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Posts tagged ‘WPLongform’

Topic O: Online Education

Topic O:  Online Education or Everything Old Is New Again

My Background with Online Learning:

ditance ed computer keysI first started hearing about the potential of online education back in the 1990s.  I was a teacher of English at a community college. Some colleagues who were more technologically savvy than I was were very excited about teaching classes online. They could not help but think of all the wondrous information that could be added via the internet and the flexibility that could be made available for students.

Others were worried:  How could online instruction work? Students obviously need the one-on-one with an instructor. Online learning would undoubtedly become a glorified correspondence course.  Some administrators were wondering if online learning could somehow save money.  After all, online learning does not need classrooms and all those corresponding costs like maintenance and air conditioning.  Not limited by the number of desks, just how many students could be enrolled into one section of a class?

When these conversations were first starting, I was dividing my time between teaching and serving as Staff Development Coordinator.  Through staff development, I did set up a summer online course for interested faculty to explore the potential of online education.  Those who enrolled included a handful of true skeptics.  By the end of the short course most actually acknowledged the potential of online learning, realizing that it needed to be approached as a totally different learning experience than traditional classrooms.  A successful online class would not simply post the teacher’s notes or lectures online and send the students out to read on their own.

dollar signWhen I moved into administration in 2002, the concerns over online learning did not end.  Some administrators still felt such classes might be a way to save money.  But most of us realized that online learning could prove an effective option for students, but that many parameters needed to be established, including such matters as the following:  Training faculty to work in this new environment; evaluating the courses, teachers, and the students once courses were developed; making sure the students were prepared for the experience; and determining the online platforms and services that needed to be established.  Online courses would not be the panacea to educational problems and rising costs, but they were an avenue worth exploring to meet student need.

Since then, I completed my doctorate through the University of Phoenix in Educational Leadership.  All of the coursework was online, so I needed to enhance my technical skills to be an effective student in that learning environment.  There were all the expected requirements of being a traditional student, but I also realized that in many ways more involvement was being asked of me as an online student.  Individual assignments were due every week, and there was tons of reading.  However, collaborative work was the norm, meaning I had to interact each week with my group of colleagues, so we could finish a weekly project as well.  Weekly discussions were required, encouraging a dialog with fellow students.  To meet this discussion requirement, I needed to be online five days out of seven and post a minimum number of responses.  Research was required for everything, but thanks to online research through the university library, such research was not too time consuming.  I really appreciated not having to drive, park, and show up on time.

another laptopEven more recently—several months ago—I took a training class to teach an online course through the American Public University System.  I had to learn that university’s platform, its technological systems that enable all the classroom interaction.  I also had to learn some effective ways to engage students in the online classroom, so one-on-one interaction was enhanced.  I am now teaching an online writing course to 30 students.  This week, while the students work on their essays due Sunday night by midnight, they have also been participating in an online discussion.  Thus far, 125 responses have been posted in that discussion—I read them all and respond to at least half of the initial posts by each student.  I have also been working one-on-one with some students having trouble with their essays through 30 plus one-on-one messages.  The engagement is there with the students, so learning potential is also there.

Recent Developments in Online Options:

My experience is nothing new or different than any other online instructor has experienced.  Most colleges and universities—whether private or public, university or community college, exclusively online or offering online in addition to traditional offerings—offer online courses these days.  Perhaps the newest thing is MOOCs, massive open online courses.  Perhaps the most famous one thus far was offered for free through Stanford University—the subject was artificial intelligence.  The number of students who enrolled was staggering:  150,000.

Some companies are now thinking they we could offer MOOCs as well. And some colleges and universities are thinking their students could take advantage of those courses, reducing the courses the colleges and universities have to pay to offer.  In California, some legislators are putting forward the idea that any general education courses taken anywhere online could be used to meet requirements within any school’s program, thus saving costs and time.  Of course, faculty from the California State University system are worried; their concern is that not all courses are the same in terms of learning outcomes and standards, even if they share the same name or address the same subject. They have valid concerns.  Of course, I am over simplifying, but the different ways of viewing new opportunities such as MOOCs is a reality.  Nothing is ever easy.

This lengthy preamble is my way of saying that I have a range of experience with online education.  I see its potential and understand some of its problems.  When new options such as MOOCs surface, I find them exciting and think how I could find the time and energy to enroll in one.  But all the resulting commotion about how to use MOOCs to enhance learning and reduce costs at other institutions, how to make online learning more readily available, and about how to maintain quality learning through effective outcomes and assessments just seems like more of the same.  I keep thinking, these same concerns were raised over 20 years ago when online learning was just getting started.  I guess that old adage is right:  Everything old is new again!

Drawing Some Conclusions:

When I wear my administrative hat, I see online learning as a challenge since effective support services would need to be available for faculty and students as well.  I worry about costs and legislative dictates that never seem to fully understand the educational world.  I know that some students need the flexibility of online learning, but that offering a few courses is not enough; a student starting an online program needs to have access to all the courses required to graduate.  As a teacher, I am struggling to make sure I meet the needs of my students in this online learning environment and working to keep them all participating and engaged.  I also wonder how I will juggle the added load of a second class starting on Monday.  And I am just teaching as an adjunct instructor!  As a student, I just tried to get the work done, connect with colleagues, and keep motivated.  Through my experience, I have drawn some conclusions about online learning and what is needed to make it work.

young woman in computer lab

Ten Things I Think I Know about Online Learning

  1. Online learning by itself is not going to transform higher education.  Radical improvements are needed in higher education whether traditional or online, but until all learning institutions start emphasizing critical thinking skills vs. mastery of content, determine practical ways to assess learning other than standardized tests, and recognize that grades are not the best indicators of learning, real change will not happen.
  2. Effective online learning is not necessarily cheaper than teaching in the traditional classroom.  Yes, classroom space is not needed, so more classes can be offered than the number possible given the sheer number of classrooms. And online classes do not have problems with plumbing or air conditioning.  However, there is an increased need for sophisticated and updated technology to offer the online learning and additional staff and services to make sure everything is working correctly and trouble-shooting options are available for the students and the faculty.  The costs are there; they just surface in different arenas.
  3. Online classes need to be held to the same or smaller class sizes than the more traditional class. A typical online class demands much more one-on-one interaction with students than a traditional class.  Online students cannot just show up, sit in the back and say nothing but still turn in work as they often can in a traditional classroom.  Sure, showcase pieces like a MOOC that presents a fancy lecture en masse can be entertaining and effective, can generate learning.  But if there are tests or discussions and feedback, lots of students are not going to have their needs met effectively by one instructor for the class.  Teaching assistants (graduate students without much experience) could be brought on board at some universities to supply the one-on-one interaction with students, but that arrangement is a different learning experience for the student. Online class sizes, therefore, need to be manageable and thus overloading a teacher with more and more students to seemingly save costs just does not work.
  4. Lots of statistical reports suggest that attrition rates are higher and retention and persistence rates are lower in online classes than in traditional ones.  Probably true, but not necessarily because online learning is not effective.  Online learning is effective for the right student.  Unfortunately, some students take online classes because they are the only sections left open or they think they will be easier, since the teacher cannot see them slumping in the back or fuss at them for arriving late.  To succeed in an online learning environment, students need to be decent writers and self-motivated and disciplined students.  Those traits are needed for traditional students as well, but the need is magnified in the online environment.
  5. Since the students entering an online class need to demonstrate certain skills and abilities if they hope to succeed in their online classes, the institutions need to provide direction on what those expectations are.  Most campuses routinely list the technological requirements for the class, such as space needed on one’s hard drive, software programs needed, and optimal internet connection speeds. Some campuses also list the student success traits (self-motivated, disciplined, good writer, curious, critical thinker, etc.) needed to be successful, but those skills are harder for students to self-assess.  Some colleges offer courses students must take to demonstrate their ability to be an effective student in the online arena, but most cannot require such courses.  Questions of fairness, the problem of adding units to already heavy loads, and—especially in California—the students’ right to fail always surface.  And rightly so.  The same concerns about student success apply to traditional classes as well, but not to such a heightened degree.  I do not have a solution to this problem.  But until the right students with the right skills and abilities are signing up for online courses, the success and retention numbers will not be impressive.
  6. The students who do sign up for online classes need access to a full range of services, comparable to those available in the traditional brick and mortar setting.  These services include things such as counseling, tutoring, disability testing, technology troubleshooting, library access for research and training, to name a few.  The online only  campuses seem to have these services to some degree; at least the two I have experience with do, University of Phoenix and American Public University System, also known as American Military University.  As traditional institutions expand into offering online classes, the online services are not always offered or developed at the same time.  The development and staffing of online services represents some of the hidden costs for offering online courses.  To be most effective, the online learning environment needs to offer courses and services to meet the needs of the total student.
  7. The faculty teaching in the online environment need to meet well established standards regarding how frequently they engage with students.  Answering emails within a set turn-around time, reading all student postings and/or responding to a set number of the postings each week, and returning graded work on a set schedule are some of the parameters that need to be in place.  Most faculty at traditional and online institutions hold office hours, but the other parameters are not usually in place for teachers at online or brick and mortar institutions. These parameters need to be established and enforced for online instructors if the engagement with students will be effective.
  8. Of course, evaluations become the key to making sure whatever rules and parameters are in place for online learning are followed.  Some of the details associated with the established parameters can be monitored and maintained by the technology being used, but such options need to be built into the system.  For effective evaluations, visitors (dean, chair, other faculty) need to be able to observe an online class just as they would a traditional class.  At the online universities where I have experience, the evaluation option is available through online academic observers who basically sit in on classes; they are able to see all the interactions underway at any time, not just on the day scheduled for an evaluation as is the norm for most traditional institutions.  Although some might see such oversight possible via an ongoing academic observer as extreme maybe even intrusive, that arrangement helps the institution maintain the quality interactions they are requiring.  Regardless of the exact process, some effective and timely faculty evaluation methods need to be in place to ensure the potential of online learning is maximized.
  9. Whenever online education is under discussion, someone eventually raises concerns about cheating and how easy it would be for students to get help or have someone else do their work in the online environment.  Cheating is certainly something to be worried about in any class, online or traditional.  Is it possible for someone who is not Johnny to sign up for the dreaded math or writing class and say he is Johnny?  Sure.  But that could happen in the traditional classroom as well; I know I have never checked driver’s licenses in class to be sure the person I know as Johnny really is him.  In traditional writing classes, someone else could write the paper outside of class, but precautions are in place to make such an action noticeable:  in class writing for comparisons, essays completed and approved in stages, all drafts being turned in, etc.  Those same strategies can be used in the online learning environment. In classes where there are more tests than essays, there are some other options available, like timed assessments making the test only available for a limited time minimizing the chance to look up answers or having the test proctored at an actual location like a neighborhood library.   Potential cheating is not a reason to limit online learning options.
  10. Advances in technology make it easier and easier to engage students online, monitor their participation, and share feedback with them.  For example, the technology that runs my current online classroom lets me click a button and send a personal message to one student or to the entire class, and it gives me various ways to monitor student participation, including such things as being able to see a list of all responses by any one student in the group discussions, the number of hours each student has spent online participating, and ways to require and/or allow resubmissions of materials or take-overs on exams.  There are software and services available to check student work for plagiarism, allow students to see a teacher-generated video of some key action or correction, provide audio feedback on work or for such activities as pronunciation practice, allow the sharing of pertinent videos and materials, and enhance timely feedback on papers and materials.  Quizzes and skills reviews can provide students immediate feedback much like the games on such sites as Lumosity, a site I discussed earlier.  My list of what technology and services can enhance learning is minimal—there are lots of options out there!  And they are available to enhance online as well as traditional classrooms.  Online learning by itself or in conjunction with a more traditional classroom experience can help broaden the learning options for everyone.

Finally, after all this reflection on online learning, my primary conclusion is about the same as it was when I first started exploring online education:  Online learning has great potential as long as the problems can be avoided.  Like everything else worth doing, effective online learning rests on people.  On their insights, initiative, and creativity.  On their willingness to develop ideas and engage with students one-on-one.  On their excitement about learning and constant attempts to make the educational process more responsive to student needs.  Online learning is not a miracle cure for what ails higher education.  It is an effective tool that can give options to students as they explore their own learning.   

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What about you?  Have you taken any online classes? What about online learning attracted you to the experience?  Have you taught online? How has your institution addressed the potential and problems of online learning?


 “Five years from now on the Web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world. It will be better than any single university.”  Bill Gates, 2010

“College, except for the parties, needs to be less place-based.”  Bill Gates, 2010

“From surveys and interviews, we have come to know that the number one reason for student success, in a classroom or online, is a caring instructor. Also, online institutions are much more strict about limiting class size than traditional schools, usually setting a maximum of 20 to 25 per section. Thus, there is the need for more, not fewer, qualified instructors. Faculty are also in demand to build new courses, revise old ones, and create the learning assessments for which there is growing need.”  John Ebersole, President of Excelsior College

“Teachers who are using technology the best to improve teaching and learning are using it to individualize instruction. So they’re understanding how students learn, what their learning style is and finding the best lessons to teach that student—understanding that some students are more visual, some like video, some like to read a book on a computer screen and some don’t. It allows them to individualize.”  Heather O’Mara, CEO of HOPE Online Learning Academy

“Technology is no silver bullet, but expecting every classroom in America to have a great teacher who can meet every child’s distinct learning needs given the demands of today’s job is a pipedream as well. By transitioning thoughtfully to a new education system powered by digital learning in which teachers’ roles are different from those of today but no less vital, we can bolster every child’s learning to help them realize their highest hopes and most daring dreams.”  Michael Horn, co-founder, Innosight Institute

“Faculty are moving forward, technologies are improving, and student demand is increasing — but few changes are taking place in the university structure as a whole to accommodate the special needs of the distance-learning student.”   Richard Bothel, Dean of Continuing Education and Distance Learning at Troy State University

“The virtue of a computer in the classroom is that it requires a user, not a watcher.”  Diane Ravitch

“In my experience, it takes about twice as long — prep time, putting materials together — to actually deliver the online course than it does to deliver the on-campus course.” Denise Keele, professor of environmental policy, quoted on npr.com

“The challenge is not simply to incorporate learning technologies into current institutional approaches, but rather to change our fundamental views about effective teaching and learning and to use technology to do so”   Donald E. Hanna

TOPIC L: LUMOSITY: What Are You Buying?

Have you seen this commercial by Lumosity.com?

A few years ago I knew some basics about brain research and the possible impact on education, but I had not yet heard the word “Lumosity.”  Now I know that Lumosity.com is a company that claims its games will help users expand their brain power.  Its commercials are frequently aired on television, on the Internet and even on some WordPress blogs.  The specific Lumosity.com commercial shown above offers an effective, persuasive presentation about the company and its services.

First, the speakers in this Lumosity commercial are attractive adults, not stuffy looking scientists and experts; they are common everyday folks that the viewers can relate to and trust, even if they are predominately young adults. Second, even if the viewers are older, they can still identify with the speakers and their hopes for change:  they want to be “quicker,” “stay sharp,” “remember people’s names,” “concentrate a little better,” “learn faster,” and “just not miss stuff.”  Doesn’t everyone want those things?  Of course they do, either for themselves or their loved ones (children, parents). That common bond is what the makers of the commercial are hoping for in order to hook the viewers into wanting what their service claims to provide.

Lumosity Brain GraphicThird, the informational portion of the commercial is presented by a friendly upbeat masculine voice-over that assures viewers they can accomplish improved mental tasks through neuroplasticity disguised as games.  My bet is that most viewers—if they have heard that term—cannot give a definition, but it sounds good, maybe even cutting edge.  The makers of the commercial are looking for a fine balance:  the unknown of scientific research countered with the ease of incorporating the scientific into the viewers’ lives.  Accomplishing this task is easy—just join Lumosity and “discover what your brain can do.”  The suggestion that one can easily harness scientific advances makes the service sound that much more appealing.

lumoisty woman imageFinally, the commercial’s quick pacing gives it a modern, hip feel and the hand-drawn  images that augment the pictures and show technology in action suggest the power and use of technology without being overwhelming or intimidating.  Using Lumosity.com is almost like child’s play.  The emphasis stays on the speakers or users of Lumosity—and they always look so content and happy.  Overall, the commercial gives its viewers the impression that modern brain research can be a tool to help them improve mentally in a variety of areas.

The promise of Lumosity.com was intriguing.  I was hooked enough to want to explore its service more fully.  I wondered about its scientific claims, about its website and what it could offer, and what others thought about the experience.  I started my exploration by visiting the Lumosity website to take advantage of the advertised free membership that would allow me to experiment directly with its learning games.


logo lumosityThe Lumosity.com website is very user friendly and offers the same tone and presentation approach already seen in the commercials.  The people pictured on the website are everyday folks, friendly-looking, pretty.  Eventually, testimonials are provided, representative of a range of ages and needs:  student working to improve at school, elderly patient worried about dementia, and worker wanting to advance on the job.  Everyone can identify.

The website also makes its viewers an opening promise:  “Harness your brain’s neuroplasticity and train your way to a brighter life.  Lumosity turns neuroscience breakthroughs into fun, effective games.  Stimulate your brain today.”  Even if viewers are not quite sure what neuroplasticity is, Lumosity is betting they will at least want to explore the possibility of maximizing their brain potential.  It is a friendly easy hook that leads to the next step:  signing up for a free trial offer.

If the viewer accepts the invitation as I did and opens a free account, then additional choices and immediate feedback are provided to personalize the service.  The technology used to offer the feedback in response to choices is not new. Most of us see it at work every day:  emails from Amazon.com suggesting purchases based on past buying history, CVS tracking sales to amass savings coupons, and computer games tracking high scores and time on task, to name just a few examples.  But even though common, the personal touch is noticed and makes the viewer feel special.

The content being offered—like in the commercials—is something no one would say no to.  Viewers are offered a menu that will help them improve in four general areas:  attention, speed, flexibility, and problem solving.  In each category, the viewer can select up to four sub-headings within the general topic to explore further.  Under “attention” the sub-headings are focus, concentration, avoiding distractions, and improving productivity and precision.  Now, what viewer is going to say, “I’m great in all those areas and do not need any improvement”?  Lumosity is counting on that realization or concern by the viewers because its goal is to provide the personalized gaming routine to help each viewer improve in selected areas.

thumb_lrg_memoryMatrixThe selection process is immediate and viewers can start playing games to improve their brain functions as soon as they have made their choices.  The games are fun and use the standard technology found in online gaming and computerized learning programs to keep score, note improvements, and track progress. If you play the same game twice, I bet your score will improve as mine did; such results confirm the site’s claim that their games will help you improve. References are also made to the science that supports the games, but in general terms with no complicated or technical explanations; viewers can explore the science further if they wish.  This persuasive strategy lends legitimacy to the science because sources are cited and follow-up can be explored even if few viewers actually stop to scrutinize the details.

Lumosity boasts 35 million users, and I expect my free user account is part of that number.  It does not surprise me that people sign up once they get to the website.  The promise of new science harnessed to address each person’s individualized learning needs is strong.  It is easy to sign up for a free account, and it takes only a few minutes a day of playing games, according to the advertising, to achieve positive results. The free account, however, does not give the customer access to everything. The main hook is that to really unlock your potential you need to join and get access to the full range of puzzles and games designed just for you.

discount image clipartOn that first visit, the customer is in luck:  anyone who signs up on that first visit saves 10% on the annual fee.  It’s a bargain!  Of course, my bet is that the discount is built into the system for every day and every viewer, so it is really just a semblance of a discount.  But it makes the viewer feel lucky!  Of course, since I did not sign up that first day, I was eventually offered a 35% discount after about 2 weeks.  Maybe 10% off is not such a good deal for the first-time visitor.

The actual costs do not seem too bad, but of course that is relative to each person’s financial situation.  The monthly cost is $14.95—so equivalent roughly to a lunch out somewhere, if you do not order dessert or a drink.  The viewer can also enroll with an annual fee ($6 a month, paid at one time), a two-year fee ($4.50 a month paid at one time), or a lifetime fee ($269.96).  The discount only applies to the annual fee.  I did not officially sign up and pay any fees for a couple of reasons.  First, I wanted to see how long the free-trial would go on, and second, I wondered how Lumosity would extend its marketing activities.

The main follow-up marketing tool came through a series of emails, 11 in all as of 1 April 2013.  The first was a welcome statement, and then an offer of a 20% discount if I’d return and sign up.  Once I did not sign up within the three-day time frame, then I was told via other emails that “research suggests you shouldn’t procrastinate” and later “possible links between lifetime engagement and Alzheimer’s [exist]” and “everyone experiences cognitive decline as they age.”  Of course, these messages assume I have been slovenly in my thinking or at least forgetful, not that I have decided against signing up.  These secondary messages play on most people’s fear of declining abilities as they age.

Another softer persuasive approach provides positive reminders that tie back to the initial promises of improved learning that everyone would appreciate: “Get a more efficient brain,” Learn “the secrets of Lumosity Superusers,” and “Train for a brighter Tomorrow.”   Testimonials are given as well, referencing a range of people who have benefitted from the service in terms of age and needs.   Another inducement was an increased discount from 20% to 30% and then eventually 35% off.

The emails also present snippets of the research, no detailed analyses but an increased use of scientific terms such as fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and n-back tests.  These terms, of course, are not really new, having been in use for decades.  But the science summaries are interesting and give some proof that work on memory games can improve one’s learning potential.


I like puzzles, so the games on the Lumosity.com website are fun.  For that reason alone, I could see people signing up for the service, in addition to the promise of increased mental acuity.  The costs are not astronomical, and the increased discounts make the viewer feel special and wanted.  However, before making a decision, it is always wise to see what complaints or praise may have surfaced about the service.  I did some Internet searching matching “lumosity” with “praise,” “complaints,” and “feedback.”  My search discovered several sites sharing customer feedback, good and bad.

First, I reviewed the Better Business Bureau report on Lumosity.  The company (Lumos Labs, Inc.) resides in San Francisco and registered with the Better Business Bureau in February 2008; the company was started in October 2006.  The report I viewed tallied the complaints for the last three years.  A total of 71 complaints were registered as of 1 April 2013; all were resolved to the customer’s satisfaction except seven.  The complaints fell into three categories:  advertising/sales, 9; billing/collection, 35; and product/service, 27.  The numbers are not huge, especially when Lumosity reports serving 35 million users. The Better Business Bureau gives Lumosity an A rating.

The other sites mimic the general information shared on the Better Business Bureau site.  For the most part, these other sites shared anecdotal examples of problems and complaints.  Some of the complaints went back to 2008, and some comments were positive noting the small number of complaints being raised. One example site shared 18 reviews, giving an average score of 3 out of 5 as its rating, saying overall that Lumosity was not recommended.  Another site shared 14 reviews. Amina Elahi on the Viewpoints website offers a great balanced overview of what to consider when exploring signing up with Lumosity.

From the range of sites I reviewed, the main praise is the ease of use and the fun of the games. Several of the positive comments emphasize that the users can feel their mental acuity being challenged and expanded.  One lawyer posted his delight with the dramatic improvements and the carry-over to the rest of his life.  He concluded, “Because the only thing I’ve really been doing differently is playing Lumosity, I believe Lumosity really has made me smarter, quicker, more aware of my surroundings and sequences of events, and it has improved my memory.”

The complaints fall into several categories.  A few people think signing up for Lumosity has increased the amount of spam they receive. However, the company adamantly asserts it does not sell member information.  I have been signed up for several weeks on an account I rarely use and have not seen an increase in spam to that email account.  One reviewer carefully parses the language on the privacy statement and notes that Lumosity reserves the right to use its customer data at its discretion.  In addition, when the customer asked that his information be taken out of the system, he was told that was not possible.  While Lumosity’s stated norm seems to be not selling customer information, the company reserves the right to use the data as it sees fit. A handful of others complain of technical glitches that hamper their use of the games.  On my visits, I have had no technical problems.

Some users also complain that customer service is hard to reach and feedback is slow in coming.  There is no phone-in customer service or online chat option to get immediate help and feedback.  One problem is that if customers track down a phone number (not provided on the website) in their attempt to talk to someone, they either leave a message that is never returned or reach a voice mailbox that is constantly full.  The website explains that the way to reach customer service is via an email sent from a link on the website that is tied to each customer’s account.  There is no mention of how quickly someone will respond to an inquiry, but it is suggested the customer check back to see the answer. The problem seems to me not that there is no customer service but that how to access that service is not intuitive to all users and does not provide immediate feedback.  In addition, the users will not even find the email link option unless they click on the right box on the website.

The primary complaints, however, focus on automatic renewals that the customers feel were unexpected; a different version is that when someone tries to cancel, the request does not go through easily. When I checked the website with this complaint in mind, it was evident that the automatic renewal aspect of every membership is not clearly stated.  The customer needs to click the “get more information” boxes to get any sense of what “recurring billing” means.  On other sites I frequent, the customer has a chance to check a box agreeing to automatic renewal or to the saving of payment information.  Not so on Lumosity.  The main assumption by the customers seems to be that a one-month trial membership would not have to be canceled; rather, an extended membership would have to be initiated.  That is not the case.  The customers must cancel by going into the account information area of the website—and they need to do that in a timely manner.

Again, the numbers are not huge in terms of the complaints that were reported on the various sites I stumbled upon.  Still, they suggest areas of concern that a discerning customer would explore before making a decision to purchase the service.  A few people complain the service is expensive, but that is relative to each person’s circumstances.  An annual membership of $72 before any discounts are taken does not sound too bad.  But each customer needs to decide if the service quality makes this amount a wise investment.  Before finalizing that decision, customers should decide what they are hoping to get out of the membership: playing fun games or extensive improvement in their brain function.  If the latter, then the science behind Lumosity needs some exploration.


researchLumosity readily uses the scientific terms neuroplasticity, fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence, and n-back tests across its website and in some of its commercials. The parent company Lumos Labs, Inc. conducts some of its own research and shares that and other research through links on its website. A printable brochure is also available giving an overview of the science behind the service.  The executive summary of that document explains, “We now understand that, with the right kind of stimulation and activity, the brain can dramatically change and remodel itself to become more efficient and effective in processing information, paying attention, remembering, thinking creatively, and solving novel problems.”  The rest of the document summarizes a variety of research studies.

The research cited by Lumosity looks good, but I tend to be skeptical, especially when a company offers its own researched proof.  Not surprisingly, I was able to find an article by one of Lumosity’s competitors—BrainHQ—that claims it utilizes the research better than Lumosity does.  The article’s opening line claims that BrainHQ is “the only program to have been scientifically tested on a large-scale.”

The crux of the research looks at the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligences. Fluid intelligence—the ability to think and reason such as is used in generating problem solving strategies—has typically been said to peak in its development in late adolescence. However, crystallized intelligence—the ability to use specific knowledge and past experience in new situations—can continue developing over time.  About.com offers this general review:  “Both types of intelligence are equally important in everyday life. For example, when taking a psychology exam, you might need to rely of fluid intelligence to come up with a strategy to solve a statistics problem, while you must also employ crystallized intelligence to recall the exact formulas you need to use.”

For over 40 years, the general consensus that fluid intelligence could not be improved through training was the accepted norm.  In April 2008, Stephanie Jaeggi and others published research that suggested the opposite:  test subjects who worked on various mental activities did show an improvement in their fluid intelligence levels.  In essence, training could make you smarter. However, most neuroscientists do not yet agree, and others have not yet been able to duplicate Jaeggi’s conclusions. The research is promising but does not yet offer conclusive proof; much more work is needed.

In 2012, The New York Times offered a great article explaining the concepts and the research.  This article shows the promise of the current research being undertaken but concludes that more research is needed.  Also, the article suggests it is likely that even if the new studies are accurate the improvement in fluid intelligence would probably not be permanent unless the training was maintained.  Basically, mental training to get smarter is like working out at the gym to get stronger—you have to keep doing the exercises to retain the benefits.  According to Jaeggi, “Do we think [the test subjects are] now smarter for the rest of their lives by just four weeks of training? We probably don’t think so. We think of it like physical training: if you go running for a month, you increase your fitness. But does it stay like that for the rest of your life? Probably not.”

The following BBC report gives an overview of additional research that seems to suggest that the brain games—although they look at those you purchase as independent units rather than website services—will not really make you smarter.  They conclude what seems confirmed by my experience on the Lumosity website:  with practice you will get better at the games. Just don’t expect that those improvements will necessarily help in any other area.


I appreciate well-constructed advertising campaigns.  When I taught critical thinking to college students, I would often assign students to analyze commercials or political campaigns, so the students could better see what all was being “sold” through the commercials and materials associated with the campaigns. When Lumosity.com is assessed, it becomes clear that it is selling several things through its website:

  • Customers’ desire to improve their mental acuity balanced with fear or trepidation that mental acuity will decline as people age.
  • Confidence in the research claims expressed by the company, but Lumos Labs, Inc. does not acknowledge any research that counters its claims or questions the long-term benefit of playing the games. Also, Jaeggi’s most promising research was published in 2008, but Lumos Labs, Inc. was established in 2006.
  • A user-friendly website that provides extensive games for the customer and all the follow-through of keeping score and tracking progress.
  • Round-the-clock access to over 35 fun games!
  • Customer Service, but it is not obvious that access is only online via email with no assurances as to how quickly feedback will be provided.
  • Easy membership pathways, but with a range of discounts depending on how long you wait to enroll.  It seems clear that the quicker you sign up, the more you pay.
  • Recurring billing is practiced on all membership options, but that detail is not as clear and obvious to the customers as some customers would like.  It is important to explore all links for extra information and to read the fine print.

Obviously, there is a lot being sold.  If you are determined to improve your mental abilities via the games and puzzles offered by Lumosity.com, check the research and remember that it is unlikely that permanent improvement is possible.  To maintain what improvements you develop, you will probably need to keep playing the games via a paid annual membership. [A fact Lumosity would undoubtedly appreciate!]  If you have fun playing the games and they help you relax while providing some mental challenges and improvements on isolated activities, buy a membership—just play hard-to-get for a couple weeks to get the best deal.  Lumosity.com offers a great advertising campaign and fun games based on the promise of recent brain research.  Before you decide, just be certain you know what all you are buying and the reality of the claims being made.  Then have fun!

ME?  I will probably go back to play a few games over and over on Lumosity.com via my free trial membership.  There does not seem to be a limit on how long such a membership will last.  I am not concerned with getting access to more than the couple of games available without a paid membership.  My budget has been tight for the last several years, so $47 (the annual fee reduced by 35%) could be better used in other ways:  couple lunches out with friends, gas for a trip down to LA to see my dad, and buying four or more books on Amazon.com are the first three examples that come to mind.

crossword puzzleI do like games and recognize that practice playing mental games can improve my memory and concentration, at least for the short term, so I will play solitaire a bit more often as well as complete crossword puzzles and sodokus. There are no bells and whistles or even tracking of my progress, but they are fun and relaxing.  Apparently, other computer games—even the ones the kids play for hours on end that involve developing strategies and hand-eye coordination—would help too.   Crossword puzzle image

So, how about you?  Have you joined or explored Lumosity?  What advice would you give?  What activities do you practice to stay mentally sharp?

Barbara Kingsolver: Her Life, Her Work & Her Words

I read a lot and even have some favorite authors.  For escape, I tend to read murder mysteries. Some of my go-to murder mystery writers are Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, Alexander McCall Smith, and Tony Hillerman. I also read novels by such authors as Jodi Picoult, Ursula Le Guin, Jane Smiley, and Anne Tyler.  But one of my favorite authors is Barbara Kingsolver.  I have read most of Kingsolver’s books and enjoyed them all.

My First Introduction to Kingsolver

Pigs in HeavenMy introduction to Kingsolver was through her third novel Pigs in Heaven (1993).  It technically was a sequel to her first novel The Bean Trees (1988).  Both novels can stand alone, but they do share characters and a progressive story line.  Pigs in Heaven follows the journey of a single white woman Taylor who has informally adopted a young Indian girl called Turtle. All is well, until the tribe learns of the situation and works to intervene and return the child to the Cherokee Nation and reservation life. As the story unfolds the reader sees the emotion and turmoil of the matter from all sides: mother and child, individual and tribe/reservation, different cultures, and even grandparents on both sides.

The characters are vivid, authentic, and a bit quirky; the dialog rings true and moves the story forward; the social concern is explored from all sides; and the changing countryside enhances the story and feelings that are unfolding.  As the characters move toward resolution they pass through the Tucson desert, rural Oklahoma, and even Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam.  The secondary characters—like Jax, Taylor’s boyfriend, and Barbie, the fellow traveler they meet up with who aspires to be just like the Barbie Doll—add humor and counterpoint to the other relationships in the story. Taylor’s mother Alice opens and ends the novel, serving as a firm anchor for the individual vs. the family dichotomy being explored.  Other issues that are woven throughout the novel include the value of family and community, the problems and benefits of interracial adoptions, and the inability of social services to really fix things.

The reviews of Pigs in Heaven offer praise that could easily apply to any of Kingsolver’s novels:

“Very few novelists are as habit-forming as Kingsolver. . . .Pigs in Heaven succeeds on the strength of Kingsolver’s clear-eyed, warmhearted writing, and irresistible characters.”  Newsweek

“Kingsolver makes you care about her characters to the point of tears; she is bitingly funny—and she writes like a dream.”  San Francisco Chronicle

“That rare combination of a dynamic story told in dramatic language, combined with issues that are serious, debatable, and painful. . . [it’s] about the human heart in all its shapes and ramifications.”  Los Angeles Times Book Review

Kingsolver’s Life

Kingsolver Cover Photo

Kingsolver Cover Photo

The focus in Pigs in Heaven on Indian culture—specifically the Cherokee Nation—fascinates me; it is one reason I was drawn to the novel.  That same interest made me curious about the author, her background and experience.  All the book jacket says about Kingsolver is that she was born in Kentucky but now resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her husband and two children. Since then she has moved to southern Appalachia.

Kingsolver understands that readers may be curious about her life, so she provides an official website.  However, she does “not believe this information improves the understanding of [her] books, in any way.”  Since others will tell her life story if she does not, she provides the website to make certain her truth is out there, noting that her version is “less entertaining than some of the others, but has the distinction of being true.”

When asked if her works are in anyway autobiographical, her answer is a resounding, “No!”  Yes, she has lived in some of the places used as locations in her work and conducts extensive research, but the stories and characters are all imagined, unless prominently displayed as historical.  She does pride herself on being fully immersed in the various locations, knowing that the details—the smells, the sounds, even the feel of the land—help the places become real for the reader and her characters. This realism regarding nature and location is part of what makes Kingsolver’s work so vibrant, alive, believable.  But she has never adopted a child, worked as a forest ranger, been the daughter or wife of a missionary, or been an illegal alien trying to survive.

Still, it is entertaining to read Kingsolver’s review of her life.  She comes across as observant and self-effacing with a liberal mix of adventure, conscience, and humor thrown in.  She was born in 1955 and grew up in rural Kentucky, especially enjoying her time outdoors.  At various times her father’s work as a doctor volunteering his time to those in need moved the family to remote locations such as the The Congo when she was 8 years old.  Early on she was exposed to social consciousness as well as the dichotomies so often evident in life: rich vs. poor, outsider/stranger vs. family/group, and many different cultures and languages.

She started college as a music major studying piano in 1973, but she shifted to a biology major, hoping to actually find a job upon graduation.  Although she kept a journal since she was about 8, enjoyed writing in grade school, and dabbled at creating short stories and poetry, she did not see herself as a writer—that passion seemed about as possible as becoming a movie star. She moved to Tucson in 1978 and worked for two years as a lab technician before beginning graduate work in advanced biology at the University of Arizona. While taking classes, she started teaching a bit and worked more and more as a technical writer.

The Bean TreesShe kept writing fiction but never shared it with anyone.  By the mid-1980s, she was married and earning a living on her freelance technical writing.  Just before her first daughter was born in 1987, she undertook what she calls “extreme housecleaning.”  As she sorted through one of her closets, she found the draft of her first novel.  She decided those pages had either to be thrown out or forwarded to someone—she sent it on to an agent.  The Bean Trees was published the next year with good reviews.  The Los Angeles Times called her first novel “the work of a visionary.”  The New York Times Book Review said, “As clear as air.  It is the southern novel taken west, its colors as translucent and polished as one of those slices of rose agate from a desert shop.”  Kirkus Reviews said, “Lovely, funny, touching, and humane.”

Kingsolver Cover Photo

Kingsolver Cover Photo

From then on, Kingsolver has been a published author, but that status still surprises her a bit.  With each new book she wonders if readers will come along on the journey. From then on personally, she was divorced, traveled extensively, remarried, had another daughter and eventually moved to Virginia, residing now in Appalachia.  Her published work includes novels, short stories, poetry, essays, and other works of non-fiction.  Her work continues to impress critics and amaze her readers. And her life continues to unfold, not just as an author but as wife, mother, neighbor, farmer, and citizen of the world.  Kingsolver recently wrote an article for More Magazine about how growing older is not so bad: “The Upside of Acting Your Age.”

Kingsolver has won several awards including the National Humanities Medal awarded by President Clinton (2000) for exemplary service through the arts, United Kingdom’s Orange Prize for Fiction (2010), and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award (2011). She has also won various other awards from the American Booksellers and American Library Associations, was named one of the most important writers of the 20th century by Writers Digest, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has been frequently anthologized and is routinely taught as part of standard school curriculum.  She especially appreciates the ongoing responsibility of serving on the review panel for American Heritage Dictionary. As she explains:  “One of my kids learned early that any playground shouting match over ‘my-parent-is-better-than-yours” could be ground to a halt with: ‘My Mom writes the dictionary!’”

Kingsolver established the Bellwether Prize for Fiction in 1998.  This award is the nation’s largest prize for an unpublished work, and it helps establish the career of new literary voices.  Recently, this award has become the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.  Her involvement with this award makes perfect sense, given the social commentary that is an integral aspect of all of her work.  The prize is awarded in the even-numbered years to an American author with a social conscience that is given voice in print.  Kingsolver provides the $25,000 prize, and the winning author’s work is published.

Kingsolver’s Works

Homeland & Other StoriesHigh Tide in TucsonKingsolver writes poems, short stories, novels, essays, magazine articles, and non-fiction books.  Her full bibliography can be seen on her website. Her short stories—Homeland—and essays—High Tide in Tucson and Small Wonder—maintain her enthralling use of nature and her vivid characters and dialogue. She is probably best known for her seven novels. A search of the Kirkus Reviews Website provides a review of most of her books, but especially each of her novels:  The Bean Trees (1988), Animal Dreams (1990), Pigs in Heaven (1993), The Poisonwood Bible (1998), Prodigal Summer (2000), The Lacuna (2009), and Flight Behavior (2012).

poisonwood biblePigs in Heaven was the first novel that achieved bestseller status, and it remains popular and in print in many languages after 20 years.  The Poisonwood Bible is perhaps the best known since it was nominated for the Pulitzer and was named as part of Oprah’s Book Club.  This novel is set in the Belgian Congo, where a minister has brought his wife and four daughters as he pursues his ministry.  The women tell the story, offering their varying perspectives.  Kirkus Reviews simply calls this novel “A triumph.”  The New York Time Book Review says, “Haunting. . . .A novel of character, a narrative shaped by keen-eyed women.” For me, her novel is reminiscent of Faulkner through her engaging use of character and perspective to explore perception and reality.

The LacunaWhen asked how she starts writing a book, Kingsolver explains that she focuses on questions and then a devises a story that will present some answers.  For her novel The Lacuna, her primary question was, “Why is the relationship between art and politics such an uneasy one in the U.S.?”  The novel then introduces the readers to Harrison Shepherd, a developing author who lives in Mexico for a time, meeting the likes of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky, and then moves to Ashville, North Carolina, during the time of Pearl Harbor, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Red Scare. The collision of art and politics is presented against a backdrop of real people and real events, some of which are not mainstream stories.

lacuna word_0001Kingsolver explains how the title of The Lacuna underscores the theme:  “The theme arrived long before the word.  I worked on the novel for six years under a different title, which wasn’t a very good one.  I was near the end of a first draft when one day I thought about this amazing word, lacuna, with all its intertwined meanings that unlock the inner workings of my story.  I typed it, stared at it, and actually may have smacked myself on the forehead.  It must have been lurking in my unconsciousness for a while, because everything came together around that word, once I committed it to the page.  This novel is about all the important things you don’t know – the other side of the story, the piece of history that’s been erased.  The plot is elaborately drawn around this idea in dozens of different ways.”

This novel, not surprisingly, was well received by critics and readers.  The United Kingdom’s The Independent said, “Every few years, you read a book that makes everything else in life seem unimportant. The Lacuna is the first book in a long time that made me swap my bike for public transport, just so I could keep reading.”

Two critics compare The Lacuna to The Poisonwood Bible, praising both:

“As in The Poisonwood Bible, Kingsolver perfects the use of multiple points of view … This [The Lacuna] is her most ambitious, timely, and powerful novel yet.”  Library Journal

“Before reading [The Lacuna], I would have sworn that 1998’s The Poisonwood Bible was her masterpiece, not to be surpassed; it was as close to a truly perfect book as I’ve ever read. This one’s even closer to that lofty goal.” Dallas Morning News

Prodigal SummerI have read most of Kingsolver’s novels, and each captivates me through her vivid, engaging characters and a strong sense of place that lends credence to the action that unfolds.  My favorite novel of hers is Prodigal Summer.  I admit it may be my favorite because it is the one I read most recently.  This novel carefully weaves the stories of three main characters together in ways that are first subtle but become more apparent page after page. The characters are a female forest ranger living alone in the wild and her somewhat accidental lover, a young city woman who studies biology and marries and then quickly becomes a widow while living on the late husband’s family farm, and a retired widower and his almost friendly bickering with a neighbor woman who is younger but not young.  Their stories are interwoven chapter by chapter under the headings “Predator,” “Moth Love,” and “Old Chestnuts.”

The fourth character in the novel is Nature itself, the valleys and canyons, mountains and fields of southern Appalachia.  But Nature is more than the location.  It is a breathing living presence that each character builds a relationship with.  Lusa, the young widow learning farming, points out the personality of Nature she is coming to know:  “People in Appalachia insisted that the mountains breathed, and it was true: the steep hollow behind the farmhouse took one long, slow inhalation every morning and let it back down through their open window and across the evening—just one full deep breath each day.” She doubted this insistence at first, but finally came to accept the life and companionship of the Nature around her.  “She learned to tell time with her skin, as morning turned to afternoon and the mountain’s breath began to bear gently on the back of her neck.  By early evening it was insistent as a lover’s sigh, sweetened by the damp woods, cooling her nape and shoulders whenever she paused her work in the kitchen to lift her sweat-damp curls off her neck.  She had come to think of Zebulon [Mountain] as another man in her life, larger and steadier than any other companion she had known.”

second title page prodigal summerIn Prodigal Summer, Nature is a constant for all the characters as well as a connection between them. Through their relationships with Nature the social concerns of conservation and preservation vs. hunting, saving farms and meeting increased food production demands, and living with nature in every way are explored.  Of course the novel also explores life and death, love and loss and growing old, and strength of independence and the comfort of family and community. As the Newsweek review noted, “A warm, intricately constructed book shot through with an extraordinary amount of insight and information about the wonders of the visible world.”  The paperback edition’s second cover page suggests some of the vibrancy of the nature presented in the novel.

My Recommendation

small wonderIf you have not yet read anything by Barbara Kingsolver, pick up one of her books.  I guarantee you will be impressed.  I have not read everything Kingsolver has written, but what I have read I’ve liked.  And I am working on the rest.  Small Wonder (2002) is a collection of essays that is on my nightstand, ready to be read. Her most recent novel Flight Behavior (2012) will be available in paperback in June.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) is a non-fiction narrative that recounts how her family experimented for a year living mainly off food grown locally—it sounds like it will be a fun read. As Washington Post Bookworld says, “Charming, zestful, funny and poetic. . . . The authors [Kingsolver, her husband and older daughter] . . . add three powerful voices. . . to the swelling chorus of concern about the food we grow, buy, and eat.”  The following video is an interview with her about this book and the experience it chronicles.

Kingsolver’s Words

About writing

“What keeps me awake at the wheel is the thrill of trying something completely new with each book. I’m not a risk-taker in life, generally speaking, but as a writer I definitely choose the fast car, the impossible rock face, the free fall.”

“Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.”

“A novel has to entertain — that’s the contract with the reader: you give me ten hours and I’ll give you a reason to turn every page.”

“Beginning a novel is always hard. It feels like going nowhere. I always have to write at least 100 pages that go into the trashcan before it finally begins to work. It’s discouraging, but necessary to write those pages. I try to consider them pages -100 to zero of the novel.”

“If we can’t, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread.”

“Literature duplicates the experience of living in a way that nothing else can, drawing you so fully into another life that you temporarily forget you have one of your own. That is why you read it, and might even sit up in bed till early dawn, throwing your whole tomorrow out of whack, simply to find out what happens to some people who, you know perfectly well, are made up.”

From her books

“The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. The most you can do is live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides.”  Animal Dreams

“Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.”   Small Wonder

“Don’t try to make life a mathematics problem with yourself in the center and everything coming out equal. When you’re good, bad things can still happen. And if you’re bad, you can still be lucky.”  The Poisonwood Bible

“If it crosses your mind that water running through hundreds of miles of open ditch in a desert will evaporate and end up full of concentrated salts and muck, then let me just tell you, that kind of negative thinking will never get you elected to public office in the state of Arizona. When this giant new tap turned on, developers drew up plans to roll pink stucco subdivisions across the desert in all directions. The rest of us were supposed to rejoice as the new flow rushed into our pipes, even as the city warned us this water was kind of special. They said it was okay to drink but don’t put it in an aquarium because it would kill the fish.

“Drink it we did, then, filled our coffee makers too, and mixed our children’s juice concentrate with fluid that would gag a guppy. Oh, America the Beautiful, where are our standards? ”  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle

“But kids don’t stay with you if you do it right. It’s the one job where, the better you are, the more surely you won’t be needed in the long run.”  Pigs in Heaven

“The most important thing about a person is always the thing you don’t know.”  The Lacuna

“’I lost a child,’ she said, meeting Lusa’s eyes directly. ‘I thought I wouldn’t live through it. But you do. You learn to love the place somebody leaves behind for you.’”  Prodigal Summer

“Every one of us is called upon, perhaps many times, to start a new life. A frightening diagnosis, a marriage, a move, loss of a job. . . . And onward full-tilt we go, pitched and wrecked and absurdly resolute, driven in spite of everything to make good on a new shore. To be hopeful, to embrace one possibility after another—that is surely the basic instinct. . . . Crying out: High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.”   High Tide in Tucson   

“It’s terrible to lose somebody, but it’s also true that some people never have anybody to lose, and I think that’s got to be so much worse.”  The Bean Trees

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