Archive | April, 2013

Financial Times piece on Beijing’s hutongs

30 Apr

Beijing City Plan from 2004. The yellow sections are culturally protected areas, most of which is now destroyed.

There is a very nice piece in the Financial Times on Beijing’s hutongs and the struggle of cultural preservation. This has been an ongoing issue in Beijing for the past few years, and anyone who is unfamiliar with the subject can fend nice information at The China Beat, as well as from China.org, and Asia SocietyThe Atlantic has a long and detailed piece which came out some time ago, but still serves as an excellent introduction to anyone knew to the issues of cultural preservation of hutongs in Beijing.

If anyone is curious for  more information, check out The Last Days of Old Beijing, a book by Michael Meyer.

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Introducing MOOCs: Coursera

22 Apr
From my opinion, Coursera seems to be the strongest of any MOOCs that I’ve seen. Although there are other free online courses offered at different websites, Coursera has a far more professional appearance, generally more high quality courses, and a much wider variety of courses than anywhere else I’ve seen. It has also received a lot of media attention. Add in the fact that Coursera is getting some of its classes officially certified to count for college credit in the United States, and that they are aggressively increasing the number of courses offered and the number of partner universities. I suspect that Coursera is going to have far more success than any of its competitors.
On the design side, Coursera has a very clean interface, with a standardized appearance for all of its courses. Coursera tightly controls for the quality of the courses, only working with certified professionals and universities. I have successfully completed five Coursera classes, and I was disappointed once, pleased twice, and highly pleased twice. Coursera classes are free (although a paid option exists to certify your identity), and they cover a wide range of subjects, including finance, economics, history, philosophy, music, computer programming, nutrition, and even gamification, which was the first course on gamification ever offered (and which I highly recommend).
I plan on using Coursera heavily to explore my interests in many different fields, and possibly even to start new paths. For example, if I decided that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in economics, I would first take all the Coursera classes I could on economics to help me decide if I really wanted to pursue the degree or not, kind of as a test drive. It is possible that someday I’ll try to work in international aid and development, and I am sure that the knowledge I gain from Coursera classes will help me.
There are some subjects, such as logic or statistics which many professionals could benefit from, regardless of their field. Other subjects, like finance, nutrition, or psychology, are things that could help people in the non-professional lives to understand the world around themselves a little bit better. Speaking from my own experience, I took a finance class offered by Coursera and it opened my eyes to a whole new world. I have zero intention of becoming and investment banker, but know I know (on a simple level) how investments work, and it caused me to think about not just saving but also investing for my future.
A heads up for anyone interested in development or just how the world got to be the way that it is today, there is a Generating the Wealth of Nations class that will start on April 29th. From the course description:

If you had been alive at the start of the eighteenth century, your material well-being would have been much the same whichever region of the world you lived in, and it would almost certainly have been a precarious existence… But come forward 300 years to the present, and we see a startling transformation.

Incomes in some parts of the world have increased more than ten-fold; and now it most certainly does matter where you live – with income differentials of 50 times between the world’s richest and poorest countries.

In this course we’ll explore the spectacular (but uneven) story of economic development – beginning with the Malthusian era, moving on to the take-off of growth in the Industrial Revolution and the Great Divergence in living standards that followed, and finishing in the present with the Global Financial Crisis.

It seems like this course will be in the same vein as Why Nations Fail and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, which is a much explored area. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating area, too. I will certainly be taking this class, and hopefully I will get some good historical and economic knowledge that will help me in a (possible) future career in development.

Introducing MOOCs: MRU

20 Apr

Don’t they have a great logo?

MRU (short for Marginal Revolution University) is a relatively new site created by the two economists who run the most popular economics blog on the webTyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok. MRU has a focus on economics, which I think is great: economics is a valuable tool for understanding the world. However, it is still a young project in the early stages of development. The first course, Development Economics, started in December 2012. As of this writing (April 2013) there are five courses available: The Eurozone CrisisEconomics of the MediaMexico’s Economy, and The American Housing Finance System.

The classes are composed of short YouTube videos, each on a different topics, but clearly related and within the scope of each class. These topics together form a class. The videos are basically just power point presentations that get straight to the point, and from taking their development economics course I can safely say that I am pleased with the quality. In that sense it is a bit similar to Khan Academy. Although MRU has quizzes and exams, I think that these are learning tools, not a serious test to prove your knowledge and to get a certificate (although they have certificates, too). For example, the final exam for the Development Economics class:
“The exam is 20 questions made up of multiple choice and true or false. To pass and receive a certification awarded on your profile, you must earn an 80% or higher on the exam.  The exam is open note, untimed, and can be retaken as many times as needed.”
If you are allowed to retake it an infinite number of times, then I am dubious as to whether it can fulfill the traditional function of a final exam: to separate those who know and understand the material from those who don’t. However, that does not mean that it is useless. It can be very effective as a learning tool.
All in all, I love MRU, and I love that there is a MOOC (or at least a MOOC-like thing) that has a focus on a specific field. You may not be able to boast to a future employer about all the skills you’ve gain from MRU, but you will certainly gain greater understanding of the world around you. (If you want to boast for skills, try Udacity) I’ve seen too many Intro to X courses offered, but MRU promises to give much more than simple intro courses. If you are curious, jump right into the Development Economics class. There is no set schedule, so you can watch the videos at whatever pace you want. If you study development or you are curious about development but you lack a strong foundation in economics, this course is perfect for you.
Has anyone else taken a course from MRU? Which one did you take and what did you think about it?

New Series: Introducing MOOCs

20 Apr

I’ve decided that I will start a new series of blog posts. Inspired by a conversation with a friend in which I learned that many people aren’t aware of the new developments occurring in online education, over the next several weeks I plan to write multiple summaries and reviews of various online education platforms, commonly called MOOCs. MOOC stands for Massively Online Open Course. Take a look at either of these Youtube videos or this description in the New York Times if you want a quick and easy idea of what a MOOC is. In this series I plan to cover all the big names in the industry, as well as some smaller ones. This will allow my friends who are studying international development to explore to fields, as well people outside of academia (like me) to indulge their curiosities. Although there are many benefits to MOOCs that a normal in-person course cannot offer, for now I will focus on the big three that make up the MOO of the MOOC.

  • Massive – There is a physical limit to how many bodies can fit into any lecture hall, but the bandwidth which limits participants in a MOOC is much higher. The highest enrollment so far has been Think Again: How to Reason and Argue, a course from Duke University offered on Coursera, which had an enrollment of 180000 students. These numbers are impressive, but it is also clear that if a professor’s priority is to teach students, she can teach far more students with a single MOOC than with an entire career of teaching in a brick and mortar university. When Sebastian Thrun of Stanford first offered his Introduction to Artificial Intelligence he was amazed to see an enrollment of 160,000 students. Thrun eventually left his tenured position at Stanford to start his own MOOC, Udacity. There is also a benefit for the student, though: through the forums in a course the students and discuss, connect, and network with far more people than a traditional brick and mortar course would ever allow.
  • Online – This seems simple, but this is a huge development. Traditionally, if a person lived in an area with no school or university nearby, there is no option for that person to learn from a professor. But with a MOOC a person can live in a geographically isolated area and still learn from courses created by respected universities and taught by experienced and passionate professors. This is a big equalizing effect, seeing as people who live in Chicago, Boston, or Paris, or Tokyo have relatively easy access to high education, but people living in rural Afghanistan (like some of Thrun’s students) or other physically isolated areas normally have few options for advanced education. A MOOC changes this, allowing  these students to learn independent of their geography.
  • Open – These courses are open in at least two senses. First, you don’t have to be affiliated with any particular organization in order to take the course. You can take a course from Duke University, UC Berkley, or Yale, and you don’t have to be officially enrolled as a student, nor to have any connection whatsoever to that University. Second, they are free. That’s right: MOOCs (normally) are %100 free. There are some courses where you can pay to have your work officially certified and recognized by some educational authority, but the course itself doesn’t cost anything.

Over the course of the next few weeks I’ll write summaries of the different organizations and business that offer these MOOCs online (I’ll refer to the organizations and the companies as MOOCs as well), and hopefully by following along on this series of blog posts you’ll be able to get a good idea of what the MOOC landscape looks like. In the meantime, take a look at one of the founders of Udacity describing his own experience in a TEDTalk:

Introducing MOOCs: Udacity

19 Apr
Udacity seems to be heavily focused on computer science, programming, and similar tech-focused fields. If you are interests in humanities or social sciences then Udacity might not be your best choice, but if you want to learn how to write code or how to program, then Udacity could be a good choice for you. Udacity was the first of the MOOCs, and it made big news when it started. The identity of Udacity’s founder certainly didn’t hurt: Sebastian Thrun is very well-known in the tech field, and his research in robotics is one of the driving forces behind a potentially revolutionary technology, the driverless car (here is a writeup in the New York Times). He also has worked on Google Glass and has won numerous awards and recognitions for his research, including being names #4 on Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2012. Of course, as a university professor he has written textbooks on robotics as well.
Udacity’s mission statement claims that “Our mission is to bring accessible, affordable, engaging, and highly effective higher education to the world. We believe that higher education is a basic human right, and we seek to empower our students to advance their education and careers.” So far, they seem to be doing pretty well: Udacity’s classes are free (or affordable when offered for college credit), engaging, and high quality. Udacity is really at the forefront of a revolution in education, something that Sebastian Thrun evangelizes often.
Despite a strong start, Coursera has overtaken Udacity in publicity and in the number of courses offered. But Udacity has two big advantages that are keeping it competitive. First, the courses offered are very focused: they all have to do with tech stuff, such as programming, statistics, mathematics. This is not the place to go if you are looking to learn political science, history, or literature. I’ve taken about half of Udacity’s Intro to Statistics class, and it seems to be pretty good. There is a big fan base, too. Big enough that the courses have been translated into dozens of different languages, greatly increasing the number of students that are able to take the courses. Udacity is still going strong, and getting funding, too.
Aside from intellectually curious people who simply want to learn many things, Udacity is also focusing specifically on job-based skills with large companies acting as partners:
“Udacity has developed partnerships with companies such as NvidiaMicrosoft and Google, helping to develop online classes that sharpen specific technical skills such as parallel programming, thereby broadening the pool of potential job candidates for these employers.”
This is a huge benefit, as many companies complain they cannot find enough employees with the proper skills. Udacity could help to train a new generation in programming and computer science. But the cooperation isn’t only with companies. Some universities are also entering into official cooperation with Udacity, such as San Jose State University, which allows students to take a Udacity course for college credit.
One aspect of Udacity which sets it apart is the schedule. While some MOOCs (such as Coursera) offer courses with specific start and end dates, with lectures being released on a weekly basis, “students taking Udacity courses can start any time and take lessons at their own pace with no deadlines hanging over them to complete the course within a required timeframe.” This can be a benefit if you are highly motivated and you have a large chunk of free time. For example, more than once I’ve thought about locking myself in my room for two days and doing an entire course (I almost do that every weekend, actually!). However, if you are the kind of person that needs more structure, then Udacity’s format won’t be very effective. There are no strict deadlines in Udacity courses, and there is also an ever-changing group of students, so it lacks the sense of community that exists on the forums on Coursera. The other downside to the open schedule that is for the people who choose to spread it out over a longer period of time, as ” there is a certain momentum to learning that gets lost the more time separates one lesson from the next.” In general, Devavrat Ravetkar provides an excellent summary of the advantages and disadvantages of these different models, and I recommend looking at his brief analysis.