Friday, June 24, 2005

TAs entering grade data in a multisection course

I watched the full documentary "Declining by Degrees" last night and only afterwards switched to the basketball game. I thought the film was reasonably good at identifying the core issues (and one or two that are not core) but it didn't connect them well at all. The big two, (1) the disengagement compact issue and (2) the cost of college issue were both described at some length but whether they are part of a large whole or not didn't come across, at least not to me. I will present my theory of the whole in some later posts.

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Our home grown Campus Gradebook, now retired, had the nice feature that an instructor could view at the section level or at the course level, do data entry at either level, and further have access controls so that that TAs would only have access at the section level and then only for the sections they teach. The WebCT Vista software has a nice query capability so that if a column has been uploaded with the section information an instructor can view only that section (and more generally, view only those data that satisfy the conditions of the query). But it does not have the access control capability.

These multisection course sites often rely on online quizzing for the homework. There may be dozens and dozens of those quizzes. Then there may be in class work graded by the TAs. And there be may be exams that are common across the sections. There are columns in the grade book for recording these scores and other columns for producing various aggregates of these scores. There easily can be 100 columns and quite possibly more. If there are several hundred students in the course, then the grade book will have tens of thousands of cells of data. That is a lot. These type of grade books render slowly on screen and each refresh after some modest change in data entry takes a while to view. At present, I would say this is our single biggest issue with the CMS.

One might envision having multiple sites, one per TA or one per section. This is possible but for other issues like posting announcements or course documents that are created during the semester and don't exist beforehand, having multiple sections means those must be posted in each section site. That is laborious.

We have come up with a different work around that while not perfect seems to address a good deal of the issues. The idea is to create sites that are just for TA data entry. One can set the start and end date on the sites so students don't see the site at all when they log into Vista. These sites will have columns only for the data that the TAs enter and, of course, only the students that are under the particular TA. So there will be fewer cells in these sites and the TAs should experience reasonably fast screen refreshes. Moreover, this will eliminate entirely the possibility that one TA overwrites the data entered by another.

The TAs will not have access to the main grade book for the course. The course coordinator does. The course coordinator needs what is called Course Instructor Access in Vista. With that the coordinator can run a report that in one csv file has the data entry of all the TA sections. So that is one download, instead of one per TA. That can then be uploaded into the main course grade book.

I presume that if this approach catches on we can ultimately write a script so that the download and upload happen automatically. At that point, we'd pretty much have what our Campus Gradebook produced earlier. There would still be the issue of speed of the refresh. I wonder if the Vista grade book or other CMS grade books can be optimized for these large classes. That would be nice. But I think we can manage with what we have now.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

On Connections

For regular readers of this blog:

After the post tomorrow, I will be offline for a while. It is now comparatively quiet on campus here and hence a good time for me to take a break and recharge my batteries. I should be back with the posting on July 5th.

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This blog is metered by (Scroll to the bottom and click the button.) The counter information is useful, but really not that exciting to me. About a week ago, traffic picked up and I wondered why. So I started to track down the referrals that sitemeter provides. I found Scott Leslie’s blog this way and though not 100% certain, think that was the main reason my traffic increased. But it’s not that everyone is going to Scott’s EdTechPost site. Rather it is some other bloggers get info from his site. For example, I was able to find Stephen Downes’ site. He has a briefer post about my blog, which he discovered from Scott. I point this out for two reasons. First, Stephen makes a comment that my blog has links that won’t be found elsewhere. That is sufficiently curious a remark that I want to explore it more in this post. I’ll do that in a bit.

Second, there is some definite narcissism in doing this type of back tracking. I was interested in this not just to find out about who is linking to my site or who is running a feed from it, but also and maybe more importantly I wanted to know what people were saying about it. This is the puppy in me looking to get petted. But it is also the role of any writer to know what his readers are thinking. The thing is, in the few cases I’ve found the commentary is put other there in the ether. It is not particularly meant for the author. It is meant for other potential readers.

I started my blog first and foremost because I had things on my mind that I wanted to say and I like to write. But second, I wanted to make a statement of sorts about news info that is in digest form. Of course I get my share of that. In the main I can’t process it. Others, I know, can keep track of a wider array of different threads and they want to have a pulse on all of them. I want more depth where I do focus my attention and then I just ignore a lot (which occasionally calls for faking it in discussions where I didn’t get the info beforehand.) So I wanted to show that regular, in depth, writing is ok and in fact something that people want, if it strikes a chord with them.

I did have a third motive. I wanted to reach actual instructors, particularly people on my own campus. I wanted them to be reflective about their own teaching and I thought my blog will help. Recently I found John Patrick Murphy’s blog and it is absolutely perfect as an illustration of the type of people I was trying to reach. John is a professor of Musicology at North Texas State. His blog shows thought, situated in his own experience with teaching. It is really interesting to read. I was and still am hoping to find a slew of instructors like John in Urbana-Champaign.

Now let me get to the Downes comment. I really don’t think of technology first and hence don’t go to technology sites very often. I also look hard to find parallels to what I think about educational technology coming from other areas. I would characterize my own reading as eclectic, but there are a lot of things I don’t try to find and I know there is much of interest “out there” that I’m uninformed about. As long as I’m engaged in something that ignorance doesn’t bother me.

As it turned out, the back tracking exercise provided access to information that was unfamiliar to me. I certainly did not realize there was such an extensive network of edu bloggers (and, for example, the Jim Farmer the blogger is someone other than James Farmer from the Sakai Project staff) and that, with only some tiny exceptions, most of the people I deal with professionally from other CIC schools don’t belong to this community.

So I started to ask myself whether these communities overlap or are disjoint. And I started to ask further whether those two groups are yet distinct from my core constituency, instructors on my campus. Then finally I asked myself where my boss (the CIO here) would come down on blogging as such a networking device. I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.

I do know that inside my IT organization some of the higher level folks think there is work and there is fun and they most frequently don’t intersect. I know I don’t believe that. However, I’m still trying to understand whether my networking through blogging can be brought back to my campus in some way with an obvious tangible benefit. And I’m wondering how much of this I would be doing if didn’t have the need of a writer who wants to have his ego stroked.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Where is experimentation with teaching happening?

One of the advantages of doing something in a low stakes way is that you can try something and no big deal if it is a total screw up. And if you do try out things this way, then an awful lot of the time it will turn out to be just that, a total screw up. So if your goal is to do something in a professional manner, to be well regarded for the service you are providing, and to get others to utilize that service, the "right approach" is to quickly identify best practices perhaps by scanning the prior research on the subject, embrace those, and then professionalize the way that embrace occurs as soon as possible. Most of us, I believe, do this with our teaching. And to a large extent, those of us who support instruction do likewise.

Some time ago I read A Life in School by Jane Tompkins. The book was recommended to me on the particular issue of where instructor ego belongs in teaching. Tompkins was a Professor of English (and I believe is the wife of literary theorist Stanley Fish). The book is simultaneously engaging and unsettling. Afer being completely miserable about her own teaching, Tompkins came to the conclusion that she was getting in the way of her students' learning. She kept modifying the approach, producing some interesting outcomes but never ones that satisfied her that she had "found it," that right way to conduct a class.

For Tompkins experimentation was a kind of penance. For me it's a form of self expression. I don't think it is fundamentally different for me to scheme up an experiment with teaching method than it is for me to design a module in Excel that presents Econ concepts in a novel way, or for that matter experimenting with a theme for this blog. I thrive on trying things. I'd much rather learn that way, at least at this point in my life, than reading the literature and accepting best practice.

Part of the reason is skepticism. People miss things, or frame things slightly differently and then come up with conclusions other than what I would have come up with had I been in their shoes - not always to be sure but enough of the time that I want to try it for myself.

The thing is, I think that experimentation, as an overall approach rather than focusing on one particular experiment, improves instruction. Frankly, too much teaching is dull. It is safe and it is dull. There is more excitement and stimulation when the outcome is unknown. And if the outcome is unknown by the instructor, then surely it will be unknown to the students as well. It helps, in addition, for the outcome to matter to both the students and the instructor.

Apart from Tompkins, who teaches this way? Are there particular institutions or departments within institutions that encourage it? One of the reasons I got into the technology support business is because I thought that adaptation necessitated some form of experimentation - instructors had to try out the technology enough to have it fit what they are trying to accomplish. When that happens, I think things will typically turn out really well (though the instructor might bitch about putting in too much time).

When it doesn't happen --- well that's why some focus so much on what the technology will do. The cool technology let's the educational technologists experiment. That helps their learning. It keeps them sharp. But does that lead to related experiments by the faculty? In most cases, I don't think it does.

In the political economy of ed tech, there are two main problems right now. First, faculty development is being squeezed. It is being squeezed by tight budgets but also because CIOs focus on the technology itself rather than its use. But second, we treat faculty development as promoting best practice rather than as encouraging experimentation.

I don't know how to get out of this bind, but I do feel we're not in the right place.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

CMS as a Mission Critical System

Last week Scott Leslie made a very nice post about my blog at his site. In it, he described the way my post How many CMS are enough? inspired him to write his own post on the topic. In addition, Michael Penney wrote some comments about my post and he answered an email query I posed to him about ssl and Moodle in a Moodle forum (just click the Guest button to log in). So here I want to describe the environment at Illinois, trying to get at both issues that should be of common interest and issues that are specific to Illinois regarding CMS support in the hope that the entire discussion is useful to others.

First, some background. We are a large and diverse campus. The central IT organization where I work is the biggest but not the only player in the CMS pond. The campus currently supports WebCT Vista. We were the second Big Ten school to go that route (after Purdue) and have a perpetual license to the software. We do this in a Solaris/Oracle environment and when we did our RFP, those were deemed critical factors for a successful proposal. The campus continues to support Mallard (the large Spanish courses are in the process of migrating from there to Vista) and WebBoard but those are likely sunset services. We used to support both Blackboard and WebCT CE. And the campus had a home grown grade book tool, a legacy of the Plato system, that was extremely popular. It was retired last year. Also, last year the University (a three campus system) deployed the SCT Banner SIS. At present, we get our roster data not directly from Banner but rather from a daily extract that resides in our electronic data warehouse.

As I mentioned there are other CMS on campus. There are multiple instances of Moodle. Physics has its own homegrown tool for doing its type of quizzing. (It used to be called Tycho but I believe that name was contested so I'm not sure what to call it now.) The Life Sciences make use of LON CAPA, a tool from Michigan State that now has a substantial following. (The original CAPA system was developed by physicists there.) The Math department, which has a significant instance of Calculus with Mathematica, has its own tool for turning in Mathematica notebooks and having online discussion with the TA/grader. The Library School has their own system for the LEEP program and they have taken the lead for the campus in the Sakai partner program. There are two significant instances of WebCT CE, one in Chemistry the other in Ag. The MBA program runs a FirstClass server and the Law School gives students accounts on their Exchange server and uses the public folders there. There are almost certainly others that I haven't mentioned. It is hard to keep track of it all.

The culture here is that the campus supports "utility like" services and more specific and frequently more expensive services are supported in the departments and the colleges. In other words, the Deans have a lot of authority. This conditions our approach. It is also worth nothing that we don't have a computer fee. Our funding comes off the top, from the Provost. In the tight budget climate that matching between revenues and CMS costs has been an issue. That also conditions our approach.

Many courses here are taught in lecture/discussion mode with lecture say two hours a week and recitation section one or two additional hours per week. Lectures can be as big as 750 students per and several hundred students in a class is not uncommon. Owing to budget cuts, there are now fewer TAs (but we are swelling with first and second year students). The campus CMS is used disproportionately by these type of classes. We have many more enrollments in the first year experience courses than we do in senior level classes. Further, these big classes likely use the CMS more intensively than do the upper level classes, which may use it simply for file sharing or to display grades. The quizzing function therefore is very important. Also for this reason, I'm not sure it makes sense to compare CMS instances simply by looking at number of students at the institution.

The large classes tend to create "artificial peaks" in usage via the deadlines for quizzes or writing assignments. Sunday night around midnight is a system-wide peak as lots of instructors want homework to be done before the next school week has started. Apart from quizzing other use that we have experienced that puts stress on the server includes
a) Chat (I'm basing this on old recollections of WebBoard, not anything current).
b) Loading of pages that are dynamically generated such as the grade book or the entry pages to the discussions.
c) Doing administrative functions like section backup or uploading rosters. (The first two weeks of the semester where students can add and drop courses at will is hell on wheels for us.)
d) Live testing.

We are extremely security conscious at our institution. You can read the information security policy and click through to the first login screen of our home grown authentication system, Bluestem, a Web ISO. This bypasses the normal WebCT Vista authentication pages. If you try this you should be able to get as far as the screen that asks for the NetID. You will note that it doesn't ask for the password there. There is a separate screen for password that appears subsequently. The campus has been audited by the state regarding its IT business practices. Based on that we have a requirement that any critical system must be operated under encryption and with "strong passwords." The CMS has been designated as a critical system.

As you know there was a lot of creativity and development in IT in general at my campus in the '90s. Apart from Mosaic, Eudora was developed here, as was PH. However, there was a feeling that the IT organization wasn't sufficiently service oriented and there was a change in philosophical approach that more or less coincided with the recognition that we needed a CIO. We became a "buy shop" where before we had been a “build shop.” While the campus did some early development in the CMS area (and there were numerous faculty generated projects, Mallard was one example) when our little Center for Educational Technologies started in 1999 it had a mandate to go to market for software. Three years later that unit merged with the larger computer support organization. The culture that I mentioned has been built around this history.

Because of tight budgets, the security issues and that we struggled at the beginning with Vista but now have a robust and stable service, we are extremely risk averse in our approach. While the grass is always greener, we are reasonably satisfied with Vista now and our thoughts are primarily on making the service even better for the campus, rather than moving to something else. We are interested in a federated approach where the various department applications communicate with Vista in some way so as to offer the best of both worlds. At the moment it is one or the other, not both. Our immediate development efforts will focus on improving the roster function in Vista by importing more data from the EDW. Only after we have addressed those campus level integrations will we turn to trying to make the vision of a federated approach into a reality.

There would have to be a notable failure of some sort to make us switch to an open source solution for the core CMS function. That said, if I have the freedom to envision into the indefinite future and not worry about connecting it to the present and then ask in that context what it would take for us to support open source, the first thing that comes to mind for me is for there to be some third party, a commercial entity most likely, something that could provided intensive support on an as needed basis, about implementation issues with the software. I know that on discussion about our portal, which now seems to be heading to a University level project, the plan for some time has been to use U-portal but to outsource a good deal of the planning and project management, as well as the training of staff to support the environment. I see a parallel between that and the CMS approach.

Let me make one last point. Scott Leslie made a point of saying it is unclear that CMS are mission critical especially since they very well may be embracing the wrong pedagogy and not improving instruction at all. I know many feel that way but I don’t happen to be one of them. (See my post on faculty adapting the technology to their needs, not vice versa.) But even if Scott is right on the pedagogy, he is imposing too strong a requirement on what it means for a service to be mission critical. In my view the requirement should be that many people depend on the service and there are not good substitutes that might satisfy the same need.

Let me use PowerPoint as an example. While the technology itself can be used in good or bad ways, I’ve no doubt that much of the actual use is pernicious to good instruction. But if you asked any faculty member who teaches with PowerPoint whether we can take the lcd projectors out of the smart classrooms because their lecturing with PowerPoint is not very effective, they’d either get extremely irate or they would look at you funny and ask in response, what are you talking about? The smart classrooms are mission critical now because of dependency on them. Ditto for the CMS.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Connections Across Cohorts of Students

One of my staff forwarded on this link to Declining by Degrees, a Web site, a book, and a documentary all with the same title. The documentary is airing this Thursday evening on public television. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark and it seems this documentary will let us know what that something is. I’m hopeful it might be fodder for some discussion on student engagement and student commitment, on the one hand, and campus engagement and commitment on the other.

George Kuh, director of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) is one of those folks featured in the documentary. The quote from him on the Declining by Degrees Web site is pretty damning. But I suspect they won’t dwell on that point, in particular, and Kuh will be sandwiched in between more familiar names (why is Frank Deford in this documentary? he is a sports reporter. ) because audiences “want” to watch those they are already familiar with.

Some time ago at a conference called TechForum sponsored by the CIOs of the CIC Universities (Big Ten + University of Chicago), Kathy Christoph from Wisconsin, Steve Acker from Ohio State, and I made a presentation that was in part based on one of Kuh’s articles that originally appeared in Change Magazine.

While the entire piece is of interest we focused on the particular nugget below which sized up the situation nicely circa a couple of years ago. I don’t believe that things have changed much since then.

And this brings us to the unseemly bargain, what I call the "disengagement
compact": "I'll leave you alone if you leave me alone." That is, I won't make
you work too hard (read a lot, write a lot) so that I won't have to grade as
many papers or explain why you are not performing well. The existence of this
bargain is suggested by the fact that at a relatively low level of effort, many
students get decent grades--B's and sometimes better. There seems to be a
breakdown of shared responsibility for learning--on the part of faculty members
who allow students to get by with far less than maximal effort, and on the part
of students who are not taking full advantage of the resources institutions

Since I think Kuh has got it pretty much correct the question is: why has this happened? On the faculty side of this equation the standards to get tenure are, if anything, on the rise and so junior faculty find themselves under a huge amount of pressure to do an adequate job in teaching and no more so that every available free moment can be devoted to research. The thing is the attitude persists beyond the tenure and promotion stage because, quite frankly, the undergraduate teaching is orthogonal to the research they do. Research is where the reward and recognition lies.

But we’ve been moaning about this for years and years, certainly since I started with learning technology in the mid ‘90s. I doesn’t seem like more moaning will be very productive, even if the moaning is done by accreditation agencies. Instead, what if caring professors started to take matters into their own hand, not via indictment of the system but rather by doing something constructive?

A natural first question is where to start. My view is that intellectual climate is the key; promote an inquiring intellectual climate outside the classroom. This is something that (at least some of) the students want, but they don’t know where to find it. Let the caring instructors show them the way. This is a possible path.

Suppose the instructor kept a blog or a listserv or some other form of electronic communication that was intended for students who already had taken the course. The students would know the instructor and vice versa and that knowledge is something to build on. There would be no grade motive and much less of a power relationship than in the regular classroom. The students could participate or not purely by choice and they could participate either passively (simply by reading what was posted) or more actively (by occasionally commenting and responding to the comments of others.) In other words, the instructor would do everything that one should do in a class to engage students in online discussion, but do it outside a class setting, purely for the fun of it.

It’s probably easier to do this sort of thing in the social sciences, where one can mix commentary and news from popular outlets with books that have been recently published or with information from other electronic outlets. The thing is, many of us are already doing this sort of thing with colleagues. So all I’m really suggesting is trying to expand the audience to former students.

It might be a little awkward to set up at first; this is not the norm in behavior. The students won’t expect it and so some might be put off by it. And others might really be too busy or just not interested. But let’s give it a try anyway. Let’s see if we can make that work in some limited sense.

Suppose it does. Suppose we have a blog that has professor postings and student comments and everybody seems to be having a good time with it and getting something out of it. Suppose further that the professor is teaching the class again. Should current students be allowed into the blog? Should they be encouraged to do so?

Before I address those questions let me point out that yesterday I came down strongly against public spaces for class work. I think class work should be done behind password protection. So if current students did participate in the blog, they shouldn’t be there to get a good grade, brown nose the professor, or any stuff like that. They should be there for the same reason as the alums, for the fun of it.

Can those dual roles work? Can a professor be quite informal in a blog meant for students who have already taken the course while exercising the appropriate level of authority in teaching the current class? Will students who are taking the current course feel comfortable interacting with the professor in an outside the class setting and will they feel comfortable with the other participants in the blog? The answer to the latter seems to me to be obviously yes. If that outside the class setting is lively and informal it will make participants comfortable and I would hope it would touch them in such a way that they want to participate. Younger instructors may have some trouble moving back and forth between the two environments because they may still be defining their style as a teacher, how much they are the boss and how much they are the buddy of the students. Experienced instructors, who have worked those issues through already should be able to do this without much difficulty in my guess. Having the buffer of students who have already taken the course and are there for no apparent reason other than interest in the subject should make it easy.

But I haven’t tried this myself yet so here I’m guessing rather than basing this on personal experience. I’d really like to see some experiments of this sort. I think we can have much more effect on the lifelong learning of students by affecting what they read and doing that outside of class should be much easier. If the tone on campus in general were more intellectual then perhaps doing these things in class would be possible. But we’re not there yet. Let’s not try to remedy all the ills of higher ed by looking only inside courses but let’s do engage faculty to engage the students. This is worth trying.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

On Security and Student Writing Online

A front page story in the yesterday’s New York Times (and our local paper here in Champaign-Urbana) about massive credit card theft has got me rethinking my own views about security online. I should add that recently I’ve been talking with some folks from Purdue University and they have been going through living hell because of some similar break-ins on campus computers there (but not at the scale of the credit card theft). Further threats seem quite real.

My campus has been quite security conscious for some time and because I have a comparatively high level position in the main IT organization, I have butted heads with a variety of network and security people who, though obviously smarter about the underlying risks than I am, seemed to be all too willing to be Big Brother-ish on measures to make our campus more secure. For my part, I had argued that we should do more education in the community and let community members make an informed choice instead of simply imposing rules from above.

Among the issues we’ve discussed is whether there should be single sign-on through some gateway after which there would be authentication via “trust” of the gateway rather than entering in another ID and password. On a similar front, we’ve also debated whether there should be one common password for all our different types of accounts. (Currently, there are different passwords for logging onto the course management system, doing email, and working in our computer labs, and they are all “strong” passwords, meaning they shouldn’t be readily figured out from a simple algorithm so they’re harder to remember.)

Most people on campus want the convenience but when a security incident occurs they, of course, bemoan the loss. The time inconsistency in people’s attitudes makes it hard to get the right balance. The thing the Times article pointed out to me, and I must say I’ve been a dope for not understanding this earlier, is that many people on campus have not only their own data, but they also have data about others and they should be good data custodians. The most obvious is where the instructor has an Excel spreadsheet of class grades of the students sitting on the instructor’s office computer. Similarly, administrators have information about staff on their office computers. The pure libertarian approach that I advocated conveniently ignores this interdependency. Some convenience does have to be sacrificed to ensure data safety. I still don’t understand in my head the right balance, but I know my old argument wasn’t quite right.

I want to take those same concerns and consider them in the context of teaching, but focus on other issues than the grade book stored on the instructor’s computer. Every campus in the United States that receives Federal dollars to support the educational enterprise is bound by the stipulations of the Family Educational Right to Privacy Act (FERPA). Because of FERPA instructors are not supposed to post final course grades on the door or wall outside their office (and they are definitely not supposed to use social security number in part or full as a student identifier). Nor should instructors hand back paper assignments by leaving them in a file outside their office that students can go through and see the grades of classmates. And indeed, according to our campus interpretation, while student enrollment on campus is directory information and can be checked in the online electronic directory (though students can suppress this information if they so desire) student enrollment in a particular class is part of the student record and therefore subject to FERPA.

The implication of that last observation is that putting student work on a public Web site with attribution to the author(s) (would we want to put up student work that doesn’t carry such attribution?) is inconsistent with FERPA unless the students have given their prior release to do just that. And it is a bit of a trick to have a mechanism that is non-coercive in securing that release (after all, it is the instructor who gives out the course grade). At a minimum, the instructor would have to allow a way for the student to get credit for doing the work without it appearing on the public site.

Yesterday, I read the Educause piece by Steven Downes about blogging for educational purposes. It is a good article and covers the teaching issues nicely. And maybe in Canada there is no analog to FERPA; I don’t know. But although the piece was balanced in talking about where student blogs don’t work along with other cases where blogs really engage the students, I am nevertheless troubled that one of the enticements of using blogging in this way is that it potentially can engage outsiders who have an interest in what the students write about and then create a broader community that includes both the outsiders and the students. May the Force be with you but do remember there is a Dark Side and it is insidious.

Since I wear both an administrator hat and a teacher hat and go back and forth between the two, I’m sometimes not sure about where my views come from. So while this may be administrator rationalization, let me give my teaching argument for using discussion boards inside the course management system for diary posting (and then only using that if it is a type of writing that makes sense for the course) and not use blogging open to the rest of the world for instruction. Students might then opt into blogging as an alternative, “Professor, would you mind if I wrote in my blog rather than in your discussion board? Here is the url for it.” But that would not be the prescription. It would only be their option.

Pedagogically the key, especially early on in the course, is to get the students to open up. Doing so is always personally risky. In the context of teacher-student the obvious risk is that the student will “act dumb” and consequently the teacher will not hold the student in high regard. Certainly, it is necessary to get past that to have meaningful class discussion. But that is not the only risk. Occasionally, members of the class will say something that is of a personal nature and do so in the context of the class discussion. It is necessary that they have the freedom to do so. After all, we as teachers are encouraging the students to make personal connections to the subject matter so they can better internalize the material the class covers. (Recall yesterday’s discussion about encouraging students to see alternative perspectives on an issue.)

It seems to me that the default should be, “what is said in the classroom stays in the classroom,” and I for one envision the classroom as a hermetically sealed, safe environment that encourages openness among class members. The CMS structure, which some have criticized because it doesn’t sufficiently promote notions of connection and a broader sense of community, does match this idea of a hermetically sealed space quite nicely.

There is one other important point to consider. Downes makes clear the blogging (but really any diary-like writing) is as much about reading as it is about writing. There have to be issues to write about. Those issues have to seem important to the student and the student has to feel there is something to say about them. So apart from a sense of openness, the instructor must convey a sense of relevance. That may be harder to do and it very well may be that that the student writing is dull for some time, because that goal has not been achieved. In that sense the instructor goal is to have students make the leap and see the relevance and if that happens the instructor will have to a large extent succeeded in the teaching.

Consider the time before the leap has occurred. Ask whether the students are aware that they are not connecting to the material, that their writing is dull, that they feel like they are only going through the motions. Now ask whether during that phase if the work should be made available for public view. This is similar to asking whether one should showcase first drafts of work or only more polished final versions. There is a good argument to be made that earlier work should be held more closely. It is not ready for public view. By putting the work out for consideration too early that can create harm, perhaps to the extent that the polished more mature work never gets produced.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

A recap/The ALN Research Web and Evaluation

Following up on yesterday’s discussion about the Japanese retirement system, I started to imagine retiring at 60 and starting another job. What job would that be? I thought I might become a “sloganeer” for and ad agency. I began coming up with a few.

Next to the welcome sign at an aviary
One good tern deserves another.

Outside a fish restaurant
In cod we trust.

A new slogan for an exercise/diet company
A waist is a terrible thing to mind.

Sometimes Google can be terribly ego deflating. I checked each of these in Google and sure enough there were multiple entries for each of them. With head drooping, I was determined to come up with one more that wasn’t in Google.

After a fashion, and thinking of both my wife’s mom and my mom who are in various stages of dementia, I came up with
A word on the tongue is worth two in the mush (of the brain).

Sure enough, it isn’t in Google. But it’s not very catchy either. The lesson, I think, is what the Japanese already concluded. When you switch jobs your productivity drops. And at age 60 you may not learn fast enough about the new work for your productivity to return to its level, say 10 years earlier.


Yesterday on the Sloan-C listserv Roxanne Hiltz made a post about the ALN Research Web. There are a lot of good resources there and I’d encourage folks to check it out. I found this interesting tutorial on evaluation. I’m including the full url because you have to establish a login first before you can access the content.

What I liked about the tutorial is first that on the introductory page it emphasized the scientific method of proof so that we don’t go around half cocked about claims of the benefits of technology interventions and we do try to control for things like Hawthorne effects and excellent-teacher effects.

But at the same time, to the extent that practice is still emerging, requiring scientific method may be too stern a way to evaluate the activity and some more crafty approach might be preferable. Certainly, in my own teaching I get a sense of whether something has worked or not at a level to ask whether I’ll continue to do that same something the next time I teach the course. And since I don’t teach that frequently, I might very well encourage a colleague to try something similar, without having the scientific proof.

A second thing I liked about the tutorial was the way it classified different learning issues and that the very first item in the classification was “argumentative reasoning.” That pleased me enormously as it is my belief that is the most important single area to cultivate in our students. The tutorial authors came up with an interesting heuristic for thinking about argumentative reasoning.
  • logical argument structure
  • justification of claims based on evidence
  • justification of claims based on course content vs. outside resources vs. personal experience
  • consideration of alternative claims (i.e., the extent to which students' weigh the arguments on all sides)
  • cognitive procedures (e.g., elaborations, clarifications, questions, syntheses)
    rhetorical moves with a given group (e.g, agreements, disagreements, questions, rebuttals)
  • group participants' opinion or belief change as a result of interaction
    argument types (e.g., functional, non-functional, non-justificatory)

Perhaps others are well acquainted with this breakdown of argumentative reasoning. But it was new to me as an explicit listing of the desiderata. So, as I’m prone to do when I confront something new, I start to tweak it for my own purposes. The issue in the tutorial is assessment. But first and foremost I’m interested in teaching strategies that might promote these outcomes.

I zeroed in on consideration of alternative claims. This is definitely an area where students have trouble, even the better students, because of their prior disposition that there must be a “right” way to view something and, of course, that the professor was there to give them that view. (Incidentally, I recall a book we read in graduate school called The Foundation of Statistics by Leonard Savage and Milton Friedman that in the introduction talks about controversy in fields of study and usually the most controversial are the fundamental assumptions. This important point is typically not made at all to undergraduates or if made is not done in a way that resonates with them.)

My own conclusion on the alternative claims issue and what instructors might do is that students don’t immediately see what is in their own realm of experience that can tie into consideration of the alternative claim. The teacher can “give the students perspective” by finding some common element of experience that would provide such tie in. I don’t think this is particularly hard for the instructor, if one is alerted to the need for doing it. But it probably does require some agility because the instructor must assess what more narrow belief the students are clinging too as well as why some alternative view is being discarded.

The great thing about the Web in this regard is that by having the students do brief writes online, either in a content survey or in a discussion forum, the instructor can get a sense of the class quite quickly so this type of quick assessment is readily facilitated.

It is my belief, really my hope (I haven’t come close to scientifically testing the hypothesis) that if the instructor does this tie in activity several times, the students will start reframing the issues on their own and make their own tie-ins.

As for the other bullet points on the list, it seems to me an interesting agenda to come up with teaching strategies that have a chance to promote each of these. My friend and colleague, Peggy Lant, has repeatedly made the point that one of the most important things we do as teachers is to model for our students what we want them to achieve. It may not be flattering to express it as “monkey see monkey do” but that surely is what we believe should happen in the classroom.

Yet it is worth asking if we can go further than that by designing activities for the students that will elicit the desired behaviors en passant as they do the work. And what we should try to avoid is having them treat these things as a bunch of arbitrary rules they must follow to get a good grade in the course but which otherwise doesn’t resonate with them at all. As I’ve mentioned in a post a while back, experiential learning is very powerful. The trick is planning for it to happen.

Here is one last thing about the tutorial that is worth mentioning. There are examples provided of successful assessment in each area within the classification scheme. Monkey see monkey do doesn’t just apply to our students. We should go for it too and do more evaluation work.

Friday, June 17, 2005

What should we teach students about writing online?

My personal “ best blog award” goes to the Becker and Posner blog. It is a good read. The most recent posts concern the issue of retirement systems. Becker’s post of June 12 talks about the Japanese system and it is fascinating. They have one of the earliest official retirement dates, age 60 at which benefits start to flow, yet people continue to work after that, almost to age 70, but in different jobs at lower pay. From this blog you learn new ideas and get highly informed and well argued opinion on those ideas.

Does the writing match the medium? My guess is that if you asked them, neither Becker nor Posner would say they have changed their writing style at all relative to what they used to write in print journals aimed at the general interest. (Becker used to write a regular column for Business Week.) What has changed, evidently, is that Becker and Posner now commune more directly with their readers. The responses from the readership are more rapid and I’m guessing more voluminous. They make a point of counting the comments on the blog, I presume to emphasize this community participation.

But both of these guys are in their 60s and they clearly are users of the medium not pioneers of it. Should younger writers be more cognizant of the medium? Should they write in a less discursive and more clipped manner, making quick hitter points and then getting out?

My own view on this is yes, they should be cognizant, but no, they should not be writing quick hitters. Let me start with the latter idea. We instructors are trying to make our students grow past novice stage into more mature stages in considering ideas and issues. This is true regardless of the subject. We are aiming at promoting depth in the student thinking. Depth requires viewing ideas from multiple perspectives and seeing interconnection between ideas. Writing should bring out the perspectives and the interconnections. So it should linger long enough to make them clear. And, in particular, it should be done in a way where students are not fully satisfied with the first idea that pops into their head as “the solution” or “the way to think about that issue.” The first idea is a starting point, not an ending point.

What about being cognizant of the medium? How does that change the writing? Consider a well researched book. It is loaded with footnotes, or more frequently in my recent experience, endnotes. Online, because of the convenience, one can link to the source and in that sense using hyperlinks is like using footnotes. But the nature of the way the ideas emerge might be quite different. In book writing presumably the author has done a lot of library and field research prior to writing the book and the references and footnotes reflect that prior work.

In writing online, particularly in writing shorter essays the “research,” which might take only a couple of hours or even only a few minutes, can be co-mingled with the writing activity. I come up with an idea. Then I ask, has anybody done something interesting on that? So I do a few Google searches. Then I read quickly through a few Web sites. Does any of that resonate? If no, I might iterate a couple of times more. If I find something, that’s great. I can use it to illustrate. Ultimately what I’m trying to do with the writing is to illustrate an idea and others saying it better or making a parallel point is really helpful at illustration. If I don't find anything I might drop the idea because of the lack illustration.

So I for one would expect an online document to be well hyperlinked to illustrate ideas and that is a function of the medium, no doubt.

What else is there about writing online? In days of yore during some of the worst winters I endured while a grad student at Northwestern, after hours I used to go drinking with a classmate who was an English major as an undergrad and debate form versus content. He was the form guy.

Now, though I’m not particularly skilled at it myself, I do care about the visual layout on the screen. Partly because I’ve got floaters and occasionally when I’m viewing the screen it feels like I’m looking through waxed paper, I prefer a very uncluttered look. Some Web sites I see are jammed with stuff and to me that is no good for reading (but it might be good for finding links so I would rather have one or the other but not both). I also cringe at blogs that use 8 point font or smaller. As I age form matters more to me and online the preferred forms are different than the ones for paper.

The other issue with writing online is co-mingling text with video, audio, or images. I haven’t thought hard enough about this to understand in my own mind whether this is fundamentally different from the hyperlinking issue. I have put multimedia into “learning objects” but in that case the writing tends to be quite sparse. I have not done a document which gives intensive treatment to both text and video.

I can say that in the smart classroom arena, the market is being driven by what is happening in home entertainment. Perhaps the same will be true for writing online. It is now standard for a new movie to have an associated Web site to show clips but also to provide annotation about the movie and give credits (particularly to the featured actors). These online documents are adjuncts for the movie and might not survive as things unto themselves. But they may provide a model of what good co-mingling documents should be like.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Faculty Research as a Complement to Undergraduate Teaching

When I first started at Illinois, the Carter presidency was winding down and the Reagan ascendancy had not yet started. In those days and in spite of the powerful voice of Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, Higher Education was viewed as a public good, to be financed largely via subsidy from the state. Many of the faculty who came of age then operated under a certain set of assumptions. Much of that is being challenged now, but I’d like to review those assumptions first because I think many of my colleagues still hold them dear and second because it is a useful basis on which to consider the cost issues I’ve talked about the last few days.

From the brand new assistant professor point of view, I came to Illinois primarily to do Econ research. It was a way of life, not just a job. I was in the office most Saturday and Sunday mornings trying to prove results or write them up. While I had a course buyout my first semester to help get me started, the normal teaching load was two courses per semester, with the expectation that on average one would be a grad class and one would be an undergrad class. That first semester I taught intermediate microeconomics, was absolutely horrible at it and got bombed on my course evaluations. I knew the subject at the graduate level really well, but didn’t know how to teach these students. The next semester I was grateful when I got to teach graduate math econ and undergraduate math econ. I felt comfortable in those settings and did better.

This was the pattern the next year as well (but I had two sections of intermediate micro in the fall.) Those sections were in the 60 student range. The other courses had perhaps 10 or 15 per, and one was a grad class. A year or two later, I stopped teaching the intermediate micro in favor of teaching in the graduate core micro courses.

The most striking memory I have of all of that was the call for rigor. Concepts needed precise definitions and arguments had to be made as if doing a mathematical proof. A good teacher, or so I thought, presented ideas in a clear way, was well prepared to make the arguments, and could give deep answers to serious questions.

I had a much narrower view of the Campus then. Mostly it revolved around the Econ department and apart from my own research and teaching the seminars were extremely important. This is where ideas were exchanged and commented on, where we had outside speakers and grad students presenting their formative work. It was the center of the culture.

There were other departments with Econ in the title, Ag Econ and Family and Consumer Economics (they have since merged). There was some Econ in the Geography department on Urban and Regional Issues, some in Engineering on Transportation Economics and Energy Economics, and a bunch of Environmental guys were doing an “Energy theory of Value” which in its modeling was Samuelson doing Marx (Karl, not Groucho). So there was no doubt that core ideas were applicable in multiple domains and the key was to get a deep understanding of the core ideas. The rigor in the teaching was tied to the idea of deep understanding. Students were expected to “think hard” to get that deep understanding. This is a graduate student idea, but we applied it to undergrads too.

A major goal of undergrad instruction at the time was to generate students who would attend good doctoral programs in Economics. The undergrad math econ course was targeted at this population of students. For a while there was also a majors or honors version of intermediate micro meant to be taught with more rigor. I taught that a couple of times, using a text by Binger and Hoffman. (Hoffman is now the ex-President of the University of Colorado. She was an assistant prof at NU while I was a grad student there.) At least for this population of students, they were receiving a distilled version of ideas I had been exposed to in grad school and though my direct research was not applicable to the course, the more general research environment I operated in definitely was.

But what about the broader population of students? Where is the tie in between my research and my teaching? And what about considering this question more broadly> Let’s not focus just on Lanny and his undergraduate teaching, let’s consider all the undergrad teaching being done here. Are there positive spillovers as perceived by the students from having a research faculty member as an instructor? If so, what are they?

For the best and the brightest the answer is an obvious yes. Courses serve as gateways. Students meet instructors and vice versa. Sometimes the conversation continues beyond the course and sometimes it leads to a work relationship, in a lab or on a research project. Now the student has rocketed from classroom learning to being part of new knowledge production in an environment that is hard if not impossible to replicate at non research universities. This is wunderbar for the student and of course it is good for the research team too to have young progeny who then go off and do great works elsewhere.

Do we know who the best and the brightest are going to be when the students are admitted to the University? To the extent we don’t, that the students self-identify after they’ve been here through some combination of self-actualization and cross student competition, the entire structure can be rationalized that way. But to the extent that game is loaded heavily in favor of a select few, there needs to be a broader benefit from the research.

I know some of my colleagues feel there is. Students come to Illinois to learn economics from Lanny Arvan. (That is not really true, but better to embarrass myself in making the point than to place that burden on a colleague.) That means the learning must be unique to some degree even if the subject matter (and course titles) are generic. There is the Lanny Arvan style to teaching intermediate micro, the particular points of emphasis, the entire approach. That is wrapped up in the faculty member as researcher (and is not in the text book which to a large extent is generic.)

Might a non-researcher produce a unique style that has sufficient flavor and interest as to attract students beyond what the course title alone would attract? In the mindset of the colleagues I’ve mentioned, I think the answer to that is no. How could such a person establish a credential? The only way is through their writing, their research.

As I said, these views may now seem archaic, an anachronism suitable for another age but not appropriate now. We are seemingly commodify-ing education particularly in the first two years of the college experience where the focus is on general education, and the move to learner centric approaches may be much more democratic in the way the benefits of education are distributed but it may come at the expense of rigor. Today’s column in the Times by David Brooks makes a similar argument with regard to mass culture as exemplified by Time and Newsweek.

Is there a role for the research faculty member in undergraduate instruction in the new world? Surely for courses where the knowledge itself is fairly new the answer must be yes (there aren’t others to teach the course). But what about those courses where the knowledge is not so new, but the ideas are important for the students to learn. Is the researcher important in that context? That is a tough one.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

On the Economics of Teaching with Graduate Students

Views differ on whether using graduate students as instructors is cost effective for undergraduate teaching. The case for is that research departments will have vigorous doctoral programs. That is their core business. Doctoral students require funding. That is a fixed cost associated with the program. So in essence the graduate student labor is free (though it is recognized that if they didn’t teach they could take more course work). The case against is that it is a way to subjugate the grad students to slave-like conditions, retard their progress toward degree and impede their growth as researchers, all in the name of providing surplus for the research faculty in the department who prefer to teach grad students and supervise the occasional dissertation.

Whether one view is right versus the other is not intrinsic to doctoral education but rather depends on how the doctoral program is run. So instead of resolving that issue here, I’m going to content myself with a simpler question. If there is doctoral program and the grad students serve as TAs in undergraduate instruction, overall does the program break even, generate a surplus, or require a subsidy to operate?

I’m going to work through the arithmetic to get a feel for how to answer that question. But before I do, let’s make the following observation. In the calculation yesterday I was implicitly assuming a three credit hour course taught solely by the instructor. When grad students serve as TAs they frequently do so by running a recitation section that is one hour a week. Frequently they will teach several recitation sections. Let’s say they do three of these. If the average size of these sections is 25 students, then in the language we used yesterday, because the contribution margins were per course we should think of the TAs as teaching 25 student in total, not 75 students. Yesterday credit hours were in the background. Today we need to keep track of them a little more carefully.

The basic question being asked is now straightforward to consider. Graduate students teaching undergrads, narrowly defined, is a surplus generating activity. Research faculty teaching grad students is a subsidy requiring activity (recall the tuition and fee waivers for grad students). What is the net overall?

I’m going to do the calculation in the context of a department where revenue is tuition financed. I’ll use convenient numbers so the arithmetic is simple but they won’t differ too much from reality.

Let’s suppose the grad students get half-time assistantships that pay $20,000 per year and that the teaching load in the department is that a TA gets three recitation sections per semester (as I suggested above). From the calculation yesterday, the break even number of students per year is 50. This means section size of 25 students per semester. If sections are actually of size 30, then under the same assumptions as in the post yesterday, the TA generates a surplus of $4,000. If section size is 35, the surplus is $8,000. (Graduate students who don’t pass the TOEFL are typically assigned as graders. The calculation for them is a little different but not in a fundamental sense, so I won’t do that arithmetic here.)

So if a graduate cohort has 20 students it will generate a surplus of between $80,000 and $160,000 depending on actual section size averaging between 30 student and 35 students.

These graduate students take courses, probably three per semester, maybe two if they are a little further on. If the standard faculty teaching load in the department is four courses per year, then under yesterday’s assumptions, the opportunity cost of teaching a grad course is $25,000. So if that cohort of 20 grad students takes their courses in lock step in a section of size 20, the overall program generates a surplus. If they take a disparate set of courses that vary in size, with some courses say having only 5 students, then it is possible that the program will require a subsidy to be flush.

Certainly in Economics and I suspect in many other graduate programs as well, there is a core set of courses that all students must take. By the above, the core is probably surplus generating and the surplus is dissipated as the students get into their field courses. Rules on how frequently graduate courses are offered and minimal class size for them to be offered are determined by considerations similar to the ones outlined in this post. Naturally, assistantships vary by discipline as does average section size. But the nature of these calculations is the same.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

More on Cost Containment: Beyond High Faculty Salaries

Economists like arithmetic. Let’s do some to illustrate the issues. Suppose an instructor who teaches undergrads makes $100K per year and that salary is entirely tuition financed. Imagine that tuition is $8,000/year, pretty close to the current in state number. Suppose the typical students take 5 courses per term in each of the fall and the spring. That makes $800 per course. Imagine that half of that goes to overhead while the rest goes directly to instruction. Then for this to be a break even activity we have

$100,000 = $400 per student x 250 students

Or more generally we can write the break even equation in English so that we can get at the essential ideas.

Instructor Salary = (Dollar contribution per student) x (number of students taught)

The break even number of students taught is determined by the other two parameters of this equation. So we back out the 250 students number by dividing the instructor salary by the dollar contribution per student. In principle one can break out each activity this way to find its break even level, though there are interdependencies, for example in the above in the way the overhead was allocated.

Let’s abstract from that and note that if the instructor taught 250 students but earned say only $80K, then this activity would generate a surplus. Conversely, if the instructor taught only 120 students but continued to earn $100k, the activity would require a subsidy to make up the shortfall. Similarly, teaching graduate courses to doctoral students usually entails a subsidy since these students normally get a tuition and fee waiver and hence for them the dollar contribution per student is zero.

The fact that an activity requires a subsidy to sustain does not mean it is bad in any way, shape, or form, as Massy points out. In fact it means it is a goodie for someone. The issue is whether as the circle gets drawn larger and larger from individual to department to college and then to the campus, the university and the state, whether the transfers that do occur are perceived as the right ones. Well paid faculty who attract innovative commercial enterprise to the state or who provide good works for the inner city may be a great investment when viewed at the many different levels. But if at the state level the campus is perceived as inward looking those same well paid faculty will appear self-aggrandizing and substitutable with cheaper alternatives.

The issue, then, is identifying the subsidized activities and their beneficiaries. This must be done on a recurrent basis and thereby either affirming the commitment to these activities or trimming/eliminating them. We always talk about what a large decentralized place Illinois is. That may not be intended as a euphemism for saying there are zillions of hidden subsidies, but the guess here is that most of the benefit is captured close to where the activity is generated (this is the nature of the Higher Education beast) and especially in tight budgets making overt what has historically been implicit seems like a necessary way to go.

Monday, June 13, 2005

On Cost Containment at Major Public Universities

It is extremely difficult to talk about cost issues in Higher Ed, especially among faculty who embrace learning technology and folks who support instruction. Cost ideas are perceived to be either orthogonal or antagonistic to the mission, promoting good teaching. Moreover, these "folks in the trenches" don't normally deal with fiscal issues so they don't readily see how cost saving innovation would benefit themselves. The one exception to this rule is on cost savings that directly reduce their own efforts, particularly efforts in administering a course. Instructors are willing to engage when they are the direct beneficiary and staff are of course happy when they can please instructors. But economies in capital resources or with other staff, for example reduced use of heavily scheduled classrooms, are not of interest to them. There is no thought that such a savings might come back to them or their students through some indirect path. In other words, cost savings are not a value per se.

And indeed, since many have seen their work burden rise as campuses have had to take budget cuts in the name of efficiency, there is a general suspicion that costs savings imply personal harm, not personal benefit. (Today Steve Gilbert sent out a message on the TLT listserve entitled "Overwhelmed or just Whelmed.")

This means that cost reduction is not likely to come from grass root efforts and instead must be done top down, if it is achieved at all. How should that be done? William Massy is one of the few people who has written on the subject. Honoring the Trust gives a thorough treatment of the main issues.

I want to ask a different set of questions, namely, do all departments have to do both research and (undergraduate) teaching? Can some be only one? How would the size of the departments differ in one case versus the other? Who benefits from the department aside from the faculty who are in it?

Asking these questions may sound like sacrilege, especially on my campus. But, in particular, if revenue is insufficient to make for a really good research department and the research is highly theoretical, only appreciated by other scholars in the field, and if the field itself is quite safe from extinction in that many other universities have such a department, where is the harm?

A standard tenet of project management is that if you must curb cost then reduce scope. I believe the same applies to the university as a whole. But how would accreditation committees view a campus that took this approach? And what about potential students? It is reality here that Engineering is the hardest college to get into, measured by minimum required ACT scores, while LAS is much easier. Engineering departments are, in general, big generators of external grant funds. LAS is more schizophrenic, roughly dividing on the lines of science versus humanities.

Now one more question to get back to the theme in the title. Campuses such as mine are all about new programs. There is programmatic innovation, whether in something interdisciplinary between Engineering and Business, an Information Technology minor for Humanities students, or a new International Studies program. The rule is that such programs are resource consumers.

How can we do anything new without raising cost unless we cut something old? And if we bought that logic, what would we cut?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Information LIteracy, The Lesson of Viet Nam, The Higher Ed Budget Morass

My favorite columnist in the Times is Frank Rich, he of the sharp tongue and penetrating insight. In today's piece, which ties together Watergate and the Bush administration’s cowing of the press, Rich argues that the Bushites have gone to places Nixon and crew could only imagine by the way they manipulate information. (In this case keeping out of the spotlight the WMD disinformation that was practiced to get Tony Blair on board for Iraq.)

Rich also calls Iraq another Viet Nam. My personal lesson from Viet Nam, one that I wish the country had learned but apparently not, is that authority must justify itself. Of course, Nixon as historic exemplar and Bush II as quintessential personification do not. Bush acts with extreme hubris, practicing the old bait and switch rather than trying anything even remotely approximating honest debate on the issues.

Of course Nixon fell, though 30 years later the current generation gets a spin rather than reality. This is Rich at his best:

"Mr. Colson said, oh so sorrowfully, on NBC's "Today" show, condemning Mr. Felt for dishonoring "the confidence of the president of the United States." Never mind that Mr. Colson dishonored the law, proposed bombing the Brookings Institution and went to prison for his role in the break-in to steal the psychiatric records of The Times's Deep Throat on Vietnam, Daniel Ellsberg."

In spite of Rich's stinging commentary, however, we must remember that he is a partisan democrat. Viet Nam itself happened under Johnson. And Enron, of course, was a stepchild of Clinton, who had produced a New Economy capable of enormous (though fictitious) growth rates and encouraging a suspension of incredulity (and of reasonable accounting practices) that invited the rich and powerful to behave just like P.T. Barnum. I'm far from a fan of the Bushies, never having voted for a Republican president, but one must consider the broader ethical environment. The Bushies are brazen to be sure, but they didn't invent that. My parents loved Clinton, but I never warmed up to him. I thought we were getting spin from the get go. I still think that.

How's a kid growing up today to know what the truth really is? One of Rich's other points is that the culture gets its information from the movies. But the movies are out there to entertain and make a buck. Rich's article titles indicates that the "follow the money line" was not in the book by Bernstein and Woodward. I read the book 30 years ago. I don't remember anything I read 30 years ago. But I've seen the movie maybe 5 or 6 times, mostly on TV, probably the last time only a few years ago. And on that I suppose I'm typical.

So Woodward is Robert Redford, Bernstein is Dustin Hoffman, Deep Throat is Hal Holbrook, and "follow the money" is an invention of the screenplay, but one we all believe is part of the original account. Most kids in college today have seen the movie, I bet, but how many of them have read the book? Perhaps a generation from now Nixon will be remembered as going to China (a line in one of the Star Trek Movies) but not as a President who resigned from office. This rewriting of history is scary.

So I started to think how much of the same thing happens in Higher Ed. Consider this little factoid. When I started in 1980-81, my salary in Econ was $19,500 and that was right at market. This year the starting salary for a new assistant professor in Econ in in the high $90's. Over a 25 year period that is a growth rate of almost 7% a year. That is phenomenal. And, of course, Econ is not exceptional as a discipline in this regard.

Who's talking about it? As far as I can tell, nobody is. Public universities like Illinois are crying uncle under the economic strain, but is anybody doing anything to curb the cost escalation? It's the old bait and switch. Nixon would be proud. Imagine him as Provost.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Student Heterogeneity: Nurture versus Prestige 2

When I taught the large intermediate microeconomics course, a rule of thumb was that Engineering students would like the course more than Business students. Two obvious reasons for this preference: (1) Engineering classes are in general more demanding than Business classes in terms of both the expectation about the time required to do the work and also about the expectation of the difficulty level of the work. (2) Feeling comfortable with Economics taught at this level requires feeling comfortable about mathematical modeling.

For the Engineers the Econ course was neither particularly hard nor particularly time consuming and among the courses that fit the social science, Econ is probably closest to Engineering. For the Business majors, the Econ course as I taught it was time consuming and "they had to teach themselves" rather than have the instructor do that for them. Furthermore, apart from some operations research stuff, which most Business students opt out of, mathematical modeling is not emphasized in the rest of the Business curriculum.

Econ is now in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences but when I taught intermediate micro it was in the College of Commerce and Business Administration (now College of Business). Many LAS students wanted to transfer into CBA and the Econ Courses were both a way to parallel the CBA curriculum and those course served a gating function. This meant LAS students who were CBA wannabes viewed the Econ courses as hurdles to overcome. Their perceptions of these courses may have been even more focused on earning a good grade in the course (CBA student were very grade conscious) because the ability to transfer to CBA was tied to GPA and performance in CBA core courses.

Although Econ has always had a sizable number of majors, the Business students and LAS wannabes were the majority in my course. So there was a majority student population who had a hostile view of the course. They clearly viewed it as a screen and not infrequently would inquire about why the course was required. For my part, I taught a thorough course that I felt was at the appropriate level for the students intellectually. But it was quite obvious to me that I wasn't nurturing this group. At the time I believe I viewed that as an impossible goal, in a similar way that it is impossible to get pre-med Biology students to like Organic Chemistry.

Now I think I could nurture that group to some, but whether I could nurture all groups that are horizontally differentiated in the way Engineering Students are different from Business students, I'm not sure.

There are other ways that students are differentiated. One is in their willingness to put in time working on the course outside the live class session. One might think of this willingness as itself an indicator of student seriousness. But at the conference I attended last Monday a different view was articulated by several people in attendance. They argued that many students are taking a full load of courses while working full time. The underlying reason must be that these are lower income people who have to pay their own tuition and don't want to go part time because that will preclude the better programs that don't allow a part time student or because that path implies a longer time to degree. For such students, an instructor demanding that students put in a lot of time out of class makes it that much harder for these students to matriculate. As far as the argument goes, I think we can all understand it.

However, what I couldn't understand but what they argued is that such students should be accommodated by having fewer out of class requirements. That is, courses should have a low total time requirement for students because some of them will be working full time and this is the only way to accommodate. I think this is throwing the baby out with the bath water. Long term, the value of the education in the labor market has to be tied to what that education has produced in terms of productivity. How can the education produce much if anything with a low time requirement for completion? That just doesn't wash.

But there is a related idea that does need to be considered as well. Some things are time consuming to complete because they are difficult. Conversely, if something is easy to pursue then one can race through it. The difficulty level matters both for the time issue and directly as well on whether the education is nurturing.

Yet it is not so straightforward. Bright people need to be challenged. There is no learning without that. In a challenging but successful environment the student goes from unknowing, perhaps feeling some anxiety about that, to perception, which brings a sense of self-confidence. There may not be that much difference from the successful situation and the one where the student finds himself blown out of the water. Is it the teacher or the student? Is it lack of nurture or lack of discipline and effort? Or is it none of these and just a bad fit on the subject matter?

Those were the questions I had when I got started with learning technology. In some respects we haven't come so far.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Nurture versus Prestige in School Choice

It's interesting what you pick up at conferences. At the Hybrid Learning thing at Northwestern last Monday, I ate lunch with the group I facilitate in the morning, which had representatives from various Big Ten schools and the University of Chicago. We had a good conversation. One of the group who was an instructional designer had been an undergrad at Northwestern. He had started in the six year Med School program and then transferred to Philosophy. He said that most of his professor were terrible --- very arrogant. Then he transferred to Illinois State, where he said he got a much better education.

If you compare tuition at NU to tuition at ISU, they are amazingly different. And no doubt NU is the more prestigious school. From where does that prestige arise? Surely it is a combination of the research records of the faculty as measured by the ranks of the various academic departments, the SAT/ACT scores of the students in attendance, and various measures of resource abundance - number of computer labs and how they are equipped, size of the Library, etc. On all of those metrics ISU comes up short. But at least for this one student, none of that mattered. What mattered was that the instructors care. At ISU, they do.

One of the themes through out this conference (it was just a one day event) is that most professors don't know how to teach (but they think they do).

Some posts back I talked about the human capital approach versus the signaling/screening approach to higher education. ISU sure looks like human capital and NU like signaling/screening. The latter is probably what generates the big economic return from getting a college degree. The former is what makes going to college a valuable experience for the students who attend. I'm not sure what it means for the prospects of improving pedagogy broadly. Something else to scratch my head about.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

On endgames and rethinking curricula in high school

On a drive up to a meeting in Chicago recently the bunch in the car were comparing their high schools in terms of the size of the graduating class. One person was from a Chicago burb and had something like 400 students. Another was from a remote town in Nebraska and had 38. I had almost 1200 at Cardozo H.S. in Bayside Queens, NY. There were so many students the school was on split session.

In 10th grade I was on the late session which started at 11:40 AM and went till 5:40 PM. I got to sleep in every morning and watch the Tonight Show every night (and on the East Coast that started at 11:30 PM). Probably my most intense year academically was 11th grade where I took both AP Chemistry and the required Physics and two math classes; Algebra and Analytic Geometry was the required course while Math Team Workshop was kind of an odd course that supposedly helped us learn math problem solving.

There was a lot of tracking in the school (and some curricular that I believe subsequently were deemed racist and hence dropped). All my courses were either Honors or even Extra Honors, in Math. The only courses I can recall that were not tracked were Gym, Music, and Economics (go figure that last one). All things considered, that worked out quite well. In the main the "honors" meant enrichment and for bright kids enrichment is a good thing. Even my AP Chem course fit that bill.

This was the third class I took from Mr. Kramer (first Earth Science, then regular Chem) another of those really good teachers. He got me to do an experiment to measure dust pollution, that was one of the few real lab (in this case on the roof of my house) exercises I ever did, with real measurements and longitudinal record keeping. I also recall him taking us downtown (to Hunter College or City College, I'm not sure which) to see that apparatus and learn how real chemists do it. One afternoon in lab he gassed us when a reaction with hydrochloric acid somehow leaked out of the hood. At the time I think I knew a lot of Chemistry. The book was by Sienko and Plane (a classic) and as an 11th grader in with mostly 12th graders I was feeling my oats.

The next year was a let down, mostly. I remember the kids not taking classes very seriously and the teachers letting them get away with it. I wish I could say I was above that, but I wasn't (though I was one of the few kids in the Calculus class who actually sat for the AP exam.) Now it is true that kids get all wrapped up in the college admissions process so that senioritis in some form is probably inevitable. But why be so intense about learning in 11th grade and then so blase about it in 12th grade. Does that make sense?

The current solution to the problem is the AP course. There are seemingly zillions of these. When I taught the Campus Honors course a year ago, one of the kids told me had more than 50 hours of credit in AP courses. He had Junior standing though he was but a second semester first year student. In some cases these AP courses appeal to a certain logic: (a) the "equivalent" course taught in college is typically very high enrollment and often has graduate student instructors, so getting out of it makes sense and allows the student to take more advanced courses with fewer students in the class and taught by a regular faculty member. This is all true as far as it goes, but it is strategic gobbledygook and not fundamentally about the student's learning. Many of the students in the CHP class were less than impressed by the AP courses they had taken.

If the effect of our college requirements are to get the best and the brightest to get out of them by taking them in high school....... You don't need to be a genius to complete that syllogism. And if younger but very bright kids are better off getting enrichment in their education rather than racing through what are otherwise mediocre if more advanced courses, why not offer them just that?

The race might go to the swiftest, but learning is for a lifetime. When we're in the prime learning years, let's stop and smell the roses, or gas out a lab aimed at teaching kids real science.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

developing a sense of taste

Anne Bancroft's passing is a cause for sadness and reflection. Her screen roles brought an intelligence and sophistication that haven't been present in too many other actors of our age. I recall not understanding how she could be married to Mel Brooks, he of the "no low joke should be left unturned" approach. I was interested to learn from her obituary that she was from the Bronx. So, in spite of the difference in their on screen demeanor, they were a pair of New Yorkers, very talented ones, children of immigrants, and that combination of factors produced their excellence.

We are graced when we see a performance by a first class actor. The experience challenges us, rekindles our imagination, and ultimately raises us. The situation is similar for the student with a first class teacher. Yesterday I mentioned Mr. Conrad. I was fortunate to have him. And I've been lucky to have a handful of other really excellent teachers.

What is the lifelong benefit from having such a good teacher early on? There is nostalgia, certainly, but there is also a profound sense of having benefited in terms of world outlook and point of view. Mr. Conrad helped share a sense of interest and wonder in mathematics; issues that were interesting to consider armed with the tools of algebra, geometry, and imagination.

A.P. Mattuck, who taught a couple of courses I took as a freshman at MIT, was another of those inspirational teachers. He showed mostly just how important imagination is and that it can be cultivated by work on interesting problems. That lesson seems to me somewhat ironic, especially given all the emphasis on learning objects nowadays. Everything that Mattuck taught us and had us work on came from within our own heads.

Teachers who inspire and affect a student's perspective for life do so in ways that are not readily measured on a test or a course project. These instructors help the student to understand notions of elegance and beauty, to give the students something worthwhile to emulate by making explicit what they value and care about, to help the students focus their curiosity on a new (for the student) way of thinking about the world, to give them reasons to persist on a problem when the are stuck and not opt for the easy out.

All of these things are unlikely to emerge purely by the student's self-discovery or by working through issues with peers. Above all else, really good teachers develop a sense of taste in their students. They make a student care and make a student know what is important.

Let us cherish these teachers and hope that other teachers aspire to be like them. And let us allow these teachers to choose their method and not foist our method onto them.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

On introspection and "deep" thinking

Though I'm an economist professionally, when I was an undergrad I was a Math guy and had been one since eighth grade. My recollection is that particularly in high school the teachers did several different things to promote serious thinking about math. One of these was the Problem Of The Week. Someone, probably Mr. Conrad, found a problem from somewhere or conjured it up on their own and posted on the bulletin board outside the Math Department Office. Students would then be invited to submit their solutions to these and there was an envelope where solutions could be placed. I can't recall what the "reward" for getting a right solution was - perhaps your name got posted, perhaps you got out of doing more grunt type of work. The real reward was in the doing.

Some examples of the type of problems we confronted indicate the abilities in the kids that were being cultivated. The problems require a strong algebraic and geometric intuition for solution but they are not from a pattern of like problems. They each have some unique aspect and hence their solution requires coming up with an approach that fits the problem rather than applying some pre-developed approach. As I've written in an earlier post, by the time I got to college I was somewhat vexed by where the approach that works comes from. But I do know I have some aptitude for it. I gave myself a smile by working on the problems on this sheet. I was able to do those, pretty quickly.

The fundamental skill is asking the question, "what do I need to do to solve this problem?" and then trying varying approaches that might produce a result. This is definitely not trial by error. That will never get you to the answer. This is trial by intuition. There is a "smart guess" about what might be a promising direction. And then there are the various math facts that we can apply to see if that guess yields an answer.

Consider this particular problem. Two independent random variables are uniformly distributed on the interval between 0 and 2. What is the probability that the absolute value of the their difference is less than 1?

My first guess was to write down the double integral and then perform the necessary integration. After about 30 seconds, I scratched that. The bounds of integration were the key and they seemed a bit tricky. But that was a clue to the next guess. Graph it. Draw the 2 by 2 square. Draw the region where that difference is less than 1. That turns out to be the main intuition. The next one is to draw the main diagonal of the square. To the right of the diagonal x is bigger than y. That happens half the time. Figure out the area in that case, then double the answer. After that it's a little algebra to plot x - y = 1 and then to realize that instead of computing the area of trapezoid that is a little hard to do one can compute the area of a complementary right triangle that is very easy.

At each step in the process one looks for --- is that it? do I see the answer? If not, then one looks for --- is there something simple that I know how to do that will help me make progress? And if not then one usually bails out and tries something else. The process is not foolproof. Sparks of intuition are required. The intuition is what makes it fun. It is discovery.

When I write, I go through something similar. What topic should I choose for the Blog today? Is that interesting? Why? What do I have to say about it? This old book I've mentioned before, Learning by Teaching by Donald M. Murray, makes essentially the same point about writing. Perhaps the one big difference with writing is that the problem wasn't posed by someone else. So there is the choice of topic question with the writing. But really, especially if you are writing a brief essay like my blog posts rather than writing an entire book, there is not that much difference in the choice of topic than in the choice of method of approach to a unique problem formulated by someone else. My own view is that studying math in high school is a very good way to learn how to write.

In a recent Op-Ed piece in the Times, Stanley Fish articulated quite a different view about learning how to write. But taking sides in the form versus content "controversy" doesn't seem to be getting at the root of my process. As part of my process, after a sentence is written I do think you have to ask, "Does the sentence say what I had meant it to say?" Answering that, at least for me, is quite similar to answering whether I've figured out the math problem or if I have to work on it more. I don't think about subject, verb, object. To me, that is paralyzing.

In my view of the world both the math problem solving and the writing represent what we want of someone who "thinks critically," though that expression might include other modes of thought as well. One key way that they are unified is that these are solitary activities and that we associate such critical thinking with being off on your own, scratching your head, staring at wall, looking inward for the answer. Sure one can work through the math problems with others, parent with kid, teacher with student, student with other student, but the idea that each contributes to helping the other "see" the answer and in that way the solution is "negotiated" is contrary to my experience.

The current practices we seem to be promoting with learning technology - even inquiry based approaches - seem to give short shrift to introspection. I wonder what Mr. Conrad would think about the "constructivist" approaches that so many are advocating for online instruction. I'm afraid he'd not be in favor. Is there a way to reconcile the Mr. Conrad view with constructivism or should we be fearful about the negotiation in group approach in that we might actually be hurting students by not pushing them hard enough to see where their own intuitions will take them?

Monday, June 06, 2005

The Freshmen Up At Harvard Can't Be Bothered

I'm at a conference on Hybrid Learning at Northwestern that has folks from the CIC schools and some from California too. Last night, I went to dinner with a few folks from my campus who support instruction in other units on campus than those under me and we got onto the issue of the various faculty development programs they run and how much of the faculty participation is tepid to nonexistent. Most of these programs are aimed at junior faculty. When it comes to teaching, these faculty are much like the freshmen at Harvard --- they can't be bothered.

We talked a little about whether these faculty perceive problems with their own teaching. The answers ranged from , "No!" to "Well, they're not very satisfied with their teaching. Granted, they put in a lot of effort into their research, but they work a lot and put significant time into their teaching too. They should be motivated to improve their teaching so they can feel more satisfied."

If those saying no are the vast majority, there is not hope. For the instructors point of view, if it ain't broke.... However, if the majority are in the other category, that the faculty can't be bothered probably depends on who it is that is doing the bothering.

When people try to sell me stuff on the phone, I hang up on them. In general, I don't like to be rude, but there are certain folks you just don't talk to. Perhaps for our faculty, particularly the junior faculty, they just don't talk with staff who support instruction, or any staff for that matter, unless the need is really great.

It may be conventional wisdom that faculty will talk with other faculty, but even that has to be conditioned, I believe. If I'm at all typical, those early events with a Dean or Provost hosting, that are supposed to get new faculty together are excruciating. Faculty want to talk with others where they feel comfortable. That means a common world view, that discussions "make sense" and lead somewhere, and that they don't have to be on their best behavior to participate and get something out of the conversation.

If you consider what we're trying to do with teaching, especially on moving a course from an instructor-centric to a student-centric approach, it doesn't necessarily fit into the class of conversations where faculty feel comfortable. So a broad-based approach pursued by the learning support staff is bound to butt heads with the what makes faculty comfortable issue. The obvious question then, is there an alternative?

The answer to that in the '90s was a definite yes - rely on a "faculty champions" approach. The answer now might be a more guarded yes. From the staff perspective, it is easier to find "eager beavers" among instructors who are not on the tenure path. It is fun to work with such instructors since they care about their teaching and are receptive to the suggestions by the consultants. However, they are likely to have only a very limited influence on the teaching of tenure track faculty. So this is a possibility but not necessarily a path to success.

One might have to look harder for tenured faculty who suddenly show an interest in teaching but, in my opinion, they should still be the focus. (Further, it would be good if they are not too close to retirement so they might yet exert some influence on their colleagues.) Some of these faculty emerge through the formal campus mechanisms, but there are other faculty who may be less overt but show signs of interest in their teaching. These people should command disproportionate support in their teaching and in turn the support staff need to try to create little clusters of diffusion around these people.

This is guerrilla tactics rather than a frontal assault. At this time, that makes the most sense to me.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Serendipitous or Planned Communities

In spring of 1995 Burks Oakley, Larry DeBrock, and I started to play with some conferencing software called FirstClass (still used by the MBA program here) to figure out what it could do and how it could be used. The circumstances were these. As far as asycnhronous conferencing was concerned we were pre-Web. The campus had been relying on a Mac-based program called PacerForum which users loved because it was sooooo simple. But access from home required ARA (Apple Remote Access) and the campus was moving away from supporting that in favor of TCP-IP. FirstClass was compatible with this more standard internet protocol. And it ran on both the Mac and PC.

The other part of this is that Burks had just secured this big grant from the Sloan Foundation for the SCALE project and Larry and I were among the internal grantees who received funding from SCALE to put ALN (now eLearning) into our respective courses. Larry and I both planned to teach in the Summer I, the 4-week intensive summer session that starts in mid May. And we both intended to use FirstClass. This was to get a leg up on our project for that year. So the exploration into how the software worked seemed sensible as a way of getting ready.

At the time it didn't occur to me why other SCALE grantees weren't right there along with us. It just seemed like a fun thing to do so we did it. I had absolutely no thought whatsoever that this would establish a credential for later as an "expert" in ALN or that it was an initial step to building a larger community. Burks probably had some ideas on the latter. In the SCALE proposal he had a variety of activities planned to get ALN inbred on campus and to generate a certain number of ALN course for each of the three years of the grant. But for me this was about 50% sheer exploration and about 50% obligation since we did get a generous grant from SCALE and I felt that we needed to give back our money's worth in effort.

I recall Larry and I giving some seminar about our courses to other SCALE grantees and then sometime during the summer a discussion area in FirstClass was developed where we talked about teaching issues. It was funny because several of the SCALE projects had hired techies to do the heavy lifting work and those folks were in on the discussion right along with the instructors. That space was very vibrant through the summer and the fall. It then started to fade. One reason for that was the techies getting more comfortable writing in their own language and that, unfortunately, made it less compelling for us instructors to read. Perhaps another reason, this one I'm less sure about, is that other instructors had matured in their thinking about ALN and didn't need the community as much to advance their own learning. (There were other reasons --- not everyone doing ALN was using FirstClass so not everyone participated in these discussions. And some of the participants had other affinity groups that served similar needs.)

This was my first experience with community specifically about instruction. At the time I know I felt it paralleled much of the communal experience I had at Cornell as an undergrad in the particular living situation I fell into, which mixed undergrads and grads from a quite diverse set of academic interests. The diversity was an asset because it allowed a certain openness and a willingness to accept what others were saying without challenging them in an agressive way. Setting the appropriate tone was crucial and the gentleness contributed to the openess though it was clear to me that our little group behaved that way only with each other, not when any individual was interacting in outside the group activities.

Since that experience I've been engaged in a variety of virtual communities, mostly relying on listserv as the communication tool. The ones that seemingly are more effective from my view are where there is a symmetry in role for everyone on the lists. Support providers talking with other support providers works well and the tone is usually very constructive. Support providers talking with the faculty they support works less well, at least in my experience, because there is a tendency for the discussion to turn into a help session and also when there are problems for at least some fo the faculty to vent their frustration at the support people.

This raises an issue for me because I think a faculty only list devoted to instruction, at least here at Illinois, likely would not sustain because of lack of interest. The other distinction I'd make apart from faculty versus staff relates to commonality of the topic under discussion. It turns out that supporting instruction with WebCT Vista at Illinois is quite similar to supporting instruction with Vista at Purdue or Minnesota, so the support people can readily relate to each other and learn for each other's experience.

It is less clear that teaching the large psychology course is like teaching the large economics course. For the faculty to have such discussions across disciplines, they need to find that common ground and some of that must center around unresolved issues that make it an open research to bring to resolution.

A planned approach to building an online community for instructors needs to navigate through these various issues. I think it is possible, but clearly it is not easy.