Online Education and the Commitment Problem

There’s no question that the internet is a boon to learning. It’s a rare day when I do not pop open a browser and look up information that helps me solve a problem or move a project along. Compared with life before so much knowledge was available there’s also no question about which reality I prefer, even allowing for the inevitable costs and tech headaches that accompany such momentous change.

Given that others seem to share that preference it’s not surprising that there are widespread efforts underway to turn the internet toward education in a more directed fashion. From online courses that can be taken for continuing-education credit to the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s) and even the appearance of online-only ‘universities’ offering full degrees, there seems to be a genuine hunger for virtual academics, and why wouldn’t there be? Instead of having to alter or uproot your life to go where the knowledge is you can now simply log on and learn.

It’s probably also not surprising that some of the jazziest online schools and programs are for-profit. While making an honest living is a laudable goal in life, some of these for-profit online schools — like their for-profit brick-and-mortarboard kin — are nothing more than a skimming operation aimed at federal student-loan dollars. Couple premeditated leeching with administrative efforts to heap for-profit debt onto students at abusive interest rates and the worst of these schools are little more than a gussied-up Craigslist scam looking for student suckers.

Standing in opposition to the for-profit paradigm are fully accredited non-profit and governmental schools offering free MOOC’s. While academically laudable, it’s also true that some of these staid institutions are getting into MOOC’s for branding and marketing reasons, some are using MOOC’s to up-sell students on fee-based courses, and a few are acting as incubators in order to spin off for-profit start-ups that will eventually help enrich already bulging endowment coffers. Still, cynicism aside, a free course is a free course, and if a MOOC gives far-flung students a chance to learn at a distance I think that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, even if we narrow our attention to free MOOC’s and impute only golden motives to institutions hosting them, there’s a problem with this most benevolent form of online education. And as a recent New Yorker article points out, it’s a big problem:

An average of only four per cent of registered users finished their MOOCs in a recent University of Pennsylvania study, and half of those enrolled did not view even a single lecture. EdX, a MOOC collaboration between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has shown results that are a little more encouraging, but not much. And a celebrated partnership between San Jose State and Udacity, the company co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor turned MOOC magnate, also failed, when students in the online pilot courses consistently fared worse than their counterparts in the equivalent courses on campus.

Read more ]

On Being a Successful Writer

If you have an interest in writing, and at some point you feel you’ve become a writer, is being a writer success in itself? If not, why not?

How should writers measure success? How should non-writers measure the success of writers? Should writers pay attention to what non-writers think about success? Should writers pay attention to how other writers define success?

Can the success of a writer be measured objectively? In judging your own success are there specific metrics that matter to you? The number of fans you have? The amount of money you make? The number of awards you receive? The nature of the awards you receive?

Are all award-winning writers successful? Can a writer be successful without winning awards?

If you make money as a writer are you successful? Is your measure of success tied to how much money you make? Can you be successful as a writer if you don’t make money writing?

If you never win an award and you never make any money but you have devoted fans are you successful? If you don’t think you’re successful does that make your fans wrong?

Are subjective measures of success more or less valid than objective measures? Is that true for all writers?

Is your definition of a successful writer fixed or does it change over time? Is your sense of your own success fixed or does it change over time?

Do you measure success relative to your writing or how your writing is received? Both? If you write something you don’t respect and it makes a lot of money or wins a lot of awards or pleases the public, have you been successful? What if you write something that garners no interest but you believe to be your best work? Is that success? Failure?

Is it possible to objectively prove some writers are good and some writers are bad? Do you believe good writers eventually succeed and bad writers inevitably fail?

Is there such thing as a failed writer? Is that something writers decide about themselves or something non-writers say about writers? Is a failed writer someone who failed at the craft of writing? Someone who failed to make money writing? Someone who failed to turn writing into a career?

Does writing itself sustain you, or do you need feedback from others? Are you driven by the process of writing or the outcome? Both? If you could choose only one, which would you choose?

When it comes to defining success as a writer you get to choose what success means to you. Choose carefully.

– Mark Barrett

On Being A Writer

If you have an interest in writing, what will it take for you to think of yourself as a writer? If you already think of yourself as a writer, what convinced you? If you write but don’t think of yourself as a writer, why not?

What does it mean to be a writer? Is being a writer like being a plumber? A doctor? A cleric? A singer?

What does it mean to be anything? Does it mean that label is your whole life, or what you’re doing at the moment, or what you’re doing at the moment for money?

Who gets to decide if you’re a writer? You? Somebody else? If somebody else, who? Your friends? Your family? An authority who knows nothing about you except what you’ve written?

What if there’s a difference of opinion? What if some people think you’re a writer and others don’t? Does it matter who thinks what? If your friends think you are and your family thinks you aren’t, are you a writer? What if your family thinks you are but your friends think you aren’t? What if an authority thinks you are or aren’t?

What if nobody thinks you’re a writer but you? Can you still be a writer? Can you be a writer by yourself? Can you be a writer if no one ever reads what you’ve written? What if you write in the woods and nobody reads your work until you die? Were you a writer while you were writing? Or are you a writer only after your work is discovered?

Can you be a writer if you make a living doing something other than writing? If you’re being paid to write are you a writer? Always? Is writing a profession? A career? If you work as a writer and you stop working as a writer does that mean you’re no longer a writer?

Do you think of some writers as real writers? Are writers who make money real writers? Are writers who don’t care about money real writers? Are writers who make money better or worse than writers who make no money?

There are a lot of questions in life. There are forty-one in this post alone. Some questions can only be answered with experience. If you think of experience as making mistakes you will always be in pain. If you think of experience as learning you will never know your limits.

When does your interest in writing turn you into a writer? You get to choose.

– Mark Barrett


On Writing

What is writing? What does it mean to write?

In thinking about those questions do you need more information before you can answer? If so, why do you feel that way?

How is all writing the same, or can all writing ever be the same? Is some writing inherently better than other writing? If so, how do you know which is which? Is that something you decide or something others decide for you?

Is writing a means or an end? Both? Always?

Does the written word inherently have value? Does the act of writing inherently have value?

I ask these questions to separate writing from the context in which writing takes place. Yes, context matters, always, but context is not writing. Writing is writing.

I believe all writing is communication. Writing can also be art and commerce, but I think the implications of writing as communication are worth considering.

You don’t have to agree with me, of course, but if you’re interested in writing for any reason — and I mean any reason at all — I don’t want you to confuse writing with fame, fortune or being an author, because those are separate things. They may spring from writing, but they are not writing.

There are many people in the world — tens if not hundreds of millions — for whom writing is intensely personal and private. These people use writing as a means of reflection and meditation. Most of their writing will never be shown to another human being yet still provides communication with the self.

If you have an interest in writing, protect it. It doesn’t matter what age you are, what your educational background is or isn’t, or anything else. Don’t let anyone trivialize or denigrate your interest in writing.

There are people who believe words are sacred and only certain people should be allowed to use them. Words are not sacred. You are sacred. Anyone who tries to convince you otherwise is to be ignored.

There is a lot in life that cannot be communicated through language, let alone writing. At times there really are no words. Encountering the limits of writing is as interesting as discovering what writing can do.

You are not obligated to tell anyone that you are interested in writing. You get to keep your interest private unless you want to talk about it. You don’t have to justify it or defend it, and no one who cares about you will ask you to.

What is writing? You get to choose.

– Mark Barrett


The Long View in Context

Following up on the previous post, I think it’s worth taking a moment to consider where we are as a culture, and how we might evolve in the future relative to independent authorship and self-publishing.

The current explosion of interest in self-publishing is being driven by a number of factors, not all of them constant. I believe that as long as the internet exists, people will use it to reach out to each other without engaging the services of middlemen and gatekeepers. That goes for everything from private conversations to business — meaning, ultimately, that every attempt to mediate those direct connections will ultimately fail, if only to inevitably be reborn in some slick new guise. Whether we’re talking about sites like Facebook or device manufacturers like Apple, they’re all simply along for the ride, even as they purport to be driving the revolution.

What’s important to remember with regard to self-publishing is that what we are witnessing today is the explosive origin of what will be a future norm. As such there’s a built-in, pent-up demand for this new opportunity that simply won’t exist in the future. It’s not just kids or hipsters who are learning how to use the internet to do things like self-publish books, it’s everybody, all at once. In a generation or two, however, it really will be only the kids who need to be taught. Like young drivers they’ll learn at a developmentally appropriate age how to use the same self-publishing tools their older siblings, parents and grandparents have been using most of their lives.

Today there are clearly a lot of people who have always wanted to self-publish a book or two. Whether those books are collections of family recipes or deranged manifestos, until now these personal works have been financially and technologically beyond the reach of most would-be authors. This pent-up demand, again, crosses all generations, but over time — and perhaps a relatively short amount of time — that demand is going to be flushed out. Yes, there will be people who decide to pursue self-publication either as a hobby or avocation, but most would-be self-publishers will produce the titles they’ve always wanted and then stop. Or they’ll hang out a shingle and try to make a few bucks helping other independent authors realize their own pent-up dreams.

It’s also important to note that there’s a perfect convergence right now between the availability of self-publishing and the amount of time people have on their hands. If you crater the economy and drive millions of people into unemployment, they’re going to look around for something to do. If they’ve always wanted to self-publish a book they now have the time, and can probably afford to get it done. They may even have extra motivation to explore self-publishing as a means of making a buck or two when a couple of extra bucks would really be handy.

For these reasons, then, I think the current avalanche of demand for and interest in self-publishing will necessarily decrease — perhaps quite precipitously — as people find more time-consuming and remunerative pursuits, and as pent-up demand becomes satisfied over time. Which means those writers who are determined to take the long view, both in terms of future works and the value or present works, will almost certainly find themselves in a less-crowded market in the future. Which strikes me as a very good place to be.

– Mark Barrett

Writing is Work

Whether you’re a dabbler, seasoned pro or tortured soul, pressing keys on a keyboard takes time. The more time you have available, and the more disciplined you are about protecting that time, the more productive you will be as a writer.

PCMag.com has an article up today about telecommuting and productivity, but because all writing is work — whether you’re getting paid or not — anyone trying to find regular writing hours at home can profit from the piece.

– Mark Barrett

One Million Characters

Writing is a solitary pursuit often requiring long periods of self-imposed isolation in order to complete a given work. Whether the end product is a book, script or blood-scrawled scroll, many writers compensate for the inherent loneliness of authorship by leading bawdy social lives centered around chemical binges and chaotic if not ultimately destructive relationships. While I fully support any writer’s determination to find a healthy work-life balance, not all writers are constitutionally inclined to such interstitial exuberance.

If you live a fairly quiet life, as I do, the time you spend writing may not seem all that different from the time you spend staring at the wall, flipping channels, surfing the web, or leaning on the open door of the refrigerator for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Such mind-numbing activities may actually increase the appeal of the writing process, turning each typo and turn of phrase into the most galvanizing thing that has ever happened to you, but the banality of such an existence presents a problem. Where more outgoing writers survive secluded toil by subsisting on memories of social conquests and defeats, or even pending legal action, mild-mannered types are at serious risk of cerebral whiteout, where the isolation necessary for work merges indistinguishably with the vapidity of down time.

While it is possible for introverted writers to break up the monotony of their non-writing life by engaging in socially acceptable forms of self-abuse like exercise or watching the news, the real problem with being a low-key person in a low-key profession is that it’s often hard to find motivations that can withstand the darkest hours of the writing process. Where your more socially engaged writer always has an intellectual foe they’re determined to prove wrong or embarrass, or a object of fancy they aim to seduce with the words flowing from their fingertips, the loner writer (not to be confused with the antisocial writer) often struggles to remember why they’re subjecting themselves to torment when they could just as easily be staring at a crack in the ceiling.  Read more ]

Demystifying Authorship

I grew up with a reverence for authors. If you made a movie, or wrote a play or directed a play or starred in a play, that was cool, but if you wrote a book (fiction, and to a lesser extent non-fiction, but to a greater extent philosophy) you were somebody. Authors weren’t just artists using the medium of words, they were culture.

As the internet has devalued writing it has also demystified authorship in ways that I think are unique to the times. From the dawn of the first printed book until the public began expressing itself en mass I think a reverence for authors has been the norm. To be published was to be validated in ways that most people could only aspire to.

This does not mean, however, that any cultural stewardship claimed by the publishing industry was real. Far from it. Publishers have engaged in gatekeeping for no end of duplicitous purposes, and the people populating those power centers have never shown the slightest hesitation in abusing whatever trust the public placed in them. Where power, money and desire meet you can scoop cockroaches by the pound and never see the bottom of the barrel.

So complete was publishing’s power over the concept of authorship that anyone who attempted to publish outside the industry was deemed by all to have admitted failure. A painter could work in solitude, a musician could compose for an audience of one, a filmmaker could go independent, but to be a real author — to be a part of the culture — you had to sign a contract with someone else and give them editorial control.  Read more ]

Pandora Internet Radio

I have a love-hate relationship with radio. I love when a song comes on that I enjoy, whether it’s one I’m already familiar with or something new. I hate everything else, including songs in heavy rotation, announcers using compression mics, commercials commercials, commercials, and incessant announcements about many songs in a row a station will play before brutalizing me with commercials, commercials, commercials.

I have various writing moods, and not all of them are music compatible. When I’m in the mood for a backing track, however, having a steady stream of songs I don’t have to manage, and that won’t be interrupted by histrionics, feels good. I can’t say I’m more productive while I’m listening to music, but there’s something about music that makes it easier to find a writing groove, and particularly a rewriting groove.

I have a lot of music on my computer, ripped from old CD’s, but even choosing which tracks I want to hear can be a pain. I either have to invest time in creating playlists that go quickly stale or I have to choose something new when each CD ends. I know there are a lot of music options available to me over the internet but until recently I didn’t know somebody had solved all my music problems in a way that would leave me utterly satisfied. And all for free.

If you haven’t tried Pandora yet I urge you to give it a look and a listen. Not only is it a free streaming music service with no commercials, you can program your own stations by adding artists that define the music that station will play. The algorithms behind the selections are not obvious, which I like, but with a little trial and error you can easily create a station that serve up a good mix of artists you included as well as songs from similar artists.

My main list has about twenty artists on it — mostly late 90′s alternative rock. I’ve added a few new artists based on songs that were played outside my playlist, and I’ve removed two artists to keep the station from wandering too far afield. On the whole, however, I couldn’t be more satisfied with the result.

Which leads me to the only caution I have about this service. It’s been a constant in my life that anything I really enjoy disappears soon afterward. If I find a favorite restaurant it either closes or burns to the ground. If I find a favorite food item in the local grocery it is soon discontinued for lack of purchases by anyone other than me. So it stands to reason that by enjoying (let alone recommending) Pandora I am ensuring it will either quickly die or go to a monthly subscription price, at which point I’ll think long and hard about paying for it before deciding not to.

Until then, however, enjoy.

– Mark Barrett

WIG&TSSIP: Afterword: Writing in General

The Ditchwalk Book Club has been reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.

The final section of Hill’s book is also the most personal. Departing from the twin subjects of fiction and craft that bound the rest of the work, Hills writes of his own experience with nonfiction and of the eternal self-abuse that is any kind of authorship.

If you are serious about making writing an ongoing part of you life, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself sitting in a dusty corner, staring across the room at your desk, wondering if you’ve lost your mind. You’re going to experience a crisis of faith that has no bottom. You’re going to think that you’re doing it all wrong while every other writer is doing it with ease.

When you do, this chapter will remind you how wrong you are:

If the way my mind works when I’m trying to write has any resemblance to the way real writers’ minds work, then I pity them all. When I have time to write the ideas aren’t there — or if the ideas, then not the words. Forcing myself to put the words on paper helps not at all: insights become platitudes as phrased when under self-imposed duress. You see?!

I’ve long been thankful that someone had the guts to admit that writing is a nightmare. Not a sexy, drunken-binge nightmare or a death-tempting, drug-addled nightmare or an artistically obsessed, relationship-killing nightmare, but a self-imposed, lost-at-sea nightmare. Because the romantic, angst-ridden writing process portrayed in the movies, and often by authors themselves, is a fraud. Writing is hard even when it’s going well, and most of the time it’s not going well.

Hills ends the chapter in a two-page-long, single-paragraph monologue that I reread whenever I feel like banging my head on my desk or taking an axe to my computer. And every time I read it I laugh and am reminded that I am not alone.

Whether you write fiction or nonfiction your success will be determined by your ability to merge multiple, fragmented lines of thought into a coherent and focused whole. Whether writing about the actions of imaginary characters or addressing a real-world subject you’re going to lean heavily on reason and logic to find your way, and sooner or later you will get lost. At that moment the best thing you can do for your sanity is remind yourself that what you’re trying to do is really, really hard, and all the more so if you’re trying to do it well.

As a fiction writer I find Rust Hills’ book to be an invaluable aid. As a writer I find this chapter to be soul-sustaining.

Writing is a solitary pursuit that routinely destroys good people. I want you to have your dreams but I don’t want them to break you. Whenever you run aground, this chapter will make you laugh and remind you that you are not alone.

– Mark Barrett