Massive Online Open Courses Offer Free Learning on the Fly

11. January 2013

Charles Clark

Both within and beyond academia, there has been much lively discussion about how the future of higher education will be affected by massive online open courses (MOOCs)—classes taught over the Internet to a large number of students with limited involvement from professors. Predictions range from the mass extinction of universities as we know them to a fad that will soon join the dancing baby in the Hall of Fame of Internet Has-Beens. 

Even I entered the fray when I was quoted in an article about MOOCs in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which included a photo of me wearing a funny hat to an event that had been sponsored by Coursera in Menlo Park, Calif., last July. Coursera is an online startup that is working with a number of elite universities to offer MOOCs, which are free and widely available but do not confer academic credit.

Some of what I learned at the event may be of interest. Almost all of the Coursera students whom I met  were much like you, dear readers: Ninety percent of the 300 or so present were holders of degrees in science or engineering who were working in high-tech occupations. They were ambitious, career-minded, and eager to learn new skills.  The remaining 10 percent of attendees were either scarily smart high-school students or random fashion victims like me.

While the MOOC trend is clearly hot right now—the New York Times recently called 2012 the “Year of the MOOC”—no one knows how long it will last. So just in case the MOOC bubble is soon to burst, now would be a good time for the Bright Futures crowd to sample the merchandise, which is a steal at the attractive price of zero.  In addition to Coursera, courses are offered through the companies edX, Udacity and Stanford’s Classes2Go.

Some of the courses are stunningly good. They require intense, active involvement during brief periods of time, present challenging assignments and can even engage a social dimension of the learning experience.  It’s more than just watching lectures on YouTube.

They can’t all be as good as the first one I tried through Coursera, an introductory course on computer science taught by Nick Parlante. Nick is one of the best natural-born teachers I’ve ever seen, and within a few hours he had the students writing JavaScript code executed within a browser window to do image processing.  As the field matures, some turkeys will undoubtedly flock to it, but the early pioneers seem to be talented and motivated. After all, they are doing something new, innovative and hard.

While the concept of “distance learning” is certainly not new, what’s different about MOOCs is their scalability: the ability to teach tens of thousands of students, or more, all within the same time window. This is only made possible by eliminating one-on-one interaction between teacher and student. Although this seems at first like a grave disadvantage compared to traditional classroom learning, it also gives students a new opportunity to exploit the awesome power of social networking in order to advance learning worldwide.

Now struggling to build a MOOC myself, I have some appreciation for the real difficulties that are involved in their basic construction.  Just recording an ordinary classroom performance would, in most cases, yield pure box-office poison.  In addition, a sustainable business model for free MOOC distribution remains elusive. 

There’s no doubt that the MOOC landscape will be littered by the graves of pioneers, as was the railroad business and Internet retailing.  So now, while the going is good, and there is no potential loss other than your own time (which is, after all, subject to your control), why not give it a try? Coursera has a number of optics-relevant offerings in view. Sight unseen, I recommend Computational Photography, by Irfan Essa, scheduled to start on February 25, 2013.

Charles Clark ( is co-director of the Joint Quantum Institute of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Maryland, and an enthusiastic supporter of the OSA Student Chapter program. Web site:

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Lessons from a Faculty Search

9. January 2013

David McGloin

This post is reproduced from the blog Dundee Physics with the kind permission of the author.

When my department was hiring for a life sciences-related position this past fall, I was on a search and selection committee for the first time. It’s an interesting and tough process, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on how we went about assessing our applicants in the hope that other job seekers can benefit from my insight. We cast a wide net and ended up with a large number of very high quality candidates. It was a tough choice–so how did we decide?

Fit to specification: My first piece of advice is to make sure that your cover letter, CV and research statement clearly communicate how you fit the specific position advertised. While our call wasn’t restricted to those working in a certain topic area, applicants still needed to state how their work aligned itself to the life sciences. Writing that you were “really interested in biology” wasn’t going to cut it, and for some really strong physical sciences applicants, this is where they fell down. We wanted to see at least some evidence of how the applicant’s work had been applied to biophysics research or how it might be applied in our department (and not just generically).

Experience: Your experience to date matters a lot – it shows the trajectory that you are on, what kind of thinker you are and what you might be capable of. The areas you have worked on, your general productivity and the papers you have produced make a big difference. However, the reality is that this is only part of the package. You might have been unlucky in where you have worked, or the projects you were assigned may not have gone according to plan. We recognize this. When your papers and background are a little lacking, then your research statement becomes even more important.

Research Statement: So you want to come and work with us, but what exactly are you planning to do? Your research statement should outline a coherent program of work and describe an interesting project in an innovative way. Incremental changes are not as persuasive as plans on a larger scale. However, you also have to be realistic, and this is where the challenge lies: to outline something of grand ambition in such a way that we can believe you will be able to deliver. In my mind this is perhaps the most important section: It gives you the opportunity to showcase your talent regardless of what you have achieved.

Metrics:  Does your h-index matter? Your publication count? Number of citations? Where you publish? In modern academia, these things are very significant, probably much more than they should be. The wide variety of postdoc positions that people have means you can’t always compare such factors in any meaningful way. One of my colleagues thought that postdocs should produce at least one decent paper per year. We used this as a general standard, but not a hard-and-fast rule. We did consider numbers of citations, but only as one factor to help us get a sense of the value of the papers published. Ultimately, I think the panel paid more attention to where papers were published over other numbers, but we really tried to look at the whole picture rather than just one metric. We put more emphasis on the applicant’s research ideas and his or her potential to deliver than pure numbers.

Interview: You might make a good impression on paper, but you also have to talk the talk. We decided on a full day visit for each interviewee, so the candidates got to speak to a range of people across the university. We asked them to think specifically about which faculty members they might like to converse with, in order to push them to think about why exactly they wanted to work with us. They were also asked to give a talk. All this information gave the interview panel a rounder picture of each applicant.

Ultimately, we hired someone with great potential, who we believe will take on big challenges. We were looking for—and found—a person who is a good colleague, who fits in with the department and who interacts well with undergraduates. I hope you find a similar good fit in whatever position you seek!

David McGloin ( is head of the division of physics and a senior lecturer at the University of Dundee, Scotland.

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What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School

3. January 2013

Arti Agrawal   

I learned a lot in graduate school: science, research, patience, and technical writing skills, among many other things. So when I took my first position as a lecturer, I thought that my grad school training and subsequent experience as a post-doc had prepared me for professional life as an academic.

Boy, was I wrong!  Many skills that I need in my current job were not taught in school, and sometimes I am blindsided when professional life rudely makes demands on me that weren’t part of my carefully scripted student career. Below are some abilities that I have learned in the workplace.

Persuading and negotiating with people: I must often deal with people in positions of authority to obtain necessities like lab space or funds for equipment, conferences, training courses, or publishing in open access journals. There are limited resources, and the people holding the purse strings are besieged with demands from many others like us, so it’s important to know how to get what you need. Start by prioritizing your wish list into must-have, nice-to-have, and don’t-need-right-now items so that you can focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Developing good work relationships: You will interact with colleagues, students, peers, superiors, suppliers, vendors and administrative staff, and it can be difficult to maintain these relationships successfully. As a typical geek, I had no idea how to manage working relationships, especially with people who were very different from me. Sometimes taking personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs can help you to better understand yourself and others. You can also get a head start on cultivating working relationships by taking on volunteer leadership opportunities such as organizing an IONS conference  or leading a student chapter—or simply networking within a professional society.

Managing my lab: When I began hiring people, I suddenly needed to understand legal requirements for equality and diversity, health and safety, and risk assessment. I also had to determine how to evaluate my staff. You can find much information online about hiring laws in your area, and my recent OPN article on “Learning to Teach” includes some ideas on how to think through student assessment.

Balancing more than one demanding job: As a post-doc, I would work on several research projects at once and even throw in a bit of teaching on the side—which felt overwhelming enough. But now added to the mix were administrative work, department meetings, lab management, securing funding, reviewing papers and supervising post-docs. Learning how to organize and prioritize is critical.

Saying no without offending: I find it hard to say no to people, and, as a result, I often take on more than I can handle. Although it can sometimes be difficult, it’s important to learn how to deal with such situations and say no without causing hurt or offense. Just be friendly but assertive about what you can and cannot realistically do. You must be able to set healthy boundaries in order to succeed in any relationship, whether personal or professional.

Indeed, these skills are not confined to any single profession–we need them in every sphere of life. Although they may not be part of any formal curriculum, you can learn them through experience and practice. Good luck!

Arti Agrawal ( is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit

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