Sunday, February 11, 2007

The Fly in the Ointment

Yesterday morning I watched Senator Barack Obama give the throw-his-hat-in the-ring speech, as he declared himself a candidate for the presidency. He delivered it outside, with no hat and no gloves in temperatures that hovered around zero degrees Fahrenheit. That in itself was impressive. He speaks in a cadence that demonstrates he is a master of oratory, probably our best speaker in public life, at least since Mario Cuomo. (Cuomo also spoke in cadence, was a Democrat darling for a while, but ultimately did not even run for the presidency.) And he framed the message quite well, we can do it America, and we can be ambitious about what we aim to achieve, if we’re all in this together and willing to make the shared sacrifice that is necessary.

He wrapped himself in Lincoln, giving the speech in the shadows of the Old State Capitol, in Springfield Illinois, and was right to do so. He talked about bringing the troops home from Iraq soon, in March 2008. He was right on that one too. But those rights don’t undo a wrong, though to be fair to him he still has some time to get out in front on the tough issues, but at least in this speech on two key issues he looked more like he’s bringing home the gravy for us in Illinois than acting as a leader for the benefit of our country and all around the globe. Those dual issues are energy independence and global warming and it on those issues that Obama will either prove his mettle or show he really is just another politician, admittedly a talented one.

Illinois is a big corn producing state. Promoting government subsidies of corn production is one way to bring home the bacon to the state. But there is a more insidious idea afoot than corn subsidies per se. Decatur Illinois is about 35 miles from Springfield. Decatur is home to the agri-business giant, Archer Daniels Midland. ADM is into ethanol big time. Ethanol as a an additive to gasoline, a renewable substitute for petroleum, a substitute produced from that staple of the prairie farm, corn. And the problem is, ethanol from corn as a renewal substitute for gasoline is bad idea. When both a Wall Street Journal Editorial and a Paul Krugman’s Op-Ed piece make essentially that point, and you know these guys don’t agree very often, then you also know they are making the reasoned case in this instance. Perhaps there is something to be argued for ethanol from corn as a bridge technology till we find other alternatives. But it sure seems to be the case that we’re overheating the market with the current approach, creating a lot of dislocation for those who depend on corn as a basic food input, not as a fuel, and creating an entrenched community of interest to sustain this “solution,” because it’s becoming another gravy train for corn and ethanol producers alike.

Any sensible approach to energy independence would have a healthy dose of conservation built in. The best way to promote conservation and fuel efficiency is to raise the price of the inputs to be conserved, i.e., a gas tax. Tom Friedman has been calling for this for some time. In his latest column on this point, he goes even further and asks for a guaranteed minimum price on gasoline of $3.50 per gallon to get the incentives right. Obama talked about issues being linked. He’s right on that. He talked about giving a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq as a way to put pressure on the Shia and Sunnis to negotiate. But he didn’t talk about making that timetable to withdraw credible and he didn’t talk about how that credibility would be tied to us being firm about moving toward energy independence. Where was any of this in the speech? Where was mention of the gasoline tax? It wasn’t there.

If we had such a tax, some of the revenues could be used to fund basic research on developing cost-effective renewable sources of energy. My campus, along with UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Lab received an enormous grant from BP to do basic research on bio-fuels as sustainable renewable energy sources. Basic research of this sort sounds like the right idea for the future. Yet it’s not an idea that will have much impact on markets now. The ideas are too new. There is much hope, but not much proven.

Obama is obviously a very smart guy. But it’s his character that will be tested most by this campaign, not his intelligence. If Obama can woo ADM and others in agri-business toward taking a broader view on sustainable bio-fuels he will show he’s the leader we all want him to be. He’s poised to do this as the Senator from Illinois, the home of ADM. But that is a hard path to walk down. It requires a forward looking approach that is not very common in politics or business. Its much more likely that he’ll stick with ethanol from corn as the solution and won’t talk about a gas tax. If he does this he’ll show he’s all too human, and he’ll risk getting outflanked on the issue by Clinton or Edwards, who’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate some character of their own.

* * * * *

On Friday I attended the annual Active Learning Retreat on campus. The featured speaker, Marcia Baxter Magolda from Miami University, gave a good and interesting talk, about the developmental immaturity of most of our students, how they don’t understand their own role in learning, how they accept information doled out by the professor as the gospel rather than questioning what they see and here and bringing their own distillation of that into a sense of the world that they themselves have created. Magolda talked about a somewhat later stage in student development, where while they feel entitled to their own opinions, all other opinions seem equally valid. Only after enduring this stage for some time do the student’s move on to the more mature phase that most of us faculty want to see in them, and frequently this appears to happen not in college at all but only after the students have moved into the workplace. Magolda termed this last phase as self-authorship. Students need to actively make meaning in a way disciplined by logic and experience and their own world view. That certainly seemed correct to me.

But there were many other things that were said (and unsaid) where I struggled through this presentation and the message delivered in it. My own experience as a student is contrary to Magolda’s story in several respects. I was doing what she calls self-authorship in ninth grade, and quite possibly earlier. But in the main I was doing that along paths that others had already crossed. It would be my own journey, but I had the comfort of knowing that I was not the first pioneer and after I had made my little sojourn I could compare my conclusions with what others had found before me. Surely that is the right way to proceed in making independent learners, before opening them up to complex problems which are fundamentally novel. Certainly they need to develop a sense of independent judgment in an environment where they can test whether that judgment has delivered a sound verdict. Yet none of this was in the presentation at all. In that I was disappointed.

Also, I was surprised that there was little or no discussion about getting students to write. If we want students to be self-authors, one might guess that the path to that would be through having the students write. But self-authorship, which in the sense the sense it was used was meant more metaphorically, one writes to the empty slate in one’s own head, was to be understood as an attitude toward learning, and not as an particular method to induce that attitude. I wish there had been more discussion of student writing and, then, especially of writing online, where some of the student thinking can be made overt to the professor and to the other students. But these ideas didn’t enter the discussion and technology hardly was brought into the conversation, except as evidence that the students are distracted from their learning via cell phones and iPods. Technology was cast as a culprit, a modern way for the students to go truant, a temptress calling the students away from the serious work of the classroom.

It seems more and more evident to me that those who think of their business as learning, such as Magolda and the folks who work for Center for Teaching Excellence that sponsored the retreat, view technology in this pernicious way. So they are not likely to look to technology for answers to their problems. But by avoiding this solution, they are missing one of the best opportunities to address the issues. It seems equally evident to me that we in the Learning Technology field don’t know how to reach out to these people in way that will engage them. We are not making the right arguments; perhaps we’re not making any arguments at all. This is tragic. It’s also farce. There are not enough resources going around to support instruction. That we have in essence two independent approaches, each under funded, makes no sense.

* * * * *

After the retreat concluded I bought a coffee and started to read some of Magolda’s articles that were included in the binder we got when registering, sitting in an open area in the Union near where the Retreat had been held. More and more frequently I find now that I need to decompress to make sense of what I heard and also I wanted to get some more detail about what was presented. For example, she had mentioned this book by Robert Keegan, which seems like an excellent read, and I wanted to verify the citation. After that, I was pretty much through her piece, Helping Students…. when I was surprised by seeing a former CS student I knew as a result of his serving on the campus Information Technology Advisory Board and in addition I had attended a workshop on the use of Tablet PCs that he participated in. He now works for Google and was back on campus to recruit students.

We talked for about 10 or 15 minutes or so, and covered a range of subjects. I asked him whether his education at Illinois was good preparation for what he was doing now. He said it was, but he emphasized out of classroom stuff – supervising some production project, I can’t quite recall what he called it but it clearly it was the ability to act in an entrepreneurial role as a student, not the classroom activities, that he identified as the key preparation. Then we talked a bit about how Illinois was excellent for students if they already had that entrepreneurial spirit when they arrived, how there were exceptional opportunities for the energetic and talented, but how the ability to self-sequester and become an anonymous piece in the sea of like students was also there, and most students found themselves in that boat. This former student volunteered up for himself that the Illinois model was Darwinian in concept, an excellent place for the fittest, they don’t just survive, they thrive. But Magolda’s work seems to focus on the other tier, those who might be drowning or struggling to keep their head above water.

The rhetoric at Illinois from the administration is all about excellence. I wonder if that’s why teaching is given such short shrift.

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