Educational “badges” as an alternative to diplomas?

The Chronicle of Higher Education has an interesting article on the rise of educational badges, a reward/accomplishment system that some online educational services like Khan Academy are using. Here’s the summary:

Educational upstarts across the Web are adopting systems of “badges” to certify skills and abilities. If scouting focuses on outdoorsy skills like tying knots, these badges denote areas employers might look for, like mentorship or digital video editing. Many of the new digital badges are easy to attain—intentionally so—to keep students motivated, while others signal mastery of fine-grained skills that are not formally recognized in a traditional classroom.

The article goes on to ask whether easy-to-understand badges that denote focused study or skills will undermine traditional diplomas, which offer very little insights into the specific skills or abilities that were attained.

In my opinion, this is unlikely, at least for some professions such as information technology. We’ve seen efforts like this in the past, such as certification programs based on in-class or online instructions. While certification exams are a prerequisite for certain occupations, they are sometimes seen as a poor indicator of how well someone will perform in real-world situations. Badges and certificates also suffer from short shelf-lives relative to the value of a diploma, which has brand power that can last decades.

It will be interesting to see how the badge system evolves, and whether it can gain strength through acceptance of widely followed standards or partnerships with testing organizations or government agencies.

Stanford free classes review: “Online lectures suck”

Stanford free classes reviewThere has been a huge buzz in the world of computer programming and online education over Stanford’s move to open up computer science lectures to the public. The ambitious move to offer free Stanford classes takes online learning beyond the model established by MIT OpenCourseWare — not only can members of the public have access to some of the highest-quality college-level instruction on the planet, but they are taking the same classes as Stanford students.

But not everyone is satisfied with the offerings. A Stanford student who tried one of the classes on machine learning says it was watered down and provided a poor substitute for in-person Stanford lectures. Here’s an excerpt of his Stanford free classes review:

… Since the video lectures were excellent in the class, I’ll start with the programming exercises. At the beginning, some of the programming assignments were challenging since I wasn’t used to matlab/octave programming or machine learning. However, the level of difficulty dropped off drastically as the quarter progressed. At its worst, I completed a few programming assignments without even knowing that the corresponding lectures had been released (I have never done machine learning in the past) …

… If these classes are going to be labeled as Stanford classes, then they should be taught as such. CS229a has by far been my easiest CS class (besides maybe the final project) I’ve taken at Stanford. Normally, I wouldn’t have had a problem with this, except now that Winter quarter registration has opened and I have found that half of my classes are now open to the public in the online format, I’m worried that the rest of the classes will follow this trend. If all of my classes suddenly become as easy 229a, I will be seriously disappointed. I came primarily to Stanford to learn and study – classes like CS229a don’t satiate that desire. Perhaps it’s a fluke and the other online classes will be much more difficult, but it is still worrisome. Stanford needs to keep rigor even in their online courses – it’s useless to lower the bar so low that it only takes a small step to get over. …

… Online lectures suck. Sure, they’re great for rainy days or people learning at a distance or people that don’t go to Stanford. However, these new classes are getting rid of in-person lectures completely. I met barely anyone in my CS229a class. Everything was done alone in my room, which is kind of crappy especially when there is such a nice campus right outside. If Stanford is going to offer these classes, then by all means offer them, but don’t make students take them as well. Have the professors teach as many students as they can in-person and the rest can watch online.”

(Be sure to read the reaction in the comments at the bottom of the post. There is more discussion of the class and Stanford’s online lectures on Hacker News)

Stanford free classes: A watered-down educational experience?

The concern about content being watered down is also valid one — the school apparently put the interests of the public ahead of its own students, which understandably does not sit well with them. However, there are several ways to serve both populations without sacrificing the interests of either group, such as not watering down the content or keeping the two groups separate when it comes to designing for-credit content.

As for issues with the online format, this post should be a wake-up call for Stanford administrators and people who assume that online coursework can be substituted for an in-class learning experience. While there are benefits, there are many pitfalls. I’ve been a critic of online education for years, based on the developments I’ve seen at the Harvard Extension School as well as my own experience taking an online precalculus class for credit at UC Berkeley.

Opening up education to everyone via the models established by OpenCourseWare and Khan Academy lets learners get access to once-exclusive knowledge, and is an admirable goal. But when watered-down online coursework is offered as an equivalent of an in-class experience, or are offered for credit, that’s when the value proposition is thrown into sharp focus.

(Interested in learning about programming with jQuery? My company publishes a book about jQuery plugin development.)

Harvard Extension School citation program killed off

Spotted recently on the Harvard Extension School website: Evidence that the Harvard Extension School citation program has been killed off:

Harvard Extension School citation program 2005-2011

The Harvard Extension School citation program was good while it lasted. It let people who wanted to concentrate in a specialized field show their accomplishments and differentiate their degree — a significant issue for people in the Liberal Arts ALM, who don’t receive diplomas that reflect their course of study.

But the rules were terribly frustrating, in terms of what counted and the relatively short window for completing it. I sent this email to the school in 2008 asking about the possibility of getting a citation, based on my coursework and research:

I am a soon-to-be ALM graduate (History), and I have a question about citations. I see from the Extension School website that the window of opportunity for a citation in East Asian Studies lasts three years, and I would like to know if the following four courses — which were all taken and completed within a three-year period, starting in the summer of 2004 — would count. They are:

  1. ANTH S-171 – Archaeology of the Silk Road
  2. HIST E-1834 – Chinese Emigration in Modern Times
  3. History S-1855 – Film and History in Postwar Japan and Post-Mao China
  4. HIST E-499 – ALM Thesis (Title: Making a Case for Quantitative Research in the Study of Modern Chinese History: The New China News Agency and Chinese Policy Views of Vietnam, 1977-1993.)

You may recall that I asked about this a few years back, but that was before I completed my thesis, under the direction of Alastair Iain Johnston, the Governor James Albert Noe and Linda Noe Laine Professor of China in World Affairs. Getting such a citation would accurately reflect my overall studies at the Extension School, considering much of my coursework and all of my thesis research at the Extension School has been on East Asian history — especially China.

The answer: No, because the thesis didn’t count. This was despite the fact that the thesis was directly related to modern Chinese history, was directed by a tenured faculty member and expert in the field, and took 10 times as much effort than any single class at the Extension School.

In addition, I had taken another eligible class in early 2003 (History E-1830: The Emergence of Modern China). But again it couldn’t count toward a citation, as it was outside of the three-year window for a citation — hardy a rare occurrence, considering most students don’t have the luxury of being able to take classes so rapidly and certain courses aren’t offered every semester.

Harvard Extension School citation vs. Harvard Extension School certificate

Back to the retirement of the Harvard Extension School citation program. According to two curt emails sent to me by the Harvard Extension School staff member in charge, the school discontinued the citations in favor of Harvard Extension School certificates.

This doesn’t make sense. Certificates have nothing to do with most liberal arts master’s degrees offered by the Extension School, which was the focus of the citations. Rather, certificates are a profitable, short-term continuing education scheme for people in various industries, although the program page notes you can apply the course credit in four out of the five programs to professional ALM degrees. Several of the certificates, such as Web technologies, are entirely online — no face-to-face contact with fellow students or instructors required!

If you are earning a liberal arts ALM, and wanted to get additional recognition for your work in a certain field, you are out of luck. But that’s no surprise. The liberal arts character of the Extension School, not to mention the in-person classroom experience taught by Harvard professors that defined the Extension School experience beginning 100 years ago, has lately been given short shrift, in favor of scalable, impersonal online coursework that limits contact with actual Harvard professors and is oriented toward profitable professional education. I won’t get into that here, but you can read more about my thoughts on these and other Harvard Extension issues.

Fessenden School abuse scandal: It gets worse

(UPDATES: Fessenden is finally being sued over this terrible affair. Details at the bottom of this post. See also the stories that alumni from the 1940s-1980s have left in the comments section below, and check out the follow-up blog post prompted by the 2016 Globe Spotlight team investigation) I don’t tell people too much about my middle school experience. I attended a private school in Newton, Massachusetts, called the Fessenden School, which is currently embroiled in a terrible sexual abuse scandal. I’ll talk about my own experience first, before getting in to contents of a letter I just received from Fessenden. The scandal goes much further than the initial reports of a single pedophile assistant headmaster at the school. And just to be clear, I am not a victim of abuse at the Fessenden … but some of the victims and their stories are described in the linked articles as well in the comments.

I attended Fessenden in the early 1980s. I hated it. It was the type of place where put-downs and other small cruelties reigned, and kids’ personality flaws were amplified. A strict social hierarchy emerged, with the jocks and some of the cruelest kids at the top, and the frailest and neediest kids on the bottom.

One recollection comes from the very first day I stepped into the school. I was visiting as a precursor to applying, and another boy took me around. He was friendly enough, but then while we were walking down one of the basement hallways between classes he suddenly attacked another student. It was clear there was some history between them. They began to fight, and in a few seconds they were writhing on the floor, wrestling each other. In less than a minute, my guide came out on top, brushed himself off, smiled like it was no big deal, and continued the tour.

I was baffled by this, but didn’t say anything. Maybe this was normal behavior for middle-school aged kids, I thought. Indeed, once I began attending the Fessenden School I got tangled up in similar fights from time to time (once I was even egged on by other students in the big room outside the headmaster’s office). I am not a fighter, and never got into physical fights before or after attending Fessenden. But at that school, things were different.

I did not understand it at the time, but the fights, bullying, and other physical and mental put-downs were actually part of the deep-rooted culture of the Fessenden School. It had been stewing for decades. As described in the letter below and in the comments section of this post, some especially dark, sick episodes involving abuse had taken place, leaving scores of victims who are still haunted to this day. While there was somewhat of a house cleaning in the late 70s preceding my arrival and during my first two years there, the Lord of the Flies culture continued to fester.

Fessenden School abuse scandal
Fessenden School

Some Fessenden teachers were good, but there were a few who participated in the cruelty-based social structure. I remember one time being picked up by my lapels and screamed at by a teacher with his face just inches away from my own, for making the mistake of visiting one of my friend’s dorms during the day. He was the beloved “house master” of one of Fessenden’s dorms, and this was how he informed me that visitors were not allowed during the day. I was shocked and absolutely terrified.

I remember the morning in 1981 or 1982 when Fessenden’s headmaster (Mr. Burnham) announced in a grave tone that a relatively new teacher had been dismissed. The reason? As I recall, the teacher had been caught serving alcohol to a student in his quarters on campus. Think about that for a moment. A teacher at Fessenden, serving alcohol to a boy who was at most 15 years old (Fessy only went up to 9th grade). Besides the hiring, training, and policy issues that allowed this to happen, what sort of culture had to be in place for a teacher to think that it was OK to invite a boy to your room and give him beer or booze?

A lot of the boys (there were no girls) at the Fessenden School were children of the wealthy, who were parked there by their parents who were seeking some sort of Americanized version of a British boarding school, with apple-cheeked young preppies marching around in blazers and ties. As a day student who lived nearby, I didn’t have to deal with the sleepover aspect of the Fessy experience. But it was pretty sad, especially for some of the youngest boys. If they were lucky, they got to go home for the weekend. If they weren’t so lucky, they were there seven days a week. Every weekend, I would see small packs from this group walking down to the local village center to buy candy and magazines. My parents, who still live in the area, tell me that the same sad ritual continues.

I have only a few positive memories of the school. There was a winter nature trip to Western Mass. with a small group of students led by a wonderful teacher named Mr. Olsen. There was also a hands-on experience learning about computers and programming from Mr. Carey, our British computer science instructor and a roomful of Apple II+ and Apple IIe computers. That sparked an interest in technology that continues to this day (I am a publisher of how-to guides about LinkedIn, Google Drive, Twitter, etc.).

But most of my time there was not fun. After 8th grade, I couldn’t stand Fessenden anymore, and happily returned to the Newton public school system. I haven’t had any contact with the Fessenden School or my classmates for over 20 years. As a parent, I would never consider putting my own kids through such an experience, even before the news that just came to light.

Fessenden School abuse scandal hits the local media

A few days ago, there were some reports in the Boston Globe about abuse carried out by one of Fessenden’s assistant headmasters, Arthur Clarridge, in the mid to late 1970s. That was bad enough, but the letter I just received from the current Fessenden headmaster David Stettler (reproduced below) is positively horrifying. It’s not just a case of one bad apple for a few years in the 1970s, but a pattern of alleged abuse and “inappropriate sexual behavior” at Fessenden School or involving Fessenden students starting in the 1960s, continuing through the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. As recently as the late 2000s, a teacher was apparently engaged in sexual contact with a just-graduated student, and was fired in June 2010. Fessenden’s response? Informing the parents, and filing the “required documentation” with the state. It’s only after the Globe report that the school has begun to let everyone else know about the investigations, and to offer counseling to anyone who was victimized.

It’s too little, too late. In my mind, a hierarchical school culture that is buttressed by cruelty and physical bullying, aided by successive administrations who wanted to sweep allegations of abuse under the rug, led to repeated incidents of this nature, and needless emotional trauma for the victims. Although Fessenden undoubtedly wants this news to disappear, they should be doing everything in their power to:

  1. Determine which faculty, staff, and students were responsible for sexually abusing other students
  2. Report the incidents to the police and DAs office, not just to satisfy the minimum “required documentation” rules, but to help authorities prosecute anyone who has broken laws relating to abuse or sexual assault
  3. Re-examine the cultural aspects that allowed this state of affairs to persist for decades, with an eye toward developing a plan to make concrete changes that will not only protect students, but also help them thrive in a way that truly brings out the best parts of their character and the best elements of the community.

Fessenden School lawsuit

UPDATE December 2014: The Newton Tab reports that attorney Michael Garabedian, who represents victims of abuse at the Fessenden School, is taking the school to court. According to the article:

“Garabedian said he represents six adults who say they were sexually abused by Fessenden employees both on and off campus between 1968 and 1976. The victims were between 10 and 13 years old at the time of the alleged assaults.”

The article also quotes the attorney as saying:

“Their procedures in the past failed children,” Garabedian said. “They should be sitting down with victims to help them heal and learn how those failures took place. As educators they should be learning from their mistakes.” Garabedian said Fessenden has made “empty gestures” toward his clients in addressing their allegations.

The 2014 Newton Tab article can be read here. The Boston Globe also has an article. The timeline of the Fessenden School lawsuit is not certain.

Note that the timeline of abuse started in the 1940s, according to alumni who have left comments on this blog. Please scroll down the page to see their stories. I also encourage readers to share this post via Facebook, Twitter, and email, so other victims/survivors/witnesses can learn about the case.

Spotlight team investigation of Fessenden and other New England prep schools

On May 8 2016, the Boston Globe Spotlight team published an investigation of rampant sexual abuse at Fessenden and other New England prep schools. There are many stories from some of the brave former Fessy students who stepped forward. See some of the data from the report and my reaction on Spotlight exposes more abuse at Fessenden and other prep schools. Why no investigation?.

Stettler’s 2018 letter to alumni

Damage control again, in the waning days of Headmaster Stettler’s administration. Read Headmaster David Stettler’s latest (and probably last) letter to Fessenden alumni.

The 2011 letter from the school can be viewed by clicking on the images below:

Fessenden School

Fessenden abuse

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About: My name is Ian Lamont. To contact me, please email ianlamont -at- yahoo dot com