Friday, December 29, 2006

My Holiday Viewing and Reading

Either the seasons are permuting and now we’re in the midst of Indian Summer, the thermometer in my car, admittedly not the most reliable but I believe accurate in this case, registered a balmy 53 degrees yesterday afternoon three days after Christmas, or Global Warming has proceeded at such a rapid pace that we’ve got to abandon the seasons altogether and wait out the pending apocalypse. Partly because my leg has been acting up and partly because I’m just a couch potato at heart, I’ve not really taken advantage of the friendly weather outside and instead have spent a good deal of the vacation so far watching Charlie Rose and some selective movies I’ve TiVo’d and reading both some junk as diversion and some other pieces I feel obligated to digest to round out my education.

One of the Charlie Rose segments was an hour with Clint Eastwood. who is not quite 25 years my senior, still going strong and according to many of the critics producing his best work at this mature age, an inspiration to all of us, especially someone like me who is keenly aware that certain of my own mental functions are working less well now. Though he was talking only about his own reasons for success, Clint offered up several good suggestions that we might all profit from --- he’s stayed in the business this long because the film projects he works on are diverse, not all of one ilk, each requiring a new approach and learning for him to find his way through to solution that works for him. He also said there is a tendency to over think creative activity – too much analysis can be paralyzing – and that to trust the feeling in your gut (or in your heart) that originally moved you to consider the project and then to grab the brass ring when it presents itself. I think he’s right in all of that, though I over analyze out the wazoo.

And one film I watched was The Crucible, a 1996 remake of the Arthur Miller stage play, which was originally written both as an allegory of the McCarthy period and as a self-contained story about the Salem Witch Trials. The cast is excellent – Daniel Day-Lewis as the accused, John Proctor; Winona Ryder, as the harlot turned possessed who is the villain in the piece motivated by a lust for John Proctor and hence desirous of getting Proctor’s wife out of the picture; and Paul Scofield as the judge, with all the airs of someone seemingly above reproach, yet ultimately with uncanny ability to miss the truth in human behavior in favor of the supernatural explanation. I was somewhat surprised to see there were many mixed reviews of this film online but perhaps it was not appropriate for the time that is was made; I thought it was wonderful and truly fitting for the period we live in now – if people want to believe something else than what is actually going on they can certainly do that and they can convince others to do likewise, a very important lesson to learn.

On Christmas day I received one of the gifts I asked my wife to get, knowing that she was going to the bookstore to get holiday reading for the kids. With the theme that reading can be mind candy; my older son has been reading the most recent Artemis Fowl after just seeing Eragon and playing the I’m-no-sure-what Xbox-360 Castle game, so there seems to be an insatiable craving for fantasy/adventure/science fiction whether in video game, movie, or book format; I figure that if the kids can do that why can’t the parents, so I asked my wife to get me the latest Thomas Harris book, Hannibal Rising. I’ve got some good fiction for me waiting to be read – my friend Gail Hawisher was nice enough to give me a copy of Middlesex when she visited me at home while I was convalescing, and I’ve got a variety of serious non-fiction reads to work through – none of those, however, are in the mind candy category. I’ve read all the previous Thomas Harris novels; airplane reading, if you will, the type that makes you want to take the plane trip. Some of my readers might find this fascination with Hannibal Lecter evidence of yet another character flaw in Lanny and they may very well be right. Yet I’m unabashed about my fandom. It is the combination of the absolute monstrous behavior, something totally outside my realm of experience, with the high intelligence and imagination in situ that make these books so compelling for me.

This latest is an origins book, an explanation of how the Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs (and before that, Red Dragon) came to exist; his bearing a consequence of birth, he was born to nobility, his intelligence a genetic gift from his father and shared by his uncle, manifest not just in his ability for mathematics but also in his power to render hand drawn sketches of immense detail and great accuracy, but it is his monstrous behavior that is, of course, what we’re interested in learning about. What was the source of that?

Naturally, I don’t want to give away the plot. It’s a good melodrama and if you have even a wee taste for the macabre, a good read. So I will only give an answer in generalities. Hannibal Lecter as monster is an unintended consequence of horrific circumstances caused by Nazi thugs who were trying to survive the grim winter before the Russian invasion on the Eastern Front. These Nazis did terrible things to Hannibal’s family and friends, some of an extreme personal nature. And the experience demonized him, numbing him to more sensible realities (though not numbing his intelligence) while allowing another self to emerge, a self capable of horrendous acts – brutal murder and cannibalism. I’ll move away from this book for now but I want to emphasize this point of utterly horrible experience, particularly by the young, creating a numbing of normal emotion and behavior and leaving in its stead room for a quite aberrant alternative. Think of Hannibal Lecture as a metaphor for Columbine, for Jonestown, or for the Charles Manson Family.

I want to next talk about a couple of the pieces from David Brooks’ Sidney Awards list (this link requires Times Select). I appreciate his doing this; while not every piece on the list is to my liking the batting average for quality is high and the diversity of topics covered make it quite compelling to read, even if as Brooks says this is the Age of Anxiety. Let me start with this piece by Karen Kornbluth, policy director for Senator Barack Obama, from democracyjournal.org, Families Valued. The piece gives an intelligent and correct (as far as it goes) analysis of how there is an inherent tension between promoting the marketplace and promoting the family and that our current system of social insurance, what we used to call a safety net, much of which dates back to the New Deal or to expansion under the Great Society, simply doesn’t recognize the reality of modern day families, with either two wage earners who together don’t have enough time to tend to the kids needs or with only a single parent who is overwhelmed trying to make ends meet and look after the children too. The piece then goes into great length as to how there are inequities and disincentives for precisely the people the system should be designed to help, and on this I think the piece shot a bull’s-eye.

But the article frames the argument as righting a ship that has gone off course rather than as one of making tradeoffs and I believe as a consequence the article makes it seem like there should be no debate about the issues – they are all common sense and we should be of one mind on them, shouldn’t we?

Here’s the problem. The piece doesn’t address at all how much social insurance there should be and in particular to address questions like, shouldn’t FMLA be expanded to allowed paid leave, the wages while on leave paid by the social insurance scheme, not the employer, and shouldn’t we be generous about the duration for which those benefits can be collected? But, if we expand benefits in this way, how do we pay for them, purely self-financed via higher payroll taxes or more than a bit of the old Robin Hood approach so that more moderate income folks can really reap the benefits? That question is not being asked, but it should be.

Here’s a piece by Paul Krugman from summer 2005 (again, this requires Times Select) well worth reading in my view that compares the French situation to the American situation on this score and that does frame the issue as a tradeoff – the French have more vacation time and work fewer hours in the week than do the Americans, both of these promote the family, but the French also have lower GDP per capita as a consequence – and further Krugman recognizes that to implement a particular way of resolving this tradeoff it is necessary for a government to implement a regulatory regime that supports the specific outcome.

Ask yourself this question. Who stands to lose if the reforms Kornbluth proposes were to come into being? The answer is straightforward. Under the reform there will be somewhat less income inequality and a somewhat smaller pie overall. (This answer assumes the overall reform is deficit neutral. An alternative that I would hope a responsible Congress would ignore is to deficit finance the reform, i.e., pass the funding burden onto our grandchildren and their children.) So it’s the Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffet’s of the world who will lose. Now one could make an argument that these super rich should take this one for the team for the benefit of the rest of us in society and, actually, I think it’s not a bad argument to make. But I didn’t hear it from Kornbluth. And if anyone has seen Gates on TV recently talking about his new role with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it might not be transparent to him that he should willingly be taxed more to have funds disposed of via a government run social insurance network, rather than to be able to give to his own foundation where he can dispose of the funds as he sees fit. That, it seems to me, is what is at issue here and if one really wants to make the case for such reform, certainly doing so is timely and I believe a lot of traditional Democrat and Independent voters would go for it, then getting out in front of the issue would seem to me the right approach. But there’s work to be done before getting to that point. If the High Rollers are dead against it, then it will lose.

Now let’s switch gears and talk about Gerald Ford, which means talking about The Pardon. The obituary stresses the point that the country needed a healing, battered both by the Watergate fiasco and the aftermath of Vietnam and the only way to achieve that healing was via the pardon. But consider the Carter presidency and ask these questions: (1) Who knew about Carter before he ran for president? (2) Was Carter elected because of something he stood for or because the population as a whole was mad with Ford and the Republicans more broadly? (Sound familiar?) (3) What do we remember the Carter presidency for? (4) Would the Reagan Era have dawned if Ford had been elected in 1976?

My answers to those questions: (1) not too many people outside the South and particularly Carter’s state of Georgia and further, in the primaries there were a slew of other candidates (remember Mo Udall?) none of whom galvanized the electorate, (2) Carter’s election was definitely due to a backlash vote, (3) Stagflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis (not the Camp David accords), (4) I don’t know, it’s a head scratcher. I think Carter was a decent guy, caught in a perilous time, and at least for (3) Stagflation would have happened under Ford too. My real point here is that if you are going to contemplate a major ripple in history – the alternative of not granting the pardon – then do so by considering the full path that would ensue rather than focus just on the immediate aftermath.

Now let me switch gears again and move entirely out of my own comfort zone (political economy) and instead talk about this piece by Caitlan Flanagan, also a Sidney Award winner, from the Atlantic entitled Are You There God? It’s Me Monica. This too is a fascinating read, about the oral-sex craze in younger adolescents, entirely gender biased (girls on boys) and a seeming fantasy that might be reality. How does one know whether it is or isn’t? It’s not the sort of thing that direct observation helps to inform. I feel reasonably comfortable in asserting that my kids are not involved, but how I really know that?

Flanagan raises some interesting questions. Representing the view of a parent, what type of cultural environment do we want for our kids as they learn about their own emerging sexuality? And does that view match or conflict with our prior views about sexuality for ourselves? The conflict between the two is brought out and certain recent trends, for example the mainstreaming of the porn star Jenna Jameson and the explicit nature of the of the sex ed info on the Planned Parenthood Web site (particularly as it speaks to the oral sex issue) are taken to task. I’m with Flanagan in thinking this is a very good question to ask, though I don’t necessarily agree with her on the conclusions.

Flanagan spends much of the piece considering the issue from the (female) kid’s view, about how to satisfy a healthy and inevitable adolescent curiosity about sex with information that is true, useful, and not moralistic. There is so much of the other sort of information and Flanagan seems to say that part of the current problem may stem from a lack of good models through which the kids learn a more fulfilling approach, where sex become part of a bigger picture of tenderness with a caring partner. Yet Flanagan also advances another possibility – the kids, though from good middle class families as judged by outer appearances, have nonetheless been numbed via a dysfunctional family life that doesn’t satisfy any of their needs and hence are placed in a position to be victimized by the oral sex trend, engaging in acts that have little or no personal meaning for themselves. This is in essence the Hannibal Lecter origin story en masse and while the story certainly works in the Thomas Harris fictional world, I’ve been scratching my head about whether it is believable in the world in which we live.

A couple of nights ago, I saw The Pianist. My wife and I had seen it several years ago at the theater. This time around I watched it by myself on one of the HD movie channels. It is a haunting story based on a real life experience of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Wladyslaw Szpilman, brilliantly played by Adrien Brody, who won the Academy Award for this role. Szpilman experiences all sorts of horrors, the senseless murders and beatings of Jews at hands of the Nazis, the mass deportation of the vast majority of the Jewish population to the death camps, including the rest of Spilman’s family with whom he had lived. He stayed alive via the help of others, who appreciated the brilliance of his music, and through his own wits and instinct to stay in the shadows just out of harms way. He did not fight back and try to overcome. He just tried to endure.

A significant aspect of the film is the haunting look of Szpilman’s face – a gaunt look, doleful eyes that simultaneously convey sensitivity and emphasize the assault he must have felt at each indignity caused by the Nazis, and an aquiline nose that signifies his Jewishness and that his artistry and sensitivity are interwoven with that. I focused on the eyes through much of the picture. And I could not help but think that though Szpilman experienced horror after horror, the essence of his personality remained intact.

I thought about people I knew who had gone through something similar. As a child I met on several occasions a childhood friend of my mother’s, Lilly Kramer, who had tattooed numbers on her arm, she was in a concentration camp but somehow managed to get out. Lilly had a harsh personality; she was a smoker and I remember coming home from a visit with her at her Manhattan apartment where I was crying, though I don’t remember why. Some of her ways must have been the result of her experience under the Nazis, though I’m not really in a position to know what type of change that experience caused.

And because I was so taken with the face of Szpilman, I thought of somebody I once knew who had his sort of eyes, Ellen Taus a student of mine in economic statistics when I was a TA at Northwestern. She endured as well, in this case through a poor performance on the first midterm of the course, not exactly the type of horror I’ve been writing about above, but trying for her at the time nonetheless. (It is amazing to me what type of memories emerge from a stream of consciousness association like that and also that some 29 years later I was quickly able to find mention of Ellen on the Internet.) She seems to have done quite well for herself since.

Although completely unscientific in its basis, I want to advance a tentative hypothesis to try to tie these strands of thought together. Some of us have it in us to fight adversity, to overcome it via force of will. Others (and I’m much more in this category than in the first one) are more prone to capitulate than to counterattack. Fighting back likely increases the odds in terms of Darwinian survival. But fighting back increases the risks of surviving yet with broken spirit and leaving the individual vulnerable for something else demonic to fill the void. Capitulation makes it more likely to lose the battle. But capitulation aids in keeping the former self intact and particularly in preserving sensitivity to the world in which we live.

It’s some tradeoff. I don’t know if it’s right, but if it even remotely approximates the truth it might offer some clues for us in terms of what we should truly value.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Macro versus Micro Economics

I'm still getting used to Blogger Beta. Apparently there is no command to republish the index or republish the entire site. Instead, each item is stored separately in the database and gets republished when it is updated. Sounds good in concept and seems to work for posts. But I updated my profile and yet the update doesn't seem to appear. I hope that works in the near future. (I'm now writing later and it did work....interesting about the lag.)

In the meantime, here is a new feedburner feed for the site
http://feeds.feedburner.com/blogspot/zApq

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Following David Brooks' suggestion in his Sidney awards, yesterday I read Alan Blinder's piece in Foreign Affairs: Offshoring - The New Industrial Revolution? Blinder is a good economist and this piece is fairly straightforward reading and makes one very important point - on the question of what services are "tradeable" and hence subject to off shoring --- that cuts across historic distinctions and it may very well be that getting a good education, the traditional remedy posed in light of the threat of competition from foreign workers who can produce goods more cheaply, may very well not insulate workers from offshoring for electronically delivered services this time around.

But I think of Blinder as a macro guy, one who is comfortable aggregating up ideas into a simple framework so that can be analyzed, not particularly disturbed by whether that type of aggregation distorts reality too much. I was trained as a micro guy, and below I'm going to comment on things that Blinder leaves out of his story that I think might matter a lot.

Let me focus on a few key issues. First, and here I'm biased by my old job and listening to the Network folks talk where they used the categories "voice" and "data" let's consider those as two different forms of electronic delivery of service. One can get services by interacting with a Web site such as amazon.com, expedia.com, or dell.com. And then one can get service on the phone, talking with a customer service agent. They are both electronic services and there is some convergence between the two but I think for this purpose it is helpful to consider them separately.

The data type of service provision matches the Blinder description quite well. He talked about India being much more type of a threat in this domain than China, then I think it worth noting that written English is much more international than spoken English, which has regional elements, accents and patois. The off shoring of the Web work, in this view makes full sense, both the database content behind the scences and the content we all see, but the off shoring of the phone content is harder. Dell.com is an example of the success and failure of both approaches - their Web site for building your own PC in a custom way is very well thought through and effective. Their "help desk" for solving technical problems, much more problematic.

If that distinction is sensible, there is an argument that cuts the other way than Blinder argues - voice services, which may not be quite as immune as face to face is from the Baumol's Cost Disease Problem (and if voice to data conversion techniques continue to improve there is the possibility of data mining from voice conversations bringing the above mentioned convergence that much closer) may require regional providers if not local providers to assure the customer feels comfortable in the conversation. Further, being an effective negotiator in voice conversation is potentially a skill that will be in high demand, especially as more of the population becomes comfortable with providing self-service in smart Web sites and hence the voice communication acts less as a substitute means for data communication and more as means for negotiating complex and idioysncratic situations for which the form driven data communication is ill suited.

Indeed, this will be possible if the data technology helps to address the routing problem of matching customers with their specific queries to people with the right expertise to address them. Solve the routing problem completely and I believe much of what Blinder argues about the off shoring of electronic services might prove opposite to how he argues.

Let me turn to a second issue - this is the question of ongoing (trust) relationships, what Arthur Okun coined as the invisible handshake, versus anonymous and one-time intereactions. Blinder's analysis does not differentiate between these two quite different type of transactions. The latter are likely to be commodity-like and the tendency would be for the supply of those type of activites to be off shored. I'm much less certain that true is for the former.

Here is a very special example of this and it is not so much about off shoring as it is about having insiders or outsiders provide a service. One may wonder why college textbook publishers haven't branched out into "online TA" services, since they presumably can leverage economies of scale better than we can at any campus and hence could have a network of such providers online at all hours of the day and night to helpf students. In turn, if they did this and were indeed more efficient at it, it would reduce our need for on campus TAs and hence take a bite out of the tuition bill. But as I've said, we haven't seen this market emerge and if I were betting I'd guess against it happening.

On the other hand, we might very well have online TAs from our own campus, students who took the course in the past from the same instructor who is offering it now and hence who can internalize the nuance and idiosyncracy of how the course is taught. So this is not fundamentally a strength or weakness of electronic delivery. Rather it is about how customized the content is and how to make such custom material well. Again, this seems to favor local knowledge and cuts againts off shoring. Admittedly, we are not offering both alternatives to the students and letting them choose. And the way instructors choose may depend on other factors than price. But let's also agree that students can now take online offering of these course and while some have done this, we are not witnessing wholesale switching to that mode.

Finally, and on this one Blinder does comment a bit, I want to consider the so called "blended" service provision issue - some of it is up close and high touch, some of it is electronic, and the pieces might fit together in as of yet hard to predict ways. Since we're talking about Blended Learning a lot now on campus, this particular issue has gotten a lot of my attention. And the question I'm asking myself is whether one can off shore the electronic piece if it must fit in with a customized and idiosyncratic face to face piece. Blinder talks about reading CT scans as such an off shored activity in Health Care, providing an example both involving some high level skill and one where the cost argument seems to swamp any other consideration of customization. Perhaps it is a portent of things to come. But I've got the feeling that in this case the service is treated in a commodity like way - indeed, that's the way doctors view all services provided by hospital labs. So, yes, that stuff can be off shored but customized stuff...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Blogger Update

I've converted my Blogger account so I can now access it with my Gmail password and I'm using the new Beta version. I'm a tiny bit surprised that even after logging into my Google Homepage I still need to log into Blogger, but I assume that convenience will be coming shortly.

In the meantime, I'm taking this as a signal that now is the time to migrate my blog to a different location for hosting and I've chosen blogspot for this purpose. So, assuming the url is available, the new site will be:

http://lanny-on-learn-tech.blogspot.com/

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Coordination Problems and Large Class Redesign

When I used to teach intermediate microeconomics, the last time was over 5 years ago, near the end of the course I would give a lecture on bi-matrix games as a sequel to the more traditional oligopoly theory. Among these games are the Prisoners’ Dilemma, which has a dominant strategy equilibrium (both players cheat) that is a reasonable first pass at the problem faced by cartels. But apart from Prisoners’ Dilemma, I also spent some time on games of “pure coordination” where there are multiple equilibria and where each player agrees on which one is preferred. The issue at hand is whether the players naturally “find” the good equilibrium or if they can get stuck in the bad equilibrium. The following link represents this type of situation.

https://netfiles.uiuc.edu/l-arvan/www2/Coordination_Problems.htm

There are two different games depicted, each game symmetric for the two players. In both there are two equilibria, the blue one (Top, Left) is better for each player than the red one (Bottom, Right) and the payoffs in these equilibria are identical across the games. Yet even with these similarities, game theorists would predict different outcomes in the two games because of differences in strategic risk.

The Row Player’s payoff is the number to the left of the comma, the Column Player’s to the right. In the first game, Top gives the Row Player 300 if Left and 80 if Right, so 80 is the worst the Row Player can do by choosing Top. Bottom gives 20 if Left and 100 if Right, so it is not just that (Bottom, Right) is a bad equilibrium. It is also that by playing Bottom the Row Player can get really hammered (earning only 20) if an out of equilibrium outcome (Bottom, Left) is reached. Each of these factors reinforces the other and the consequence is for the Row Player to be inclined to choose Top and, since the game is symmetric, for the Column Player to be inclined to choose Left, so in this game the coordination problem is only a minor issue.

The situation is different in the second game. Now it is Bottom which is the safer strategy, since the minimum payment under it is 80. Top is riskier, with a minimum payment of 20. So while (Top, Left) is still the good equilibrium, risk averse players may very well find their way to (Bottom, Right), in which case we might characterize the situation as being stuck in a lower level equilibrium – there is definitely a better play to be had that if found is self-enforcing, but owing to both lack of pre-play communication and the caution of the players, they instead find the inefficient equilibrium. In this game the coordination problem is severe.

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I think the second game, though too simple to completely describe the situation, provides an apt metaphor for how our campus manages many issues related to instruction, particularly as they pertain to large classes. I want to describe some of these but before I do so, I’d like to summarize the circumstances under which these issues became sufficiently prominent for me to connect them with the elementary game theory discussed above.

As part of the Campus Information Technology Advisory Board, I serve on the standing subcommittee for Learning Technology. We had a meeting yesterday to talk about the potential for a Campus Blended Learning Initiative. I thought it would be useful for the group to hear from Carol Twigg about the National Center for Academic Transformation and their new Redesign Alliance of which my campus is a member. So we had a teleconference with Carol, which I believe was helpful for the group and got a bunch of core issues on the table (thank you Carol), and then we had a fairly animated conversation afterwards mostly about the impediments to undertake such type of reforms on our own campus. Part of the action items from that discussion was for me to write up a list of bottlenecks that the group has identified and then to consider whether a Blended Learning Initiative might seriously address those issues or be constrained by them.

Here is a glimpse of some of the issues we discussed yesterday from as viewed from coordination failure perspective:

Grade Inflation/Measuring the Effectiveness of Reform/Disengagement Compact – I told the group a story of a conversation I had with the course instructor for our large intro to accounting class. She is an adjunct who enjoys the job and whom I know from a long time ago because when she was a doctoral student she took graduate microecon from me. I asked her about the grade distribution in her class and in particular whether she gave out a lot of C’s. She told me that she did when she first started but there were student complaints. She doesn’t grade so hard now. We know from Declining by Degrees, among other sources, that this is a ubiquitous issue, not at all unique to this particular instructor. The grades are high and the work requirements imposed on the students are low. There are few complaints about the course and in this way the instructor maintains a sense of job security. If other courses had harder grading and more demands placed on the students, then this instructor could do it too, indeed she might very well be so inclined. But doing so unilaterally is self-defeating.

Juxtapose this with the question Eric Meyer, our rep from the College of Communications and member of the Campus Gen Ed Board, posed. Eric said the Board was concerned about technology solutions that are replacing traditional approaches and in particular whether there was any way to know whether the reforms were really effective or not. Eric posed a question to Carol on that subject. Carol gave what I thought was a good response, emphasizing the importance of evaluation in reform and in establishing baselines with prior practice if possible via common exams and performance on those or common exam questions within exams that are otherwise differentiated if there is need to change tests over time (e.g., to deter cheating). And if such type of “objective” testing in the course didn’t make sense as a means to assess student understanding, then rely on a fully specified rubric for assessing students and demand that rubric be the same in the pre and post reform environments. In other words, take measurement seriously and then implement those measurements and learn from them.

But, getting back to my accounting professor friend and indeed my own experience with large class instruction, students here fully expect exams to have question that are only very minor variations on a theme to which they’ve already been drilled repeatedly and so testing in this way can measure familiarity with the material and discriminate against those students who are entirely unprepared, but it really does not do a good job of identifying those students with facility to use the material in interesting and creative ways from those who don’t have that capacity. Consequently, even if we do really want to measure the effectiveness of the reform and want to take that seriously, we strain to do so given that our pre-reform methods of assessment don’t discriminate across student performance in interesting way.

Facilities Scheduling and Course Reform – I think we could have talked about this issue for hours and hours. Everyone in the room had lots of stories to recount about the difficulty of scheduling large classes – there is a very high utilization rate for large classrooms exacerbated the last few years by exceptionally large entering classes – as well as the difficulty involved in finding technology classrooms when the class is not so large. We heard stories about how departments will opportunistically hoard the classrooms to which they have priority for scheduling even when they don’t have a class to put into the room immediately, for fear that by generously giving back the room for general assignment they will lose their priority in the future. Obviously, such opportunistic behavior makes the classroom scarcity problem seem all the more grim, for those looking to find a space to which they don’t have a priority assignment.

Related to scheduling we discussed the campuses Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) approach to compensating departments for teaching classes, where the revenue flows based on bums in seats, so there is an incentive to jam more seats into each classroom and indeed the scheduling/budgeting people in the departments communicate to the facilities folks needs to that effect. But in other conversations the department administrators and the faculty may argue the goal is to increase student critical thinking, while keeping that notion on an entirely abstract plane, outside the facilities dimension. It is interesting when the two are indeed put together. You will see the faculty argue for taking seats out of the classroom and encouraging more flex space. In my college where we have a new classroom facility currently under construction, precisely that discussion has occurred.

The RCM formulas are under assault for a different reason. Our implementation here strongly differentiates students in the major from those outside. Departments have a great incentive to attract students into the major and hence will offer a variety of perqs to students to compete in this manner. The competition for students between departments might and colleges might affect class size the other way. But for students outside the major, it is hard to see that encouraging high quality under the current formula and indeed it has been an impediment to encouraging interdisciplinary offerings, such as a new minor in Informatics, which sounds like a great idea but which can’t go forward because the costs of teaching the courses can’t be covered. So on the one hand our Campus Strategic Plan emphasizes the importance of such interdisciplinary activities, but on the other the RCM approach creates a disincentive. The RCM approach will be modified and that might address some of this issue. But as an economist let me point out that in the absence of heavily increasing tuition revenues overall, there is a zero sum aspect to any type of funding reform – if there are winners there will also be losers – and since I know we are struggling to make ends meet with our major in my College, we want to offer the students a truly outstanding business education but with largely in-state tuition rates even with the recent tuition differential it is hard to make the math work out correctly, we will be none to happy if the reform to RCM means a lower revenue stream from the majors.

Technology Support Adequate to Sustain Course Reform – My campus is known for its decentralized approach and this is seen clearly in the learning technology arena where some of the colleges have very substantial offerings that serve as a counterpart to what the campus does. This means what the campus provides must be very generic and it may not be suitable for some audiences or it may miss some requisite functionality that therefore gets provided by some college, or doesn’t get provided at all. The decentralization can be seen as a direct cause for diversity in approach and I (having worn the central provider hat for quite some time) would argue that we have too much diversity on campus (and my current student advisory committee in the College of Business has made it clear that they feel that way insofar as the issue is course logistics rather than important pedagogic function). But the issue is not just on the demand side. There is the question of wasteful duplication of function, duplication that is costly from the perspective of the institution as a whole. And the way this issue manifests to most is that many services which are provided are done so in a shoestring manner, often without adequate recurrent funding.

Large scale course redesign is likely to demand substantial up front technology support, quite possibly in areas that don’t represent current areas of production strength. In our discussion Carol, she made it quite clear to cost out any of the technology pieces that were fundamentally new as a consequence of the course reform. But, for example, in the case of online video to support instruction is the institution already headed down the path or is it going to dawdle unless pushed by course reform? And if it does move in this direction, what is the implication for other learning technology services?

Let me sum up. I will do so by appealing back to a post I made a while ago about whether technology is the problem or the cure. The coordination problem view of these issues is enlightening, I believe, because it does suggest that we can do better, but we likely won’t do so if we have a series of unilateral attempts at course reform rather than a concerted effort across the board. That’s why I’d like to see a campus initiative, one with some real teeth.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Tech Tidbits

The College of Business where I work is primarily a Microsoft operation and they take advantage of features of the OS that as far as I know my former EdTech unit didn’t use when. One of these is Remote Desktop, which gets the remote computer to act in terminal emulation mode and run the host computer at a distance. In layman’s terms it gets you to run your office computer from home. I’ve found it quite functional over my cable modem connection. Here is what I needed to do to get it to work.

1. Find the IP address for the office computer. Since my office computer is on DHCP, I had to do this from the command line:
a. Under the Start menu, choose Run…
b. Where it says Open, type in cmd, then push the OK button
c. Type in the command ipconfig at the prompt.
That should do it.

2. At the home computer log in with the VPN client.

3. Then go the Start menu again, All Programs, Accessories, Communications, then choose Remote Desktop Connection. Where it says Computer type in the IP address of your office computer. Then you will have to log into your computer as you do at the office.

Apart from accessing applications you may not have at home, it’s a way to make sure important documents stay on your office machine.

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In the same spirit, I started to wonder about whether I could readily do screen sharing, which could be used, for example, to have the instructor’s Tablet PC on wireless and screen share with the computer that is resident in the classroom or have a TA with a Tablet screen share with a student who is having trouble with a homework problem that has some analytic component.

For this I tried Windows Messenger. I’ve got two accounts and used one on my Tablet and the other on my office computer and I did a little online session between the two. On the Tablet computer I chose Ask for Remote Assistance. It took a little while to connect so people need to expect that if they want to use in this way. And the other computer has to accept the invitation. But once connected it functioned very well. There was essentially no latency. Some time ago I had tried doing this sort of thing with Groove but it chopped off a good part of the screen and there was latency. Perhaps that was the network rather than the application, so I would like to try this more before going out on a limb and saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But I will say my initial experiment was quite positive with it.

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Google announced recently that it now has an application to receive and send Gmail (with attachments) on the Cell Phone. If I were a student who walked around with a cell phone but not a laptop, I’d set up forwarding on my campus email account and (this can either be done from the Electronic Directory by specifying the mail server for the forwarding, or from the campus email account) use Gmail for the forward, and then I’d be able to check my mail whenever I want, something I believe many students would like to do. If, in fact, we do witness a big upswing in the number of students who forward their email in this manner, perhaps we’ll reconsider our current stance on outsourcing email.

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I have a new computer at the office (finally, hurray!!) and the guys who set it up have the screen resolution at 1280 x 1024 and so far that has been fine for me even though at home I prefer 1024 x 768. I do not that the monitor is higher at the office and perhaps that matters. I never thought about it before from an eye comfort point of view, only from a back and neck comfort perspective. At home it’s easy to change the angle of the screen, but not its height.