05 November 2010


ONLINE LEARNING. It has been a quarter century since I last sat in a university classroom. Since then the world has rotated on its axis, revolved in its orbit around the sun, and by the way, been utterly transformed by the digital age. Back then computers were clunky, slow, and had miniscule memory; the Internet did not exist; and cell phones looked like WWII walkie-talkies. The professor lectured from the front of the classroom, students listened and asked questions, and the primary visual aids were overhead projections or slides.

How times have changed. Not only are we inundated with gadgets (smart phones, texting, et al.) which distract us from classroom discussion, but the learning environment itself has transformed. The NYTimes article Online Learning Is Growing on Campus describes one aspect of the change -- long-distance learning (LDL) via live streaming video, from the classroom to any computer anywhere. On the face of it, LDL has distinct advantages, including outreach to students who may live geographically distant from the university (as has been true for adult outreach classes for years), student access to classes from multiple computers, and the ability to review lectures from recorded archives. A variant, video simulation, is successfully used as a part of the training programs for everyone from soldiers to aircraft pilots to ship captains.

So as a tool, LDL has value. But as a replacement for attending a live class, it has obvious limitations. There is no opportunity for question-and-answer in real time. There is no chance to exchange a whisper with the student sitting in the next seat, to clarify a point. And the important commitment of being present and engaged is missing, not to mention the chance to get to know one's professors personally. Further, from an instructor's point of view, it is invaluable to hear the questions of students in order to modify one's presentation to fill in the weak spots. And, as is true for anyone delivering a public performance, feedback in the form of facial expressions, gestures, body posture and attentiveness provides cues for how dynamic (therefore how likely the material is to be retained) one's stage presence is.

The article details further pros and cons -- it is worthwhile reading.

FOCUS. In The Focus Hocus-Pocus, economist Paul Krugman takes on those who accuse Democrats in general, and President Obama in particular, of failing to understand the nature of our economic woes, and failing to propose appropriate solutions. By Krugman's lights, Obama has been right on track in his grasp of the Republican-generated mess, and in his proposals for healing the system.

As Krugman states the issue, "Democrats [purportedly] overreached by focusing on health care rather than job creation in a severe recession .... the notion that the Obama administration erred by not focusing on the economy is hardening into conventional wisdom. But I have no idea what, if anything, people mean when they say that. The whole focus on 'focus' is, as I see it, an act of intellectual cowardice -- a way to criticize President Obama's record without explaining what you would have done differently. After all, are people who say that Mr. Obama should have focused on the economy saying that he should have pursued a bigger stimulus package? Are they saying he should have taken a tougher line with the banks? If not, what are they saying? That he should have walked around with furrowed brow muttering, 'I'm focused, I'm focused'?

"Mr. Obama's problem wasn't lack of focus; it was lack of audacity. At the start of his administration he settled on an economic plan that was far too weak. He compounded this original sin by pretending that everything was on track and by adopting the rhetoric of his enemies."

I agree. I believe that Barack Obama is a supremely gifted and brilliant man, whose legislative style of finding common ground is not suited to the executive branch, at least not when surrounded by do-nothing, obstructionist Republicans. He should have taken a much stronger stand from day one. It's not too late to do just that.

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