Helping Others at Year's End

I generally don't post on Serendipity35 during the Christmas/New Year break while most American educators are away from school and, perhaps, not reading about education. But when December comes, I always choose at least one more charity to make a last contribution for the season. I particularly like charities that change something that will change a life forever.

In past years I looked at The Smile Train which is focused on solving a single problem: cleft lip and palate in developing countries where there are millions of children who are suffering with unrepaired clefts. This means they cannot eat or speak properly, won't be allowed to attend school or hold a job and face very difficult lives. But a $250 donation and a 45 minute procedure provides free cleft surgery.

One year I chose providing clean water as my focus. It's something we really take for granted in the U.S. More than 1 in 6 people in the world don't have access to safe drinking water. 1 out of every 4 deaths under the age of 5 worldwide is due to a water-related disease. Nearly 80% of illnesses in developing countries are linked to poor water and sanitation conditions. There are a number of organizations that work to provide clean water in other parts of the world. $10 can provide water for one person for ten years. $500 can fund a project. $5000 can provide a well for an entire village. Here are 3 groups that you can consider. (I had selected

I donated to a group of charities this year that support our service members and their families.

Get Involved with Joining Forces Community Support for our Military

United We Serve

National Resource Directory

I also donated to Families in Transition (FIT), a nonprofit organization that was founded in 1991 in response to the growing number of homeless individuals and families in New Hampshire. It's local but I liked their origin story which I saw reported on 60 Minutes.

We first donated to the The Michael J. Fox Foundation several years ago when a friend was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. He died last month and so we made an extra contribution this month. This foundation has an aggressively funded research agenda and to ensuring the development of improved therapies for those living with Parkinson's today.


Following Santa's Sleigh


I still believe in Santa. If you think there is no Santa - despite having watched Miracle on 34th Street - then further evidence comes from very serious organizations like NORAD and Google putting forward their technology to track him on his Christmas Eve. If there is no Santa, why would they go to all this trouble? And then, who are they tracking?

This year the Google Santa tracker allows us to look at Santa’s dashboard (the technology that powers his sleigh during his around-the-world journey) on Christmas Eve. Apparently, Google has been given access by one of Santa’s many developer elves, who are hard at work in the North Pole helping Santa prepare for his big day. Santa’s dashboard uses Google Maps technology (naturally) which will allow you to follow his progress around the world, and also learn a little about some of his stops along the way.

If you click into the site before he takes off, you can explore Santa’s village while Santa gets ready. There are probably some fun activities and some some interesting elves there now.

And if Google doesn't give Santa the stamp of authenticity, then certainly NORAD must. The fact that North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) uses its super-high-tech equipment to track Santa is further proof of his existence, and it also makes me feel better about Santa's safety while in the air. Santa's sleigh and reindeer show up quite clearly on their radar.

Every year our ability to go online and follow Santa gets more sophisticated. Web cams and videos, information about locations, precise timings that allow kids to know just when they need to be in bed and asleep so that Santa can come to their home.

If your kid is a math whiz and he's figuring that since the world’s population is growing as you read this, and Santa has to deliver more toys in the same amount of time, how is it possible? Well, that's where the magic of Santa comes in. NORAD actually made a calculation last year and said that Santa is somehow able to make stops at homes in about three ten-thousandths of a second. I think it involves quantum mechanics and time travel, but after all, he has been doing this for 16 centuries, so...

Do you adults out there think NORAD has better things to do? Well, they are doing those things too, but the Santa project started more than 50 years ago. NORAD and its predecessor, the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD) have been tracking the sleigh and reindeer since 1955 after a Colorado Springs-based Sears Roebuck & Co. advertisement misprinted the telephone number for children to call Santa. Instead of reaching Santa, the phone number put kids through to the CONAD Commander-in-Chief's operations "hotline."  Yipes! The Director of Operations at the time, Colonel Harry Shoup, had his staff check the radar for indications of Santa making his way south from the North Pole. Children who called were given updates on his location, and a tradition was born.

Obviously, NORAD, Google, Santa and most of us are using social media too. You can follow Santa via NORAD on Facebook, Google Plus and Twitter too.  But be sure to step away from the computer and smartphones and enjoy Christmas Eve. And don't forget the milk and cookies and a carrot for the reindeer.

A New MOOC Platform from Open University

The Open University (OU) has announced it is rolling out a new massive open online course (MOOC) platform to all UK universities, which will offer digital degrees free of charge. The new service is called Futurelearn Ltd.  It will function as a single virtual destination through which various British institutions can distribute their own courses.

Although the technological specifications of the system have yet to be decided, Futurelearn is to be initially funded by the OU. However, one spokesman told Information Age that it will be looking for new partners and while some universities have agreed to put money into the e-learning initiative, some will not and the government is also refraining from financially supporting the venture.

Not just crucial to the country's academic practices, online training is also popular among businesses that are seeking to educate their staff more conveniently and efficiently. These companies can either roll out their own schemes or turn to e-learning providers to supply the education for them - one organisation to help firms with their employee development is Virtual College.

That's a Very Big Poetry Class

[Cross-posted from Poets Online]

How would you do in a poetry class that had 36,000 students?

In my college teaching, I have been exploring the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that have been a big part of higher education in 2012. These courses are being sponsored by some of the top universities and by new independent companies and non-profits exploring new ways to address learning.

As the name says, these courses are massive (anywhere from a few hundred learners to well over 100,000 students), open (generally free and open to anyone in the world with computer access; often age is not considered), and online (all activities are generally online and students are at a distance).

In an essay,"One Class, 36,000 Students" by Elliott Holt  on The Poetry Foundation website, she talks about her experience being in a poetry MOOC.

...through Twitter, I heard about a free, online modern American poetry class; friends raved about the professor, University of Pennsylvania’s Al Filreis, so I signed up. I wasn’t alone. By the time the class started in September, 33,000 people had joined in—from South Africa to California—including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. (Two months later, enrollment had reached more than 36,000.)
The Washington Post called MOOCs "elite education for the masses,” and The New York Times said 2012 was "the year of the MOOC."  With universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton offering free classes, it just had to garner some attention. Coursera (a for-profit company) offered the poetry class that Elliott tried. Coursera says that they have 1.7+ million students.

Some of these courses offer "certificates of completion" but they do not count towards a degree from these schools. Of course, part of the appeal is that you can get some Ivy League education for nothing. Maybe.

I have been teaching online since 2001 in a more traditional university degree program. But Elliott had what I would consider a typical first online course experience in her first week.

My inbox began to fill with notifications from Modern Poetry, but, distracted by other writing assignments, I paid little attention. It’s easy to ignore a class when you don’t have to face the professor in person. When I finally logged in to the site, two weeks after the course began, I realized how much I’d already missed. I had flashbacks to my college days, when I was often playing catch-up in a caffeinated panic. Gnawed by stress, I was tempted to bag the whole thing. But then I clicked on the first video discussion, about Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility.”

Time management is a major requirement in online courses - and a major downfall for many students. I will admit that in the MOOC I am currently a student in on creativity offered by Stanford, I fell victim to my own distracted life to the point where I had to change my status in the class to "auditing."

Still, I am fine with that as I was not interested in getting any type of certificate for the course. I was as interested in how the course was being taught and presented online, as I was with the course subject - and I get to see both of those things by auditing.==Most groups that offer these courses expect high dropout rates. That is also a factor of the free nature of the course - if I was paying $250, I would have taken the work more seriously.

I’m relieved to receive an email that says the course materials will be available online until next September. I’ll have a full year to catch up on the video discussions I missed and to reread the poems closely. (Confession: In the 10th week of the course, I’m still working my way through the material from the seventh week.) When I missed a class in college, there was no way to catch up on the lectures or discussion. I’m not sure MOOCs can replace traditional university education, but they can certainly complement it.

If you think that poetry is not the right subject for a MOOC, think about other poetry offerings online. Writing courses using the old correspondence model (snail mail) have been around for at least 50 years.I remember ads with Bennett Cerf, Rod Serling and others in magazines for The Famous Writers School back in the 1960s.

And many colleges began offering courses using lectures on VHS tapes in the 1980s, moved to CDs, then DVDs and then finally online.

There are a good number of online and low-residency (requiring occasional face-to-face visits to a campus) writing programs for undergraduates and full MFA writing programs.

From the people I know who teach in these programs and from students who have taken the classes, writing works better than many subjects in this format. Although Poets Online is not a MOOC (yet!) or even an online workshop, it has some elements of those formats.

So, how would you feel in a poetry class with 36,000 students?
Would reading poetry rather than writing poetry work better for you?
If you have been in a MOOC, what was the experience like for you? 


Photo by Rebecca Zeller

Elliott Holt's first novel You Are One of Them will be published in 2013 and her short fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXV among other places. Follow her on twitter @elliottholt.