X Marks The Spot For MIT Online Ed

By Jordan Weinstein   |   Monday, December 19, 2011
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Dec. 19, 2011

BOSTON — On Dec. 19, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a new online academic platform called MITx. 
Provost Rafael Reif, who will direct the new program, said it goes well beyond the scope of the popular OpenCourseWare site, which publishes course materials online. Instead, “it’s a whole online learning initiative.”
Like OCW, the MITx platform will be free, Reif said. Other educational institutions can modify the open-source app as they see fit.
Unlike OCW, MITx will include access to online labs, self-assessments and student-to-student discussions. Students will have the option to demonstrate that they have learned the material in a course and to then earn a credential for it. MIT may charge a modest fee for that credential.
It may even feature automated grading of student essays — an area where MIT research is “moving incredibly rapidly,” Reif said.
Beyond individual learning, however, MITx is an experiment to develop best practices in crafting effective online classes. “The aspiration is to use online learners as a huge lab where we can experiment with new tools as we develop them and understand what works best,” he said.
That said, despite all the excitement, Reif was hesitant to forecast the end of the traditional college experience. “I just cannot really imagine a world in which the virtual learning can completely replicate an on-campus, residential model,” he said. But, he added, 50 years down the road, who knows.

Signed, Sealed, Discontinued? Post Offices In Cambridge

By Ibby Caputo   |   Monday, December 12, 2011
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Dec. 13, 2011

inman square post office

The Inman Square, Cambridge post office is small in size but large in importance to regular customers. (Ibby Caputo/WGBH)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — “Default” is becoming a very common, dirty word. In this story, it applies to the cash-strapped United States Postal Service, which is facing bankruptcy.
“We’re on the brink of insolvency. Everything is on the table,” said Dennis Tarmey, the spokesperson for the USPS in Greater Boston. In Tarmey’s 30-year career, he’s been a clerk, mail carrier, postmaster and a labor relations specialist.
“I’d like nothing better than to say our organization was healthy and thriving, but to do so would be irresponsible on my part,” he said.
Starting in January, it will cost you another penny to mail a letter. The rate is up to 45 cents. But it won’t be enough to bail out the USPS.

The post office is trying to reduce its operating costs by $20 billion in the next few years. It thinks it can save $3 billion by closing more than half of the mail processing plants in the nation and slowing down delivery service by a day, which means your first-class delivery service might more aptly be considered second-class.
We’re rethinking the traditional post office. That’s a message on the postal service website. Yes, online… ironic since the web is making traditional correspondence through the post office obsolete.
Dean Granholm is a post office vice president. In an online multimedia presentation, he made the case for the proposed closing of nearly 3,700 post offices nationwide, 43 of which are in Massachusetts.
“Many communities across America have several post offices in close proximity to one another,” Granholm said in the online video. “In many cases, only one of those post offices receives adequate foot traffic. It’s easy to see why eliminating some of these post offices makes a lot of economic sense.”
Possibly closing in Cambridge: MIT

At the post office in the basement of the student center at MIT — one of two post offices being considered for closure in Cambridge — many students were unaware of the potential closing. Some expressed indifference. Some had received a notice from the post office asking for input about the possible closure. 

> > Read the notice

DJ Henry and siblings
Users of the post office at MIT seemed relatively indifferent to the closure. (Ibby Caputo/WGBH)

Jenna Berkowitz, who fundraises with the alumni association at MIT, said she filled out the survey but never sent it in.  “I care, but not that much, because I do understand it’s not worth it to them to have the one employee there and not really doing much,” she said.

Possibly closing in Cambridge: Inman Square
The feeling was different at the Inman Square post office — the second location in Cambridge that may be closed.
“Every time I’m in here it’s very busy, so I don’t know why they think it’s not producing,” said Stacy Walker of Stoneham, Mass. Walker has a property management business in the neighborhood.  
She was upset about the potential closing. “I have all of my business mail sent here. It would be a hassle to change everything over. I don’t know where I would go that’s more convenient,” she said. There’s a large post office in Central Square, but “there’s no parking.”
Does public opinion matter?

Mike Foley, the discontinuance coordinator for greater Boston, said that most communities are in favor of keeping their local post office.
Foley is responsible for compiling public feedback on the potential closing of local post offices through community meetings and surveys. “Does that carry weight based on how many people responded? My answer is I don’t know,” he said.
At a Cambridge City Council Meeting in the fall, Bob Waterhouse, a clerk at the Central Square post office, offered a warning to the council and residents.
“The postal service is one that many of us take for granted and will not realize its benefit until it’s too late. Only then will we turn back and say I wish I had done more,” he said.
The feedback phase in Cambridge ends on Jan. 11. A decision is expected soon after.


The USPS has launched an online multimedia campaign to explain the rationale for closures. (

A Home -- And An Adrenaline Shot -- For Startups

By Kara Miller   |   Saturday, December 10, 2011
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A conference room is seen in an incubator in Rotterdam. (sustainablerotterdam via Flickr)

You’ve got a great idea for a start-up, but where do you house it?

Two people work at Dogpatch Labs (via Dogpatch).

This week, we look at how to create spaces that encourage creativity and inventiveness. What happens when you put hundreds of ambitious entrepreneurs in one building? Do great minds feed off each other? What can they teach us about success — and about potential pitfalls?

We take a peek inside the Cambridge Innovation Center and other hotbeds of start-up activity.


Xconomy Report: Protecting Online Privacy

By   |   Friday, December 9, 2011
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Dec. 9, 2011

hall and oates xconomy report

Advertisers are watching you. They see your every move. That's why Boston startup Abine is working on software to protect Web users' privacy.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When you go online, do you know who’s tracking you? Advertisers want access to your preferences, your social network, your location and your search history. Now, Boston startup Abine is trying to give consumers more control over their personal information. The 2-year-old company makes software that blocks unwanted Web tracking. Its service also removes people from online databases. Abine’s timing is good, as Facebook and other companies are taking a lot of flak over user privacy.

And now for the week’s innovation deals news from A to Z:

- Actifio, a Waltham-based startup working on data backup and protection for big companies, raised $33.5 million in venture funding.

- Weston-based Biogen Idec and Korean conglomerate Samsung are forming a $300 million joint venture to develop low-cost, generic versions of biotech drugs

- Zink Imaging inked a $35 million investment and hired two Polaroid veterans as co-CEOs. The Bedford, Mass.–based company is developing technology for inkless printers that can connect to portable devices.

xconomy logo


The weekly roundup of business, technology and life science news from our partners at airs every Friday on WGBH 89.7 Boston Public Radio.

Xconomy Report: Treatment For Parkinson's

By   |   Friday, December 2, 2011
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Dec. 2, 2011

michael j. fox xconomy report

Michael J. Fox's charity has awarded a local startup funds to improve Parkinson's treatment. (Bryan Adams)

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Actor Michael J. Fox’s charity foundation awarded a grant to Chelsea, Mass.–based Civitas Therapeutics, a startup working to improve the standard treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Patients usually take the drug, L-Dopa, in pill form, but Civitas is developing a version that they could inhale to get quicker, more precise doses of the medication. The company will test the inhalable drug in a pair of clinical trials over the next year.
In other innovation news, Boston-based Retroficiency, a developer of software for measuring the energy impact of commercial building upgrades, raised $3.3 million from venture investors.
Cambridge-based is raising half a million dollars to support the development of its website, which connects sellers of electronic medical records software with doctors looking to go digital.
And software maker Symantec said it will use location-finding technology from Boston’s Skyhook Wireless in its web service for locating missing laptops and Android tablets and phones. The deal gets Skyhook’s technology into Google’s Android platform despite Skyhook's ongoing lawsuits against the Internet giant.

xconomy logo


The weekly roundup of business, technology and life science news from our partners at airs every Friday on WGBH 89.7 Boston Public Radio.

Bob Slate And The Case Of The Paper Letter

By Danielle Dreilinger   |   Friday, November 25, 2011
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Nov. 25, 2011

BOSTON — Business consultant Laura Donohue came to Bob Slate Stationer one day this spring “looking for some good cheer and a nice pen,” she told the gaggle at the Nov. 17 ribbon-cutting for the new Bob Slate. “I went to the back of the store to inquire about buying not only a pen but the store itself.”
By the time she did that, it was too late to stop the shutdown. The 78-year-old Cambridge, Mass. institution closed in late March 2011 and no one knew a savior might be on the scene. Fans talked about what it might mean: a further step in the blanding-down of Harvard Square, the victory of electronic communication over good old pen-and-paper, the end of family-owned independent stores that can’t compete in a cut-price global marketplace, etc., etc. — even though Mallory Slate said that the store never lost a dime and that he and his brother Justin simply wanted to retire.
But Donohue persisted and has now reopened Bob Slate — leaving the chattering writing classes a little confused. Is there a place for good old pen-and-paper after all? Has the global, electronic marketplace in fact not entirely won yet?
As Greater Boston producer Toni Waterman directed a camerawoman at the front of the store, former co-owner Mallory Slate, 74, stood in the back and pointed an accusing finger at a WGBH News reporter’s beat-up steno pad.
“Let me look at your book! Where’d you get that piece-of-junk book?” he demanded.
Um, Market Basket. $1.19.
Heresy! Slate clutched his tweed jacket. “Oof! Oof-ta!” he cried.

Watch the Greater Boston segment on Bob Slate's reopening.

Donohue told the well-wishers on Nov. 17 that she intended to operate in “a new world of personal communication.” Inside, though, it was a little hard to see what that might mean — leather iPad covers, perhaps? — amidst the familiar old merchandise: Filofax inserts; Italian paper with double-deckled edges; wall calendars for moms, yoginis, lighthouse lovers, Metropolitan Opera fans, goddess-worshippers or all of the above; Sharpies in a dozen colors; to name a few. To refill her fountain pen, would milady prefer Waterman encre violette or J. Herbin violette pensée? A giant stuffed tiger presided at the window, loaned for good luck by a neighboring cobbler, Donohue said.

It all seemed, well, old-fashioned. Can a stationery store be relevant to anyone but the tweedy remnants of Olde Cambridge?
The experiences of Donovan Beeson, co-founder of the Chicago-based Letter Writers Alliance, suggest that perhaps modernizing isn’t the answer. Despite the imperiled state of the US Postal Service, just as CDs and mp3s spurred a few sentimentalists to cherish and collect vinyl records, there are hints of a possible paper revival.
The LWA started in 2007. Among other activities, it sets up pen pals and holds letter-writing socials. The group now has 1892 members, Beeson said, and “we’re going to hit 2,000 before the end of the year.” (Disclosure: I am one of them.) 
Beeson works a few days a month at Chicago stationer Greer and said the store is doing well.  “No one I talk to says ‘Oh, I hate mail,’” she said. They just wish they got more real letters and less junk.

One well-known stationery brand is trying to promote real writing on real paper.
Even in the age of electronic everything, “There’s just certain things that will require a letter,” said Sandra Jordan-Bishop, vice president of sales for Dalton, Mass.–based Crane & Co. Wedding invitations. Thank-you notes after a job interview (yes, hers was on Crane stationery). She envisioned graduating Harvard students coming to Bob Slate to buy fine resume paper.
This fall, the digital team launched a “pen pal” campaign, promising to write back to anyone who sent the company a letter. The response has been “massive,” Jordan-Bishop said.
In fact, the company is expanding its line beyond cards into leather-bound journals and “social papers.” (That’s larger-sized paper you could use for a personal or business letter — “more what you would’ve seen in a Staples in the past,” Jordan-Bishop explained.)
Oh yes. Staples. It might seem strange to try to reopen a business selling pens and paper in the era of big-box retail. How can a Bob Slate compete?
By changing the game. At this point, stationers are targeting an entirely different market from office supply chains, Beeson said.
Crane has begun to emphasize “a quality and luxury experience,” Jordan-Bishop said. In fact, Crane doesn’t sell through Staples or Office Depot at all anymore. And independents like Bob Slate are more important to the company than chain stationers such as Paper Source: Over 1,200 of the almost 2,000 places that carry Crane products are independently owned.
“A lot of customers prefer to go to these smaller stores because they get this one-on-one, personal service,” Jordan-Bishop said.
Beeson happens to be visiting the Boston area over Thanksgiving and can’t wait to visit Bob Slate for the first time. Even with a stationery job at home, she’s excited to see what Donohue’s eye will pick out for her. “I’m sure I will find wonderful things,” she said.

About the Authors
Jordan Weinstein Jordan Weinstein
Jordan Weinstein is a news anchor for NPR's All Things Considered on WGBH, 89.7 FM in Boston.
Kara Miller Kara Miller
As a radio host, Kara Miller has interviewed thinkers from E.J. Dionne to Howard Gardner, Deepak Chopra to Lani Guinier. She is a panelist on WGBH-TV's "Beat the Press," as well as an Assistant Professor at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, The National Journal, The Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, and The International Herald Tribune.

Podcast: iTunes | XML

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Danielle Dreilinger Danielle Dreilinger
Danielle Dreilinger is an author and news producer for


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