if someone spend a year writing a book or journal article and it benefits the public, should that be free?

A. The “year” part is a distractor, because it relies on a discredited nineteenth century economic principle called the labor theory of value. Just because I spend time and effort on something doesn’t make it inherently valuable. Or, as Scrooge MacDuck said, “Work smarter, not harder.” The “public” part is also a distractor, since there’s no such thing there are only individuals, who surely would benefit unevenly from just about anything.

Q. If a farmer spends a year working in his field, should he be required to put the harvest in a free public stand for whoever wants it?

A. No. But produce is property, if you have an apple and I take it, you can’t also have it anymore. Information is not property, if you know something and I learn it, you still know it.

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Happy National Spaghetti Day!

Posted January 4, 2013 By Steve

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” — Sophia Loren

Flying Spaghetti Monster
January 4th is a very exciting day, both because it’s my Mom’s birthday and also, of course, because according to the Internet, it’s National Spaghetti Day! This is the sort of food where it’s easy to eat too much of it, but in moderation it’s perfectly good. When I make spaghetti, I usually make it with my “Fauxlonese Sauce”, which is ideal for vegans and also for meat eaters, who in this case might not even notice you’ve changed out ground beef for something healthier, kinder, and better for the environment.

(And happy birthday, Mom!)


Fauxlonese Sauce

  • One package of Trader Joe’s Meatless Meatballs
  • One to one and a half jars of Trader Joe’s Organic No-Salt-Added Marinara Sauce
  • One onion, chopped up
  • A big handful of fresh spinach
  • Minced garlic, as much or as little as you like

The directions are pretty simple. Saute the onion, garlic, and spinach at medium heat in a large pan, then turn heat to low and add the marinara sauce. (The spinach is optional, but it’s a good combination with marinara sauce because tomatoes help you absorb the iron in the spinach.) If you like, you can pour a little red wine into the jar of sauce you’re emptying, swish it around, and add it — you get everything out of the jar that way, and besides, hey, it’s wine.

Meanwhile, heat up the meatless meatballs by microwaving for five minutes on high. Once they’re warmed up, mash them up and stir them into the marinara sauce. TJ’s meatless meatballs are really good, but they have enough sodium that there’s no reason the sauce needs it as well, hence the suggestion for the marinara with no salt added.

That’s about it. You can add this on top of any pasta, usually I go with a bag of Trader Joe’s organic whole wheat rotelle, but today spaghetti is the way to go.

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