Monday, January 29, 2007

Learning Technology and “The Vision Thing”

This is a bit of a sequel to my previous post. I felt guilty about taking a pot shot at the profession toward the end of that piece and in the spirit that you shouldn’t criticize unless you offer up your own alternative, here’s mine, with the warts mind you.

Let me begin with a little personal philosophy; I subscribe to the Umpire Theory of Technology. According to that, in a baseball game the umpire is absolutely critical to make the calls in an unbiased way. But if you watch a game the only time the umpire gets noticed is when he makes a bad call. If the umpire does his job very well, he becomes invisible. Learning technology well employed should be invisible too.

It’s hard to have “a vision” about something that should be invisible and, actually, that’s the point. We need to figure out what game it is that we should be playing, a game that is not defined by the technology itself, that comes from outside our field not from within, some of the mistakes I believe we’re making now stems from taking the technology itself too seriously, and then when we’re clear on what the game is we can work through how the technology might support it. Much of the rest of this piece is an argument that we should be playing a certain game.

But there’s one other point to be made before making that argument. If we look to outside the profession for our source and inspiration, it would seem that we’d be in reactive mode (I think we have been the last few years) rather than taking a leadership position. I recall a presentation by Terry Hartle of ACE that I heard at the Frye Institute in summer 2003, where in a bit of oversimplification on my part to keep this brief, all of Higher Ed was cast in reactive mode and trying as hard as it could to do damage control in light of Bush Administration policies and the acts of the Republican Congress. Further, on the presentation we heard at ELI from Julie Evans on student technology attitudes in K-12, where the general tone was that students feel their schools don’t provide an environment conducive for learning and that they are under a great deal of pressure due to persistence of high stakes testing, surely this is an indictment against No Child Left Behind and its derivative impact on schools, including those that in terms of performance on those high stakes tests would in no way would be deemed deficient.

My point is that it doesn’t take a genius prognosticator to anticipate a sea change in government policy toward higher education, irrespective of who becomes our next president, pendulums do swing both ways however slowly, and whatever we come to conclude now about vision should be aimed for after that new administration is in place. We can show leadership in this by helping to frame the argument of what should be next and by creating a sense of what is possible. But we also must be self-critical because we in Higher Ed are struggling under the weight of many serious problems – relevancy and cost being the two biggest – and if we don’t give full weight to those challenges we’ll seem out of touch and hence be ineffective.

Let me also give a disclaimer here that in substantial portion my suggestions on “the game we should be playing” lie outside my own personal areas of expertise and so I may be off more than a little on the specifics in framing this. One might readily agree with my general argument but want to make changes in the specifics. Very good then, please do that. I’m trying to paint with broad strokes here so others can chime in on their own.

The argument has two pieces, a technical side and a humanistic side. On the technical side, we currently teach a lot of courses that are “pure theory” and a good fraction of our faculty would describe themselves as theorists. I was definitely in that category when I was doing economics research. This part of the instruction must move to emphasize data and the use of data for decision making and technology can be quite helpful in terms of data mining and data visualization. This Ted Talk by Hans Rosling gives an inkling of what is possible in this regard. At present, the tools for making such a presentation are still esoteric and hence removed from day to day practice. We need to communicate with big commercial software vendors, Google and Microsoft come to mind, that we want this type of functionality in their ordinary suite of tools offerings. If they actually delivered on this ask and only then might we expect reasonable diffusion of the practice of working with data, even among theoretically minded faculty. Further, since the commercial giants will show interest in us only if they can make a buck somewhere else as a consequence, we need to make a credible argument that these type of data analysis tools will have wide use in the world of work as well. (I think that’s possible, but even with the success of Freakonomics, I’m not sure others yet buy the argument.) So in this dimension all we can really hope for is to speed up the deployment about what we should all anticipate will eventually happen anyway, by pointing to the urgency of this need and articulating that with consistency and with good understanding of the limits in current offerings. (I’ve not yet looked at Excel 2007 and so don’t know what it does in this dimension, but I suspect there is quite a way to go to get to what we need.)

Let me turn to the humanistic side. I believe we need something we might call “Humanism Across the Curriculum,” a next generation extension of Writing Across the Curriculum. This is not something I’m making up on my own. A report from AACU, College Learning For The New Global Century, makes this argument. I’m borrowing ideas liberally from them. But that document should be thought of as a synthesis only. There are hints to these ideas in many other places, for example in Tom Friedman’s book The World Is Flat, George Packer’s piece in the New Yorker The Lesson of Tal Afar, and Jaron Lanier’s article on the Edge Foundation Website Digital Maoism, to name but a few. It is instructive to note Glenda Morgan’s observation that the AACU report is quite different in its recommendations from the Spellings Commission Report. This does not mean that Casey Green’s admonition to Bring Data will become irrelevant. That horse has left the barn. But it does mean that what we teach an how we teach should change substantially in accord with a Humanism Across The Curriculum approach. In my view, this is the game we should be playing and right now the goal should be to add some flesh to the argument because at present there is mostly only skeleton to these ideas.

Now for the bad news, this is going to be really difficult to do. Writing Across the Curriculum, the precursor, failed. It didn’t fail because of the pedagogy, which was excellent and had lots of insight into how students learn. Rather it failed because it was a program and not an institutional embrace and because as a program it insisted on being labor intensive, more intensive than most other instruction at the institution. Students take around 40 courses in their undergraduate careers. At Illinois, the writing requirement is in two courses only, Freshman Rhetoric and Advanced Composition, and it is only in that latter offering that we find the embodiment of the WAC approach. In the other 38 courses the level of writing is entirely determined by instructor discretion and I dare say there isn’t much writing in those courses. I don’t know how anyone can reasonably conclude that typical students will learn to write well and to use writing as a way to explore their own thinking in this type of environment. If you look at the overall picture the students is getting the message mostly that writing is not important and that it only comes up in special cases. WAC fails in terms of learning outcomes for that reason.

WAC also didn’t work in terms of instructional resource. The trouble with teaching in a writing intensive way is that the writing requires human evaluation and that evaluation work is labor intensive. So WAC courses had more human resource than typical courses and that can really only be funded by a robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul approach. This works programmatically but obviously not for the institution as a whole, which doesn’t have more human resource, and it doesn’t even work programmatically when the campus has to face budget cuts, as it did in the early part of the decade, when an “expensive program” like WAC gets cut by teaching the same courses with fewer human resources and with instructors who have not been given the needed faculty development. This is the underlying issue that nags at any reform and unless it is acknowledged and addressed squarely, efforts in this direction will fail. I continue to believe that the bulk of the solution to this problem lies in recognizing the students themselves as the needed human resource. (My blog archive from August 2005 has 7 posts on Inward Looking Service Learning that sketches the type of solution I have in mind.) Otherwise, this is an exercise in pulling rabbits out of a hat, or worse.

The needed reform has to occur in all courses, the AACU reports emphasizes this point, and the reform must be mindful of the human resource constraint; not too many people talk about this juxtaposition in the same breath. But there still are other issues to consider. What does Humanism Across the Curriculum look like? And why should we be doing it?

In my conception, there are four pillars to Humanism Across the Curriculum, iconically represented by Abraham Maslow’s notion of self-actualization, Margaret Mead’s ethnography, Norman Mailer’s writing and his providing ego for the other (this may seem a particularly idiosyncratic choice, which I made in part because the book review is such a great read), and JFK’s ideal in his inaugural address, ask not what your country can do for you…

Let me briefly provide a rationale for each of these. On Maslow, as of late there has been much talk about promoting creativity in our students. I believe the Maslow ideal subsumes that. Further, by framing the issue as one of personal growth it addresses in full the student motivation for pursuit of the ideal. And too, it encourages a self-direction driven by that need for personal growth. Both the Mead pillar and the Mailer pillar emerge from a need to abandon provincialism and tribalism in favor of a global understanding and the only way to do that is to have a deep appreciation for the views of others; the Mead pillar emphasizing the need to study others with a depth of understanding for their culture while the Mailer pillar is meant to emphasize the importance of written communication and the need for understanding of the other in that.. Finally, the JFK pillar (Lincoln may be a better source for this pillar but Lincoln stands outside our living memory) is clearly there to reaffirm the social compact and that we’re all in this together, an antidote to the obsession with making money that many of our students have and that we implicitly sanction.

How does one teach this way? Think of it affecting the choices in what we assign students to read, in what assignments we give them to be evaluated toward their final course grade, and in making explicit in presentation how some of the subject matter in the course is perceived or used by others.

The reason to teach with Humanism Across the Curriculum is to encourage students to make connections with what they learn, connections between the subject matter and their own personal experience, and connections between the subject matter and the world outside the classroom. If those connections are made the learning will be deeper. And that is why this can be an approach implemented in every course that students take.

That said, it will be a lot easier to sell the idea to humanists than to faculty in other disciplines. Those in fields like Computer Science or Biotechnology, where the field itself is going through rapid growth and change, will argue (rightly in some sense) that however noble is the concept behind HAC they simply don’t have the time in their courses to adopt the approach because there is some much else that must be covered. Those who are in less rapidly changing fields but who teach technical courses (microeconomics is in this category) will also be resistant because of the perceived lack of rigor that HAC provides. Both of these reactions can be anticipated and they both need to be confronted squarely if this innovation is to succeed. The refutation needs to be based on the ideas in the previous paragraph, but there must be evidence brought to bear to support those ideas. And if after having tried it for a while and the evidence is weak or not supportive, we need to say that.

Before I close let met quickly make the technology visible again. The discussion of Web 2.0, of podcasts, wikis, and blogs, something that admittedly has produced a wrinkle of excitement on our campuses, will surely not fulfill their potential promise if we continue to promote these technologies as things in themselves rather than as instruments toward achieving a bigger goal. We need to amp up on the bigger goal, to force the discussion on that, and to situate the services we provide, particularly the faculty development services, in support of the bigger goal.

That’s my two cents worth. I’d be delighted to hear alternative views.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Thoughts from ELI

Armed with the excuse that I needed to pick the kids up from school since my wife is in Chicago today, I finally found the time to write this post, Friday afternoon and evening. I had thought I could write it in the Airport and on the plane on the way back, but I was just too spent to produce something worth reading and needed to process more what I had seen. Then, too, I got to read Barbara Ganley’s post on the conference and so I can dwell on some other things that came up and only briefly touch on her points here.

I attended a couple of sessions in the category of “online publishing” broadly considered. The second one, the last session I attended because I had to pack and get to the airport, was a very nice talk on the Connexions project. It seems to me they’ve mostly got it right in what they are trying to do with this project – contributions of modular material made in an appropriate xml format for repurposing and combining with other material that can be freely viewed online or printed on demand and priced at incremental cost. We tried to do such a project in the CIC learning technology group with commercial publishers (they have a lot more content than is in Connexions at present) but the publisher need to make a buck limits what they can implement. So it would be really nice to see this project succeed, but for that to happen they need critical mass in terms of content contributions. When I get the chance, I will try to put some of my Econ stuff in there, if for no other reason than to learn by use about the authoring environment. I didn’t see any Econ content in there at the moment. Right now it seems to be mostly Engineering content.

I also attended a hands on session about the Sophie Project. This too was an interesting session. Sophie is for making highly stylized multimedia content – they call them eBooks but it might be better to think of them as documents with text, images, audio, and video, formatted in a way that makes them look professionally published, and with the authoring environment simple enough so any of us can do it. In other words Sophie is an open source alternative to Authorware that is much easier to use and therefore might allow the content creators (the people who wrote the text, made the videos, etc.) to produce the final document themselves rather than to outsource that activity to a dedicated programmer for the purpose. And Sophie looks like it can readily be used by students who might want to produce such slick content for themselves. The content that is ultimately produced must be rendered by a Sophie plug in if the viewer doesn’t have the Sophie software itself, in my way of thinking that is a bit of a downside, but I think this is worth a try. I’m unclear on what further funding the Sophie Project has and perhaps even more than with Connexions there is the question of whether it will generate critical mass in a community of users who can sustain it thereafter. This issue of sustaining innovation permeated the conference.

Let me switch gears. I attended two presentations where students were the presenters and a third presentation, the opening plenary, where the technology behavior of students was the object of study. The opening plenary was given by Julie Evans who presented evidence about K-12 student technology use and needs. It was a very good talk and I’m sure others will comment about it more extensively. So here I want to pick on only one point that came out of the presentation. Students want to see their course content use more technology --- particularly in math. I agree with the students. This should be done. Further, I’ve done some of this sort of thing so in this context I’m going to make a bit of an aside to showcase some content that I will consider again in my next post. The demo is on my mediamax site. (Click the green arrow to get at the stuff.) The math is in the Excel file, which is not too large. The other content are screen capture movies with my voice over about using the Excel file. There are three of these movies that I captured with Window Media Encoder. For my Mac colleagues, I converted two of those to RealVideo format. (The third wouldn’t convert, I’m not sure why.) The movies are there mostly to help the student understand how to play with the Excel file on his own. I would not expect most students to watch the movies all the way through. But it should help them get started.

This type of content is conceptually not that hard to produce and it can be used on multiple levels – each worksheet is password protected but the password is blank so students knowing that can hack the files and understand how it works under the hood. That is a different level than those who simply use the file. There are both numbers and formulas, the former are realizations of the latter at particular values of the variables. The students enter values at various cells in the spreadsheet and there is essentially instantaneous feedback on whether that’s been done correctly. I think there is much to commend this approach and given that Excel is already available to the students, the incremental cost of delivering this type of content is negligible. There clearly is authoring effort involved in making this stuff and the author needs some vision on how the content should appear. If somebody else were to organize a project for producing such content, I’d love to be involved in that. I believe this is the right response to the students’ demand.

Getting back to ELI, one of the presentations by students was a featured session done by a former undergraduate student at NC State, Carie Windham. I found the session surreal on many dimensions. First, as a speaker Carie had more poise on stage and her PowerPoint was more polished than what I heard and saw in several other presentations and those were by people who were substantially her senior. If she is that way all the time when giving a talk, she has quite a career ahead of her as a public speaker. If not, then it is evident that the presentation was rehearsed substantially and that sense of prior rehearsal contributed to the strangeness of the talk, at least strangeness from my perspective. Second, although Carie gave a disclaimer on this point at the beginning of the talk, the tone throughout was that this presentation represented not just Carie’s views on the matter but rather all college kids. This might have been just a speaking style thing, but if it was a highly rehearsed presentation then it might be more than that. How does a graduate student who was not that long ago an undergrad develop the authority to speak for her entire generation unless the talk is echoing the work of others who have done the research? Maybe I missed it in the beginning, but I didn’t hear reference to that type of research. So that too was weird. Third, I had written a post not too long ago on Rethinking Office Hours, and much of the content of that post, at least in terms of diagnosis of the problem, came up in the Q&A for that session. So I had a very strong sense of déjà vu listening to that. A few people who had seen that post said the same thing to me afterwards.

The other presentation by students was part of a joint session led by Barbara Ganley and Barbara Sawhill, showing in parallel developments with blogging in the classroom a profound effect on others outside the classroom. This is happening at both Middlebury and Oberlin, a consequence of the work of the star students Lizi Geballe and Evie Levine. They both gave excellent presentations. Yet though these you women are obviously extremely bright and quite accomplished in their online writing, they nonetheless came across as students in this session and for that reason it seemed more natural to me than the session led by Carie Windham. In fairness, I’ve been having an ongoing dialog with Barbara Ganley in our respective blogs and elsewhere about effective teaching and engaging students so I had a strong prior disposition to be positively inclined to this session, but even with that I think it worth remarking that tone in delivery matters as much as the substance of the presentations and tone-wise this session was spot on. Barbara Ganley has noted on her blog that the attendance was a little lacking. I noticed that too. I’m hard pressed to explain why, but perhaps some of my further comments about the rest of the conference might shed some light on this. It’s a shame, because it was the best and really the only session I attended on what used to be the core questions – how do we teach with this stuff and what good results might we expect when we do that well?

I want to turn next to a session by folks from Carnegie Mellon on their Open Learning Initiative, another one of the featured sessions. The OLI are a bunch of fully developed courses to be done entirely in self-paced mode with the aid of computer instruction. In this sense it is reminiscent of Plato, which still casts a shadow on my campus. I want to look at the Econ course in OLI when I have a chance, but here I want to pick nits. Candace Thille, the director of OLI, explained that the content was designed based on research principles articulated in the book from the National Academy of Sciences, How People Learn. She further went on to make that point that in many science courses students learn particular chapter content in a disembodied way – there is a profound forest for the trees problem. I agree. She then showed how the software addresses this problem by locating modules within a hierarchy where the software shows the hierarchy via the software’s scaffolding. I can’t believe that works to address the problem.

Instead students need stories to show how the various content pieces are connected. And they also need to make their own narratives when they apply the content in a particular context. Pedagogically, that is definitely the answer. How can anyone seriously believe that the scaffolding trick with the software will be sufficient? When Mallard was in its heyday on my campus, we taught courses (including my intermediate microecon class) that had a mixture of automated material and online writing and that seemed like a winning formula. But on a different level – not pedagogic but resource-wise – the issue with having courses with a significant component of story telling is that they are much more costly than an alternative that relies entirely on computer assisted instruction. So now you too can have a Carnegie Mellon quality course, and at very little expense. Hmmm.

Let me turn from the presentations to the hallway conversations. At least with my colleagues there was something of a disconnect with what we were hearing in the sessions. The gist of this was (1) we’re becoming plumbers with the quintessential plumbing tool the learning management system, (2) many of the innovations presented at the conference were not sustainable because they were too customized and couldn’t keep up with the pace of technical change, and (3) the emphasis on games went too far and really can’t be marketed back on our campuses – even with all the net gen stuff there is the profound belief in my colleagues (and in me too) that being a good reader is the right path for success in college now and on into the indefinite future.

It is unmistakable that part of the job in support of learning technology is about plumbing and given the truth of the proposition I was somewhat surprised that I heard essentially nothing about my main plumbing problem, one my student advisory committee says is their number one issue with technology. (I did hear from Sandy Schaeffer a friend of mine from the Frye Leadership Institute that he has the same problem at Memphis.) The problem is that we provide too many different ways for students to do course logistics – downloading files, reading announcements, etc. They want a standardized approach and really don’t care that much about what the approach is, as long as it works. It would have been good to have heard a debate about whether innovation with learning technology needs to be contained so that some degree of standardization in approach can take root. But this issue simply didn’t come up. I’ve got a pilot project in my college that is trying to address this problem. When it gets a little further along and if it seems to be going well, I’ll blog about it.

On the sustainability issue and whether we should have heard about that in the presentations, the Carnegie people did bring it up in their talk, I really don’t want to mention specific presentations where the issue was not brought up, but I do want to note that it seems the profession is split on the “show the warts” issue. I’m definitely in the camp that the warts should be shown and last summer at the last WebCT users conference I and some of my CIC peers tried to impress the Blackboard management that they should take that approach in dealing with us. But clearly, and especially because there still is a strong expectation for “wiz-bang” in the profession, there is another style that promotes that and hides the warts. The benefits of the show the warts approach is that it wards of cynicism because it explicitly tries to keep expectations from getting out of wack. However, there is a downside, especially when talking with others, and I count the NSF in this category, who are really expecting a wiz-bang type of presentation. Then the presentation can seem negative and the project look unsuccessful. This is where I’d hope we as a profession could converge on one way of doing business, but I’m afraid we can’t, precisely because there can be tangible rewards from making an overly optimistic view of the project, on the one hand, but folks who have been around for a while are tired of the hype, on the other.

On the games stuff, and I did attend the Learning Circle More than Just a Game led by Bryan Alexander, mostly to find out what was it that was getting other folks so wound up about the learning possibilities with gaming, I have to say I’m still not getting it. But a mea culpa first. At that session Bryan asked about our experience with games. I didn’t offer up mine. So here it is. My absolutely favorite game was Zork, a completely text based game, along with Zork II and Zork III. It was puzzle solving in a fantasy setting and it completely captivated me, though I came to it much after it initially appeared, my experience was probably around 1989 since I only started with my Mac SE in 1987. Ultimately they came out with a game called Beyond Zork that had a multimedia component to it. It wasn’t nearly as much fun (partly because some of the multimedia wouldn’t work). I guess I’m not much of a visual learner.

Here’s some other experience. The last strategy game that I won without getting a cheat from anyone else was the Sid Meier game Railroad Tycoon; I played that on my Mac PowerPC, in 1996 or 1997. I won that by finding a cheat inside the game – some parameter wasn’t set correctly. If you took over a rival railroad you could start transferring cash from the rival to your own railroad. But you could still do it after the rival went bankrupt – it would have negative equity and your own could grow without bound. I won a few games that way and soon there after lost interest in it. What’s the point if you could win so easily. I did play and win Myst but that was with some cheats. It was interesting to hear Bryan’s critique that the game had some senseless aspects to it where the cheats actually added sensibility back to the game.

The last joystick style game I played was Diddy Kong racing, one of the first Nintendo 64 games the kids had. My wife was playing that with the kids, so I played too. I got to be the best in the family – I couldn’t let my six year old beat me, could I? I also seriously bruised my thumb from repeatedly pushing too hard on the controller and I recall going to sleep with images from the TV screen on the back of my eyelids. So I went cold turkey on that sort of thing and haven’t played any joystick style game since. It also mattered that I had just been named Director of the Center for Educational Technologies and I knew my work load would pick up as a consequence. I can’t play these games only a little bit. It’s either total involvement or none at all. Nowadays I do Soduku, which has the benefit that the thing comes to conclusion in a reasonable amount of time so I can get on with other things. That is a definite plus.

I understand totally about the engagement that games produce, a virtue and a vice all in one, and that in the massively multiplayer context there are negotiation skills that develop, the type of skills that are rewarded in the world of work today. But I still don’t get it. Maybe that’s because we’re so unclear about what we’re hoping to achieve as the outcome from the educational gaming. I’ll put my cards on the table. When I teach I want to see a little bit of me in my students, not a full clone but a little bit of flavoring to indicate there was some connection with my approach, and that connection has to be both about what was learned and about what to value when finding things of interest. And if that matters to me perhaps it matters to quite a good number of faculty. In contrast, I’m guessing that quite many folks at the conference would be willing to vote for game playing to supplant reading as the single critical skill in higher ed. I vote no.

Let me wrap up. The conference was interesting for me, definitely better than last year. So a pat on the back for the program committee for a job well done. But I’m quite worried about the profession. We do some common sense things very well – learning spaces need to provide comfortable seating – but on the vision stuff, oy vey. Last year I wrote They’re Changing Guard about the conference in San Diego. I was ready figuratively to ride into the sunset and let the agenda be set by the next generation. Now I’m seeing some need to rethink that. For now blogging about it is the best I can do.

Friday, January 19, 2007


My next several posts, which might take a few weeks to get up will be about next steps with eLearning in the College.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

What’s a Hemming Weigh?

I begin with the parody of a very bad joke because, I suppose, the joke is on me. Everybody wants to talk about where the profession is headed and I have this unmistaken desire to go backwards, forty years or so, to ideas and myths of my childhood. These are thoughts about leadership and if polled when I was kid I’d have responded that the essence of leadership is courage. Yet, somehow, we in the information technology business talk a lot about leadership nowadays and courage doesn’t enter into the discussion. Why?

As has been my habit of late, I started thinking about this after watching sports, in this case it was a football game between the Boston Patriots and the San Diego Chargers, where Tom Brady, the current emblem of Hemingway’s “grace under pressure,” a latter day Johnny Unitas, somebody who keeps his cool in the clutch, seemingly stymied by a superior opponent, but when a crack in the armor of the opponent appears, at it did near the end of the first half and again towards the end of the game, ready and able to take advantage of the situation. It is the poise and the cool thinking that are so admired in Brady and that offered a sharp contrast to the entire San Diego team, superior in athletic ability but absent that key ingredient to sustain the win.

This notion of leadership goes way back for me, to thoughts of JFK. He was the first leader I knew, author of Profiles in Courage (I don’t believe I ever read it) and himself a hero of PT-109 (I think I saw the movie with Cliff Robertson, but I’m not sure, it’s hard to remember). What is clear to me now is the sense that Kennedy was a hero and that he was our leader and that the two ideas were tied at the hip.

And I suppose I admired the hero part all that much more because it was so alien to my own persona. Under pressure, I was not a deer in headlights, frozen and inert. I acted, often quite quickly. But the motive was pure fear and the actions came with sweat dripping down my forehead and on my palms, with a single mindedness of purpose that might be suitable if needed but that prevented recalculation and tweaking if the situation called for it. Absent was a sense of calm and any feeling that the circumstance could be overcome. The heroism comes with a sense of confidence, and it is that more than the accomplishment itself which raises the performance of others at the needed time. In contrast, I’ve found for myself that the best I can do in these type of situations is let everyone know that we’re in this together and barely hide my impatience that the rest of them don’t quite see the solution my way and don’t seem to feel the imperative for quick action.

Most important, I’ve come to dread these type of situations and try to avoid them if possible. Indeed, while I acknowledge that some stress goes with the job, I certainly do not look to find situations of stress and each time I’m in one I’m wary as to whether I have the ability to adequately negotiate the situation. I can’t put thoughts in the head of Brady, let alone a president who has been deceased for 43 years, but I’ve got the feeling that if they didn’t outright look for these opportunities they didn’t shy away from them either; there was a job that needed to be done and that was the critical thing, it was only a byproduct that doing the job was a way for them to make their mark.

Growing up in New York, where there was a daily assault on one’s abilities to navigate the environment, from the racial tension in the school, to riding the subway, to dealing with other kids picking on my younger brother at the playground, it was not hard to develop a sense of being cowed, of caving in order to survive. But there was a tonic that was offered with some frequency and Hemingway was partly responsible. This antidote was most overt in the films of Humphrey Bogart: Casablanca, of course, The African Queen, Key Largo, and Hemingway’s own To Have and Have Not.

I owe a big debt to Papa. My writing style was heavily influenced by A Farewell to Arms and For Whom The Bell Tolls, a reportorial approach where the key to the writing is to make sure there’s accuracy in the images that are being taken in and then rendered in prose. I still try to do this, even when I’m looking inward, though I’ve moved away from the short sentence structure that was Hemingway’s trademark. On this I believe he had an insight into human understanding and a feel for the reader that we should all admire if not emulate.

Yet even with that gratitude, I feel compelled to point out that there are issues with extolling Hemingway’s notion of courage and that we’d be better off with a quiet reflection about it once in a while rather than make it an object of admiration and a target for emulation. Unfortunately, there is a tendency to short circuit the required effort, to reap the fruits that Tom Brady and JFK earned as a sidebar to their heroism and make those fruits the focus. Thus, on the stage there was the play That Championship Season (I did see this performed fairly soon after it appeared) a lesson in morality in the guise of drama demonstrating the consequences on all involved when the basis of the “success” is a lie, while in real life there was the debacle from the escalation in Viet Nam based on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

The other issue with promoting Hemingway’s notion, particularly for those with the aptitude to perform courageously in certain circumstances, is that too much of the stress and pressure can utterly break the individual. Sometime in my late adolescence I read John Hersey’s The War Lover, perhaps not a great work of fiction but a story that had a significant affect on me at the time (and I must say my recollection of the story diverges from what I garnered from the online comments about the book). The Bogie characters in film that exemplified the Hemmingway ideal were all reluctant heroes, with a darker and less noble side to their personality. The title character in Hersey’s book was not reluctant and, ultimately, he goes over the deep end. The book can be seen as an indictment of the Hemingway ideal gone awry.

I thought of Hersey’s book after reading this shocking and depressing story in the Chronicle yesterday about the suicide of Denice D. Denton, former Chancellor of the University of California at Santa Cruz. Academic leadership is not professional sports nor is it war, at least not in a literal sense. But it shares with the former a visibility to the public and with the latter a sense of being assaulted, particularly if there are contentious issues that remain unresolved for a period of time.

My operative personal model of heroism is that in a sprint situation any one of us can be heroes but in a longer race and particularly in a marathon, we’re lucky simply to endure. During the football game Phil Simms (my favorite “color man” since he is knowledgeable, low key, and focuses on the game at hand) commented repeatedly about Brady’s performance, particularly at times other than the last few minutes of each half, that even someone as accomplished as Brady will perform worse when under a high degree of pressure, being forced to make decision before being ready to do so. Brady faced an intense pass rush and he threw a couple of interceptions and made other poor throws largely as a consequence. So I may have to modify my views about the sprint case, where I am envisioning the individual comparatively unencumbered.

But, I fear, the biggest issue is not external pressure. It is what we do to ourselves, with our ambitions and perhaps unrealistic expectations of what we can accomplish, fueled not by experience with like endeavors, but rather with a Baby Boomer sense of entitlement and need. All of us should take the Denice Denton story as a cautionary tale. The issue is in us too. We live with Hemingway’s ideal and we may very well overtly try to play the Bogie role, though internally there may very well be doubt and skepticism.

That’s a problem. And it’s no joke.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Should Mark McGwire be in the Hall of Fame?

In spite of the title of this post, which might seem frivolous or inappropriate for a blog on learning technology, I mean this to be a serious discussion on the broad issue of measuring learning, an issue that will be with us for some time to come. I’ve written about this before but it occurs to me that I should take up this theme on a regular basis because it is obviously getting prominence elsewhere and given my economics background I likely come at these issues somewhat differently than others, so can offer a critique with my own spin. Then too, I think there is a lot for us to learn from professional sports, baseball in particular but other sports too, regarding the measuring of performance, what is possible as well as what seems to be elusive if not impossible. It is these lessons on measurement that sports can teach us, if we choose to look, that is the focus of this post.

Let me begin with what I take to be an obvious fact, but I want to make sure you agree. Professional baseball measures performance of players to a much greater extent than we ever have or ever are likely to measure student performance in college. Further, the measurement happens in a public setting where indeed the fandom (and the sports reporters and commentators who feed the interest of the fans) spend a good deal of time interpreting the implications of the various statistics that are collected. In other words, there in an abundance of data on player performance. It’s not abundant relative to measures on say, subatomic particle movement, but it sure is abundant relative to the formal measures we have on student performance.

The data themselves are not sufficient

With that as a given, let me move to the next somewhat obvious point – the data themselves don’t give the last word, people disagree about what the data mean. On the McGwire-in-the-Hall issue, this ESPN poll shows that more baseball writers are likely to vote against him than for him at present, but there are a significant number who are for. I don’t believe there is any disagreement about the evidence itself. But there is disagreement about what the evidence implies for addressing the question. Some might say, “Yeah, but that’s because of the steroid business. If it weren’t for that this wouldn’t be such a big deal.” It’s true, the question at hand wouldn’t be so controversial were the steroid issue not a concern – I’ll say more on that below – but it’s not true that in and of itself that would create unanimity on how to answer the question. There are many other baseball issues that have generated substantial disagreement among the experts – for example, who should have been the MVP in the American League this year? – where steroids didn’t matter at all and yet there still is substantial disagreement about the answer to the question, though again no disagreement about the data. (So readers are not confused by what I mean, when I refer to disagreements about the data consider the case last year of the SAT exams that were scored incorrectly. Those errors in scoring created a sense that the data themselves were not to be trusted.)

Further, even when there is unanimity or near unanimity of view about the answer to a question, there is a general recognition that the answer is contingent, not definitive, and subject to change based on additional evidence that might be brought to bear. For example, before going into last night’s national championship game for college football, Ohio State was a near unanimous pick as the number 1 team in the country and was a clear favorite before the game was played But, of course, after being pummeled by Florida, that view was revised and this morning Florida is the number 1, to nobody’s surprise. In other words – that’s why we play the game. The contingent aspect about what we know given performance measures is rarely discussed. (In the area of health, I’m under the impression that we’ve flip flopped both ways on the issue of whether eating eggs is good for you based on the latest set of clinical studies.) It points to the fact that the data itself can never be sufficient and that even well informed views can be revised based on new relevant information.

What’s the model?

In the McGwire case there are at least two different ways of thinking about the data that would rationalize a no vote on admission to the Hall of fame. The first is the “say it ain’t so, Joe” approach, applied to Pete Rose and is the reason he has not been admitted to the Hall of Fame – Pete bet on baseball, the number one taboo. Some might say Pete should get in anyway, having the most hits in a career of any player in history, but everyone understands why he is not in. Economists would call this a case of lexicographic preferences. The first requirement is not betting. If a player can’t get by that first requirement, nothing else matters. There are no tradeoffs in this case.

Some people might treat the steroids issue in this lexicographic way. But, in fairness to McGwire’s case, steroids weren’t banned at the time he played the game and, further, McGwire did acknowledge that he took androstenedione, which was available over the counter, though it was banned in other pro sports. So some baseball writers might take a view different from the lexicographic approach; to wit that while McGwire shouldn’t be banned outright from the Hall of Fame his performance needs to be handicapped on account of his taking steroids and when compared to historical norms set by players of earlier generations who are in the Hall, that handicapping needs to be put in place to make a fair comparison.

I note that baseball writers are not obliged to say what the model is they have in mind when they vote. My point here is that we can’t infer very well from the voting which model it is. The data seems to show that some voters who will vote against admission this year, the first year that McGwire is eligible, nonetheless have left the door open that they might vote the other way in the future. One might conjecture that these voters couldn’t hold the lexicographic view. But even if that is right, it doesn’t say that those who indicated they’d vote against in the future as well do hold the lexicographic view. It could be, instead, that they just think McGwire was an ordinary player who did exceptional things because of the drug enhancement. There is some evidence to support that interpretation in that the poll on voting for Barry Bonds (he is still playing so not a yet a candidate for the Hall) shows greater support for him than for McGwire. How does one explain that?

Lest one think this an exercise relevant only to baseball and not student learning, consider this incomplete list of factors that might affect students performance: prior preparation in the subject in high school or in taking prerequisites in college, coming from a family background where education was not emphasized, not being a native speaker of English, having a learning disability such as dyslexia, being found to have plagiarized earlier in the term, and coming from a foreign country where the norms regarding behavior during an assessment of performance are different than they are here. In my time as a faculty member, I’ve been in settings where many of these factors have been treated sometimes in a lexicographic manner and others times in a handicap way. Conceptually, the comparison with baseball is right on.

And as with baseball, we are mostly not explicit at all about our models of superior performance. On even this simple aspect, which is far from a full model otherwise, we don’t articulate whether we are measuring value added or absolute performance and while for fairness reasons we list the vehicles to be used for assessment purposes – there will be two midterms, a final, and a term paper – and now, increasingly, we may provide rubrics for how written portions of assessments will be evaluated, we still don’t provide relatively simple models that show how performance data gets mapped into judgments about learning. This leads to the next point.

Which variables should we focus on?

When I was kid learning about baseball there were three variables held in high esteem as metrics of offensive performance – Batting Average (BA), RBIs, and Home Runs, and as if by destiny to emphasize the point in two consecutive years (1966 and 1967) the American League had a *triple crown* winner, first Frank Robinson and then Carl Yastrzemski, and there haven’t been any since. But due to the work of Bill James and others, popularized even to a non-baseball audience in the book Moneyball, there are other variables, notably On Base Percentage (OBP) and Slugging Percentage. The conceptual difference in selecting between BA or OBP is how one views walks. If they are in essence pitcher errors, then BA is the correct measure. But if walks are earned by the hitter, either by having tough at bats with lots of pitches fouled off, or as a sign of respect by pitchers due to the strong performance of the batter in prior occasions, then OBP is the better measure. One can readily agree that in some instances it is the one and in other instances it is the other; James’ work can be seen as an argument based on the data that in most cases walks show offensive prowess.

We have a similar type of issue in measuring student performance. You can get many instructors to agree with the proposition that it is comparatively easy to measure the performance of outliers, both the exceptionally good and the really horrible performers, but it is much harder to rank those in between. Consider an exam with 20 short answer questions each either right or wrong with each question worth 4 points if answered correctly and consider an alternative exam with exactly the same questions where 10 of those questions are worth 2 points a piece and the other 10 questions are worth 6 points a piece. It is not hard to come up with examples where student A outscores student B on the first exam, meaning student A got more questions right, but student B outscores student A on the second exam, because student B got more of the 6 point questions right. From an economics perspective, this is an example of the index number problem. What informs the instructor to choose one weighting scheme over the other? Enumerating the criteria for making that determination is precisely what I mean by asking us to specify the model.

What is not being measured?

Baseball is a team sport in contrast with golf, for example, which in most circumstances is an individual sport. There are, of course, a lot of performance measures in golf, such as the number of greens hit in regulation or the number of putts per hole, measures that are subsidiary to the ultimate performance measure – what place did the golfer come in at the conclusion of the tournament? One can build rather straightforward models that won’t predict perfectly but might do not too badly on the prediction front, that map these subsidiary measures into the ultimate performance measure. At least in concept if not in practice, that is straightforward to do.

Measuring performance in team sport conceptually differs from measuring performance in individual sport in that the whole may very well not equal the sum of its parts and so one would like metrics of the contribution to the whole, as well as the metrics of the contribution of the individual. For example, when Roger Maris set the then record for Home Runs with 61 in a season, it was said that his performance benefited from the fact that Mickey Mantle batted behind Roger – the pitchers didn’t want to walk Roger unnecessarily for fear that Mickey would drive Roger in, so Roger saw a disproportionately high number of fastballs. It’s a lot easier to hit and especially to hit for power, if the batter can correctly anticipate that fastballs are coming.

There are anecdotes, such as the above, of this type of team contribution but there is little statistical evidence of this sort that is presented. (One such offensive statistic is batting average with runners in scoring position while one such defensive statistic, rarely discussed, is “chances” in that some chances take hits away from the opponents and hence a player with an exceptionally high number of chances contributes to the performance of other defensive players, an is indirectly measured in the pitcher’s performance.) Most of the statistics that are presented are individualistic in nature. My sense of this is that the teams themselves keep some statistics on contribution to team, but those statistics are not tracked more generally. And for selection into the Hall of Fame, in particular, it seems as if the membership choice is biased toward power hitters, who have impressive individual statistics, and away from superior defensive players who may very well “provide the glue” that makes the team stick together as a unit and function well.

We in higher education are increasingly being told that students need to function well in teams; this is a skill valued highly in the marketplace. I don’t doubt that. But I do doubt whether we can measure how well students function in teams and, since we do measure student performance by the projects students produce, we too likely confound individual and team performance when we identify their jointly produced good work. Even when we measure the team product as a whole and give all team members the same grade for that work, we don’t measure how one member of the team affects the performance of other team members. I know that some folks allow team members to rate each other on performance, a subjective approach to get around this problem, but I fear these subjective evaluations measure effort reasonably well yet leadership not well at all.

It is surprising that baseball doesn’t do more to measure the individual contribution to the team, but given that it is important to note the added consequence that such measures as commonly do exist, with their emphasis on individual performance, encourage the players themselves to focus that way to raise their own marketability and thereby to enhance their own future compensation. In the corporate setting, the practice of giving out stock options to employees is an attempt to address this incentive issue. We should think about the incentive issue more in the higher education context.

It’s time to close but before I do let me give the reason for me to choose to look at professional sport and baseball in particular regarding performance measure rather than looking directly at student learning in the context of higher education. The measurement problems are complex but given the public nature of the discussion now, pointing out the measurement problems directly, especially to those critics of higher education who believe we’ve not been held to account, creates the risk of them feeling we are running away from the problem rather than addressing it. There are things we can do to help in terms of accountability, but that really won’t address the measuring learning issues. That should be the take away message from this piece.

On accountability, for example, we could publish the final course grade distributions of all courses with enrollment of at least 20, with an eye toward letting the world (on campus and off) better understand how to interpret what a letter grade signifies from a rank ordering of student performance perspective, and perhaps to provide incentive to reduce grade inflation and thereby make the grading more informative in the sense of Blackwell, with the minimum enrollment number of 20 added in to indicate that we are still sensitive to student privacy issues and don’t want to give out their individual performance information without the students themselves authorizing such distribution. There is every reason for us to make our processes more transparent to all and taking this step would be a move toward transparency.

But addressing transparency in this way doesn’t make it any easier to measure student learning. And if Major League Baseball hasn’t fully solved the performance measure issues, how can anyone reasonably expect that we can?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Rethinking Office Hours –

The traditional patterns of behavior in instruction are hard to break, especially by somebody who is an outsider to the class. We in learning technology, who frequently play that outsider role, may get frustrated from time to time because the instruction remains strongly “teacher centric” in spite of our best efforts to make the classroom experience more student-driven. Traditionally, office hours were the place where students took control and drove their own learning by querying the professor. Of course, most students who attended office hours did so because they were struggling with the material, and hence while gaining control of the learning is an obvious plus for them, doing so came at the cost of exposing their ignorance or lack of understanding to the instructor.

Most people are uncomfortable in showing weakness, especially before a trust relationship has been established, so there is incentive for students who are nonetheless struggling to avoid the admission of that and forego the opportunity that office hours affords. Heroic students overcome this discomfort. An alternative that doesn’t require quite as much heroism is to recognize strength in numbers – if all the members of a study group are struggling with the material then they can attend office hours as a group and can provide mutual support, so the experience is less painful for any one of them. When I was a junior faculty member teaching intermediate microeconomics that is typically how students would show up to office hours.

Of course it may well be that quite successful students also want their private time with the instructor and office hours are for them too. Yet my sense is that these students don’t generate coattails with regard to the behavior of their classmates and, hence, if one wants to seriously think through the issues in modifying how office hours should be conducted, it is reasonably safe to ignore this type of student at first pass and then work through their needs at the end.

I believe that at many institutions of higher education office hours are a mandated component of instruction and further that the instructors are required to clearly communicate when those office hours are held (though I confess that in searching through my own university’s Web site I didn’t find any specific mention of such a requirement while, in contrast, I did find such a requirement regarding final exams). Even if office hours are mandated, however, I suspect that in many instances they are not well attended and if that is right it is a critical for the following reason.

In talking about teaching reform with actual instructors and those who interact with them at an administrator level, the notion of what is a fair work level to ask from instructors inevitably comes up in the discussion and norms regarding fairness invariably have a historical basis. In other words, the instructors have made at least an implicit commitment to work hard with students during the time allocated for office hours even if, in fact, they currently use that time for doing their research or other non-instruction-related work because office hours are not well attended. While I’m still new to the College of Business in my role as Associate Dean for eLearning, I’ve now had a sufficient number of conversations with faculty to understand that there is a kind of gridlock with regard to teaching innovation because all the time the instructor devotes to other activities is locked down, which leaves essentially no time to experiment with new teaching approaches. In particular, any type of teaching modification that is seen as taking time away from research and moving that time to teaching can’t really happen. Time can be taken away from other teaching (in the form of course buyouts). That works incentive-wise for faculty, but it comes at a high price in terms of both the cost of the replacement’s time and also in identifying suitable expertise in the candidates who might serve as replacement instructor. Thus the course buyout approach, while incentive compatible, is likely infeasible because it breaks the bank. And in the absence of funding for a substantial course buyout program, reform on office hours may be the best game in town. Further, if that reforms works it may lead to reform in the traditional class setting, because the instructors will then have experienced in a substantive way the benefits from a student-centric approach, and hence may begin to see how to transfer that approach to the classroom.

Now here is a diversion on my own teaching experience and how I’ve come to view office hours as a consequence of that experience. The last couple of times I taught I had a small class of honors students whom I’d divide into teams for doing the two projects, which were done in the latter two thirds of the course. The course met twice a week, two hours per session. During the first third of the course we’d go in ensemble mode for the entire session. Then later in the course we switched to an hour in ensemble mode and then an hour in office hours mode where I met with each project team to chat with them for a few minutes about their project – roadblocks, progress checks, underlying economics issues, other things they might read, etc. And some of that would tie into an email thread (even though these kids were all really bright they didn’t necessarily know how to converse with teammates, especially if they didn’t take other classes with them) partly to make sure that everyone on the team was part of the conversation. From an instructional mode point of view my students felt first that this was an entirely different from their experience in other (mostly engineering) courses and I believe they appreciated the approach a great deal, in part because of the contrast, but second they felt somewhat inadequate through the entire process partly because of the level of economics they were working on as well as the writing activity that was behind their project. (I’ve written about this latter issue in my post, Killing the Puppy.) So the office hours approach was a necessary component of them working through the projects.

If all our classes had 15 students or fewer (what one can do when starting a sentence with “If”) I would advocate for the type of approach I took in my Campus Honors Class because of the good experience I’ve had with it. But in a class with 50 or 60 students, that approach is not feasible and even in lecture-discussion classes where the recitation section may have 25 – 35 students (we have some that are larger) the TAs typically cover several sections and only meet the students in a particular section for an hour per week. In those cases office hours really do have to occur outside the normal class meeting. But still they must be tied strongly to the work in the course and, in my view, an appropriate incentive structure must be put in place to encourage them to be utilized.

When I did my SCALE Efficiencies Project on Intermediate Microeconomics (ultimately in a course with 180 students) office hours became the key feature, but they were online, done in the evening (between 7 and 11 PM Monday through Thursday and on Sunday from 3 to 11 PM), staffed by undergraduate TAs who had taken the course previously and who also graded the online homework, we had a good incentive mechanism for getting the students to engage in office hours and indeed the office hours were heavily utilized. But, truthfully, much of this we stumbled into; the design didn’t emerge simply from a grand gestalt.

I instituted a requirement that early in the semester the students had to attend a mandatory one hour training session done in a computer lab at night. I supervised the session and had some of the TAs act as assistants, instructed to give special attention to any student who appeared to be struggling. This session was partly about the technology itself, but mostly about how we’d use the technology in the course. In the discussion board they had to read a (not too) personal post I made about my family and then they had to write something about themselves in that vein – an icebreaker and a way to learn about their classmates. I’d read those and give some response, but that was afterwards, not during the session. Next during the session we’d cover the homework submission process and how they could get help. Some time was reserved for doing a practice quiz in Mallard with two questions – When did the Illini last go to the Final Four and What is Professor Arvan’s favorite Professional Basketball Team (those questions are a bit dated now). The real purpose was for them to get the questions wrong the first time and see that Help links would emerge that if followed would steer them toward the right answer. So there was a mixture of personal touch and learning about functionality. But I only found that approach after teaching a couple of times without the training and seeing the students struggle with the technology at the beginning of the semester. While clearly not identical to Barbara Ganley’s practice during the first two weeks of the semester, certainly the context of our respective courses is quite different, it is interesting to me how at root there is much similarity in concept between what she does and what emerged from these training sessions – there was a certain bonding that occurred at the start of the semester, in this case between students on the same team and also with the online TAs.

The other aspect of the incentive was to allow students to revise their homework problem solutions (someone else on the team had to submit the next version of the solution and they could keep revising and resubmitting till the due date), we promised a relatively short lag in regarding and commenting on the revised problem (and these revisions were submitted on a problem by problem basis). The students wanted help with their revision (and with the original submission) and that gave them a good reason to attend the online office hours. The mechanism was not perfect – some of the students sandbagged during the first submission in an effort to get the TAs to do the work for them, but even with that it did achieve one of my core goals, which was to have the students talk (online) with the TAs about the economics. And the TAs posted an archive of that discussion for other students to read.

My conclusion from this experience is not about my particular mechanism and the reliance on undergraduate TAs, but rather that any mechanism that promoted the use of office hours requires two basic components, an up front bonding experience that is functional regarding further performance in the course and an ongoing evaluation of student work component that is fair but stern on the grading and builds in the tie between attending office hours and ultimate performance on the student work.

Instructors who otherwise don’t spend their time thinking about learning technology give, without much reflection, too much credence to the technology itself and that it will solve the problems all on its own; a schema for integrating the technology into the course is not necessary and even if it is they don’t have the time to design such a mechanism. I believe we’re witnessing some of that now in my college, with faculty who are encouraging their students to use Skype for office hours. If the issues around office hours were purely logistical – the students are otherwise scheduled during office hours and/or it is a long schlep for them to attend, then adoption of the technology (and scheduling some of the office hours in the evening) might in itself address the issue. But I would predict that there would be low uptake with such an approach for reasons I’ve outlined earlier in the post, because the issues with office hours are psychological as well as logistical, indeed logistics are a secondary or tertiary concern.

I wish I could say that I’ve thought through a generic mechanism that instructors can try to make online office hours vigorous. In wireless classrooms where the students bring in laptops, one might use the screen sharing application Unyte, a helper for Skype 3.0, to show the desktops of some of the student computers in the class and in that way begin to orchestrate in the live classroom the type of interaction that might occur during the online office hour. So there is potential that such an activity would fit the bill for the bonding component of the mechanism. I’m more at a loss with regard to the ongoing student work piece and making office hours instrumental for that. And if design of this piece is left up to the instructor, those who are fearful of becoming tougher graders negatively impacting their student course evaluations simply won’t do it.

So there is still some serious work to be done here to have a tried and true approach we can all believe in and embrace. In the meantime, I hope some of you out there will experiment with various approaches to online office hours. We need to make that a functional element of instruction.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Our Increasingly Bifurcated Higher Education System

Today’s paper has an AP story on Chief Justice John Roberts’ annual report, which this year focuses exclusively on the pay of Federal justices and that it has not kept up with inflation and is discouraging private sector lawyers from entering the judiciary (and, hence, that the judiciary is increasingly composed of public sector careerists) and further that judges are actually leaving the judiciary in increasing numbers for reasons of income. According to Roberts, this creates a selection bias in who becomes a federal judge (increasingly, only the independently wealthy or those for whom judicial pay represents a step up) and hence threatens to undermine our system of law.

The AP story today follows a piece by Linda Greenhouse yesterday on the same topic that explains part of the issue is a law that ties Federal judges salaries to the salaries of members of Congress, who are loathe to vote themselves salary increases for fear of being accused of gilding the lily by the public, although a reasonable counter argument can be made that a substantially higher salary would enable members of Congress to be less malleable to pressure from lobbyists and more able to resist the perqs that lobbyists provide. The problem is illustrated by observing the current salary structure of Justices. Greenhouse reports:

By statute, federal district judges receive the same salaries as members of
Congress, now $165,200 a year. Judges on the federal appeals courts receive
$175,100; associate justices of the Supreme Court, $203,000; and the chief
justice $212,100. The linkage of district judges’ and Congressional salaries
means that judges pay the price when members of Congress discern that it would
be politically unpopular to raise their own pay.

Contrast this with the Census’ most recent report on income (from the calendar year 2005) where median income for all households is not quite $47,000 while for married households (the highest income category) median income is about $66,000. Thus the justices’ income (and this doesn’t included spousal income) is about three times the median for the population, and for many who might consider the issue that might seem like enough. But Greenhouse reports that nowadays former clerks who worked for the Justices make as much or more one or two years out. This clearly has a psychologically damaging effect in that the clerks are perceived (rightly?) by the Justices as their underlings. But perhaps the more relevant comparison is with Law School professors and Deans where Greenhouse reports:

Justice Breyer presented charts showing that while in 1969, federal district
judges earned slightly more than law school deans, $40,000 compared to $33,000,
and substantially more than the $28,000 earned by senior law professors, the
situation by 2002 was completely reversed. In that year, the judges were earning
$150,000, compared to $250,000 for the professors and $325,000 for the deans.
The situation with faculty pay in Law Schools is similarly reflected in faculty pay within Business Schools and I believe it to be the case in Medical Schools as well, with substantial spillover to the pay of faculty in the Biological Sciences even if such departments are not housed in Medical Schools. Thus, if one were to compare the relative salaries of faculty in Law or Business to the salaries of faculty in English or Math, and look at the relative compensation over time, I’m sure one would see the professional school faculty salaries looking increasingly steep relative to the Arts and Sciences faculty salaries, though I don’t have the data at hand to document this.

In effect, the rising income inequality in society as a whole is playing out on our campuses, creating more inequality in faculty earnings and substantial tension internally to address the issue – the hyperinflationary pressure on faculty salaries in professional program disciplines. From the institution viewpoint (but definitely not from the student perspective) the situation is at least partially ameliorated by the tuition differentials across colleges, with the professional schools charging a substantially higher tuition than colleges of arts and sciences. But the same type of selection bias that Chief Justice Roberts describes for Federal Judges is at root with professional school faculty, many of whom have opportunities in the private sector to earn substantially more than what they are making as faculty members. This is one substantial source of the bifurcation we are seeing in Higher Ed.

A rational response to an escalation in price is either to dampen demand or increase supply. However, in the case of professional school faculty (and the professions they support) we are unlikely to see either of these effects come into being as the rising relative earnings encourage new students to want to enter these professions as well as to create resistance from current practitioners to significantly expand their membership.

The sole mitigating effect appears to be from the “student’s liquidity constraint.” Students who attend professional schools who are not themselves independently wealthy must become increasingly leveraged to finance the tuition they must pay. The costs are up front while the earnings are down the road and, of course, those earnings are risky – there could be a downturn in the market overall or perhaps their own performance and aptitude (and a willingness to put in 80 or more hours per week) proves lacking. This is a risk that one can’t insure against and so the liquidity affect may limit demand.

In the absence of insurance against this financial risk, individuals will look to self-insure and one obvious way of doing that is to attend a high ranked school. Thus the demand to get into the very top professional programs is all the greater, even if the demand at more modest programs has abated somewhat. Since these schools must rationalize this student perception, they must compete for the best and brightest faculty and provide increasingly swank facilities. As the documentary Declining By Degrees notes, this sort of competition is happening at the undergraduate level as well. Thus the hyperinflation in cost is not just fueled by the professional programs side of the house, but also because of the elite institution effect, even within Liberal Arts education. This is a second important source of the bifurcation.

I believe we are witnessing an increasing bifurcation in student seriousness as well. I have written about this before – students are increasingly viewing college through a mercenary lens because of the rising tuition and hence “can’t afford” to smell the roses while they are in school. In my view, of course, this reflects a myopic understanding of what education is good for, it tends to deaden curiosity for curiosity’s sake, and it creates an air of nihilism and ethical depravity.

None of this is for the good. It is anti-democratic and ultimately destructive. The question I’m asking myself is whether Higher Education can reform itself in these dimensions without the underlying society reducing income inequality overall. This has the feel of walking up an escalator going down. In spite of individual good efforts, overall I expect the situation to get grimmer. I have not seen others talk about this issue with the causality running from outward in the society as a whole to inward with how we operate in Higher Ed. I’ve only seen the discussion go the other way – the increasing cost of Higher Ed making it increasingly difficult to provide adequate financial aid for low income but deserving students. That is an issue, an important one, but its not the only issue.

When will wake up and start calling for steps to reduce income inequality overall? That is long overdue.