Mountain village

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Mountain village

Flying in helicopters over eastern Afghanistan can be a bit nerve-wracking, especially so soon after a Blackhawk crash killed six American soldiers. But it has its benefits as well. For one, the whole craft vibrates, so it’s like traveling in a massage chair. And if you’re lucky enough to flyin a helicopter with big windows — like, say, a Blackhawk — you can check out the incredible mountain view. This mountain village lies along the flight path between Bagram Air Field and Forward Operating Base Gamberi.

“If there were just these two of them, then no one will care about it.”

It’s a chilling discovery. Imagine it at any college: workers are installing a fiber-optical cable, and they stumble upon two bodies buried under the university. It’s deeply unsettling, and reminiscent, perhaps, of Annie Le, the Yale graduate student buried in a wall of her laboratory in 2009. That story made national news, horrifying anyone who thought of institutions of learning as safe places.

But this wasn’t Yale. It was Nangarhar University in eastern Afghanistan, near the city of Jalalabad.

Having just returned from an embed near Jalalabad, I received a tip that a “mass grave” had been discovered at the university there around noon today.

I set my fixer on the case and started shooting out emails to any English-speaking sources I could think of. Soon enough, Zubair had the few details available.

But six hours later, the school’s public affairs office still didn’t know anything about it until they received a call from us. The university says they alerted local officials, but, far from calling press conferences, the school’s deputy director just said the police had what they needed to follow up on the case if they felt like it.

“We did not try to dig more if there are more bodies or not, because we wanted to just build a small drain for the optical fiber,” he said.

I pressed Zubair for more details. How old were the bodies? Were they fresh, or perhaps left over from Afghanistan’s civil war?

The official said they looked old, though he couldn’t say quite how old.

Zubair adds, “If there were just these two of them, then no one will care about it.”

And he seems to be right. When I offer the story to my editors, they say it might be worth looking into later, but the simple fact of two bodies under a school isn’t yet “newsworthy.”

Of course it’s harder to get worked up about a murder in Afghanistan than in the US — even a double murder. People here seem to drop like flies, whether from hypothermia or IEDs. Who’s to say which ones matter?

But something makes me care more about these two bodies. Maybe it’s just that I heard about this story first and want to break news. Maybe it’s that I feel like schools should be safe places, even if you’re in a war zone. Or maybe it’s that I’ve never been a farmer or a villager or an insurgent, but not too terribly long ago, I was a college student. Maybe it’s that back then, these two kids murdered and buried on campus — whether in 1979 or 2009 — could have been just like my friends.

American reporter responsible for devastating loss

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I’ve been much remiss on updating this blog, largely because I landed a new job at Stars and Stripes and am now reporting from Kabul. (Check out my updated resume for my latest stories.) You might think this means I’m roughing it, living in some bombed-out ruin without electricity or running water. In truth, my housemates spend their evenings playing Medal of Honor on Playstation 3, and my fixer and coworker and I sometimes spend lazy afternoons in the rose garden.

Which Missing Kids are Worth Looking For?

On Oct. 1, a teenager named Bryan Glenn went missing in Fairfax County.

His disappearance was not reported in the media. Even as his family launched a Facebook campaign to search for him, his picture was not sent to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which would have not only posted it on the Internet for anyone to find, but splashed it on posters in government offices and highway rest stops.

A week later, Glenn’s body was found, a possible suicide.

Glenn was only one of hundreds of children from the tri-state area alone who disappear each year and are never reported to the NCMEC, or never have their photographs posted. This is despite the fact that, according to national statistics, posting a photograph is the single most important thing family or law enforcement can do to track down a kid.

In Virginia, local law enforcement agencies are legally required to send information on every kid who goes missing to the Virginia State Police Department Missing Children’s Clearinghouse. The clearinghouse posts every one of those files on NCMEC’s website, missingkids.com. But only 24 percent included photographs. How is anyone supposed to recognize a missing child with no picture?

Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, pointed out that the clearinghouse is totally dependent on local agencies to send photographs. “We work as best we can with the local agencies and strongly encourage them to provide a photograph,” she added.

Of the 16 children listed in early October  as disappeared from Henrico County within the past year and still missing, only three had accompanying photographs posted on missingkids.com. The rest come with a caption saying that local law enforcement agents did not submit a photograph.

Lt. Christopher Eley, who works in special investigations at the Henrico County Police Department (one of the few that responded to questions for this story), said the police department received reports of 657 missing people (adults and children) in 2011.

“Based upon my experience I would estimate that 95 percent of the missing juveniles are runaways and return home within three to five days,” he said. “What is most shocking is that we are provided pictures by the reporting person in approximately 5 percent of missing juvenile reports taken.”

Eley said he has sent photographs to the Virginia Missing Children’s Clearinghouse for abduction cases, especially if he believes the child may have been taken outside the state, but for non-abductions, sending information to the local media tends to get the message out to people most likely to run into the child.

Of the 14 kids from Henrico County listed on missingkids.com as of Nov. 5, all but two were runaways, including the three posted with accompanying photographs. The two kids listed as family abduction victims did not have photographs posted.

While it’s true that most runaways quickly return home on their own, runaway teens, especially girls (but also some boys), are at high risk of being recruited by sex traffickers, who frequently move them between cities and states.

Richmond City, which did not respond to questions emailed to their public affairs department, only had one photo posted among 19 children missing in the past year as of early October — though since I sent an email inquiry about their dearth of photographs, two pictures have been posted for more recently disappeared kids.

At least one of the missing children without an accompanying picture, Starr Nicole Mongold, has a Facebook page including dozens of publicly accessible, up-to-date pictures that clearly show her face. The page identifies Mongold by her full name and provides her hometown, making it unlikely that it belongs to a homonymous Starr Mongold.

Mongold is 17. Some of the pictures show her with her little sister, who, according to online obituaries, passed away last year at the age of 7. According to missingkids.com, Mongold has not been seen since Aug. 31. Her most recent “wall” activity is dated July 30, 2012.

In Virginia, it’s obvious which kids have photos sent in and which ones don’t because the state police post every file, picture or no. But it’s not just Virginia police departments deciding not to post missing kid photographs.

The Maryland State Police also have a missing children’s clearinghouse that posts information on missingkids.com. Unlike Virginia, however, Maryland doesn’t create a post unless local law enforcement agencies send in a photo.

According to Carla Proudfoot, director of the Maryland State Center for Missing Children, Maryland’s clearinghouse accepts requests for a post and information from both law enforcement agencies and family members of the missing child. When she posts a kid on missingkids.com, she makes sure the automatically generated poster ends up in government buildings and at rests stops, the modern-day equivalent of milk cartons that end up in front of thousands of eyes.

She said the posters have generated all kinds of leads, including parents who recognize the missing child as one of their kids’ schoolmates, and a landlord who reported that someone who had kidnapped a family member just leased an apartment from him.

But Proudfoot estimates that she only gets photos in 10 percent of cases. Asked why agencies might not send in a photo, she said, “I can’t speak for them. I don’t know what their reasonings are.”

If a case makes local headlines, she’ll initiate contact with the investigating agency and ask if they want a poster. But she said, “That doesn’t mean that they’re going to accept our offer.”

“We try not to make those decisions because it’s not our investigation or our child,” she added.

While the District of Columbia has a missing children’s information clearinghouse, according to the NCMEC webpage, they do not appear to post any information on missingkids.com. Three children are listed as having disappeared from the district in the past year, and all of those pictures are labeled as posted by NCMEC itself.

 

A DC police spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Crump, said the department has found that press releases are an effective way to track down missing kids. While they cooperate with NCMEC, she said, “Only our most critical cases are referred.”

Who’s Taking MOOCs?

Higher education soothsayers are eying MOOCs — massive open online courses, like those provided by Coursera and MIT and Harvard’s edX — with equal parts fascination and wariness. Proponents have argued that MOOCs will bring upon us a new golden age of education, where Tuvan goat herders can take literature courses from Ivy League professors. Pessimists foretell that MOOCs will end up as a cost-cutting measure that replaces valuable class time with cut-rate video lectures at financially strained public universities.

But those visions both make presumptions about who is taking MOOCs. Utopians hope that MOOCs can reach new audiences that have never before had access to quality higher education, while MOOCs’ detractors assume they’ll draw traditional students away from current major players, particularly public schools. While MOOCs are still young and user data is sparse, initial surveys don’t seem to bear out either vision.

I don’t doubt that there are anecdotal tales of MOOCs reaching people across the globe who always wanted a college education but were too geographically isolated to get it. I’m sure it would be possible to pull IP address locations for Coursera users, but since I don’t have access to that data, I took a somewhat sloppier approach: pulling and analyzing stats from the “study groups” forum from Statistics One, Coursera’s largest class to date. When the class started, it had 75,000 users signed up, according to emails from professor Andrew Conway, so I believe its a good sample case.

By the end of the class, there were nearly 90 threads about starting study groups, featuring 844 individual posts. I used these replies as a proxy for how many users might be interested in joining groups, presumably indicating they were in the geographic area where the starting user wanted to set up a group. I realize this is not a very reliable approach, given that users could respond multiple times, and many of these posts were in languages I didn’t understand, so I haven’t a foggy what they were actually saying. I’m assuming, however, that they can give us meaningful reads of user interest in certain groups.

At 157, the plurality of thread posts were for groups scattered across the US, from Washington DC to Texas and Seattle. The second runner up was for a single post for a Spanish-language online study group that garnered 135 replies. After that, online study groups (for example, Google + hangouts and Facebook groups) were the most popular, followed by posts in India and Russia. Of course, India already has a reputation for churning out a technologically savvy workforce, at least in urban areas, and Russia is still riding the legacy of free science-heavy education from the Cold War. I’m skeptical that the MOOC users in those countries would not have had access to these kinds of courses otherwise.

There were several other posts from Western Europe and former Eastern-bloc countries, as well as Australia, Canada and Vietnam. And then one lonely little post from Khartoum. It received no replies.

There are obvious reasons why villagers in rural Mongolia are not MOOCs’ primary users. For one, users must speak English fluently to get anything out of the course. That might not be a high bar to leap in Western Europe or the former Soviet Union, where nearly everyone gets through primary and secondary education, and that education nearly always includes at least some instruction and English. But in developing countries with wide income disparities, there is a massive gap between the urban elite who usually send their kids abroad for college and the largely illiterate poor. The latter often don’t even speak the official colonial language, let alone speak and read a second one fluently.
Add onto that the need for an internet connection and basic math and study skills, and your average villager’s chances of learning from a MOOC become infinitesimal.

So what about American students? Are MOOCs really a threat to US public universities?

In some public systems like the University of Texas, professors are looking to MOOCs to replace undergraduate courses are are already massive and provide little individualized support for students. But that’s not the demographic that’s voluntarily taking MOOCs right now.

Coursera’s Computing for Data Analysis class sent out a survey at the beginning of the course a month ago and published the results. Of more than 6,000 survey respondents, 76 percent already had their bachelors degree. Forty-seven percent had done some graduate studies. About three quarters of the respondents also said they were already familiar with at least one other programming language besides R, which was the focus of the course. Coursera’s “Learn to Program” introductory course also, perhaps surprisingly, found through a survey of 12,000 registered users that only about a third described themselves as true beginners with no prior experience in programming. Twenty-two percent had already taken some kind of programming course, and an additional 15 percent described themselves as experienced programmers.

I would argue this demonstrates that the self-guided learning demanded by MOOCs is difficult for people who have never been in a college setting before. Speaking from personal experience, I could also speculate that the kind of skills and certifications provided by MOOCs are most useful for people at a point in their career where demonstrated capacities are more important than certifications, and if they say they know how to do something, they’ll be believed. I don’t think most people can reach that stage without a college degree or a lot of experience.

MOOCs may offer the most competition for high-cost low-quality online for-profit schools, particularly those offering graduate degrees. I know that the lure of completing a graduate degree online is tempting for many people who are too busy to attend classes in person. But, for now at least, schools like University of Phoenix and Capella do offer one thing that MOOCs don’t: a degree. In many fields, particularly the military and other federal employment, having a master’s degree from any university is more important than any palpable skills gained, since that degree automatically qualifies you for raises or promotions.

None of this is meant to denigrate MOOCs. I have taken several myself, starting with Stanford’s database course, which has been a great career booster. They are at least as rigorous as some of the courses I took at Grinnell College, which is a solid academic institution by any measure, and I believe there are many people like me who stand to gain much from MOOCs. But I don’t think, sadly, that they are the beginning of a revolution in education.

DoD Vol Ed Plans to Adopt Gainful Employment Rules

Politicians have announced and debated with much fanfare in the last few years measures to protect active-duty and veteran students from schools that gobble up money without improving grads’ lives. So it’s surprising that some potentially transformative Defense Department Voluntary Education and Veterans Affairs policies have been in the works for month without so much as a whisper.

In May, President Obama signed an executive order filled with jargon about deceptive practices and Principles of Excellence that didn’t appear to have much substance. But the way the Pentagon is interpreting it, it means colleges that flunk gainful employment measures set by the Department of Education for Title IV civilian financial aid will also be cut off from TA dollars. Carolyn Baker, head of DoD’s voluntary education programs, says the VA will follow suit, potentially cutting off for-profit giants like University of Phoenix, Kaplan College and the Art Institutes from millions of dollars in revenue.

The critical passages require the secretaries of defense, the VA and the Department of Education to work together to create and generate standard outcome measures. The order specifically says that information should be given to students prior to enrollment and posted on the Education Department’s College Navigator website, which is home to a wealth of data on individual institutions. Baker takes it a step farther, saying the Pentagon, under the executive order, is required to cut off schools that don’t meet benchmarks set by the Education Department. The situation is complicated by a recent lawsuit saying the Education Department has to rewrite part of its gainful employment rules, and the results have yet to be seen.

“If you’re going to say, OK, gainful employment — we’ll just make this up — 50 percent of all your [former] students must have a job, and then if they fall below that then we’re not going to give TA — DOD’s not saying that, because that’s not in our area of expertise,” she said in an exclusive interview in August.  “We’re going to be using what the Department of Education classifies as gainful employment and what is a quality level of gainful employment.”

And according to that logic, she said, the VA will follow suit.

Baker said the changes will be implemented in a future draft of the Memorandums of Understanding schools receiving TA are being asked to sign. Those changes will probably come out next year.

GI Bill and TA funds are important to many colleges, especially large for-profits, because they currently fall outside of the so-called “90-10″ rule requiring schools to get at least 10 percent of their money from somewhere besides Title IV funds. While that could be a moot point for schools failing gainful employment standards since they would be disqualified from Title IV funds anyway, it would cut of thousands more students and millions more dollars for some of them.

For example, the Art Institutes had eight different programs at various locations flunk the Department of Education’s draft gainful employment data measures. Between the implementation of the Post 9/11 GI Bill in 2009 and June 2011, the Art Institutes had 6,709 students using VA money. Another 390 students used Tuition Assistance.

The University of Phoenix, America’s largest for-profit college and a top GI Bill and TA funding recipient, only had one program fail the gainful employment measure, but they have educated nearly 30,000 students using Post-9/11 GI Bill money, and another 14,000 using TA. According to a recent report by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, the Apollo Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, earned $144 million from TA and the GI Bill in 2010.

In July, a federal district judge sent the Education Department back to the drawing board on its gainful employment measure. As originally drafted, it would have disqualified programs flunking three measures: former students paying more than 12 percent of their total incomes on repaying student loans; former students paying more than 30 percent of their discretionary income on payments; and less than 35 percent of former students successfully working on paying down their debt. The judge struck down the latter part, saying the cutoff was too arbitrary.

That means the future of school payments for Title IV, GI Bill and TA funds are all uncertain. And I’m sure there are some college presidents and CEOs watching developments very, very closely.

Hello world!

Until two months ago, I was a journalist both in my heart and on my business card. Like many reporters these days, I have lost the business card title, but I still have story ideas I want to bring to life. My goal is to update this blog at least once a week. Right now I plan to focus on news — real news, not just ranting — on higher education, the military, human trafficking and all things data-journalism related. I admit, however, that I can’t predict how this blog will evolve. I hope you’ll join me for the ride.