Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Making Time Stand Still

Some not yet habits we try to resist in their forming. One of those for me is reading obituaries. It’s not fear of the grim reaper that makes me put it off. It’s just that the batting average with folks I have encountered earlier is still too low.* Perhaps it’s surprising, but I’m finding a liking for eulogy from the past, particularly about giants who can still serve as heroes. I don’t recall how I stumbled upon these on Arthur Okun, but I plan to use them when I teach next spring. The Atlantic is running its Brave Thinkers issue and on the Web site they have some of those from the archive. This piece about Albert Einstein is worth the read. Also from The Atlantic, though not eulogy, is this really splendid piece by W.E.B. Du Bois, on the struggles of the American Negro. Du Bois paints a picture of dual existence, a desire for normalcy and acceptance while living the life of the other. There are lessons here for everyone, non-Negroes too.

The writings in the newspapers and the discussions on tv news shows now are all on the same theme – the Democrats are going down in the midyear elections. It’s very discouraging, providing no balm whatsoever. Especially disillusioning was this piece from The News Hour last Friday, about the elections in Ohio, which ties traditional Democratic voter apathy to the bleak reality of their job market. The conclusion of these voters is it doesn’t matter who is in office for their core pocketbook issues. They may very well be right. I did find a curious piece in the local paper here Sunday, a review of a new book by Barbara Ann Ross. I knew Barb when she was part of the senior management team at WebCT. It is an odd feeling to encounter someone in a different context. I wish her well as an author. Perhaps this is not quite another example of Du Bois’ duality, but it points to the notion some sort of duality is in all of us.

I am definitely feeling it, as a learning technologist and an instructor. The former wants to focus on method and pedagogical approach. The latter thinks of teaching by the topic coverage. Sometimes the two talk, though mainly it’s more tolerance and less communication. In a serious conversation, it would be necessary to pose the fundamental question: does the topic coverage withstand the pedagogy? This almost never gets asked. Particularly in “required” courses, the instructor becomes a partial slave to the expectations of other instructors with regard to topic coverage. These others know what they want the students to have learned from the course. Satisfying those expectations creates a certain form of lock in, of the type I described in my Tragic Tories EQ column.

Making this more concrete by looking at courses I teach, one could sensibly ask whether we should change what we teach in intermediate microeconomics in light of the financial crisis and the ensuing meltdown of the economy. In the traditional version of the course, while there may be a little time devoted to discussing moral hazard, it is almost always done in the context of idiosyncratic risk. Systematic risk, where a chain reaction of defaults can occur and the earlier ones in the chain making the latter ones more likely, is viewed out of scope. Might there not be a reasonable way to discuss the issue in the intermediate course? Partly for that reason, I wrote this essay on the economics of time. I believe that these ideas belong in an intermediate course, though these sort of issues are traditionally not covered in the context that is given in my essay. One does discuss in the oligopoly section a bit on repeated prisoner’s dilemma. The question there is whether it is possible to induce a cartel agreement. But that context is almost certain alien from the typical student experience. Why not instead focus on trust relationships that the students themselves have participated in? Then, having done so, wouldn’t it be natural to ask about what happens when trust breaks down? So one need not talk too much about the financial crisis directly, though one might give a few readings on that as well, such as this opinion piece by Paul Volker, and see whether the students perk up to this content because they have an interest in understanding the recent past and its connection to the present.

However, my motivation for moving away from the traditional approach really stems from other sources. Though I try to be publicly spirited at an intellectual level in relating ideas of the course to recent happenings in “the real world,” often I lack insight into how to do that effectively. So that isn’t my source of motivation. Rather, it is personal experience that I try to reconcile with the economics, experience that calls into question the traditional approach.

Next spring I will be teaching intermediate micro after a 10-year hiatus. In the interim, mainly I was a full time administrator and in that capacity was involved in some significant decision making, the most obvious and biggest expenditure-wise was the procurement and deployment of the Campus learning management system, what is now called Illinois Compass. During that process I know I felt my prior economics knowledge not particularly helpful, because there where many dimensions to the choice and much that was unknown about the consequences. A little later I wrote a blog post, Is Economics Worthless?, where I expressed the issue this way:

There is another sense, however, that may be more important where economics is worthless. Rather than look at macroeconomic issues, let's focus on the individual and how decisions are made. Consider the business executive who has an MBA. How does that person make decisions? According to Warren Bennis and James O'Toole in an article in the Harvard Business Review, the B-schools have lost their way because they teach what their faculty research (aka economics) and this has no practical relevance to the real world realm of decision making. The economic model is based on decision making under uncertainty where the model is well defined and a good Bayesian decision maker (somebody well versed in the theory of statistics and decision making) has a subjective probability distribution on which to base the choice calculation. But in reality the situation itself is ambiguous and ill formed. It is not clear what model to apply. And there is little or no data to base the decision on. There is only anecdote.

That post was 5 years ago. There is frustration evident in what I said, but I was talking from the vantage of decision maker. As a teacher I want to be more helpful in tone. I think that means being honest with students. In turn, that means even the most basic of economic concepts – opportunity cost – is fraught with imprecision in its application in the real world because of the inherent uncertainty. So I wrote an essay, What If Analysis, to discuss the issues as framed as an economist would. In particular, this second chunk of the essay discusses procurement via an RFP. Again, it is not the sort of thing that is typical of an intermediate microeconomics course, but to me it seems an essential part of the discussion, to make it real.

Then, too, in the teaching I have done at the undergraduate level over the last 10 years, making it real has been very well received by the students. So I’ve also got my own experimentation with teaching in other classes to buttress my views. Over time, I’ve learned to trust my instincts in these matters. And if I were doing this just for myself, that’s exactly what I’d do. But I’m supposed to be developing a general model for blended and totally online Econ courses, a model that would be readily adopted by other instructors here. Those other instructors don’t feel the imperatives that the course content should change. Going online is therefore conceptualized as a change in mode with invariant topic coverage. Should I accommodate that conception or combat it? I associate the title of this post with the accommodation point of view.

There are other forces in place that reinforce the static nature of core course topic coverage. The textbook is one of those, a very important factor especially when instructors teach to the book. Recently I wrote a post that argued we should get rid of the textbook, but there the argument was mainly about pedagogy; topic coverage was only a minor factor in the piece, though it did mention the tying of the subject to the real world as a critical piece of the course, something that a textbook approach can block.

The technology, too, can serve as a conserving force, even if we’re used to thinking about the technology changing rapidly and struggling to keep up with it. This is particularly true because there is substantial effort in producing content, both presentation and assessment, and having produced it once, there is a sensible tendency to leverage that prior effort. That doesn’t logically preclude ongoing revision and tweaking, but as a matter of practice such ongoing revision rarely if ever happens. Teaching then is mainly a painting by the numbers exercise. Once that has happened, it’s all over but the crying.

Further, the content that was produced tends to be flat. PowerPoint is seen as a villain but it is not just presentation content that is flat (and it isn’t that newer presentation technologies such as Prezi solve the problem, which is that reinvention isn’t built into the process). Assessments too can be quite flat and that is very disappointing. In the 1990s we talked about simulation content as important. But people don’t talk about that much anymore. Simulations are difficult to build and costly to maintain, but potentially are much more educative than the content we are mainly getting now. K-12 potentially could lead in this area and math is the obvious subject for that to happen. But there would have to be some vision and agreement on what makes for a good simulation (I like this one for its simplicity) and then some way to produce them at scale. There is so much lock in to textbooks in K-12 (where perhaps they still should be kept) that it is hard to see this happening. In the remedial market maybe, not the regular first pass through the stuff approach.

I’m quite frightened about current efforts in moving courses online, particularly the Next Generation Learning Challenges of the Gates Foundation, because there is a big chunk of non-recurrent funding being doled out and reinvention of the content on an ongoing basis doesn’t seem to be part of the design criteria for potential grantees. So it is possible for this to produce a frenzy of activity followed by substantial lock in and stasis.

We’ve been to that movie before and it is painful to watch. It doesn’t get better in the reruns.

*Jerry Uhl passed away over the weekend. I learned about it from a friend in Facebook. I’m glad I wrote my homage to him more than a year ago.

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