Monthly Archives: September 2012

Visualizing the Geographic Distribution of my Coursera Course

As part of my Internet History, Technology, and Security course on Coursera I did a demographics survey and received 4701 responses from my students.

I will publish all the data in a recorded lecture summarizing the class, but I wanted to give a sneak preview of some of the geographic data results because the Python code to retrieve the data was fun to build. Click on each image to play with a zoomable map of the visualized data in a new window. At the end of the post, I describe how the data was gathered, processed and visualized.

Where are you taking the class from (State/Country)?

If you went to college or are currently going to college, what is the name of your college or university?

The second graph is naturally more detailed as the first question asked them to reduce their answer to a state versus the second question asking about a particular university. The data is noisy because it is all based on user-entered data with no human cleanup.

Gathering the data

Both fields were open-ended (i.e. the user was not picking from a drop-down). I had no idea how I would ever clean up the data, and when I got 4701 responses, I figured I would just take a look around and realized that my students were from a lot of places. On a lark Friday morning I started looking for the Yahoo! Geocoding API that I had heard about several years ago at a Yahoo! hackathon on the UM campus where I met Rasmus Lerdorf – the inventor of PHP. I was disappointed to find out that Y! was out of the geocoding business because it sounded cool. But I was pleased to find Google’s Geocoding API looked like it provided the same functionality and was available and easy to use.

So I set out to write a spider in Python that would go though the user-entered data and submit it to the geo-coder lookup API and retrieve the results. I used a local SQLite3 database to make sure that I only looked up the same string once. I had two data sets with nearly 6000 items total and the Google API stops you after 2500 queries in a 24 hour period. So it took three days to get the data all geocoded.

I did not clean up the data at all – I just submitted the user-entered text to Google’s API and took back what it said. Then I used Google’s Maps API for Javascript to produce the zoomable maps.

If you are curious about the nature of the spider, I adapted the code from the sample code in chapters 12-14 in my Python for Informatics textbook.

Code Review Requested: Coursera IHTS Grading Algorithm

This is a bit of a weird blog post. In my Internet History, Technology, and Security Coursera course, I adjusted the grading policy as the course went along as events happened. I was not pleased with the rubric on my week 2 assignment so I gave all full credit. We had two peer-graded extra credit assignments.

I ended up putting up a second copy of the final exam (hence two exam columns) because some students had reported that something went wrong (hard to verify these things) with the final when they took it the first time. I made it abundantly clear that the second final was only for students who had technical difficulties with the first final. For those who took the second final twice but had a reasonable score on the first exam (19 students) – I decided *not* to add the extra five point penalty after looking at the pattens in the data and merely took the lower of two exam scores. For those students with some obvious technical, internet, user error, or timing problem on the first exam (67 students) – the second exam was *very much needed*. I will share all the data with Coursera tech support and we can dig through logs to try to narrow down what might have gone wrong and see what we can learn.

This all ends up in a Python program to do the grading. I am putting it up for code review for a few days to see if anyone sees a bug before this little bit-o-code decides who gets certificates. I include the code and some sample output with names removed. You may need to make your screen quite wide or just view source to get the real data.


fh = open('Gradebook.csv')
grades = list()
for line in fh:
    line = line.rstrip()
    fields = line.split(';')

    for i in range(len(fields)) :
        if len(fields[i]) < 1 : fields[i] = '0'

    # Skip header lines
    try : id = int(fields[0])
        print line

    name = fields[1]
    name = name.replace('"','')

    # field[2] : "Late Days Left"
    # field[3] : "Optional: Demographic Survey"
    # field[4] : "Optional: Propose Final Exam Questions"

    quiz = 0
    # Quizzes for all 1, 3-7 weeks (Week 2 was field[13])
    for i in [5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10] :
        quiz = quiz + float(fields[i])

    # Exams
    exam1 = float(fields[11])
    exam2 = float(fields[12])

    if ( exam2 == 0.0 ) :
        exam = exam1
    elif ( exam1 <= 10 and exam2 > exam1 ) :
        # print 'Second exam OK ', id, name, exam1, exam2
        exam = exam2
        # print 'Second exam penalty ', id, name, exam1, exam2
        exam = exam1
        if exam2 < exam1 : exam = exam2
        # exam = exam - 5  # penalty
        if exam < 0 : exam = 0

    # fields[13] was peer-graded week 2 - free 10 points
    excr1 = float(fields[14])
    if ( excr1 < 0 ) : excr1 = 0
    excr2 = float(fields[15])
    if ( excr2 < 0 ) : excr2 = 0
    excr = excr1 + excr2
    # Ten points was week 2 peer-graded assessment
    tot = quiz + excr + exam + 10  
    # print fields, tot, quiz, excr, exam, exam1, exam2
    tup = (tot,quiz,excr,exam,id, name, line);
    # print tup
    grades.append( tup )

for i in grades:
    print i


The output includes the computed values and the input data as the last value in the tuple to allow verification and checking of the algorithm. I have manually line-broken the header line. Names are first and last initial and the user id is all zeros to obscure the data.

"User ID";"Full Name";"Late Days Left";"Optional: Demographic Survey";
"Optional: Propose Final Exam Questions";"Week 1 Quiz";"Week 3 Quiz";
"Week 4 Quiz";"Week 5 Quiz";"Week 6 Quiz";"Week 7 Quiz";
"Final Exam - IHTS";"Final Exam (2) - Do not take the Final Twice - See Email";
"Internet HTS - assignment 1";"Extra Credit - Assignment 1";"Extra Credit - Assignment 2"

(120.0, 60.0, 20.0, 30.0, 0000, 'DT', '0000;"DT";8;5.125;0;10;10;10;10;10;10;30;;9;10;10')
(120.0, 60.0, 20.0, 30.0, 0000, 'AC', '0000;"AC";8;6.25595;;10;10;10;10;10;10;30;;10;10;10')
(120.0, 60.0, 20.0, 30.0, 0000, 'JB', '0000;"JB";8;;;10;10;10;10;10;10;30;;10;10;10')
(119.5, 60.0, 19.5, 30.0, 0000, 'BL', '0000;"BL";8;6.71429;;10;10;10;10;10;10;30;;10;9.5;10')
(119.0, 60.0, 20.0, 29.0, 0000, 'KP', '0000;"KP";8;5.72619;;10;10;10;10;10;10;29;;9;10;10')
(106.5, 50.0, 18.5, 28.0, 0000, 'PJ', '0000;"PJ";8;4.83333;;0;10;10;10;10;10;28;;;8.5;10')
(99.8, 44.75, 18.0, 27.0, 0000, 'VK', '0000;"VK";0;;;9;8.75;7;0;10;10;27;;7;10;8')
(80.9, 47.9, 0.0, 23.0, 0000, 'MM', '0000;"MM";8;6.875;;7;9.75;8;7;8.25;7.9;23;;9;;')
(77.8, 43.8, 0.0, 24.0, 0000, 'DE', '0000;"DE";8;4.76786;;8;0;8;10;8;9.8;24;;7;;')
(76.8, 36.8, 0.0, 30.0, 0000, 'MS', '0000;"MS";8;5.98809;;9;0;0;9;9;9.8;30;;6.4;;')
(60.8, 50.75, 0.0, 0.0, 0000, 'JA', '0000;JA;8;5.96429;;9;9;10;7;5.75;10;;;9;;')
(55.8, 19.8, 0.0, 26.0, 0000, 'JO', '0000;"JO";7;5.09524;;10;0;0;0;0;9.8;26;;9;;')
(48.8, 38.75, 0.0, 0.0, 0000, 'AG', '0000;"AG";1;;;10;9.75;10;9;-0;;;;7.2;;')

This is a *tiny* representative sample pulled from a 45627 line resulting output from the program.

Abstract: Experiences Teaching a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC)

Dr. Severance taught the online course “Internet History, Technology, and Security” using the Coursera teaching platform. His course started July 23, 2012 and was free to all who want to register. The course has over 46,000 registered students from all over the world and 6,000 are on track to complete the course and earn a certificate. In this keynote, we will look at at the current trends in teaching and learning technology as well as look at technology and pedagogy behind the course, and behind Coursera in general. We will look at the data gathered for the course and talk about what worked well and what could be improved. We will also look some potential long-term effects of the current MOOC efforts.

Speaker: Dr. Charles Severance
Date: 13-November-2012

Charles is a Clinical Associate Professor and teaches in the School of Information at the University of Michigan. Charles is a founding faculty member of the Informatics Concentration undergraduate degree program at the University of Michigan. He also works for Blackboard as Sakai Chief Strategist. He also works with the IMS Global Learning Consortium promoting and developing standards for teaching and learning technology. Previously he was the Executive Director of the Sakai Foundation and the Chief Architect of the Sakai Project.

My Rubric and Approach for Peer-Graded Assignments on Coursera

I am not an expert on rubrics. For the first peer-graded assessment in my Coursera Internet History, Technology, and Security my rubric was really poor. This triggered a discussion in the student forums led by a student named Su-Lyn to produce what the students felt would be the ideal rubric. There was several rounds of edits and comments before the students reached their “final” rubric.

I adopted this Rubric for the rest of the peer-graded assignments for the course and it was far superior to the rubric I used in the first assignment.

The mistake I made in the first rubric I built was that I was trying to construct a rubric that ended up with a average of about 8.5 / 10 – but then all the rubrics were too simplistic and no one felt that they could express their assessment appropriately. The grade on that first assignment was 8.85 / 10 with a standard deviation of 1.49 – pretty much exactly as I planned from a numbers perspective – but the students did not like it.

The student-built rubric was a little harsher and but at least it felt expressive when evaluating basic expository writing – so students assessing each other’s work felt like what they were communicating in their grading was *useful*.

The first peer-graded assignment that used the student-built rubric had a range of -6.0 – 10.0 with an average of 7.15 and a standard deviation of 2.83. Clearly the second rubric was far more expressive.

I don’t like a mean of 7.15 for a straight scale graded course. So I would need to come up with a formula that mapped from the raw score to the actual score. I punted on any formula and just made the peer grading assignments “extra credit” – this meant that students were going to have to fight a little to get those extra points and that felt right to me. If you were going to the the extra credit – you better do some good writing – because if you just cut and pasted Wikipedia in – you would get a quick -6. Negative scores will be changed to zeros – people should not lose points on extra credit.

The last little bit of data is that 5808 students took the first (bad) required peer-graded assignment, 758 students took the second optional assignment and 641 took the third optional assignment. Interestingly the data on the third assignment was a range of -2 – 10 with a mean of 7.99 and a standard deviation of 2.35. I would interpret the drop in the number of students between the second and third assignments as well as the change in range and to mean that students who did badly on the first assignment just gave up and did not submit the second assignment.

This supports my instinct that perhaps in a course like mine, writing needs to be optional / extra credit.

Well, enough of the prelude – on to the question and rubric.

My Question and Rubric

Question: What element of Internet History prior to 2003 would you add to the History of the Internet as described in this course and where would it fit in the course? Draw from the course material and support with additional materials as necessary.

Essay length: 500-1000 words not including references. A separate space for references will be provided – only use this space for references (i.e. don’t continue your essay in this space). There is no specific citation format. While there is no minimum nor maximum required references, most essays will have somewhere between two and five references. If your references are web sites use the URL – if the references are papers include enough information to identify the source using APA format. Graders will not take points off for syntax errors in references, but they are welcome to suggest how the syntax of references can be improved.

While we would like your answers to be well written, given the number of different languages in the course, graders will **not** take points off for structural mistakes like grammar or punctuation. Graders may *comment* on how to improve the writing technique – but the grade will be based on the quality of the ideas in the answers and how well thought out the arguments are that support those ideas. As graders, please make your comments constructive and helpful and focused on improving learning.

Plagiarism: Looking for plagiarism should *not* be your primary purpose for peer graders. The purpose of the plagiarism deduction rubric is to give graders a way to note when plagiarism is clear and obvious. If you are taking points off from plagiarism, include the source of the material you consider to have been copied in your comments. Please do not add any editorial comments or value judgements about the author or plagiarism in your comments. Be respectful in your comments and make sure to focus on making this a learning experience for the author.

And above all, while the purpose of peer-grading is to assign an accurate score – we are all here to learn. Graders should approach weak or flawed essays as situations where they can help the essay author learn through useful and constructive comments. Our prime directive is to teach each other – within that directive we also assign score.


Interest (4 points): Is the answer interesting to read? Did the answer make you think? Did you learn something from the answer?
0 – No
2 – Somewhat
4 – Yes

Relevance (2 points): Does the essay answer the question? Is the answer on-topic?
0 – No
1 – Somewhat
2 – Yes

Analysis (2 points): Are the ideas logical and communicated clearly? Are the arguments reasonable / plausible? Does the analysis go beyond simply stating the obvious?
0 – No
1 – Somewhat
2 – Yes

Evidence (2 points): Does the essay use good examples? Are the arguments well-supported by facts? Does the essay cite its sources?
0 – No
1 – Somewhat
2 – Yes

Plagiarism (up to 6 point deduction): Is there is evidence of plagiarism such as simply cutting and pasting all or part of text from another source without citing?
0 – The essay did not have any evidence of plagiarism
-3 – A portion of the answer was literal text from another source
-6 – The entire essay was taken from another source

Coursera, Scores, and Certificates “With Distinction”

As my Internet History Technology, and Security Coursera course is winding down as students take the final, the discussion is turning to the issue of certificates. There will certainly be certificates for those that meet the minimum score. But there is still a discussion around how the certificates look and what the certificates contain.

One student (R.D.R.C.) proposed a great question:

I know that in some of the other courses on Coursera they are giving a Certificate with Distinction for those how score very high, I was wondering if we would have that here since there is no mention of it. Should those with 75 average get the same “commendation (since it isnt accreditation”) as those who scored 95 or above? Was just wondering.

Here is my answer I posted to the course forum

I am not going to distinguish the certificates. There are lots of factors that lead to the ultimate number of points. An important factor for many was technical issues and problems. I do not have the time to double grade 6000 students assignments if there was a glitch. The grade of “75 points” allowed a certificate to be earned by a diligent student even if there were some technical difficulties. I did not want to make points “so valuable” that students would get upset over every little thing that went wrong. If I set some “91” as “distinguished” – I would start hearing from hundreds of people who got a 90 because there was a bad question or the Coursera software or their Internet connection suffered a glitch on them.

It is also why I am not putting the points earned on the certificate. I was in communication with a student coming to the University of Michgan and he sent me two of his Coursera certificates as evidence of his skill. They were hard courses and so I knew that the certificates represented real work. And the rest of his transcript/resume supported that he was a very talented student.

But his certificates from Coursera had the scores on them – one of his scores was 750 / 700 – and it made me wonder. I did not wonder about the student’s achievement. It make it look to me like the points were too easy to earn – which makes me question the teacher of the class. I too have given “extra credit” in my course – so if you think I am being a little inconsistent – you are right. :) The difference is that in my course, I know *exactly why* I set up grading the way I did and how easy/hard points were to earn. In this other course, I don’t have inside information on how hard points were to get – or what the purpose of extra credit was. My point is that not knowing the grading approach and seeing a 750/700 – caused me to question the *course* but not question not the student’s achievement.

In a course like this, we need to be flexible in awarding points for many reasons – but as a result students who are (a) highly skilled before they come into the class or (b) have nothing go wrong, or (c) have lots of free time and are not juggling family or other schooling achieve these astronomical scores. Including the score to me reduced the value of the certificate IMHO even though the student I was interacting with had an extremely high score. It is like including a grade point averages on a diploma when you graduate – a diploma is far more than your grade point average.

We need to learn in this kind of new teaching and learning pattern that your achievement is not automatically higher because you are in the top 10 percent of the ultimate score. The score is only a proxy / approximation for what you have learned. And what you have taught others as part of a learning community is even more important and hard to measure.

In this class we have some in this course that are near to 120 / 100 – it is great to get these high scores – but it does not diminish those who got 80/100 or even 78/100.

What I am thinking of doing is labeling all the certificates as “the first time the course was taught” (or similar wording) to indicate that you are all pioneers and helped me so much in crafting what the course has become. You are the “first graduating class of the University of IHTS”. From this point forward whenever the course is taught (in Coursera or live) – your contributions wil be part of the course and I thank you.

Brent/Chuck Road Trip 2012 – Trip Report

Here is the trip report from our road trip. I wanted to blog as we went but the trip got pretty busy.

August 14

We got a pretty late start because I needed to replace two tires on the Buick before we could leave. While I was at Belle Tire they told me that my right front bearing was a little loose. But I had just replaced the bearings about 5000 miles earlier so I figured they were just being paranoid and I said I would check it later.

I had a few little things that I needed to finish before we left to the point where we did not get on the road to Chicago until 4PM. With the time change we made it to downtown Chicago about 7PM. We settled in at the Silversmith hotel and decided to go to Kingston mines for dinner and some Blues.

The wings at Kingston Mines are particularly tasty – I like the fact that they put a base of french fries underneath the wings to soak up the hot sauce – it is a great idea.

There were two bands at Kingston Mines that rotated each hour. We stayed for four hours and then went back downtown.

August 15

The first order of business was to do an office hour for my Coursera Internet History, Technology, and Security course at the Starbuck in the basement of Palmer House. Brent appears in the office hours video:

After office hours, we decided where to go next. The decision was whether to go west and visit places like Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone or go south to Memphis and beyond. Brent decided he wanted to see cities so I booked a hotel in Memphis and we checked out from our Chicago hotel.

As we were walking to the car, Brent asked if they had an art museum in Chicago. I said ‘yes’ and we were exactly one block away so we decided to spend a few hours at the Chicago Art museum. It was pretty cool and Brent really liked it but by the time we were done it was about 4PM and we needed to be in Memphis that night. Also because it was 4PM we started to hit Chicago traffic and I needed to fill the gas tank as soon as we got on the road. It took over an hour before we were outside Chicago on I-57 going toward Memphis. By the time we were at real highway speeds, the GPS was estimating our arrival time at 12:30 AM. I was getting pretty sleepy so I let Brent drive for a while – he was not comfortable driving the Buick but I was pretty sleepy so I let him drive for about 1.5 hours and took a nap.

I got up and drove the rest of the way. With gas and bathroom stops our estimated time of arrival ballooned out to 1:30AM. For the last hour I was *way too tired* – I should have stopped and took a nap. I was sooo happy when we pulled into that hotel and I had not fallen asleep driving. I used to drive at night fighting sleep and it felt really unsafe – for the past few years when I am tired – I stop and take a nap and when I awake I go back on the road. This keeps me from fighting sleep while driving. But with the arrival at 1:30 it just seemed like we were “so close” so I kept wanting to “gut it out”. Ah well – I vowed not to do that again.

August 16

We woke up at about 10AM and decided to go to Sun Studios. It turn out that we arrived during Elvis Week and August 16, 2012 was the 35-year anniversary of Elvis death in August 16, 1977 and the city was full of Elvis fans. And Sun Studios was also full of Elvis fans. It was our second time at Sun Studios and with it packed to the gills with people it generally was not too fun. We waited 45 minutes for the tour and then had a Chocolate Malt afterwards. Sun Studios is awesome and Brent liked it better because this time he is a musician and has done recording and so he appreciated a lot of the artists and equipment much more this time.

After Sun Studios I wanted to go downtown and kill some time and have some barbeque. It was extremely hot so I wanted to go downtown to Peabody Place – the giant mall that we had been to on our previous visit. We found our way to the parking ramp and walked to Peabody Place – there was no one downtown and when we got to Peabody Place – it was *permanently closed*. An entire gigantic mall was closed. I was amazed – I guess the bad economy has hit more than just Michigan.

I thought that perhaps we would walk through the Peabody Hotel and see the ducks. As we rounded the corner and the entrance came into view there was an extremely long line that snaked around the block to see the ducks. It seemed that the only thing to do downtown was see the ducks.

I gave up and we got back into the car and went back to the hotel to take a nap in the afternoon to save up our energy for the evening on Beale Street.

After we woke up from the nap, we went downtown to Beale Street. I had never been to Beale Street so I did not know what to expect. We needed some food so we went to Blues City Cafe and had dinner while listening to music. Brent was loving the music and the food was pretty tasty. After we finished at the Blues City Cafe we sat for a while at an outside venue kind of in an alley and listened to a young group playing some classic blues and had a couple of beers. After a couple of sets in the alley, we wandered down the street to listen to a more jazz-oriented band and had another beer.

All in all Beale Street was pretty awesome. It was very focused on music and not too crowded. We ended the night about midnight and went back to the hotel.

August 17

We got up August 17, and I did an office hour at a Starbucks in rural Memphis – but no one showed up so I caught up with some E-Mail and some work. We got on the road to New Orleans about 11:30 AM – and with about six hours of driving it looked like it was going to be a pretty mellow day.

I had booked a Holiday Inn in the French Quarter because I did want to have to handle the car for two days and wanted to keep the walking to a minimum.

We made really good time and were driving through the bayou and near Lake Ponchatrain as the sun was going down. We were in pretty good spirits and Brent was enjoying seeing the Bayou and the long causeways that drove straight across a lake. While I was driving, the GPS tracking system kept telling us to get off highway to avoid slow traffic. I had no idea where it was suggesting we go so I just stayed on the highway. Pretty much as we turned onto highway I-10, the traffic slowed to a crawl. The GPS was right all along but I just would not trust it. After about 15 minutes in a traffic jam we sped up until we got to the airport and then again slowed to a crawl and then once we got near the Superdome – the traffic literally stopped. We moved about a mile in an hour. And it was starting to rain.

Once we got off the highway, we had to deal with insane traffic in downtown New Orleans and we needed to cross from the North Side of the French Quarter to the south side of the French Quarter. The last mile through town took another 45 minutes. By the time we pulled into the Holiday Inn parking ramp, we were tired and stressed and just wanted to slump into a bed.

When we got to the lobby in the Holiday Inn in the French Quarter – it was packed with people damp from the rain – and it seemed like everyone was checking in at the same time and no one was in a good mood. Brent sat in a chair and I waited to get checked in. After about 15 minutes I got to the check in – when I gave them my name, they said, “What was your name again?” My heart sank. Then they asked for my confirmation number and my heart sank further. I gave them my confirmation number and after some typing they said my prepaid reservation was cancelled because of a problem with my credit card. And of course the hotel was full.

I had made the pre-paid reservations two days earlier. They gave me a confirmation number and then later yanked the reservation without a call or e-mail.

They told me that there was a Crowne Plaza a block away that had one room left. I was not in a position to do anything except say ‘yes’. We struggled back through the crowded lobby and up the elevators to the parking ramp and got back in the car. The Crowne Plaza was literally less than a block away and it took about 10 minutes to get there because of blocked roads and one way streets.

The Crowne Plaza did Valet Parking only and again it seemed like the whole world was checking in at the same time. We were the third car and waited 20 minutes before the valet guy could reach us. And all the time a constant drizzle. Finally we get our car parked handed off to the valet guy and go into the hotel. The hotel is hosting the national convention of the Vietnam Veteran’s Mortocycle Club. It seemed like at all times 24 hours per day, the entire entrance and sidewalk near the entrance would be filled with wall-to-wall motorcycle dudes smoking. Because it was raining, all the smokers crowded around the entrance under the small covered entrance. And since it was New Orleans they were always drunk and because they felt they owned the place if you tried to move between them they would always react with “attitude”.

We finally got checked in and in the room – I was exhausted. But I decided we needed to get out and see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band so we would have at least one positive experience in our first day in New Orleans.

We arrived at Preservation Hall about five minutes into their last set – but they let us in anyways. Which was really great. This was the reason for the entire trip and it made everything worth while. Brent loved it. It had always been my “ace in the hole” and on that day we needed something to leave us with a good feeling.

We walked back to the hotel and crashed.

August 18

The next day, we got up about 10 AM and decided to walk down the French Quarter to absorb the “French Quarter Experience”. We went into stores of various kinds and had a nice lunch where Brent tried Oysters on the Half-Shell for the first time. As we walked, the rain kept coming and going. I was always worried about Brent slipping on his crutches because the sidewalks are mostly slate. After lunch we went to Jackson Square to see all the cool stuff there – luckily it was not raining so there was something to see. As we finished with Jackson Square I decided we should see the Mississippi RIver – but it started to pour. I pulled out my umbrella and we walked behind Cafe Du Monde and got to see the Mississippi River.

My next plan was to go to Cafe Du Monde and have some hot chocolate and beignets. Unfortunately it seemed as though every tourist in New Orleans had the same idea. It was raining, wet and slippery and I tried to sit Brent in a chair while I tried to get a table. No one was getting up and as soon as someone got up – some group of kids would run and grab the table. I decided to give up and go back to the hotel and dry out. But the walk back to the hotel was nearly a mile and it was raining and we had one umbrella and the rain made the sidewalks slippery.

I decided that we would take a pedi-cab back to the hotel. A pedi-cab is a three-wheeled bicycle with seats in the back. It is also covered and has a rain shield. So we grabbed a pedi cab and they took us back to the hotel – it was really the first time I had relaxed since we left the hotel in the morning. When we arrived at the hotel I gave the pedicab driver a big tip and told him how much I appreciated the ride.

When we got back to the hotel, the pedicab driver told me that I could call a number and they would pick us up anywhere in the French Quarter in about five minutes. I was incredulous but he assured me that it really worked. They have a little cell phone hanging around their neck where they get calls. He gave me a business card with their number on it – which I kept for the rest of the trip.

We got back in to the hotel room and took a nap, and dried out all of our clothing and shoes and were feeling a little better. So we decided we would venture back out for the evening. This time we were smart and called the pedi-cab right away. Just as they said, within five minutes our chariot arrived. I was planning to start the night at Preservation Hall and then work our way back and hit a few music clubs.

We were talking with our pedicab driver about where to find good music on Bourbon Street and he said we should probably just go to “Frenchman Street” – he said it was more focused on music and less focused on frozen margaritas and acting stupid. He said that Bourbon Street was fast becoming “Disneyland for Drunks” – and I had to agree. Over the years of me coming to NOLA since 1993 the cool Blues places (like Bryan Lee playing at The Old Absinthe House) were being turned into frozen Margarita shops. Ironically while we were in New Orleans, Bryan Lee was playing in Chicago. We just missed him both places.

We decided to switch our plans to Frenchman Street so he took us there and dropped us off. We had dinner at a cute little place on the corner where we had some nice southern comfort food. After dinner we went to a coupe of clubs. The first featured a washboard and the second was an all-brass band that played very loud. It was cool for Brent because it was completely different style of music from our other experiences.

After we were done at Frenchman Street we called our new best friends – the pedicab drivers and as promised he showed up in five minutes. I told him to take us to Cafe Du Monde – when we got there, we immediately found an open table and we could have our requisite beignets and hot chocolate. When we were done we again called the magical pedicab and were whisked back to the hotel.

August 19

I was quite ready to be out of New Orleans about our hotel filled to the brim with annoying Motorcycle Club members. Of course 20 people were checking out at the same time and the valet parking folks were overwhelmed – it of course was raining. We were told that it would take an hour to get our car – or we could get in a bus and be taken to the lot and that would take about 15 minutes. We finally got our car and I was so happy to be able to start putting some distance between me and New Orleans. As soon as we got in the car it started pouring in earnest and we slowly crept out of the city going eastward towards Misisssippi.

After about three hours we were finally in rural Mississippi making good time with New Orleans slowly receding in the distance behind us. We had 2.5 days to get back to Michigan and no other agenda – we could drive a few hours and do something and stop when we felt tired. It felt good to finally be agenda free.

After about 100 miles, I started to hear a loud whine from the front wheels. I called my brother Scott and asked him for advice on how far I could get with a whining front wheel bearing given that we had about 1200 miles to go to get home. He told me that once GM wheel bearings started getting louder the would fail pretty quickly. He said not to push it. He said to find the nearest city that had a repair shop and stop for the night. He said that the right thing to do was to keep the car from breaking down completely so at least I could drive it to the repair shop instead of getting towed.

So I consulted my RoadAhead iPhone application and found Meridian Mississippi that had a bunch of hotels and several repair shops. It was a Sunday so we took my brother’s advice and got a room at the Motel 6. We had dinner at a Sonic and then went to the WIll Ferrel Candidate movie. The movie was actually not WIll’s best work – one ironic bit was that the Marty Huggins character drove a Buick LeSabre – which they used to show what a dork the other candidate – was – of course we were driving a 2001 Buick LeSabre on the trip so that was pretty ironic.

August 20

I got up bright and early Monday morning to be at the door of the Goodyear Service Center in Meridian Mississippi precisely at 7AM to get my bearing fixed. They were really nice and got me right in and gave me a good estimate (cheaper than the Belle Tire estimate back in Michigan). The waiting room even had WiFi and free coffee so I could catch up on a bit of work and E-Mail. After about 45 minutes they came back and said that they fixed the right front bearing and the left was making noise too – it was less noise but it was not in great shape – so I told them to fix the left front bearing as well. They quickly completed the work and I went back to get Brent and we were on the road by 10:30AM – It was actually the earliest we had made it on the road on the trip.

It was a nice feeling not to be listening to the bearings to see if they were about tho break down and leave us by the side of the road. It was also nice to not have a precise schedule and not to have any time pressure to make it anywhere. And it was nice to be driving on a full night’s sleep.

The miles piled up as we went through Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky. It felt good to be getting closer to home.

As we were driving along in Northern Kentucky, I saw a sign that said “Horse Cave Next Exit”. We had no particular agenda so I decided to get off the highway and take a look.

Horse Cave turned out the be pretty cool – we took a tour. Brent took a little extra time with his crutches – but eventually we were 150 feet under ground in a giant cavern carved by a river. It was nice to have done something on the spur of the moment instead of pushing to meet a schedule.

After a few hours we hopped back on the road and ended up staying the night at a hotel in southern Indiana. We were within striking distance of home and the next day should be a nice easy ride and a straight shot.

By this time Brent and I were feeling some flu-like symptoms. I had gotten them first and I was getting better – Brent was at the point where he was starting to feel pretty bad – so we had to run around the town and find him some chicken soup so he would feel better.

August 21

We got up about 10 AM and hopped on the road. As we passed Indianapolis, for me things became very familiar since I make the drive to Indy all the time. We passed Fort Wayne and then the Michigan border.

We pulled into our driveway at about 4PM. We arrived back home almost to the minute at same time as we had left seven days earlier. It felt good to be home. We had driven 2359 miles.


Interestingly we missed hurricane Isaac by about a week. Isaac almost exactly followed the path we took coming home from New Orleans. It hit New Orleans, Mississippi, and then went up the Mississippi valley and then turned down the Ohio valley – at one point they were reporting from Meridian Mississippi where we had our bearings changed.

It was interesting to watch the scenes from New Orleans and realize just how helpless they are if they did not evacuate long before the storm. Having driven into New Orleans for the first time in my life I realized how isolated it is and how much it is surrounded by water on all sides. The highways and roads are a mess and you just cannot get anywhere in a hurry. I would hate to be leaving in a hurry to escape a hurricane.

Afterwards Brent said he never wanted to go on a road trip again. I may try to convince him otherwise next year. I think that the mistake was to do a road trip that spent most of its time in cities instead of wandering around the west. I do think that if we want to go visit a city, we might as well fly and keep things nice and simple. But perhaps next summer we will do that “out west” road trip. My guess is that it will be a lot less stressful and more relaxing to drive with less of a schedule / agenda.

But overall it was a great experience and all the fun things we did were very fun. Because we were in such a rush and going a great distance and fighting through crowds with Brent on hand-crutches, logistics took a lot of energy. But the destination were well worth it and road trips are supposed have a few challenges !

Comments on Coursera from E-Mail

I ended up in an E-Mail discussion with the folks in the University of Michigan School of Information mailing list and ended up writing this little essay on Coursera – it sounded pretty good so I decided to keep it. It is just kind of a thought piece.

July 23, 2012

There is way too much hype around Coursera and what it means, portends, and how a meteor will strike the earth and cause all of higher education to have a thin dusting of Iridium, etc etc. We need to factor *all* that out.

Coursera is a way for us to share a tiny tiny fraction of our niftiest on-campus courses and faculty members to an extremely wide audience, nearly all of whom will never get to Ann Arbor, let alone be enrolled in the University of Michigan. Sharing what we know and do with the world for the betterment of the world is what we do and who we are and for me as you well know it is doubly what I do and who I am. Hence my work with Sakai, Moodle, Open.Michigan, the open textbooks I write,,, and every other venue that I can share with the world the things that I do.

Coursera is a wonderful piece of technology that is tuned to allow me to share my material with 35,000 students around the world and it works amazingly well. Me teaching a Coursera course is my *research* in how we can better use technology to get reasonable education in the hands of underserved people. This is a problem that the world must solve in the next 20 years and working with Coursera is the most exciting thing I have done in my career because I can almost touch that seemingly impossible future with the help of Coursera. And there are a bunch of researchers here at SI and the School of Ed that are with me every step of the way in trying to understand this new form and help improve it and evolve it.

Coursera is six classes at UM – it is not a sea-change. It is a grand experiment and one that in my opinion we are duty-bound to participate in to fulfill our mission and if I were not involved, I would be in grave pain because I would know that the future was being explored and I was not part of it.

Now after all that hyperbole, there are some caveats. It is early days. At this point in time, there is no way to achieve the same rigor (there is that word again) in my Coursera course that I achieve in SI502. Even if I put every single lecture and assignment of SI502 into Coursera – it would not be the same as SI502 because of the lack of rigor. Everything in a Coursera course must be scalable and rigor is hard to scale – especially when folks are learning very emergent skills that are cognitively challenging – it is too easy to just quit and walk away. Coursera works well when students strive to gain the knowledge and they fiercely want the knowledge. But in a class like SI502, a large number of students (at least for the first 5-6 weeks) really might be happier without the knowledge in SI502 and if it were a Coursera course they would quietly drop out or game the system to get some weak but passing grade and get the certificate.

So it turns out that *not* putting too much value on the Coursera certificates is an essential founding notion of what it takes to make a scalable course scale. What students get out of these courses is best correlated to whatever they put in – and there is no good measure for that.

But even with all its limitations, Coursera is far better than anything that came before it in to solve the use case of “teach the world”. Folks will find lots of flaws and those flaws are indeed there – but the best way to fix those flaws is to jump in and life with the flaws and let the solutions come to us as we gain experience.