Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Complaint about the Facebook Notes Tool - A repost of a Status Update

The last post I wrote - Untutored Big Hitters - was composed using the Facebook Notes editor.  It is a pretty crappy writing tool because it is not WYSIWYG about the line spacing.  A single return produces a line space in the actual note but no line space in the editor.  It is very hard to proofread without enough white space for the text - so you go back and forth between editor mode and preview mode while proofreading.  That is a pain. 

As I posted in a Status Update yesterday, the instructions for how to report a bug in Facebook don't seem to actually work.  You click the little triangle, but there is no item to report the problem.  So I'm going to repost this Status Update on my blog and hope that somebody who works at Facebook actually reads it and then forwards it to the right people.

The Notes tool used to accommodate some html.  Now it doesn't.  It is not good now.  If it doesn't get fixed soon, this is the sort of thing that would drive me to make Google+ my primary tool.  I've got friends in Facebook and it is easier to communicate with them via the Notes tool.  But if the tool is sub par, that becomes too much of a burden. 

Untutored Big Hitters...

...In Golf And In Life

I watched a good bit of the coverage of the Masters Golf Tournament last week.  It was entertaining.  Bubba Watson, the winner of The Green Jacket, is a fascinating character, in part because his drives go for so much distance, whether in baseball or in golf the long ball is captivating, in part because he is self-taught and his swing is unorthodox though quite effective, and in part because he wears his emotions on his sleeve.  Most other professional golfers try hard to be inscrutable.  Bottling up the emotional side is necessary for that. Bubba Watson's demeanor is unlike most other pro golfers.  He is much more what you see is what you get.

One of the surprises for me in all the commentary abut the Masters that I heard on TV and in what I read online is that there was no mention of John Daly.  To me, Daly's story is similar to Watson's.  Both came to the fore as players who could outdrive the field.  Both developed driving styles that were unorthodox and they were self-taught in doing so.  Ultimately it is the relationship between the self-teaching and the prodigious driving that I want to focus on.  Both learned to also have good touch around the green, which in combination with the driving made them formidable competitors.  Both now have two major championships to their credit.  Both also demonstrate their inner demons publicly on occasion in a way most other players never do.  Both also rose from rather humble backgrounds and that may very well have contributed to their later development.

Of course there are differences too. Watson is tall and lean.  Daly in his prime was average height and chunky - keeping his weight under control was a constant battle.  Watson is now quite a family man.  Daly has been married multiple times and is currently unmarried.  These differences notwithstanding, to me it seems these players are of a type.  Let me consider now a third ball player who seems to be of the same type, though he was far more successful than Watson or Daly.  I'm talking about Babe Ruth.  The following is from a piece I wrote in 2005, a few months after I had started to blog.

A little side story. Not too long ago I read Robert Cramer's biography of Babe Ruth. Cramer cites Ty Cobb on how Ruth learned his swing. Since Ruth started as a pitcher, nobody coached him on his hitting. He therefore learned to hit in an uninhibited way. Since "small ball" was the approach to baseball at that time, if Ruth had started as an outfielder he would through coaching have been forced to learn a more compact swing and would have never become the prodigious home run hitter and savior of baseball. I'll get to the relevance of this story in a bit.

So it would seem that while most players in sports benefit from having a lot of coaching, there are a handful of big hitters who were better off developing on their own.  I'd like to see if I can get at why that is.  Then I'd like to translate that story into settings other than professional sports.

I will take as my starting point this essay by Ericsson et. al. on developing expertise.  http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/blogs/freakonomics/pdf/DeliberatePractice%28PsychologicalReview%29.pdf.  The key, according to these authors, is a regime of "deliberate practice" where at each step the individual tries to do something just out of reach.  This is the immediate challenge.  As the person practices performance improves and eventually the challenge is met.  When that happens a new challenge is needed and when that is found the cycle repeats.

Most of us don't become experts in areas that at one time we were interested in.  The reasons are multiple.  One is fear of not being able to rise to the next challenge.  Another is getting bored with practice so not putting in enough time to master the current step.  A third might be what is called the Goldilocks problem.  How big should the next step be, in what direction should it be taken, and what criteria determine that? Too small a step or a step in too familiar a direction and the person will feel unchallenged and get bored.  Too large a step or a step in a too alien a direction and the person will become frightened by the likelihood of failing.  What is required is a step that is just right right.  How is that step found?

Two possible answers to that question are: (1) by coaching and (2) by self-experimentation.  The coach is himself an expert who matches the orthodoxy of the sport (or perhaps his idiosyncratic view of that orthodoxy) to the talents of the player and the player's current performance level.  The matching process then generates the next step, with the thought in mind that following a sequence of such steps will bring the player to the top of the profession and demonstrate excellence in accordance to the orthodoxy.  Self-experimentation is different.  The player develops an intuition for the next step to try and goes with that intuition on what to practice.  The intuition, in turn, is part of an inventive process.  It is based on enormous self-knowledge but it is less dependent on the current orthodoxy.  Bubba Watson's initial stance and footwork through the golf swing, for example, are completely non-standard (though one commentator I read mentioned that they are something like what Jack Nicklaus used to do).  Yet his method works for him, very well.  He wouldn't have found it via coaching.  He had to try it on his own, see what results he got from it, and then tweak it till it was quite effective.

The coaching approach is more likely to produce progress that ultimately results in expertise.  Self-experimentation will generate more failure along the way and thus likely be slower.  But once in a while it will produce surprisingly good results.  Thus someone who is talented and persists in a regime of self-experimentation is more likely to produce outlier great performance than would his counterpart who relies on a coach.

There is another piece to the puzzle, I believe. This has to do with live performance, not practice, and what approach the player is most comfortable with when, "the pressure is on."  Most of us choke in such circumstance.  The pressure gets to us.  But some of us can stay in the moment and continue to perform at a very high level.  What allows the person to do that?  On this, the following quote from Jordan Spieth, Watson's playing partner in the final round of the Masters, who ultimately tied for second for second place is quite revealing (the source is here http://espn.go.com/golf/masters14/story/_/id/10785511/2014-masters-jordan-spieth-says-sting-loss-last-awhile):

"In the long run, it's probably better that it worked out that way than if I pulled it off, because now I'll sit back and look at it and realize you just have to stick to that original game plan out there and you can't get greedy, and that's what I did just on that one swing."

In other words, Spieth represents one view of high-level performance - have a good script at the outset and then stay on script.  Don't improvise. Elsewhere in the linked piece Spieth said that while he had a bit of nerves, he was mainly calm out there.  The staying on script approach goes hand in hand with somebody who can remain calm under pressure.

Bubba Watson's personality is the diametrical opposite of Spieth's.  Jim Nantz referred to Watson as a creative golfing genius, meaning he was constantly improvising on the golf course.  But Nantz also referred to Watson's soft underbelly - he can get fidgety and lose his concentration.  One might conjecture that Watson is an ADHD type and the creativity becomes a way for him to manage that.  Staying on script would produce horrible results for Watson, because he'd soon stop paying attention and his performance would suffer.

ADHD may not be the only driver for why others like to improvise in the live moment, but then I believe feeling a sense of boredom from staying on script has to be at least part of the reason.  In any event, I believe it a reasonable conjecture that there is a strong relationship between the preferred method of live performance and the way performers prefer to engage in deliberate practice.  Those who like to stay on script in the clutch opt for coaching with deliberate practice.  Those who want to improvise under pressure opt for self-experimentation.

Now let's segue from sports to medicine.  This essay by Atul Gawande called the Bell Curve is one of my favorites.  http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/12/06/041206fa_fact?currentPage=all.  It is about treating cystic fibrosis, where a good chunk of the issue is whether the patient sticks to the regime of treatment through thick or thin.  Many do not, because the treatment is arduous, so the patients cut corners, ultimately to the detriment of their own health.  The doctor who has achieved the best results on treatment, by far, is Warren Warwick.  He improvises a great deal and is quite aggressive about it!  Others go more by established best practice.

When you first think about improvisation you probably think about Jazz or off Broadway Theater. I don't know how to tell who the big hitters are in those environments.  But there is a myth, which surely has some basis in fact, that many of the star performers live (or lived) life on the edge, particularly in regard to alcohol and drug use.  This need for extremity outside the performance setting seems to be correlate with the personality that craves improvisation.  Billie Holiday and John Belushi are two names that exemplify this view.  One wonders if that edgy feeling can be generated but in a more healthful way.  Recently I've become taken with the music of Melody Gardot.  Her story is quite unusual, to say the least.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melody_Gardot.  She is committed now to using music to improve the health of others.  If she can do that and continue to be a big hitter with her compositions and her performances, maybe it will point a way to finding this more healthful alternative.

Perhaps then, all of us amateurs who play at improvisation can become big hitters.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Personal Transformation for Average Students - A Hypothetical

Can average students be remade into deep learners through a regime that aims to alter their habits of mind, in addition to teaching them specific subject matter?  I submit that we don't know the answer to this question.  The hypothetical presented in what follows is meant not so much as a program to jump into (since it is highly idiosyncratic to me - my strengths, my competencies, and my views about teaching) as it is intended to provoke others to ask what like programs might be done to get at an answer to this question. 

Before going further, let's suppose that we learn the answer to the question is yes, it can be done, but the costs are quite high to achieve that end.  The following question then becomes operative.  Whose call is it to make whether to incur those costs or not?  I will give an idealistic answer here, based on the current University of Illinois Strategic Plan.  Goal two is to provide transformative learning experiences.  That should be for all students.  Then, in the Principles part of the plan, there are multiple lines about keeping tuition from exploding.  Taken together this means that either taxpayers or donors have to want to incur these costs, so indirectly it is their call, one that the rest of the community embraces.  In the rest of this piece, I'm going to assume that support will be forthcoming.  Otherwise, why stir up trouble with this sort of investigation?

There is a puzzle to be solved by any successful intervention.  Deep learners are largely self-directed in their learning, even when taking classes.  The instructor may provide launch points, via the choice of readings, topics emphasized in lecture, and the assignments given.  The student is grateful for being provided with them and considers all of these.  But then the baton passes to the student who explores the subject in the student's own manner, who makes up further questions to be answered as early ideas are discovered, and who is largely unconcerned with grades in the entire process.  The inquiry itself is its own reward.  Average students are much more externally directed, will do what they think they are being told but not venture beyond that, and are extraordinarily concerned with grades as passport to whatever good things come after school. The puzzle is how via external direction average students can be encouraged to be internally directed about their own learning.

I have a better sense of what won't work than what will, based on my teaching experience.  Since the mid 1990s I have tried many different interventions at the course level aimed at getting students to learn better.  Sometimes these have had positive effect that were evident to me.  Yet none, taken individually or in combination, have led to the type of personal transformation I asked about in the opening question.  None of the interventions have been sufficiently intensive to achieve that.

It is pretty easy to understand why.  Students are taking on average four other courses.  If those other courses encourage the student to act in an externally directed manner that is a much larger force in favor of stasis.  Further, since now I teach upper level courses rather than freshman classes, the students have had substantial reinforcement for an externally directly approach before I get to see them in my class.  Much of the behavior I witness in my students comes from habits developed in taking these earlier courses.

This suggests what is needed is a substantial curricular innovation that happens quite early in the students' college experience. I experienced the requisite intensity twice as a student.

The first time was a six weeks math summer program at Hampshire College that I attended between my junior and senior years in high school.  My recollection of the experience is imperfect but it went something like this.  We had three hours of class each morning.  For the first four weeks (out of six) I was in a class on number theory and group theory taught by Marty Arkowitz.  We were given rather extensive homework to do each day.  After lunch there was time either for R&R, for me that mainly meant playing tennis, or for working on the homework.  At 5:17 (1717 in military time, the number 17 figured prominently as a symbol of our nerd behavior) there was a theorem given for the entire program by the director, David C. Kelley.  After dinner there was a regular volleyball game, some socializing, and possibly more work on homework.  That was Monday - Friday.  On the weekends there were often field trips.  I recall one to Tanglewood that was delightful and another one, hiking in the Berkshires, that I found rather dreadful.  If memory serves we also saw a Red Sox game on a different weekend.

A few years back Kelley made an inquiry to alums from the program about the impact the experience had.  I wrote a long missive back.  The following is an excerpt from that which shows that in spite of the intensity, the program in itself was not personally transformative.

My take aways from that at this point are first some factoids - a linkage between Mersenne Primes and Perfect Numbers, though I'd have to look it up to recall the exact relation - 945 is the smallest odd abundant number - and some stuff about Cosets. The larger lessons were two. There were students who were much brighter than I was or much further along than I was at approximately the same age, a very useful thing to discover early on in life. In addition to Paul, Marcia and Henry were in this category. One day I recall Henry doing a proof of his own result in the front of the room. I had no clue what he was talking about. (Along with the intelligence there was the ego part of this and Hampshire was my first experience of ego battles by bright students showing off.) The other lesson was that things could get hard and that I needed some mechanism of ratcheting up my own thinking to manage that. I didn't have it at Hampshire. I developed something of that sort as a junior in College, but not completely then. More of that happened in grad school. In Marty's group I believe the first two weeks or so went reasonably well for me but then I sort of hit a wall and I didn't know what to do about it. I floundered in his group after that.

This issue of "a student hitting a wall" and what to do about it is a big one.  Any limited duration program that is intensive will have to squarely confront the issue. 

The other experience was my first year in graduate school at Northwestern.  The doctoral program in economics was quite intensive.  This time I experienced personal transformation.  But many of my classmates did not and the experience for them was quite brutal.  Indeed, Robert Eisner's macroeconomics class the very first quarter bore some similarity to Kingsfield's contract law class in The Paper Chase.  Aside from many of my classmates hitting a wall intellectually, it turned out there was inadequate funding to support us all on fellowship the second year.  I initially thought my fellowship was guaranteed as long as I was a student in good standing.  Apparently not.  The scarce funding led to competition among the students that increased the brutality of that first year and in my mind did nothing to contribute to the learning.

Undergraduate Engineering education has a reputation for being brutal in this sense.  Many students wash out.  At Illinois, those students are fortunate to be able to transfer to other colleges on campus.  A survival of the fittest approach might produce personal transformation in a few of the middle tier economics students, but at what sort of batting average?  And then what of the students who wash out?

I have also experienced this sort of intensity in an adult education context both as an attendee, The Frye Leadership Institute (now Leading Change Institute), and as a provider, Faculty Summer Institute where I was the Head Facilitator for the first ten years, and in the Educause Institute - Learning Technology Leadership Program where I was one of the faculty for three years. These were different to my student experiences in several respects.  The attendees were mid career professionals, so much more rooted in their work. The duration was less, not quite a fortnight in the case of Frye, a work week in the case of FSI and LTL.  And essentially all the work done outside of plenary session was in groups.  Further, in LTL in particular, there was monitoring of the group work by the faculty so nobody would go over the deep end.  I have a sense that these experiences were largely successful (I wrote about the first LTL experience voicing that opinion) with the impact as much emotional as intellectual, maybe more so.

In the program I suggest below there is a hybrid design based on these experiences and on what I've learned from my teaching.

* * * * *

Two issues need to be addressed before getting to the program itself.  I want to take those seriously here.  A third issue arises that I will simply wave my hands at, but mention here so it is understood that with any real intervention this issue will have to be dealt with seriously as well.

The first is how to identify the students.  Intensive interventions typically appeal to elite students, but they are not the intended audience.  We're looking for average students who don't know they should be seeking personal transformation in college but are not a priori negatively disposed to the idea when it is brought to their attention.  It is hard to envision a non-coercive way to select those students who are negatively disposed.  For those who are already positively disposed to the idea, one expects that they are the better students who don't require this sort of intervention.   The ones in neutral who are invited to participate will need some sort of inducement.  That may create its own selection bias.  C'est la vie.  Purely random selection violates human subject protocols.

The second issue is when the intervention should occur.  Candidates are a summer intervention, perhaps between the senior year in high school and the first semester of college, or during the first semester in college, when the intervention would have to substitute for the talking of regular classes.  An add on in addition to regular classes during that first semester couldn't possibly be intensive enough.  A summer intervention might ultimately prove desirable and popular, especially if the various experiments that this post is supposed to engender generate positive results.  But in the experimental phase it might be perceived as a cost add to attending students and their families. (Whether it is or not depends ultimately on the time to degree.  If the students can cut off a semester during their senior year because of that leading summer, then there really wouldn't be a cost add.  Yet who will know this in advance?)  For this reason, the envisioned program is taken to happen in the fall semester of the first year.

The third issue is how to go from a collection of courses taught in that first semester to a single program that is perceived holistically and what institutional barriers must be broken through to attain that goal.  One conception would be a set of Discovery classes that the students would take in lock step and where the instructors had done substantial coordination via pre-planning and subsequent activities that entailed all of them ensemble.  This conception speaks to the expense of the intervention.  It also suggests the actual program would emerge from an extended negotiation by these instructors, the outcome of which is hard to anticipate in advance.  An alternative is for a single instructor to teach all of these courses, but to fewer students so as to keep the effort from being too overwhelming.  That instructor must then have a vision of what the program would be like.  On the bureaucratic side, permission would have to be granted by the departments who normally offer these courses when, as typically would be the case, that solo instructor is not a department member. The permission would assert that this program is indeed a worthy substitute for the offered course so students should receive credit for it.  As I said, here I'm just going to wave my hands about this issue.

The program I have in mind entails four real courses and one fictitious course, which I will explain momentarily.  The four courses are: (1) principles of microeconomics, (2) calculus of a single variable, (3) the first required writing course, and (4) learning and memory.  Of these, the first three are general education courses.  The fourth is offered as a mid level psychology course.  It's inclusion here is to make the students study their own learning and do so part and parcel with everything else they are studying.  The fictitious course I'll call Intervention.  It is there for two reasons. First, each of the listed real courses carries 3 credit hours and I want the program to be 16 credit hours, to convey the requisite intensity.  The program will meet two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch Monday through Thursday.  With a little arithmetic, one can see we need an additional four credit hours and the fictitious course supplies that.  Also, credit in Intervention will be given only to students in this program.  So it can be used as an identifier in the student transcript when comparing subsequent performance with other like students who have not had Intervention.  That would provide one sort of metric on whether the program was successful.

My certified expertise is in economics and my undergraduate degree is in math.  I have taught principles of microeconomics before and I believe the undergraduate degree sufficient to claim expertise for teaching calculus.  But I've never taken a psychology class and I stopped taking English after my senior year in high school.  I have acquired knowledge in these areas mainly since I became interested in learning technology.  That began in 1995 after I had been at Illinois for fifteen years by then. Both subjects remain as ongoing areas of interest even now.  I believe I would do better in teaching writing and learning to my students than I would do in teaching math and economics, because I would take a "natural approach" to the former based on my own self-discovery, while I'm prone to take a more formal approach to the latter given the disciplinary training I've had.  My recent teaching suggests this.  It is how others should consider a program such as this.  If other research faculty after reading this piece find they are inclined to try a similar program, they likely will encounter the same sort of issue.  I would encourage such efforts though, as I said above, the bureaucracy likely would hold them back. 

The aim would be to have 4 or 5 students in the program.  By my count, that would produce either 64 or 80 "instructional units" (IUs are the product of credit hours and number of students enrolled) and therefore be comparable in production to my teaching last fall where I had 23 students and produced 70 IUs (one student was a grad, which counts for 4 credit hours instead of 3).  The reason for this sizing, apart from not over taxing me as the instructor, is the need to monitor each student on a daily basis for how the student is doing - whether insufficiently stimulated or hitting a wall or more or less properly engaged.  While the goal is to keep the group in lock step, there is also a need to coach at the individual level to get the student to rise and meet the next challenge.  This is what will generate the intensity.  It simply can't be done with large numbers of students.

Students would get credit for the program as long as they demonstrated sufficient effort.  This would translate into a satisfactory grade for each of the component courses.  There would be no letter grades.  The idea here is to explicitly lessen the impact of extrinsic motivation and get the students to see what it feels like when they get intense feedback from the instructor but no letter grade.  Ultimately the goal will be for the students to provide the feedback for themselves about their own performance as part of being self-directed in their learning.  Let them first see what feedback feels like when it comes from an interested outsider.  There is also an aspect of insurance to this approach.  The experiment with this program might fail completely.  In this case the students will remain externally directed thereafter and will pursue their studies accordingly.  The students should be held harmless grade-wise if this is the outcome, as long as they have put in solid effort during the program.

Students would be recruited for the program from among those who have been admitted as econ majors or are undeclared in their major but have indicated an interest in economics.  Among this population one wants students who haven't already placed out of the required courses that are part of the program.  One also wants middle students.  If one arrayed this entire population by standardized test scores, for example, one would want to recruit from the middle two quartiles.

The obvious carrot offered in such recruiting is the high degree of interaction with the instructor that results from having only 5 students.  The obvious stick is that these students will be expected to work quite hard and be under substantial scrutiny to ensure that outcome.  Students who will be living away from home for the first time may very well not want that scrutiny and prefer the freedom to decide their own academic commitment for themselves.  There may also be indirect penalties from participating in the program.  For example, many econ majors are business major wannabes.  Transferring into the College of Business is a difficult thing and typically require very good grades during the first year.   With the program offering no grades whatsoever, that may make these students look less attractive than their peers who did well in regular courses.  Potential recruits need to be made aware of these sort of issues ahead of time.

The students who do apply for the program should do so knowing the program description and understanding both the upside and the downside.  It is hoped that this would generate at least 5 applicants.  (I believe there are around 225 new Econ majors each year.)  Assuming there were more applicants than that other criteria would need to be used to select the 5 who get admitted to the program.  One idea would be for the students to appear academically similar in their preparation.  So if there were several applicants near the 50th percentile and one or two near the 70th percentile the former would be preferred.  This would facilitate keeping the class in lock step.  Given that, diversity of the students in their backgrounds would also be a plus.  For example, I'd prefer to have two students of one gender and three of the other to either four-one or five-zero. 

* * * * *

In this section of the essay I'd like to talk about the habits/ways-of-going-about-things we'd like to see cultivated in the students and the methods by which that might be achieved.

Normally, I abhor lists but here I think it useful to organize ideas. So I will list the big picture goals that I envision.

  • Personal Commitment - When I started the graduate program at Northwestern I told myself I'd give it my all for one quarter before beginning to ask myself whether I like studying economics and is doing so suitable for me.  Before the end of that quarter I was already hooked on the economics and understood that an intensive effort on my part was the only way I'd learn economics deeply.  The undergrads in this program must make a similar promise, both to themselves and to the program.  They must not question the effort level if the work is do-able given the effort level.  They may reasonably question assigned work that is over their head even when putting in maximum effort or for which the volume required is clearly excessive.  Alas, the only way to determine the latter is for the students to monitor their own time input and such monitoring can preclude engagement.  So the hope is to encourage the commitment via carrots and making the initial experience enjoyable.  This speaks to the next point.
  • Intellectual Play - Much of the ensemble time needs to be spent on generating questions and then using discovery methods into providing tentative answers.  Generating questions is fun.  Going on an exploration is fun.  Trying out possibilities is fun.  Guessing at which possibilities to try first is more fun.  The students are econ majors.  Why?  Is there anything about how the world works that they don't currently understand but would like to know?  Why?  How might they go about knowing it?  Do they have some dreams of how that would happen?  What would get the students to open up and talk about those dreams?  Play needs a climate of trust.  The students need to become unguarded during the ensemble time.  The early part of the program must be devoted to creating the right sort of environment.
  • The Reading Habit - Students must learn to read a lot, to read for meaning, and to read not just what is assigned but enough other things so they have a good picture of the ideas they are reading about.  They must be able to take well written pieces aimed at a general audience and reconcile the message in those pieces with their own world view.  Reading is not just getting what the author says but also testing whether what the author says is something the reader agrees with or not.  What things are used for corroboration and what other things are used to dispute the author's point?  These things must be found, either in what the student already knows or in something the student discovers.
  • Getting Unstuck/Being Bothered Intellectually - Learning entails a lot of stumbles: misconceptions may precede good understanding, having no idea whatsoever on how to address a question, or making a foolish mistake and then basing subsequent ideas on that shaky foundation.  The emotional response to such situations is equally as important as the intellectual one.  Students must learn how to deal with their emotions when all is not flowing well.  The initial response might well be panic, because there is an inappropriate expectation that all will be done quickly.  The real issue is to produce a mature response thereafter.  Does the student understand the question being asked?  Is there a way to frame the same question differently so the student might make some progress on it?   Can the student let go of this and get onto something else?  Letting go should be very hard.  Students should learn to feel they have it in them to answer the question and also feel it imperative to do so.
  • Drill Down and Seeing the Forest - Sometimes there is one correct way at looking at things.  But other times, and specifically in considering social science issues many of the times are these other times, the same issue needs to be considered in excruciating detail, on the one hand, and then again at the 60,000 foot level, where it is aggregated in with a bunch of related issues.  Students need to be able to do both.  When drilling down they need to understand why the detail is interesting and they need to have a feel for what questions to ask that might reveal interesting detail to look at.  They also need to understand the big picture and how the piece they've been focusing on fits.  The zooming in and zooming out are both necessary and reflects a more mature understanding than can be achieved by only one or the other. 
  • Making Formative Ideas Overt - Let's first consider writing.  Many students operate under the impression that thinking happens first, over here, and then the results are written up afterward, over there.  They are unaware of the power of writing to learn, where writing itself is used as the means to explore the ideas further.  This blog post, long as it is, provides an example.  The ideas are formative and surely could stand improvement.  The piece suggests where my thinking is now, not where it will eventually end up, after getting the reaction of others and some reconsideration on my own.  Students may be more used to the idea that formative ideas are expressed in discussion with others, but many classes may not encourage that sort of conversation and students might not find intellectual discussion outside a course setting.  In this program they will get a lot of it.  One hope is for them to become comfortable with a sense that their early ideas are unlike their more mature ideas.  If they are to become self-directed in their learning, a good bit of that is to want to see their ideas grow (and then have some means for doing so).  
This list of goals probably could be made longer but it is enough for this piece.  Let's proceed to a discussion of means.  The semester would be divided into thirds, about 5 weeks per.  In the first week or two the important things would be to establish a productive routine, get the students to become comfortable with that and with one another, and for them to being to establish a sense of competence in doing the work.  Much of the work would entail the making of objects - essays, presentations in PowerPoint with voice over, Excelets - Excel worksheets with numerically animated graphs to illustrate the math and the economic theory, and possibly other objects as well.  The making of the objects would be one chunk of the out of class work.  Another chunk would be a review and critique of the objects made by the others in the class.  While I'd expect me as instructor to review all the objects, students might review some subset of objects in a way that each student got such a review, ensuring that students got meaningful feedback on their work and from more than one source. The last chunk of out of class work would be reading. Readings would be selected broadly, not just from textbooks, some from contemporary periodicals, others that are well known pieces but are more dated.  The hope is that students would find much of the reading compelling, an eye opener, and make them eager for more.

In class time would prepare the students both technically and content-wise to make the next set of objects, to discuss the previous set that has been made, and to discuss the general academic themes that the objects are aimed at illustrating.  Some of the readings done, out of necessity, will have no parallel object that the students make and will simply be discussed for themselves.  After a fashion the class as a whole will try to get at the question whether the understanding of such readings differs whether there were objects assigned for the readings or not and/or whether the students come to make, implicitly or explicitly, objects for those readings to facilitate their understanding although they were not assigned to do so.

While there would be an ongoing light informal evaluation of how things were going, to make necessary tweaks in process and content and to adjust the pace of the class to match how the students seem to be doing, not until the end of the fifth week would there be a formal evaluation of what had gone before.  The formal evaluation is aimed at first, getting students to consider their learning and their effort and come to some sense of what a cost-benefit analysis would produce as a conclusion, and then to have the students consider how things have gone and compare that to the way they went about their learning in high school.  That part of the evaluation is meant to feed the middle third of the class.

In the first third the subject matter would only be economics, math, and writing.  The learning theme would be introduced in the middle third.  Two important issues would be made paramount.  The first is transfer.  What mechanism do the students opt for to achieve transfer?  (Memorization is particularly bad here as it only allows the students to reproduce the ideas as they were presented originally.  To use the ideas in a novel context requires a deeper form of understanding.)  The second is motivation.  When the program is fun, what makes for that?  What do the students look forward to?  What do they dread but they know they must do?  Why isn't that part fun?  Coupled with introducing learning into the program, the class as a whole will become involved in modest program redesign, with the aim of taking the lessons from learning and modifying program activities to make the learning better.  And some evaluation of those modifications will be done to see if things did improve, remained unchanged, or got worse.

During the last third, students would be given more freedom to read pieces of their own choosing, write on topics they found relevant, and, from time to time, where they take over direction of the class as a whole, perhaps by first making a presentation on a subject they have researched and then leading a discussion afterward.  The idea is to give more control and responsibility to each student.  I have done this sort of thing in the past in teaching campus honors classes, where the students giving the presentation did so as a group.  Here because of the small numbers, I'd expect each student to do this individually, aided by my coaching.  It is meant as a push toward self-direction with the learning.

While the formal program is meant to happen entirely during that first semester, to help the students in the subsequent semester adjust to taking regular classes and yet to continue to practice the deep learning ideas they got in the previous semester, one hour per week should be set aside for the group to meet and discuss what is going on.  As this would not be for credit it would not be possible to make those meetings mandatory, but they should be strongly encouraged.  If the students prefer to meet without the instructor present, that would be fine.  And if individual students would prefer one-on-one meetings with the instructor on an as needed basis, mentoring is not otherwise a part of undergraduate instruction, that should be available too.

In this regard I'd like to note here that when I started at Northwestern in grad school I felt disadvantaged relative to my classmates, because I didn't major in economics as an undergraduate and felt under prepared as a consequence.  It took some time for me to compensate for those shortcomings in economics preparation and to also realize that my math preparation, which was better than what my classmates had as undergraduates, was ultimately more important than the economics preparation.  I suspect something similar will happen with this program, if it is successful.  Having completed the program the students may feel disadvantaged relative to their classmates, because they haven't yet experienced what taking a large lecture class is like while their classmates have.  I hope they come to the same sort of conclusion that I did, that their preparation from participating in the program is ultimately more valuable to them and that they end up learning more as a consequence.  I don't know if that learning more will immediately show up in good performance on exams.  If not, my hope is that it will show up in course grades down the road, and in non-graded learning situations thereafter. 

* * * * *

If the program were modestly successful, either a few students were transformed while others were not or the students were in some gray area where the outcome could not be determined with any certainty, I probably would want to try it again.  The hope would be to learn from my mistakes and see if I could improve performance the next time.  If the program were highly successful, I probably would not want to try again and instead move entirely into proselytize mode and encourage others to try it.  The program is meant as a proof of concept.  Once the concept is demonstrated to be plausible next steps need to be taken.

It is easy to write the previous paragraph.  This one is harder.  If the program were a complete failure - all the students dropped out after a few weeks because it was just too intensive for them without them finding suitable rewards to match the intensity, or the students stuck it out but collectively forced me to teach in a way that I was sure wouldn't be transformative by threatening to drop out otherwise - I would become very depressed indeed.  I might then abandon my interest in undergraduate education, for the experiment would have demonstrated that the profound change I want to see is not attainable, at least not by methods I can envision.   I view this outcome as unlikely.  But unlikely is not the same as impossible.  I wonder who else might be interested in this sort of experiment and what their expectations would be regarding outcomes.

Let me conclude here by noting that in its imagery associated with the Strategic Plan there is a tendency for the Campus to: (a) focus on non-course experiences such as internships or working in a faculty member's lab, (b) concentrate on experience in the STEM disciplines, and (c) emphasize the accomplishments of the best students.  It seems to me there are interesting and legitimate questions that need to be asked: (d) Can courses themselves be transformative? (e) What of the many students who major in the social sciences? and (f) What are we doing for more typical students regarding personal transformation? 

I hope others can take up these questions as well.  They are questions that need answers.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Flipped Registration?

For the first time I can remember, the Econ department at the U of I is trying to assist students in the registration process by offering students a session where each instructor would give a brief preview of their course, so students would be better informed when they do register.  With its focus on 400-level courses, this session is specifically targeted at rising juniors and seniors, but should also be of interest to current first year students who are further along than usual, as well as Masters students who are looking to broaden their studies.  The intent in giving this session is unmistakeably good.

However, the logistics are more problematic.  By my back of the envelope calculation, there are at least 450 students (and likely quite a few more) who would benefit from attending this session.  But the large lecture hall where it is supposed to be held has 280 seats.  Then there is the method for how students will be notified about the session.  Is that method email?  If it is, instead of worrying about not having enough seats, it might be more of a concern as to whether a significant number of students will show up.

Then there is the issue of how much information will be presented.  The following table is taken from the Timetable for fall 2014.   The course I teach on The Economics of Organizations is an Econ 490.  In fact, there are 10 different courses all listed as Econ 490.  This means there are twenty different courses in total that need to be covered in the two hour session.  That is a lot.  And while we've been advised to present for 5 minutes only, who ever heard of a professor who sticks to a brief presentation when it is possible to pontificate for much longer?

ECON 411 Public Sector Economics
ECON 420 International Economics
ECON 440 Economics of Labor Markets
ECON 450 Development Economics
ECON 469 Economics of Risk
ECON 471 Intro to Applied Econometrics
ECON 480 Industrial Comp and Monopoly
ECON 481 Govt Reg of Economic Activity
ECON 482 Health Economics
ECON 483 Econ of Innovation and Tech
ECON 490 Topics in Economics

So it occurred to me that instead of giving a live 5 minutes, I'd make a video that students could watch on their own time.  To that end, I made a PowerPoint presentation yesterday and did a screen capture with voice over this morning.  (The PowerPoint can be found linked from the description of the video.)  This is no great shakes and I don't want to maintain otherwise.  But surely it is better than nothing.

There is just one issue.  How do the students become aware of this video?  The obvious (to me) answer would be to provide a link to it from the course timetable.  Yet I've never seen such links in the timetable. I wonder whether the Banner software allows for this.  If it does, what sort of business process would allow such links to be inserted into course entries?  It would seem that the department would have to solicit instructors for links and upon getting a response from the instructor then insert those links just as they insert the course description.

My first year or two of being an Associate Dean in the College of Business, the then Dean wanted students to have such materials available to them prior to registration (think of the syllabus from the prior offering of the course rather than a video).  At the time, I investigated doing it with Blackboard Vista.  The software did allow public pages, but the way we had authentication configured blocked that functionality.  I am not sure what the situation is with the current Blackboard Learn or Moodle.  but that there are multiple LMS being used means that is not the right way to address the issue if done systematically.

There is the further issue whether instructors have given forethought to their fall courses at this time in the spring.  To the extent that there is not much variation in the course from one year to the next, the syllabus from the previous offering would be just the ticket.  Otherwise this is asking the instructor to be prepared well in advance, not very realistic in my experience.

In spite of these issues in implementation, it seems to me that if several people put their heads together on this, something better than what happens at present could be done.  And if that did happen, I could imagine the idea going viral because the need is there.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

The (un) Natural

I've just finished reading Malamud's book.  I'm irked by how different it is from the movie.  I'll explain this in a bit.  But first, ask yourself if you were a novelist of some regard how you'd feel if Hollywood paid you a ton of money to secure the film rights, but then changed the story as to pervert its meaning.  This is different than condensing things to to make a picture that people will sit through and then making additional minor accommodations so the story in the movie flows smoothly and makes sense.  Every novelist will anticipate that.  What I'm talking about here is taking something that is gloomy at its core and presenting it as sunny instead.

The movie came out in 1984.  The original copyright on the book is 1952, so it had a good run without the movie around.  Malamud may therefore not have been too concerned about a rewrite in the film version.  And he passed away in 1986, so probably had other things to occupy his mind when the movie came out.  But as a viewer/reader the timing was different for me.  I don't believe I ever saw the movie in a theater, but I've watched it a ton of times on TV.  Until reading the book, I thought it ranked with Field of Dreams and Bull Durham as the latter day equivalent of It Happens Every Spring, in the sense of lovable fiction that helps baseball fans and fan wannabes renew their passion for the game.

But that is not what the book is about.  Roy Hobbs, who is portrayed as a wholesome figure in the movie, he just had horrible luck when he met Harriet Bird on the train, is not really a likeable character in the book, at least not till the very end.  He cares about himself and getting what he wants, and that's all.  Consider this paragraph from pages 162-63:

The fans dearly loved Roy but Roy did not love the fans. He hadn’t forgotten the dirty treatment they had dished out during the time of his trouble. Often he felt he would like to ram their cheers down their throats. Instead he took it out on the ball, pounding it to a pulp, as if the best way to get even with the fans, the pitchers who had mocked him, and the statisticians who had recorded (forever) the kind and quantity of his failures, was to smash every conceivable record. He was like a hunter stalking a bear, a whale, or maybe the sight of a single fleeing star the way he went after that ball. He gave it no rest (Wonderboy, after its long famine, chopping, chewing, devouring) and was not satisfied unless he lifted it (one eye cocked as he swung) over the roof and spinning toward the horizon. Often, for no accountable reason, he hated the pill, which represented more of himself than he was willing to give away for nothing to whoever found it one dull day in a dirty lot. Sometimes as he watched the ball soar, it seemed to him all circles, and he was mystified at his devotion to hacking at it, for he had never really liked the sight of a circle. They got you nowhere but back to the place you were to begin with, yet here he stood banging them like smoke rings out of Wonderboy and everybody cheered like crazy. The more they cheered the colder he got to them. He couldn’t stop hitting and every hit made him hungry for the next (a doctor said he had no tapeworm but ate like that because he worked so hard), yet he craved no cheers from the slobs in the stands. Only once he momentarily forgave them—when reaching for a fly, he almost cracked into the wall and they gasped their fright and shrieked warnings. After he caught the ball he doffed his cap and they rocked the rafters with their thunder.

Indeed, there is much other darkness in the book, including the fans themselves, particularly the ones who went to see the Knights play before Roy Hobbs was on the scene.  And perhaps the worst part, in the book Hobbs takes the money from the Judge.  The movie makes him out to be virtuous where in the book he wasn't.

Given these differences, it is odd to read in the book scenes that one remembers from the movie, but where the context is different as a consequence of casting Hobbs' character differently.  So I wouldn't call this a great read.  It might have been more enjoyable had I not seen the movie before.  But then, truthfully, I probably wouldn't have read the book.

Malamud's writing is pretty linear chronologically, not much in the way of flashback, though other characters are curious about Roy's past, while he is unresponsive to their queries.   But the Hobbs character goes into frequent reverie.  The train ride that starts the book, where he strikes out the Whammer which itself serves as introduction to Harriet Bird, haunts him through the rest of his life.  This you can only get in the writing.  Movies are not good at getting into the thoughts of the characters, particularly when those characters are not all that verbal. 

And there is one puzzle for me.  It is minor but I'll mention it here, because I don't understand why Malamud did this.  The Knights are substitutes for the NY Giants in that all the other National League teams at the time were mentioned by their real name, including the Brooklyn Dodgers, but there are no Giants.  The difference is that Knights were inept until Hobbs arrived.  Could Malamud have written the story using the Giants name instead of the Knights?   These are the sort of choices novelists make that I'd never be able to master.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Shards on Income Inequality

The Oligopsony Hypothesis

Everyone knows what monopoly means.  A single seller has market power due to an absence of rival sellers.  Oligopoly is similar to monopoly.  There are a few sellers, each with some market power.  They compete against one another, but not so much as if there were many more equally capable sellers.  Monopsony is similar to monopoly in that it is about market power, but it is now the buyer with the market power.  In theory this can happen in any market.  It is frequently considered with regard to the labor market where the mental picture to support the model is the single factory small town, where that employer dominates the local labor market.  Oligopsony is similar, but now there are a few buyers who compete with one another.

Why is oligopsony interesting to consider now?  In yesterday's NY Times Paul Krugman took on "the skills gap" argument and contrasted it to insufficient aggregate demand (for product and hence for labor input).  In particular, he cited this paper, Is There Really a Shortage of Skilled Workers?  The evidence points to insufficient demand.  This is done by dividing unemployment into various categories and contrasting unemployment within each category with before the housing bubble burst. The results show uniformly that unemployment is higher now across the categories.  It is quite convincing that a skills gap explanation can't be the complete story.  That paper and Krugman's column too makes it seem that those who argue for a skills gap are perpetuating a hoax, thereby inviting the wrong policy response.  The oligopsony alternative can accommodate the empirical results and yet make those who argue there is a skills gap not guilty of deceit.

One place where it seems obvious to me that monopsony power has increased since the downturn is employment at the U of I (and likewise at other major universities located in college towns).  The impact is greatest, not on faculty, the stars among the faculty have an international market and must be compensated competitively or they will work elsewhere, but rather among the academic professional staff, many of whom have strong local roots.  Staff reductions have been achieved, through attrition, the voluntary separation program, and in some cases forced severance.  This has happened with no reduction in scope or intensity of activity, with the consequence of increased burden on those AP's who continue to work.  Their real wage has declined as a consequence. 

Traditional approaches to market power look at concentration.  If a traditional oligopsony explanation makes sense here, one would have to explain what's going on by seeing the big guys more and more dominating the labor market.  I'm guessing there is some evidence of this, especially since the housing bubble burst.  But I think the weak aggregate demand story certainly has some merit as well, so what might be most interesting to consider is how that interplays with an oligopsony story and if as a consequence even comparatively small employers act now as if they have market power in the labor market.

If that is what is going on, the increase in the minimum wage is a good and appropriate tonic for improving the lot of low wage workers.  But it is unclear that it will have much if any ripple effect on those who are currently making more than $10/hour.   The normal antidote economics would recommend here is to find counter forces to oligopsony.  Two possibilities are (1) against the big guys increased pressure from application of the antitrust laws and (2) against all employers increased unionization.  Neither of those look likely, however, in the current environment.

* * * * *

Is Government Impotent to Solve These Problems of Income Inequality?

If you were to travel back to the late 1970s and queried people about whether they trusted government or not, you would find distrust across the political spectrum.  This was the aftermath Vietnam and Watergate.  Certainly there have been incidents since that have fed on the distrust theme.  Have there been, in contrast, substantial actions since to reaffirm the positive role government can play?

In his previous column, Krugman makes an argument that we need a latter day Teddy Roosevelt.

And they’re right. No true American would say this: “The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and follow that statement with a call for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes ... increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.”

The quoted passages in the above are from Teddy Roosevelt's New Nationalism Speech.  If delivered today, would the public trust the government enough to pull off the ideas?

* * * * *

The Social Obligation of the Ten Percent

Via Bernie Sanders' newsletter (Bernie Buzz) I became aware of this documentary featuring Robert Reich, Inequality for All.  I found it off putting that it wasn't freely available.  (At Amazon.com it is available for $3.99 rental, $4.99 for the HD version.)  I haven't watched it yet and so won't remark on it here.  Instead, I want to comment on thoughts that bit of irritation triggered.  They are based on this question.  For those of us who are comfortable income-wise, what goods and/or services should we give away freely and what other goods and services should we expect to be compensated for? 

At issue here are two underlying questions.  One is about principle.  Can one come up with a set of  principles to help answer the above question?  The second is about thinking through the consequence in aggregate if all those who are comfortable income-wise acted in this principled way.

I am going to come up short on both of those.  As a practical matter I answer the first question via intuition.  Whether a principle can be distilled from that I will leave for some other time.  On the second question, the best I can offer is that if I am typical, can we think through the consequence in aggregate from that sort of behavior?

When I do something of value for no compensation, I typically insist on some degree of control or on some quid pro quo where I benefit in some non-income way.  Here is an example.  Last fall one of my then students asked me to supervise her in an independent study so she could earn honors at graduation.  I gave her a couple of alternative projects that I was interested in.  She chose one of those for her independent study, which she is doing this semester.  I am not otherwise teaching this semester so am not a current employee.  I do supervise the project by kibitzing on her blog postings and ancillary work.  Would I have done similarly had she been the one to offer a project of her own choosing?  Probably not.

I have made much online content and make it freely available to anyone who is interested.  I'm quite willing to share my stuff that way.  In contrast, I get solicited, seemingly on a daily basis and perhaps more frequently, to make some charitable contribution.  I hate when this happens.  I don't like being put in the position of being a cheapskate so actively seek not to become connected to the people making these solicitations. 

Also, and this is consistent with a behavioral economics explanation but not with economic rationality, when I was employed full time by the university I did make charitable contributions via payroll deduction.  The retirement system doesn't have an analogous system for charitable contribution (at least I'm not aware of one).  So I seem to be willing to contribute when the organization where I work makes a charitable fund drive.   But individual solicitations I abhor. 

If someone wise and fair said - this is how much you should contribute and if you do it once (per year) then I'll make sure it gets to the right place - I'd much prefer to do that even if my total contribution was substantially greater that way.  In other words, I'd rather pay more in taxes than have greater discretion about charitable contributions.

* * * * *

Factoids about the Income Distribution

Below is a table of household income for the upper ten percent.  It is from 2012. 

The full spreadsheet from which this screen shot was taken offers the entire income distribution.  In turn, this is taken from a Census table, HINC-06. I have added the Percentage and Cumulative columns to enhance readability.  From the full spreadsheet, one case see that median household income is about $50K.

Here are some caveats before proceeding further.  The income is not indexed, by location, size of household, net worth, pending financial need, or other possible factors that would add descriptive power.  Saying that the upper ten percent are comfortable income-wise is a generalization.  Some people in this income category may nonetheless be financially challenged.

With that, the bottom of that top ten percent has income not quite triple of the median income.  Those in the penultimate row have income in excess of four times the median.  Those in the last row have income that is many more multiples of median. 

If the reader were playing Robin Hood for the society as a whole, what cutoff income level would be chose to define the rich and how much should be robbed from them to give to the poor?  These questions are implicitly asked in many pieces discussing income inequality, without making reference to the actual income distribution.  Knowing the numbers should help making the discussion more real.

* * * * *

Wrap Up

I'm a member of the professional class, one who has benefited income-wise from the rising income inequality in society as a whole, as what I did got compensated more as a result. My sensibilities are middle class.  While I'm not as penurious as my parents were (they came of age during the Great Depression) particularly in regard to spending on themselves, I respect the financial hoarding they did.  If the facts about upward mobility weren't so grim, I'd prefer that my parents ways would serve as the model for how to rise out of poverty.

But the facts about upward mobility are indeed grim.  And, in the case of household income, another fact seems to be that members of the professional class often marry others from that class.  When both spouses generate income in this case, the family will inevitably be in the top ten percent.  So it feels like Robin Hood should rob from us.

The income tax seems the natural tool for Robin Hood.  And many have pointed out that the real scandal there is on the low capital gains rate, vastly favoring unearned income over earned income.  But even on earned income marginal tax rate rates in the higher brackets could be a bit higher and those who are like me income-wise would hardly skip a beat.

My family learned a lesson from my mother's situation and my mother-in-law's situation.  Both required long term care.  Both used up essentially all of the their estate in the process.  So there is a reason not to just give it away when Robin Hood comes to the door.  But we could be a bit more like my parents in our spending, couldn't we?  That's the sort of question those of us who are comfortable should be asking. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pith or Myth?

Danny Heitman's essay, Keep It Short, A NY Times Opinionator column, comes in at 1,038 words, not counting the author's name.  In other words, it is longer than the standard Op-Ed that appears in the print version of the paper.  Yesterday the Times ran an Op-Ed, Confronting Putin's Russia, that was considerably longer.  And Thomas Edsall's column is regularly quite long.  Does the Times itself believe Heitman's argument?  Or is it just posting it to play devil's advocate?

I write lengthy pieces with some frequency and may lose some readers by doing so.  Should I care?  I don't expect to make a dime from my writing.  Given that, I don't see why I should. 

Finding meaningful social innovation

My Facebook sidebar had a blurb which asks, "Are you a thought leader?"  My answer, "I wish I were, but apparently am not."  Take a look at the following paragraph.  It's from the paper The SCALE Efficiency Projects, published in JALN almost seventeen years ago.  The paper was co-written by the SCALE evaluation team and me.  I believe this paragraph was entirely mine.  In any event, ask yourself about labor-for-labor substitution in instruction, where the inexpensive labor is not adjuncts, but students and where the type of interaction envisioned is not one-on-many but rather one-on-one or one-one-a-few.  Nowadays, who is thinking about learning technology innovation this way? 


A few years after The SCALE Efficiency Projects, Brown and Duguid came out with their book, The Social Life of Information, which got a lot of attention at the time. (Brown was one of the keynote speakers at an Educause national conference held in Indianapolis, where he gave a superlative talk.  This cemented the importance of what he was saying among my peers in the CIC Learning Technology Group.)  One might have thought The Social Life... would have amplified interest in the SCALE Efficiency projects and this idea of labor-for-labor substitution.  But it didn't. 

The old NLII idea of capital-for-labor substitution still dominates our thinking about learning technology and how efficiency can be attained from applying technology to instruction.  You certainly see it with the MOOC fascination.  But it is also there with classroom technology, particularly clickers

In the session with instructors talking about their use of clickers that I wrote about last week and that is linked in the previous paragraph, one universal reported by each of the panelists is that students don't want to look stupid so are reluctant to ask questions in class for that reason.  Clickers address that problem in the one-on-many setting of the large lecture class?  Given the high degree of awareness of the issue, one wonders why there hasn't been equivalent attention paid to encourage students to open up in an office hours setting.

In fairness, the folks who teach introductory physics at Illinois do seem to have a solution to this, but the approach hasn't transferred broadly.  One reason for this is that some of the large classes taught in other disciplines are very poorly resourced and the approach taken in physics doesn't transfer.

Let me try to address the above.  If undergraduates who have taken the course are used as peer mentors/tutors then they need to be paid and that might seem to be a cost add.  But businesses have figured out long ago that if they can make payment in a currency of their own choosing, it is much cheaper than paying in cash.  (Think of airlines who bump passengers willing to give up their seats.  The payment is in the form of a free flight to be taken at a later date, where there may very well be empty seats.)   In the use of undergraduates, a similar idea can be employed by noting that the skills entailed in being an effective peer mentor/tutor are essentially the same as the skills one needs to develop to become a good leader.  So by offering candidate peer/mentors some coursework on leadership leading to a leadership minor and having the peer mentoring itself be the practicum associated with that coursework, one can get this labor input at very low cost.  (The second or third time through as peer mentor, the student should be paid but then too, some of the work should change to mentoring the mentors.)

This sort of innovation is right there, in potential terms.  But the potential has not been exploited at scale.  (A few instructors embrace the approach but they don't seem to generate coattails.)  I can't say the MOOC phenomenon is crowding out this type of innovation.  MOOCs are fairly recent and this use of labor-for-labor substitution has been around for quite a while before MOOCs appeared on the scene.  Yet the idea of labor-for-labor substitution didn't capture the larger imagination within Higher Education.  I don't have a full explanation for why, but I do recall one colleague telling me in the 1990s that he couldn't use undergraduates in his very large class, because the idea wouldn't play well in the Chicago Tribune.

Last Friday Paul Krugman had a column called The Timidity Trap where he argued that the good guys among economic policy makers (those who wanted to see more fiscal stimulus) have been cowed into taking half measures only.  I believe something similar has happened in Higher Ed.  Our past seems to mark a willingness for change at the fringes with no change at all among the majority practice and to keep with that right up until the model is broken.  (The model at Illinois would be broken now if not for the influx of international students who pay full out-of-state tuition.)  The good guys in learning technology whom I knew and continue to interact with on occasion also seem content to pursue half measures.

And perhaps they wouldn't agree with this diagnosis that using undergraduates as peer mentors should be the focus of a new approach.  But if they do agree, maybe we should all take a lesson from Krugman and be less timid in arguing for this.  Now is time to turn up the heat. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

The broad side of a barn

For those of us who believe in the jinx (I'm one of those) the News-Gazette sports section had a very odd column yesterday morning, which featured quotes from the players about whether they'd prefer to be on vacation (it's spring break here) or practicing basketball because the season wasn't over yet.  While they said vacation is nice, all of them wanted to be still playing basketball.  Joseph Bertrand said he came to Illinois to play basketball.  That line surely was a gaffe.

"A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth" [Michael Kinsley]

Bertrand's line is innocent enough, but the politically correct answer would have included something about getting his education too.  Apparently, Bertrand was not on guard while speaking with the friendly sports reporter, Marcus Jackson

Now Bertrand and Jon Ekey, the two seniors on the team, and the rest of the Illini too can take a holiday.  They lost to Clemson in the second round of the NIT in a close game that was excruciating to watch.  The Illini outside shooting was terrible.  They were something like 0 for 12 from outside the 3-point line before they finally hit one.  That explains the loss and the title of my post as well.

Clemson is a good defensive team and they packed the lane to make it difficult to get layups.  We're a good defensive team too.  The upshot was not a lot of scoring, particularly in the first half.  On offense, we seem to shoot better from the outside and click more as team after some player has made a couple of layups.  In the last couple of games, that player has been Rayvonte Rice.  He finally figured out how to penetrate and avoid getting his shot blocked.  After that, Ekey started to make some 3's and we took a slight lead, but we couldn't hold it.

There is an issue in all of sports about how reproducible an action is - a free throw in basketball even more than a three pointer, a golf swing, the roll of a bowling ball, etc. - especially when there is a lot of pressure on.  Practice helps make the action autonomous and therefore reproducible.  Pressure makes it conscious again and then subject to momentary idiosyncrasy.  Malcolm Hill, who seemed to make 1 or 2 threes each game since he was inserted in the starting lineup, succumbed to the pressure.  Our other starting freshman, Kendrick Nunn, did the same in the previous game against Boston University.  One and done can do those sorts of things to a player, even a very good player. 

After they've had their well deserved break, I hope the players practice their outside shooting - a lot.  It will be hard to be a fan next year unless the shooting picks up.  Toughness is a good feature for a team to have and the Illini showed that.  But making outside shots on a regular basis would really help.  Grit with little offense is a formula for close but no cigar.

There are very few days where I watch more than one basketball game, but the first weekend of the NCAA tournament provides the exception.  I caught the tail end of Kansas against Stanford and then watched most of Kentucky against Wichita State, which had to be the best game yesterday.  It was played at a very high level, with both teams demonstrating intensity and proficiency.  One of my Facebook friends, Mike, posted something during to the effect that the refs were handing the game to Kentucky.  That may have been true.  Wichita State got no calls, including on a 3-pointer that went in off the bank, where the player claimed his shooting elbow had been bumped.  Of course, players always claim they are in the right and the replay showed very little if any contact.  But if there was contact and it had been a four-point play, the outcome probably would have gone the other way.

Perhaps more to the point, the Wichita point guard, the catalyst for the team, got into foul trouble.  So he was in and out of the game in the second half.   It meant that other players had to pick up the slack, and they did.  It's what made it such a great game.  For the most part, when the teams had open looks they made their shots.  And sometimes they made their shots even when the action seemed a bit forced. 

In the Big Ten Michigan has that shooting capability but possibly lacks some toughness.  It would be good to see teams with both.  Perhaps Michigan State is in that category.  They are my pick to win it all.  But for the league as a whole, if it is to be the top basketball conference, there needs to be two or three teams like that, in which case I'd like to see the Illini in the mix.

Except for Kentucky, the Tournament has not been kind to teams that feature a freshman who has been touted as a lottery pick in the NBA draft.  Since John Calipari has taken to feature playing freshman at Kentucky, it seems that other big name schools, Duke and Kansas in particular, have embraced the same approach, simply as a way to compete for talent in recruiting.  It seems to me to be unhealthy for the game. 

The last really good player to come out of Illinois was Deron Williams, drafted #3 after his junior year.  But coming out of high school, he was the second best player on his team.  Bracey Wright the bigger name at the time and then a much better outside shooter.  Players do develop in college, some more than others.  The big name ones out of high school have a lot of pressure on them up front.  Conceivably, that can impede their development.

I have no problem with a junior who is clearly very good and who likely will be a lottery pick declaring for the NBA draft.  By that point the player should have quite a good idea of how well he can compete against other college players.  But with freshmen, the hype and the reality can conflict and there needs to be patience to sort this out and let the player blossom against better competition.  There is also the matter of gaining physical strength and possibly adding weight (muscle) in the process.  That itself takes time.

So I'm happy that none of our current freshman are leaving and they have a chance to mature as players.  Here's to next year's team. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Upset Specials

How many Cinderellas get to the dance?
Does Stephen F Austin have a real chance?

Shaka's charges played none too smart
Creating an opening for this upstart.

Dayton will be there and with no excuse
After dispensing with Syracuse.

They're flying high for yet another day
Making their free throws and with heady play.

Then there is Mercer who won by no fluke
In the round of sixty four beating Duke.

Next up for the Bears will be Tennessee
So another double digit seed will make the party.

At least one Cinderella and possibly three
Showing that with college hoops there's parity.

In the spirit of Chuck Berry the perfect scene
Will happen next week, Sweet Little Sixteen.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Clickers and Curiosity

On Wednesday I attended a Teaching with Technology Brownbag at the U of I.  The session featured a panel of experienced instructors talking about use of clickers in their (large) lecture classes.  The panel was moderated by Jamie Nelson of CITES.  The panelists were

  • Darin Eastburn, Crop Sciences, Student perceptions of student response systems
  • Lena Hann, Kinesiology and Community Health, Anonymous questions
  • Brad Mehrtens, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Learning Catalytics – large enrollment course, group discussion
  • Mats Selen, Physics, Co-inventor of i>clicker
  • Julie Shapland, Accountancy, i>clicker in large enrollment courses

Ultimately, you can watch a recording of the session online.  The video hasn't been posted just yet.  It was a good and interesting session.  All the panelists make effective use of clickers in their classes to engage the students.  Four of the five use iClicker, which was invented here. Brad Mehrtens uses a different product, Learning Catalytics

I don't want to focus on the technology here, other than to note the obvious.  The clickers record the responses of each individual student (with iClicker this is the letter chosen in response to a multiple choice question, with Learning Catalytics more complex responses can be recorded) and then presents to the class the distribution of responses.   So clickers are unlike the traditional hand raising to ask a question, because with hand raising the student's identity is revealed while with clickers the identity associated with a particular response remains hidden to other students. 

Instead I want to begin with a very primitive question.  Why wouldn't the students be engaged in the class if there weren't clickers?  There seem to be three possible answers, two pertain to the course, the other to the students.  On the course, there is the subject matter (answer one) and where the lecture is held (answer two).  On the subject matter, Lena Hann's class is on human sexuality.  One might reasonably hypothesize that all students enrolled have inherent interest in the subject, even if the students are taking it to fill some requirement.  (I wish I had taken such a course as an undergrad.)  The other four courses I would describe as technical, meaning there is specific information delivered that requires specific skills or knowledge of prior context to process the information.  A lay person wouldn't have these specific skills or context specific knowledge.  Is there inherent interest in technical subject matter?  Let me leave that question for the moment, though it is the heart of the matter.  Before returning to it, I want to get at the other possible reasons for lack of engagement.

The second is the room where the lecture is held.  Foellinger Auditorium is the largest lecture hall on campus.  It can accommodate over 1,000 but campus policy caps large lectures at 750.  The next largest lecture hall is Lincoln Hall Theater.  According to the table on the FMS site, current capacity is 615.  There are then a handful of classrooms with capacity around 300.  In any of these large classrooms the space itself might distract the student.  Possible causes include - not being able to hear the instructor, not being able to see what is projected on the screen, physical discomfort from the seats, and classmates doing non-class things that are not detected by course staff and that serve to distract students sitting in close proximity.  Each of these issues is more pronounced in the back of the classroom.  Julie Shapland, who teaches in Foellinger, gave an interesting hypothetical about her walking right up to a student who was not participating with the clickers.  Were that to happen the student simply would get up and leave and she would have no idea who the student was, so she couldn't give a bad grade to the student for the behavior.  In effect, this means extrinsic motivation in such classrooms must be provided by carrots, not sticks. 

The third answer is that most millenials are manic multi-processors.  If they are not texting or checking Facebook every few minutes, they go bonkers.  Mats Selen, and I believe the other instructors who teach introductory physics as well, have a policy that students must put away laptops and cell phones during class so they aren't distracted by their electronic social tendencies.  Most instructors don't have such a policy and while Brad Mehrtens lauded Learning Catalytics, he also said he wasn't so naive as to believe students didn't check Facebook while in lecture.  One should also observe here the possibility of old fashioned diversions, e.g., daydreaming.  And it is also possible that a student who is paying attention nonetheless lingers on a point to make better sense of it, while the instructor has moved on.  On this last one, Darin Eastburn talked about using the iClicker to determine whether a significant segment of the class is confused on the current point, in which case the instructor should not move on but instead try to understand the source of the confusion and then rectify the matter as best as possible.

There seem to be two principal uses of clickers.  One is to gather attitudinal information, where members of the class are likely to vary in their held views.  The clicker question and response can then be used as an instant survey tool to get at those varying attitudes and to make the class as a whole aware that students differ in their perspectives.  The second is to pose a question that has a right answer and see how the class does in response.  If many of the responses are wrong but some are right, this provides a launch point for small groups of students to discuss the question among themselves.  Which is the right answer and why?  This process "works" if a redo of the clicker question then gets many more students to select the right answer.

Why do students participate in the clicker exercise rather than opt out?  For the most part this is because they get some course points for answering the question.  In the polling sort of questions, this must be participation credit, since there is no right answer.  Otherwise, credit could potentially depend on what answer the student supplied.  In the human sexuality course, there were some polling questions of a very personal nature posed.  Those were done anonymously - no credit.  Students then participate on a volunteer basis.  All students are interested in seeing the class distribution across these personal questions.  They volunteer their answers both because they feel safe in doing so and because it is the good citizen thing to do, since they understand the benefit from seeing the class distribution.

Several of the panelists report that the students want their clicker points.  It is a strong motivator.  This was true even in the human sexuality class, though here I believe we're referring to motivation to answer the clicker questions as distinct from motivation to follow (or attend) the lecture.  It also seemed, across the various presentations, that this student motivation for clicker points was there prior to them taking that particular class.  Indeed, Julie Shapland said that the students really want these points although she allocates so few of the course total in this manner that it may be irrational on the part of the students to participate with the clickers - there is a high likelihood that such participation will have no impact on their final course grade.

Now I want to return to my earlier question:  Is there inherent interest in technical subject matter?  Let me try to answer this via example, relying on my experience teaching intermediate microeconomics, a required course for students in the College of Business.  Most of them dislike, if not totally detest the course.  Yet the subject matter in intermediate microeconomics forms the basis of many of the things they will study.  Economic cost notions are extraordinarily important in accounting, consumer theory is the basis of much of the study of marketing, and to understand risk premiums in finance, one really needs to be steeped in the elements of decision making under uncertainty.  So there are reasons why Business students should find intermediate micro compelling, and a few do, but most do not.  The main reason is the style in which it is taught.  It entails a lot of math modeling, which these students are not getting in their other courses.  The students have all had the math prerequisite courses.  But most haven't internalized the subject matter of those courses in a way where it is second nature to use those tools for the economics.  Consequently, the entire course becomes a struggle and students don't want to struggle when they can't see the relevance in doing so.

How much of the rest of the courses that non-Business students take looks like intermediate microeconomics to Business students?  I don't know.  In my own recent teaching, an upper level undergraduate economics course where most of the students are Econ majors, I may be getting a biased view of the situation, because many Econ majors are Business major wannabes.  Biased or not, this is my general impression.

Students may claim inherent interest in a subject, particularly in their major, but my discipline suggests, via a theory called revealed preference, that it is far better to observe the student behavior and infer the preference from that then to solicit preference information directly.  I don't see freshmen and sophomores in my class.  The juniors and seniors who do take the course are for the most part so caught up in the quest for a good grade that it trumps any other possible motivation.  Since I do have the students write on a weekly basis, (some of) their thinking about course subject matter is more transparent to me as an instructor than it would be to most instructors in other upper level courses that don't have students do this writing.  For the most part their efforts reflect a mild interest in the subject, at best, and if they are expecting to get an "A" grade they are content with their efforts, and don't reflect at all on whether they might understand the subject at a deeper level if they spent more time on it.  Such deeper understanding doesn't appear to be a value in itself for the students.  But if students had inherent interest for the subject, my belief is that the students would crave a deeper understanding.

So my principal concern with the use of clickers is that it leverages the student desire for course points in a way where there is no countervailing activity that might appeal to inherent interest in the subject.  Multiple times during the session, the panelists stressed the clickers must be used in a way that shows what the instructor cares about.  This was in reference to the type of questions that are asked and how those questions tie into the lecture.  This makes sense and is an important point.  Yet the fact remains, the "currency" that makes use of the clickers work is the reward in course points.  Large class instructors care about their grading scheme in that it be fair, administered well, and motivate the students.  But they don't care about the points as currency the way they care about the subject matter they teach.  And that they rely on points as currency to communicate may severely limit their ability to communicate what they do care about the subject matter.

In my class, one thing I do is to post on occasion snippets of news articles along with links so students can find the full story.  Most of these posts are on topics that are related to course themes.  (When the Nobel in Economics is awarded, I also post about that.)  I give such posts a tag - Econ in the News.  It is very rare that they get comments and the access stats show quite limited access.  Ditto for my early PowerPoint presentations and associated videos.  Neither of these have assessments associated with them.  They are there to give the interested student access to an expanded set of materials relevant to the course.  In contrast, posts about the homework do get comments and are accessed a lot.  Yet by my earlier argument about revealed preference, the fact that I do create a good bit of non-assessed content and post that to the course site is indicative that I care about that stuff.  Students who access the course site on a regular basis can't help but notice that.

Several year ago I posted a critique of a video on motivation that featured the voice of Daniel Pink, both the extrinsic and intrinsic variety of motivation.  Pink's main point is that knowledge work is unlike manual labor in regard to motivation.  For the former, intrinsic motivation is a much more powerful motivator than any possible sort of financial reward.  Further, explicit pay for performance schemes are apt to backfire for knowledge work, where they do work well for manual labor, because such schemes serve as a distraction from the inherent interest in the problem at hand.  My critique of Pink was not based on this observation.  I concur on this point.  Rather it was based on his overly simple view of the economics.  He argued that pay should be used to initiate activity and then it should be generous, so it stays out of mind thereafter.

Even without explicit pay for performance, however, there are still salary increases and promotions to consider and the manager may also have to confront that the employee's external job market has improved dramatically as a consequence of success on the job in an earlier project.  In other words, re-initiation happens periodically, often for exogenous reasons, and may very well happen while the employee is immersed in a highly interesting project.  That's a real part of work life.  But taking Pink's point for where it is sensible, it is folly to have more frequent adjustments of pay based on performance, done by the whim of the manager rather than as a result of external factors.

Yet the analog is what we seem to do in teaching.  And with the clickers, where there are perhaps five questions in a fifty minute session, the frequency of the extrinsic reward is quite high.  Is it then interfering with intrinsic motivation for the subject that students might have?

It is unfair of me to lay this issue at the feet of the large class instructors.  They face many logistics hurdles on the way to teaching a tolerably good course. It rightfully is an issue that the entire campus should take on.  And thought that way, the intrinsic motivation issue has been addressed largely, to date, via outside-of-class means.  Students can engage in undergraduate research.  Or they can get involved in a registered student organization with an academic/intellectual orientation.  The undergraduate research option might be quite enriching for those students who do it, but how many do, particularly in the social sciences?  I suspect comparatively few.  And I suspect something quite similar for RSO activity that both inherently interests the student and promotes the students' intellectual growth.

In contrast, courses are universal and we think of them as the main place where students learn while in college.  Motivation is a key element in learning, for anyone, for me as an adult learner just as much as as for our students.  If inherently interested in a subject, an adult learner can then often teach himself, get expert help on as needed basis, but otherwise be self-directed.  One important goal of undergraduate education is to prepare students to be effective adult learners.  To the extent that we are relying exclusively on extrinsic rewards to motivate our undergraduates, course points and class grades, we will consistently fall short of this goal. 

Clickers are comparatively new technology.  But they are steeped in reward schemes that really are outdated.  It is true that the students who sit in the back of the lecture wouldn't engage without the clickers and some of them wouldn't come at all.  For that reason, I'm not saying to do away with the clickers.  I'm saying they are not sufficient.  Think of the students who sit in the front and would come to class even without the clickers.  What might we do to raise their inherent interest in the subject?  Some instructors may even have an answer to that question.  Are other instructors aware of those answers?  I, for one, am not.

In the previous decade I taught infrequently and when I did it was mostly for the Campus Honors Program.  Those students behave in a way that I'd like to see emulated by the students who sit in the front of the large lectures.  What can we do to achieve that as a goal?  That is the question we should be asking.