Saturday, December 27, 2008
Reading on an airplane, part of the idea is to lose your sense of self in the story. The leg room is inadequate, there’s the worry about whether we’ll make the connection, or suffer delays in Atlanta where we have to change planes because the whole country seemingly was in a cold spell on the day we departed, Monday the 22nd, as it turned out we sat on the tarmac for a half hour after we landed and did have to run to make our connection, and there is the general sense of disorientation that travel seems to encourage, which I believe gets worse if you simply let your mind wander without giving it some task to perform. I did start to ask myself about how magazine reading compares to blog reading, even the slow blogging where the length of the pieces may be comparable. One obvious difference is the nature of sources. The Atlantic pieces are written by insiders who talk with other insiders, who are the eyes and ears for the rest of us, and who do this as their bread and butter. It’s very professional in delivery and the Editors of the Atlantic are seemingly quite aware of their need to produce value add for the reader, a difference in perspective, topic, or quality of writing from the usual fare. My goal reading blogs is quite different, either to get new or understand perspective within the profession. The blogs are written by peers for an audience of peers. Mostly the writing is not as crisp. Mine especially comes up short, too much setup where the point isn’t readily apparent, temporarily begging the reader’s indulgence to a deliver a conclusion down the road. The magazine pieces are written to keep the reader enthralled throughout.
Somewhere on the Atlanta to San Antonio leg I switch to the obligatory Le Carre novel, this time Single & Single, which I purchased the evening before. (This aspect of the Kindle I really love, though it is still the case that there are many things I want to read not available on the Kindle. I’ve got Michael Polanyi’s short book, The Tacit Dimension, out of the Library as something else to read, a more serious treatise, so I left it in the suitcase to read down here.) I finish Single & Single off in two days, a totally gripping story, the first day doing nothing else while recovering from the travel disorientation. Now, even with the family chatter and meeting with the various relatives from my wife’s side of the family, I’m halfway through Blink, have begun to read Tom Friedman’s new book, and am making some headway in Polyani, though it is a bit different from what I had anticipated. All of this is a delight, a great way to get some R&R.
On Wednesday, though, I got irritated. Tom Friedman’s column – Time to Reboot America – really put me off. (Apart from checking email on my cell I’ve not been online very much this week, though I did note that Stephen Downes likewise had a negative reaction to this column.) I was annoyed with his example - Kennedy (nee Idelwild) Airport, the international airport in New York City, looks dingy and damp compared the Hong Kong Airport from where Friedman departed, which he describes as ultramodern. The point is that we’re not investing in infrastructure properly, losing out in the global economic competition to the various East Asian miracle countries. In the back of my mind I’m thinking about the Yankees signing Texeira to this huge contract while paying a 20+ million dollar fine for spending too much in player salaries, which may make sense given the new Yankee Stadium, but seems an extravagance especially given the current state of the economy and, though I’m a big Yankees fan, a symbol of how the super wealthy can manipulate the economy for their own personal gain. I’m also recalling how as a kid we’d meet international visitors (relatives of my mom or dad) at Idelwild, how the individual buildings, particularly Pan Am, looked really cool with their futuristic architecture, and how we’d sometimes go to the observation deck in the terminal to wave to our guests as they got on their departing flights. That was forty some odd years ago. Maybe the airport does need a facelift. But who’d be the beneficiaries. Would it just be a sop to international business travelers, more of the rob from the poor to comfort the rich approach that seem to typify the times we live in, or would there be a benefit to the NYC economy that could be more broadly distributed.
Friedman doesn’t bother with that distinction in the piece. Indeed, he’s all over the place on infrastructure. (Maybe he had jet lag when he wrote it and his editor gave him leeway as a consequence. On that, I’m sympathetic.) I expect better, especially since Friedman’s issue de jour is the U.S. leap frogging our Asian competitors by taking world leadership in the turning the planet green. He needs a sensible view about infrastructure to support all of that. At least in this piece, he doesn’t deliver. With such a shaky foundation, one wonders whether the rest of his structure will implode on itself. So in the rest of my post, I’m going to sketch what I believe is the necessary elements of an infrastructure analysis. I’m not going to claim I’ve got it right in the answers. But I believe it is pretty much right in the structure. I’d like to see Friedman (and others too) elaborate and wrangle with these ideas before the Obama administration goes too far down the path to creating its counterpart to the WPA and other New Deal programs.
Providing A Reasonable Definition of Pork
If the other white meat is like beauty, we’ve got a problem. There is then no sensible way to determine which public works projects should be scrapped and it will be politics as usual to determine those projects that do receive funding. There are potentially two different ways to define pork, one via process, the other via product. The process way is far easier in conception, if not in delivery. At present there seems to be agreement that “earmarks” are an unfair way to allocate resources from the public trough. There is a lack of accountability with earmarks and consequently too great a chance that the spending will have only narrow benefit. One wonders, given the bad reputation that earmarks have, why Congress doesn’t self-police and get rid of earmarks entirely, encourage Bills to be clean, to borrow a phrase from Secretary Paulson, and thereby give more transparency to the legislation. I’m not holding my breath on this one, because there’d have to be leadership out of Congress as well as from the White House to get this done.
The other notion of pork would be about product only, irrespective of the process. The image is of the bridge to nowhere, the highway no cars or trucks travel on, the airport with no departures or arrivals. More generally, this notion of pork captures the idea that there are few beneficiaries relative to the size of the public spending. That may seem straightforward but there are several important caveats to consider which make this a harder notion to grapple with conceptually. Here are some of those factors.
For the Thanksgiving holiday the family drove up to Naperville to spend time with my wife’s nephew and his family. On the segment of I-80 we travelled on, just west of where it crosses I-57, the traffic was extreme and everyone had to drive well below the speed limit, even where it was a six-lane road. If traffic is even remotely like that the rest of the year, I could see justification for widening I-80 in that part of the state. To complete our trip, we took I-355, a toll road, north to Naperville. This is relatively new highway and there was very little traffic, except at the toll plazas. Is this an example of Pork? Or is it necessary infrastructure built in a proactive way to anticipate a growing demand? How does one tell the one from the other? This is an illustration of the first complexity to consider.
Illinois is a state dominated by one big city, Chicago, much of personal wealth is located in the surrounding suburbs, and then there is the rest of the state. Champaign-Urbana, where I live, is in that third category. We are reasonably well served by Interstate Highways, but Train service could definitely be better, there are no large planes flying out of our airport (Piedmont, when it was an independent airline back in the 1980s, did fly a large jet out of Champaign) and TV, Internet, and Phone service have fewer alternative providers than in Chicago. If you look at the urban-rural distribution of infrastructure spending, how does one determine the appropriate mix? Sometimes a notion of universal access conflicts with a utilitarian notion of the greatest good for the greatest number. How does one reconcile the two? I’ve got no magic wand on this one, but it did occur to me that for Federal infrastructure spending distributed to the states, one might allocate funds roughly proportional to the electoral votes from the state. This, some might argue, would create a rural bias in allocation. I believe there to be sufficient counter forces built into the politics, the Ted Stevens example notwithstanding, that a formula of this sort might very well be in order. In any event, this is an example of the second complexity.
The type of green investment that Friedman would like to see is of necessity speculative. One can make a strong argument that we need to do this sort of thing, while understanding that after the fact any such investment many not pay off. This is why most everyone who is arguing for green investment advocates for a portfolio approach, to get the benefits of diversification. But what type of portfolio makes sense, especially when some of these investments, i.e., nuclear power, are necessarily lumpy hold some rather obvious environmental risks? Portfolio management here is another possible source of pork.
Another factor to consider is that much public infrastructure spending is for social insurance (or social self-protection) rather than directly providing for service delivery. Think about the Food and Drug Administration, the Levee systems built and administered by the Army Corp of Engineers, and the Security Systems at airports. The beauty about insurance, at least the private kind that we have for home, auto, and liability is that we’re typically better off when we don’t collect on the policy because we haven’t suffered loss. While too little self-protection may not be prudent, too much looks like pork. How does one tell the one from the other? I know I feel that much of the security at airports is worth very little and I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that assessment. But I’m equally sure there are experts who’d disagree. This is yet another example of the dilemma.
Prioritizing non-Pork Investments
Personally, I prefer to think of various shades of gray in terms of thinking through the social benefit from any specific public investment. The shades-of-gray approach allows for the possibility of particular investment projects that are not pork, yet not sufficiently important to get Federal funding. But, of course, that leads to the question whether a particular investment project is worth funding. Politics aside, can we answer this question in the abstract based on rationality criteria alone?
I don’t know the answer to this. What I do know is that in the restricted domain of information technology, listening to security experts talking about infrastructure one gets a conclusion that other IT providers, let alone students, faculty, and staff who consume IT services, will disagree on the appropriate infrastructure to provide, the consumers care more about quality of use issues in the non-accident state and only turn their attention to the accidents once they happen. The perspectives are remarkably distinct. It is non-trivial to reconcile them. And this is just IT. How does one do this more broadly, and at a national level rather than a campus level? It would seem necessary to articulate some additional principles to aggregate these differing viewpoints. What are those principles? Rather than picking the winning investments ahead of time, it would be more useful to do the hard work to develop such principles. Friedman mentions in his piece that he’d like to see tax incentives instead of public provision. Tax incentives may help with speculative investments that otherwise won’t be profitable. But they probably aren’t helpful for providing rural access to infrastructure services. Is there a principle or two embedded in that observation?
Crumbling Infrastructure Investment
It seems to me that the issues of road repair, bridge repair or replacement, renovation of crumbling schools, in other words where making functional investments in publicly provided capital projects that are better thought of as upgrades rather than as new projects, these should be considered in a distinct way from fundamentally new infrastructure.
On my Campus, and on many campuses nationally, there is a substantial “deferred maintenance” problem. Older buildings have inadequate HVAC, electricity, plumbing, network, and other functionalities we expect in new structures. Performing the requisite maintenance is necessary, but it is completely unsexy. Other needs seem more import pressing and they rather than the deferred maintenance commence any and all discretionary funding. The only way to adequately address the problem is to have a separate fund that can’t be allocated for other purposes and diligently pursue the maintenance projects.
I believe we need to pursue something similar on the Federal level. The maintenance/replacement fund should represent some fraction, say 80%, of the total need. There would then be commission to the base closing commission, determining which projects would not receive renewal funding this year but would continue in operation, which would be retired entirely but they don’t deserve to be renewed, and which should be updated. The actual fraction would be determined by the size of the fund in a full-employment zero deficit government budget, by how much fundamentally new infrastructure investment is envisioned, and by anticipated GDP growth. I have no clue as to what the right fraction is, only that “boring part” of infrastructure must be provided for well, probably before the fun new stuff is considered. I don’t see anyone really talking about this in terms of identifying the order of magnitude of the spending. We need to get beyond the point of talking about the Minneapolis bridge disaster to talking about what we will do to address the problem by getting a sense of how large it is dollar-wise and how long it will take to get to a steady state where the problem has been internalized and addressed.
WPA-like Projects as Keynesian Economics
I believe it correct to follow the Paul Krugman dictate to ignore Federal deficits near term and try to spend our way out of the current recession. But to the extent that spending is in infrastructure, I think it reasonable to ask how much of it could be done and be sustained long term. It’s true we’re all dead in the long run, but our children and grandchildren are our beneficiaries and we should care about their welfare. It makes little sense now to invest beyond long run sustainable levels. Consideration of this sort might get us to a more sensible discussion of tax policy and appropriate tax rates. The public rhetoric on this issue is abysmal and completely non-informative. We need to do better in this dimension.
If the Obama regime is to produce substantial change, it will be necessary for there to be widespread support of the policies. Tom Friedman, with his Times column as bully pulpit, has the ability to influence opinion but within the Beltway and out in the electorate. Infrastructure is a hugely important issue. There needs to be greater sophistication in considering the issues. Some of them are hard. Better to identify those sooner rather than latter so we can have open debate on the right course of action, rather than simply have that imposed from above.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
The form of satire/entertainment that survives today (Daily Show, Colbert Report) dates back to the David Frost invention TW3. I wonder if the other forms can be rejuvenated. Anybody want to take up acoustic guitar?
Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Monday, December 08, 2008
Perhaps five years later when I was in summer camp, I played “flinch,” not the card game but rather a game where one person has their hands behind their back and the other with their hands straight ahead, palms and fingers touching, almost as if praying. The person with the hands hidden would try to slap the other person’s hands. If the slap was a hit or if it was a “fake” and the other person flinched, the person with the hidden hands could go again (and with a flinch there was a free slap). If it was a miss or the fake went too far so the faker’s hands were exposed, the roles reversed. We all played that game growing up, but in camp that year I played with a counselor who was a football lineman who could bench press over 300 pounds, and he slapped hard and fast. He was trying to toughen me up a bit. I did get much better at it, although my hands remained raw much of the time. Put in the right incentive and there is rapid learning, at least of that sort.
The reading was accompanied by attendance at presentations, serious music and theater, along with the schmaltzy Gilbert and Sullivan and Broadway Musicals that my mom favored. Growing up in New York was a huge advantage for this. There was a wealth of stuff and once riding the train into Manhattan became an ordinary thing, I did it pretty often, with friends or acquaintances.
By now the point should be clear – this was all education outside of school. It was entertainment, leisure if you will, but leisure that is nurture of an intellectual sort. School may have been the driver early on. It had long ceased to be the driver by High School. Something else gave the motivation. It was me doing what I wanted to do. I wanted to be exposed to new ideas and found them wherever they came. This is not to say that I was all work and no play. I played piano, street football, basketball, and other ball sports. And I watched a huge amount of TV as a kid. (I can sing the theme song from My Mother the Car! How’s that for obscure?) But some of that time that was mine, not the school’s, was for things most would call learning. And the subject matter really had little to do with school although school and my independent learning would overlap now and again.
* * * * *
Caring more about alliteration and making bad puns than about accurately labeling the behavior, I’ve termed the above a Personal Learning Agenda, the PLA from my title. Really there isn’t an agenda, certainly not one that can be itemized or scheduled in advance. It’s a more amorphous concept, a recognition of a need to learn from the ideas of others by experiencing their works, through reading, watching performance, or observing their creations. And then out of that there is a putting sense to it all, fitting it into a larger picture, developing a sense of taste as to what is pleasing and what not, learning to write about the ideas and to talk about them, becoming aware of self in this and how self is other than these external ideas yet being part of them.
A kid with a PLA will do ok in school, perhaps very well. School will become a piece of a larger tapestry for them. They’ll see it that way and adjust their efforts accordingly. The exception is where they are overcome with boredom at school because there not enough intellectual fodder there, in which case the PLA will trump school and then perhaps some need for self-expression in the kid will prevail. But then the kid will do ok anyway, because the kid is grounded in a good way. The kid has learned judgment and to trust himself at some level, to know when he doesn’t understand something and to have a sense of when he does, and not to take things on faith just because somebody else says to.
I do have this feeling that we’re trying to do in College what individualized reading and the public library did for me in elementary school. And that if the kid doesn’t have a PLA by the time he graduates from High School, it sure will be tough sledding trying to get the kid to establish one thereafter.
I think its fine to think of kids learning in a broader community online, where the synthesis, analysis, and argument are a group activity. I'm not trying to argue against it here with my pun on PLEs. But I don’t believe that’s possible unless each participant has something to bring to the table first. That’s why I say, PLAs Please.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
As we stumble forward into the future, seemingly yanked in many directions all at once, we’re also inextricably circling backward in time. For the economy as a whole, it’s the 1930s again. The pundits are hoping Obama will be the reincarnation of FDR, as the parallel between Bush and Hoover seems all to clear, a perfect backdrop to set the stage, and Obama’s latest announcement of a massive infrastructure investment reminiscent of the New Deal programs.
But I wonder if we need a different sort of comfort, one more recent, within our own realm of experience. I’m reminded of this scene from one of my favorite episodes of West Wing. Josh is suffering badly from post traumatic stress disorder, giving back talk to the President (which is simply not done) because he is not in control of his own emotions, fearing for his job since it is full of work tensions and denying the situation since he has no outlet to vent his anger. After a long session with a psychologist who eventually gets Josh to make the connections between what happened after he was shot and how he has been acting for the previous few weeks leading up to the Christmas Holiday, Josh has a (not so) serendipitous encounter with Leo. As his boss and dear friend, Leo has also had to conquer his own demons, pills and especially alcohol, and indeed that his most recent prior abysmal performance as a high official in the Democratic party came when he did some heavy drinking right before the Bartlett nomination, and worse that political opponents knew that was the case. Leo had weathered the storm in good part because of Josh’s loyalty and quick judgment. His reassurances to Josh were real, just for that reason, and his support was total, because Josh had likewise been that sort of friend when Leo was mired in the muck.
To the extent that the economic morass is the consequence of each of us caving into our weaknesses, spending more than we can afford, emphasizing the material benefits in our existence, cravings rather than ideas and people, we can liken ourselves to Josh and hope to find our own Leos. The economic morass is more than that, of course, and some of the things that ail us require government intervention and macroeconomic cures. Personal salvation, however beneficial individually, simply won’t fully address the range of economic problems. But the converse is also true. This is a time when personal salvation is especially needed. If we’re to make substantial economic sacrifice to get through the present harshness, we won’t be able to cope without it. Will we as individuals get better this way or fall back to our own bad habits once the economy starts to rebound?
In this piece, however, I don’t want to linger in talking about the economy. Instead, I want to concentrate on learning technology, where I’m having my own personal circle back, to the 1990s when I ran SCALE, where we supported Mallard, which is still up and running, about ghosts from Plato, and about the specter and promise of online learning, as it seemed then and as it appears now. These memories where stirred up in me from a publisher advisory board meeting I attended last week in Salem Massachusetts, an interesting place to hold such a meeting given the history of the locale, and also that I know some of these Board members from prior episodes in learning technology: the CIC learning technology group (when it was group sponsored by the various Provosts and gave out grant funding for inter institutional projects), the Pew Program in Course Redesign, and the WebCT Vista Product Advisory Board (prior to the buyout by Blackboard).
On the way home from this meeting, partly inspired by the locale, I read Thoreau’s essay, Civil Disobedience, instead of reading the Management Textbook I was supposed to read as I might use it in an upcoming course. (The Kindle has a bunch of downloads for $.99 of works that are now in the public domain and that have been converted to Kindle format. This was the first of these works I have read from beginning to end on the Kindle.) Thoreau’s essay, written at the time of the Mexican-American war, a military engagement that Thoreau viewed as unwise and unjust, is all about conscience, when to succumb to will the of the majority, and when to act against its strictures by not paying taxes that are government imposed or by deliberately breaking the law. Much of these historic issues with learning technology I now view as matters of conscience and I will write the rest of this piece in that tone, perhaps scolding too harshly; but really I don’t see a better alternative.
Let me start with pedagogy, a loaded term if there ever was one, a term where the rhetoric and jargon have limited our thinking, I’m afraid. Plato started a tradition of “computer assisted instruction” where the computer was a tutor for the student and the emphasis was on student-computer interaction. This notion survives but where when I started this was viewed as wondrous and the the wave of the future, Web delivery seemed to promise a Plato-like educational experience for any and all who were interested, now it seems dated and limited, relegated to the confines of training and the high enrollment introductory course. Real learning is student centric, driven by the student’s own inquiry, based on notions from Constructivism, and then extended to online learning and social networks. Computer assisted instruction has no place in that universe. It is too spoon-fed and prescriptive.
There is a tension that has been there since I started with learning technology. As Carol Twigg likes to point out:
Undergraduate enrollments in the United States are concentrated heavily in large-enrollment introductory courses. In fact, just 25 courses generate about half of all student enrollments in community colleges and about a third of enrollments in four-year institutions. The topics of these courses are not surprising and include introductory studies in such disciplines as English, mathematics, psychology, sociology, economics, accounting, biology, and chemistry. In addition to suffering from a high rate of academic failure, these courses affect literally every student who goes to college.
But a campus like mine has a huge number of undergraduate courses, in excess of 1500. The vast majority of the faculty are teaching these other courses; the student/faculty ratio is much higher in those 25 and in that sense they subsidize the rest of the operation. In a nutshell, the tension is about whether innovation with learning technology should happen where the students are, in those 25 large courses, or if it should happen in the other classes, where most of the faculty are. With Plato, and then later with Mallard and CyberProf, we were getting one sort of answer. With Web 2.0 and student centric approaches to learning we’re getting a different sort of answer. And never the twain shall meet.
This is unfortunate. While there are some other efforts in the spirit of supporting those large classes such as LON CAPA, which dates back to the CyberProf and Mallard days, and the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon, a more recent development in the same spirit, it remains true that the there is far too little creative effort going into these sort of environments than there should be and the constructivists in the crowd look askance at those efforts that do manifest – clearly they must be misguided since they don’t start off with the right view of the learner. To which my response is: look closer; you’re wrong in lumping all this into one box. There can be excellence in computer assisted instruction and it is informative to understand what this sort of excellence looks like.
Further, there is a rather serious problem in that excellence in this area is the exception. The rule is a perpetuation of a very traditional approach, moved online. The rule needs a critique, but a critique from within so it can be replaced with something better that is still do-able. Instead we’re getting a critique from without, a critique that says “abandon ship” but a critique that likely will have little impact because students do need foundational knowledge. This sort of knowledge likely won’t be produced by individuals in pursuit of their own inquiry, at least not purely in that manner. (And in the large class setting nobody knows how to guide such pursuit.) Let me illustrate.
The traditional textbook, I’ll use my own discipline Economics to exemplify the issues, has each chapter organized by presentatios of theory first, then worked through examples to illustrate the theory, then end of chapter problems to test students understanding and to see if they can transfer what they know to specific contexts. This is the paradigm for much of what we do in teaching at the College level – presentation of theory first, illustration second, and then assessment to follow up. In electronic format, we now have eTextbooks to handle the first two and electronic and automatically graded homework to handle the third. The paradigm hasn’t changed much if at all, but now the delivery is online. Publishers are struggling selling eTextbooks as stand-alone products. The students aren’t buying. The electronic homework they buy (and then work on) because their grade depends on it. The publishers understand that their future lies in development of good electronic homework environments.
But the paradigm itself is faulty. If we consider, as an alternative to the textbook, an extended conversation between a student and an instructor and that the conversation might occur both orally and in writing over a period of time, then it is evident that the conversation has presentation, illustration, and assessment throughout with little bits of each going back and forth. The conversation is not nearly as linear as the traditional textbook paradigm would suggest. And the conversation ends up being much richer because the student contributes and the instructor can tailor the conversation based on the student responses. There is learning throughout and a conversation that is engaging is so precisely because the learning is ongoing. In contrast, when students are given assessments in the traditional textbook paradigm, the assessments are designed to test what the students already know. Assessment in this case is about performance only, not about learning. The learning happens sometime prior to assessment (if it happens at all).
The question emerges then why, in moving to electronic delivery, don’t we abandon the traditional textbook model and try to embrace the conversational approach done online? (The traditional model itself was never quite as simple as I’ve presented it above. What’s missing is the study group time where the end of chapter problems are discussed as well as the student preparation time in getting ready for the study group meeting. There may very well be a gateway function into the subject that is via the textbook or the lecture, but there is a conversation aspect in the middle that makes the entire thing work.) The thought, in particular is that in the preparation time students can use help in the form of conversation and that electronic delivery should be able to provide this.
Several years ago when my friend Steve Acker was an editor for a column in Campus Technology Magazine, he asked me to write a piece and ultimately the outcome was this column on Dialogic Learning Objects. At around the same time, I produced some of the sort of things I had in mind. These are updated versions of two lessons (a Plato term) constructed in Excel and covering the core theory of microeconomics. The first is on the Elements of Supply and Demand. The second explains Opportunity Cost, the demand side equivalent which is called Reservation Price, and how these change as a result of exogenous changes, which in turn causes Shifts in Demand and Supply. They are working examples of dialogic learning objects. They are unlike textbook presentations, as I’ll explain briefly below, and though I’m clearly biased in coming to this determination, I believe they are better than the textbook in providing an understanding of what is going on for the student, because they are at once simple and thus easy to approach but also deep in the concepts they address.
Let me talk about the technical elements first. Unlike most Web assessment tools, but like Plato, feedback is given in the same screen as where the students do their work. Feedback is instantaneous. And students are free to go back and make changes. In both lessons there are places where the students perform experiments. They can try things and evaluate, get feedback and try again. Experimentation is part of the process. The feedback itself is done via conditional response and conditional formatting. So the hard part, since there is no template for the authoring, is designing for that. With some experience doing it, it becomes faster. But it is still not easy. Authoring this way is hard because the writing is itself a set of iterations on what to ask, how to respond, and how to represent the economics.
The economics is different than what is typically taught because discrete choice behavior (buy one unit or not, sell one unit or not) is presented at the outset to motivate supply and demand and in that discrete choice framework a simplifying assumption is made that there is a single continuous good (money) with utility linear in that. This reduces the generality of the presentation but it remarkably sharpens the results and really helps aid the student intuition. Further, the math is embedded in the formulas in the cells of the spreadsheet. Students can get to those if they want to hack the spreadsheets, but what they see at first pass are numbers – easy to manipulate and non-threatening. This simply can’t be done in a text presentation. It is a snap with Excel. The technology is doing something here beyond simply moving the text content online. It is helping the students visualize.
The question is why can’t we get content like this as the norm? The Economics Principles market has about 1 million students per year. That would seem to be a big enough market to generate the type of high quality content I’d like to see, and ditto for the other large courses on Carol Twigg’s list. If this type of content were to emerge, it would defeat the eTextbooks and other online approaches that merely recycle the traditional paradigm. But largely we’re not getting that yet. I don’t blame the publishers for this. The publishers are producing back to us what they’ve heard from us we want. So the real question is: why don’t we articulate a demand for this type of dialogic content, written from scratch to be delivered online?
We know from other sources that students want this sort of thing. In a provocative presentation at the 2007 ELI conference, Julie Evans talked about what she and her group are learning about K-12 students. They undeniably feel alienated from their current form of education and want to see technology integrated in – particularly in math. It is a mystery to me why those wishes are not being addressed. Most schools now offer online grade books so parents can track the grades their children are receiving, but the technology is not used at all for the teaching and learning. And in K-12 the argument, especially in math, that there is foundational knowledge to learn, where teachers don’t have enough time in the day to provide meaningful assessment of student work, would seem to provide the grounding for the computer assisted instruction approach. But so far, there’s not much to show in this arena.
We’re caught in a vicious cycle. Nobody seems to have time to develop the right sort of content, so we work with what we have. We take assessments originally designed for paper testing and now use them for online homework. Although, as a colleague pointed out at the publisher meeting, the students go for the assessment content immediately and then only approach the presentation content on an as needed basis to learn how to complete the assessments, the students do learn to succeed on the assessment but don’t get a a deeper understanding of the material because they don’t have a far ranging discussion about it. And the process is alienating because the students are well aware that they are performing and being judged on that while many are not learning deeply.
That’s actually the good scenario. The bad scenario is that the technology is used to enforce rote learning. It’s drill and then more drill. That’s the critique of the constructivists and why they don’t want to have anything to do with computer assisted instruction. Drill is fine for spelling, the multiplication tables, maybe even some hard vocabulary words, particularly in a second language. But that’s elementary school or middle school stuff. Is it right for college level work? What happens to College students when there courses are repeated drill and the assessments they go through require performance but without learning?
Who are the Tarriers? They’re the students.
Monday, November 17, 2008
I use iGoogle as my homepage and I’ve got so much junk on it that I often don’t look at the stuff I’ve got to scroll down for. One of those things is a Stock Market gadget, with the up-to-date (15 minute lag) listings of various leading indices. Today’s another one where at the close all the indices are red; the Dow was off more than 200 points. I didn’t look till day’s end but keeping that gadget out of view is not enough. Sure as shooting, the news is going to be bad.
“You don’t need a weather man
To know which way the wind blows.”
Bob Dylan, Subterranean Homesick Blues
As the house of cards that is the global economy continues to tumble down, I can take some solace in wearing my professional hat – the Dismal Science is living up to its name. Just look at this story from Friday about massive layoffs in the IT industry because sales have declined precipitously, or this piece today about another round of layoffs at Citigroup, or even this attempt at humor by Michael Kinsley, the usually pointed and witty writer who seems to have his spirits down because that’s what lack of consumer confidence does to people. Personally, I’ve got the feeling of walking on a sponge, one that may or may not have a floor under it. We seem to be reading about massive layoffs at one company after another, as if there is no end in sight.
But the economist in me takes this misery as an intellectual playpen, and with that I want to bring up a bit of a puzzle that to my knowledge hasn’t been raised by other commentators and pundits. We don’t seem to be reading about how retained employees are getting wage cuts. Those getting the pink slips are losers, clearly. But why not share the pain more broadly by also dinging the people who get to keep their jobs? That doesn’t seem to be happening. Why not?
Standard economic theory suggests that reductions in demand for final products and services (the prime cause of the deflation) will cause a reduction in the derived demand for labor. In turn, that reduced labor demand will lessen employment and lower the wage, as the new equilibrium is found by moving down the labor supply curve. We’re getting the first effect, but so far not the second. (More sophisticated models of labor supply that suggest much of the wage is a rent for incentive purposes or a gift to encourage in kind gifts to be offered back by the employees, would also not predict wages to stay steady in this instance, because clearly there is now a possibility of further layoffs in the future so the same size incentive or gift can be had at a lower wage.)
In this piece I want to argue that we in Higher Ed should act differently from the commercial sector of the economy, and try to manage at least some of the labor demand reduction via lower wages to faculty and staff (the rest being accommodated by not filling job vacancies when they are created or through layoffs if absolutely necessary). This likely will be an unpopular position with friends and colleagues, who are apt to feel that they are among the more productive parts of the their Campus and before the Campus goes about trimming away some serious muscle and cutting into bone, it should make sure it trims all the fat first. I’ll argue why I think that is the wrong way to go about doing this.
But first I want to note the following – obvious to an economist but perhaps not to everyone else. All this would be much easier to do if the weakening economy were accompanied by a moderate to high rate of inflation. Labor demand is said to depend on the real wage, which goes down under inflation if the nominal wage remains unchanged. So a manager can get the necessary accommodation to the demand reduction in inflationary times by keeping nominal wages entirely flat or having nominal wages rise but at a slower rate than the rate of inflation. But look what is happening to the price of gas, where prices are less than than 50% of their peak achieved early in the summer. Focusing on gasoline prices may overstate the extent of the deflation broadly conceived, but here I care less about measuring the rate precisely than simply about making the point that as long as the there is some deflation, real wages rise as long as nominal wages remain unchanged. So labor supply should be that much more, which makes it strange and punitive to only utilize layoffs as the way to bring costs in line with (shrunken) revenues.
Nominal wage reductions are not a trivial matter and it may be that the situation is somewhat different for faculty than for staff. I’ve heard some argue (we discussed this sort of thing on Campus during the recession under Reagan in the early 1980’s) that an implication of tenure is downward nominal wage rigidity – meaning the university can’t cut the salary for a tenured faculty member. And on an individual basis, I believe that is correct. But across the board, I don’t see how it could be considered an assault on tenure, especially inasmuch as the aim of doing so would be to preserve employment, not the reverse. Unionized employees (at my campus there is no faculty union but there are unions that represent a sizeable number of employees) would obviously need to have their representatives negotiate wage reductions on their behalf, but they might very well be willing to do so as a fair way to address the underlying problem.
The other point, institutionally, is that faculty and academic professional staff operate under a Notification of Appointment that is a yearly contract stipulating terms and salary. The Academic year goes from mid August to mid August. It is probably not possible contractually to change salary within the Academic year. So if salary reductions were to occur by contract, there would be some time lag of necessity, until the new Academic year begins.
Armed with those caveats, let me make the argument for wage reduction and then follow that with some discussion of steps to take to achieve the outcome. My main assumption for supporting my point of view is that the slump will be both deep and long. If, in contrast, it is of relatively brief duration, a year to 18 months at max, then it would be right for any individual to resist salary cuts, to preserve his/her personal standard of living. But if the recession is long and hard – 3 years or more of a significantly worse economy with high unemployment rates and economic pessimism the norm – then the process of adjusting to this new environment will be ongoing. We’ll get there in stages taking one step at a time. In this case it will be much easier to take additional steps past the first one if people cooperate with one another. If they’re kicking and screaming we’ll simply be out of place and never attain a suitable adjustment. Across the board wage reductions early on is a way to secure that cooperative attitude, because it’ll show we’re in it together.
Such wage reductions obviously come at a cost, especially if peer institutions don’t do likewise. Some faculty and staff will find better opportunities elsewhere. The wage reductions will encourage turnover, both among those who find employment elsewhere and among those who opt to retire. There is certainly that. My argument is that if one does the full cost benefit analysis, at least under my assumptions, this is still the better alternative to having more layoffs because nominal wages haven’t been reduced. The latter fails on the fairness dimension.
A first step, to signify the importance of the approach, would be for higher ups in the Campus Administration (Chancellor, Provost, Deans, Director of the Athletic Association, Football and Basketball coaches, etc.) to voluntarily reduce their own salaries. I don’t know if there is a formal way to take less than one’s fully salary, but one could give unrestricted gifts back to the Campus or the Campus could create a special fund for such give backs the proceeds from which would be used to address operational shortfalls. Indeed, maybe an across the board voluntary give back of this sort might suffice. But I’m inclined to think it wouldn’t work, people would give if they thought it fair and that, in turn, would depend on what other people are giving. Making the give backs mandatory is a way to solve this chicken and egg problem.
Immediately after a voluntary give back program among highly visible campus leaders has been instituted, the body where faculty governance occurs (on my Campus that is Academic Senate) would have to take up the issue of whether faculty salary reductions are possible and, if so, under what circumstance. I really couldn’t predict how such a debate would go, but it seems to me that in the current climate resisting a salary give back plan would be politically unpopular with people outside the University. Further, it is quite conceivable that there will be arguments for tuition reduction for new students on the grounds that our mission is to provide access and we’re closer to our mission in reducing tuition than we’d be in keeping tuition where it is but lowering admission standards as the way to keep enrollments up. (This piece delineates the issues well.) If tuition reductions are in the cards, then doesn’t it seem that faculty and staff salary give backs would become part of the equation?
Such a debate might rage for some time; faculty governance is a deliberative process. If during that time the economy starts to rebound, then we may have voluntary give backs and nothing more. If the economy remains in a slump, the mandatory form of give back is more likely.
We need to see in all this pain a path to a better tomorrow. The age structure of faculty on campus is out of wack, heavily skewed toward the more senior end. It’s both that the older faculty are holding on rather than retiring and that when they do retire they’re teaching load is apt to be filled by adjuncts rather than by tenure track faculty. We’ve not addressed this problem well at all. A good alternative model (tenure track teaching faculty instead of adjuncts???) needs to be thought through. There is the related issue of the hyperinflation in college tuition (increases at a greater rate than the general rate of inflation) over the last 30 or 40 years. The adjustments I’m suggesting would give at least a temporary respite on both of these fronts. The rat race might continue anew thereafter. But maybe, particularly if a sense of shared sacrifice really does emerge, that better path will be found. In the mean time, while we’re worrying about just how bad the economy will get, let’s close on the hopeful note that if we try seriously to address the current problems, they won’t seem so bad and we’ll have the satisfaction of noting we’re doing something to help ourselves.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
Last night, still weary from being on the road, I watched Judgment at Nuremberg, one of those classic movies that I somehow missed when I was in College. I was surfing through the things we had Tivo'd and it was there. Sometimes I record films on TMC and then forget about them. This must have been one of those because I was surprised to find it there. I didn't know whether I could sit through it; my attention span is limited now. But it was enthralling, because of the cast - Spencer Tracy as the Judge, Maximilian Schell as the attorney for the Defense (he won an academy award for this role, Burt Lancaster as the German jurist Dr. Enrst Janning, the most interesting character ethically because of his seeming impeccable credentials, Marlene Dietrich and Judy Garland, both in roles that were compelling but for me out of character, Werner Klemperer and Howard Caine from Hogan's Heroes, and many other familiar faces - but also because of the story line. Are judges who followed the law - the law the Nazis put into force in 1933 - guilty because the law itself was cruel and inhuman or are they innocent because they couldn't really anticipate the cruelty that would ensue under the Nazi regime? The film came out in 1961 and it holds up still, a powerful film, something well worth watching.
For about 3/4 of the movie I was thinking in the back of my head about the current financial crisis and that those responsible are somewhat in the same position as those judges (who were ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment only to be released a few years later because the U.S. needed the German people to side with them and against the U.S.S.R. lest all of Europe fall to the Communists.) And that it would be good to try these people, to get at the truth, and hold them to account, though I don't know whether Laws have been broken in a way making such parallel hearings feasible. (This Wikipedia entry suggests there is at least a Common Law breach that these people have committed.) In my limited metaphor way of thinking, Obama's election is like VE Day. The Nuremberg Trials came later, an idea generated by Colonel Murray Bernays for Secretary of War Henry Stimson in response to FDR, in response to a plan advocated by Henry Morgenthau, that called for hanging the War Criminals and having a weak Germany emerge from the ashes. I think we need an analogous set of hearings for the Financial markets, something akin to the Watergate Hearings.
Coincidentally in today's paper there was a long story about the irresponsible practices at Merrill Lynch. Reading this, I got infuriated, this paragraph especially:
Merrill’s board also ousted Mr. O’Neal. On top of the $70 million in compensation he was awarded during his four-year tenure as chief executive, Mr. O’Neal departed with an exit package worth $161 million.This is not justice. For whatever reason, I felt compelled to watch Alan Greenspan's recent testimony in front of the Waxman committee. Greenspan did not seem repentant to me. He did not peddle the bad securities, but he chose to ignore warnings that something serious was amiss. We need a process that will get the folks who are responsible to show they have made a serious harm.
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Our President-Elect-to-be has a reputation for being able to entertain disparate and often contradictory points of view on issues, being able to make the case for each in a way that sounds credible to its adherents, and hence demonstrating in a contentious situation that he is listening to all sides of the argument. It's this ability that belies his claim of being able to move the nation beyond politics as usual and towards a different politics of consent and universal participation. This, in turn, fundamentally is the reason for hope in spite of the terrifying economic crisis and social malaise. I have no illusions of being as capable as Barack Obama in this regard, but in this post I will try, because as I reflect so far about what I've heard at Educause, overall there have been several issues where alternative views have been articulated and I want to try to work through some of those.
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It's now about a week later. I've been with my mom for a few days. She's in her own private world. She doesn't know me and she hardly speaks, and then only to ask for a cold drink or to complain about pain. Now I'm back in Orlando for Sloan-C. Obama won the election a couple of nights ago. I hope it is a turning point for us. In any event, I've been holding this post in abeyance the last several days. I'm returning to it now
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One of these fundamental issues is whether we should teach to the students where they are, as defined by their technology use. Tuesday night at Educause I attended a dinner where the theme was mobile computing. Students have a preferred device and it's not the computer, not even a laptop. It's the cell phone, but it's not voice communication we're talking about. Texting rules. The kids are all thumbs. If Colleges want to stay connected to their students, they have to find a way to insert themselves into these conversations. A first step is getting their messages in a format so they can be received on a mobile device of the student's choosing.
Thursday morning I attended a presentation by Intellagirl (Sarah Robins-Bell) that was even stronger on these themes by framing the argument as a warning – Higher Ed must either get with the program and embrace Web 2.0 or risk losing the students altogether as they pursue their own self-directed alternatives on their own. Apparently student-centric and technology-centric approaches are tied at the hip. And the technologies we're talking about here are not the ones the institutions have already adopted, but the next wave, Web x.y (I learned from Intellagirl's presentation that we have to put numbers after things to signal their importance) that the students are already playing with on their own.
The operative word here is "play" and learning that comes out of play, people networks that emerge from play in groups, and then the technology that enables that. Play teaches us many things, some of which we fail to remark on. Because play encourages persistence, play breeds a sense of competence. Reasonably intelligent people (the vast majority of us and our students) will get good at doing things if we practice. With play the practice is part of it – embedded practice if you will. Group play also exerts motivation, subtle and otherwise. There are intensely strong feedback loops from personal success at play to raising one's own level and with the success of others also stimulating the desire for additional practice. The conversations the kids have revolve around their play experiences. Those conversations are an additional prod.
The play itself is technology mediated - video games, computer games, games on portable devices, etc. So that some of the communication should also be technology mediated seems natural. There is an entire world created, a world outside of school, a world that is full of learning, and in essence this is a world of play. This is the world where the students are. The argument is that College must enter this world, in order to reach its students.
A counter argument was voiced, by Bob Herbert in a column talking about how our children avoid the tough subjects (science and math) and citing Bill Gates that China and India will clean our clock because they are doing a better job of educating their youth, especially in the STEM areas. (This notion that we're behind also is present with the first argument, particularly with respect to mobile technology, where South Korea is the acknowledged leader.) Henry Schaffer of North Carolina State raised essentially the same point in the Q&A part of Intellagirl's talk. He talked about his genetics course, how students have to slug through many quite arduous problems to gain an understanding of the subject, and more generally how learning of this material is work, not play. And the work is arduous, which means both that it is time consuming and that it is intellectually difficult.
During Educause I read and commented on a recent blog post by Barbara Ganley where she talked about "slow blogging," linking to a related post by Chris Lott who suggests slow blogging is making a comeback. My original reaction was that slow blogging is of the same cloth as the critique by Herbert and Schaffer, since it requires patience in the writing and aims at depth of understanding of the topic. But since I am a slow blogger (I prefer to call the act "weaving" or "layering" because that is my conscious thought in expressing my ideas in these posts) and I think of it neither as work nor as play but still something else, I now want to offer it up as a middle ground, perhaps a synthesis for making some progress since my sense at the end of Intellagirl's session is that we're talking at each other and don't yet have a path we can all agree on traversing.
I so believe in Maslow's notion of self-actualization and that learning, the deep kind we want for our students, is captured well by Maslow's ideal. The notion of work, in contrast, is fundamentally instrumental. We do work to achieve an end. With the end accomplished there is nothing more for the process to add. Writing these posts is not work in this sense. It is a way to explore the ideas. Much of the time is spent before sitting at the keyboard, trying to produce a coherent story in my head, making a narrative that makes sense and, I hope, makes progress beyond what others are saying, or gives them a different way to see what they are already engaged in. The process is for me. I'd be doing it even if there were no post. The actual writing does provide encouragement to push the ideas a little further. And the occasional acknowledgement by readers offers a greater push.
Barbara is very strong on having a sense of place, to kindle within us a feeling of community and a sense of obligation for others that emerges from that. Let me give a different vantage for why this is important. The argument that China and India will overtake the U.S. as the main economic power may put fear in my generation, but lead to quite a different reaction from current College students. In essence, the argument is that we're still in the rat race that my parents were in, theirs a rat race begat by the Great Depression. They had to run it to survive. Survival is not the prime imperative for our children; even now with the current economic malaise; they're sufficiently secure to be able to voice other concerns. Their world of play is a world not threatened by survival. Quality of life is the main concern. If competition with China and India is a rat race, it's a fair question to ask: why run it? Why not opt out, instead, if the opt out path offers a better quality of life.
Last night on CNN, some of the pundits talking about what an Obama Presidency would do, discussed the massive participation the Campaign encouraged and that this notion of service would carry over to when Obama takes office. This ethos is likely to spread. Community realization may serve as serious alternative to self-actualization as both motivation and as a way to shape what students should engage in. When caught up in the larger purpose the effort individuals put in seems less instrumental and more simply being part of the whole. A way toward fulfilling the JFK ideal.
Does this get us all the way home? Will students take the hard courses and put in the requisite intellectual energy if the courses themselves are part of the path toward community realization? I don't know. The students I talk with seem bi-modal, strongly career oriented and viewing their education as means toward that end, but also idealistic and looking for a larger sense of purpose. At this point school seems to separate these two and also to separate itself from the world of play. Perhaps that sense of separation should be diminished and the new technologies viewed as devices for encouraging that blurring.
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I want to switch gears and talk about another arena entirely where I've heard about competing views. On Tuesday I attended a pre-conference workshop on the Virtual Computer Lab, a very interesting project that has been getting some good press lately. The VCL is an effort in "Cloud Computing" to deliver both high performance computing applications and applications typically delivered in student computer labs. The argument for VCL is to better leverage the existing Campus computing resources since the VCL enables multiple profiles and hence allows the users based on their needs to determine which profiles get employed via the VCL and when that should happen. In particular, while traditional labs typically close at night, the VCL can remain open online and students can access applications they need in the wee hours of the morning. Indeed, regular lab machines can add to the VCL capacity when they are not in use by students sitting at the computer.
During the early afternoon of the VCL session Sarah Stein, one of the presenters and a strong advocate for VCL, made the point that all of us on our respective campuses should embrace cloud computing and not cede the space to Google, for surely if we let them lock us in they will ultimately hold us up and we will end up paying much more for services in the future and that will far outstrip the savings we can get now by outsourcing the currently "free" service offerings from Google.
The lock-in argument is certainly not new to us in Higher Ed, but to date I'm aware of the argument applying mostly to license, service contract, and custom development supported software. I have not heard the argument being made for ad-supported software, such as the Google offerings.
Indeed much of the talk at Educause was centered around the general economic malaise, how travel budgets have already been cut and how IT budgets are going to follow in that. In this climate, especially, the outsourcing of IT services, especially "free" IT services, seems attractive, with email services leading the way.
The view that IT services should be shed follows logically from the prior argument by Nicholas Carr that IT services are no longer strategic definers. If the services are commodity like, let the market provide them. The market is good for commodity-like services. But there are network externalities. They are the source of natural monopoly. It's better for users that all the Office applications can talk with each other. The natural monopoly begats market power and it's the market power that gets exploited in the holdup of locked in users. So perhaps Sarah Stein's point of view is the more sophisticated, the one we should embrace if we're thinking long term.
But let me keep pushing the metaphor because I'm not sure the argument holds. Higher Ed is just one vertical that consumes cloud computing services. The corporate world is a different vertical, one that's much larger, one that will be a larger consumer of cloud computing. They understand market power in the corporate world. If some in the corporate world were to underwrite a cloud competitor to Google so to avoid lock in of their own, would they do so by investing in cloud computing efforts on the campuses? The VCL effort is being undertaken with the help of IBM. Is that a sufficient counterforce? Will it begat other like efforts? How will the network externalities be exploted in this case?
There is the further issue – the free rider problem. If there is a suitable counterforce to Google, those of us who want to capture current cost savings with outsource can do so feeling less guilty about it. Let the good citizens fight the good fight and worry about the long term. The rest of us are just trying to keep our heads above water – now. How can we invest in cloud computing when we have to shed IT costs? And so the debate rages.
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The next issue is about the relationship between the IT organization and the Library and how they might interact better. The argument goes that increasingly the domains of the two organizations overlap and hence it would be better for them collaborate and perhaps integrate rather than to pursue their own separate agendas.
In a session at Frye@Educause 2008 a panel of attendees, each of whom had overseen a merger of the two organizations on their respective campuses, discussed the benefits and issues from an after the fact perspective. In general, the merger concept got a thumbs up from the panelists.
My friend Lisa Hinchliffe, who attended Frye with me back in 2003 when she represented the Library and I the Academic Computing organization at Illinois, questions whether a merger could work on our campus, because of scaling issues. It would be difficult, no doubt. But Lisa also wondered whether even on the smaller campuses if these mergers engendered an embrace of a common culture for the new merged organization or if the consequence was more like two separate divisions within a larger corporate hierarchy, in which case the merger perhaps economizes on upper level management staff but otherwise does very little to change from the path prior to the merger. This was Lisa's first Educause and I believe the cultural issues were pressing on her as she understands well the Library view but the IT perspective on issues she cares about is still somewhat alien to her. (Lisa has a new blog that is interesting because there she is trying to work through these issues.)
I come at these questions of organization structure now from a somewhat different perspective given my job in the College of Business where I negotiate with Campus IT, the Library, the Center for Teaching Excellence, elsewhere on Campus, as well as local provision of services within my own College. There is a set of ongoing issues where each has some unique aspect but all are similar in the sense that there is a collective "underlap" of service. The questions then are: how should the issue be addressed, where does responsibility lie, and what credit is received for filling in the gaps? There is the further issue whether older services should be cannibalized and if so what are the criteria for determining which services should get the axe? The "customers" can point fingers at existing services that they view are underutilized. But they typically don't monitor the entire use and may observe only the valleys and not see the peaks.
Since from my perspective, the org structure question gets filtered through the managing underlap/defending turf lens, I'm not sure of the better answer to it. But I do know from having served on Library committees that I approach things unlike Librarians. The culture question is a big one and I'm less sure it can be overcome so readily.
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I like to hear competing views. I'm happier watching the tension play out and seeing the competing arguments sharpen than to see one side win out quickly, before the weaknesses in that perspective have come out. The profession needs to be big enough to welcome the diversity of perspective. There were sessions at the conference designed for attendees to witness competing perspectives, but those sessions were pitched as helping us to make the case, where we need to be aware of counter arguments to make a convincing presentation ourselves. We have to go even further than that. We need to debate these issues among ourselves. We need to understand the weaknesses in the positions we advocate. It's a big part of our profession maturing. We should welcome it.
Thursday, October 23, 2008
A few years back when the Campus was planning for Avian Flu outbreak, there was discussion of closing the physical campus to prevent the contagion from spreading, but keeping courses going online so the core business of the university would continue uninterrupted. This was not too long after Hurricane Katrina and the idea of keeping services flowing in the face of disaster was squarely on many peoples’ minds. I was not directly involved in the planning, but hearing about it I did wonder how we’d pull it off – all this online learning. The planning didn’t reach down to that level of detail because there were some more basic issues on the IT infrastructure front, and how those get managed in light of keeping all staff at home. In spite of this lack of detail, I have in mind that online learning is especially useful during tough times. Sloan-C organized the Sloan Semester for students victimized by Katrina, a noble and useful effort. And there has been some recent discussion on the Sloan-C listserv about online growing in response to economic downturn. That reality was in the back of my mind in thinking about this hypothetical.
I do want to stress that it is a hypothetical. It doesn’t emerge from any committee I’m on nor from any policy discussion with others on Campus. It’s simply a consequence of my general reading about the issues, the difficulties students are having getting loans (you may need access to the Chronicle for this link to work), the battering the economy is taking on a worldwide basis, and the financial statements I’m getting on my own accounts; for example, my 403B plan was down 25% in September alone. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that those who were barely affording attending College beforehand are finding they can no longer do so now. How many are in this category, I do not know. Whether Colleges should or will respond to the issue, I also do not know. They hypothetical is about one way they might respond.
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Big Public U is a residential campus in a small town. Its enrollments have been swelling the last few years as high quality students, who would have gone to private universities in the past, have found Big Public U a well respected place, a bargain, and therefore an attractive place to go to school. But now it seems the goose may have stopped laying the golden eggs. High level administrators at Big Public U are afraid of a substantial fall off in enrollments from currently matriculating students who are not ready to graduate, because those students can no longer afford to attend. They have received numerous letters from concerned parents who are at wits end about what to do. The common theme in this correspondence is that junior should move back home to save on room and board; get a decent job, which has a better chance of happening back home; and possibly have junior go to night school. They know junior will be better off long term going to Big Public U, but they have to live in the present and they simply can’t afford to send junior away to school and pay the tuition. They don’t see any alternative to their present way of thinking.
The administrators at Big Public U are worried both about the immediate loss of revenue from seeing those students discontinue on Campus, the effect their lost presence will have on the quality of student life for those who remain, and about the longer term where those students who leave don’t come back and hence those students don’t get the benefit of a Big Public U education and as a result completely sever their relationship with Big Public U. These administrators would like to see a solution where these students get a tuition break and remain on Campus. That would seem like the ideal under the circumstance.
But the administrators don’t think they can implement the ideal, because they have no way of identifying who “these students” really are. If they offer tuition breaks to every student who claims fiscal exigency, then most if not all students will claim such a need. The administrators agree among themselves that the need a way for these students and their families to self-select, where those who can afford it remain as regular students and those who get the tuition break opt for some option that is otherwise less attractive.
After considering a variety of other alternatives, the administrators have landed on the idea of a furlough semester. Big Public U already offers a handful of online classes during the summer, for students to take while they are home either working on a job or doing an internship. The idea is to extend that to the the upcoming spring semester and possibly the subsequent fall semester as well, increase the number of online classes available and offer them at reduced tuition. They classes would be available only to students who have gone on furlough, not to students who are matriculating on campus at Big Public U. The intent of the furlough semester would be to have these students obtain a lower cost way of getting their education from Big Public U for a temporary period, with the plan that they’d return to the campus in the future when they could afford it.
Big Public U would rather have the students take the furlough semester than have them enroll in the local community college when they return home, to keep the connection up with Big Public U and because they believe the students will benefit by taking their courses with other Big Public U students. So to sweeten the deal and encourage this outcome they go so far as saying that credit hours earned during the furlough semester will count toward the residency requirement at Big Public U.
Big Public U has a variety of general education courses currently taught in Blended format that have not yet been taught totally online. These are the initial candidates for expanding the pool of totally online courses to be offered in the furlough semester. The Administrators of Big Public U are hoping that the furlough semester is a temporary fix – after all it means less tuition revenue per capita. But they are wary about that and are concerned that the economic slump might be prolonged. Consequently, they’ve thought about expanding the number of blended offerings on campus as a pathway toward having more offerings for the furlough semester. They are now working through how much of the up front development cost they can afford to finance, given the lower revenue streams they are looking at in the near term.
There is substantial concern among the administrators that the furlough semester could be a public relations blunder, since much of their prior marketing has stressed the totality of the student experience from being resident at Big Public U and it is clear that students in the furlough semester would miss much of that. But these administrators are taking many of their cues not from elsewhere in Higher Ed but rather from the Financial Services industry, where band aid solutions have not stemmed the tide. They understand they must take dramatic action and that there will be substantial risk from doing so. There’s no way around it and thus no safety play.
Having crossed the Rubicon in their thinking that way, their attention has turned to whether they can pull it off. There are a host of implementation issues that need to be addressed to make the furlough semester a reality. Questions like whether section size of furlough semester courses will be the same or smaller (because of the online modality) than the equivalent on campus section, questions about whether teaching in the furlough semester will be regarded as on load or overload teaching, and questions about whether the instructors will be adequately prepared for conducting their furlough semester courses and whether the students will be prepared in taking them. In turn, those issues about the furlough semester are likely to cast some light on the practices behind on-campus teaching and on whether any of that must adjust to new fiscal realities. The campus administrators would rather not address the on-campus situation now, because they really don’t know what the future will bring and whether the problems that caused the move to the furlough semester will persist. They are already aware that all their planning about energy use and conservation measures that seemed sensible a few months ago now seem draconian given the current modest price of oil and how much that price has fallen in the last couple of months. Consequently, they’d rather wait to have those discussions till they better understand the long term. But they recognize as inevitable some of these conversations, given the need to go ahead with the furlough semester.
This is the bind these administrators find themselves in. The furlough semester is an imperfect solution and they understand that. But sitting on their hands and doing nothing seems worse. The furlough semester does allow some of their current needy students to continue with their studies and maintain their relationship with Big Public U. That’s a plus. These administrators are hoping that’s enough.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
The airlines started to charge for baggage in mind June. According to this graph, the price of gas at the pump then was over $4/gallon. Now it's back down to about $2.70/gallon, what it was a year ago. Will the airlines get rid of their charge for baggage? And, if so, how long will that take.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Habits are interesting things to ponder. Once formed, they are hard to break. But why do they form to begin with? Do we subconsciously make repeated decisions habitual to free up some mental bandwidth for the non recurrent stuff? And, if so, are those habits determined in some optimal way – to an economist that means looking at the recurrent situation as one big choice problem and asking what’s best in that case? Good habits, perhaps, can be considered from that point of view. Bad habits, obviously, are sub optimal, perhaps pernicious. I, for one, have some of both.
I’m particularly interested in learning about changing habits – either deliberately breaking bad habits and replacing them with something else, or getting habituated to some new behavior where there had been no habit previously.
On a personal level, recently I’ve tried in two different dimensions to deliberately change my habits and have a few observations based on that. First, I’ve tried to reduce my caffeine consumption, particularly after noon. Now if I go to the coffee place in the afternoon I will be conscious of the issue and order a decaf Americano. Flavor-wise, straight decaf coffee doesn’t make it for me, at least how it’s made at most places around here. The Americano is better, sometimes very good, other times a little metallic but not too bad. It’s a little bit more expensive than the ordinary decaf, but for the time being I’d rather pay for that than have decaf coffee or do without entirely. I do still drink a lot of regular coffee in the morning. So I’m not sure there is a big effect overall. But maybe it reduces that burnt out feeling in the late afternoon. And maybe it will let me start trying to reduce the coffee in the morning in the near future.
The other area is exercise where for the last few months I’ve tried to increase my activity level and push myself to get a good workout. So I’ve combined the stationary bike (low impact on the knees which is a big deal for me) with lightweight dumbbells, to give the arms some full motion activity, and then that’s interspersed with some other leg exercises while standing. I’ve reached the point where I rely on that as an important part of my day, just like checking email in the morning is part of the routine. While I’m on the stationary bike I watch DVDs from a TV series (right now I’m on 24 season six) as distraction and as a way to time myself. I do between one and two shows per sessions. I used to jog and am noticing some similarities. Fifteen years ago when I jogged regularly I’d do between four and five miles – not very fast, about 9:30 per mile. After the second mile or so with the heartbeat elevated, a euphoric feeling would begin. It would sustain pretty much through the rest of the time unless I’d get too dehydrated or something would start to hurt. But it doesn’t happen until about two weeks in of regular jogging – at least 5 times a week. That’s the same with the bike. That sense of euphoria makes it easy to keep going once it sets in, but you need to do the exercise regularly in order to experience it. And what I’ve concluded about making exercise a habit is that it becomes easier to get started, when there is no euphoria and there is some stiffness until the muscles warm up, and for those first two weeks where it’s work rather than play. If exercise weren’t a habit, I’d opt out most of the time. So in this case habit formation is there to overcome my personal inertia.
It’s easier for me to make new habits, there is is some invention in that and I value invention, than to try to get rid of bad habits, which for me are mostly about binging, particularly in the food department. On that score, I’m better off when on the road, especially if there is nothing in the refrigerator in the hotel room. I don’t need the junk food at all, but have a tough time resisting when it’s there. This is an area where economics breaks done, because it doesn’t distinguish between choice, on the one hand, and will on the other. My choice is to do without but my willpower is nil.
This has been a lifelong battle. In the summer between undergrad and grad I lost a substantial amount of weight by going on a one meal per day self-imposed diet for 10 weeks. For about 20 years after that my weight stayed at around the same level and I looked more or less normal – jogging was a regularizer and my binges were not too out of control. That summer 1976 marked a revolutionary change in my life. I was a different person afterwards than before. It’s instructive to note that I had essentially no obligations that summer until I headed out to Northwestern. So I could go on the severe diet without concern for how my disposition would affect my working with others, because I wasn’t doing that. Twenty years later when my knees got too bad to jog regularly I had that midlife crisis I mention in the About Me segment in the sidebar, I started to revert to my old self. In the mid ‘90s, when the weight started to climb, that process was evolutionary and took place over several years. Now I’m wondering whether the process can reverse but still in an evolutionary manner. Can I get the desired results through modest changes, akin to changing my caffeine consumption in the afternoon?
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In this piece I’m mostly concerned with changes in intellectual habits. We learning technologists don’t talk about this much if at all when we discuss how we support teaching and learning. But clearly, much “instructional design” is aimed overtly or implicitly at affecting the intellectual habits of students. The expression “learning habits” is odd and uncomfortable coming off the tongue. The expression study “study habits” is familiar. But I will stick with the former in what follows. I hope to make clear why.
And I will focus on large classes where there are special challenges for the instructor in keeping students engaged and focused on their learning. There are two technologies, in particular, that have become the mainstay of such large class instruction. First, there are clickers. Second, there is the quiz system that is part of the learning management system. In my college, and I believe across Campus as well, these technologies are intensively used. Both of these technologies offer ways to hold students accountable for their efforts. We know from a study we are doing on a blended learning class that clickers positively affect class attendance (we don’t know the magnitude of the effect). In this sense the clicker is the modern day equivalent of the Delany card. Of course, clicker technology can do more than that. But when you ask students if they go to lecture, the reluctant ones mention the clickers while the willing ones don’t. The instructor understands this and uses the clickers, in part, as an incentive device.
Likewise for the quizzes in Learning Management System, which serve not just to test the students’ mastery of the concepts, but also serve to encourage the students to prepare so they can do well on the quizzes. This incentive “works” in that the students do put in effort to get a good score. The motivation is provided 100% by extrinsic reward. Students get course points on the quizzes in proportion to their score. Likewise, students get participation points for answering clicker questions.
Instructors giving out points for performing a task is like Pavlov’s technicians ringing a bell. The dogs drool at the sound of the bell. The students put in some (perhaps nominal) effort when there are points on the line. This is a habit that we have created. The question is whether there is any real mental nourishment as a result of the habit.
The most immediate way to measure whether that is the case is by looking at exam results. Do students do better on exams as a consequence of this Pavlovian conditioning with quizzes? When the quiz pool of questions is the same as the exam pool, the answer is yes, it works. This is the ultimate in teaching to the test. But for that very reason, one must be suspicious about whether any real learning is going on. A better way to measure would be for the two pools to be independent and for success in the exam to require students to be able to transfer what they learned from the quizzes to an essentially novel setting offered up in the exam. When I used to teach intermediate microeconomics, for a time I would write parts of my midterms this way. My teaching evaluations suffered as a consequence – “test us on what we know,” that sort of thing. Ultimately I caved on that. But I also came to realize that this too wasn’t measuring what I wanted to. Students who had lots of math modeling experience (engineering students, for example) were at a huge advantage. In other words, this didn’t measure what they learned as much as it measured what they knew beforehand. As I’ve written elsewhere, the best tests are oral exams. The questioner can become well acquainted with the student’s conceptual understanding of the topic. But, this type of testing doesn’t scale well. That’s why it is used so infrequently and not at all in large classes.
On occasion I would do presentations with Stan Smith for new faculty in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Stan taught Chemistry for many years, one of prime content developers in Plato and then later with WebCT. Invariably he’d demo one of his quizzes with video of lab experiments. Then he’d present survey data of the students that would show they overwhelmingly “liked quizzes.” I can’t recall if he had any open ended responses where they explained why. But I can guess at the type of things the students would say.
This would be in accord with the student view that learning in academic courses is mostly about exercising discipline – putting in the time to master the subject. The students wouldn’t know whether they’ve mastered it or not. The quizzes gave them that information. (In the ‘90s when we did evaluation of software such as Mallard, one of the big benefits we observed was that the system gave feedback to students in a way that didn’t personalize their failures, so it allowed them to learn from their mistakes without getting stigmatized in the process.) To that, we have to add consideration of the deadlines, which the technology enforces very well. Students have trouble with time management. The deadlines force them to (perhaps at the last minute) put in the effort. I don’t think it a stretch to say the students feel that they lack willpower and the technology as aid is a substitute for that lack of willpower. Is this starting to sound familiar? Anyway, that’s my story for why they report liking the quizzes.
To sum up students, who are extremely instrumental about their College education, view classroom learning as a matter of discipline and have been trained from grade school to respond in a Pavlovian manner when course points are on the line. In turn, instructors who teach large courses leverage the technology to get students to “participate” and “do their homework” and on that score the technology use seems effective. It may also seem effective from the perspective of exam scores, where these type of interventions do seem to provide performance improvement or, at worst, do no harm.
My fear, however, is that we’re deluding ourselves and that students are getting “intellectual junk food” this way but pretending it’s a real meal. And the habits that are developed in this process are bad ones; the instrumentalism can produce cynicism, anger, and end up blocking more open attempts at learning. So, the question in my post title is about whether there is a way to evolve away from this habit to something else that would be more supportive of learning. Then, stretching the metaphor to to its limits, the question to ask is: what sort of mutations would cause this evolution to occur? What should we be looking for and what changes might we encourage? I’d like to ask these questions both from a within course perspective as well as considering the student maturing going through the curriculum. For the latter, it’s clear that the student is more likely to be in these high enrollment classes as a Freshman or Sophomore, since these classes are apt to be General Education courses or introductory courses in the major. Does the bad habit, once acquired, persist through the rest of the student’s coursework? Or does the student’s behavior change as the classes come smaller and presumably have more human interaction? And how might we encourage the one instead of the other? Those are the issues.
Now an aside that will help frame these issues. The last couple of weeks I’ve been attending a seminar on community based learning. The core idea is that by putting students in a different setting, one with needy members of the community, the students can benefit these community members with their efforts and at the same time intellectually advance in the subject matter that they are studying. We did a series of breakout groups and had those who’ve got experience with community learning talked about the successes and the impediments. A theme that came out repeatedly was that the nature of the student mattered. Some of the students are self-starters capable of doing productive things without direction. Others seemingly are willing to sit around until they’ve been told what to do. But the community organizers and teachers who’ve set up the community based learning activity can’t be everywhere at once and don’t have enough time to provide detailed instructions for the students on a regular basis. So the self-starters succeed and the other students do not.
The questions, then, are whether students are self-starters about their own learning and if not whether they can be encouraged to become self-starters. For me being an intellectual self-starter means having a path into the subject matter that is pursued on its own accord, quite apart from any “points” or other incentives provided by the course.
In some cases, the students will have an independent path, unrelated to the course. The blended course I mentioned previously is an introductory Finance class, focusing on Corporate Finance. Given the events of last several months, you’d have to be living on another planet to not know that Finance issues have been dominating the news, so most everyone has an independent path on this subject. But having been provided with the path is not sufficient. Are people actively pursuing that path, making sense of what’s going on through their own inquiry? And are they pushing themselves intellectually to figure out what’s going on? Or do they settle for what’s spooned feed to them, on CNN, the Daily show, or other lowest common denominator outlets?
When students do have an independent path into the subject instructors can help the students in several different ways. But there is a delicate question to address first. What, if any of this, should be subject to assessment, via clickers or quizzes or some other way? And what should be advanced in a softer way, merely as as suggestions for students to do with what they will, with some students undoubtedly asking that death march to the instructor, “Will this be on the test?”
I believe most if not all of this should be done as suggestion. If the underlying goal is to get the students learning habits to evolve, sticking with multiple choice assessment is not good. That many students won’t come along for the ride should be anticipated but ultimately ignored as long as some do. Let’s focus on those students. We can worry later about how to swell their ranks. For now, let’s ask what we can do for them that are willing.
One idea is to direct their reading by suggesting authors, columnists, bloggers, anybody they should pay attention to because the writer has a strong and well articulated point of view to which the students may not have been exposed at all or only partially so. Directing student reading down a non-course related path may seem extraneous. But for our intellectually curious students, it’s a value add. It’s a good way to help them make connections.
Another idea is simply to offer framing questions. We all gather data, information from new sources, ideas that others are spewing. But we may miss the forest for the trees or even if we make out some glimpse of the big picture, we may still miss significant pieces. Helping others on how to consider things is potentially an enormous benefit. If they get to the “Aha!” they will have learned something substantial. Further, they are likely to be very appreciative and then there is the potential to leverage that appreciation.
A third idea is to model what traversing the independent path looks like. Keeping a blog on the instructor’s sojourns down the path with links to sources and commentary provided by the instructor and encouraging students to do likewise, sharing these writings with other students, is perhaps the best way to walk the walk. More students will read the instructor’s blog than will start their own, but remember these are suggestions only and the aim is for them to choose for themselves how involved they want to get.
Regardless of the way the approach is made, an obvious intellectual puzzle will be created. How does one tie what is learned by going down the independent path from what is being taught in the course? Where are the connections in the ideas? How does knowledge of course content help to illuminate the way moving down the independent path? Many students may only pose these questions implicitly. But having done so, their learning habits will change. They’ll no longer be Pavlov’s dog. They will have become instead a self-starter for their own learning.
Actually, I don’t think it’s that simple. I argued that way because it’s easiest for putting forward the ideas. A more complex, though still rather simple way to consider the issues is to the view the students as self-starters in some dimensions but as Pavlov’s dog in others. Not everything is independent inquiry even among the most thoughtful people. Some things you do out of obligation while other things you do purely for the credential it will generate. In college, I’d like it to be the case that all students have some aspect of self-started learning that drives them. If we had that, I’d be quite OK with the students being instrumental about their learning in other areas. In other words, we’re all both self-starters and Pavlov’s dog and the question in each particular case is which is it? Then we can think of these instructor provided suggestions as a kind of intellectual marketing. That in itself is not sufficient to cause a fundamental change in the student’s learning habit. But it can serve as a spur for student efforts that do cause such a change.
It’s also important to keep in mind just how fragile things are when in that transition phase where the learning habit is subject to change. Why start down the path? Because something tickled the intellectual funny bone and the student wants more of that. If those early encounters don’t pique the curiosity, it’s a no go. Even if those early encounters seem exciting, other things may get in the way. Students who do have will power regarding their studies tend to knock off their known obligations first. Following an interest that won’t impact a grade may simply get lower priority – if there’s time fine, but if not c’est la vie. Pavlov’s dog is a highly ingrained habit. One shouldn’t expect it to disappear at moment’s notice. The charisma of the instructor likely matters as a counter weight. Students will try things because they are inspired to do so. For those of us instructors who aren’t charismatic, we can at least show our passion for the subject. That might help in getting some students through the transition.
Students who are already self-starters will carve a path for their own when an independent path doesn’t present itself. They’ll work problems not assigned, do independent readings, make small experiments that are of their own design, pleasing themselves only, not trying to serve another master. This blurs the work-play distinction. Learning is as much about wanting as about doing. We want to play because it’s fun. We don’t play because doing so is productive. Carving an independent path is not a matter of will power. It’s a matter of self-expression. It fills an inner need. It is the source of deep learning but the self-starter is not being instrumental in carving the path. The activity is valuable for itself.
The question is whether those things can be taught or if only some students are capable of acquiring the self-starter perspective. I don’t know the answer, but here is my hope. I believe many students can learn this and would in fact do so if they came to be that was expected of them, first, and that they’d get something out of it (akin to the euphoria after strenuous exercise for a period of time) second. The instructor is probably not in a good position to teach this – there is too much of a chasm between the instructor and the students. Good students who are in the same classes as their more ordinary performing peers also likely can’t teach this to those peers, especially if those labels of good and ordinary have been cemented in. Again, the so-called ordinary student will feel a chasm that blocks the change in behavior.
The best chance, it seems to me, is for ordinary students who’ve made the leap teach their more junior peers. They’d have credibility precisely because the distance between them and the students they aim to teach is not so great, mostly a gap in maturity, not in orientation. This is why I’m so high on peer mentoring of this sort. I think it can have a profound effect on the learning habit, by encouraging the more immature students to start carving their own paths. If Pavlov’s dog is to evolve, this is likely how it will happen.
The learning habits of our students should be a profound concern to us as teachers. Unfortunately, we often don’t get past the more mundane factors – Do they students come to class? Do they do their homework? Do they do a decent job on the exam? Pavlov’s dog can do all of that. We should want more for the students.