Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Microsoft vs Google: Office 365 will be free for K-university education

WDPC machine room
This sounds like a major battle between Google Docs/Plus/Groups/Hangouts and Microsoft for the hearts and minds of students.

The free Office 365 for Education plan includes the online version of Office 2010, called Office Web Apps, instant messaging and conferencing via Lync Online, collaboration capabilities via SharePoint Online, email and calendar via Exchange Online, antivirus and anti-spam protection and individual storage.

For an additional $2.50 per student per month, and $4.50 per faculty/staff per month you get all that plus the full-featured desktop version of Office 2010 Professional Plus and voice mail. For $3 per month per student and $6 per month per faculty/staff, you can add voice communication.
Initial WDPC participating institutions

This "get them while they are young" strategy reminds me of the old days when I worked for IBM. We gave universities an 80% educational discount on computers and went further at times. At UCLA, we built the Western Data Processing Center (WDPC), which had office space for UCLA and IBM employees, and we installed the largest mainframe computers of the time. Universities in the western states could submit jobs remotely -- using high speed paper tape. Students at UCLA and those schools all learned to program and use IBM computers, giving us a competitive advantage over other manufacturers.

Google to offer a MOOC with certification

Google will offer a MOOC on becoming a power searcher starting in July. The course will consist of six 50-minute classes with interactive activities.

The topic may sound mundane and self-serving, but there are two interesting aspects that make this course worth watching.

Students will use Google Plus, Groups and Hangouts to form learning communities and help each other out. These assets might give Google a strategic advantage in online education, and it will be interesitng to see how students and the course faculty end up using them.

It will also be interesting to see how the certificates of completion are used by others. For example, an undergraduate might be required to complete this MOOC as part of a digital literacy course or as a pre-requisite for a more advanced course.

I'm curious enough to sign up and see for myself.


The course is now complete and you can take it at your leisure. The six 50-minute classes are at:

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Can we use automated test essay graders as writing tutors?

Massive online classes are a hot topic -- they may disrupt and democratize education. Large classes offer economies of scale in the cost of developing and delivering teaching material, but grading does not scale as well. Multiple choice questions and simple computer algorithms can be graded automatically, but grading essays and other forms of assessment is labor intensive.

Might we automate essay scoring?

Kaggle is a company that organizes contests where teams of data analysts -- data miners -- are given a training data set, which they use to develop a predictive algorithm. In a recent contest, teams were given 16,000 student essays that had been graded by humans. The essays were responses to questions on state standardized tests. The contestants used this data to develop scoring algorithms that were then used on another set of test essays.

Randall Stross, writing in the New York Times, says the winning predictive algorithms were "eerily accurate" compared to human graders.

This $100,000 contest was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and is part of a broader program on automated grading. They recently published an analysis of the efficacy of commercial essay grading programs and a Kaggle blog post says they will run a second contest for grading of short-answer questions this summer. Three additional automated grading studies are in development.

Whether they are graded by humans spending a couple of minutes each or computers, the short-essay questions on standardized tests are not terrific indicators of writing ability.

Giving students feedback on rough drafts as they write would be a better application of this sort of technology. Writing online is increasingly important, and I have developed teaching modules on several types of writing, including short documents like these essays. I urge students to use spelling and grammar checkers, but that is rather shallow. Could short-essay grading algorithms be turned on their heads to give students feedback on the quality of their drafts while they are writing?

Friday, June 08, 2012

Virgin Mobile gets the iPhone -- is the wireless oligopoly starting to fade?

AT&T has articulated its vision of a concentrated wireless market with few carriers that control a lot of spectrum. They foresee a gradual, controlled shift from voice minutes to all-data during the next few years, and hope to charge enough for that data to maintain carrier revenue and profit.

But one of those carriers, Sprint, seems to be doing something radical -- competing.

Sprint is competing by partnering with mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that sell access to the Sprint network. Users have to buy their phones up front, without subsidy, but they get flexible, cheap voice and data plans in return. The MVNO gets less revenue per user than AT&T or Verizon charge, but I assmue they and Sprint are profiting or they would not do it.

The net result is that wireless is cheaper and customer bills more accurately reflect the fact that voice calls, text messages and data are all bits.

Since the user pays full price for a phone, the MVNOs do not require two year contracts, but they lock you in by insisting that you buy your phone from them -- you cannot bring your own. Phone portability should improve with market pressure and the widespread adoption of fourth generation cellular technology.

MVNO phone selection is limited, but that may be breaking down. Sprint recently picked up the iPhone and today they announced that Virgin Mobile, one of their MVNOs, would also get the iPhone. I suspect that eventually Sprint MVNOs will offer all Sprint phones.

Virgin is not Sprint's only MVNO. One, Ting, has effectively done away with the concept of tiered service -- you pay for what you use. Virgin and Ting are early, but there will be others. One that is in beta, Republic Wireless, hopes to charge even less by automatically substituting WiFi for cellular connectivity whenever possible.

AT&T has their ideal vision of the future, and I have mine -- the ability to own my own phone, use it on anyone's network and only pay for the bits I send and receive.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Cyberwarfare is in the air and it is frightening

Cyberwar is a trending topic. I just Googled "cyberwar caution" and got 604 news links and 2.6 million Web links. Here are a few examples:

I understand why people feel we have to transition our cyberwar effort from defense to offense (combatant command) and I also understand why others urge caution.

We have been fighting the spread of capital intensive nuclear arms that require large, visible facilities and tests for seventy years, with mixed results. How quickly will relatively cheap cyber weapons spread? What nation will not be able to afford them?

I have no bright ideas on this topic, only a sad feeling. When I was a graduate student, I was in the research directorate of the Systems Development Corporation and my work was funded by ARPA, but posters like the one shown here were all over the building.

What posters will be on the walls at Plan X sites?

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

How AT&T sees the wireless future

I listened to a 52 minute interview of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson while at the gym yesterday.  He predicted that they would be offering data only plans for multiple devices within 24 months and "reverse billing," in which data from a content provider who pays AT&T a fee will not count against the user's data cap within 12 months. He also talked about spectrum ownership. He forsees industry consolidation believes the "most efficient" use of spectrum occurs when it is owned by the operator.

Here are a few notes I jotted down while listening. (Some with snarky comments in parenthesis).

  • He said that any student of basic economics would have understood that scarce bandwidth would have been used more efficiently if AT&T and T-Mobile had been allowed to merge.  (I don't know where he took his basic economics class, but he must have been absent the day they talked about the efficiency of competitive markets).
  • Within 12 months, we will see "reverse billing," in which the content provider would pay a fee to AT&T so their data would not count against the user's cap -- like toll free 800 numbers. (As long as the market is an oligopoly or less, he and his competitors will be able to raise the rates and tighten the caps on those data-only plans, favoring large, established content providers that can afford reverse billing).
  • AT&T has done a "good job" of getting people used to usage-based pricing, i. e., getting rid of unlimited data plans and moving to caps, tiered service and throttling.  (Now they can raise rates -- the reverse billing folks will love that).
  • Full ownership and control of spectrum has "proven over time to be the best model" for efficiency and call connection quality.  (What else has been tried "over time?" All I can think of off hand is WiFi and that has worked out pretty well).
  • Full ownership of spectrum drives innovation and investment.
  • There will be data-only accounts within 24 months.  (He can Google "MVNO" if he wants to see data-only accounts today).
  • LTE will improve spectrum efficiencey by 30-40%.  (I've heard higher estimates, but he has a vested interest in convincing us that spectrum is scarce).
  • With LTE and HTML5, content and applications will move to the cloud and phone features and operating systems will be less important.
  • AT&T will make up for falling voice revenue with new data applications in connected homes, cars and enterprises as well as financial transactions. (And higher prices for data)?
  • The charge for text messages is now nominal because most people have unlimited accounts.  (Unlimited messaging is $20 per month, which will buy you a gigabyte at -- a lot of messages).
  • "Breakage" -- the unused capacity due to people not reaching their tier limits each month -- is "evaporating pretty quickly."  (It's already totally evaporated at
  • Regulators are like "sand in the gears." They are stopping things like the T-Mobile merger, being able to sell off the land line business in small chuncks and the forced sale of unused spectrum ("use it or lose it") to companies like AT&T.  (Beneficial for who)?
  • Federal spectrum sharing is OK, but non-governmental spectrum sharing is a bad idea.
  • The economy and employment outlook for 2012 is poor. (I guess we could fix that and curb those gritty regulators by voting for Romney).
I had the feeling that his ideal version of the efficient future would be a single company owning all the spectrum and delivering all the wireless connectivity -- what's good for AT&T is good for the nation.

Can anything stop this juggernaut and create competition? Regulation? MVNOs? Success of the spectrum sharing trials recently urged by PCAST? All three?

Monday, June 04, 2012

Global online education is taking off

Education cost and consumer prices
As shown here, the cost of education (in the US) is rising faster than general inflation. At the same time, voters are cutting spending on public education. As a result, online schools are springing up all over. There are many variations on the theme, and it will be fascinating to see which models survive. Here are some examples:
  • Calstate online: Charge tuition and grant degrees. Self-sustaining, non-profit.
  • edX: Free for now, but will they one day offer certificates for a fee? Large cash endowment, but what happens when that runs out?
  • The Khan Academy: Free forever? Contract with school districts? Foundation support.
  • Udacity and Coursera: Venture backed university spin offs are free for now, but investors will want income in the future.
  • NPTEL, the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning: Produced by the Indian Institutes of Technology. Government funded and free.
  • Open University: Grants degrees and charges tuition (discount for UK students).
  • Open University Learning Space: Free online courses from 1-20 hours long from the Open University and the BBC.
Venture capital comes to education
There are also students with different goals:
  • Young people seeking a degree or certification at the beginning of their careers
  • Working people seeking a degree or certificate in order to improve their positions
  • Working people seeking training in a specific job skill
  • Curious people who want to learn about a subject as an end in itself
  • Curious people who want to acquire a skill as an end in itself
To make matters even more interesting, while US entries in the online education have been getting a lot of attention, this is a global phenomenon. We see offerings from the US, UK, India, Namibia and many other nations. Needless to say, there are also online students in every nation.

Update 4/10/2013

UK Universities Minister David Willetts urged university leaders to invest in the "historic opportunity" presented by global online education.  The BBC article covering his talk also summarizes current online education efforts in the UK and places them in a global context.

Update 4/25/2013

Coursera has launched its first international course, Science, Technology, and Society in China I: Basic Concepts, from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 17,000 students registered for the three-week course -- around 60 percent of them from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and other rich nations, with the rest from countries like Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, and middle-income countries in Asia.  The article continues with an interesting discussion of the opportunity and barriers presented by the Chinese market for online education.  Will it be open or dominated by Chinese companies and universities?  Will Chinese universities and faculty be allowed to use Coursera and other platforms or will China erect a "walled campus?"  This course is in English -- will Coursera offer classes in Mandarin?

Other posts on MOOC globalization.

Update 7/8/2013

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiles five international MOOC providers:

Update 10/3/2013

Futurelearn, a coalition of universities in the United Kingdom, announced their first round of courses recently and now Udacity, with support from Google, has announced an effort to translate their existing courses. You can see an example here, with closed captions available in a variety of languages. Will English with sub-titles be sufficient or will students prefer native language presentation?

Update 10/12/1013

list of MOOC providers They say it is up to date as of September 27 th.

Update 10/16/2013

Two European MOOC providers, iversity and Futurelearn, are launching this month. The first course offered by Futurelearn, a coalition of UK universities, starts October 21. It is an ecology course called "Fairness and nature: When worlds collide" and it will only last two weeks. I will enroll to get a look at the Futurelearn delivery platform.
Iversity began with a scholarship from the German Federal Ministry of Science and Technology and is now venture funded. They will be offering MOOCs by university professors from around the world and are launching with six courses this month. Their course promotion videos are innovative, for example, combining video and graphics and using 3D video, as shown below. I want to keep an eye on their platform as well.

Update 11/4/2013

Global competition is heating up. Coursera is establishing "learning hubs" around the world and has found a Chinese parnter, NetEase.

Coursera learning hubs

Update 1/17/2014

Two thirds of all MOOC users live abroad in countries like Rwanda, Kenya, China, and Brazil according to this post by David Blake.

His post includes links to these MOOC providers:

ALISON (Ireland), Ewant (China), FutureLearn (United Kingdom), iVersity (Germany), Open2Study (Australia), Rwaq (Saudi Arabia), Schoo (Japan), UniMOOC (Spain), Veduca (Brazil), and XuetangX (China).