Exit Row Guy

Last week I was returning home from Chicago on a rescheduled fight due to the unfortunate situation at the FAA radar facility in Aurora, IL. Which is just another example of how mental health issues are a more likely contributor to chaos in the U.S. than terrorism. But I digress.

“Have you been to the North Park Theater since the renovation?”

Normally, I am an ear buds in, eyes closed kind of traveler; but my re-booked flight offered me an experience that I think is becoming ever more rare. An opportunity for an extended conversation with a stranger. Spanning real estate, the culinary scene in Buffalo, and our careers my exit row seatmate and I chatted from sitting down at MDW, through the gate delay, refueling, re-stowing of luggage, delayed taxi, and altered flight path through Canada until we departed the plane in BUF. We never exchanged names. But this conversation had a lasting affect on me for the rest of the weekend. You see, exit row guy is me, in 25 years.

Flying home to see his parents who are in their 90’s, exit row guy is in his late 50’s or early 60’s and was born in Buffalo, but now resides in Minneapolis. He ended up in Minneapolis through a series of transfers from his telecom company. From what I gleaned he’s a good technician who has survived three office shut downs over the years in Buffalo, West Virginia, and Long Island. In his last departure they gave him the option of Birmingham, Phoenix, and Minneapolis and just as predictable as snow in January the Buffalonian chose the closest flight to home over a warm winter.

I could feel his love for western New York as I updated him on the gossip around the Bills sale and as he gave me recommendations to his favorite hole-in-the-wall places around town. Only later did I consider that our conversation must have felt strange to him. You see, I chose to move Buffalo for a high-tech white collar job just a few years after he was forced to leave his hometown to keep his high-tech blue collar job. What did he feel as he heard me talk about my new favorite places downtown and lament how the housing market is too fast to keep up with right now. I’m sure he felt pride. Buffalo is nothing if not proud.

As an educator this reflection led me to consider how education may have played a role in this bizarro-world encounter. You see, exit row guy has a good job and has been with a big company for over 20 years. The kind of job that my dad (retired) had, and the kind of job that one could count on for a steady and good paycheck, the drawback is that you are at the whim of the company. These kinds of technical blue-collar jobs have always required a post-secondary education of some sort (college, trade-school, apprenticeship) and so exit row guy got a bachelor’s degree and then went to work.

Things change slowly, then all at once

However, something changed in the 20 years between the beginning of our career’s. Upon earning my Bachelor’s I went to work for a TV station in a technical blue-collar role.  But, I was the first person to ever hold that job who had a bachelor’s degree and I was not paid well (who is in their first job). This job was incredibly unstable, in fact our station was consolidated nine months after I joined and we all lost our jobs.  Luckily, I had already committed to returning to school for a graduate degree in a field I was interested in from an intellectual perspective, not to be sheltered for survival.

Once I concluded my graduate work I had options, in fact I exercised these options to end up in Buffalo by way of Indianapolis, IN and Durham, NC.  I now have a technical white-collar job, love Buffalo, and feel that I am in a position where I will never be forced to move because of my job.


This is a lesson that exit row guy helped me understand. A bachelor’s degree is still uncommon (30% of adults) but has drastically increased (<25% in 1998), thus making it easier for employers to prefer the credential for jobs that did not used to require them. At the same time, master’s degree attainment has remained relatively steady (although increasing during recessionary years) at around 12%.

But what do these observations really mean?  It’s always been easy to point to salary and unemployment as indicators that education continues to pay as an investment.

Salary by Degree Chart

But what exit row guy made me realize is that mobility, both social and physical, is also a huge advantage of elevated education levels.  While exit row guy continues to have a good job with a good salary he has been forced from his home, meanwhile I get to eat his favorite pizza whenever I want, because I have the mobility to choose to be in Buffalo.

Exit row guy got caught by a generational and economic transition point (internet revolution) and does really like Minneapolis, but there’s still a glint in his eyes about Buffalo. I hope circumstances align for him and his wife to come back home soon.

Who’s Best Served by MOOCs?

I’m currently enrolled in my first-ever Massively Open Online Course, also known affectionately as a MOOC.  I decided to check out MOOCs a few months back because in the world of higher ed the topic has been as pervasive as Lebron James’ future team in the summer of 2010, in Cleveland.  Everybody has an opinion (via speech and funding) about how the free somewhat inexpensive courses will or won’t devastate the traditional higher ed landscape in the next few years. So I decided to try one out.

After perusing the offerings at Coursera.org, which I chose because of its ties to some of the high-caliber institutions that I always thought I was smart enough for, but didn’t have the circumstance or finances to attend, I settled on Gamification which is instructed by Kevin Werbach from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. It seemed to check all of the boxes; interesting topic that is relevant to my job, prestigious institution, and after watching the preview video I really enjoyed the instructor’s style.

We (the roster of 63,000 learners) are about 2/3 through the course and I’m proud to say that I’ve survived to make it down into the 10,000 learners who are still engaged in the course.  You see, since the MOOC is free somewhat inexpensive a lot of people stop engaging in course assignments or discussion fairly quickly.  In fact here are the most recent numbers from the instruction team:

  • Just under 63,000 students registered for the course.
  • Over 16,000 submitted Quiz 1
  • Over 12,000 submitted Quiz 2.
  • Over 10,000 students submitted Written Assignment 1

We’re now on Quiz 4 and Written Assignment 3, which I figure means that we must be below 10K.

How’s it Going?

So far, so good.  I’m really enjoying the content of the course and I’ve found it to be really flexible in terms of studying.  The instruction team tries to push use of the message boards in the course but I find that there are way too many (currently 1,750) topics and only rarely provide additional learning content. This course is a 6-week linear course, meaning that each week’s content is released on Monday morning and assignments are due the following Sunday, some MOOCs open all content at the get-go.  I like this linear approach as it keeps me from being overwhelmed and I feel like the instructor can adjust his lectures based on current events.

The Technology

Entering the course I was very excited to participate in and learn about the technology that Coursera was bringing to the table and while it’s been fairly easy-to-use, there’s nothing that’s breaking the innovation barrier.  The video lectures, which are the primary methods of instruction are fairly easy to watch and one of the nice features of the HTML5 player that is set to default is the ability to speed up time.  I usually watch the lecture at 1.5 or 1.75 times normal speed.  If I ever meet Professor Werbach I will probably have to ask him to speed it up!

However, the HTML5 player has one BIG issue.  I haven’t been able to replay a section of a lecture, the player always restarts the lecture if I fiddle with the player position slider.  The Flash player works well in this regard, but does not offer the speed adjustment of the HTML5 player, so I find myself switching back-and-forth to accomplish my goals.

I’ve chosen to participate in the Coursera Signature Track which adds a layer of validation when turning in assignments so that completion of the course can be verified if ever questioned, for a cost.  Verification is made via a webcam pic of my face each time I turn in an assignment alongside a typed honor code statement that supposedly allows Coursera to validate me via my typing patterns, however it has never indicated that my typing pattern is different even after significant effort as tricking it.

Overall, the course design and navigation is easy and straightforward.  I would be curious to see what kind of tech and assistance that they provide for the instructors. There also doesn’t seem to be a mobile app for Coursera which I would be interested in if I was a heavy commuter.

Who’s it Going to be?

Many folks who are talking about MOOCs as an alternative or supplement to higher education have now come to identify that there will likely serve specific populations of learners (for instance, curious higher ed people like me).  Interestingly enough, one of this week’s lessons in my Gamification course was on Player Types and the importance of understanding how members of each type will interact with your gamified system and I actually think that a core concept from this week can apply in projecting who will benefit from MOOCs.

In 1996 a game researcher named Richard Bartle came up with a way to organize player types of Massively Multiplayer Online Games (or MMOG, the inspiration for the MOOC acronym) into four regions of a 4 area quadrant:

Bartle's Player types

Bartle’s Player Types from Wikipedia

When I consider how these types might be used to describe students:

Achievers are those who try to accomplish all of the possible points in a class and are always on-time,

Explorers like to take different types of courses and engage with the elements of each course that are interesting to them,

Socializers enjoy class discussion and study groups, in fact they may only be able to succeed in a class via group study or projects, and

Killers (which are a controversial bunch in Bartle’s framework) are not only high achieving, but need to know that they are the best student in the class; they identify the other top students and try to beat them.

I believe that MOOCs will appeal to Explorers and Achievers the most because of the ability to engage with varied content, quickly disengage with a course, and access institutions and instructors that are not within their circumstantial grasp. Both of these types lay on the “Interested in work/content” side of the diagram, which lends itself well to a scenario where in-person contact is non-existent.

Finally, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve crossed out free multiple times in this post when referring to the financial cost of participating in my MOOC.  Because I signed up for the Signature Track I ended up paying Coursera a fee ($39.99 discounted from $79.99) to document and verify my participation and successful completion of the class.  I feel that these validation efforts will be the only way that completion of a MOOC will mean anything in the employment world, but because its a new idea it will take some time to flesh out.

Stay tuned for my next post on MOOCs after the course is over for more on the Signature Track.