Everyone and their brothers is talking about this NYT article regarding Google search on giftedness and their gender bias:

“MORE than a decade into the 21st century, we would like to think that American parents have similar standards and similar dreams for their sons and daughters. But my study of anonymous, aggregate data from Google searches suggests that contemporary American parents are far more likely to want their boys smart and their girls skinny.

It’s not that parents don’t want their daughters to be bright or their sons to be in shape, but they are much more focused on the braininess of their sons and the waistlines of their daughters.

Start with intelligence. It’s hardly surprising that parents of young children are often excited at the thought that their child may be gifted. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old,” the most common next word is “gifted.” But this question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” Parents show a similar bias when using other phrases related to intelligence that they may shy away from saying aloud, like, “Is my son a genius?””

This was illustrated with this:

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius-

Which leads to the more general point on the persistence of gender roles (big surprise).

Google, Tell Me. Is My Son a Genius 2

I would like to note that the gender bias on giftedness perception is something already noted in Wilfried Lignier is his sociology of gifted children. I had reviewed his work last year on the old blog. I am reposting it below.

What attracted me to Wilfried Lignier‘s book, La Petite Noblesse de L’Intelligence – Une Sociologie des Enfants Surdoués (“The Little Nobility of Intelligence – A Sociology of Gifted Children”)  is that it seemed to do what sociology does best: debunk commonsense notions and examine the social production of accepted ideas and practices. I was not disappointed.

The book is a great illustration of how sociology can debunk common discourse whether it comes from parents and organizations or from psychologists. What Lignier offers is an analysis of the social production of “gifted children” as objective, naturalized and essentialized objects.

At no point in the study (because it is a study and the book has all the appendixes and methodological notes that are required and the chapters are all rich in quotations from interviews between Lignier and parents of gifted children) does he examine whether there is such a thing as gift (or precocity, as is the more common French term, precocité) or not, because that is not the point.

Having read a few reviews of the book on French blogs, it is obvious that that bugs the heck out of parents of gifted children who quickly accuse him of lacking empathy and of refusing to acknowledge the real existence of gifted-ness (if there is such a word). Way to miss the point, guys. In many ways, but with less extremism and no death threats, the parents, in these reviews, behave like the parents of autistic children confronted with the evidence that autism is not caused by vaccines.

There is no doubt that in the community of parents of gifted children, this book will hit nerves because at no point does the author pay any consideration to the reality of the label of gifted. He just examines how the category was historically constructed, how the label is assigned and validated by the psychological profession, which children are more likely to receive such label, how parent appropriate the diagnosis and act upon it, mostly in relation to schools. The question of whether or not gifted-ness exists is completely besides the point and Lignier would be a poor sort of sociologist if he accepted it just like that.

So let me go over some of the main points of the book, with a qualifier (that Lignier himself mentions repeatedly): the analysis applies to the French context. There is no doubt that the social processes that he describes would be greatly different in another country, especially the US where the social construction of gifted-ness took an entirely different path as the French one.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the social construction of the concept of “gifted children” from a historical perspective. It shows how psychometric tests (IQ and Wisc but not exclusively) became the evaluative standard through which children became diagnosed as gifted (the discussion over the term itself, different in French, of course, is itself revealing). But France is a late comer in this respect, with the expansion of use of these tests on the 60s and the 70s while the US has been using them since WWI. In France, and this is significant, the use of IQ was pushed by advocacy groups rather than scientific ones. One of the reasons for this is that the label of over-intelligence is initially seen with suspicion (for a society that has had its experience with Nazi übermenschen, that is not so surprising… in my view). It is actually one association that is responsible for making the label of gifted lose its illegitimacy by destroying the myth of the gifted super-boy (viewed with moral suspicion) to the gifted child whose gift must be nurtured as a matter of child welfare (the gifted child is a suffering child, for whom school is a setting not his/her needs). So, the point of recognizing gifted-ness is a care perspective. Secondly, the advocacy discourse emphasizes that nurturing gifted-ness is a matter of national interest and should be treated as a natural resource. It is the main psychologist involved with this association that coins the concept of dyssinchrony still in use.

Lignier shows that the strategies of advocacy groups would not have succeeded if it had not been for a certain complicity between them, right-wing governments and the media (especially with shows that started the movement of reality tv where people appeared to pour out their most intimate issues, the suffering gifted child and his/her parents were perfect targets for those kinds of shows). But the key here is that legitimizing gifted-ness was mediated through the idea of social and school suffering. Right-wing governments conferred state legitimacy to the concept of gifted-ness, followed by its scientific redefinition (through psychometric testings). The idea was then socially anchored.

Once the concept was legitimized by the state, psychologists filled the gap as suppliers to an increasing demand through books targeted at the general public, of the self-help and counseling type, followed by scholarly and academic publications. This publishing supply was almost exclusively a response to a demand from advocacy groups for resources, as opposed to the emergence of a scientific field from within the discipline. One can appreciate how this came full circle: advocacy groups push for the legitimation of the label, the state provides, psychology provides its scientific imprimatur which validates the label in objective (as opposed to militant) terms. Basically, psychology, as a field, unquestionably accepted the validity of the label a priori, and the only scientific discussions were over which instruments were the most reliable to diagnose a condition whose name itself was discussed. Battle of the instruments and battle of the label but no questioning of the basic premise of the very existence of the condition along with its corresponding social vulnerability and problematic relationship with the school environment.

Throughout the literature and the advocacy movement, the idea of social vulnerability is constantly used as an offset to claims of superiority, which, themselves are often softened under some sort of “not really superior but different” to avoid outright claims of “being better”. And the next piece of the social construction of the gifted child is that schools are a hostile environment for gifted children whose intellectual good will gets broken because the system is not adapted to them. They need help and are not receiving it adequately within the school system.

For Lignier, it is not surprise that the rise in claims to gifted-ness, in majority made by upper-class parents, have increased with the massification of education and the overall increase in education levels in the general population. As Lignier’s data show, parents after parents complain about the uniformization effect of the school system, too pedestrian for the gifted children. Also under critique is the supposed egalitarian philosophy that dominates the school system (in France) which is at the root of the problems that these children face (apparently, none of these parents have read Bourdieu). These children are bored, not challenged enough, so they get in trouble and are treated as disciplinary problems rather than recognized for who they are (Lignier’s data, as we will see, contradict this view which seems more a myth than reality).

So, how do parents find an alternative to the dominant school discourse and practices? Enter the psychologists (mostly in private practice), armed with their arsenal of “objective” tests which will prove what the schools cannot recognize: the specific intellectual and cognitive properties of their children. What is interesting, of course, is the conjuncture between parents who approach psychologists with a preexisting idea (they have a gifted child) and psychologists who have found their niche in the psychological field. Which is why parents may get their children tested several times if they do not get the diagnosis they want in initial rounds (I was surprised how early some children get tested… 2, 3, 4 years old). Very often, parents then are only seeking a scientific validation, which, they hope, will push the schools to accept the special needs of their children, which may lead to skipping a class, being tracked into specific section, etc.

Even though one of the major claims of advocacy groups is that one can find gifted children in all social milieus (but some social conditions may hide or stifle gifted-ness), the data show a different reality. Lignier’s data show an over-representation of the privileged classes and an under-representation of working classes. To nuance things a bit more, the data show that where a child from a working class background is diagnosed as gifted (a minority), its parents are more likely to have been downwardly mobile. And in the more common cases where children of privileged classes are diagnosed as gifted, it is more likely that the family has been in such classes over several generations. It is not surprise to find that cultural capital (and the corresponding socializing practices) play a major part here. The critique of IQ and other similar tests is well known in terms of mobilizing cultural dispositions that are more widespread in the upper classes.

And, of course, upper class parents are more likely to have the cultural dispositions where they can even consider discussing intellectual excellence with a professional. As Lignier’s data show, intellectual precocity is a matter of cultural lifestyle where what Lignier calls the “psychological ennoblement” of the child is even an attractive proposition. Interestingly enough, the diagnosis is especially sought after by business owners and managers as well as people working in medical settings. But why business owners and managers? According to Lignier, people in these categories (mostly men) are the most likely to have a psychological view of abilities and leadership skills that are not necessarily validated by the school system. Therefore, they seek alternative forms of “certification” of their competencies. They do not think they owe their position to the school systems but to “natural” skills that are entirely psychological and much less related to scholarly abilities.

The other important finding is that the vast majority of tested children are boys. Even when parents have several children, they are more likely to have the boy rather than the girl tested. Gender selection then, which largely excludes girls, happens before testing. Parents see it less necessary to have them tested. How do they explain it? Often, parents see signs of precocity in disruptive behavior in school, something that girls are less likely to be involved with. Girls have more autonomy, the story goes, and therefore are better able to manage their precocity. They are more invisible. So why send to the psychologist a child who does not have any problems? But very often, parents do betray a sexist vision of intelligence: daughters are seen as scholarly, good in school, and therefore more ordinary because they fit into the system. Boys are the ones with the form of psychological excellence that does not adjust easily to it. In other words, when girls succeed (in school), parents shift the goal posts. And there were no family in Lignier’s data where the daughter was gifted but not the boy while the opposite happened consistently. Interestingly, the data show that very few of these children, boys and girls, are not successful in school. The gifted child suffering in school is actually not the norm, and yet, it is the ideological construct that persists in parents’ and advocacy groups’ discourse.

Another characteristic of children diagnosed as gifted is that (1) they get tested early and (2) that their parents are heavily invested in their schools through a variety of channels. All this points to a heavy involvement  and framing by the parents of the kind of cultural childhood their children experience, as early as possible. These parents clearly want to keep as much control over the education experience of their children as well. Oftentimes, pulling their children out of public schools and enrolling them in private ones has to do with the ability to control more greatly the school environment as these parents are often explicitly critical of the school environment. Those are also parents who heavily invest in extracurricular activities that are often individual (avoidance of team sports and preference of individual sports, private music lesson, etc.). All this points to trying to minimize situations where parents have less control (paging Annette Lareau). It is concerted cultivation on steroids. In this context, it is not surprising to find unemployed or underemployed highly educated mothers who have then the time to invest their cultural capital in a very strong and structured way.

Despite all the advocacy talk of the vulnerable child, practically no parent follows up a diagnosis of gifted-ness with care options. What they do though is engage in a symbolic economic exchange with the school system in order to obtain benefits for their children (as already mentioned, like skipping a grade). It is armed with the scientific diagnosis of gifted-ness that as symbolic good that parents then challenge the evaluation system so dominated by the institution of the school system in France. This diagnosis validates parents’ preexistence distrust of this institution (despite their children’s overall success in it, which shows the success of the advocacy group ideological work). What is threatening to these parents is the massification of, especially, primary education. Most of their discontent actually disappears once their children enter the secondary, and then higher, education system is which more differentiating and their  children can pick more “elite” tracks and majors and they can join the “state nobility” described by Bourdieu.

But overall, Lignier shows that parents are more reformist than revolutionary when it comes to challenging the educational system in France. They want privileges for their children and an individualization of their educational socialization that they – the parents – can control. Very few parents ended up removing their children from the system entirely.

The focus on elementary education as focus on mistrust and discontent also comes from parents’ conception of their children abilities as “natural”, sometimes hereditary, but NEVER a product of the school system. Parents sometimes even deny their own involvement as they produce the narrative of gifted-ness as one of surprising and unexpected discovery, something that emerged spontaneously, without any prompting from the outside.

As you can see, this is a very rich book and one could only do it justice by quoting some of the multiple interview excerpts that Lignier uses, which, I can’t do here, obviously. But this is a great example of what a sociological analysis can bring to a topic that has so far been limited to and claimed by other disciplines (such as psychology). It is not the easiest read but it is not hard either, again, thanks to the many interview excerpts.

And here are some videos of Lignier himself discussing his research.

Part 1


Entretien Wilfried Lignier (1ère partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 2:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (2ème partie) by contretempsweb2

Part 3:


Entretien avec Wilfried Lignier (3ème partie) by contretempsweb2

And here too:


Wilfried Lignier – La petite noblesse de… by Librairie_Mollat

For those of us interested in sociology, globalization, global stratification, and data analysis, the annual Human Development Report is a must-read and a highly expected source of data. This year’s edition is no exception. You can check out the highlights in the short video below:

There are some extra goodies, though, for the data analysts of all tripes. The report’s website has a great amount of visualizations and tools for people to explore the data on their own, based on their own interest. There is something for everyone and you can drill down to your heart’s content, using a variety of data visualizations or tables. That is what I did and the results are below.

Human Development Index 2013 from SocProf on Vimeo.

This is where the real good stuff is:

HDR visualizations

Click on the image to be taken to the actual page and you can start from there. It is a great exploration / teaching / learning tool.

Being a total nerd, I am currently going over the United Nations 2013 Human Development Report. As always, the report goes over the types of policies that improve the Human Development Index of a country. But take a look at this excerpt from page 88, that compares different educational scenarios over time for South Korea and India (the red emphases are mine and click on the image for a larger view):

Differential educational prospects 2

Now, granted, there are other major differences between South Korea and India. However, it is not exactly news to assert that better educated women provide benefits to society as a whole and that therefore, educational equality by gender is a pre-condition to higher development and major social change. Religious fundamentalists like the Taliban understand the dynamic very well, which is why they get all hung up about educated girls and are willing to use extreme violence to prevent even the primary education of girls.

[This is a repost from a review I posted when this book came out, but it seems like the topic of unpaid internship is making a comeback on the Internet, so, revisiting this might be useful.]

Welcome to the brave new world of work, where you work more and get paid nothing! Travailler plus pour ne rien gagner (maybe that should be Sarkozy’s slogan for his reelection campaign!). This is the reality experienced by more and more people in the US, and thoroughly explored by Ross Perlin in Intern Nation: How To Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy.

The premise of the book is that internships have exploded in numbers as they have become an almost mandatory of someone’s education in order to gain legitimate entry on the labor market. But Perlin considers them to be “a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight” (xiv), with roughly 9.5 million college students, roughly 75% will participate in at least one internship before graduation. He argues that a significant share of those are unethical if not illegal.

In other words, interns are becoming the fastest-growing category of American workers, the largely unpaid ones.

The simple fact of non-payment, for Perlin, also points to the fact that internships have become a site of reproduction of privilege as only those of financially comfortable background can hope for the glamorous internships in Congress, in Hollywood or television and journalism that truly open doors for permanent (and paid) jobs, guaranteeing that the upper-classes will remain the major cultural producers in the mass media. In that sense, internships contribute to both exploitation and reproduction of inequalities in opportunities.

Finally, Perlin argues that internships devalue labor, especially for young people and at entry-level positions at the same time that interns may displace workers.

The book itself is full of a variety of examples in a diversity of settings. The first chapter is dedicated to the Disney internships whose promotion is so present at so many college campuses, as Disney runs one of the largest internship program, with 7,000 to 8,000 interns every year:

“In its scale and daring, the Disney Program is unusual, if not unique – a “total institution” in the spirit of Erving Goffman. Although technically legal, the program has grown up over thirty years with support from all sides with almost zero scrutiny to become an eerie model, a microcosm of an internship explosion gone haywire. An infinitesimally small number of College Program “graduates” are ultimately offered full-time positions at Disney. A harvest of minimum-wage labor masquerades as an academic exercise, with the nodding approval of collegiate functionaries. A temporary, inexperienced workforce gradually replaces well-trained, decently compensated full-timers, flouting unions and hurting the local economy. The word “internship” has many meanings, but at Disney World it signifies cheap, flexible labor for one of the world’s largest and best-known companies – magical, educational burger-flipping in the Happiest Place on Earth.” (3-4)

Needless to say, Perlin is merciless in his investigation of the world of internships, and Disney is not the only entity getting a drubbing, but is presented as somewhat representative of the trend: “a summer job with a thin veneer of education, virtually unleavened by substantive academic content.” (8).

Perlin identifies two major post-War trends that contributed to the internship explosion:

1. The rise of the “new” economy, post-industrialism, service jobs and networked capitalism along with its cohort of contingent labor. This casualization of the workforce is a well-known trait of the post-fordist regime based on flexibility and exploitation and the rise of the ubiquitous “independent contractor”, a catch-all category.

2. The rise of the field of Human Resources and the “Human capital” approach to education.

What this boils down to is what Bauman and Beck have described as individualization in the post-modern era. Students now have to see themselves as having to cultivate individually their own human capital and internships do just that. The student is his/her own entrepreneur, an entrepreneur of one’s self, one’s own independent contractor.

This is also part of the trend of vocationalism in education, that is, seeing education as job training rather than, well, education.

Perlin also notes that internships have also risen on the ashes of traditional apprenticeships that have a medieval connotation and have long been associated with industry and the trades. There are still a few apprenticeships in the US, they are usually paid, with benefits and unionization. There is still an Office of Apprenticeship as part of the government but it seems to be a well-kept secret and the trades are not the hot career when one dreams of working for Google.

I was also surprised to learn that a great deal of internships might actually be illegal (not that anyone is watching). The Fair Labor Standards Act is still the law of the land and, based on a US Supreme Court decision and explained by the Wage and Hour Division of the Department of Labor, one category of people is exempt from the FLSA provisions: trainees. And since the USSC has never ruled on interns, they are considered trainees, therefore exempt. Except that there are six condition that must ALL be met for trainees to be exempt, as listed by Perlin:

  1. The training, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.
  2. The training is for the benefit of the trainee.
  3. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation.
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.
  5. The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period; and
  6. The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wage for the time spent in training.

All six criteria have to be met for a position to be considered exempt. If one of these provisions is not met, then, it’s a job and it falls under the provision of the FLSA. How many internships actually meet all six criteria? Who knows. So, employers just looking for cheap labors should not get interns or their internships are illegal. But again, who’s checking? Although Perlin does mention that the Obama administration did increase the number of DOL inspectors.

More than that, because they are not considered workers, unpaid interns receive none of the protection against discrimination or harassment that regular employees get (however inadequate) and they have no legal recourse. On the other hand, corporations receive $124 million annual contribution in the form of free labor.

Perlin is also severe in his critique with regards to what he considers the complicity of colleges and universities in the explosion of exploitative internships. Schools endorse internships without a second thought. Sometimes, they make money off of deal with employers or non-profit organizations. And they provide the academic cover in the form of academic credit for sometimes questionable internships. Often, academic credit is supposed to replace the pay that anyone would normally receive for the same work that interns do. So, not only do students pay for credit, but they don’t get any pay for the internship. They pay to work for free.

“In certain cases, paying college tuition to work for free can be justified – particularly if the school plays a central role in securing the internship and makes it a serious, substantive academic experience. Providing credit certainly can cost the school in terms of supervision time and administrative work, although the costs are unlikely to match those of a classroom experience. And in the most miserable, increasingly common scenario, employers use the credits in an attempt to legitimize illegal internships while universities charge for them and provide little in return, and interns are simply stuck running after them, paying thousands of dollars for the privilege of working for free.” (86)

Instead, of course, colleges and universities actively promote internships  just like they have online education as a low-cost (for them) option to get money from students. The worst offenders, in my view, have the (often for-profit) colleges and universities who offer their credits to highly expensive private internship-abroad organizations (both shall remain nameless, as in, no free publicity, but their practices are truly disgusting) who charge thousands of dollars for unpaid internships outside of the US, but there are also all the non-profit organizations, largely staffed by interns in the name of “service-learning” or the start-ups that wouldn’t even get off the ground if they didn’t use free labor. How many NGOs or such companies would not function without free labor? Or maybe they would need to revise their activities or business plans or pay interns minimum wage.

The other issue that is central, in my view, and that Perlin discusses at length, is this: what about the students who have mandatory internships in their curriculum but cannot afford unpaid work? Or whose parents cannot support them? Well, they get left behind in the race to pad one’s résumé with prestigious internships. In other words, the ability to engage in unpaid internships is yet another privilege that the already-privileged enjoy, at the expense of other students. While privileged students might spend the summer on Capitol Hill, interning for a Congressperson for free (even though there is a big bogus element to these internships, as Perlin shows), others actually have to work to pay for next year’s tuition.

And in addition to the experience and the lengthening of one’s CV, these privileged students get to network and accumulate social capital, something that their less privileged counterparts do not get to do. And finding prestigious internships in the first place is a matter of social connections. For instance, the donor to an NGO can pretty much impose to have a child or relative or friend as intern. Access matters a lot, when it comes to internships.

“Many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of  the upper-middle class and the super rich. These internships provide the already privileged with a significant head start that pays professional and financial dividends over time, as boosters never tire of repeating. The rich get richer or stay rich, in other words, thanks in part to prized internships, while the poor get poorer because they’re barred from the world of white-collar work, where high salaries are increasingly concentrated. For the well-to-do and wealthy families seeking to guarantee their offspring’s future prosperity, internships are a powerful investment vehicle, and an instrument of self-preservation in the same category as private tutoring, exclusive schools, and trust funds. Meanwhile, a vast group of low- and middle-income families stretch their finances thin to afford thankless unpaid positions, which are less and less likely to lead to real work, and a forgotten majority can’t afford to play the game at all.” (162)

And did I mention that women are more likely to get unpaid internships than men?

And you wonder why there is an ideological continuity between politics, news and think tanks and other organizations. It is a Village and they’ve interned there before.

Part of the issue is that there is a high demand for internships (as a result of becoming an academic / graduation requirement), so much so there are now internship auctions where employers auction an internship and potential interns bid on it, and it goes to the highest bidder but not the most qualified candidate.

Of course, other countries are getting on the action as well, exploiting interns. Remember Foxconn, the company that makes your iPad and other Apple goodies, that became famous because its working conditions were so awesome that workers kept killing themselves? So much so that they now have to sign contracts promising not to commit suicide? Yup, that Foxconn… Check this out:

“Foxconn seems to have become the world’s biggest abusers of internships. According to a detailed report recently compiled by university researchers in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, the company uses interns extensively in at least five of its major plants, compensating them at the lowest possible pay grade (under $200 per month) and often forcing them against the law to work nights and overtime. In order to avoid paying for the medical and social welfare owed to regular employees, Foxconn has in some cases reportedly filled more than half of its assembly line jobs with interns – usually with the cooperation of hundreds of schools that stand to receive a fee in return.” (196)

Welcome to the new world of labor casualization, precarization and flexibility. These global workers now have their very own patron saint: San Precario

Also, San Precario is transgender. The five icons represent income, housing, health, communication and transport. That is, there is, hopefully, a rising movement against precarization, that includes interns, as part of the global civil society.

Perlin himself offers a series of recommendations to make internships more meaningful and more fair, based on the six criteria above. But most of all, his book is a wake-up call to a major trend that has gone largely unrecognized and unexamined, and one can see why. It is an important book for anyone interested in labor issues and the future of work.

By SocProf.

So, here we are again. MOOCs are very much still the talk of the academic town. And I am still working my way through a few of them. I actually just completed edX’s Statistics 2.1x – Descriptive Statistics out of BerkeleyX. The course itself, I thought, was very good and very well done. It was a 5-week long course, with strict deadlines, weekly graded assignments, a mid-term and a final. The courseware itself consisted of videos of about 15 minutes (except for the last week where one of the videos was 39 minutes long… Yikes). The main instructor was Berkeley’s Ani Adhikari and she was an excellent teacher. Overall, the again, the videos were well done (mostly powerpoint-style presentations with voice-over, both – video and pdf files – downloadable), the content was perfectly appropriate, the teaching sound, the exams quite rigorous but quite doable if you paid attention to the lectures (and you needed to pay very close attention). This was not a casual course. So, that is for the positive aspect.

The main negative thing, for me, was the discussion board. In MOOCs, discussion boards can be used for peer review grading or simply for discussion and for students to get some help if they get stuck. By definition, a MOOC will not offer access to professors the same way that credit-bearing course will, no office hours. So, a message board can be a valuable tool. Except, in this case, the board was terrible. Very clearly, in this course, with about 47,000 students, message boards can get crazy. In this case, the population for the course was obviously very diverse, with a lot of non-English speakers, people with different levels of education, age, occupations, and Internet access. Let us not forget that MOOCs do nothing to alleviate the digital divide. In this sense, they are not as open as one might think. They are open to those with time, access to hardware, software and skills.

So, after the very first few days, the message boards were inundated with a lot of overlapping posts, protesting the tight deadlines, a few typos and errors in Week 1 assignments, the video streaming speed, the number of possible submissions for graded exercises (“Coursera allows 3, Udacity, as many as you need, why are getting only one or two?”) and pretty much everything that could possibly be protested (including a quite funny argument regarding the meaning of GMT that Ani Adhikari herself blogged about… and yes, she has a blog specifically for her MOOC experience). There were initially breaches of the code of conduct where students posted answers to the graded exercises (or asked directly for such answers). Now, obviously, with so many students, even if a minority never participates in the message boards, only 5 to 10% participation can create a gigantic mess.

The nasty part was when what seemed to be a tight groups of students who had already taken edX courses (and therefore knew the format) took it upon themselves to police the message boards. They started berating the other students, sometimes being downright insulting. Then they would pat each other on the back for their wit and smarts, and how everybody else was stupid. Overall, they behaved like a pack of bullying juniors and seniors in high school going after hapless freshmen. This was very unpleasant, and, in many ways, inappropriate. I don’t know if these students were tasked by edX to manage the boards. If not, then they had an enormous amount of time to devote to the task anyway as they were omnipresent, always at the ready to slam down other students. And from the comments they made, I gathered that at least one of them had behaved the same way in a previous course. At one point, she commented that boards need order, and, apparently, she decided it was her job.

I know message boards are supposed to be self-managed and it would take a lot of resources for MOOC providers to have full-time moderators but it is simply not acceptable to have one group of people bully everyone else who dares show up on the board without what these students considered to be appropriate behavior (I did struggle as to whether I should step in and push back a bit, ultimately, I decided to stay away from the boards… cowardly, I know). And if a few students fought back against the bullies, then, the immediate retort was that they should not complain because the course was free so they should be happy with what they were given. No teacher would let such dynamics develop in-class or online.

In the end, I would be curious to know what percentage of the initial 47,000 completed the course. As we know, completion rates tend to be abysmal in MOOCs, as demonstrated by this rather not-very-nice interactive graphic (thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan to the left (Alberto Cairo might have a heart attack). It is interactive, so, click on it to go play.

Overall, it shows that the MOOC with the highest completion rate got about 20%. Everything else, is very low. Auto-graded-only courses seem to have slightly higher completion rates. Those are usually math or computer science courses. Peer-graded-only courses seem to be at the bottom, and that includes an introduction to sociology (:-().

Maybe courses that require more reading, writing and discussions have higher drop / non-completion rates than courses, like statistics, where the completion of problems and exercises is straightforward. If that were the case, this would be rather indicting for the format especially for those who think that freshmen survey courses should be offered as MOOCs as cost-saving. As we already know, MOOCs will not save money. And at this point, there is actually no business model for MOOCs.

I am currently enrolled in other MOOCS (statistics again, but this time, at Coursera) and I plan on taking Stats 2.2 with edX again. That is the thing about MOOCs, though, they don’t seem to be full of students. They seem to be full of people like me: with jobs, middle age or around that, mostly there for knowledge and professional development, or refreshers on the topics.

For those of you who read French, check out this report from Remy Besson from Culture Visuelle, after is MOOC experience at Coursera, taking E-Learning and Digital Culture.

Also check out Sister Edith blog post on why we should not be so hung up about the poor retention / completion rates in MOOCs (the sister is, like me, an alumna of Alberto Cairo’s first MOOC on infographics and data visualization).