Saturday, March 23, 2013

Those who don't know where the rain began to beat them . . .

My 1965 year group at Achimota Secondary School was probably the first to be assigned Chinua Achebe's 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart as one of the books for the O Level English Literature course. 

On Thursday March 21, 2013 this Nigerian writer who has been called the "founding father of African literature in English" died at age 82. Achebe's works, taken as a whole, focus on the pathologies of Africa. He was a very wise man.

It has been well over 50 years since the publication of Things Fall Apart.  These days, when I arrive in Abuja international airport on my way to teach at the African University of Science and Technology in Abuja (AUST), the car that takes me through downtown to the campus travels on a new freeway being constructed by a German company. The future campus of AUST will be designed by an Italian architectural firm. Just this week, there was an official ceremony where the Chinese Ambassador to Ghana handed over the keys to the new headquarters of Ghana's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, designed and constructed by Chinese companies.

You wonder, why after 5 decades of independence, have so many African countries not yet found ways to seriously involve their own scientists and engineers in infrastructural development?

This question reminds me of one of Achebe's proverbs in Things Fall Apart: "Those who do not know where the rain began to beat them cannot say where they dried their bodies."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

MOOCs--New Opportunity for Science and Engineering Education in Africa?

Cormier's video What is a MOOC?:
Everyone seems to be talking about MOOCs (pronounced like the sound a cow makes, but ending in "ks," mooks) these days. In the past year the explosion of "MOOCs" (Massive Open Online Courses) promises to profoundly change accessibility to higher education, particularly in science and engineering. Today's blog gives a general overview of this exciting development. The link referenced under the picture goes to a brief YouTube video by Cormier that explains in simple terms how a MOOC works. My next post will  explore some implications of this new model of teaching and learning for African science and technology education.

Background and Timeline

In 2001, in a pioneering move, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), announced its intention to place all of its courses online (MIT OpenCourseWare) and make them available free of charge to everyone. Within 6 years MIT had completed the publication of virtually the entire curriculum, more than 1,800 courses from some 33 disciplines.

In Fall, 2011, Stanford University experimented with an online course-hosting program that attracted hundreds of thousands of students, allowing them to take courses free of charge. 

In April 2012, the New York Times  reported that 2 computer science professors (Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller) from Stanford University had collected $16 million in venture capital and formed partnerships with four leading universities (Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and the University of Michigan). This venture was called Coursera. In the video referenced below, co-founder Andrew Ng explains how he views the MOOCs as social entrepreneurship and repeatedly explains to a confused Fox newsman why he believes it is important to serve the neediest people--while someone in San Francisco may easily be able to pay $5 (the cost of a latte) for an online course, a poor young person in Kenya may find that same $5 unthinkable.

At the same time another MOOC company, Udacity, grew out of a free online computer class in artificial intelligence offered at Stanford in 2011 by Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow and research professor at Stanford. Thrun, along with David Stavens, and Mike Sokolsky were cofounders.
In early May 2012, MIT and Harvard University announced they, too, were teaming up to provide  MOOCs, and formed edX. Each partner initially invested $30 million in the venture.  MIT's Provost Rafael Reif insisted that they were designed " 'not to make money' but to improve learning for both the universities and the public at large."  By July 2012, U.C. Berkeley had become a partner with edX. 

By August 2012 Coursera had attracted a million students from 196 countries [the top users were from the US (38%), Brazil (6%), India (5%), and China (4%).]

By September 2012, Coursera had added an additional 17 universities. Coursera now has over 60 university partners and 2.8 million students. In late February 2013 Pennsylvania State University (where I work) announced it was contributing 5 courses.

The original idea behind the MOOCs was that in general  students would receive certificates of completion, but not be given university credit. However, that may change in the future as the value of completing MOOC courses evolves.

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