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JB, NWR, MOOCs, and Why Humans Matter in Higher Education

| 9:30 am September 17, 2014

This guest post was authored by Dr. John Knox, an associate professor in the Geography Department and the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia.

Why am I a meteorologist? Let me tell you a story that is mine, but others’ as well. A story that, in the end, touches on one of the biggest unsolved questions in higher education today: why, in this era of democratized education via sophisticated technology, we still need humans in the loop as teachers and mentors.

As my students know, I became fascinated by the weather at the ripe old age of four, at an Atlanta Braves exhibition game interrupted and ended by a severe thunderstorm. By the age of five, I was reading books about the weather. But such childhood fascinations can wane; my son became enthralled with trains when he was 2, but he’s not majoring in railroads here at UGA. Particularly if you don’t have an adult mentor in the specialty who ushers you to that next level.

That’s what I had in meteorology, courtesy of the U.S. government, starting when I was 11 years old. In the aftermath of the deadly 1974 Tornado Superoutbreak that killed hundreds and disrupted communications from Alabama to Michigan, the National Weather Service realized that it needed its own way to get the word out about tornado warnings. NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) was born.

As national networks go, NWR was and is kind of a rinky-dink affair. The radio console looked like a glorified 8-track tape affair. Meteorologists at National Weather Service stations would record forecasts, weather summaries, hourly weather observations, and watches and warnings and plug them in. The tapes would play sequentially, over and over again, broadcast to the public on high-frequency stations.

It sounds deadly-dull, doesn’t it? Especially to a generation that has not been raised on the radio.

But for an 11-year-old weather nerd in the days before The Weather Channel, it was heaven. Now, instead of trying to learn about the weather from a three-minute TV weather broadcast, or the very, very occasional special on network TV back then, I had a 24/7/365 mentor on the weather radio that I begged my parents to buy.

And when I say “24/7/365,” that wasn’t not too far off the mark in terms of my NWR listening habits. My parents and brother marveled at my ability to listen for hours, absorbing weather information while doing homework, reading, or just lying around. It was my constant companion growing up.

Even better, the voices on NWR were real meteorologists at our local National Weather Service office. Some read the weather information without inflection. Others sounded almost comically Southern. But there was one, with a resonant tenor voice, who was the best of the best.

This sonorous meteorologist’s name, I learned eventually, was JB Elliott. A native of Hale County, Alabama, JB had, in post-WWII America, worked his way into the Weather Service without a college degree. Over time he became the widely known and beloved resident historian of all things Alabama weather. I eventually listened to NWR all over the country, but there was no one like JB for conveying both the history and the excitement of weather. He would get up out of bed and drive to the Weather Service office in the middle of the night just to do NWR broadcasts during severe weather. I told my family that the weather couldn’t be that severe until I heard JB’s voice on NWR.

Then there was April 4, 1977. An “F5” tornado—the worst—hit just a few miles away from us in Birmingham, killing 22 people. JB went on NWR live—no tape delay—broadcasting the warnings and making sure listeners knew of the gravity of the situation. When JB went live, you knew it wasn’t just bad weather, it was the worst. The damage was so horrendous, photographs of it ended up in training guides for meteorologists. Some of those photographs were taken by JB.

I didn’t meet JB face-to-face until much, much later, in the early 2000s. I had just published the first edition of an introductory college-level meteorology textbook. And in it, I dedicated the book to two meteorologists: the late chair of the meteorology department of my Ph.D. institution, and JB. It might be the first time that a college textbook has been dedicated to a government employee without a college degree. But I think you can tell why I dedicated the book to JB. Without his voice mentoring me in the weather during my childhood, all the way into college, I would likely have lost interest in the weather somewhere along the way.

Now, what does this have to do with higher education? Today we are grappling with the role and scope of online education at universities. Why keep costly humans in the loop at all? JB Elliott and NWR can speak to these questions.

And that’s because, after about 20 years of live meteorologists on NWR, the Weather Service automated the whole shebang in 1997. This was a time-saving, cost-saving move, designed with good intentions to have meteorologists spend more of their time on science and getting warnings out to the public.

And so JB’s tenor was replaced with Igor the Computer’s automated voice. That wasn’t the official name of the voice; the Weather Service tried to personalize things by calling them “Paul,” and “Donna,” and “Tom,” and “Javier.” They’re all Igor to me.

An important point here: the computerized voices ‘read’ the same type of information that the human meteorologists had for decades: hourly weather summaries, weather forecasts, etc. Most of the time, the only difference is that the words are automated vs. coming from a National Weather Service meteorologist.

But that makes all the difference to me. As Will Smith says in I, Robot: “Robots, [gesturing toward his heart], nothing here, just lights and clockwork. Go ahead, you trust ‘em if you want to.” I tried to listen to NWR’s automated broadcasts. I couldn’t. It wasn’t the same, and in fact it felt like a betrayal to me. I spent many thousands of hours listening to NWR in my youth. From the time of automation in 1997 until now, I have listened to NWR for a grand total of 15 minutes. Other “weather nerds” have said the same thing to me.

And I predict that no one, ever, will dedicate a meteorology textbook to Igor the Computer Voice.

Now, back to the ivory tower. I contend that my experience speaks to some of the deepest issues in higher education with regard to automation.

• The mentor/instructor must be present. That often means physically present. But JB was present for me in his voice, and in his getting out of bed and going on-air at 3 am during severe weather. I’ll write another time about the crucial nature of physical presence, but it isn’t absolutely necessary as long as you are truly present in other ways. And even though ‘he’ is always there, Igor the Computer is not in any human sense “present.”

• The mentor/instructor must be passionate. I do get strange looks from meteorologists of my generation when I talk about good ol’ NWR. They had NWR, too, in other parts of the country, but there it was just a radio that set off an alarm during severe weather. They didn’t have JB, and other Birmingham Weather Service meteorologists who invested time, energy and interest. And nobody had JB’s passion for the weather, clearly conveyed via the radio. It was the same kind of information, yes, but it lacked passion.

• In recent years there has been a big push to use technology to create massively open online courses, or MOOCs. Millions can be reached, but comparatively few students finish such courses, and the grades can be even worse than ‘normal’ classes. However, other instructors report good results with online courses on smaller scales. What’s going on here? Presence and passion. As I know from my own teaching experiences, even a large class can feel small and alive if the instructor is willing to be present in his or her students’ lives, passionate about the subject, and if the students are willing to suspend disbelief and pretend that a large science class can be a community, too. If MOOCs can create that environment on the scale of thousands or millions, then they will succeed. JB created it, on-air, for thousands in the Birmingham area. So it can be done outside of a face-to-face relationship. So the MOOC advocates are right in this sense. But it’s not about information dissemination. Most humans have to be motivated, emotionally, to learn. “Lights and clockwork” don’t do that.

Automation does have its advantages. Igor’s voice will drone on as long as the government keeps the transmitters working. JB retired from the Weather Service back in 1989. Recently, due to health, he has had to step back from participating in the Birmingham-based, world-renowned “Weatherbrains” podcasts. People get old, retire, and eventually die.

No one will shed a tear when Igor finally “signs off.” The same will not be said for JB Elliott, not among his thousands of friends in the flesh in Birmingham, and thousands more around the world online. And certainly not among the not-small contingent of those who became weather fanatics and even degreed meteorologists because of him.

And that is what real education is all about.

JB Retirement Bham News 0417891 Picture copy 600

The hero in John’s story is our very own J.B. Elliott, who recently retired from his day to day forecasting duties, and someone that several of us called mentor. This photograph was from the Birmingham News article when J.B. retired. – Bill Murray

Strong Storms Over Southern Shelby and Northern Chilton

| 3:25 pm September 15, 2014


Strong storms are over southern Shleby and northern Chilton Counties where the NWS has posted a Significant Weather Alert for lightning, heavy rain and gusty winds.

Storms are strongest from north of Jemsion to west of Talladega Springs.

They are moving east at 10 mph.

Strong Storms over Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair

| 2:38 pm September 15, 2014

The NWS has added an Areal Flood Advisory for parts of Jefferson and St. Clair Counties as well. Communities include Pinson, Center Point, Trussville, Argo and Branchville. A wide area has received at least an inch of rain in a short time between the above communities.


Strong thunderstorms are occurring at this time over northeastern Jefferson and western St. Clair Counties.  They are centered in the Clay, Argo and CenterPoint areas.

The NWS has issued a Significant Weather Alert for the area inside the polygon on the above graphic.

They are moving southeast at 10 mph and will pass near Trussville, Branchville and Moody.

They contain dangerous lightning, wind gusts to over 40 mph and copious amounts of rain.

Be indoors as these dangerous storms approach.

Storms Firing Up

| 2:07 pm September 7, 2014


A cold front slipped through the area overnight. That front is located over South Central Alabama this afternoon.

Showers and thunderstorms were blowing up from Hale and Bibb Counties southeastward into the Montgomery area.

Isolated storms were over the northeastern part of Jefferson County.

Some of the storms were quite strong with heavy rain, frequent lightning and gusty winds. They will continue pushing southeastward through the afternoon hours.

Temperatures were in the lower 90s mostly before the storms. The only exceptions across the northern half of the state was in the Northwest corner where readings in the middle 80s were the norm thanks to stubborn early morning clouds.

A Few Strong Storms

| 7:51 pm September 6, 2014


A few strong storms are occurring tonight over North Central Alabama ahead of a cool front.

Strong storms are over eastern Winston County, Cullman County near Hanceville and another weaker one between Ashville and Ohatchee in St. Clair County.

They are moving only slowly south southeast.

If you find yourself in the path of one of these storms be ready for torrential rains, deadly lightning and gusty winds.

Five Forms

| 4:14 pm September 1, 2014

Air Force reconnaissance found a well defined circulation is the Bay of Campeche about 250 miles from the Mexican Gulf Coast.

The storm is moving WNW at 13 mph and will move inland in Mexico tomorrow evening.

Top winds are 30 mph and the plane recently found a central pressure of 1008 mb.

The water is warm but wind shear is strong and Five will only slowly strengthen. It should become Tropical Storm Dolly tomorrow afternoon before landfall.

A Frightening Afternoon in 1969

| 3:00 pm August 17, 2014


On the afternoon of August 17, 1969, an Air Force crew led by Marvin Little penetrated the eye of Camille. One way of estimating the surface winds was to visually observe the sea condition. Their report indicated that it was unlike anything they had ever seen in their training. Dr. Robert Simpson, the head of the National Hurricane Center knew that the training was based on 150 mph. His instinct told him that the winds were probably in the neighborhood of 180 knots (210 mph.)


He would take the unprecedented step of listing the winds at 190 mph in a special advisory that would prompt action from many people along the coast who had planned to stay put.

And at 3 p.m., a historic advisory was written.  Here is the discussion…


…And the text of the advisory…


Showers and Storms Pushing Into Northwest Alabama

| 11:19 am August 17, 2014
Click image to enlarge

Click image to enlarge

At late morning, a surface low was over northern Kentucky, near Owensboro. This feature is depicted well on satellite imagery and radar reflectivity loops. An upper low was over southern Illinois, with a trough trailing back into Arkansas and northern Texas. Showers and storms developed this morning from southwestern Tennessee into northern Mississippi ahead of the trough, which is progressing eastward with the upper low.

The trough is tapping some deeper moisture that you find back over Texas and heavy rain has been the result. There was a flash flood warning over the Delta of northwestern Mississippi where 2-4 inches of rain fell in 3 hours with additional rain falling.

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The forecast for your Sunday will be influenced by that disturbance and those showers/storms. Indications are that they will settle into Northwest Alabama through the early afternoon and try to settle toward the I-20 corridor. But they should weaken as they drop into that drier air we mentioned two paragraphs ago. They may hold together enough to bring showers and weakening storms to the I-20 corridor.

So, expect increasing clouds northwest of I-59 into the afternoon with a chance of showers and storms. Highs will generally be in the lower 90s. Expect a warm and humid evening with lows in the 70s. There will be a small chance of showers.

The trough will slide a little east tonight and will be over us tomorrow, leading to increasing shower and thunderstorm chances. Highs will top out around 90F, with about a 50-60% chance of rain and thunderstorms.