Thursday, December 20, 2007

Learning Blockages, Doing Math Online, And the Failure of the LMS

There is still a difference between something and nothing, but it is purely geometrical and there is nothing behind the geometry.
- Martin Gardner

I may be teaching intermediate microeconomics again in the not too distant future, this time to adult learners in some professional program offered here, quite possibly in a totally online or blended format. So I’ve been thinking a bit about how I might do that effectively. Intermediate micro requires math. In my view the appropriate content soft pedals calculus ideas in favor of making the basic economics points in a discrete choice setting. But graphs, the kind one did in analytic geometry in high school, are appropriate, even essential. There is much economic intuition in the construction and proper interpretation of these graphs. Indeed, some instructors who teach this stuff think of this course as essentially applied math. My view is otherwise, there is also much economic intuition in considering real world issues that demand an economic analysis and in applying an appropriate economic framework to that real context. So I favor a balanced approach where one does both, some math but also some interpretation of real situations.

When I was teaching this course to 18-22 year old undergraduates, the course was taught by a wide variety of instructors. It had a poor reputation among many of the students, the majority of whom were majors in the College of Business. Their perception was both that it was difficult and that it wasn’t particularly relevant. The former, I believe, was because of the math, although all the students had taken Calculus (or placed out of it) ahead of time. The latter because they didn’t perceive the economic ideas to be foundational for what they might learn in their other Business courses. This may be an example of the broader problem that students fail to see the forest for the trees with respect to their studies and hence typically adopt an extreme instrumental approach to what they learn. Ironically, the economics metaphor can be extremely helpful for students in enhancing their soft skills, since as I’ve argued elsewhere it is much easier to communicate ideas if those are cast within a simple framework and the economics metaphor is precisely that. The math emphasis, with its seeming focus on technical detail, (the instructor intent is to supply needed rigor to the analysis) obscures the simplicity and elegance of the metaphor. So, unfortunately, mostly the students don’t get the economics to which they are exposed.

Whether I could now do a better job with this undergraduate audience will remain an open question for me. Given what I’ve gained from the learning technology job and some successful experiments I tried when teaching Principles to Campus Honors students, I have more experience with which to address the issue how to tap into the basic motivation of students taking the Intermediate course. For now my focus will be on adult learners. While there still are questions about providing motivation with that audience, I believe those students will not be quite as impatient nor will they be prone to cheat or to take their preparation lightly. And these students will almost certainly have a richer set of real word experiences that we can tap into to add flavor to what we will study. So I hope to avoid some of the pitfall I experienced teaching Intermediate in the past. Sometimes I felt there was a kind of Gresham’s Law at work. So, for example, I got into designing assessments with random numbers in large part to discourage cheating – each student would get an individualized version of the questions. But those were harder to write and so effort put forth in that dimension meant less effort to design assessments that would be broadly educative.

As I am writing this post, there was a very favorable piece in this afternoon’s Chronicle Update about the UTeach Program at the University of Texas-Austin College of Education, which shows that others have been thinking hard about related questions – are the skills for doing effective teaching of this sort transferable and what mechanisms promote that transfer? Their Publications Page appears to have many interesting resources to aid in thinking about these questions. I will work through some of those as I go through designing the intermediate microeconomics site after the New Year. But I’ve got a more immediate reason for writing now.

* * * * *

It’s now Thursday and my kids are on Holiday till after the New Years. Last week my younger son, an eighth grader and now somewhat of a history buff, bombed on an algebra exam. Many of his classmates did likewise, so the instructor sent home the graded exam as a practice test for a makeup that was given yesterday. I spent several evenings trying to coach my son into better understanding the math. It was an anxious time for both of us. I’m going to try to take some lessons from that experience and then circle back on the subject of this post.

Both my kids, like their entire generation, have been heavily into fantasy stories - Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Halo, etc. They have access to these stories in multiple media – DVD, Xbox, computer games, etc. The joy from these narratives led to other computer games that are historic fiction, not pure fantasy – Age of Empires, Civilization. The younger one, especially, learned a huge amount of historic detail as he encountered the narrative and challenges of playing these games. This is the benefit of immersive gaming environments that so many others have talked about. Interestingly, at least to me, the games have created a taste for historic narrative itself, whether that comes through a game or otherwise. The younger one is now an avid fan of the History Channel. It feeds on the learning need that the computer games created. And there are beginning to be signs that books will do likewise. Indeed, while the books are obviously slower to get through, they have that much more detail and a more intricate story. In other words, what was set in place as playful diversion with computer games has been transformed into learning via intrinsic motivation through a habit developed outside of school. After inwardly moaning that the games were a complete waste of time for several years, I’m very pleased with this more recent development.

Once one has what seems to be a good algorithm for learning one wants to try to learn everything that same way. Further, if the learning seems effortless and happens en passant, the learner develops an expectation that can continue to happen regardless of context. It makes it hard to admit that a subject is difficult and even harder when there aren’t coping skills in place to manage the learning more effectively. Math, particularly the algebra my son is being taught now, is quite different from history. There is no narrative into which to weave the various facts and procedures. There is only abstraction and the seeming arbitrariness of the various rules. These eight grade kids have experienced what appear to be arbitrary rules before (“i” before “e” except after “c” or when sounding like “a” as in weigh or neighbor). So there is a tendency to want to learn the math the same way they learned to spell – through rote. But that is wrongheaded. The problem is there is nothing else to ready them for a better approach. (My kids did some computer programs in the very early grades to learn spelling and arithmetic (perhaps those were in the Reader Rabbit series), but those apps were not nearly as compelling as the games they played later.)

The fundamental value of the math – something that will serve the kids big time later in life if they get it during Middle School and High School – is that there are multiple ways to represent the same idea. A big part of what we call critical thinking is to find a convenient representation, reason through it, and then translate the results back to some other representation that motivated the inquiry at first. But to an eighth grader who has yet to see the value of multiple abstract representations for his own thinking, the math just seems like an obstacle, one that might limit his GPA and thereby thwart some ambition for yet unknown down-the-road achievements. That induces stress qua performance anxiety that exacerbates the problem.

There is a further complication, one that I’ve witnessed repeatedly in my intermediate microeconomics teaching, that the math currently being taught rests on a foundation, one where the student’s understanding is shaky and vague. For my son, the critical conceptual base is arithmetic with negative numbers. If done slowly and patiently, he can reason through it well enough. But he has nowhere near the fluidity with such arithmetic as compared to his mastery of the historical facts about battles in the Civil War. This lack of comfort with the basics contributes to missing the forest for the trees and feeds into the desire to want to learn the math by rote.

Also, it appears nobody has coached him previously on the recording and record keeping of his thinking through the algebra. He writes an equation down and then immediately manipulates that. It doesn’t occur to him to write the equation again and manipulate the reproduction, keeping the original pristine. This matters not if the thinking is correct all the way through. But it matters a great deal if errors are made and one has to back track to find the error. If the steps are rendered distinctly, then each can be checked for correctness. I believe that learning how to spot errors and correct them is an additional crucial skill, one that doing math well encourages. Even very bright folks who can keep a lot of information in their heads can benefit on occasion from clear record keeping of the intermediate steps. Doing that lessens the cognitive load and allows for quicker recognition of the source of the error. It is a must for a student who is struggling with the concepts.

Now I want to switch gears slightly and recall a presentation that Julie Evans made at the annual ELI Conference last January, where she reported on the technology habits and desires of then current High School students. My recollection is that she found: (a) the students were alienated from the curriculum in general, (b) the students would like to see more technology used in their classes because it would better match their informal learning outside of school, and (c) Math, in particular, was the subject matter they thought would benefit the most from being taught with computers. I had the thought of Julie’s presentation in the back of my mind as I was trying to help my son.

So, as is my passion even though I knew timing-wise this effort would not help my son in this particular instance, I made an interactive spreadsheet that is a tutorial on determining the equation of a line given the coordinates of two points on the line. It is by no means perfect; for example, it can’t deal with vertical lines, some of the formatting is only so-so (particularly the mixed fraction for the Y intercept), and in the method it uses where items are hidden till they are needed, in a few cases that is done imperfectly.

But there are certain parts of it that appeal to me nonetheless and I want to emphasize those here. For each coordinate of the points, students can choose integer values from -20 to +20. This gives them an ample set to practice with so they can try this until they feel comfortable that they understand. There is an attempt to make the various stages at the right coincide with the plotting of some component in the graph on the left. This is meant to capture the dual representations of the same idea. To compute the run and the rise, there is enough information so students can actually count the answer. I believe that counting is more basic than arithmetic and allowing the students to count should help them feel comfortable about the calculations they make. Further, the data entry is by pushing a button rather than by typing in a number. They can hold down the button and watch the graph instead of the button, to see the consequence of their action. This gives them a qualitative sense of what is going on. Indeed the calculation of the Y intercept is deliberately done to encourage them to eyeball the graph. If they want to for the sake of their own understanding, they can in addition compute the Y intercept on a piece of paper to verify that they get the same answer either way.

* * * * *

Of course, since I’m writing this post quite soon after I completed the spreadsheet I’ve not tested this content on students and this being the holiday I doubt very much I’ll get my son to try it. So what I say next is pure conjecture. It doesn’t have use data to back it up. Nonetheless, I believe this is the type of content that the students Julie Evans surveyed would regard as useful and engaging for learning math. And what I want to argue here is that we should be authoring more of this type of content (and then get the students themselves to author even more of it both to aid their own learning and to help others). Unfortunately, we don’t see much content of this sort. What we do see is flatter, less interactive content, a lot of multiple choice questions, stuff that may be ok to assess the student’s understanding, but is much less useful in helping the students gain that understanding. This puts the technology in the role of the stick. We need more carrots, but we’re not getting them. Here’s my argument for what this the case.

I put in somewhere between 12 and 20 hours to author this tutorial. And for a similar tutorial on Long Division I made a couple of years ago, I spent the better part of a weekend in the construction. This is not because I was ignorant of the math or of the design issues. It is simply because there is a need to conceptualize in the construction – the layout and sequencing of the presentation matter as does the math and one has to see those pieces interplay well. I did this free form starting from a blank Workbook in Excel. I don’t believe there are too many people with the wherewithal to make content of this sort in this manner. They might be many others with an interest to author stuff of this sort, but they would need to rely on templates so they can focus on the content. Unfortunately, to my knowledge there are few if any templates of this sort for content creation. (The software our Physics department uses for student homework has some of this type of capability but it requires authors to submit Perl scripts. That works in Physics but is too much of an entry barrier to be more broadly applicable.)

We are now more than 12 years after I got started with learning technology and back in 1995 there was the promise to deliver on what I’m talking about right here on my campus with CyberProf and Mallard; the CAPA system from Michigan State was another good possibility. The more recent commercial course management systems and even most of the newer open source alternatives have delivered less in this dimension than might have been hoped. Part of that is because they’ve not yet integrated current technologies (Ajax) into the assessment tools, so you can’t yet do what I’ve got in my Excel tutorials – students do data entry that shows up in the graphs, which are rendered dynamically.

But another part of this is conceptually and I believe even the early assessment engines made this mistake, a mistake which parallels a conceptual error we’ve seen in the Banner student system, where the basic element is the section. That approach goes against the culture here where the basic unit is really the course – we have many multi-section courses as well as courses taught in a single section but that are cross listed.. We spent a good part of the first year after Banner was implemented here reconciling our ordinary business processes concerning instruction with the peccadilloes of how Banner manages these things. (For example, the professor may have had access only to the lecture section, not to the discussion section, but it was the latter where the grades were to be entered.) The same sort of issues occurs with how the LMS deals with assessments.

There the basic element is the question, with question one essentially unrelated to question two except in the order in which they are presented to the students. In my tutorial each stage of the process coincides approximately to a question. That all the stages can be rendered in one unified view (I designed the tutorial with that goal in mind) is a huge benefit compared to where one must scroll to see subsequent or prior questions. Most of the learning management systems don’t even allow a numerical parameter to be passed between questions. Instead, with each subsequent question the parameters are set anew. And, most definitely, students can’t set the parameters themselves so they can practice. The notion of practice is in the number of attempts that are allowed, but not otherwise found in the quiz tool. Further most of these assessment engines don’t allow the provision of instant feedback in quiz mode (meaning the assessment is for credit) but rather only allow it for self-assessment. Instructors are apt, however, to design quizzes because they know students will do those to receive course credit. (Although it is also true that many students “do” the quizzes in a manner aimed at circumventing the intent. For example, with multiple choice that can be submitted many times, they simply try the various letter alternatives till the get the thing correct.)

All of this is unfortunate. The question is what to do about it. One possibility is to extend the argument I made about 18 months ago and add this to the wish list for what we need in an LMS. But now I’m less inclined to think that is the best answer. My sense is that we need to bring the discussion of what is educative content outside of any container that might deliver it. And I’d like to engage all my friends and colleagues who embrace a Constructivist approach toward learning to reflect and comment on this question, particularly as it pertains to the teaching of math content, especially when that math is used in a College level setting, such as the Intermediate Micro course that is my focus. To aid in that, I will close with a critique of my own approach.

In my view, the difference between what is construction “from scratch” and the reproduction of “spoon fed knowledge” has to be considered relative to the current understanding of the learner. In my tutorial the sequencing of the steps in built in, predetermined for the student’s point of view. In some cases there may be many different possible sequences that will produce the same result and in that case there is the possibility that such a tutorial creates the impression of a single correct approach. That would be unfortunate. In other cases the sequencing might matter more but it might be an important part of the construction for the learner to come up with the sequencing on his own. Then having it provided, as I’ve done in the tutorial, amounts to spoon feeding.

My retort is that tutorials of this sort represent early steps toward allowing the student to deal with complexity in the math. Students need to get past the approach in the tutorial onto harder stuff, but some students won’t be able to get there in one fell swoop. In any event, I hope we can separate out the question of what works for the students from the issue of whether we can generate this content given the limited free time of those who are likely to make it. For my part, I’ll try to make the more of this sort of stuff, targeted at microeconomics instead of eighth grade algebra and see how it works with my own students.

Happy Holidays

Monday, December 10, 2007

The “L” Word

Now, I'm liberal, but to a degree
I want ev'rybody to be free
But if you think that I'll let Barry Goldwater
Move in next door and marry my daughter
You must think I'm crazy!
I wouldn't let him do it for all the farms in Cuba.

Bob Dylan I Shall Be Free No.10

A week ago my wife had a colonoscopy. She passed with flying colors. My role was to chauffeur, to tote stuff to the car, and to hold my wife’s hand as she went from cloudy headed to groggy after the procedure was over and the anesthesia had done its thing. I knew there’d be some waiting till we could go home so I brought a book along. I was reading Paul Krugman’s latest, The Conscience of a Liberal. The nurse who was attending to my wife saw I had a book in my hand and asked what I reading. After I showed it to her she asked, “you’re not a liberal, are you?” as if that were a condition on a par with venereal disease. We then had about a five minute exchange about my job, how I dress (pretty traditional if you ask me but it was cold that day so I was wearing thermal socks that had some color to them), and my style of speech, all of which unmistakenly pigeon-holed me as a professor – one of those, which if it weren’t a college town, might be a cause for alarm. I could have done without the chit chat. At least she took good care of my wife.

But here I don’t want to ponder how the rest of the world views those of us in academe. I’m writing as one insider to another. What does it mean to be a Liberal in how we do our jobs and in those norms we’d like to see followed in Higher Ed? Does advocating for learning technology necessarily make one a liberal because implementing the technology requires change? Is there some tie between Liberal in the workplace and, for example, our attitudes toward the upcoming presidential primaries and our preferred candidates? Those are the questions I want to address. Recently I’ve had several instances where colleagues either referred to me as a liberal or where they referred to others as more conservative. When a group of others make a similar if not identical determination, it’s time to investigate the proposition more closely. That’s one of my work maxims.

Here are a couple of other axioms that guide me on the job. The first I call the traffic helicopter approach to management. There are a lot of bottlenecks in implementing learning technology, perhaps more on a big bureaucratic campus like mine than at smaller colleges and universities. The trick is to spot them early and once having identified a problem then to “reroute traffic” so to speak. I was able to do this reasonably well when I ran the small Sloan Center for Asynchronous Learning Environments (SCALE). It became harder to do as we got bigger and became the Center for Educational Technology (CET) and became still more difficult when CET merged with the big academic computing unit, then CCSO, to form CITES. I’m doing a bit more of it now in my new job, though we also have elements of gridlock that I associate with large bureaucracies.

The second I’ve mentioned before in other posts. It’s called “no surprises” and is a sound principle of IT management (really of all management. The Bush Administration would have fared much better with the public had they practiced it.) It means that when some information becomes known internally and that information will affect the decisions of others, get that information out now, even if those changed decisions are perceived as not desirable by you. No surprises makes sense as a long run approach to managing information flows. If you take your medicine early and often, you can limit the pernicious consequences of the negative information. It’s not that people will love you for getting the information out, but if you get a reputation of holding in bad news, nobody will trust you. That’s worse, much worse.

I’m now going to apply those principles in critique of Krugman’s book. I hope it to illustrate my approach more generally and to give the reader all the ammunition needed to make a determination of whether I’m liberal or not.

Krugman’s ideal society is a middle class world that he knew in his youth with little income inequality, a general sense of optimism, based on real opportunities for all. This is the world that the New Deal created, one that emerged after World War II and held together for about 30 years thereafter. FDR, as creator of the New Deal, is Krugman’s hero. Krugman would like to see a return to the principles that guided the New Deal, mainly that society should actively redistribute income to create more equality. This is a society with progressive taxation, a large fraction of the workforce unionized there by driving up the incomes of the working class members of society, and some substantial social stigma attached to CEOs and other high powered corporate executives receiving exorbitant compensation. In the main I agree with Krugman on this. Where I might disagree a tad, at least with how this was framed in Krugman’s book, is that there needs to be incentive to encourage innovation in society, the ‘70s were a period of no productivity growth and ultimately were marked by “Stagflation,” but we’ve swung way too far in that direction since the start of the Reagan Revolution.

Krugman argues that the more recent move toward inequality in income is not a consequence of globalization, as some others have argued. Rather, he asserts, it is a consequence of deliberate political acts. The welfare state of the New Deal and later the Great Society would have sustained if the Republican party had continued to be dominated with Eisenhower Republicans, who were moderate and not so different from their Democratic counterparts on the social agenda. (Did Ozzie and Harriet vote Democrat or Republican?) Krugman offers up Barry Goldwater as the father of “movement conservatism,” a different and more radical type of Republican; one who aimed to dismantle the welfare state. Goldwater failed miserably in 1964. But he sowed the seeds for what would come later. So far I’m still on board with Krugman.

The big issue for Krugman is how the radicalism of movement conservatism became so accepted, especially since much of the message was anti-populist, the very rich have benefitted enormously from the approach but the rest of us only a little and quite a few of us not at all. How can a rational electorate, the vast majority not in the very rich category, become enraptured by an approach to economics that does themselves a disservice? That is a puzzle which requires explanation.

Looking backward at history the path looks deterministic and there is a tendency to see things in terms of their primary cause. This partly explain why Krugman wrote the book he did. Further, Krugman is in an odd position writing this book, especially given his importance as a columnist for the New York Times. It’s as if much of the book is a primer for Democratic Presidential hopefuls, that they should press the points that Krugman argues for; to return to income redistribution policies that benefit the many. So he needs a winning rhetorical argument to win them over. As I’ve argued elsewhere, first here and then here, the best rhetorical argument comes from applying a very simple model in a consistent way and then just hammering on that over and over again. The model does all the work one needs to frame the issues. So the audience has no trouble understanding the points being made.

Western Europe (not so much the UK but certainly Scandinavia, France, Germany, etc.) has never abandoned the Welfare state; this in spite of globalization. Further, unions are much more prevalent there while CEOs are paid much more here. This makes the situation in the US look exceptional and so Krugman offers up an explanation that focuses on that. The coalition that Roosevelt forged for implementing the New Deal included the Dixiecrats in a crucial role. The south was poorer than the country as a whole and so it would benefit disproportionately from the redistribution policies of the New Deal. And the Roosevelt Administration more or less kept a blind eye to Jim Crow. Brown versus the Board of Education didn’t happen till Eisenhower was president.

But when it became clear that the Great Society aimed to improve the lot of Blacks in the country, something that Southern Whites were dead against at the time, there was now a reason for these same Southern Whites to vote against their own economic interests so they could put it to the Blacks. This was the essence of the movement conservative message and this is why it was a winning strategy, according to Krugman. First there were the Reagan Democrats. Then it became fashionable for Southern Whites to become Republican. That was the ballgame.

Krugman indeed hammers on racism and in my reading of the book he has two scapegoats – the Southern White racists and the politicians who have pandered to them. This scapegoat approach may be a good rhetorical device, but I quickly tired of it and then thought it limiting, even harmful. First, I believe it is not entirely accurate historically as the full explanation is more complex. Second, in terms of trying to implement redistribution policies, it is not sufficient to focus on the enemy who is them. One also needs to work through the enemy who is us. There is none of that till the chapter on Health Care reform, the penultimate chapter, the one chapter in the book I liked because unlike the rest of the book it got all the issues out on the table. But in all the prior chapters there is not this completeness in considering the issue. There is only the issue of racism, over and over again. Krugman must have written 5 times about Reagan announcing his candidacy for the Presidency in Philadelphia Mississippi, where the civil rights workers were killed. I get it. Keep it simple and stay on message. But as a reader I don’t have to like it. So let me take on the historical accuracy and enemy who is us issues in turn.

The ascendancy of movement conservatism was far from inevitable in my view. Many random events (random from the point of view of the story Krugman tells) ended up mutually supporting this outcome. None of them get a mention in Krugman’s book. I’ll focus on three of these.

Jerry Ford was a Republican in the Eisenhower tradition. Reagan tried to run for President in 1976. But Ford was the sitting President and he won the nomination. There is no way to know this, but I think it a likelihood that Ford would have won the election had it not been for the Pardon. After Watergate, most everyone hated Nixon, certainly Democrats and then many Republicans too. Ford explained that the Pardon was necessary for the country to heal. Maybe so. I’m not so sure. The Pardon was a huge assist to the Carter candidacy. Consider Ford as President from 1977- 1980, but imagine Ford facing the same Stagflation that Carter had to deal with and imagine the Shah falling and the hostage crisis in Iran happening anyway. Now when Reagan runs in 1980 it’s no slam dunk and quite possibly a Democrat wins that election as a reaction to the previous regime. But the Pardon set in motion the timing that we did observe. It’s not in Krugman’s book at all. It doesn’t help his case. But it clearly did set in motion a chain of events that contributed to Reagan winning in 1980.

Next consider that soon into Reagan’s term there was an assassination attempt on his life. This made Reagan a hero even to those voters who didn’t agree with him politically. (I wasn’t one of them. I never liked Reagan. That may be prima facie evidence that I am a liberal.) He was able to create a unity of purpose in the country that is relevant for the next point. This is the same type of support the Bush II received right after 9/11.

Paul Volker was appointed by Carter. There was a horrific inflationary expectation built into our economy when Volker took office. There was a lot of debate at the time of whether one could take inflation out of the economy and achieve a soft landing at the same time. Volker did the former but not the latter. He pursued a tight money policy that made credit hard to obtain. It induced a rather severe recession. The Reagan White House, for all the errors it made with Supply Side Economics, more or less let Volker have his way and did not impede him. Without Reagan’s popularity this wouldn’t have been possible, or at a minimum would have been much more difficult. So we endured the recession, wrested inflation out of the economy, and since then it has been much more under control. One of the unanticipated good consequences of the recession is that it encouraged the OPEC cartel strategy to unfold. The oil price drops made it much easier to keep inflation in check.

These macroeconomic wins happened under the Reagan watch. I think one can make a good case that Reagan policies did little to achieve them, other than, as I said, letting Volker stick with the tight money policy that was necessary at the time. This macroeconomic success allowed movement conservatism to grow more or less in an unfettered way. Again, none of that is in Krugman’s book.

Krugman also ignores two other factors I’d deem critical, not for his rhetorical argument but for implementing the redistribution policies he wants to see. The first is the graying of America and its effect as a political force. Krugman does say in his Health Care chapter that seniors consume health care disproportionately, but he doesn’t push on the political implications of that. Let me do that here. Quite a few of those Southern Whites who vote Republican, especially in states like Florida and Arizona, are formerly Northern Whites who have made the trek southward. Race may be a secondary issue for them but taxes are a big deal. They don’t like taxes. Especially taxes that are clearly redistributive in nature from old to young (think of funding for schools). When they were younger they may very well have been liberal in their political outlook. But a conservative point of view matches their current mindset. On the other hand, they treat Medicare benefits as an entitlement and would certainly not want to see those cut in any way, shape, or form. Indeed, they’d very much like to see the health benefits increase. They will consume those. This is simply an expression of self-interest, enlightened or not.

The other issue is the decline in the personal savings rate. My parents, who lived though the Great Depression, were voracious savers. It was habit for them. They lived frugally, if comfortably. They could have spent more on themselves but saved both as a form of self-protection for old age and so they could pay the college tuition for me and my sibs and also for the grandkids. My generation lives less frugally. The saving habit was not inculcated as severely. The perceived need was not so great. And in the next generation it is weaker still. Since by definition income minus savings is consumption, saving less means consuming more. Over consumption is like a more general form of over eating. At first it might actually be distasteful, but after a while it becomes addicting. We know it is very hard for addicts to get rid of their habits.

Those in society who are well off but not super rich, in other words those remaining members of the middle class, may very well dislike an income redistribution approach where they end up paying greater taxes without seeing any obvious concomitant increase in benefits, especially if their personal savings rate is low, because they’ll be forced to confront their consumption indulgence.

In other words, we’ve learned to be greedy and we’re used to it. Rising above personal greed is possible, first by making long term arguments about where we might end up, with society more healthy overall, and then also specifically in talking to seniors about what near term things can be done to assure them that changes put in place won’t be too drastic on them. But Krugman does none of that in the book. On the overconsumption, he writes a throw-away line to the effect that most of this spending is in housing and it happens as parents try to move to good school districts to get better education for their children. Of course there is an element of truth in this but it is not the whole story. Krugman ignores the rest of the story. In my view that is an error. Krugman wants to put a simple argument into the field. Simple arguments tend to win the rhetorical fights. But they are a bear when it comes time to implement policy.

Krugman argues that Health Care is the issue for the 2008 Presidential Campaign. I agree. He would really like to see a single payer solution but doubting that is politically feasible he suggests some alternatives. These will require additional funding. He argues this is doable simply from rolling back the Bush tax cuts. Those cuts are due to expire in 2010. But Krugman also notes that Health Care is an area that has been hyperinflationary and that is because almost any innovation – a new procedure or a new drug – raises the cost of care. So either Health Care may very well require additional funds beyond the Bush Tax Cuts, or the new solution will have to ration care in some sensible way. Coming to a resolution on that will not be easy.

Krugman also argues that if Health Care Reform is successful, then it will create a taste for government solutions in other areas (for example to replace all the old roads and bridges so we don’t experience another debacle like the collapse of the bridge over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis). He argues that is another reason why movement conservatives are against health care reform. And in that he is probably right. But what of the Liberals who actually want to see such investment in America. Where do they see the funds for doing that? And for those of us in Higher Education who may be expecting a jolt from the Feds so that like universal health insurance everyone in the country has a guarantee to be able to get a college education, how are we going to pay for it?

If Krugman were to take a No Surprises approach to his argument, I think he’d be forced to say your taxes will go up. Everyone’s taxes will go up. We’ll make the system more progressive so they’ll go up disproportionately more on the rich, but everyone will have to pay. That’s how we’ll fund the other government spending Krugman talks about aside from health care.

But there is no discussion of that in the book. There is only the scapegoating regarding racism and pandering to it. In the eye for an eye world that is national politics, perhaps Krugman needs to write his book his way, to counter all the rhetoric from the conservatives who don’t want to see health care reform at all. But, if that’s the reason, I wouldn’t use the word “Conscience” in the title.

I’m kind of surprised he didn’t make any argument about the enemy who is us. If we were talking about environmental issues, there’d be no getting around it. Maybe he feels we’re still not ready for those type of arguments. But I, for one, feel that putting them off makes it harder to implement his reforms.

At this point in my life I’m confused about whether the term liberal applies to means or ends. I’m not that far from Krugman on the latter, but am quite uncomfortable in what he writes on the former. What does that make me?

Monday, December 03, 2007

Failure of Transitivity

Back in the ‘80s when I taught intermediate microeconomics, I would begin with the axiomatic approach to choice which goes as follows.
For a set of alternatives, A, suppose there is a relationship among its members, R, such that
Completeness: For all x, y in A either xRy or yRx. (In other words all pairs of alternatives can be ranked.)
Reflexivity: For all x in A, xRx.
Transitivity: For all x, y, z in A if xRy and yRz then xRz.
In this case R is called a preference ordering over A. To make some more sense of this, when xRy but not yRx, write xPy and say “x is preferred to y,” while if xRy and yRx, write xIy and say “x is indifferent to y.” Thus xRy can be read as “x is preferred or indifferent to y.”
When teaching my students, we’d discuss whether completeness makes sense. Are there cases where two alternatives can’t be ranked? We’d reduce this to situations where the decision maker didn’t have enough information. He or she could rank the alternatives after the fact, when the information was revealed. I’d say we can finesse that issue but for now let’s assume no uncertainty (this is how it is modeled theoretically). Reflexivity caused no trouble. It makes sense that an alternative is indifferent to itself. It would be a problem if it were preferred to itself. Students would invariably call Transitivity “being logical.” It made sense to them, though I’d let them know that upon occasion it failed in experiments where people were tested to see if they act according to their preferences. Mostly in those experiments those subjects where transitivity failed would report they had made a mistake.
When there is a preference ordering and the set of alternatives is finite, there is a choice point, x* defined by x*Ry for all y in A. In other words, x* is at least as good as any other available alternative according to the preferences. It weakly dominates all other alternatives and it itself is undominated. That is the entire theory in a nutshell.
Right now in college football, transitivity is being severely challenged. This season teams that were ranked number 2 routinely lost the following weak and then fell from their lofty perch. And several teams that were number 1, also lost to find their rankings dip. Among the various inconsistencies we’ve seen this season, I particularly like this cycle.
Michigan beat Illinois. Ohio State beat Michigan. But Illinois beat Ohio State.
This is a classic cycle. Based on head to head competition only, it is not possible to rank these three teams. That they are indeed ranked differently reflects their performance against others. This might seem a trifling but the ratings have been remarkably unstable this year because past performance has not been as strong as usual predictor of winning the next game. Contrast the Week 7 BCS and AP poll results where University of South Florida is ranked 2 in both polls and Illinois is out of the top 25 entirely, with the final results, where USF is ranked in the 20s and Illinois has moved quite a bit ahead of them. One might explain the anomaly of USF’s early high ranking by the fact that it was undefeated at the time, but Hawaii was undefeated for the entire season and they are ranked 10th. Hmmm.
For any situation with three alternatives, when there is a cycle there is no choice among them. Life goes on and a selection has to be made, true enough. But is the selection “rational” according to well established criteria? It can’t be. There is no rational selection. It doesn’t exist.
One sometimes hears the expression, “you have no choice.” But that really means there is one and only one available alternative. Similarly, there is a Hobson’s Choice, where there are two alternatives, the other being the status quo. We have language for those cases, even if the language doesn’t quite match up with axiomatic choice theory.
We don’t really have language for the case where there are cycles. We talk about “making the tough choice” but the issue is typically not that there are cycles, but rather that there are both upside and downside consequences in a binary choice setting.
The paucity of language to describe the situation notwithstanding, I think we face cycles in a lot of settings that are of concern to Learning Technologists. Consider this little scenario, cooked admittedly, but not without realism.
There are three alternatives:
x) Faculty Member uses online materials from Publisher via Publisher hosting and no contract with publisher.
y) Campus writes a contract with Publisher for Publisher hosted content on behalf of all faculty members on Campus.
z) Campus insists that all content possibly involving student grades must reside on Campus hosted Course Management System. Publisher content must be put there, if it is to be utilized.
And then, suppose there are three criteria by which to rank the alternatives:
  1. Security
  2. Academic Freedom
  3. New Partnerships Model
Further suppose that by each individual criterion alone the rankings are straightforward and are of the form:
1) First z, then y, and last x.
2) First x, then z, and last y.
3) First y, then x, and then last z.
Each criterion has a well established ordering of the alternatives but the different criteria disagree as to which is preferred. The question is how to aggregate the criteria. One might impose some further notion, such as fairness, so that none of the criteria are entirely abandoned. One possibility, would be to use Majority Rule. With the above one gets:
zMy, yMx, but xMz,
in other words, a cycle. Technically, there is nothing new here. It is well known that Majority Rule can produce cycles when there are 3 candidates and, indeed, this indirectly is an argument for a two party system. Further, Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem tells us Majority rule is not special this way. There is no rule that produces a satisfactory result for all possible rankings What may be new here, however, is to take this known result and apply to how we make decisions in an IT world.
Standard practice in doing an IT procurement is to first gather requirements prior to choice of product. Each requirement is analogous to the criterion in the above example. Then the various products under consideration are ranked separately by each requirement. Then somehow the results are tallied and aggregated and a choice is made. This can definitely produce cycles, particularly if there is not one product that shines above the rest.
Political scientists have understood the issues with cycles for some time. The power of a committee chair rest in large part from being able to set the agenda and thereby knock off some of the competition early on through preliminary votes. Sometimes we do something similar with IT procurement, where we make certain criteria mandatory. For example, back in late 2002 when we did the Campus RFP for a learning management system, we required the back end to be Unix/Oracle. We did get two bids, one from Blackboard and the other from WebCT. But a potential third bid from Angel was not forthcoming because they were Windows/SQL. At the time, nothing else in the Angel offering could offset that requirement, though in retrospect I think we should have looked at them more seriously, so our faculty and instructional designers could consider their functionality.
The problem with mandatory criteria is to rationalize why some items are in that category while others are only strongly preferred. As it turns out, we based our RFP in part on the RFP written by the Wisconsin System. Ironically, they ultimately went with Desire2Learn, a different Windows/SQL system. Obviously, at some point Wisconsin backed away from the mandatory nature of the Unix/Oracle requirement.
Cycles are becoming more prominent for me now, in my job in the College of Business. I’m confronting the following decision regularly. There is some category of software. That campus might very well provide a flavor in that genre. An alternative possibility is for my College to host a different flavor. A third possibility is to outsource the service. Among the criteria that are important for us in considering these options are Usability and Functionality for students and faculty, Budget, Security, and, for the within College hosting, whether we have the requisite expertise to support the service.
When there are cycles the status quo trumps new entrants. I think we see a lot of that on campus. It translates as inertia. We also see failure to communicate openly on issues of this sort. Is that because other folks recognize the lack of transitivity and are trying to keep the problem under wraps? I don’t know. It sure would be nice to find a Learning Technology initiative we all could embrace.

Monday, November 19, 2007


One reason to go to College is to ask the meaning of life questions. They don’t stop mattering upon graduation, but mostly we get caught up in our work and social lives and they take priority because of immediacy if not importance. Those meaning of life questions lie dormant, waiting for some spark to ignite the fire. As we grow older we don’t look for the spark. So when it happens those questions find us, often when we’re not looking.
Recently there has been an odd confluence of the personal and the professional that has made me refocus on these questions. Timing-wise, this centered around the Sloan-C Conference in Orlando. I want to reflect on two sessions from the conference – a community of inquiry framework for evaluation and what’s next for online learning. But I want to do this in my personal way. I hope others find this illuminating, though I admit the approach is a bit odd.
My mother lives in Boca Raton. So I’ve made it a practice either before or after a conference in Orlando to drive down and see my mom. As it turns out my cousin Arlene (she’s a cousin on my dad’s side of the family) who lives in Davie Florida, a bit north and west of Miami Beach, had seen my mom on her birthday in August. Arlene sent a photo of Miriam to me and my sibs via email and in response I mentioned the conference and the trip to Boca and asked whether I might see Arlene then. Arlene invited me to stay with her after visiting my mom and I did just that. We had a good time with her family and during Sunday brunch Arlene’s children had some interesting to say about Miriam and Sidney. (My dad passed away in June 1999.)
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You need to know I’m a shmegege when it comes to family, particular those not in my household and those I’ve not been in contact with for some time. The communication with them seems artificial and so I shy away from it. Last year Arlene attended my brother’s 50th birthday party in Ann Arbor, as did my cousin Ann from Denmark. (Ann’s father, Robert, is my mother’s brother.) This was the weekend when I had my leg accident and odd though it may seem, that episode created a bond among us beyond what the party itself did. I have been to several conferences in Orlando. This is the first one where I saw Arlene afterwards.
A week or two before Sloan-C, my cousin Debby who lives in Israel wrote both the Danish and American cousins that her father, Fred, had passed away. Fred had been suffering from a severe dementia. My mom’s been that way for a while. I don’t think she knew who I was this time around and she didn’t know me the last time I visited in March. The cousins on my mom’s side have had an extended email thread since, where the focus was on whether the siblings were disposed to this and indeed if we too are likely to suffer the same fate.
Nowadays people are fascinated with their own personal genome, a newly opened road toward self-understanding, perhaps helping them to answer the basic question: why are they the way they are? With the cousins we did something similar – anecdotal comparisons of behavior, some based on memories from long ago about our parents and ourselves, to see whether each of our reads on how things were made sense. Did we get the story right or not? I found this enthralling and opened up quite a bit in my own messages to my cousins, in large part because I see in my son Ben some aspects of my mother’s personality and thought that highly relevant for the discussion. This was happening right during Sloan-C and not surprisingly it occurred to me that my extended family was engaged in a Community of Inquiry.
But it was a surprise to me how we got there and that we’ve had this thread at all. Debby likes to send email, much of it impersonal in my view and about the situation in Israel. Debby’s son is in the Israeli army and the war with Lebanon took a toll on her family. The issues were personal for her. But the emails did not evoke a real response from me or my sibs, nor from the cousins in Denmark. We had what could only be described as an awkward exchange when Debby sent an email asking why she hadn’t received more sympathy from us.
Growing up Fred’s family lived 10 or 15 minutes by car ride from our place in Bayside. We had Seder at their house each year. They were Orthodox and we were ultra Reform, differences that were a cause for some tension. And further, Sidney was a brittle diabetic. He had himself been Orthodox growing up, but he rejected that in adulthood. Miriam placed taking care of Sidney’s diabetes well ahead of sticking with the ceremony from the Haggadah. She pushed the others to speed up the service, so we could eat and avoid Sidney having an insulin reaction. In turn they pushed back, if not at the time then in anticipation beforehand. Why didn’t Sidney take adequate steps ahead of time so he could sit through the entire service? Seemingly, we went through this ritual every year.
We saw Fred’s family a few other times each year. I remember none of the specifics but tone-wise there was some tension; that I do remember. Occasionally on Sundays, Fred would come over to our house on his own, a lower keyed visit. I’m not entirely sure why he came, one might guess it was care about his sister, but because Miriam ran a language tutoring business in our house, she was often busy with a student. So Fred spent more time in these visits with Sidney or with us kids.
Some time later, Fred and his wife Annette emigrated to Israel. So did Debby and her family and also Sharon, Debby’s sister, and Sharon’s family. Whether I was a grad student at Northwestern then or already a faculty member at Illinois, I’m not sure. Certainly I was living in the Midwest and not much aware of the goings on in Bayside. So Fred and the Israeli cousins “fell of the map” for me. Some of that had already happened with some of Sidney’s family. (His brother Dan, who was his law partner and unlike Sidney was a hard driving and good businessman, died of Leukemia in 1971. Sidney was the executor of the estate and that took a lot out of him. He had a hard time with Dan’s widow and we all became estranged from her and her surviving son.) Indeed, part of going to grad school in the Midwest was getting away from Bayside and my roots. So at the time all this happened without much notice from my view.
The Internet has brought the possibility of reconnection. Nowadays email is considered old fashioned, perhaps even a dying technology. Maybe we’ve lost the sense of wonder in the fantastic enabling that the technology provides. And I’m sure we continue to confound the effects of the technology as enabler with the essentially human interaction the technology can engender. After Debby sent out the announcement of Fred’s passing, my sister Marlene sent a condolence message and my brother Peter wrote a long and thoughtful message about Fred, with a personal anecdote to show Fred had something on the ball. I felt obligated to write a bit of the same, though I was not comfortable doing so. I ended up mentioning that upon occasion I played chess with Fred, on some of those Sunday visits. It was true, but meant as a throw away line, nothing more.
It seems chess was more important in family relations than I had realized. This was a case in point of the life questions finding me when I wasn’t looking. Debby wrote back about an episode where I played chess with her husband at their house, with parents from both families interested in the outcome. I lost the game and as a consequence Debby’s husband rose in esteem in the eyes of Fred. The question was whether I had deliberately sandbagged, perhaps in anticipation of this happy outcome. Regardless of the answer, Debby thanked me for the consequence, intended or otherwise.
Earlier this year Debby had visited Denmark and had some time to talk with Ann. I know nothing of the details but perhaps Ann spoke of the weekend in Ann Arbor where we celebrated Peter’s birthday, where she got to know me (again) and my family (for the first time) and since Ann had also been receiving Debby’s other email right along perhaps she was able to give Debby some other context for understanding how here messages were being received. Ann is quite a perceptive person and that is entirely possible. Alternatively, Debbie may have been genuinely grateful for the outcome of that chess game, even some 20 or 30 years later. In any event, that change in tone was the opening I needed to be more forthcoming. The other cousins seemed to want the conversation too. We debated Alzheimer’s versus dementia, whether our grandfather was properly diagnosed as schizophrenic (then as a Jew in not yet Nazi Germany it is now easy to spin other interpretations), and I contributed about the connection between Ben and Miriam.
In passing I learned (or was reminded) about how others regarded Miriam, quite unlike how I thought of her myself. I heard separately from Arlene’s children, my cousins once removed, and again from Sharon on the other side of the family that Miriam was a genius. It is interesting how those with less formal education perceive us who live in the ivory tower. That’s me, not Miriam. Miriam was a language tutor and later a High School language teacher (mostly French). She was apparently an exceptional student in high school back in Germany and she was very good at letting everyone else know that. (Fred was more of an ordinary student.) Miriam knew six languages – French, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew, German, and English. She knew a lot of German poetry and, for example, could recite verse from Heine. When I was in high school and college, she wanted me to read the Forty Days of Musa Dagh. I might do that in the not too distant future, to get to know her better.
I did not think of her as a genius because in spite of her aptitude she was so rules based in her approach, whether this was in teaching language or playing bridge there was always a rule to follow that would get you onto the right path. I didn’t like rules very much. I wanted to reason through the particulars of the situation and come to a conclusion based on reasoning. Miriam could not go from rules to reason and back again. Rules were it for her, or so it seemed to me. I couldn’t understand that, especially since there were notable times where following the rules let us down. And though I too was a very good student in High School, genetically I think that has to do more with Sidney than with Miriam. Sidney’s approach was more like mine.
In our thread one of the core questions was how similar the siblings Miriam, Fred, Robert, and an older sister, Gertrude, were in spite of obvious differences, including those in academic achievement. And then the question was whether those similarities stem from heredity or upbringing. In turn we were asking about ourselves. What of them is in us and our children? And how much of that has to with bloodlines versus how we were raised?
These were our core questions. I believe that every Community of Inquiry has to have its core questions. And one ingredient for the success of the community is the passion and intensity of interest that members have in pursuit of answers to the core questions. Right before the Sloan conference at Norma’s suggestion (Norma is my office mate at work and she also attended the conference) I started to read Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture. Some of what was said in the intro to the topic and the insights of Pierre Levy that Jenkins cited resonated with me quite a bit. But there was a disconnect for me too. The first real chapter in Jenkins book deals with the community of “Spoilers” for the TV show Survivor. The participants were passionate and deeply engaged in the activities of the Spoiler Community. But surely the underlying motivation, identifying the winners and losers in the TV competition, was at base trivial and unimportant. Were the behaviors of such communities of inquiry relevant to what I was experiencing in the thread with my cousins? And was it relevant to the more formal learning communities that sometimes emerge in the classroom setting and that were at issue in sessions at the Sloan conference? Clearly there is a difference if it is not just the Communities of Inquiry that should be the focus but also the questions themselves with which these communities are engaged. Hmmm, how does one categorize those questions?
My tentative answer is to look at root as to whether those questions have any personal connection to the individuals performing the inquiry. If not, it is just sport. Sport can be engaging, no doubt. But one can walk away from it and move on to something else and be no worse for wear. If it is personal one can’t walk away. Even if we get wrapped up in other things, it is still there, to intrude on us whether we want it to or not.
In much of our formal teaching, a question we don’t ask but should is whether we can make it personal for the students. Think of engineering education broadly conceived or of courses students take that are required but outside the major. Consider their motivation. What is there beyond the desire to get through that material, to earn a credential and get a good job as a consequence?
I took special note of this issue because at a session on workforce education Frank Mayadas made a comment that ALN for worker education aimed at retooling these people in their current jobs or making them attractive enough to find new employment had none of focus that traditional General Education has, to make well rounded individuals with critical thinking skills who are able to participate in performing their civic responsibilities. Rather workforce education must focus on raising individual productivity and that is the acid test of whether it is successful or not. This is true enough, but from my limited experience with adult education (via professional development activities for learning technologists) I believe this issue of whether it is sport or personal matters a great deal and the more effective education has a personal aspect to it even if it also has a strong technical component --- people find their jobs a means for self-expression and the educational opportunity needs to make that overt. This does not mean people should eschew the technical aspects of their work. Instead it means they should be able to make connections to the work on many different levels, some of which are personal.
The last morning of the conference I sat in the back of the room in a session given by Chuck Dzubian and Karen Swan about the future of online learning. For his part Chuck dutifully went through all the reasons why prediction is impossible; we just don’t know enough. Chuck didn’t even have to entertain the Random Walk Hypothesis to make his case, but I felt he was on terra firma in doing so. He spent some time talking about the Black Swan (no relation to Karen) and the impact of highly improbable but important events. With that as backdrop he then went in to making predictions based not on what is likely but rather on what online learning students and faculty seem to want, much of which falls in the category of greater convenience. I don’t recall all of it (perhaps his PowerPoint will appear on the Conference Web site soon) but I do recall a request for materials to be more modular. That was part of the prediction.
I want to make my own little predictions, somewhat contrary to the above, based on my experience with my cousins over the last several weeks and my thinking about teaching and learning these past several years. We need to engross our students in larger themes, those that make them see the big picture, those that can captivate them for some time to come. We don’t need modularity, we need a holistic approach. Students must be able to find something of themselves in the fields that they study. Their engagement will follow both from curiosity a la Jerome Bruner and self-actualization a la Maslow. And, in opposition to what most have been arguing, students will seek out depth of presentation, including in writing, as long as that provides illumination for their own inquiry. It is self-evident that information is abundant, occasionally overwhelmingly so. But that is not why so many students are non-readers or read only sporadically. Rather it is because it is so difficult to separate the chaff from the wheat.
Much of what we need to do as educators requires doing this task on behalf of students, particularly during their formative stages when the issue about their engagement remains in doubt and when the formalisms of the discipline might seem daunting and uninviting. We must see our jobs as touching the students personally so that they willingly make these commitments to their own learning. I heard a fair amount at the conference about the instructor’s main job being to get out of the way of the students, it is their inquiry after all and they should pursue it. One also reads a lot on that score in the edu-blog community, for example in the writing of Stephen Downes. I can understand why the argument is made. It makes the most sense once the passion in the student has been lit and the hunger to learn means the motivation problem has been solved. Then self-led inquiry within a community of others makes good sense.
But students are looking to be led to areas of fascination that they have not yet uncovered and they welcome the professor with both the knowledge of such places and the human understanding to make it known why these are places of strong interest. The role of the teacher then is quite different, guide but front and center, playing a pied piper role and watching carefully whether any of his students follow the tune. It might seem this role of professor makes the most sense for 18-22 years old students, particularly for Freshmen or for those starting in on the major. Thinking as such the emphasis is on the overall immaturity of the students. Thus I believe it continues to make sense at all junctures in a person’s development, even if the student is much older, as long as there is fundamentally a new perspective to be gained, a new bridge to traverse. With respect to the new perspective the person is immature and self-inquiry might very well not find the path. The professor has the keys, even now, even with all the relevant information freely available on the Internet.
The labels we’ve used to describe teaching and learning the last decade or so – teacher-centric versus learner-centric – have created a false opposition and some wrong headed thinking both about methods and about outcomes. If instead we could agree on the need for students to make personal attachments to the subjects they study, we could make more progress.
Let me leave you all with this thought. As the holiday season approaches are there lessons we can learn from interacting with our siblings and our cousins and the rest of our family? What keeps them engaged with each other? What about tone and the type of banter? These are questions to keep in the back of the mind as we take our break. Sometimes the best lessons come when we’re not trying to learn.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Recording Video Chats

Following up on my previous post, I've enlisted Norma's help to find a way for non-techie end users to be able to record such conversations for on demand viewing. The idea being that one can do "online guest lecturers" this way in a low cost and low stress manner. One can try Skype or Oovoo or some other video chat software in a live classroom setting, but the occasional network hiccup or other mishap might make that less satisfying. We seem to be more tolerant of video quality on demand as long as the audio can be clearly heard.

So yesterday we futzed with Pamela, a helper application for Skype that does the recording. (Note that you need the "pro" version of the software that does have a fee but there is a free trial period. You can't do video recording with the free version.) The video that Pamela records is what shows up inside your Skype video call window. That is either the person at the other end of the chat or that with a picture in a picture view of you, as a thumbnail. (Oddly, my video works but that picture in the picture function doesn't work on my computer. It worked fine on Norma's.)

Pamela records that picture window faithfully. Unfortunately, it introduces a kind of reverse latency. The sound come first and then the picture come a moment later - you can hear laughter from a joke and then see the the person laughing afterwards. This is not bad for a joke itself, but it is unsettling for viewing a serious conversation.

We will experiment with Pamela some more, because it seems promising. But for now I'd use it only for audio recording. Those can be "Pamcast." And because of the comparatively low bandwidth in use while recording, I expect those to have reasonably good fidelity.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Flying is for the birds. Actually, the trip from the Sea-Tac airport to O’Hare on Alaska Airlines was comparatively benign. We had the Jet Stream working for us in that direction so the trip took under 4 hours. And the plane was a fairly new Boeing 737-900, with reasonably comfortable seats and adequate leg room between rows. They even served Macadamia nuts along with the usual soft drinks. So what’s not to like? Well, for starters, how about a two hour layover in O’Hare? I had my le Carre novel, Absolute Friends, which I was enjoying and my iPod Shuffle to block out the outside noise and get into my own personal space. And I tried to break up the time a bit with a Starbucks. But even with the creature comforts, hanging out at airports is disorienting. I was baffled by why American Airlines has no flight to Champaign near when I arrived but then two flights 20 minutes apart around 7 PM. (Select ORD for From and CMI for To and then choose early evening.) I was on the earlier one of these and it was on time, no small blessing. Yet for those of you who have not experienced the delights of an ERJ 145 jet with 3 across seating, insufficient headroom to stand in the aisle, and a shoehorn-you-into-your-seat approach especially unappealing for a big guy like me, take my word that it’s those commuter flights that do you in. I was a zombie most of the weekend.

I’m not here to gripe, however, at least not about travel inconvenience. I’m very glad I went to the Educause Conference. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s opening lecture was incredibly good, worth the trip in itself. And I was in a variety of invited sessions where the conversation was stimulating and productive, though a particular talk by Terry Hartle of ACE Tuesday evening that was part of a dinner/discussion session hosted by D2L got me into a dither because he was so thoughtful and well informed but his subject – how the political climate in DC and elsewhere around the country is so into this notion of accountability – got me depressed because on the one had we need to wake up and address the problem while on the other it sure seems we’ll do more harm than good. Hartle used data about fatality rates at hospitals, data that does not reference other information about patient well being and hence data that can create quite a misleading picture, to emphasize the point. Of course in Higher Ed we’ve been reporting on graduation rates for years without, for example, indexing them by median SAT score at the institution, so we are likely confounding student capabilities with institutional commitment to learning. Hartle indicated that both in DC and in state capitols, the hyperinflation in tuition has created a fatigue with legislators about us in Higher Ed saying “we’ll study the problem.” They want action. Later during the same session when we were having discussions at each individual table, I asked Hartle whether FERPA puts a damper on us collecting data to show how the institution is performing. Hartle immediately brought up the Gonzaga Case, something I was unaware of, to make the point that FERPA doesn’t do much if anything to block efforts at institutional accountability. Too bad.

I’m part of several different overlapping groups where a good part of the Educause conference is to seek out group members and rekindle a spark with them. One of those is the CIC Learning Technology Group, where my role now is past chair (John Campbell is the current chair) and general contrarian. There were many folks from the group at that Tuesday Dinner. I’m on very friendly terms with many of them, a combination of shared experience and a sense that we have a lot to learn from each other. And it’s fun too because we know we can be open with each other on just about any topic and benchmark ourselves, not just the programs we support, in a way that’s not threatening. It is so much easier to talk with someone if there is a sense of an ongoing conversation. We have that in the LT Group. We don’t need to build the bond. It is already there.

A different group is the folks from my campus who have essentially the same title as I’ve got but who are in different colleges plus a few folks in the Campus Academic Technology unit (CITES). It seems ridiculous to travel 2,000 miles to meet up with folks from your own campus and have conversations with them there. But some of it is not so silly. I happened to be on the same flight out as Ken Spelke, so we chatted both at Willard and O’Hare and ended up having dinner together that first night. Later, on Wednesday I believe, I bumped into Deanna Raineri, my very good friend and my counterpart in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. We did a bit of a walk around the Exhibit Hall (I’m not crazy about the practice of having the box lunches all the way in the back so one must walk through at least some of the vendor displays to get to the food, but c’est la vie) and by accident while heading to the exit bumped into Xythos CEO Kevin Wiggen, who happens to be an Illinois Alum, and mostly by happenstance I have a kind of collegial relationship with him that mirrors the better relationships I have with my academic counterparts. Kevin gave Deanna and me an annotated tour of their latest release – quite nice.

Somehow later that day I ended up with both Deanna and Ken at the Starbucks in the Hyatt chatting about IT on our campus and how much we don’t know about what is going on. We’re in a brave new world with a new Campus CIO and much speculation about where we are heading IT-wise. I meet with each of them individually here in Urbana on a regular basis, but we rarely get together as a threesome. So what was meant as a restbit to gather energy (i.e., caffeine) for the evening festivities ends up as an extended and sometimes heated conversation about the campus direction. We had planned to have a College CIOs group meet monthly this year, but the group hasn’t gotten off the ground yet. If this conversation is any indication we’ll have no problem keeping up the conversation when we do meet. The sense of trust is the same as with the LT Group, perhaps even stronger. But in this case we care a lot about information flows – or lack thereof. Ours is a complex and decentralized campus. Also, we need to get each other’s perspective on recent events to see if our own take really makes sense.

Another group where there is a strong bond is my Frye class. I was in the 2003 cohort. Ten of us made it to dinner Wednesday night and I found it both charming and delightful that others want to get together as much as I do. Here the sense of common shared experience is most intense. The talk goes from work to paying for the our kids’ college to viewing IT as political economy to favorite TV programs all in a fluid, we-can-go-anywhere-we-want type of conversation. We don’t really talk much about nostalgia regarding our experience at Frye, maybe a bit but mostly not. But we do feel close to one another. That is unmistakable.

* * * * *

There was a different set of emotions on display at the conference because Brian Hawkins is stepping down as President and CEO of Educause and the conference was his swan song, with many people expressing their gratitude for Brian’s contribution and Polly McClure, in particular, talking of him as a model for her and the rest of us to emulate. It seemed as if everyone was taken up with Brian’s leaving.

I don’t know Brian well but some of the places where I interacted with him show up even better in retrospect. Brian, along with Pat Battin and Susan Perry were the “elders” who sat in the back of the room and assisted the “Deans,” Deanna Marcum and Rick Detweiler, during most of the time we were in plenary session at Frye, an institute that covers two weeks. Having more recently been a faculty member at the Learning Technology Leadership Institute, less than half the length of Frye and knowing how intense that was even as a kibitzer in the back of the room during sessions when I wasn’t a presenter, a big take away for me about Brian was the strength of his commitment. Much of that was exhibited just by his being there. Brian did give us a talk near the end of Frye – we need to expect to put in the time, a lot of time; we need to read the Chronicle and understand the job market and not just in our own area; we need to make some personal sacrifice to move up and likely if we want to advance we need to change institution (this is a toughie with a spouse who is also employed by the university and with kids who have friends at school that were long in the making ). So commitment and straight talk, that’s what I think of when considering Brian.

The conference itself is such a production and this time around some of the Educause staff seemed apologetic because the venue was sold out and in some ways too small for the size of the conference. I can only imagine what type of performance pressure the annual conference and all the other events put on Brian. He seemed to take it all in stride. I was a Nervous Nellie when I was hosting FSI – with only about 100 participants. Brian was always graceful in whatever context I saw him. That is a tribute to the Educause staff and their capabilities and Brian’s trust in them. Polly McClure was right. Brian is a great role model.

* * * * *

I could go on. I’ve been part of other Educause and also vendor-created groups and there is good camaraderie with some of those people, a few of whom I saw at the conference. But I want to change perspective here because I want to comment on some of the larger issues that were the talk of the conference.

With my friends I’m completely at ease, open and garrulous. Some may get the impression that I’m always that way, but they’d be quite wrong. Friends are insiders and there is a particular norm of behavior for them. It just isn’t the same with outsiders. Then one doesn’t know quite how to take their comments. There is little or no context. That goes likewise for how remarks I make might be understood. I want to illustrate with a personal anecdote first to show the problem. Then I’ll bring the discussion back to the conference.

When I was a teen I had battles with my mother, some of it standard “generation gap” problems – clean up your room. This particular incident is of a different sort. In considering High School, my mom wanted me to attend Bayside High, which was not then our community school. She wanted me to take Latin and for that there was a zoning variance so I could go to Bayside. The local school was brand new, Benjamin Cardozo HS, and as such was unproven. My sister, five years my senior, had attended Bayside in a similar fashion instead of attending the then new school, Francis Lewis. My sister liked going to Bayside and did well there. Language helped my sister’s GPA.

But I’m different from my sister in many respects and the circumstances had changed. Both Bayside and Francis Lewis required a bus ride; Cardozo was within walking distance. I was a math guy where my sister was not. As it turned out my Junior High School was in the process of converting to an Intermediate school and indeed I graduated after eighth grade. I believe the entire system was making that conversion but was doing so unevenly. Bayside High had a ninth grade but not one with much richness – my impression is it mostly had kids who went to parochial school but then didn’t continue to a Catholic High School and most of those kids weren’t good students. So the math and science I was getting there was too elementary for me and more to the point I felt isolated with little prospect of finding peers whom I could befriend. Ultimately I got very emotional and with my mom’s help arranged a transfer to Cardozo. (This was the same term, fall 1968, of the big New York City Teacher’s strike and while I was at Bayside for only a few weeks, it was several months before I started at Cardozo. In the interim I had my (impacted) wisdom teeth removed and attended a scab school… at Francis Lewis.)

I held a grudge against my mom for a very long time. She applied rules based on my sister’s experience without being sensitive to the particulars of my situation. She didn’t see my needs at all. I was a very good student and didn’t need language to boost my grades. I needed honors math and science for intellectual growth more than I needed Latin. And I took a great deal of comfort from being with my friends from Junior High. Cardozo was definitely better for me (and I believe it later proved to be a better High School overall). I thought parents were supposed to show that kind of sensitivity to their kids needs. It wasn’t until well into my twenties when my mother’s health began to deteriorate, and much later in my forties when I started to see some of her personality in my own kids that I began to see her perspective, though I still think the choice of Bayside High was wrong.

Accountability in Higher Education appears to be the “taking Latin” equivalent of today. There is nothing wrong with it ceteris paribus. Unfortunately, all else is never equal. Accountability as an issue is there to appease outsiders. This was made evident throughout the conference. In addition to Terry Hartle talk I heard Tuesday, there was a featured panel session with several member s of Spellings Commission Thursday morning. Among the panelists were David Ward of ACE, Terry Hartle’s boss and the sole member of the Commission who didn’t sign off on the final report. David Ward made several subtle points, and I applaud his intellectual integrity in sticking with nuance, but I thought his rhetorical style lost in the battle with the other panelists. Both Charlene Nunley and especially Robert Mendenhall were more effective in making argument, precisely because they had a simple model on which to base all that they talked about. As I’ve argued elsewhere, for example in this post, a rhetorical style based on a simple analytic framework is usually best for winning a debate, because it solves the framing problem for the listener. Capture the frame and all else follows.

But winning a debate doesn’t mean the argument is correct; it just means it is more persuasive. (Recall Lincoln on fooling the people and do note that subtlety is lost on those who have yet to think hard on an issue.) At the Tuesday evening dinner D2L did a good job of in the main staying out of the way. But at the beginning and at the end they made a pitch to get those in the audience to participate with them in writing White Papers on assessment with data. I for one will not take part in such activities BECAUSE I’D END UP SCREAMING. I will note here, however, that there is a need to articulate clearly the mechanism for quality assurance that is currently in play under the trust model.

We in Higher Ed say “trust us” but we don’t explain why it is that we should be deemed trustworthy. People have heard about publish or perish but they don’t know how it relates. They don’t know about faculty recruiting and the effort involved with that. They also don’t know about performance review.

They hear about what seems to be too few hours spent by faculty in the classroom and they implicitly get the idea that teaching is at odds with research. For undergraduate education, I think that perception is accurate, at least insofar as we continue to teach courses where the content is static, meaning it is essentially the same course as was taught twenty or thirty years ago. I’ve taught Economic Principles recently and was able to bring a freshness to the course by entirely abandoning a textbook approach, bringing in my own online content made with Excel, getting the students to read from journal articles in the American Economic Review Proceedings or the Journal of Economic Perspectives, and from such books as Freakonomics. But I did this as part of an experiment on how to teach, not as an extension of my current economics research.

There is a large issue, one that not too many people seem to be discussing now, about how to do the appropriate “translation” to make current research of interest and palpable for undergraduate instruction, particularly in a field like economics that attracts large numbers of students and that has a rich tradition, dating back at least to Adam Smith. That type of translation requires thought and effort, the results of which are largely not rewarded in the current model. (Those who argue for SOTL miss the point because SOTL work counts for naught by the faculty within a discipline who evaluate each other.) So all is not rosy for teaching and learning under the current model. But don’t think the accountability issue will help in this regard. That’s all about whether junior is learning what is being taught. It’s not about whether what is being taught is the right stuff for junior to know.

While normally outspoken on larger issues that engage the profession, I fear that there will be a garbling of the core questions if brought out in open debate, and so speak up here with mixed feelings. People “out there” want answers and they are impatient, to the point where they expect answers before they have the appropriate background to consider the alternatives. But I fear even more for my friends and colleagues within the profession, people whom I care about deeply. We’re being drawn into this argument whether we want to or not. We’re likely not of one mind on the answers to these questions. That could very well create distance between us, possibly even contempt for each other’s point of view. Our collegiality and affection for one another is our greatest asset. It would be a shame to tarnish it. Unfortunately, this seems to be the direction where we’re headed.