National / International News

MOOCs go to high school

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-14 11:43

At this point, you're probably familiar with MOOCs – those massive open online courses offered by the likes of Harvard, Stanford and MIT.  MOOCs are often geared toward college kids or curious adults. But that’s changing. 

MOOCs are going to high school.

One of the people tasked with making the jump is Dr. Jeneen Graham at St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in California. She currently teaches psychology to 18 students; next year she’ll be teaching thousands. “I think it’s incredible,” says Graham, “and also a little bit scary.”

Graham is creating an intro to psychology MOOC for the online learning nonprofit EdX, one of the biggest MOOC providers. Her class will be one of about two-dozen free high-school classes EdX is launching.

Graham says for St. Margaret's, it’s a chance to extend the school's mission of service and education. And personally, she says, her high school self would have jumped at the chance to take a class like this.  “I grew up in a small, rural town and I didn’t have access to this kind of course work,” says Graham. “I think I would have loved it.”

Those are the kids the new EdX offerings are after. Kids who are motivated.  Kids without access.

Many of the courses are AP level in subjects like physics, environmental science and chemistry. They are taught by high school instructors and professor from Berkeley, Rice and MIT.

“A lot of high schools do not have a rich set of AP courses, it’s just too expensive,” says Anant Agarwal, the CEO of EdX.

MOOCs, on the other hand, are free (though students can pay for a “certificate of achievement”).

Agarwal  thinks the number of middle and high schoolers taking EdX’s MOOCs could one day grow to about a third of their students. That’s a pretty compelling market, considering EdX has about 3 million users now.

“I think high schools will embrace this, because learners can directly take some of these high school courses,” says Agarwal. 

The big question is whether they’ll finish them. Currently, the MOOC completion rate is only about 10 percent.

It's a number that has slowed the adoption by high schools – but not stopped it. Some allow students to take college-geared MOOCs for credit as part of an independent study. In Florida, there’s a state law that allows students to earn credit for certain MOOCs.

And while there has been hand wringing at the university level about MOOCs replacing professors, the high school educators I talked to weren't worried.

“I see MOOCs as a supplement,” said Craig Wilson, head of the University of Miami Global Academy. “ An addition to, not a take away from, the education experience.”

His school is an online program, that has experimented with creating its own MOOCs.

He says there are parts of the MOOC model that can work with high-schoolers—but it’s not perfect.

Most teenagers, he says, need teachers or mentors.  They need help getting across the finish line.

“What I think is that high-schoolers still need that sense of community,” says Wilson

The ed-tech industry is also trying to figure out how to work that sense of community and adult supervision into MOOCs.

The digital education company Amplify is experimenting with a mentor based model.  It’s offering an AP Computer Science MOOC— with in-school coaches.

Of course, some super motivated, hyper-focused high schoolers aren’t waiting on adults to figure MOOCs out.

They’re doing it for themselves.

Take, for instance, James Lintner. He’s a 17 year old student in Georgia who takes MOOCS in his free time. So far, he says, he’s completed five, including classes in behavioral economics,  energy, and medicinal chemistry.

“I feel like if I’m learning something, that’s better than rotting my mind playing video games,” he said.

Lintner says the classes have helped him figure out what he might want study in college. He’s also hopeful they might help him get in. He’s including the MOOCs in the extracurricular section on his applications.

Now you basically have to go to college before you can get into college.

More fracking produces more open waste pits

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-14 11:40

The United States is on the verge of becoming the world’s top producer of oil, according to the International Energy Agency. But the oil boom is also leading to a boom in toxic oil field waste that can end up in open pit disposal sites. There are increasing concerns over the dangers these disposal sites pose for air quality.

All energy producing states have to deal with an ever-escalating amount of waste. In Wyoming, there are 35 commercial waste pits and permits pending on six more. North Dakota shipped 1.75 million tons of oil and gas waste to landfills in 2013. And, while Colorado - like North Dakota - has been tightening regulations on the waste water resulting from drilling operations, the state's solid waste pits are still left uncovered.

None of these states have conducted studies to determine if the air coming off pits is safe. A recent investigation in Texas by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity uncovered a troublesome gap in oversight by state and federal regulators over these giant pools of oil field muck.

That problem is clear in the situation facing the residents of Nordheim, Texas, a town of 300 people about 75 miles southeast of San Antonio. Farmers and ranchers gathered recently at the old dance hall there to organize against what they see as an environmental threat to their town.

"They’re going to dump liquid oil field waste, all the chemicals that have to do with fracking," rancher Jim Fulbright said, "and they have to do something with it."

Here's what he's worried about: two enormous oil waste disposal facilities – one 200 acres and the other 575 acres - proposed for right outside of his town. Retired teacher Lyn Janssen is worried about her ranch, settled by her family in 1897. "There’s really no reason for our area to become the dump site for the Eagle Ford Shale,” she said.

Nordheim is in the middle of the most productive parts of the Eagle Ford Shale, a geological formation saturated in oil. But because it’s locked in a rocky honeycomb, it was once thought that this oil was too expensive and troublesome to get out of the ground. New drilling technologies like fracking changed that. Each day, 900,000 barrels of oil are produced in the Eagle Ford play. In 2013, it generated $87 billion in total economic output for the state of Texas. And many people in Nordheim, like Fulbright, are also getting oil royalty checks from this oil and gas bounty.

"I'm not against fracking," he said. "I’m not against the oil and gas industry. It’s necessary. The country needs the energy." The proposed waste facilities near Nordheim and elsewhere in South Texas call for billions of gallons of toxic sludge to be dumped in the plastic-lined pits left open to the air, where fracking waste is allowed to evaporate. What’s left behind is a viscous goop that’s mixed with soil and eventually buried on-site. There are currently at least 67 large commercial surface facilities for oil field waste operating in Texas.

And if you live or work nearby, it's hard to miss.

"There ain’t no Chanel No. 5 there – it all stinks,” Fulbright said.

It doesn’t just stink – the EPA and others have found that the fumes contain chemicals known to be hazardous to human health, including volatile organic compounds like benzene. But, because oil and gas waste is exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations, most states don’t require monitoring waste pit air emissions. It’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels that could affect human health.

The only hope that residents of Nordheim have to stop the pits is to block their permitting at the Texas Rail Road Commission – the state agency that has oversight of the oil and gas industry. So, last month about 30 residents of Nordheim chartered a bus and took the 150-mile trip to Austin to testify at a public hearing about the pits. One-by-one, they stood before the hearing examiner and explained how the proposed waste pits would contaminate their water wells and pollute nearby creeks.

"We have 36 acres of land that’s adjacent to the proposed site. We have a 150-f00t deep water well. It is 60 feet from the property line of the proposed waste facility,” resident Howard Ann Bouman said.

“My husband and I own 54 acres that is bordered by Smith Creek. All of the toxins that are allowed in and out of the facility because they talk about mechanical failure or human error and those things are going to run into the creeks,” Gail Tisdale said.

Also at the hearing was Republican state Representative Geanie Morrison, who has represented Nordheim for over 15 years. She expressed her concerns, even though she does believe the state needs these facilities.

“I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the 'not in my backyard' position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim," she said.

But as Nordheim had its say, so did the company proposing the pits - Pyote Reclamation Systems. John Soule is their attorney and his argument in favor of the permitting hinged on the fact that the oil field waste going into the pits is considered non-hazardous. He stressed that point five times in the first two minutes of his presentation:

"The waste that will be received," he said, "is RCRA or Resource Conservation and Recovery Act exempt oil and gas waste, by definition non-hazardous.”

A week after the hearing, the CEO of Pyote Reclamation Systems, George Wommack, expressed confidence about the ruling from the railroad commission. He was representing his company at their booth at the DUG Eagle Ford Conference in San Antonio, a gathering of about 4500 oil industry professionals. Wommack was there pitching his services as an oilfield waste processor.

He restated the fact the the company is dealing solely in non-hazardous materials:  “They need to understand this is nonhazardous material. It’s mainly rocks and dirt that has come in contact with the hydrocarbon.”

But that's the key issue in this dispute: Is oil and gas waste hazardous, or not?

Right now, oil and gas waste is officially considered non-hazardous because of a decision made by Congress and the EPA back in 1988 to exempt oil and gas waste from federal regulations. It was a move to spur domestic oil production and keep costs low. Professor Ernest Smith, of the University of Texas School of Law, says it was all about politics. He literally wrote the book - a text book - on oil and gas law and is a specialist in the area.

“The oil and gas companies had sufficient pull that they were able to get it classified as non-hazardous,” he said.

But Smith believes this exemption won’t last forever. He says pressure is building on the federal government to fix it. But that would come at quite a cost to industry, at least a three-fold increase in waste processing costs. That’s why that change isn't likely to happen in time to keep the pits out of Nordheim.

This story was a collaboration between Inside Energy, InsideClimateNews and the Center for Public Integrity.

Behind big banks profits, a sea change

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-14 11:33

Wells Fargo, Citigroup and JP Morgan Chase all reported earnings Tuesday morning. The results were more or less what analysts expected, with two banks barely beating expectations, and JP Morgan Chase barely missing. But all three are profitable, with gains in the single-digit billions of dollars for the quarter.

"The return to profitability by banks of all sizes is a good thing for our economy," says Aaron Klein, director of the Financial Regulatory Reform Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center. "It shows that loans are being made and repaid."

But the more significant change since the financial crisis is the quality of those loans. "You've seen a significant reduction in lending to individuals who are outside the traditional credit box," says Klein.  

Safer loans are part of a broader sea change in bank processes that have reduced risk, sometimes at the cost of profits. 

"I would say [the big banks are] far safer, better capitalized today than they were before the crisis, but they certainly aren’t as profitable," says Fred Cannon, global director of research at KBW. 

In addition to making safer loans, banks have been forced to spin off risky "proprietary trading" desks, and to increase capital or equity. The latter directly impacts one key measure of profitability: Return on equity.

"Citigroup is a good example," says Cannon. "Before the crisis, because they didn’t have much equity, the returns on equity, were you know in the mid-twenties. And today, Citigroup struggles to make it to 10 percent."

A less profitable Citigroup, but a safer financial system?

"So that’s the good news," says Dennis Kelleher is the president of Better Markets, an organization that  pushes tighter regulation of the financial industry. "The bad news is if those circumstances repeat themselves, we’re not in dramatically different  position than we were in '08."

The problem, he says, is that while the big banks may be less likely to fail, if they do fail, they're still too big to avoid having taxpayers bail them out.

VIDEO: In 80 seconds: Ebola vaccine

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 11:30
The progress towards a vaccine against Ebola in 80 seconds.

Weak demand for oil is sign of weak global economy

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-14 11:04

Oil prices have been on a downward swing for the past few months and now there is an expectation among industry forecasters that demand for oil will slow soon.

The International Energy Agency says oil demand growth is at its lowest in five years, with demand expected to grow by 700,000 barrels a day. That’s 200,000 fewer than it previously expected.

Antoine Halff is the chief oil analyst for the agency: “The main driver really has been the economy," says Halff. “The economic recovery continues to be slower than expected.”

The agency lowered its forecasts in large part because the International Monetary Fund recently lowered its forecast for GDP growth worldwide.  

“And now China, which for the last 10 to 15 years was the main engine of economic growth, has been slowing dramatically as well,” says Halff.

Slower growth in Asia and in developing nations around the world is a big factor in oil demand. Last year, for the first time, the demand for oil in developing countries exceeded that of developed nations.

Growth in those developing nations is slowing, a worrying sign for oil producers, says IHS oil analyst Jamie Webster. “It’s also a worrying sign for the economy and for oil markets because that is really considered to be the home for demand growth long term.”

Despite the drop in global demand, so far at least, oil production has not declined. As a result, analyst Steven Kopits expects gas prices to drop in the U.S. which could spur demand.

“The caveat on that is that the miles per gallon for our automobiles has increased quite a bit," he says. "For new cars over the last seven years, or so it’s up 20 percent.”

Renewable energy sources don’t make up a big enough share to cut into demand for oil. But gains in efficiency, and the rise of the electric car, Kopits says, could be game changers.

VIDEO: Behind-the-scenes look at Lion King

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 11:02
As Disney's Lion King musical celebrates 15 years, take a behind-the-scenes look at the production.

Hague and Brown in devolution clash

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 10:52
William Hague and Gordon Brown clash in the Commons over calls for "English votes for English laws" as MPs debate the next steps for UK devolution.

VIDEO: 'Goldilocks' burglar found in house

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 10:09
A couple from Lancashire return from their holiday to discover a burglar fast asleep in their bed.

Leaders call for funding agreement

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 10:07
The four party leaders in the Welsh assembly call for an agreement on UK funding for Wales by January.

Wigan's Flower banned for six months

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 10:02
Wigan's Ben Flower is given a six-month ban - the longest in Super League history - for punching St Helens' Lance Hohaia.

Malala pleads for Nigerian captives

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 09:59
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai calls on Nigeria to intensify efforts to free 219 schoolgirls held by Islamist militants six months ago.

Boost for 'next generation' biofuels

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 09:50
Italy will become the first country in Europe to legally require "advanced biofuels" in cars and trucks, the BBC has learned.

The BuzzFeed wizard who changed media as we know it

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-14 09:37

Dao Nguyen got a big promotion Tuesday. She's now BuzzFeed's publisher, a title that means something a whole lot different than it used to in the media world. But that media world is a whole lot different too, in no small part because of Nguyen.

As BuzzFeed's head of growth and data, Nguyen is credited with orchestrating the by-the-numbers approach that has made the site explode to more than 150 million users a month and changed the way we consume media. Before a listicle gets posted or a headline goes viral, it's gone through BuzzFeed's testing system, orchestrated by Nguyen.

"Data should not dictate your strategy," Nguyen says, "But you should understand what data tells you and also what its limits are." 

Nguyen and her team have used that data to figure out how and why we share content, and it's led to some surprising discoveries.

"Women share at a much higher rate than men, and when I talk about that now at a conference or with other people I say women share more than men online as it is in life. But men click at the same rate as women," Nguyen says. "So women will start the conversation and men will participate. If you think about it in the context of just regular human people, it isn't that surprising."

Nguyen says she spends her days deep in sprea sheets and data, but her team thinks about people all the time. "That's our competitive advantage." 

She now has a seat at BuzzFeed's leadership table, and Nguyen is pretty confident in the company's future. 

"I think that BuzzFeed has a great opportunity to become the pre-eminent media for the social age." 

Bianchi's situation is 'challenging'

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 08:50
Jules Bianchi's family and his Marussia team say his situation remains "challenging" in the latest update on his severe head injuries.

VIDEO: European Parliament

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 08:35
The human rights subcommittee discusses the refugee situation in Iraq and Syria.

The numbers for October 14, 2014

Marketplace - American Public Media - Tue, 2014-10-14 08:09

A World Bank projection pegs the total global economic cost of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa at $32.6 billion by the end of 2015. The New York Times reports that model is a "worst-case" scenario, but doesn't take into account dramatic, global spread. In contrast, the same report notes if the disease is contained in the short term, the total economic hit might be as low as $359 million.

As a nurse in Dallas is hospitalized with Ebola, the Centers for Disease Control is calling for a reassessment of treatment protocols.

Here's what we're reading - and other numbers we're watching - Tuesday.

$950 million

That's how much Disney could end up paying for Maker Studios. The YouTube network was acquired by Disney in May, and now Maker's YouTube stars are getting their own programming blocks on Disney XD and Fusion, Variety reported. The news comes less than a day after the Wall Street Journal reported on the wave of book deals being thrown to YouTube personalities.

$50,000-$75,000

The cost of digital projectors, the new movie theater standard some studios are still subsidizing. Digital distribution should theoretically be cheaper, but those costs could still be keeping major releases from small markets, the Los Angeles Times reported, and theater owners aren't happy about it. Another reason one executive gave for the delayed release of "Gone Girl" in those markets: "R-rated movies in small towns don't always go together."

25

That's how many Crumbs Bake Shop locations will open in the next 30 days, Bloomberg reported. After dramatically closing down in July, the cupcake chain just refuses to die.

AUDIO: Geldof on dealing with Peaches' death

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 08:00
Bob Geldof tells John Wilson from Front Row that singing with the Rats again helped him cope with the death of his daughter Peaches, who died earlier this year.

VIDEO: On board Royal Navy's 'Ebola ship'

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 07:41
The Royal Navy are loading Royal Fleet Auxiliary Argus with medical supplies before sailing to Sierra Leone to fight the Ebola virus this week.

Catalonia presses ahead with vote

BBC - Tue, 2014-10-14 07:34
The leader of Spain's Catalonia's region says a non-binding vote on independence from Spain will be held on 9 November, in defiance of Madrid.

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