MOOCs are not the end of education; they are a game changer

Some teachers are brilliant and talented coaches and mentors. But there’s still way too much focus on information delivery in higher education that just doesn’t make sense in an era when so much information is already freely available. The Powerpoint lecture generation is long overdue to move on and acquire different skills, and MOOCs are an important disruptive innovation that I hope will hammer that point home.

Many traditional professors could easily be replaced by a recording, a la Real Genius. As the author points out, MOOCs are good for information delivery, and many professors do little or no more than deliver information – the “real” learning happens in the problem sets and the projects and essay drafts, in the performance, feedback, revision cycle, which many universities and professors relegate to lowly paid graduate or even senior undergraduate students and to which they devote token attention.

MOOCs, then, are cost-effective substitutes for lecturers. Why pay someone every year to deliver the same lecture to a limited-capacity room when you can simply pay the same person once to record the lecture and distribute it to a zillion more paying students almost anywhere in the world?

With the cost of higher education rising as rapidly as it has as of late, students and parents are demanding more value in the education services provided by universities and college. Many educators are going to have to change the way they teach to demonstrate their relevance and value in the rapidly changing education marketplace, just like folks trained decades ago in other professions are now facing the need to retrain and modernize their skills to stay gainfully employed.

In the Internet era, when information is so cheap and easy to get, many teachers still maintain an antiquated focus on information delivery. Think of information like open source software. The raw materials are free, but you need a lot of training or practice or both to get them to work for you. So teaching with the Internet ought to be more like delivering a value-added service for free and abundant information resources.

I, like many others, would expect education to shift away from information delivery and more toward coaching students in finding, evaluating, using and generating information.

Is the attrition rate for online courses appallingly high? Yes. But that’s not the point. If you take the savings you reap from not having to pay the lecturer to deliver the same lecture every semester and invest it in a rich layer of coaching and mentorship on top of that online course, you might find that that course does more of what we in the real world need and expect it to do: prepare students for a world where information is cheap, and judgment, creative insight, analytical and collaborative skills are the real prizes.

Adding a custom image node to a WordPress RSS feed

I’ve been working with a web development firm to update the homepage of my employer’s website. One of the features of the updated homepage is a nicely styled newsfeed that pulls in both news content and the latest posts from our externally hosted WordPress blog. The developers asked me to add a custom node to the RSS feed of the WordPress blog (which I manage) with the featured image URL in it so they could embed that image in a news feed on the homepage. In other words, they wanted me to tweak the RSS feed so it included this bit of markup in each item:


After trying about a dozen plugins off the shelf and poring over many hanging support threads that never resolved the issue, I realized that there isn’t an up-to-date WordPress plugin out there to do this. After consulting the WordPress codex Function Reference and hacking two plugins that get sort of close (SB RSS Feed Plus and Featured Image in RSS), I figured it out. Here I share with you the successful results.

UPDATE: Sage Lichtenwalner has suggested two much better ways to accomplish the same results. The fastest and easiest one is to go to the third link in his comment and copy and paste the image node example code straight into your functions.php file (in your child theme folder, of course).

1. Define a new function that outputs the URL of the post’s featured image.

One way to do this is to append just the function code below (everything from the word “function” to ) to the end of your theme’s functions.php file (which is editable from the theme editor in the WordPress dashboard). A beter way to do this, if you’re using a child theme, is to define the function in a new functions.php file in your child theme main folder. WordPress will append it to the functions defined in the parent theme and in the core of WordPress. Here’s what my functions.php file in my child folder looks like:

< ?php
*Outputs the featured image URL for use in RSS2 feed
    function feed_getFeaturedImage() {
        global $post; if( function_exists ('has_post_thumbnail') && has_post_thumbnail($post->ID)) {
            $thumbnail_id = get_post_thumbnail_id( $post->ID );
            $thumbnail_url = wp_get_attachment_url($thumbnail_id);
        return ($thumbnail_url);

2. Edit your WordPress RSS template (/wp-includes/feed_rss2.php) to include the new node and call the new function you’ve created.

In my case I’m simply going to the paste the following code in feed_rss2.php wherever I want the new node to appear:

<image><?php echo feed_getFeaturedImage(); ?></image>

As it stands, this solution requires the user to customize code (the RSS template) that may get overwritten every time WordPress updates. I would like to figure out a way to do this via plugin or without editing anything but child theme elements. But for now, this does the job.

I don’t know much about PHP, other than that it doesn’t appear to be all that different from the other programming languages I’ve learned. I’m also not a WordPress guru. So I leave it to the WordPress and PHP experts out there to amend my solution with more best practices.

“Where are you *from*?”

By now, you may have already seen this painfully awkward interaction between a white American man and an Asian-American woman.

I found this video hilarious. I’m tempted to start practicing my accents for the next time this exact scenario happens to me. Because it has happened to me, and it will happen to me again.

Yeah, it sometimes makes me and my companions uncomfortable when people ask me fairly clueless questions or make embarrassing assumptions about my ethnic background. No, I don’t appreciate being singled out for unwanted attention based on things that I can’t control, like the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes.

Yeah, I grew up around other kids singing the “ching chong” song at me and pulling the corners of their eyes to make them look narrower.

Yeah, I get the occasional “Konnichiwa” or “Sayonara” from strangers in public places (once from a Swiss French man in an art museum in Geneva – he was surprised and embarrassed when I answered him in French: Bonjour, je suis americaine, je ne parle pas japonais. Americans are not the only people who make assumptions about me based on how I look.) For reasons unknown, I have yet to be greeted in Mandarin or Cantonese.

I try to take these questions in stride. At some point I noticed that when children ask to touch my hair or ask their parents why I look different from other people, I don’t mind answering them at all. We chalk up a child’s behavior to innocence and curiosity. We don’t blame children for not knowing better because they just don’t have the knowledge and experience that adults do.

But adults – adults aren’t allowed to misunderstand or be curious. At some point in our formative years, maybe while we were attending Big City universities, we were supposed to have learned all there is to know about other ethnicities and races and cultures, and we’re embarrassed to admit that we didn’t. Well, some of us are embarrassed.

I say racist things and ask questions that reveal my ignorance and make assumptions about people based on their looks all the time. You do it, too. Imagine you’re walking alone through a dark city alley late at night. You turn a corner and see a big, dark-skinned dude in his 20s in a hooded sweatshirt running at you. How do you react? Replace that man with a petite Asian woman in her 50s in a dress and heels – now how do you react? Whom do you ask for directions in an unfamiliar city – the lone Mexican woman waiting at the bus stop, or the well-dressed young white couple sharing a latte at the corner cafe?

Stereotyping is a form of pattern recognition. We are so very good at seeing patterns that we see them even when they’re not there or don’t apply. Patterns and stereotypes are tools we use to abbreviate the world and make it more manageable – because how exhausting would it be to assess every person we meet anew like they’re the only other person in the world that we’ve ever met? No, we’re wired to assume that most things and living things that look the same, act the same.

Novel things and people are Other. Curiosity about Other is fine and natural. What’s bad and toxic is fear or hatred of Other. I’ll never forget the time I was staying in a hotel in eastern Idaho and I encountered a very conservatively dressed woman and her four children. She positioned herself between me and her children as I walked by, and they all automatically, in unison, averted their eyes. All except the youngest one, who stared me down like an owl.

Compared to that, I’ll take “What kind of Asian are you?” any day.

I wish we would all, at least once, spend some time stranded in the exclusive company of people who look and sound very little or not at all like ourselves. When you are the majority and someone else is the rare bird, you are tuned in to everything “weird” and different about that person. But when become the rare bird, you suddenly find that being different is lonely. You need other people to understand you, not fear you or stereotype you. You search desperately for common needs, desires, wants, which you can use to communicate and connect with these strange people. You find yourself relieved and grateful to meet strangers who are willing and able to communicate with you. You start to adopt many local behaviors and words, words and behaviors which at first seemed odd to you, words and behaviors you may have laughed off if you encountered them in your home country when you were surrounded by Your People. Eventually you make some friends and learn enough of their words and behaviors to not constantly feel awkward in their presence. But still, people openly stare at you in public, make faces at your strange and accented speech, tell jokes you don’t understand.

You get used to playing the role of the Exotic Foreign Person. When you do go home, or at least back to a place where you naturally blend in, you can finally relax. No one picks you out of a crowd and asks to touch your hair, or tries to show off their “knowledge” of your native culture from movies and TV shows.

I’ve lived in times and places where friends and strangers alike were constantly reminding me with their words and actions that You’re Not Like Us. I believed it, and it made me feel lonely. Like they had built a glass cage around me to wall me off from the rest of society.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I secretly carried that cage with me long after I left behind the people who built it.

I didn’t discovered Brooklyn and San Francisco until a few years ago. I was delighted to encounter many other young Asian-American women who spoke accentless English, dressed androgynously and sported visible tattoos and short hair. These were the first places I had been where I felt I could be myself and blend in at the same time. As I walked and trained and bused through those cities I felt shards of glass fall from my invisible cage and shatter at my feet. Other American tourists even stopped me and asked me for directions, and I’d like to think it was because I looked like I belonged there.

Finding those places has helped me embrace and assert my identity. It doesn’t hurt that my identity is becoming more mainstream. For instance, Korean food, and Asian food in general, is everywhere now, and that makes me very happy. My generation is celebrating and embracing diversity of all kinds. I’m no longer offended when people say embarrassingly ignorant things to me or ask questions about my race. I recognize that it is most often an effort to connect and learn rather than blatant racism (Though sometimes the stranger zeroing in on my appearance is a man with an Asian fetish. In which case, I run far, far away as fast as I can.) I enjoy a good opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and address harmful assumptions. I am also aware that for this stranger, I may be the sole real-life representative of an entire category of people. I feel the need to set a positive example.

But always, in the back of my mind, is the memory of what it feels like to be in that cage.

Thank you, Canada, for Chris Hadfield

We’ve sent hundreds of people into space already, but only one of them is Chris Hadfield:

The best of Chris Hadfield on social media (This is from the Vancouver Sun)

Commander Hadfield returns to Earth tonight. Hadfield, I’m sure your loved ones are happier when you’re safe and sound on Earth, but many of us wish you’d stayed out in space longer so we could keep learning and sharing your joy up there.

This is what outreach can be. More and more I’ve come to think that the best and coolest science gigs are just too precious to waste on people who aren’t outright ambassadors for the greatest things science has to offer: a sense of wonder and joy in the universe, and the beauty of curiosity and knowledge.

How to make non-scientists hate scientists and ignore science

Inspired by Brendan Leonard’s “How to Get Your New Boyfriend/Girlfriend to Hate Your Sport”.

1. Place all the blame for everyone else’s inability to understand or appreciate your work on inadequate science education. You shouldn’t have to change the way you communicate with people of different academic background from you. No one is going to understand or appreciate what you do until they know as much about it as you do, and people who don’t know as much about your science as you do should go back to school and learn it.

2. If you are forced to explain your science to a non-scientist, explain it in the most condescending tone possible to make sure the person understands that a) s/he is stupid and b) s/he is wasting your time. People who want to ask you questions about your work should read every paper you’ve ever written before they talk to you so they can ask you more intelligent questions.

3. Socialize only with other scientists. If you somehow find yourself at a mixed party, ignore the non-scientists and talk with only the scientists. Remember, any social situation where you’re not talking about research with another researcher is a waste of your time and intellect.

4. You know the business staff, office managers, administrative assistants, project managers, IT? All those people who do all the trivial tasks that are a waste of your time and scientific talent? Don’t talk to them except to complain about something that’s pissing you off. Always demand that they drop everything else and fix it right away so you can get back to your science without delay. Your science is more important than anything else they could possibly be doing.

5. All those people who aren’t doing what the (your) studies recommend? Point out that their belief and values systems are total bullshit and that they should stop being stupid and get with the objective evidence. Science is truth*.

6. Dismiss any sort of story or presentation about science that is not as dense, dry and technical as a graduate school seminar as “dumbed down”. Because you know, only dumb people like that simplistic popular science crap.

* Except when it’s tainted by faulty methodology, unconscious bias and deliberate data manipulation.

Another interactive data visualization

This is my second implementation of the fantastic open-source visualization widget, Exhibit, developed by some folks from my alma mater and now part of Google. This time I’m using the map and tabular views to visualize field site data for the National Ecological Observatory Network.

View visualization in its natural web habitat.

Gender bias in science – the links

Gender bias in science – collected links

Collecting my favorite stories and peer-reviewed studies of gender bias in science. Please ping me at @sandramchung if you have more I should add.

Storified by Sandra M. Chung· Wed, Feb 20 2013 16:29:50

“Male-organized symposia have half the number of female first authors (29%) that symposia organized by women (64%) or by both men and women (58%) have, and half that of female participation in talks and posters (65%). We found a similar gender bias from men in symposia from the past 12 annual meetings of the American Society of Primatologists. The bias is surprising given that women are the numerical majority in primatology and have achieved substantial peer recognition in this discipline.”
PLOS ONE: Stag Parties Linger: Continued Gender Bias in a Female-Rich Scientific DisciplineAbstract Discussions about the underrepresentation of women in science are challenged by uncertainty over the relative effects of the lac…
“That he could be treated differently by people who think of him as a woman, as a man or as a transgendered person makes Barres angry. What’s worse is that some women don’t recognize that they are treated differently because, unlike him, they’ve never known anything else.
The irony, Barres said, is that those who argue in favor of innate differences in scientific ability do so without scientific data to explain why women make up more than half of all graduate students but only 10 percent of tenured faculty. The situation is similar for minorities.
Yet scientists of both sexes are ready to attribute the gap to a gender difference. 
‘They don’t care what the data is,’ Barres said. ‘That’s the meaning of prejudice.’ “
Transgender Experience Led Stanford Scientist To Critique Gender DifferenceBen Barres has a distinct edge over the many others who have joined the debate about whether men’s brains are innately better suited for …

WTF? American childrearing edition

Profession women friends, do you remember being seduced and inspired by a picture of Licia Ronzulli in the middle of the European parliament wearing her six-week-old-daughter in a sling? No? Let me refresh your memory.

Did you smile and sigh? I did. The smile was for the “you go, woman!” sentiment that came from my gut. And the sigh was for the realization that I’m still having to constantly choose between my career and having children – and that there are no signs that that will change until long after my ovaries have dried up. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t catch another career vs. family discussion. The prospects are especially stark in fields like academic science and corporate management, where ridiculously long work hours are an expectation and culture and incentives change at an evolutionary, not a revolutionary pace.

But let’s not forget that anti-parenting workplace culture isn’t just a workaholic problem; it’s an American problem. Here’s another picture that puts American mothers in their place:
The US is one of only eight countries in the world without a paid maternity leave policy.

Are you, too, feeling your hopes and dreams for a family and a career drip away like menstrual blood as your prime babymaking years zip by with nary a sign that the professional world is becoming less hostile to parenting?

Many of us are channeling our rage and frustration over the persistent gender gap into glass-ceiling talk. But as Stephanie Coontz points out in the NYTimes story that goes with the second image, the remaining barriers to true gender equality are more political and economic than social. That is, we as individual men and women have done much to spread gender equality norms throughout society (note that I’ve had the “>career vs. family conversation with just as many men as women); but we’ve failed to change any of the fundamental rules of the game. We’re trying to live by 2013 values in a world with 1953 workplace incentives. As Coontz writes, we’re now to the point where we’re rationalizing the trap:

Women are still paid less than men at every educational level and in every job category. They are less likely than men to hold jobs that offer flexibility or family-friendly benefits. When they become mothers, they face more scrutiny and prejudice on the job than fathers do.

So, especially when women are married to men who work long hours, it often seems to both partners that they have no choice. Female professionals are twice as likely to quit work as other married mothers when their husbands work 50 hours or more a week and more than three times more likely to quit when their husbands work 60 hours or more.

The sociologist Pamela Stone studied a group of mothers who had made these decisions. Typically, she found, they phrased their decision in terms of a preference. But when they explained their “decision-making process,” it became clear that most had made the “choice” to quit work only as a last resort — when they could not get the flexible hours or part-time work they wanted, when their husbands would not or could not cut back their hours, and when they began to feel that their employers were hostile to their concerns. Under those conditions, Professor Stone notes, what was really a workplace problem for families became a private problem for women.

Do you find yourself settling for much less than you originally dreamed of as far as career and family are concerned and rationalizing it as a “choice”? We have Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook preaching “Don’t leave before you leave,” with her Harvard economics degree and Facebook COO salary and stock options, and Anne-Marie Slaughter talking about the chicken-or-egg problem of getting more women to the top in a culture where there are few or no realistic paths to having both a great career and a healthy family.

Licia and Vittoria Ronzulli making an appearance in Eurocratland was like Ellen DeGeneres coming out in 1997. Do you remember what a big deal that was? And do you remember Zachary Quinto coming out fourteen years after Ellen did? It was a nonevent. Someday, a father-to-be asking for paid paternal leave will be a nonevent. But that day’s not coming soon enough.

We are the seeders of collaboration clouds

This is a ScienceOnline-inspired ditty, written with the other sciosatellite leaders and Bora, Karyn and Anton in mind:

We nudge the primordial specks of the universe,
Atoms upon atoms
Closer, closer
Till gravity seizes them, draws them into intimate quarters,
And together, they birth bright stars and galaxies.

We fine-tune the sequence of amino acids and the acidity and hyrophilicity of their environment
Till the first protein self-assembles, a thing of great beauty and complexity.

We share the code.

Open-source life evolves and grows far beyond even what we imagined,
Staring at atoms and molecules
Dreaming of great things they might do together.

We induce microbes to express a glue that binds them together,
To form hardy biofilms where they help each other thrive.

We tinker, hypothesize, develop models for conditions that cause
Different species to assemble and thrive and endure together in a
Grand ecosystem.

We are the seeders of collaboration clouds.
We are the engineers and the ecologists
Of community.

#Altecology, a call to unconference action

The rise of the unconference | Ecology is changing | What are you proposing? | How do I make my voice heard? | Get in touch

Wordle: #esa2012 wednesday
A Wordle of all the tweets to the hashtag #esa2012 on Wednesday of the 2012 ESA Annual Meeting. Word size corresponds to the frequency with which it appeared in the tweets.

Note: This post is cross-posted on Scott Chamberlain’s blog here.

The rise of the unconference

The Ecological Society of America meeting is holding its 98th annual meeting next year in Minneapolis, MN. Several thousand students and professionals in ecological science and education will gather to hear and read the latest work and ideas in ecology in the familiar poster and lecture formats that are the core of every major scientific conference. But a subset of these people will get a taste of something a little bit different: an unconference within the conference.

The most important difference between traditional science conferences and the unconference format is that it prioritizes human interaction. Often the best and most important parts of science meetings are the interactions between talks, next to posters, and at the end of the day over drinks. These connections pave the way for collaborations and friendships that nourish our professional and personal lives with shared opportunities, camaraderie and support.

In recognition of the increasing relative importance of the “meeting” part of a science meeting, the unconference format emphasizes interaction over presentation. It attempts to engage participants to the maximum extent reasonable in discussion and doing. Science Online is a good example of this unconference format, in which the session topics are typically decided on democratically by the conference attendees (partly before arrival, partly on arrival), and you vote with your feet by going to and leaving sessions as you desire.

Ecology is changing

Ecology is now adopting some of the same online and social tools that are already accelerating innovation in computing and other science disciplines. Ecologists, ecology students and educators are asking many of the same basic questions they have always asked: What should we be doing? How do we do it better and faster? Social media, open source software, open science, altmetrics, crowdsourcing, crowdfunding, data visualization, data sharing, alternative peer review, and an increasing emphasis on more and better communication and collaboration are just some of the newer tools being put forth to help address those questions in the 21st century.

Social media is rapidly becoming more common in ecologists’ toolkits to disseminate news of their new papers, communicate about research and research tools, and even filter the deluge of publications. Tools like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are filling the communication gaps between annual meetings and adding a new layer of conversation and connection to conferences and classrooms.

Social media, in turn, is connecting scientists directly to people besides their immediate colleagues who appreciate the impact of their work and want it to continue. The crowdfunding movement – exemplified by Kickstarter – has spurred similar alternative science funding projects such as SciFund. #SciFund project has shown that social media engagement increases donations to crowdfunded research (interview with Jarrett Byrnes).

In addition, we are in the era of big data, and this includes ecology. To deal with this “data deluge”, ecologists increasingly want to learn how to manage, share, retrieve, use, and visualize data. There are new tools for all of these tasks – we need to aid each other in learning them. Online and offline communities are coalescing around the development and dissemination of these tools for the benefit of ecological science, and they are meeting face-to-face at our ecological unconference.

Science in general is becoming increasingly complex and calling for larger and larger collaborations. This growth in turn is spurring a drive toward more openness and transparency within the culture of science. The more collaborative and complex scientific study becomes, the more scientists depend upon each other to do good work that we can all build upon with confidence. The often unstated assumption about ecology, and all of science, is that research findings are reproducible; but that assumption is quite shaky given the increasing number of retractions (see the Retraction Watch blog) and findings that much research is not reproducible (see media coverage here and here).

A recent initiative seeks to facilitate attempts to reproduce research: The Reproducibility Initiative. Jarrett Byrnes spoke at #ESA2012 of how transparent, online discourse enhances our ability to discuss and improve our work and the work of our peers, both before and after publication. One way we as ecologists can quickly make our research more reproducible is the way we write. By simply using tools that make reproducing what we have done easy to do, we can avoid retracted papers, failed drugs, and ruined careers.

Much of the ecological science community shares one or both of these goals: to do the best possible science, and to do it in a way that is most useful and accessible to colleagues and to society at large. The goal of this year’s ecological unconference is to introduce as many people as possible to resources – both tools and people – that can help all of us achieve those goals, on our own, or together.

What are you proposing?

We originally thought about a separate event from ESA itself, modeled after Science Online, incorporating a variety of topics. However, we thought testing the waters for this sort of non-traditional unconference format would be better in 2013. We are gathering ideas from the community (see “How do I make my voice heard?” below). The ideas on the wiki that get the most traction, and have 1-2 champions that are willing to see the idea through and lead the workshop at ESA will be turned in to proposals for ESA workshops. In addition, we will be submitting a proposal for an Ignite session at ESA. To summarise, we will be running:

  • A few workshops (at lunch hours, and half-day). Topics may include:
    • Data sharing
    • Data visualization
    • Data management
    • Alternatives to academia
    • Blogging
    • Social media
    • Reproducible science writing
  • One Ignite session on “Tools for better/faster science”. See more about Ignite sessions here.
  • A “tweetup” event to socialize in a more relaxed atmosphere

These will all be loosely aggregated under the #AltEcology hashtag.

How do I make my voice heard?

We have set up a wiki in which anyone can contribute. Please share your ideas and voice your support for existing ones at the wiki here. You can just throw ideas out there, or even propose new workshops and nominate people to lead them. We’re currently moving to transform existing ideas into ESA workshop and Ignite proposals to meet the November 29 deadline, but we’ll be incorporating input from the wiki right up to the meeting itself in August 2013.

Get in touch

If you have any questions/comments, let us know in the comments section below, tweet us (Sandra: @sandramchung, Scott: @recology_), or email (Sandra, Scott).