Sunday, August 30, 2015

Everything Is Copacetic

Who remembers the first time they were allowed to drive with no other adult in the car?  For me this happened when my dad was having a minor surgery to correct Dupuytren's contracture, except that since he was a pretty severe diabetic no surgery on him was really that minor.  The doctors who were performing the surgery were the same ones who had set my broken arm in a cast the year before.  Indeed, if memory serves, my dad got his hand problem diagnosed on one of the check up visits for my wrist fracture.  At the time of my dad's surgery, my mom was already at Deepdale hospital in Little Neck.   She called home.  Either she wanted me there just for the moral support or she wanted me to bring some stuff from home that my dad needed.  That part I don't recall.  I do remember it was snowing lightly outside.  I made the drive without incident.

Heredity is a strange thing.  You wonder how much of what shows up was there inside the person all along and what is due to upbringing.  Who knows?  This weekend both boys were home for bunch yesterday.  In talking with them you could tell that they each have a bit of the cheapskate in them.  I have that too.  My dad had it, big time.  I'm delighted to see it in my kids, actually.  It doesn't mean you can't be generous with others.  It does mean that most of the time you aren't overly indulgent on yourself.

For the last year or two I seem to have the start of Dupuytren's contracture in my right hand.  There is a tendon in my palm between the pinkie and ring finger that seems to be popping out of the skin.  It's an eye sore, but mainly it doesn't hurt.  I do have stiffness in the right shoulder, which does hurt on occasion.  Some combination of arthritis and the aftermath of rotator cuff repair is the cause.  Then there's a hernia in my belly button.  And the big toe on my left foot feels like its permanently stubbed.  Yet none of this is too debilitating.  Everything is copacetic.  It was an expression that my dad used a lot.   It's becoming my expression now.  I mean it as a kind of mantra.  We all have tsoris.  We should be able to enjoy life, nonetheless.

A lot is being said these days about the anger that is out there.  Our politics seems to be about that now.  Maybe the anger can be put toward a constructive purpose.  I don't know.  But I do know me, well enough to understand that ongoing anger would put me on the path to depression.  So I want something else - a little bit of humor, a touch of joy, some spark of creativity, anything that produces delight.  Everything is copacetic says those things should be ordinary.  It also says that those are the things which should occupy our minds.  

Given all the remakes of movies and TV shows I wonder why now we don't have a remake of Pat Paulsen for President.  There is plenty of humorous satire out there.  That genre has found its place in the popular culture.  But to me much of it is too vindictive.  There should be a way to make fun of the pols without ripping them.  Surely that is harder.  True wit is an art.

I guess I'm suffering from Gail Collins being on book leave.  She is a true master of the humorous understatement.  But even her most recent columns had more bite than is her usual way, with anger getting the upper hand.

Maybe everything is not copacetic after all.  Perish the thought.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Gallup et. al. should elicit rankings of candidates, not just the top of the list

It is understandable that for actual voting in a primary that each voter chooses a preferred candidate only.  That has been our tradition.  But for polling purposes, especially with a crowded field, who voters rank as second and third matters, as does how far down the list one might go before the voter thinks staying at home is the better option or voting for the other party is the better option.

So why don't the people who do the polls figure this out?  That's a mystery.

It's quite conceivable to me now that Donald Trump would be ranked last by many of the voters who vote Republican but don't have Trump ranked first.  Of course, we don't know this because this sort of information isn't being solicited.  If we had information of this sort, would the press continue to report that Trump is leading in the polls?  If, instead, a weighted voting scheme were used, and if some other candidate garnered quite a few 2nd and third places in the rankings, that person should be considered the leading candidate, in my view. 

This, of course, goes for the other side as well, though there are many fewer candidates.

If such information were gathered and then disseminated, might it impact how voters vote?  In other words, might voters choose their second or third ranked candidate because that person stands a better chance of winning the election?

Majority rule works great when there are two candidates only.  It doesn't work well when there are many candidates, none of whom get anywhere close to 50% of the votes.   The situation isn't even that novel (although the number of Republican candidates is larger than what it's been in prior elections).   What is novel now is the funding, which is going to slow down the thinning out of the field.  So the sort of information I'm suggesting should be elicited is even more important now.

Might any of the pollsters contemplate a change in their approach as a result?

Friday, August 28, 2015

A correction or a bubble that has burst?

I don't fully subscribe to the Efficients Market Hypothesis, but I do believe future movements in stock prices can't be predicted by extrapolating from the recent past.   Nonetheless I find the graph below of the Dow over the last month much more comforting than what that same graph looked like on Tuesday morning.  So I can stop being Chicken Little and turn my attention back to teaching and learning...at least for a while.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Registered Students Who Don't Come to Class....

....benign manifestation, registration gaming, or a sign of some real underlying trouble?

I've finished teaching my first two class sessions.  There has been some weirdness regarding attendance and students not showing up.  I've got three students who have been registered since the get go but who have missed both of the class sessions.  In all my years of teaching, that has never happened.  I've got one more student who added the class on Tuesday but didn't show up for the class on Wednesday.  Then there are many who came Monday, are still registered, but didn't show up on Wednesday.  In this last group, that is closer to the usual pattern for kids who end up not coming to class regularly during the semester. (I don't require attendance but I did encourage them to come in my syllabus and in what I said in class on Monday.)  But in the recent past attendance has been high the first two weeks and then trails off after that.  This time around, the honeymoon period seems too brief.

I want to first cover the possible explanations for students not coming to class.  Then I want to review the scant evidence I have that speaks to the matter (information about individual students from Banner) and offer up my guesses as to which explanation best fits the situation here.  I will conclude with a brief discussion of the impact on my motivation and the possible impact on the motivation of the other students who have shown up so far.

Where I used the expression benign manifestation in the extended post title, I meant benign in an ethical sense.  If the students were sick with the flu so missed classed for that reason, obviously that would not be benign for them.  But missing class for health reasons is in accord with how the system should work and does not otherwise pose a challenge to how the system is structured.  In this case, we'd all wish the students a speedy recovery and I'd hope to seem them in class next Monday.  I do think this is the least likely possibility.  Given that, I'm listing it first, for otherwise I'd be apt to not consider it a possibility at all.

The registration gaming I mentioned comes in the form of course hoarding, by which I mean the student registers for more courses than the student plans to take, and will ultimately drop one or more courses in the current portfolio.  The extra class or two serves as a kind of self-insurance in case one of the planned classes doesn't pan out.  The university frowns on course hoarding but really can't block it effectively.  Indeed, it may inadvertently encourage the practice.

This can happen when a student earlier in their time on campus gets closed out of a course the student wants to take or is required to take.  I have no idea how prevalent being closed out of a course is, but I've had some of my former students tell me it can happen regularly in some minors, where the majors have registration priority and the minors only get to pick at the left overs.  And I know that it used to be the case in Econ that intermediate microeconomics had enrollment caps below demand, even though it was a core course for the major (and for Business students and other majors as well.)  Course hoarding can then be seen as a kind of tit for tat student behavior in response to having prior experiences with being closed out of other classes.

If this is what is going on, it needs to be understood that course hoarding is a learned behavior in response to inequities that the system itself produces.  In thinking about this I'm reminded of the closing scene in I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.  Paul Muni plays a once innocent man who is imprisoned on false charges and then becomes subject to a brutal penal system.  He ultimately escapes.  When asked how he survives as a then fugitive on the run he responds, "I steal."

To belabor the point, ethical lessons tend to be learned not so much within classes but rather by finding ways to cope with the system as it presents itself.  Do we really want to be sending students the implicit message that when they have the opportunity to do so they should hoard courses?  Such behavior makes them indifferent to concerns about other students, who might be closed out of a class as a consequence of their hoarding.   If instead we want students to be aware of the social consequences from their actions, we should be asking: how can we send a credible message as to the alternative?  The campus jaw boning on the matter is not credible and indeed may contribute to student cynicism, which I suspect is already deeply entrenched.

If I really wanted to market the third explanation, I'd refer to those kids who don't come to class as SINOs.  The implication is that such kids lack sufficient commitment to be referred to as students.  This is not a new issue.  The expression, a Gentleman's C, certainly predates when I was an undergraduate back in the early 1970s.  But what may be comparatively new, is the kids not bothering with any pretense to the contrary.  And if that is true, one needs to ask why.  Is it because these kids don't believe their delinquency will be of much consequence?  Or is it because these kids don't care, no matter what the consequences are?  And then we need to ask, is this behavior still confined to under achieving rich kids?  Or has it spread much wider than that?

Let me turn to the evidence about the registered students.  Each of those who missed both classes is male.  (The class as a whole has a substantial male majority, which is a bit unusual.)  Two of the three are transfer students.  (Most of the rest of the class started as first semester freshmen.)  Two of the three are from richer suburbs of Chicago.  Two of the three are Econ majors.  The third is majoring in Earth, Society, and Environmental Sustainability.

I don't recall any of my students previously having that major.  It is conceivable that economics would be quite useful to this major.  But I don't think this major is "close" to economics in the way that Political Science is or in the way the various Business disciplines are.  For those reasons, my guess is that this particular student is practicing course hoarding with my class.  The other two students, the Econ majors, I suspect are SINOs.

My purpose in the previous paragraph is not to elevate my personal speculation but rather to indicate the type of thinking that would be required to look at this situation far more systematically, from a campus perspective.  Indeed, I'm writing this piece to encourage a campus investigation into the matter.  I believe that is warranted.

Finally, I want to take on the criticism aimed at me that I'd expect to arise from some reading this piece.  To wit, stop being a priss, take attendance in your class, and make it required.  That speaks to the subject matter of the course, the Economics of Organizations.  And one of the messages I want to deliver to my students is that sometimes private performance incentives don't work very well.  What works better is an appeal to social norms of good behavior.  In the economics literature this idea is articulated by George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize winner, in his paper on labor markets as partial gift exchange.  This is the economist writing about the role of collegiality in the workplace.  Collegiality can trump performance contracts, especially when doing well at work is hard to measure quantitatively, but also otherwise, because people often perform better when trying to do the right thing as distinct from performing when trying to advantage themselves materially.

Given this, I really don't want to take attendance in class.  That would cave into an approach about performance at work that I want to de-emphasize. So I find this lack of attendance a challenge, because it is a direct threat to one of the core messages my class should provide.  I am bothered a great deal by that.  Partly this stems from the realization that a great deal of student behavior is driven by social norms.  When the norm is that the other students do come to class, each individual student is inclined to attend as well.  If what I am seeing is happening broadly in other classes, it signifies a change in the social norm.  We should then attempt to understand the causes for this change and we should try to resist it, if we possibly can. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Bears Are Biting

Where once we were lyrical
About the East Asian miracle
It's time now to sing the blues
As we all pay for past dues.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Learning PowerPoint 2016 the Hard Way

I took all the documents I had on my PC and copied them over to my iMac.  For reasons I don't understand, to access these documents in the Finder, I first have to open the computer itself, then go to a folder called PC Files, then one called Documents, and finally I see the stuff I copied over.  If you go to the Documents folder on the iMac, you cant access the files that way.  I now know this, but I don't have a sense for why that is the case.  Yet it offers an inkling to what I say next.

I've experienced enormous difficulties with opening pptx files from within PowerPoint.  I should note here that I have Office 365 and to activate that you have to go through an authentication screen first.  For those files that were deep in my iMac, every time I tried to open one of them, that authentication screen came up, and then when I'd authenticate it would come up again.  The file would never open.  It was very frustrating.

It finally occurred to me to copy the file to the Documents folder from its original location.  Once I did that I could open the file without the authentication screen coming up at all.  I was ecstatic with this discovery because now I can use PowerPoint, where before I couldn't.  However, I don't know why it works.  Why can I open files in the Documents folder but not elsewhere on the computer?  This is one way where the Mac and the PC are different.  Once you know how it works, fine.  Until you do, it's sheer aggravation.

Here's another one along these lines.  I like to make Notes pages from the PowerPoint that have an image of the slide and under that the text of the speaker notes that are associated with the slide.  This I save as a PDF and post along with the regular PowerPoint file.  On the PC what you do is choose Save As.  Then you selection filed type and choose PDF.  Then there is a button called Options.  You click that.  Select Notes pages and click a checkbox to include the slide image.  That works like a charm.

Silly me, I expected it to the be the same way on the Mac.  It isn't.  Indeed, Save As is much more limited on the Mac.  It doesn't even allow PDF as  format.  However, there is an alternative, Export.  For that PDF is a possibility.  But there is no options button.  When you Export as PDF it produces slide images only.  I was disappointed by this.

Ultimately, I learned that you can get Notes pages by choosing Print.  On the lower left there is a button that says PDF.  If you click on this, there is an option which says Save as PDF.  I wouldn't have put it there, but I'm glad I finally found it.

You'll find something in the last place you look. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Course Web Site - Out in the Open

I've been putting together my class Web site the last few days.  There is still some work to do on it, but there is enough done at this point for somebody to get a decent impression about how it works.

It is not glitzy, but I believe it is user friendly.  It doesn't use any tool that is brand new.  Nor does it use any tool that is specific to education.  The basis is Blogger, then Google Calendar, and files are made available from Box.com.  There are a few Econ in the News items posted.  These make use of the snipping tool Kwout, which provides a link back to the source in addition to the screen shot from the piece.  I do exactly the same thing on my own blog.  I believe it is perfectly consistent with Fair Use and thus is not a copyright issue.  (More about copyright below.)

The domain is blogspot.com rather than illinois.edu and there is no campus branding on the site.  Some may consider that a limitation of this approach.  I do want to note that the Campus offers a blog service (based on WordPress) and I did briefly consider it as an alternative host to the approach I've adopted.  The WordPress blog that I experimented with didn't offer the sidebar gadgets that I've got on this site.  It would be less convenient for the student user.  In my way of thinking, convenience trumps branding.

During the first several class sessions I make a PowerPoint file associated with a particular class session available in advance.  Those PowerPoint files have images culled from the Web, but the various images come from different sites, with no one site contributing more than a single image.  I think that too is consistent with Fair Use.  However, I embed a musical selection that plays throughout the presentation when it is viewed in slideshow mode.  That is probably not consistent with Fair Use, especially when the music is there just to provide entertaining background rather than to enhance the educational purpose.  (One might make a case that the music for this particular presentation contributes to ideas in the presentation.)  If I were teaching a class with hundreds of students, I'd select the music from the Public Domain, such as is available here.  But that would add yet another layer to my time in developing the content, as I'd have to listen to this music first and determine whether it is appropriate for the presentation.  Given that the enrollments in my class have hovered in the mid 20s the last few years, I've not done that and instead inserted music that I was already familiar with.

My main reason for making these presentations was for students who add the class after the first day, so they can catch up on what they've missed.  The presentations can be viewed in two different ways.  In slideshow mode with the timings already built in, the presentation can be seen in a few minutes.  Part of the role of the music there is to convey that the presentation lasts as long as the song lasts.  This gives the student a quick overview of the content.  There is then a written explanation available in the notes pane that goes into some depth and will take the student more time to get through.  I post PDF versions of the presentations that students can access as an alternative to the PowerPoint.  Here is an example.   The preview that Box makes of the PDF is good enough for viewing, so the file need not be downloaded and the student needs only a browser to access the content.  However, the links don't work in the PDF and the music doesn't play, so it is less fully functional than the PowerPoint itself.

The copyright issue aside, everything else I'm doing could be emulated by other instructors and with campus sanction.  I do want to note that I need an electronic gradebook and a way to distribute files that should not be publicly viewable, made available to the class only, such as their responses to an online survey (for which I use Google Forms to administer).  So I do use an LMS for these functions.  But that use is quite limited.  The bulk of the interaction happens out in the open.

That does not seem to be the norm and nobody I know who works for the campus in the learning technology area seems to be pushing for open class Web sites.  It seems to me that should change.  We need to get past the lawyers putting fear into us, which is one reason why LMS class sites still prevail.

One benefit of open sites, where they prevalent, is that students who are trying to decide which class to take could look at the site from the previous offering of the class and get a lot more information about the course than they can get just from the course description.  So students would clearly benefit from that purpose.  Another possible benefit is from re-use of content by others who are not in the course: students elsewhere, instructors elsewhere, and those among the public who might be interested in the subject matter.  We are the land grant college for the state of Illinois.  This sort of re-use is consistent with the land grant mission.

What would it take to get my campus, or any other campus, headed down the path toward open course Web sites?  I don't know but with this post I hope to nudge others to help move us in that direction. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Questions for Bernie Sanders

The Facebook sidebar produces lots of odd fluff.  As example, there was a bit on Bernie Sanders getting irritated with a reporter for asking about Hillary Clinton's hair.  (This exchange is reproduced here.)  I wouldn't have known about this otherwise.  Maybe ignorance is bliss.  In this case, the little bit of knowledge prodded me to write this post.  It gives a bunch of questions I'd like to see reporters ask Sanders.

Part of this is on whether the various constituencies who make up the coalition that votes for a Democratic candidate can get to a unified view of what the goals should be.  Another part of this is on the issue of running for office versus actual governing and whether one says much about the other.  What follows was informed by this recent essay written by John Cassidy and this piece by Nate Cohn, each of which says Sanders is likely to do quite well in Iowa and New Hampshire, but then struggle thereafter unless conditions on the ground change rather dramatically.

- - - - - 

Question: Senator Sanders, to date in talking about raising taxes you have focused on the very rich, the upper one tenth of one percent of the population.  What about those who are quite well off but not uber rich?  Are they taxed enough already or might you consider also raising taxes on this segment of the population, which will be defined here as those in the top 10% of the income distribution?

Background:  With the Bush Tax Cuts, both on capital gains and marginal income tax rates, the top 10% are now paying less in taxes than they were when Bill Clinton was President.  There is also the matter of making Social Security sustainable, which Paul Krugman has said will require some adjustment on the revenue side.  That adjustment might happen by a substantial raise on the cap of earned income subject to FICA.  Does the Senator endorse raising this cap and if so to what level?

Question:  Senator Sanders, recently some of your events have been blocked by protesters from Black Lives Matter.  You have announced that you will address racism in the near future.  Do you favor the argument put forward by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his essay The Case for Reparations?  If so, might that become a centerpiece of your campaign?

Background:  On the politics, it seems that Bernie Sanders is not well known by Black voters and at present very view of them who do know him are apt to vote for him.  If he is to get beyond Iowa and New Hampshire he has to do something dramatic to change that.  Were he to do so, would he be able to hold onto the Liberal Whites, who until now have been his core source of support?  On the merits, many Holocaust survivors received reparations from Germany and Senator Sanders is surely aware of this precedent.  Thus it would be a profound ethical statement for Senator Sanders to talk about the tragedy of slavery in America in the same terms as one talks of the Holocaust.  And it would be a very strong argument to claim that healing in race relations necessitates that Whites make amends financially.

Question:  Senator Sanders, in your campaign you've laid out a strong Progressive agenda focused on helping ordinary citizens do better economically.  If elected, can you accomplish this agenda via Executive Orders only?  Or must there be legislation approved by Congress to get your agenda done?   If so, won't much of your agenda be DOA when you assume office?

Background:  The Congress elected in 2008, where the Democrats controlled both branches, accomplished quite a bit.  Much legislation was passed then.  Since then, Congress has been gridlocked.  Current forecasts have the Democrats possibly retaking the Senate but the House remaining majority Republican.  Given that, what actually can be accomplished? If the answer to that is not much, what does rhetoric that suggests otherwise actually achieve?

Question:  Senator Sanders, there has been much discussion about America's leadership in the world militarily and diplomatically.  Can America show leadership globally on the economic policy front?  If so, what would that look like?

Background:  Much of Senator Sanders appeal to date comes from his focus on income redistribution and his advocacy of a Robin Hood like approach.  There may be some stimulus to the overall economy that would emerge from such an approach, as the marginal propensity to consume among ordinary citizens is greater than the MPC for the rich.  But more direct efforts at economic stimulus have not gotten as much attention in Sanders' policy proposals.  Yet Europe has been in the economic doldrums since 2008 and now China seems headed there as well.  In Europe, in particular, the politics of austerity has been a winning formula.  (Prime Minister Cameron's recent reelection offers a case in point.)  Might an American embrace of Keynesian stimulus under a Sanders Presidency shake up this policy consensus and thereby get the global economic system back on track?

- - - - -

There seems some similarity to me between the Bernie Sanders candidacy now and the Barack Obama candidacy eight year ago.  Each tied into the idealistic passions of the voters.  But the Obama candidacy was vague on many points (such as whether the Government Option was crucial to Obamacare or not).  And given that we were in full crisis when President Obama took office, perhaps that lack of specific policy proposals was a good thing then, so he could get done what the situation demanded and practice the art of the possible.  Now, where things certainly aren't rosy but we are not in immediate crisis, getting more novel ideas on the table would be a good thing.  Bernie Sanders is in a unique position to do this and it might be his single biggest contribution, whether he becomes the candidate or not. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Candy A___s

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.
("Catch-22")


I'm reacting to a piece in the Atlantic The Coddling of The American Mind.  The authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, make some points I agree with, but I think they go too far and they don't give full context for their arguments.  As I've written about these matters before, first in a post called Boundaries Are Always Harder to Define and then in a different post called Don't romanticize the past regarding how students dealt with threats of violence and disagreeable speech, I will content myself here with providing brief summaries of those arguments and raise a series of other points that authors should consider.

1.  We had our own paranoid delusions.  When I was in grade school in the 1960s, we had fire drills, which made sense, and shelter drills where you crawled under your desk, which made no sense whatsoever.  The risk of a nuclear bomb going off certainly seemed real enough.  That you could do much if anything ahead of time to mitigate its consequences surely was a flight of fancy.

2.  Students blocked invited speakers when I was in college (mid 1970s).  This is nothing new.  My memory here is not great, but I believe William Colby was invited to Cornell to speak right after he stepped down as Director of the CIA and his visit was blocked by the students.

3.  The authors ignore the impact of a specific event on Campus behavior - the shootings at Virginia Tech.  This traumatized all of us in Higher Ed.  One reaction to those shootings that may be sensible - every campus now has an electronic emergency alert system.  But many other reactions were contemplated, such as being able to lock classroom doors from the inside, or educating the students on escape routes from the classroom, and some of these may have even tried.    Given this backdrop, I found the example the authors used in the piece one where I agreed fully with the student and the subsequent decision by the UCF administration. You don't joke about killing people.  You just don't.

It should be no surprise that students are exhibiting similar sensitivity. At the University of Central Florida in 2013, for example, Hyung-il Jung, an accounting instructor, was suspended after a student reported that Jung had made a threatening comment during a review session. Jung explained to the Orlando Sentinel that the material he was reviewing was difficult, and he’d noticed the pained look on students’ faces, so he made a joke. “It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions,” he recalled saying. “Am I on a killing spree or what?”

After the student reported Jung’s comment, a group of nearly 20 others e-mailed the UCF administration explaining that the comment had clearly been made in jest. Nevertheless, UCF suspended Jung from all university duties and demanded that he obtain written certification from a mental-health professional that he was “not a threat to [himself] or to the university community” before he would be allowed to return to campus.

4. More generally, there is a lot of insularity and lack of sensitivity as to what might make others uncomfortable.  This happens among certain students as well as faculty and staff.  There is then the matter of what to do about it.  The part where I agree most with the authors is that outright bans on speech don't educate these people to make them more aware of how others react to what they say and do.  Indeed, the bans might create resentment where before there was only cluelessness. In my Boundaries essay, I came down against mandatory training because we don't do that well at all, but considered possible other efforts that would be more effective.  There is an argument to be made that sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.  But that doesn't mean the disease doesn't exist.  It means we need to search for a better cure.

5. The authors make an argument about how victims of trauma learn to de-traumatize.  I thought that argument was incomplete.  What was left out is that the victim needs to control the pace of this learning.  That pace should not be thrust on the person involuntarily.

Finally, let me make this point about risk assessment and risk mitigation.  Most of us don't do it well at all for risks that are outside our ordinary range of experience.  It is natural to want to minimize such risks even if we end up exacerbating them in the process.  But perhaps we learn from the experience in a constructive way and then do it better in the future.  So the authors need to ask whether they are encouraging that learning to happen or trying to block it because they find the idea of speech bans so intolerable. What, then, comes next?

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Head Injury?

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But might harsh words harm my mind?
Why do candidates their sharp tongues hone
With invective that is so unkind?

Monday, August 10, 2015

Discussions behind closed doors that really aren't closed

Okay, you and I need to talk.  It can be in a public place.  That would be fine.  But it better not be that anyone there recognizes us.  The walls have ears, you know.  Let's go somewhere off campus, not any of the usual watering holes.  Let's find a quiet table, get some good coffee, and talk.  There's a lot we need to consider.

* * * * *

It may be that to appease the Higher Education Gods, some high level administrator at Illinois needs to be thrown under the bus every now and then.  If you've read the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed over the last decade or so, you could very well come to that conclusion.  Here's the latest from this morning, on all the emails it kept secret regarding controversial University business.  Whatever else it says about our Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, she comes across as not very IT savvy.  I've been retired now for more than 5 years, but I still recall being told when I was working full time to treat email as if it were a public announcement.  There will be far less recrimination that way.

I am neither a lawyer nor a security expert and I don't want to pretend otherwise.  But I do have some sense of how things work in an academic administrative setting and so in this post I want to discuss a few behavioral issues.  I was a member of the CIO's cabinet when I was in CITES.  I left that 9 years ago.  Subsequently, I held the title of CIO of the College of Business as part of my job description.  I was part of an informal group comprised of other liked minded College CIOs who at the time didn't agree fully with the approach the then Campus CIO was taking.  So we needed to share our views and discuss what we might do about matters.  I base what I have to say primarily on those experiences.  But I was also a long time faculty member in Economics and had many closed door discussions in that context.  Anybody who has worked at a university over a long period of time will likely have their own set of similar experiences.

* * * * *

1.  People learn by expressing their formative thinking.  This is just as true for campus administrators as it is for our students.  If you can't express yourself in this way, it will create a significant blockage in learning.  Sometimes introspection can offer a suitable alternative but oftentimes not, because the person simply won't have sufficient perspective.  In this latter case, formative thinking must be shared with others who are informed and have their own opinions.  The ideas are commented on and reacted to.  If there is a sensible position to be taken, this is how that position will be found, through a negotiation among the participants.

2.  When people in high level positions need to think and learn about important and sensitive matters, it is natural to want to do that behind closed doors.  One should not read into this any idea of conspiracy.  Similarly, one should not read conspiracy into the setting about trying to keep these conversations tightly held after the fact.  For consider the matter in an ongoing way.  Leaks that are painful might block the next conversation from ever getting off the ground.  So this much is normal.

3.  Now we get to the part where things get interesting.  Watergate comes to mind here.  The break in was bad.  The cover up was much worse.   Once you've reached the point where the early learning has happened and you can make sense of what is going on, a decision needs be made - fully disclose the more mature thinking and all the relevant information whether it supports that thinking or not, or only make limited disclosure or no disclosure at all.  When I was on the CIO's Cabinet he had a policy called "No Surprises," which argues for full disclosure at this point. The No Surprises label is meant to convey that the members of the community will take actions as a consequence of the information you provide.  Those actions might mitigate pernicious consequences.  Getting that information out early enough, the mitigations stand a chance to work.  If the information gets out only after a substantial lag, it is apt to seem too little too late.  Then there will be no appreciation from the community that the information was ultimately released.

4.  In other words, there is an expectation (at least in a normative sense) that those in authority will practice No Surprises.  However, there will be no expressions of gratitude that sensitive bad news was released in a timely fashion and no administrator should expect otherwise.  The announcement will be followed by antagonistic questions and criticism.  I lived through such a post announcement period back in fall 2005 when the Campus Course Management System, Illinois Compass, failed and was down for about a week.  It was an extremely stressful and unpleasant time for me.  I very much wish I never had to go through that.  But when the episode was over I still had whatever integrity I had before it started.  All the evident short term pain makes limited or no disclosure a tempting option.  But pursuing that path is a fool's errand.  It is useful to think that through fully well ahead of time, so you've already made a personal commitment to the approach you will take.  In the heat of the moment, each of us is capable of almost anything.  It is prior thinking which will get us to choose wisely here.

* * * * *

In this last section I want to turn to how we should behave as individuals, in this world where even though we're told email (and Facebook messages, and texting, and...) should be treated as public messages, we tend to act as if they are private.  The point I want to make is a simple one.

Our own learning is paramount.  We need to function where we continue to learn.  If out of a perceived need for self-protection we find ourselves becoming static, in effect we've ceased to be full human beings.  There are risks attendant to any human activity.  Don't try to find the safety play if it means that your learning will essentially be blocked.

This is not meant as encouragement to refrain from exercising good judgment.  It also doesn't mean that all conversation is suitable for open exchange in the public view.  It does mean that you should consider both type I and type II errors.  If you are taking a sensible approach, some of each type likely will be observed over time.

* * * * *

One can get obsessed with these issues.  Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation came out in 1974, clearly influenced by Watergate.  So we've had 40+ years to think this through from a behavioral view.  I wonder why we haven't made more progress.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

What of students who aren't in an Honors Program?

Frank Bruni's column today features advice to the families with a gifted kid who is on track to attend college starting in fall 2016.  The suggestion is to look at the Honors College at the flagship university in your state, rather than focus exclusively on ritzy private colleges.  It will be a lot cheaper tuition-wise and it will expose the student to more diversity among the rest of the student population than would be found at the private schools.


I want to look at this from a different vantage, the implicit message to the students who get admitted to those flagship public universities but don't get into these Honors Programs.  What about them?

In the previous decade while I was still working full time as an administrator I taught CHP classes on occasion. I have not done so since I've retired, in part because I have some ethical issues with how this program works.  I want to discuss those and related matters in what follows.

The last time I taught a CHP course, fall 2009, I queried the class about whether there were students who were just as talented as they were in their other classes but who weren't in CHP.  The answer is that there were these other students.

To be fair, there are a variety of honors programs on Campus.  Most are at the College level rather than at the Campus level.  The larger colleges will have an Honors Dean whose responsibility is to look after these students and make sure they have a rich set of experiences.  There is a program called James Scholars for such students.  There may be other programs as well.  When I was in the College of Business, it has both James Scholars and a College Honors program. I believe some students could be both and, indeed, they could be in CHP as well.

Even with this expanded set of honors offerings there is the question of where to to draw the line as to who gets in and whether you end up not being inclusive enough or too inclusive.  Having raised that issues let me leave it and move on.

Next I want to get at what it means to be gifted.  We have a notion of the late bloomer, someone who is quite talented but whose talents remain dormant for an extended period of time.  We also have a notion of school as competition and that some students burn out because they find the environment insufficiently nurturing.  Ironically, Bruni has written extensively on this issue, yet he still flaunts Honors Colleges.  It seems to me evident that they will not select late bloomers, who haven't yet consistently performed at a high level, while they may select early bloomers who have burned out by the time they enter the program.  There is a question whether such late bloomers are identifiable ahead of time to be distinguished from more typical students.  If they can be identified, there is an issue regarding the best ways to encourage them to bloom.  Are the regular programs sufficient for that or not?

One can also look at being gifted from the perspective of personality type. In the Myers-Briggs schema, those kids classified as gifted are disproportionately NT types (intuitive, thinkers).  There is an extensive discussion of this in the book Gifts Differing.   If professors are themselves mainly NTs (I'm pretty sure this is true for those on the tenure track, but not as confident in this proposition for other instructors) and if instructors teach to the conception of themselves as students (which I think a reasonably good hypothesis) then college will not be very nurturing for other types.  One might then ask whether with additional resources and some focus, if a more nurturing environment could be created for each student.  If so, does having an Honors College indirectly block a push for developing such nurturing environments?  The economist in me wants to point out that any choice comes with an opportunity cost.  In this case is the opportunity cost that for the bulk of the non-honors students the hypothesis put forth in Academically Adrift holds true?

The last thing I will ask is this.  How can the situation sustain?  This is meant to focus on the economic fundamentals - what the students pay versus the type of jobs the students will likely get.  If in the past the labor market for new grads mainly interpreted the degree from the place as the credential, but if in the future the labor market sharply differentiates whether the degree comes with honors or not, then it is conceivable that the return to college for many non-honors students might not cover the tuition, fees, and other expense they have to pay to attend.  Colleges that are far sighted have an interest in that not happening and should be asking what they need to do to prevent that outcome.

My sense of this is that the answer lies in an approach where the ordinary experience for students is a nurturing one and where they learn a lot in college, but we are not there now, not even close.  This move toward Honors Colleges and Honors Programs represents a more expeditious response, that is of course good for the students who get into these programs, but is likely pernicious for the rest of the student population.   This ignoring of the rest of the students should be a concern, especially at a place that calls itself a public university.

Friday, August 07, 2015

The Puritan Ethic, Growing Up During The Great Depression, and Now

While the Republican debate last night captured a lot of attention, measured by the column inches devoted to it on the homepage of the NY Times, also in the news recently has been a new SEC ruling about announcing CEO compensation and the multiple between that and median compensation at the company.  The argument is that this rule will tend to suppress CEO pay to mollify irate employees.


Irate employees or not, we know that the uber rich are tone deaf and insensitive to the plight of the ordinary Joe.  So it is conceivable there will little consequence on executive pay directly from this rule. I wonder, however, how the general public will react to further disclosure about CEO pay.  Might that matter?  (For example, it might add political cover to raising a variety of taxes - on capital gains, on very high incomes, on estates, etc.)

In an earlier piece on CEO pay, a comparison was given between CEO pay and the pay for pro athletes, something that is already in the public eye.  To date the public has generally been quite accepting of what pro athletes make, but I wonder if we might start to see some pushback on this for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is a perceived sense that very high athlete pay and corruption in sport are tied at the hip.  And if that did happen, might there be pushback against very high pay in general, regardless of the occupation?

There is a sense that America is in decline that is quite widespread.  There will be a tendency to compare America to other civilizations, ancient Rome in particular.  There will be questions about whether America following the same trajectory is inevitable or if that trajectory might be reversed by changing the social philosophy that guides our collective behavior.  It's this sort of thinking that got me to do a Google search on "The Puritan Ethic"  (without the quotes).  I found the paper linked below, which I'm in the middle of reading.  (You need access to JSTOR to read beyond the first page.) 

http://www.jstor.org/stable/1920560?seq=5#page_scan_tab_contents
The Puritan Ethic and the American Revolution on JSTOR via kwout

Reading this, I was struck by how much in common there is in the description of The Puritan Ethic with what my parent's beliefs were about our purpose in life.  Both of my parents came of age during The Great Depression, my dad in New York City, my mom in Nazi Germany. 

It is worth commenting on the other aspects of these beliefs beyond the faith in hard work.  Veblenesque  conspicuous consumption is anathema to these beliefs.  So too is an exclusive focus on self with an absence of concern for others in the community.  Thus, this ethic would not tolerate the current Libertarian stance, with its sole focus on individual freedoms and the absence of social responsibility.  

It seems to me it would be good politics for the Democratic candidates to embrace The Puritan Ethic and in so doing make extensive reference to the American Revolutionary War.  Such a connection between then and now is typical of Conservative thinking, particularly the idea of Original Intent.  So an open discussion of The Puritan Ethic would in part be a way to appropriate our history toward a more Liberal conception of now.  

Let me make one more point and then close.  Last week there was another story in the Times about Dan Price and his company where he pays his employees $70,000, largely by bringing his own compensation as CEO way down to where there is essentially no hierarchy in earnings at all.   It is an interesting experiment to keep watching, to see if can persist and then create copycats.  But even if both of these happen, it is still a far cry from getting something along these lines to happen at big companies, like Oracle with its out-of-this-world compensation for CEO Larry Ellison.  What might be done to flatten compensation at such places?   Last winter I wrote a post called Taming The Big Squeeze, which asked that sort of question.  (Among the suggestions was to look at the full Gini coefficient at the company and not merely the multiple between the CEO and median pay.)  Underlying this was the more general question, can the market reform itself in a way that is more consistent with The Puritan Ethic?  

I doubt it can, but I hope otherwise.  In the meantime we should be debating social philosophy as much or even more than debating about government programs.  We can make the most progress that way by harkening back to when the nation was first being formed.  Exactly this happened during the era of Progressivism 100 years ago.  It would be good to repeat that experience.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Foreshadowing

I haven't decided whether I will watch the debate tonight. On the plus side, I probably should stay informed. On the minus side, I might get rather upset by what the candidates say. And then there is the structure of the debate with 10 people on the stage. I can't imagine that will go well.  

I have been watching the TV show The Newsroom. The shows after the first episode are about 55 minutes. It's just about the right amount time for me to be on the treadmill and take a little break in the middle to wiped down the equipment. So I've been watching the first season, which wasn't quite as bad as the second season.

It also gives a little bit of insight into the current election. That's done by looking at the election from four years ago. You'll recall that Michele Bachmann was a candidate then. In my opinion, she is the one who has enabled Donald Trump to be a candidate now. The public is getting all too used to this sort of thing.   

A question I have about the tone of the debates may be more important than the substance that's in tonight's show. This is how much the candidates will play to the fears of the audience versus creating a vision for change in the country. Since 9/11 fear seems to be the name of the political game. Playing to that fear may be a way to get votes, particularly in the primary. But it is not a good way to run the country. I wonder if any candidate can communicate that.

I am also particularly interested in seeing whether John Kasich can show well and differentiate himself from the rest of the candidates. Most of us think his candidacy is already doomed since he's not conservative enough, though there has been some gallows humor that he's a likely vice presidential candidate because Ohio will be in play and his running might tip the balance to the Republicans. I'm also kind of curious as to whether Jeb Bush can look respectable and offer coherent arguments. These are each reasons to watch.

I do have the feeling we are seeing a remake of the Frank Capra movie It's a Wonderful Life. But in the remake George Bailey does not come back and all we have is Potter's Field. A friend in Facebook posted a link to an essay by the former chancellor from the University of Wisconsin. It's about the decline of that state over the last 15 years, with that accelerating under Gov. Walker. It's chilling to read. And it does get you think that the Republicans champion the Mr. Potter view. I wonder if characterizing the Republican view that way will appear in Democratic ads as a way to appeal to ordinary White voters. Or am I simply too old to use that movie as metaphor for what's happening?

-----

This post was dictated and then edited. Most of my sentences are shorter this way.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Quid and Quo, Pros and Cons

What follows is some puzzling by me about all the money in our national politics, particularly on the Republican side, given the large number of announced candidates.  I want to think of this from the point of view of the billionaire donor.  (Obviously, this is not an example of experiential learning.  I don't know any billionaires and I'm inclined to disbelieve how they are portrayed in the media.)  Is contributing handsomely to the super PAC of a dark horse candidate a good investment?  Or is it frivolous - every super rich person wants their own personal candidate like they want their own customized yacht for the America's Cup?

In asking this question lets ask another one that is related.  Does it matter whether the person is a self-made billionaire or if the wealth was inherited?  And here is still another question.  Does it matter whether these donors were activist in politics before the Citizens United decision?  In other words, if there are newbie donors among the group are they motivated to give to their preferred candidate for different reasons?

Now a few asides before getting to these questions.  In the old days there was machine politics.  There was the notion of a smoke filled room where the real decisions were made.  Jimmy Carter has gotten some attention recently for calling the U.S. an oligarchyBernie Sanders has been saying the same thing for quite a while.  Sanders has a Norman Rockwell painting of a town meeting featured in that piece.  Not that it didn't happen, but it is misleading as a caricature of our past politics.  Everyone knows from the history books the name of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall. That stuff didn't end in the 19th century.  When I was a grad student at Northwestern (starting in 1976) the first Mayor Daley was still running Chicago, and his machine was still functioning strong, though it did start to break down after Daley passed away and his successor Bilandic didn't get the plows out during the massive snowstorm in 1979

There is also the issue of dynastic families and national politics.  This goes far back, at least to John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams.  (Whether there were family dynasties present in colonial politics, I do not know.)  Keeping it in the family is a different way to concentrate power.  

Is it possible that power in politics has always been concentrated in America and that the only thing which is new is that the locus of this concentration has changed?

This is not to defend concentration of power as a good thing, but simply to observe that we're a republic not a direct democracy.  Further, to the extent that our interests and views are heterogeneous and our influence individually essentially nil, the nature of the politics itself encourages special interests with some power to express that in a way.  Consequently, concentration of power is something that an economic analysis of politics would predict.  One should not expect it can be eradicated entirely, but there may be good and bad ways of doing this.  In my view, that is a better way to frame the issue around Citizen's United than to hearken back to a Norman Rockwell ideal, one which doesn't give a good picture of how things really were.

Now back to the puzzling.  I recently read a piece by Malcolm Gladwell that he wrote five years ago about how entrepreneurs really make their money.  It is an interesting read in itself because it challenges the popular notion that it is high risk tolerance, "animal spirits" if you will, which distinguishes the entrepreneur from the rest of the population. In contrast to the popular view, Gladwell argues instead that the entrepreneur is highly risk averse, in constant search for the sure thing, and able to pounce on it when the sure thing has been identified.  This can happen if (a) the rest of us are slow to see the sure thing because we don't spend the time looking for it and (b) even if we spotted it we wouldn't pounce because we don't trust ourselves and think there is more risk than there actually is.

The opposite of the Gladwell story can be found in Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow, in the part of the book where he takes on the arguments of Jim Collins made in Good to Great.  Kahneman says Collins cherry picked winners after the fact.  Before the fact, the great success story in the making is impossible to identify.  Hence, much of the entrepreneur's success should be attributed to having a run of good luck.

Keeping both of these views in mind, let's use as example the candidacy of Rick Perry, which from my outside perch illustrates the puzzle.  Perry has gotten some very big contributions, yet he has to be considered a dark horse in this race.  Here are some possible ways to explain the large contributions that Perry has received.

(1)  Perry has improved dramatically as a candidate.  He is much better than he was four years ago.  It's just that the public doesn't know this yet.  (This explanation is consistent with Gladwell's depiction of the entrepreneur.)

(2)  There is a big upside to becoming President.  For these donors' making a campaign contribution is like buying a lottery ticket for the rest of us.   Donors look at the upside, not at the expected reward.  (This explanation is not consistent with Gladwell.  It may not even be consistent with Kahneman, who surely would argue that the probability assessment of success matters.  This explanation is consistent with what I said above about frivolous reasons and yacht racing.)

(3) Running for President is a kind of personal marketing that can produce reward apart from winning the election.  The donors expected to do further business with Perry after the election and Perry's value in those transactions gets enhanced by his running for President now.  (This seems much more likely to me than the first explanation and is also consistent with Gladwell.)

(4) This is simply returning a favor to Perry, who was loyal to the donors in the past.  Perry solicited the contribution and they responded to the solicitation with generous contributions.

(5) This is the first Presidential election since Citizen's United where there isn't an incumbent President running.  Lacking prior experience the donors don't completely understand what makes sense here.  So they are willing to try things to learn from the experience.

(6) Contributors are more interested in having leverage with their candidate than they are in backing a likely winner.  Jeb Bush, who measured by contributions until now is clearly the front runner, already has such a large war chest that he is less malleable to influence by the marginal large donor, especially those who haven't had a prior relationship with him.

It may be possible to extend the list.  It is sufficient for my purposes and what I have to say next.  The dynamics of the race may be influenced by the presence of the large donors in ways where it wasn't in the past.  In particular, a poor early showing need not be cause to drop out of the race, because overall contributions may be ample to continue.  Dark horse candidates like Perry will need to take risks to try to vault the field.   Negative campaigning is likely as a way to do that.  The various hopefuls will beat each other up.  Even if Donald Trump fades, the type of behavior he exemplifies is apt to continue.

In other words, the large donors who are not backing one of the front runners seem to be playing a Prisoner's Dilemma and it is a puzzle why they would opt into such a game rather than sit it out.  This recent piece makes the same point about the Republican's playing a Prisoner's Dilemma.

In fact, though, Citizens United has created a new dynamic within the Republican Party. Call it the politics of plutocratic patrons, and at the moment it is causing the GOP to eat itself alive.

But it argues that the wealthy donors are winners here, because they've become king makers.  I think that claim is wrong.  Most of them will be losers in that their preferred candidate won't get the nomination.  And it may be in aggregate that the Republican field gets twice as much in contributions as the Democrats, yet the Republicans still don't win the election.  In that case, it seems to me, these donors will themselves come to conclude they are losers.  The question, then, is why they don't seem to have the forethought now to project that possibility.  Alas, it may be impossible to really study this because the donors likely wouldn't allow social science researchers to get close enough to learn deeply about donor motivation.

What are the implications of this sort of thinking?  First, in considering Citizen's United the pernicious impact that so many care about may be more prominent in Congressional races and State races.  Those races are less likely to produce a variety of donors who compete with one another via backing different candidates.  Second, using political campaigns as self-promotion for outside of politics is detrimental to the process.  It is something to discourage and provides an argument for limiting campaign contributions.  Third, it may be that this election cycle is unique and that for the race in 2020 the donors figure out how to coordinate among themselves so as to avoid the Prisoner's Dilemma, even if such coordination runs counter to the libertarian philosophy that so many of them seem to hold.  However, it seems possible to me that enough of these donors are pig headed and that what we'll actually see four years down the road is a replay of what we are seeing now.

This gets me to the last point.  Some people treat personal wealth as a kind of badge, with the uber rich better than the rest of us with their wealth offering proof of that.  This sort of mindless spending in support of unlikely candidates is evidence to the contrary and supports the position that these folks should pay more in taxes.  Or at the very least they should stop throwing stones by criticizing government spending.  The glass house they live in is very large. 

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Some reflections on governance and marketing at the U

In yesterday's Views column at Inside Higher Ed there are actually two pieces, a look back at the Salaita matter one year later.  In my reading of these essays, the first one was somewhat damning of the decision itself and the process behind the decision.  According to this argument, Campus administration was unduly swayed by powerful members of the Board of Trustees and well to do alumni, driven to exercise authority that really should reside with the disciplinary experts (the academics who first offered the appointment).  The second one, in contrast, was supportive of the decision, arguing that Professor Salaita had only limited expertise in Native American Studies and consequently by that unit extending an offer they invited the trouble that followed.

I will not make any attempt at resolving those arguments here.   Instead I want to treat them as potential symptoms of a larger issue, that the university is too corporatist in its approach and is too quick to overrule faculty governance when things get controversial.  Actually, I don't want to take that one head on either but rather something simpler and more straightforward - how the Board of Trustees members are selected now and what might be a more appropriate alternative.

The Web site that lists current Board members is one I had never visited before.  It gives the rudiments of the Board's structure.  One thing that jumped out at me immediately is how much power the Governor has in selecting members.  Each of the non-student members is appointed by the Governor (or by the prior Governor).  This structure might make sense if the bulk of the revenue for the university comes from tax dollars.  But we know the share of the university budget that comes from tax dollars has been declining and likely will continue to decline.  Other sources of revenue have become more prominent - tuition, grants and contracts, and gifts.   Further, given the land grant mission, there are people who benefit substantially from university activity but at best make meager cash contributions that don't match their benefit.  In other words, there are other stakeholders here than the taxpayers of Illinois and these other stakeholders should have fair representation on the Board, but currently the process doesn't deliver on that.  What might be done to improve matters?  I will sketch an alternative that makes sense to me.

Now it appears that the non-student Board members serve for terms of 6 years and that there are 9 of them.  (The governor is an ex officio member in addition to these 9 appointed members.)  I would keep the total number of members on the Board as is and the term length as well.  But I would only have the governor appointing 3 of the members, 1 every two years.  I would have the alumni association appoint 2 of the members, 1 every three years.  And then I would have the President of the University in consultation with the Chancellors from each campus appoint 4 of the members, 2 every three years.  This difference in authority of who appoints members is meant to reflect in the type of person who will get picked for the Board.  So let's consider that next.

Alumni have different interests than taxpayers.  For example, an alum who lives out of state who wanted a child to attend the University would have to pay out of state tuition were the child to enroll, at present. If the alum has given substantially to the University over the years, shouldn't the alum's children be entitled to the same tuition rate as the in-state rate?   Alumni may also be more sensitive to the lifetime funding model and tying it to campus function, where that provides some alumni benefit post graduation.  Now, rich alumni may have voice with high level administrators on campus directly via the fund raising activity.  But there are many more alumni who are successful if not well to do and lack these personal connections with campus leaders.  Voting for Board representation would help to tie these people closer to the University.  To me, this makes good business sense as to keep these stakeholders involved.

A different sort of person is altogether absent from the current Board.  This is the higher education expert.  For example, consider former provosts, chancellors, or presidents from other universities, people who have a good track record for what they've previously done in these jobs.  Or perhaps, consider others who currently have these roles at other public universities (or maybe even at private universities).  On corporate boards, doing this sort of thing would bring out accusations of interlocking directorates, and that might be viewed as foul play.  But higher education as a whole has some common interests and those should be well represented on the Board.  Right now that is not happening.  And I don't mean to restrict this population only to current or former campus level administrators.  People who represent one of the regional accreditors, or the National Endowment for the Humanities, or NSF, or researchers in policy for higher education, and possibly quite a few others could be part of a vanguard of professionals from within higher education who begin to populate university boards.  I really don't understand why these people aren't already there, except that political patronage blocks it.  Isn't this sort of change something that the situation demands?

Now let me switch to my rather idiosyncratic division of members in each of these categories.  I deliberately didn't opt for an equal division, but I also didn't allow any one group to have a majority in itself.  It might be most helpful in considering this to envision a contentious issue and that within each group of appointees preferences are not sufficiently homogenous that the group votes as a block, but the higher education professionals tend to be more like minded.  Then they would have it easier at getting a majority that agrees with them and would not prevail mainly when they could get at most one more vote from outside their group.  This is possible, so they wouldn't be dictators.  But it is not so likely, so their prudent judgement would be relied on much of the time.  That would be a good thing, in my view, and keep the Board from engaging in rash decisions, which it is prone to do under the current structure.

* * * * *

Now let me switch from governance via the Board of Trustees to marketing and in so doing I will also switch from the University to just my Campus.  This is the Campus homepage.  I encourage you to look at it for a few minutes and form your own general impression before reading further here.

Now I'd like you to answer the following questions.  Is there an implicit message on the homepage which speaks to the extent of corporatist influence on Campus?  Or, perhaps, is there a slightly different message being sent, namely that the Campus is very mercenary and wants some of your money, very much, regardless whether you're a big giver or a small one?  To me, the top of the page has the feel of an animated brochure.  The Give Now button starts out right there at the top and the moves to the right side but stays near the top as you scroll down the page.  And there are blurbs of interesting current accomplishments - good news all - brag points if you will.  This is just of the sort of thing you find in a brochure.

Where is the bad news? or controversial news?  or information useful to the public but that doesn't distinguish Illinois from its competitors yet is so important that it warrants placement on the homepage nonetheless?   The message I get from the page is that marketing the Campus trumps the land grant mission and it also trumps the free exchange of ideas, at least in this space.  There are many other spaces to be sure.  The illinois.edu domain is huge and a tremendous amount of information can be found there.  For example, in the controversial news department, consider this page from WILL, local public radio and TV, on a recent report about racial microagressions.  And there are also members of the Campus Community contributing to online media in many ways, shapes, and forms, such as the pieces at Inside Higher Ed I mentioned at the start of this essay.  The stuff is out there.  It is just not linked directly from the Campus homepage.  (It also should be said here that the marketing and fund raising also happens elsewhere, via various newsletters, for example.)

Does that matter?  I will answer based on my visceral reaction to the homepage.  It matters to me.  And I'm not all that happy with the implicit message we're sending.  I'd like to see more of the page devoted to mission and less to bragging.  I'd also like for the Give Now button to be absent at first, appearing perhaps only after a person has clicked on a link for bragging content.  Thus, a person looking only at mission content wouldn't see the Give Now button at all. Is this sort of thing do-able?  And if it were would it matter to anyone else but me? 

Let me close with what is even more idealistic, probably not feasible, and may be so na├»ve as to be laughable.  Nonetheless, I wish we were doing this regularly.  There should be a piece of the homepage devoted to reasoned argument on social issues.  As a society, we've lost our ability to have such argument.  People live in their own little universe and don't have to encounter evidence and argument that is counter to their position.  Reasoned argument, which features the occasional acknowledgement that the other side has made a good point, is something our students should witness and it something the broader community should witness as well.  The loudest voices have a tendency to drown out the more reasonable ones.  And the most volatile of issues tend to generate more loud responses.  So the question is whether one can carve out an area of topics to be discussed as well as a set of people who are reasonable, so there is disagreement and debate but that doesn't escalate into name calling and hostilities, and yet where the subject matter is sufficiently interesting to generate a wide audience.

If we could do this, then we definitely should.  How to get there remains a mystery.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Blogging by dictation

This is my first attempt at trying to write in my blog with voice rather than keyboard. So far the accuracy seems quite good. The text translation does have some lag between the talking and the appearance on the screen. That is a little bit disconcerting for the composing. But I suspect one can get used to this without too much trouble.  I'm so conscious of the dictation it is harder for me to think about what it is I want to say. 

Let me try to talk about a subject that is near and dear to me, which is over achieving students working so hard that they don't get enough sleep. There is an article in today's New York Times by Frank Bruni that discusses this for high school students in California near Stanford. My article that should appear in Inside Higher Ed is on the same subject but for college students. This is not for all college students but a particular subset, the ones who are coming from the East Asian countries, particularly China and Korea.

Let me conclude this very brief post with one other observation. For this to replace typing for me, it needs to become unobtrusive. So far that has not happened. I need a lot of practice at it to get comfortable with it. Whether I have the patience to do that practicing is the question. The technology itself is quite impressive in how it renders the text from the voice.

- - - - -

Typing here.  I edited the above for the line spacing between the paragraphs (I didn't know the voice command for that) and for some other changes.  But this (Mac OS 10.9 with enhanced dictation, which must be downloaded) is much better than what I remember from using Dragon, which I mainly used not for dictation, but rather to transcribe voice recordings.  I wonder how this works for transcribing.  It is the next thing I will try.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

From ha ha to aha - how universities might support teaching and learning at the high school and community college level

As momentum for free community college increases perhaps people will start to pay attention to some related issues.  The two I will concern myself with here are:  (1) the price of textbooks, ancillary learning materials, plus any other complements to formal instruction that are available only at an extra cost to the student and (2) what the students are actually getting as take away and whether how things are done now is a good way to go about teaching and learning.

On (1) a question I haven't seen asked but which seems worth posing is whether the textbook publishers will use free community college as a trigger to raise textbook prices, thereby capturing some of the gains that are intended to accrue to the students.  That's the way these sort of markets work, isn't it?  What might be done to prevent that from happening?

On (2) I have in mind two specific courses, principles of microeconomics and calculus, but then also pieces I've read that discuss other first-year courses such as English.  For example, see In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.  That piece argued that at colleges of last resort many of the students lack sufficient preparation and don't have the motivation to do the hard work to overcome this shortcoming.  I would argue something similar is happening elsewhere, even at Illinois, which is highly selective, and even when the students have the credential that indicates proper preparation.  Below is an excerpt from a course evaluation I received for the course I taught last fall.  It is a response to the open ended question - What are the major strengths and weaknesses of the instructor?

Strength - .....
Weakness - I think he's very math oriented / a numbers thinker & he just assumes we understand some of the math he does.

Let me note here that just about every student in this class was an econ major, and either a junior or a senior.  Calculus is required for the major and the math that this student refers to is either calculus or analytic geometry.  The student surely has taken the courses in these subjects, either in high school or in college.  Quite likely, the student viewed these math courses as hurdles - something to get past, over, through, or under, to get a decent grade in any way possible - but not as something that would become part of the student's own way of thinking.  My experience is that this approach by students is fairly common among econ majors who implicitly believe, "I'm no good at math."  What is unique here is how forthcoming this student is on the matter.  I haven't seen other comments like this one, which is why it made such an impression on me.

It is highly unusual for me to observe a student while the student is taking math.  Of course, I did that some with my own kids, but I'm going to abstract from that experience entirely.  I still have some scars from my mother tutoring me in French (she was a foreign language teacher) and that was more than 45 years ago.  While I don't think my interactions with my children about their math in high school was nearly as traumatic for them, I'll leave it be rather than make hay with it. 

This summer I have a little window into what its like for the student taking calculus.  I'm mentoring a student who who transferred from being a music major to being an econ major.  He's taking calculus during the eight week summer session.  On occasion I've helped him when he has asked for such assistance.  In advance of his taking the class I told him I was quite good in math and would be happy to talk to him about how the math relates to the economics.  We haven't yet had that sort of conversation, but for a while we had quite a lot of back and forth about how to do specific homework and sample exam questions.  This experience provides me with one source of motivation for writing this post.

Another was a recent solicitation I received from a startup online test preparation company.  They asked me whether I wanted to work for them writing questions for intermediate microeconomics.  Though I should have known better, I responded in a somewhat naive way, indicating I was suspicious of the approach they advocated but showing willingness to talk to them, which I ultimately did.  Their model is to provide supplemental exam questions for students from which they can study and prepare.  Their claim is that students can then learn in a deep way by returning to the principles by which those exam questions are answered.  So their approach relies heavily on the student wanting to do well on the test serving as the primary motivation.  I tried to convince the guy that with this sort of motivation there will be little if anything to take away from the course afterward.  We argued for a while.  We ultimately agreed I should not work for them.  But I was frustrated by that call and wanted to put forth an alternative argument where students are motivated to a significant extent simply by a desire to understand things.

The last bit I'll mention as reason for writing this piece is that I'm almost finished reading Gifts Differing and it makes several points about the relationship between personality type and learning.  NT types (intuitive, thinking) tend to better in school than SF types (sensing, feeling) and personality type is often mistaken for intelligence.  Further, the authors argue it would be best to teach people with different personalities differently, to leverage the strengths of their particular personality, and thus there should be multiple pathways into the same subject matter that serve as alternative approaches.  There is the retort that sometimes school should teach to student weakness, because the subject matter demands that it be taught in a certain way.  I'm an NT and believe that understanding math requires a certain inventiveness in the learner.  But it may be that can only happen after much other learning that appeals to the learners strength - build confidence first and only then work on weakness.  In what follows I will try to hint at how this might be done.

* * * * *

In this section I want to talk about various blockages to learning that exist, some of which I've seen over the years in my econ teaching and some of which are more apparent to me now, from interaction with my mentee.  These blockages must be addressed or we'll never make any real progress. 

1.  Students don't know how to solve a problem, say for homework, based on math they already know.  How to solve a problem is a critical meta skill that should be taught by itself, but where?  Absent that skill students look to plug and chug, but ignore how to select the particular algorithm that is appropriate to analyze the situation with which they are presented.  They go from one assignment to the next without making much if any improvement on learning this meta skill.

2.  Notation becomes a major impediment.  Students can't see through the notation to the underlying ideas.  Because notation is itself so hard, they spend much of their in class time copying down what they instructor has written on the board (or has in a pre-prepared PowerPoint presentation).  They do this as best they can, often making errors because the presentation is too fast and they don't understand what they are copying.   They spend little or no time in class thinking through what it is they are being presented with, presumably to make sense of it all later.  But not understanding the notation itself, they can't make sense of it then.

3.  Perhaps because so much of the rest of their world is like this, particularly their communication with social media, students expect to "get it" almost immediately, from one big gestalt of the situation, or to not be able to get it, ever.  There is a belief that people who are good at this stuff get it and people who aren't good at it don't get it.  There is no sense of a puzzle to be solved sequentially that only gradually reveals the path to get through it over time.   But discovery doesn't typically work this way.  It requires persistence and patience.  So the students with these beliefs impede their chances at making discovery.

4.  Students fear failure.  Actually, everyone fears failure, it's just that some folks have learned to deal with this fear better than others.  Getting started early on a tough task is a mature way of dealing with this fear.  Procrastination, almost certainly more typical, is one way of caving into the fear.

5.  We learn very early in school about the story of the tortoise and the hare - slow and steady wins the race.  But we don't practice what we preach in this regard.  Timed exams, such as for standardized testing, reward being quick.  I learned from Gifts Differing that NT types tend to be quick and on an exam feel they understand what a question is asking after one reading, but SF types tend to be slow and want to read the same question multiple times to make sure they understand it.  If SF types don't give themselves enough time to produce their own understanding, they are short changing themselves.  The system seems to actually encourage that.

6.  Student often don't read through dense stuff where they must struggle to make meaning of what is said.  The payoff from understanding is not apparent at the time.  The pain from the struggle is obvious pretty much immediately.  (This one I know from my own recent teaching, where the dense stuff was written by me, and some of my students told me they breezed through it, doing the assessments that were assigned but otherwise not building their own understanding.)

There is substantial overlap in the items above but there is enough distinction between them to list them separately.  I say this to argue that why students don't learn deeply is a complex matter.  We should not expect a simple solution to be able to address all these issues in one fell swoop.

* * * * *

My mentee is taking calculus at Parkland, the local community college, rather than at the U of I.  He may be doing this because it is cheaper or because he expected it to be easier, all the while knowing that the credits will transfer if he passes the course.  Many students at the U of I take their Gen Eds at a community college in state during the summer.  In this case calculus fits both the Gen Ed requirement for quantitative reasoning and is an Econ department requirement for the major.  So on this score, there is nothing unusual here going on.

I am sure that the instructor of this course has every intention of doing a good job in teaching this class.  But in considering what doing a good job means, I very much doubt that she frames the issues by focusing on the blockages I've described above.   The support of teaching and learning that I refer to in my title has universities in a secondary role.  Instructors, like this one, will remain in the lead.  The question then is how in this supporting role might universities create some positive influence on the course, by addressing some of the learning blockages.  Before getting to that, I'd like to describe the ideal I think we should be after for a student who succeeds in this setting.

Twenty years ago, when I got started with learning technology, there was a lot about a constructivist approach and that the proper role of the instructor was as guide-on-the-side rather than sage-on-the-stage.  More recently, I've heard that the proper role of the instructor is to teach the learner rather than teach the subject.  While on the one hand, I have some sympathy with each of these, on the other hand I don't think either of them go far enough in describing what it is the teacher should do (and what it is students should do).  Below is a paragraph from a post I wrote a few months ago on The virtues in making it up as you go along.  It represents my current thinking on how to come at the question of the proper role of the instructor (and the aspirations the instructor has for the learner). 

Until a few days ago I knew this about me, but I didn't understand why.  Now I have a better idea.  That came from reading this paper by Bruffee (1984), Collaborative Learning and the "Conversation of Mankind."  Let me explain how that came about in a bit. First let me note that Bruffee was a teacher of writing and his piece was meant at the time for others who taught English.  The rest of us, who teach whatever it is that we teach, could learn a thing or two about how to teach our courses better if we first asked, how would a teacher of Writing go about the teaching task in my class?  Only after chewing on that one for a while and coming up with some spark on something new to try should you then ask, now what do I have to do to modify the approach to fit my subject matter?

The student needs to produce narrative.  Eventually that narrative production may only be in the student's head, but until the student is producing narrative regularly it probably needs to be spoken to somebody else who in listening can ask whether the narrative makes sense, and then in other instances where the narrative is written down so can be read by somebody else later and by the student too, with some distance from when the narrative was produced.  With the latter, in particular, the narrative should demonstrate some reflection of the matters at hand, rather than a simple blurting out of the first thought that occurs to the student.  When that first thought is not spot on, which will often be the case, the student must begin to see how the next thought arises as improvement on what came before.  In this way the student can learn from his mistakes.

With respect to homework problems, in particular, the narrative should have several pieces to it.  The first is to determine what the question is asking in the student's own words.   I dare say that many students don't currently do this.  They don't see a need to translate the question into their own words.  This first part should include: this is what I'm supposed to find, these are the data I will use to find the answer, and then a question.  What math that I've already been taught is relevant here for me to find an answer?

The next part of the narrative attempts to answer the question.  There are two bits to this part.  The first bit is trying out various tools, one at a time, to see if that tool works.  An NT type might be able to do this bit immediately.  An SF type might need to be more deliberate here.  Fine. Be deliberate.  But there is also the other bit which might help any type find the right tool quicker.  This is reframing the statement of what it is the student should find.  In other words, the student might step backwards and look at the problem statement again.  Did the student do a good job in restating the problem in his own words?  If not, can he do a better job now?

This possibility of iteration with a backwards step because we were stymied in going forward is a normal part of thinking, but may be perceived as unusual by the student or as indicating to the student that he's not very good at problem restatement.  One does get better at problem restatement with practice.  I don't know much practice a person needs to feel competent about this.  But I do believe that a good part of the instruction should entail giving students such practice.

Having a restated problem with a math tool that fits, the student has arrived at the "chug" part.  Then the narrative describes what chugging through to the solution is like.  This part is what I do in lecture when I work through the math model.  Students should do likewise.  It is the most straightforward part of the narrative, provided that no mistakes are made.  Mistakes are more likely either when the student is careless because he is too hasty or because the tool is new to the student and the student misapplies the tool.  So part of the narrative here has to be on checking the work to make sure there is no error.  If an error is spotted during the check, then another backwards step must be taken to make it right.

The last part of the narrative is first a statement of the conclusion from having solved the problem and second an attempt at tying to the conclusion to anything else the student knows or has learned recently.  Students rarely do this tying to other learning, in my experience, and they may feel it is unnecessary since they already have the solution at hand.  But that feeling is myopic on their part.  If the goal is to internalize the results so the student retains them for later, then this tying to other things is a crucial part.

To a certain extent current math teaching already recognizes the importance of students producing narrative, putting into their own words what the homework is asking the students to do.  This is why these problems are of two types.  One is "grinder questions," where the translation is straightforward, if sometimes arduous.  The other is "word problems" where the translation is more involved.  Alas, many students come to view the word problems as instruments of torture rather than as proper means for the student to elucidate his understanding of the math.  Somehow students think knowing means something other than being able to make a translation.  Anything that universities do to help in this matter must encourage students to believe that translation is how we show our understanding.

* * * * *

Khan academy exists.  There is Khan Academy on trigonometry, differential calculus, and integral calculus.  To my knowledge our community college instructor did not make use of any Khan Academy materials.  She does use Wolfram Alpha, though in my interactions with my mentee that hardly came up. 

A big part of what Khan Academy does is to provide video lectures.  A big part of what our community college instructor does is to provide face to face lectures.  Maybe she should instead provide video lectures so she can flip her classroom.  If so, would the Khan Academy lectures work for that purpose?  And then what would happen in the live classroom?  Would the in class and out of class components of the course align this way?

Here is a video lecture I made recently as a means to demonstrate a more general idea.  It offers up a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.  But that proof is not given on a blackboard nor on a whiteboard.  Instead, it is done via a learning object constructed in Excel.  That object exists separately from the video and can be downloaded for free.

In making that object, it took me about three hours.  There is no recipe for doing this.  Though I've made many other such objects before, it is necessary to conceptualize how the graph will be constructed, then to plot the various line segments, then go back to them and convert those plots to conditionals that will appear only when the push of the button indicates they should.  All of that takes time, even if the basics are well understood ahead of time.  Thus, building such an object is much harder than drawing this sort of thing on a blackboard.

But I believe the object offers an improved experience for the student.  The look is very clean, with little textual content on the screen at any one time.  The geometry does most of the talking that way.  Further, the use of the button emphasizes the sequencing in the thinking.  This is a step by step approach.  There is some notation, certainly.  It is impossible to do math without it.  But the use of notation is spartan.

In contrast to making the object, the making of the video took me about 10 or 15 minutes - after doing the screen capture with my voice over, I wanted to snip the video at the end.  As I was doing this on a Mac, and I've only recently switched to Mac from PC, it took a few minutes how to do this snipping.  For an experienced user, it would be even faster.  With this observation I hope to make it clear that any instructor could make their own movie with their voice annotating working through the steps in this learning object.

We at the university level could build a library of such learning objects, make videos to show how the objects are to used, but encourage others to make their own videos thereafter.

But so far this is a pretty instructor centric change and does little in the way of getting students to work through a narrative of what is going on.  So how about this?   There would be another library created of objects that solve problems.  It would be the student's job to put in the voice over for these objects, either as assignments where all students would provide such voice over, or where one student would voice annotate a particular object, and the other students would view that and offer critique of whether it was well done.  This sort of thing is getting closer to what we're after in our ideal.

* * * * *

Anyone who has taught a college course with learning technology in a subject with a math component knows it isn't that easy.  Let me mention a couple of issues that come up regularly.

One is the leading the horse to water problem.  Will the students watch the video/read the instructor supplied content/do the necessary preparatory work?  Why?  Experience suggests that often they won't unless there is sufficient extrinsic motivation provided to get the students to do this.

The other is whether there will be cheating.  If some student posts the answers to an assessment, will other students come to rely on that rather than work through the problems for themselves?  Here experience suggests that even otherwise honest students are apt to cheat.  If everyone else is doing it, then why not?

The "solution" to these challenges is to pair each bit of content presentation with some assessment done for course credit and then to individualize the content in certain ways so they each student gets their own version of a more general approach, with the answers depending on the particular version the student is working with.

The sequence of content bit followed by assessment, then another content bit followed by another assessment, etc. looks like dialog.   It's now more than 10 years ago where at the request of my friend Steve Acker, who was then an editor at Campus Technology,  I wrote a piece called Dialogic Learning Objects that was an early consideration of these ideas.  In that piece I talked about content surveys, where students responded to questions with short paragraphs that would be collected, reviewed by the instructor, and then discussed in class.

That proved to be clunky and the lags between when the students produced their responses till when we discussed the issues in class were too great.  So I changed the approach to provide immediate auto feedback to the the student who would answer a short question that did have a right answer.  I will provide an example of this sort of thing in a bit.

But first I want to note that these sort of ideas don't emerge in a vacuum.  They follow from previous developments along similar lines.  For me I was first exposed to CyberProf and Mallard, which in turn were heavily influenced by Plato.  Another tool contemporary with CyberProf and Mallard was CAPA, which has since evolved into LON-CAPA and is currently in use at Illinois.  A decade or so later another tool, the Online Line Initiative, was developed at Carnegie-Mellon.  It was designed in the same spirit as these earlier environments, but it leveraged the enthusiasm generated by the Open Courseware Initiative from MIT and that many foundations seemingly wanted to fund similar developments.  This post is being written about another decade after OLI first appeared.

Yet as promising as each of these developments were at the time, the revolution in learning that they portended did not happen, though instructors who developed content in these environments came to rely on them and, in general, students who were in these classes benefited from the online approach.  There are several reasons why these developments were at best an interlude rather than a permanent radical change in the way students learn.  One is that the developers of these environments were few and far between.  After those developers had their fill of the project and then some, so they moved onto something else, the projects became static and ultimately reached end of life.  Another reason is that it was comparatively difficult to support these environments, so while they did emerge at other campuses than where they were originally developed, that diffusion was slow and not very widespread.  A third reason is that authoring content in these environments was not easy.  A learning curve had to be traversed to become proficient in the content authoring.

The current crop of learning management systems on the market are more robust in these dimensions.  Alas, the toolsets in these LMS are inadequate to produce really interactive content that has sufficiently rich assessment as part of the interactivity.  While there are other question types than multiple choice in the LMS quiz engines, they really aren't much more sophisticated than that.  You can get something of a dialogic effect by embedding video of micro lectures within an LMS quiz question that relates to the video, but you can't really put the students through their paces this way.  I believe the same thing can be said for the quiz engines for MOOCs, though I have no direct experience with those (and in truth am not current with contemporary LMS with the exception of Moodle).

My example is for the elements of supply and demand.  It was made in Excel.  I originally constructed it for a principles of economics class I taught in 2006.  If memory serves, it took about a month to make.  So on the authoring side of things, it certainly isn't easy to make these dialogic presentations.  I now have a bunch of different sorts of these things for the current course I teach and I've learned to speed up the construction of these things by lessening some of the design requirements and using some tricks I've acquired since.  But it is still arduous to make one of these and I don't want to represent that otherwise.

Further, my example is somewhat clunky.  To illustrate, if you are on the login worksheet on a Mac, the pulldown menus don't show all the items.  You have to enter an item incorrectly to access the rest of the pulldown menu which then shows the correct item.  Then, on the subsequent three worksheets, the window is divided into two panes by a horizontal divider.  The idea is for the student to put his cursor in the lower pane and leave the upper pane alone, except for some manipulations of the graph, until instructed to do otherwise (by clicking the link that changes the graph).  So the student does work in the lower pane and scrolls down there after answering a question correctly and then proceeds to the subsequent discussion and the next question that follows.  If the student mistakenly has the cursor in the upper pane, that will move instead, momentarily confusing the student.

The clunkiness notwithstanding, this is the sort of content we should want, in my opinion.  It engages the student.  The students don't produce the full narrative on their own, but in answering the questions they become part of the construction of that narrative.  Further, if the student gets a particular question wrong there is immediate feedback to that effect and some suggestion offered for why the answer is not right.  This way the student can begin to see what is really going on.  I will add that the presentation constructs all the sophisticated economic ideas from fundamental concepts and on the third worksheet entitled Trade it does something I wish more presentations of content would do.  Namely, it does it wrong first, works through why that is the wrong path, and only then presents a right path.  It does this by considering a matching process of buyers and sellers that is not stable and leads to trade at many different prices, even though what is being traded is a homogenous product.  Competitive markets should not sustain such price variation.  The exercise works through why and in so doing it shows that matching process is not stable.  This motivates a look at a different matching process that is stable and produces competitive equilibrium pricing.  While the underlying math is quite straightforward throughout the entire workbook and no student should find that challenging, conceptually the arguments being put forth about the economics are fairly sophisticated.  This is especially true on the last few worksheets.

* * * * * 

Much of what universities could do is to produce libraries of reasonably high quality modular content that instructors at community colleges and in high schools could repurpose for their own use in their classes.  So the big issue is what it would take to generate rich libraries of this sort.  Some ideas on this follow, but first let me say a word or two about algebraic content, since heretofore my focus has been on graphical/geometric content.

I have found a reasonably functional way to produce algebraic content for presentation that gets at the issue of it not being too dense for students to slug through and is not all that hard to produce in PowerPoint.  It is illustrated in this presentation on the Shapiro-Stiglitz Model, for example by going to the 5 minute mark and looking at the slide on the Review of Exponential Distribution.  One line of the slide is highlighted and is in black font.  Previous lines are available so the student can see how the current line derives from what came earlier.  But those previous lines are in a pale gray so the eye is not drawn to them.  In making the presentation one makes multiple versions of the same slide.  For lines not yet shown, those are in white font, which merges with the background so appear invisible.  There are as many versions of the slide as there are lines of math on it.  Each line is produced using the equation editor, which I found tolerable for this purpose.

Providing auto-feedback on students doing algebra is a harder nut to crack.  What I do makes sense for me where the students use algebra to do the economics, but presumably they've already learned the algebra somewhere else.  I have students produce formulas in Excel where I tell them (quite often) to build those formulas based on cell references, where the specific cells have the parameter values on which the formulas are based.  I can give auto-feedback on whether their formula produces the correct value.  Indirectly this gives them feedback on whether their algebra is right. I suspect this approach is not good enough for learning the algebra the first time through.  Then hand writing out the algebra may be necessary, in which case what the students produces needs to be evaluated by a human (the teacher or a grader assigned to the teacher).  But perhaps even algebra teachers could make use of some auto-grading of the sort I've mentioned, to give the students more things to work on while keeping the grading chore manageable.

Let's move onto how libraries of reasonably good content might come into being.  As I've tried to argue, there is an issue of what container that content would be in and how one would assure the container is durable.  Yet I don't believe that is the key issue.  Ego is the main problem.

The sort of content we want is time consuming to author.  If there is to be a substantial volume, there must be many authors, with each author producing a comparatively small share of the total.  We need an approach where many authors each do their part but none contribute the lion's share.

Before writing this piece I had in mind to take the commercial approach to textbook production to task.  Publishers make their money from selling the textbooks and therefore want star authors for their texts.  They are paid by royalties.  But the folks who write the ancillary materials, and the content I've been talking about here would fit in that category, are paid a flat fee, given little to no attribution, and thus have no vested interest in authoring bang up stuff.  So it was my view that the underlying commercial model is incompatible with what I was after.

But in looking at the open alternatives that are out there, I started to realize there are issues with those too.  They brand either the author, or the institution, or a combination of the two.  That branding means the content is not really produced with an eye toward re-usability.  It is produced to be used as is.  That impedes re-use, for example by the community college instructor from whom my mentee is taking calculus.

We need unbranded content, lots of it, and of good quality.  Is there a model of this sort of content production for teaching and learning?  The closest that comes to mind is Wikipedia.  I did a Google search on why people contribute to Wikipedia and found this paper, by Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman.  I've only skimmed through it, but I gather at heart is the question of community and what it means to be publicly spirited well functioning member of the community.  Such community members make contributions in an ego-less way.

That is what is needed here.  It is insufficient that the content produced be freely available to users.  That content must also contain no mark of authorship nor of the institution that employed the author.  I have seen a lot written about open educational content.  I haven't seen much at all about ego-less content.  I hope the issue gets much more attention in the near future.

Let me make one more point, which is about quality assurance.  There are now many forms of community rating online.  Amazon does it.  IMDB does it.  YouTube and Facebook have simpler schemes with their Like buttons.  The point is that user feedback helps in quality assurance in a way that is compatible with ego-less authoring.  Author reputation as a way to signify quality is not necessary, where it previously might have been essential. 

* * * * *

In this last section I want to take up the question of whether universities might contribute personnel in addition to the materiel that I've already suggested they should contribute.   Here is a brief anecdote to initiate the discussion.

In doing a little background reading on whether MOOCs were already playing the role I've envisioned for open content here, I did a Google search on Udacity's partnership with the Cal State System.  There was quite a to do about that a couple of years ago.  I was aware of it at the time but then I lost track of it.  This piece from the Los Angeles Times reflects the sentiments of the faculty at San Jose State then. As I was reading through it I found an ad for Cardinal Scholars and that quickly captured my attention, after which I forgot about MOOCs.  It turns out that this is a commercial online tutoring and test prep service, with the tutors current students at Stanford.

I wondered if this company has a viable business model and what the demand for this service is.  Will low income college students pay for tutoring when they need to pass a course they find difficult?  Or in this market is it only those students from families that are reasonably comfortable who opt for tutoring, because only they can afford it?

I also wondered whether the one-on-one aspect of the tutoring is critical.  A few years back I started a site called Ask The Prof, where students could pose questions via a Google Form, and then I'd respond at the site.  This was asynchronous response with some lag between when they'd post and I would respond.  The flow of questions to that site never was very great and now it is essentially nil.  Would I have gotten a greater response if students were allowed to schedule a synchronous one-on-one session with me?

And then there is how Cardinal Scholars is marketed.  The only way students can become aware of Ask The Prof is by viewing one of my profarvan videos in YouTube and reading the description there, which provides a link to Ask The Prof.  This clearly limits the potential audience for the site.  Would a more aggressive and strategic marketing approach matter by generating a much larger audience for the service?

Without knowing the answers to any of these questions, let me assume here that Cardinal Scholars is a viable enterprise from a business perspective.  Should we want a free to the student alternative tutoring service, provided by other (perhaps only public) universities, where the tutors do this as a service learning activity for course credit?   The justification for such a service, presumably, would be to make it accessible to all students and hold down the cost of attending college.  Would this be a good thing?

I can see both pros and cons here.  On the plus side, it may be that given the power relationship between the instructor who grades the student, that the student is more comfortable getting help from someone other than the instructor, with that someone known to be competent in the subject but otherwise not involved in the grading part of the course.  On the minus side, it may be that the instructor in the course is the best person to provide help to the student (say during office hours) but can't afford the flexibility of meeting the student's schedule, because the instructor is too busy teaching other students.  In this case tutoring can be seen as a way to dilute the instructor quality and what really should happen instead is that the instructor should teach fewer classes or have fewer students in each class she does teach, so she can give each student the individual attention the student needs.

Given this uncertainty, it would seem to me that some experimentation might be done to learn whether a free tutoring service would be a good thing.  In the meantime, my fear here is that various commercial endeavors will test these waters more quickly.  If any of them get a toehold, that may then subsequently block a free alternative offering, to the detriment of many learners and to the dismay of those who want to make college accessible to all, irrespective of the student's family income.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  This essay is way too long for a single blog post.  I probably should have written it as a series of posts instead.  But I felt all the various sections of the piece needed to be considered in one place.  Universities should take some leadership and shoulder some responsibility in how education occurs elsewhere.  How they best can do this is open to debate.  The reader who has slugged all the way through to the end, may not agree with much that I've said.  I do not expect such agreement.  I hope, however, that this reader understands my perspective on these matters and that the piece was sufficiently provocative for the reader to think through these issues further for himself or herself.