Monthly Archives: July 2013

“Online learning” and higher education

A nation-wide conversation is currently taking place about the efficacy and value of “online learning” and “MOOCs” in higher education, a conversation that permeates to us here at Centre College where we value personal, “transformative” educational experiences. There are lots of people who know a lot more about these topics than myself, so I’m not going to try to “pick a side” one way or another or to offer a brilliant new perspective on the issue. I’m merely going to describe a recent experience with online learning.

I’ve spent the last several months participating in an online course offered by “Open Yale Courses.” I picked a class based on a topic I was interested in and wanted to know more about. I downloaded 24 separate MP3 files, each an hour long, that contained recordings of the class lectures given by the professor from the first day of class to the end. I did not do any of the assigned readings and I certainly didn’t bother doing any of the assignments. But over the course of several months I listened to the recorded lectures on my MP3 player while out jogging in the mornings.

On balance, I found it to be a positive experience. The lectures were interesting and kept my attention. The professor presented the material in an engaging way that challenged how I thought about the topic. Some of the things that I learned sparked me to go online and search out additional information. I learned about the approaches and methodologies of an academic discipline different from my own. 

On the other hand, I didn’t have a thorough experience with the subject. I didn’t learn the material as well as I would have if I had been required to take an exam on the subject. The professor often cited material from the readings (that I hadn’t done) so I didn’t follow the details of the lecture as well as I could have. And sometimes it was boring so I skipped to the next topic. If pressed, I probably could regurgitate maybe 10%-20% of the actual “pieces of knowledge” that the professor presented throughout those 24 lectures. 

I can also say, however, that I have a more comprehensive understanding of the subject now. While I don’t recall 100% of the facts and pieces of evidence presented, I feel like I have a good handle on the major paradigms and the overall “narrative” and key “take away” points of the class. Listening to the lectures over a series of weeks has definitely changed my perspective on the subject matter and the way I interact with it. It challenged some of my very strongly-held assumptions about how the world works. And I know where to go if I want to learn more about the topic and I will understand it better given that I can now think within the “paradigms” of the scholarly approach of the topic. Given all that, I think it’s fair to say that I experienced a “transformative” learning experience.

I can compare that experience to another that I had while an undergraduate student. I took an online course that countered toward one of my minors. It was a topic I was interested in and so I was motivated to learn the material. The course, however, was perhaps one of the absolute worst I have ever taken, speaking from a pedagogical perspective. The method of delivery was ineffective and the assessment tools were, at best, a joke. I learned very little and felt that it was a complete waste of my time and inefficient use of resources. 

So from my very limited experience (N=2), I can offer the following observation: Some online learning experiences are good and others aren’t. It’s not that different from in-class experiences. Some professors are better than others. Therefore, we shouldn’t automatically dismiss the usefulness of an educational experience simply because it’s presented electronically. 

Voting patterns in Danville’s new City Commission – 2013

During the last two summers I conducted a statistical analysis of the voting patterns in Danville’s City Commission. Given the various controversies surrounding the firing of the former city manager and the “Gang of Three” (as the local newspaper put it), it was surprising to some to find that the former city commissioners actually voted together more than 80% of the time. (See former posts here and here).

Six months have now elapsed since Danville voters elected Paul Smiley and Paige Stevens to replace Norma Gail Louis and Ryan Montgomery on the City Commission. My Centre College research assistant Ben Yeager collected all of the votes taken by the new Commission since their first meeting of the current term on January 14th, 2013 and up through the meeting held June 24th, 2013, a total of 253 votes in all.

The first item to note is that a full 87.3% of votes of the city commissioners in 2013 have been completely unanimous, almost 5% higher than the previous Commission.

Further analysis indicates that almost all of the non-unanimous votes came during the funding meeting held on May 28th, 2013. Taking the votes held at that meeting out of the picture, we have a Commission that has voted together 94.9% of the time. (One of the few issues where there has not been unanimity has been in the votes to annex City Manager Ron Scott’s property into Danville city limits – a holdover issue from the controversy surrounding his hiring from the previous commission. On these votes, J.H. Atkins has been the lone dissenter.)

We can also see how often each commissioner votes the same way as every other commissioner during 2013 so far:


As might be expected from the previous term, J.H. Atkins and Bernie Hunstad are still the most distant in their voting patterns. Surprisingly, Kevin Caudill and Mayor Hunstad show the highest degree of unanimity in their voting patterns this term, agreeing almost 96% of the time. I say “surprising” only because Commissioner Caudill gained a reputation during the 2011-2012 term for opposing Mayor Hunstad on a number of issues along with Commissioner Atkins.

There was also some discussion previous to last November’s election as to whether Paul Smiley would tend to side with Mayor Hunstad or with the Atkins/Caudill “faction.” It appears from these votes that Commissioner Smiley tends to vote more closely along with Commissioners Atkins and Stevens than Mayor Hunstad. This is contrary to my previous prediction that Paul Smiley would be the “swing” voter on the Commission.

Indeed, these results suggest that if there is a “faction” of any kind in Danville’s new Commission, it is Mayor Hustand and Commissioner Caudill vs. Commissioners Atkins, Stevens and Smiley. And this really only came into play at the funding meeting on May 28th.

That all being said, any emphasis on differences in voting patterns is overblown, given that the commissioners are voting together 90-95% of the time.

“Is Immigration Reform Dead? Not If Evangelicals Can Do Anything About It” – Atlantic Mobile

“Based on interviews with evangelical leaders, political strategists, and policymakers, this is an inside look at how the evangelical movement became a major backer of immigration reform, how it turned traditional political allegiances on their head, and what the future holds.”

“Research Suggests ‘Hidden’ Support for Immigration Reform Among Conservatives”

From my latest Huffington Post entry:

The results of this political science research suggest that GOP House members should not worry quite as much about a possible primary threat from a more anti-immigrant challenger if they support comprehensive immigration reform. Those in the Republican primary electoral base are not as concerned about the possible influence of foreigners on American culture as conventional wisdom would have us believe. Indeed, this research suggests that there is more “hidden” support out there for immigrant-friendly policies like comprehensive immigration reform, especially among Republican primary voters.

Full article available here: