MOOC Short Course

CowReporting on part of day 1 at the American Political Science Association’s Teaching and Learning Conference (TLC) — the Friday morning short course on MOOCs, for which I acted as the master of ceremonies. I would like to thank everyone who attended for making the event so interesting and productive.

Two people discussed their personal experiences creating MOOCs:

One of the most enlightening aspects of the short course for me was a greater awareness of the variety of uses to which MOOCs can be put. While it can be argued that MOOCs are not yet a substitute for in-class learning (which does not necessarily equate to “on-campus” instruction), they already represent an important opportunity to engage the public in a variety of ways. MOOCs can serve as an objective introduction to controversial topics, make people more intelligent consumers of news and infotainment, and help create a more effectively engaged citizenry. They allow us to examine how we might approach citizenship and democracy differently than we do currently.

MOOCs also are a global learning environment and thus can function as a training ground for how to better internationalize colleges and universities. Several people made the point that it is impossible to predict who or what type of person will enroll in a MOOC — the participants are always a more diverse group than imagined. Content, delivery, and assessment should take this into account — what are people looking for and what design is most likely to provide it to them? You can bring a person to knowledge but can’t force him or her to learn it; however, there are ways to make learning more likely.

One interesting application of MOOCs is using them to help students learn how to learn, a skill that’s critical whether they are educating themselves on a physical campus or online. MOOCs thus have the potential of turning what most university faculty regard as an insurmountable obstacle into an opportunity — in a MOOC people can begin to explore a subject that interests them and in the process start acquiring knowledge and skills that they can build on elsewhere.

MOOCs are still in their infancy as an industry, and they will almost certainly evolve in unexpected ways. Already it is possible for people interested in learning a particular body of knowledge or skills to design their own MOOC without the intermediaries of a commercial provider or a university. All that’s needed is for people to identify what they want to learn and do and find a way to communicate that information to each other.

Studying contemporary events

A staple of Politics and IR classes is the drawing in of real-world events, allowing us to illustrate our theoretical points with practical examples (as Amanda showed last week). Of all academic study, it is arguable the one that is best disposed for such a link and that offers the greatest potential rewards.

However, this comes with a certain cost. While it is wonderful that we can teach our students about how to use media sources in a critical way, to build a more-rounded understanding of the facts (and the interpretation), but media suffer from their ephemerality: they serve short-term use, not long-term analysis and reflection. Moreover, they typically have very narrow focuses (this thing happened; this person said this, with this reaction), rather than providing a fuller package. One might argue that Sunday or weekly newspapers might cover some of this function, with their more review-style pieces, but even here there are limits.

This can be a problem for students, especially when the event is relatively complex, or more than a few days in length, both of which will fracture media coverage. This, in turn, can make it hard for students to get into the event, particularly if they haven’t been following the news previously (that’s another blog, I fear).

All of this was brought home to me by the current protests in Kiev, which I find very interesting both for its European dimension and for its mode of political negotiation.

We’re not leaving until you’ve written a blog about us…

There are some conventional media summaries available, but not for the level of detail that would be needed for any classroom discussion. This then raises the question of how to proceed.

Two options present themselves.

First, is the wonderful world of Wikipedia. I stumbled upon this impressively well-linked page during last week, built mainly by a Canadian user, Lvivske, previously more interested in sport than street protests, to judge by their entries.

I’ll spare us the ‘is Wikipedia a force for good or evil’ debate that usually ensues here, by simply saying that if handled with appropriate caution, the site can provide a helpful gateway to other sources, and its tendency to accrete information works well in this context. Moreover, the ability to change that information offers additional potential to create learning opportunities for students. The difficulty comes from Wikipedia’s uneven nature: it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen such a resource: to take another example, the page on Nelson Mandela’s death is still very sparse, at an interpretative level.

The second option is the proliferation of blogs, both journalistic and academic. As a half-way house between conventional media and academic publishing, they can generate useful ideas and framing for contemporary issues. Thus, one can find informed comment and analysis from Foreign Affairs and The Conversation to university blogs (including that of my own School). As a way into classroom debate, these offer both argument and information in a relatively brief package.

The main difficulty here is the actual knowing of their existence, since blogs have proliferated massively. Either you need to have auto-alerts set up (from the blog or via Google Alerts), or a list of sites that you regularly check, or follow through links from Twitter/Facebook users who are specialists in that field. Identifying authors in who you have confidence to produce such material in short order is also important, and extends that principle from use of conventional media.

Of course, one final option is to start producing blog-type materials yourself: you can produce what you need for your local usage, but which can in turn reach out to a wider audience. It’s how this blog started – because of a dearth of writing on the issues we’re interested in – but it has developed far beyond that, into research projects and invited contributions of various kinds.

I’m not to suggest that you need to go quite that far, but there are plenty of platforms that will let you produce the occasional piece. That has to be something to consider when bringing in the real world to your classroom.

The myth of digital nativism in the classroom

By way of a happy coincidence yesterday, I was reading a new article on the use of Twitter in the classroom on the same day I was getting my students to prepare for their use of Twitter in our classroom.

The article bears out much of my own anecdotal experience of the knowledge and aptitude that students have for new technology. Our assumptions about what ‘the kids’ can do with new technologies are often incorrect. I still vividly remember the long discussions in the staff common room some years ago when colleagues introduced an assessment based on building a wiki: students had (almost without exception) protested that they had no idea what a wiki was, nor how to use it [please insert Wikipedia joke of your choosing here].

As Reed notes, the association of youth with technological ability is largely non-existent and reflects our lay attitudes as educators that all this new stuff we hear about must be understood by someone younger, with more free time on their hands, like when we were younger, with more free time on our hands.

The implication is clear in all this: we have to be very careful in the assumptions that we make, not just about new technologies, but about all aspects of learning & teaching.

Consider my own exercise, which students will be doing next week. I have told them that they need to set up a Twitter account and to be comfortable using it. This second element is something that I had to add after the first run of the exercise, when it became evident that several students had literally no idea how to do anything beyond writing a tweet. Couple this to an apparent lack of reflection about what the actual exercise might entail (e.g. using your account to talk to others), and one can see how things such as making your account private or not knowing about hashtags can cause considerable problems.

Indeed, the fact that most of my students don’t have Twitter accounts in the first place is an indication of the very uneven penetration of a system that one might think was used by everyone in the world, to listen to some media reports.

Of course, from my perspective, such difficulties actually play to the agenda that underpins the exercise, namely the problems one encounters when communicating. I can be confident that the feedback to the session will result in the exposing of a number of themes that speak to this agenda, precisely because of the frustration they will encounter.

One might imagine that the students will read this blog and think about how they can outflank me and resolve the exercise will minimal fuss. But I’ll also going to guess that even if they do, the technological barrier will still confront them and I’ll still be able to get to my learning objectives.

The Economy of Mediocrity

One of my recent posts was about the costs of writing for free. Tim Kreider has written a great editorial on the same topic for the New York Times. Kreider correctly states that, like it or not, money is “how our culture defines value.” (“Our culture” refers to the USA — perhaps your culture is different, but I doubt it.)

TurntableKreider points out that the Internet has led to an economy in which the marginal cost of consuming works of art, literature, music, or any other cultural content — such as knowledge — has in many cases sunk to zero. Profit is a near impossibility for anyone whose work “is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.” Don’t want to pay $1.99 for the new Eminem single? Copy the audio off of the YouTube video. Or just download a bootleg of the whole video to your phone. Or find some obscure but talented young musician who is willing to give her work away for free, in the hope that she’ll get enough exposure to eventually be able to earn an income doing what she enjoys doing.

How does this relate to me, an academic, you ask?

I’ve been trained in some very specialized skills, but the product that is often generated by those skills is now available to the unwashed masses via the Internet. The quality may not be as good as what I can provide (at least one hopes this is the case), but the vastly greater quantity, instant accessibility, and zero cost more than make up for lesser quality in the minds of most consumers. Only a very very few of the people who listen to music insist on doing it with vinyl records played on a Caliburn Continuum turntable.

If the folks who are really talented at creating content don’t earn what they think they should be paid, they decrease the quality of what they create or they simply don’t bother creating it in the first place. They leave teaching, writing, composing, or performing, and go into some other line of work, like plumbing (many of us already wish we earned as much as our plumbers do). The artistic world then becomes a morass of meaningless and utterly boring vlogs. In more jargon-laden terms, the incentives of the new economy lead to an equilibrium of mediocrity.

I see no solution to this problem for the vast majority of people employed in academia.

Banana Split Without the Bowl

Below is an interview with Andy Brown, lead instructor for Udacity — the last of a four-part series on the future of higher education. These and related posts are now indexed at this blog’s Higher Ed page.

Robot ReadingThe traditional curriculum for the four-year, full-time college experience is like a banana split. At the bottom is a general education or core curriculum track (breadth). It’s not really what you’re interested in but it’s supposed to be good for you. In the middle is the really tasty stuff, the courses for a major (depth). Then there’s the cherry on top, some sort of thesis, project, or other experience. All of this is spaced out to occupy a minimum of eight semesters over four years. This paradigm of higher education has become extremely expensive and inconvenient for a lot of people in the USA. What’s the worst-performing component of this paradigm, and how do the folks at Udacity know that they can do better?

A lot of things don’t make a ton of sense in the traditional paradigm, but first let me mention one that does: sticking a bunch of passionate people who are super enthusiastic together in the same place at the same time makes learning a contagious experience—we cannot even come close to that online.

That said, one of the major dysfunctional aspects of the traditional paradigm comes from the social belief of what college is supposed to be or look like. For example, in the existing paradigm, the question “Why do I have to sit through four years of this before I can be seriously apply what I’ve learned?” doesn’t really have a good answer.

Ideally, people would learn as needed – don’t teach me anything until I really need to know it. But even in the best course on campus, you are not always teaching students something that every single one of them immediately needs to know. There are physical constraints that play into this. At traditional universities, there is finite space—only a certain number of students can learn at a given time, because there are only so many classrooms—and finite time on the part of students and teachers. Because of technology, all these one-time costs that are associated with college can now go away. We can continuously update our knowledge. The idea of lifelong learning becomes much easier.

Going back to the banana split example, the breadth aspect, if done right, is very important. One thing that worries me is that if knowledge becomes a liquid asset, and people can study only what they want—a computer programmer who studies nothing but computer science, for example—that person may have educated himself or herself in a particular skill but isn’t very flexible or creative in how that skill can be applied. The practice also sends certain messages, like “you’re not going to benefit from people older than you are.” This is not very good for society.

In terms of the tasty stuff or depth, there is a lot of room for pruning. A lot of curricula are pretty uninspired; they are based on assumptions on what a field of study should look like and archaic practices. People are told all sorts of things are important, but the content isn’t relevant to what the student needs, or the content isn’t delivered well. There’s a disconnect between what students are told and the reality they experience. Even with the cherry at the end, you see the effects of committee-driven curricular design.

Keep in mind that people care deeply about the social. They don’t want to spend four years of their lives not being social. The traditional campus experience is not just getting help learning the content prescribed by the instructor, it’s the incidental learning that occurs when you ask someone wiser than you for help with that content, and in the process you stumble across a conversation about something like politics. That’s where a tremendous amount of learning occurs.

As a political science professor, I have a really hard time collecting good data on what and how my students learn. For me a large sample is thirty-five students, a full class, which doesn’t even meet the bar for real statistical significance. This means it’s really difficult for me to make data-driven decisions about the effectiveness of my teaching. Meanwhile Udacity is collecting data on hundreds of thousands of students. What are some of the surprising things that you’ve discovered about how people learn, and what are the implications for teaching in a physical classroom?

Even with massive sample size, measuring learning is difficult to do and we don’t really know how to do it. There are proxies that we can use—ask a question, did the student get the correct answer?—but mainly I want to see that students are thinking. Does a student spend five seconds, twenty seconds, or a minute and a half on a question? That is perhaps a better proxy for learning.

One of the challenges that we face is retention on a short scale: how can I design a course so that in three minutes people are still in it, engaging with the content? Changing visual media a good thing, so is asking questions in the middle of lectures. With open-ended questions, where any response is marked correct, a response rate of 85-90 percent is really good. It means people are thinking about the questions.

We interpret all of this as a sign that students on Udacity are really well motivated. Keep in mind that there is a complete selection bias here—these are people finding another resource to learn from, online. If we define retention as the number of people who finish a course divided by the number who started it, we are reluctant to use retention as the sole indicator of anything significant, because the barrier to entry for a Udacity course is very low. It’s probably not as significant as with a traditional university, where entry costs are so much higher.

ReadingUdacity’s curriculum was initially limited to computer science-oriented subjects, which made a lot of sense. Student performance in programming and computation is much easier to assess quantitatively than, for example, 19th century British literature. Your code either works or it doesn’t, but efficiently grading 50,000 essays on Jane Austen novels is really difficult. Yet now I see Udacity is branching out into subjects like psychology, business, and design. Why? What’s the value that Udacity courses in these areas can offer to people, when there’s no reliable means of assessing knowledge or skill acquisition?

You are correct; there is no reliable automated method of assessing stuff like essays on 19th century British novelists. So what? Not all of these education problems need scalable automated solutions.

For example, in principle, you don’t need grading at all. With grades, if it’s above a certain number, you feel validated, if it’s below, you feel crappy. In the latter situation, you can spiral into failure. A much better situation is for students to be intrinsically-motivated, to get a rubric, and then evaluate their own work in comparison to that of others. Or get feedback from a human instructor. These are non-scalable methods of evaluation that are way more valuable than grading.

We don’t do the ideal in our courses—yet—and that’s one reason why we branched out, to experiment. The design course will be really fun. And the genomics class is without a doubt the class that so far has had the most thought put into it. But we are now more focused on the short and medium term, and moving back toward a computer science focus. Not all of our experiments worked well. What have we learned from these experiments? In many cases it’s been simply relearning the lessons of in-person teaching and bringing them to bear in an online environment. For example, at the beginning of every lesson, clearly articulate the objectives of what is to be learned. Align the assignments with the objectives. Provide good examples and a compelling story. Is the course creatively designed?

Even though a course from Udacity might lack some of the assessment mechanisms used for the traditional classroom, it still might very well provide people with a much better experience than what they can get in person. For example, one advantage of an online course with Udacity is that once you figure out how to do something, you can share that knowledge. Similarly, from our end with course design, once we figure out how to do something well in terms of design, we can easily propagate it.

I’ll give you an example of how Udacity might provide someone with a superior experience. How does a professor know what students in the lecture hall are getting from the professor’s lecture? What parts of the lecture are the most valuable to the students in terms of their learning? The professor doesn’t really know any of this. Now let’s put a one-way mirror between the professor and the students, so the students can freely leave when they’re bored, without being seen by the professor. We’ll record when the students leave. How many students do you think will be there at the end of the lecture?

You show the video to the professor. “A bunch of students left right there, that part of the lecture must have really sucked.” Even if you’re purely ego-driven, when you see people walking out of the room, that’s going to influence what and how you teach. People don’t do that kind of feedback in the physical environment, but we’re doing it online.

Big data, higher education and the paradox of size

I appear to be one of the last people still around at work, so I’m remedying that by taking a couple of weeks leave, but I thought it might be useful to explore one of the aspects of new technology that doesn’t always crop in our discussions, namely big data.

This is the time of year when lots of data becomes available to British universities: profiles of new students, student satisfaction, competitor analysis and the rest. I’m seeing more of it than before as I get ready to step up to my new role next month, but it’s all stuff that has really taken off in recent years across the sector.

From a managerial perspective, this is all really useful, pulling together lots of different strands to highlight general trends and patterns that might otherwise be missed. An article in The Guardian this week showcased several very interesting uses of data within institutions to identify issues, sometimes even before they became issues. Some of those uses are ones that I would want to find out more about and see how we could use them here.

However, I have to note a certain ambivalence on my part here.

Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting one of my counterparts from Reading University, which is about 20 miles away from here. Emma is a regular reader of this blog (hello there!) and we discussed some of the things we each do. One of the things that became evident was that we work with rather different sized groups of students.

For us, the luxury of small group sizes means that we can do a lot more in the way of individualised support and direction than would be possible with the kinds of numbers that Emma has to look after. True, the pay-off is that there are some things that we can’t do, because we’re too small – including this MUN module, which has been very positively received by students – but the basic approach has to be different.

What does this have to do with big data?

The issue is essentially one of perspective. Big data tells me to look at high levels of aggregation to see what works, but my practice tells me to focus on individuals. I know that when I get a percentage figure for ‘Politics’ on some report, I know that each student will count for a noticeable percentage individually, and I’ll have a good idea who the students are with any problems and why.

Perhaps the resolution of this is to marry up the two approaches: take the lessons of big data and aggregation, but then apply them in a moderated fashion, suitable to the needs of our students. Indeed, I would hope that we would do this for all data – big or not – if we are to be truly student-focused and -led in our teaching.


I’ve just finished my first-ever MOOC, Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets (ADLS), led by Dr. Sue Alcock of Brown University. I enrolled in the course simply to find out what MOOCs are like for students. The last week of the course included an optional meetup at Brown’s Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World that was attended by about fifty people. Discussions at the meetup, coupled with recent conversations I’ve had with faculty and alumni from Brown and other universities, have brought into stark relief some misconceptions about technological innovation in higher education.

Decoration of Tomb of Per-NebIn December 2012 The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article that asks the legitimate question “For whom is college being reinvented?” The article argued that innovations like MOOCs best serve those who are already well-educated — the existing socioeconomic elite — while those who are most in need of a college education are the worst served by instruction-at-a-distance. This is a valid point. The people at the Brown meetup were intelligent, educated, and articulate — especially the ten year-old girl. Acquaintances of mine who have taken MOOCs are the same. They already have PhDs and enroll in MOOCs mainly as a leisure activity for self-enrichment rather than to improve their career prospects. Conversely, it’s fairly obvious that a completely different population of students — for example, those who have already failed remedial coursework on a physical campus — are not going to do well in a fast-paced online environment where success requires good time management skills, intrinsic motivation, and accurate self-appraisal.

The Chronicle article completely ignores higher education outside of the USA. As someone at Brown said, what about a place like India, where over 20 million people graduate from high school annually? Only about 15 percent of them will see another day of classroom instruction. Building the physical infrastructure to provide all of them with some form of post-secondary education is highly unlikely given the cost, and that doesn’t even address the problems that exist in India at the K-12 level. The USA’s public K-12 education system is also under-performing. In other words, wherever you look, innovation in education, whether at the primary, secondary, or post-secondary level, has the large potential payoff of increased upward socioeconomic mobility, and MOOCs appear at least superficially capable of generating these payoffs at low cost because of their scalable technology.

What seems to be missing from much of the debate is whether or how this or any other technology amplifies the truly valuable part of the traditional college experience: the interactivity that does or should occur between and among students and faculty. Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at different models of higher education:

  • First, the one-to-one, master and apprentice model produces deep understanding, but is very time and labor intensive. A Mayan shaman or an Italian Renaissance painter could only take on a few students at a time.
  • Second, the one-to-many model produces sufficient but not deep understanding for massive populations; it is the industrialized education of the modern era. At its apex we have the star professor whose sage words are broadcast to an audience — whether physically present or remotely located — like a televangelist.
  • Finally, there is the many-to-many model in which the active teacher/passive student relationship is replaced by interaction among all participants in a feed-forward process. Examples of this model include biochemistry labs where teams of graduate students and faculty conduct research, start-up accelerators and entrepreneurial training programs that assist in business development, and . . . wait for it . . . inverted classrooms using problem-based or project-based learning.

Much of the technology applied to education to date has been simply a replication of the second model. Opportunities for interaction don’t change when a lecture given to a room of four hundred students is recorded and put online for an audience of four thousand. It’s still one-way delivery of content.

Selma_Al-RadiThis brings me back to the meetup for ADLS. People there said that they learned from seeing the work of others and from providing feedback on it, something that often doesn’t happen in traditional colleges courses where only the professor sees students’ work. They also said that simply watching video of Dr. Alcock* talking in her office felt as if she was directly addressing them as individuals, and that seeing professors and graduate students engaged in thoughtful conversations helped them learn about the scientific aspects of archaeology and also increased their interest in learning about different cultural heritages. There was a sense of interactivity that permeated the course — the people involved were able to transcend the limitations imposed by the technology.

As Salman Khan alluded to in an interview mentioned in a previous post, an intense, collectively-experienced, real-time rite of passage produces outcomes that probably cannot be replicated online. But for those who have no access to a worthwhile physical school because of constraints on time, wealth, or ability, something is better than nothing. And the better we combine effective instructional techniques with technologies that allow low-cost access, the more people will be able to learn.

*No, the photo is not Dr. Alcock — it’s Dr. Selma Al-Radi.

Twitter as a teaching aid

As you’ll recall, last week we finally added a twitter feed to this blog. Partly, the delay was laziness on my part (since I’ve known we could do it for some time and I just couldn’t face the setting-up of a new account, with its endless suggestions of who to follow), and partly because this group (except me) hasn’t really got into twitter as a platform.

With that in mind, it might be useful just to briefly explore how twitter can be used, in order to suggest some pedagogical function.

The structure of twitter makes it a good platform for disseminating information. Either a dedicated account for a module, or a hashtag in a tweet (e.g. #POL3070 for my negotiating politics module) mean that your followers can quickly see updates and links. Both the mobile-ready format and the brevity of any message make it more likely that people will see and read the information. Moreover, it’s easy to search for older messages too.

The big caveat is penetration: as with many other technologies, one would do well to check how many students actually used twitter, since it’s often not as pervasive as one might think. Students do not all have smart phones or check their feeds incessantly.

Twitter is also good for getting conversations going with students, i.e. a two-way process. My colleague Jack Holland has posted here before about his use of memes as a way of building debate alongside the classroom or one-to-one discussion: because tweeting is public, anyone can see it and join in (or at least benefit from the interaction).

Beyond this communicative dimension, one might take twitter more actively into the classroom. Two main options present themselves here.

Because twitter tends to have a good penetration into practitioner communities, getting students to follow and interact with such people can be a good way to improve their understanding of issues and communities of practice in the real world. Thus, Brussels has a lot of people of political and economic consequence who conduct an active communication strategy through twitter, which lets students see in a very fine-grained way how the European Union and other institutions work. It might often not be citable, but it leads to other sources that are.

The other option is to use twitter as an active pedagogic tool. My own introduction to twitter came this way, when I made a negotiation exercise where students have to conduct an interaction through the platform. My intention was primarily to point out that it is not a good platform for such a purpose, to help them understand the importance of communication in negotiation. It’s fair to say that they dislike the exercise, because it’s very frustrating and because a fair number have to get on twitter, which they have previously avoided. At the same time, it does make the point rather well.

And that is perhaps the main comment to make. Someone once told me that twitter is like ‘shouting what you think’. A tweet is public, so you need to think about how happy you feel with it being public before you tweet it. In the two years I’ve been active, I’ve had a number of ‘interesting’ discussions with people who have taken except to things I’ve posted: there are a lot of people who will be more than happy to pick you up on things. So for both you and your students, you have to have a discussion about boundaries and what is and isn’t acceptable.

And with that warning, I’ll leave you to explore. If you have other uses in the classroom, please do let us know.

A Tiny Evaluation of TED-Ed

Congratulations to Simon on his promotion! He is well on his way to achieving his goal of world domination.

Since we’re on the subject of British imperialism, or maybe imperialism in general —

I recently stumbled across this Ted-Ed video on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Watching the video produced a vague sense of dissatisfaction despite the eye-grabbing animation. I decided this deserved additional, more formal exploration, so I evaluated the video using these previously-posted instructional design criteria. So here we go . . .

  • Learning objective: greater knowledge about the Ho Chi Minh trail.
  • Content: the video is in fact about the Ho Chi Minh trail, but I don’t think it’s as informative as it could be. More on this below.
  • Organization and delivery: on its surface the video is logically organized, but at a deeper level it is constructed mainly as a series of facts. Facts are important for “domain knowledge,” but in my opinion their relationship to bigger questions should be more apparent. A reading assignment or lecture would do a better job of explaining why relations between North and South Vietnam “deteriorated” after the 1954 Geneva Agreements, and why North Vietnamese cadre began infiltrating into South Vietnam via the Ho Chi Minh trail in 1959.
  • Practice and application: a multiple choice quiz.
  • Assessment and feedback: automated marking of the quiz questions.

At just under thirteen minutes, this Crash Course on decolonization and nationalism is about three times longer than the Ted-Ed video, but it places the Vietnam War (or rather the American War, since the Vietnamese also fought the French for similar reasons) in a much broader context. As a means of providing engaging and rich content — whether to the elementary, high school, or college students — the Crash Course is by far the superior product.

The lesson here is that even though a piece of technology is new and shiny it might not be better than other technologies that are available, and explicit evaluation can help identify why.

Teaching About Online Security

I’m a strong advocate of students getting in the habit of storing their work securely online through free services like Google Docs, Evernote, and DropBox. At minimum, it means I don’t have to hear the “my hard drive died” excuse. But any method of storing information entails risks, whether it’s paper or the cloud. Here’s an example of how to teach students about minimizing those risks from Julie Swierczek, the university archivist and special collections librarian at Salve Regina University . . .

If you use Evernote, you probably received an email about the recent hacking of the company that compromised about 50 million passwords. While it appears doubtful that any data was lost, Evernote is asking people to reset their passwords.

This is a great lesson to share with students, for two reasons:

  • Evernote, Google, etc. are money-making, professional IT companies, and they still get hacked.  This is why people should never store valuable (to hackers) personally identifiable information, like tax information or social security numbers, through these services.
  • People should not use the same password for all of their online stuff, and they should especially avoid using the same passwords for logins to applications (like Evernote) that they use for banking or any other online financial transactions.  That way, if these applications get hacked, you don’t have to worry that the hacker will try hitting thousands of other sites online – which is exactly what they do – to see if they can login to any other accounts with the same information. A person’s best bet is to use a different password on every website he or she uses.  (Can’t figure out how to keep track of passwords?  Look into something like LastPass or Roboform.  These services not only manage your passwords, they generate random passwords if that’s what a user wants.)

Students who think this is not something they need to worry about should read about the hacking of Mat Honan, who lost everything he had online. Hackers not only can steal a person’s identity; they have ways of deleting all of someone’s stuff.  While the particular vulnerability mentioned in that article has been fixed, hackers are adept at finding new ways of creating mischief.