Weather and the Culture of Big Data

For those wrestling with the impossibly difficult Rubik’s Cube of how best to use Big Data, machine Learning and MOOC’s for purposes of offering free college courses, with excellence, worldwide, here is a MUST READ: September 10, 2012, New York Sunday Magazine Article The Weatherman is not a Moron. Please, please. Read every single word of it. I promise, my post, below, will make a lot more sense if you do.

The short of the article — and I honestly don’t think there is a good way to “short cut” its worth! – is that there are no greater mathematical, algorithmic, artificial intelligence, and modeling challenges than that of weather forecasting. The article begins thus:

“From the inside, the National Centers for Environmental Prediction looked like a cross between a submarine command center and a Goldman Sachs trading floor. Twenty minutes outside Washington, it consisted mainly of sleek workstations manned by meteorologists working an armada of flat-screen monitors with maps of every conceivable type of weather data for every corner of the country.”

So……. What does this have to do with MOOC’s?

Answer: Everything!

As with those at the top of the weather forecasting pyramid, the drivers to MOOC’s are incredibly brilliant mathematicians and Big Data Experts. That’s their North Star and it’s so far distant from that of the ordinary sailor, the MOOC guys would giggle at even the mention of an ageless seafarer’s dictum:

Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.
Red sky at morning, sailor take warning;

Put the owners of Coursera or Udacity at the helm of a sail boat and my guess is the first thing they would do is check the barometer. Under sail, you would find them below deck, happily reading the weather faxes, making course projections on a computer screen. This is their comfort zone. For them, Big Data is the font of all knowledge, the lens through which all major decisions should be made. Metrics. Metrics. Metrics. And they can prove it on a chalk board.

Compare that to the veteran sailor – the one that at age six, seven or eight was all alone with tiller, main and jib, pointing his very tiny dingy to an open ocean. Big grin from ear-to-ear. After many years under sail that same sailor would have learned to trust himself for the strength and direction of the wind; the effects from ocean color, wave, chop, sky and horizon condition; the birds aloft, both type and where headed; the whole entire feel of sea, keel, hull, rig, sail, compass, bearing, speed, distance-made-good, boat-motion and crew’s well-being. And, most of all, what was in his gut.

In the business of learning deliveries,

the differences are just as stark.

For teachers deeply in love with the entire experience of a physical classroom – especially those who have spent a lifetime inside of it — many hold the same value for geeky computer read-outs as cowboys have for stale beer:  “It’s not worth warm piss.” . I can hear it now: “Algorithms, smallgarithims…… Take them and a five dollar bill and go get yourself a cup of coffee at Starbucks.”

Sure, I’ve exaggerated all three circumstances.

At the very top of the sailing totem-pole are those now competing in the America’s Cup. If you think those races are anything like watching grass grow, please click here. These machines are 21st Century computerized rocket ships with sails the size of a football field; but tipy as a canoe  What they do is go very, very, very fast. Aboard is a brainy, balanced crew, part aerodynamic engineer, part expert tactician, part high-wire walker.  All of them are true-blue, all world, first-class sailors holding an awesome demonstration of fine choreography and splendid teamwork. *Oh, if our classrooms could be so good!)   NOTE: The guy to beat this year made big fortunes organizing Big Data.)

These same skills are required – and often on high display – by those determined to prove that MOOC’s can change the world. Their teams have great respect for the classroom having excelled there as students – and professors too. They’ve got the macro parts of the Rubik’s Cube absolutely correct: Elite college courses can now be delivered for a tiny, tiny fraction of the cost it takes to deliver them on a campus. Proudly, these people  can point to strong, fact-based peer-reviewed evidence that the classes on-line are equal to, if not better than, those provided face-to-face. What’s to prevent worldwide delivery to millions? Billions? No longer a question of whether – but when? and by whom?

What the MOOC’s have yet to prove are these two theories:

THEORY ONE: That on-line classes with enrollments in the thousands are at least equal to that of the same class as delivered on the campus. (or that delivered in small numbers on-line.) This is a crucial, crucial matter. If (for profit) MOOC providers fail to meet the high standards of the university from which they acquire their classes, how long will the university tolerate a “double standard” — Will they accept the idea of “a poor man’s Harvard”?

If there are clear differences in student retention, or student satisfaction, or measurable gain between that acquired in a MOOC class and that acquired on campus, how much threat do these differences pose to the brand image of elite university? Would even a PERCEIVED threat to the elephant that MOOC’s are now allowed to ride be a mortal blow to the whole enterprise?

THEORY TWO: Right now “free” is the most compelling piece of cheese on the MOOC table. Since there is “no such thing as a free lunch”, and “nobody, anywhere, works for free”, the biggest question of them all is: Who pays? If it is not the taxpayer or the student, or some combination of both, then who will pick up the tab? (My PERSONAL guess is payment will come from the same model as radio, television, Google and Facebook. And if so, what’s so bad about that?)

Right now, the economic model is both carefully tucked behind the curtain and is completely untested. The good news is the some very smart venture capital firms have invested in the Plan. Those guys are tough customers; getting investments out of them is like getting red meat past a lion. Still, it’s a high-risk proposition and a whole lot has to go “right” for the payoffs forcasted.


A THIRD (JOHN HIBBS) THEORY: My theory is that smart sailors, smart educators, smart business operators, smart administrators, smart investors all find ways to build systems that nicely combine and incorporate “the soft human touch” with that which is generated by hard fact, hard data and hard-won battles.

For example, I take as much value from the hundreds of comments made inside the Forums of a Coursera class as I would the weather fax when out sailing in bad weather conditions.For me, the comments from students inside Coursera’s classroom are part gems, part sand, part muck. Normal stuff from any promising new gold mine. The separation of gem from grit is hard grubby work. But out of the scrubbing comes the most valuable lessons of all —  Where are the most promising parts of the mine-field; and how can we get rid of the muck? What are the metrics and who is responsible for following the pathways decided?

The business of gold mining, like the business of learning, is part art and part science. What it takes is the the hard grind of the grubby stuff coupled to genius of technology. Delivered by real human beings.


NOTE:  While I don’t have a clue how to build systems to acquire the data, or the abilitiy to make it searchable, I do know what’s important for successful on-line deliveries:  Smooth passageways. Prompt, friendly responses to student comments, questions, observations and complaints. Plus, retention rates that improve, and quickly so.  With the means to achieve high levels of student satisfaction and growth rates headed North.  Plus, FAQ’s as clear and friendly as a fine summer day. Plus the build-out of the magnets which attract students willing to help with the mining.

ll of it carefully nourished, mined, dusted, polished, objectively measured and closely, seriously monitored.


Given the end goal of great college courses, free to taxpayer and student, made available to millions and billions worldwide, this is a Rubik’s Cube worth the pain of the wrestle.

About oregonhibbs

I'm passionate about improving access to education, worldwide, sailing, Duck football (I live in the shadow of the University of Oregon in Eugene) and connecting with people with ideas and work that "can change the world". With this in mind, I am the "Skipper" for Global Learn Day, which you can find out more about at OREGONHIBBS.COM ; Write to

Posted on September 11, 2012, in Khan,Coursera,Etc, News. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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