Friday, December 29, 2006

My Holiday Viewing and Reading

Either the seasons are permuting and now we’re in the midst of Indian Summer, the thermometer in my car, admittedly not the most reliable but I believe accurate in this case, registered a balmy 53 degrees yesterday afternoon three days after Christmas, or Global Warming has proceeded at such a rapid pace that we’ve got to abandon the seasons altogether and wait out the pending apocalypse. Partly because my leg has been acting up and partly because I’m just a couch potato at heart, I’ve not really taken advantage of the friendly weather outside and instead have spent a good deal of the vacation so far watching Charlie Rose and some selective movies I’ve TiVo’d and reading both some junk as diversion and some other pieces I feel obligated to digest to round out my education.

One of the Charlie Rose segments was an hour with Clint Eastwood. who is not quite 25 years my senior, still going strong and according to many of the critics producing his best work at this mature age, an inspiration to all of us, especially someone like me who is keenly aware that certain of my own mental functions are working less well now. Though he was talking only about his own reasons for success, Clint offered up several good suggestions that we might all profit from --- he’s stayed in the business this long because the film projects he works on are diverse, not all of one ilk, each requiring a new approach and learning for him to find his way through to solution that works for him. He also said there is a tendency to over think creative activity – too much analysis can be paralyzing – and that to trust the feeling in your gut (or in your heart) that originally moved you to consider the project and then to grab the brass ring when it presents itself. I think he’s right in all of that, though I over analyze out the wazoo.

And one film I watched was The Crucible, a 1996 remake of the Arthur Miller stage play, which was originally written both as an allegory of the McCarthy period and as a self-contained story about the Salem Witch Trials. The cast is excellent – Daniel Day-Lewis as the accused, John Proctor; Winona Ryder, as the harlot turned possessed who is the villain in the piece motivated by a lust for John Proctor and hence desirous of getting Proctor’s wife out of the picture; and Paul Scofield as the judge, with all the airs of someone seemingly above reproach, yet ultimately with uncanny ability to miss the truth in human behavior in favor of the supernatural explanation. I was somewhat surprised to see there were many mixed reviews of this film online but perhaps it was not appropriate for the time that is was made; I thought it was wonderful and truly fitting for the period we live in now – if people want to believe something else than what is actually going on they can certainly do that and they can convince others to do likewise, a very important lesson to learn.

On Christmas day I received one of the gifts I asked my wife to get, knowing that she was going to the bookstore to get holiday reading for the kids. With the theme that reading can be mind candy; my older son has been reading the most recent Artemis Fowl after just seeing Eragon and playing the I’m-no-sure-what Xbox-360 Castle game, so there seems to be an insatiable craving for fantasy/adventure/science fiction whether in video game, movie, or book format; I figure that if the kids can do that why can’t the parents, so I asked my wife to get me the latest Thomas Harris book, Hannibal Rising. I’ve got some good fiction for me waiting to be read – my friend Gail Hawisher was nice enough to give me a copy of Middlesex when she visited me at home while I was convalescing, and I’ve got a variety of serious non-fiction reads to work through – none of those, however, are in the mind candy category. I’ve read all the previous Thomas Harris novels; airplane reading, if you will, the type that makes you want to take the plane trip. Some of my readers might find this fascination with Hannibal Lecter evidence of yet another character flaw in Lanny and they may very well be right. Yet I’m unabashed about my fandom. It is the combination of the absolute monstrous behavior, something totally outside my realm of experience, with the high intelligence and imagination in situ that make these books so compelling for me.

This latest is an origins book, an explanation of how the Hannibal Lecter of Silence of the Lambs (and before that, Red Dragon) came to exist; his bearing a consequence of birth, he was born to nobility, his intelligence a genetic gift from his father and shared by his uncle, manifest not just in his ability for mathematics but also in his power to render hand drawn sketches of immense detail and great accuracy, but it is his monstrous behavior that is, of course, what we’re interested in learning about. What was the source of that?

Naturally, I don’t want to give away the plot. It’s a good melodrama and if you have even a wee taste for the macabre, a good read. So I will only give an answer in generalities. Hannibal Lecter as monster is an unintended consequence of horrific circumstances caused by Nazi thugs who were trying to survive the grim winter before the Russian invasion on the Eastern Front. These Nazis did terrible things to Hannibal’s family and friends, some of an extreme personal nature. And the experience demonized him, numbing him to more sensible realities (though not numbing his intelligence) while allowing another self to emerge, a self capable of horrendous acts – brutal murder and cannibalism. I’ll move away from this book for now but I want to emphasize this point of utterly horrible experience, particularly by the young, creating a numbing of normal emotion and behavior and leaving in its stead room for a quite aberrant alternative. Think of Hannibal Lecture as a metaphor for Columbine, for Jonestown, or for the Charles Manson Family.

I want to next talk about a couple of the pieces from David Brooks’ Sidney Awards list (this link requires Times Select). I appreciate his doing this; while not every piece on the list is to my liking the batting average for quality is high and the diversity of topics covered make it quite compelling to read, even if as Brooks says this is the Age of Anxiety. Let me start with this piece by Karen Kornbluth, policy director for Senator Barack Obama, from, Families Valued. The piece gives an intelligent and correct (as far as it goes) analysis of how there is an inherent tension between promoting the marketplace and promoting the family and that our current system of social insurance, what we used to call a safety net, much of which dates back to the New Deal or to expansion under the Great Society, simply doesn’t recognize the reality of modern day families, with either two wage earners who together don’t have enough time to tend to the kids needs or with only a single parent who is overwhelmed trying to make ends meet and look after the children too. The piece then goes into great length as to how there are inequities and disincentives for precisely the people the system should be designed to help, and on this I think the piece shot a bull’s-eye.

But the article frames the argument as righting a ship that has gone off course rather than as one of making tradeoffs and I believe as a consequence the article makes it seem like there should be no debate about the issues – they are all common sense and we should be of one mind on them, shouldn’t we?

Here’s the problem. The piece doesn’t address at all how much social insurance there should be and in particular to address questions like, shouldn’t FMLA be expanded to allowed paid leave, the wages while on leave paid by the social insurance scheme, not the employer, and shouldn’t we be generous about the duration for which those benefits can be collected? But, if we expand benefits in this way, how do we pay for them, purely self-financed via higher payroll taxes or more than a bit of the old Robin Hood approach so that more moderate income folks can really reap the benefits? That question is not being asked, but it should be.

Here’s a piece by Paul Krugman from summer 2005 (again, this requires Times Select) well worth reading in my view that compares the French situation to the American situation on this score and that does frame the issue as a tradeoff – the French have more vacation time and work fewer hours in the week than do the Americans, both of these promote the family, but the French also have lower GDP per capita as a consequence – and further Krugman recognizes that to implement a particular way of resolving this tradeoff it is necessary for a government to implement a regulatory regime that supports the specific outcome.

Ask yourself this question. Who stands to lose if the reforms Kornbluth proposes were to come into being? The answer is straightforward. Under the reform there will be somewhat less income inequality and a somewhat smaller pie overall. (This answer assumes the overall reform is deficit neutral. An alternative that I would hope a responsible Congress would ignore is to deficit finance the reform, i.e., pass the funding burden onto our grandchildren and their children.) So it’s the Bill Gates’ and Warren Buffet’s of the world who will lose. Now one could make an argument that these super rich should take this one for the team for the benefit of the rest of us in society and, actually, I think it’s not a bad argument to make. But I didn’t hear it from Kornbluth. And if anyone has seen Gates on TV recently talking about his new role with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it might not be transparent to him that he should willingly be taxed more to have funds disposed of via a government run social insurance network, rather than to be able to give to his own foundation where he can dispose of the funds as he sees fit. That, it seems to me, is what is at issue here and if one really wants to make the case for such reform, certainly doing so is timely and I believe a lot of traditional Democrat and Independent voters would go for it, then getting out in front of the issue would seem to me the right approach. But there’s work to be done before getting to that point. If the High Rollers are dead against it, then it will lose.

Now let’s switch gears and talk about Gerald Ford, which means talking about The Pardon. The obituary stresses the point that the country needed a healing, battered both by the Watergate fiasco and the aftermath of Vietnam and the only way to achieve that healing was via the pardon. But consider the Carter presidency and ask these questions: (1) Who knew about Carter before he ran for president? (2) Was Carter elected because of something he stood for or because the population as a whole was mad with Ford and the Republicans more broadly? (Sound familiar?) (3) What do we remember the Carter presidency for? (4) Would the Reagan Era have dawned if Ford had been elected in 1976?

My answers to those questions: (1) not too many people outside the South and particularly Carter’s state of Georgia and further, in the primaries there were a slew of other candidates (remember Mo Udall?) none of whom galvanized the electorate, (2) Carter’s election was definitely due to a backlash vote, (3) Stagflation and the Iran Hostage Crisis (not the Camp David accords), (4) I don’t know, it’s a head scratcher. I think Carter was a decent guy, caught in a perilous time, and at least for (3) Stagflation would have happened under Ford too. My real point here is that if you are going to contemplate a major ripple in history – the alternative of not granting the pardon – then do so by considering the full path that would ensue rather than focus just on the immediate aftermath.

Now let me switch gears again and move entirely out of my own comfort zone (political economy) and instead talk about this piece by Caitlan Flanagan, also a Sidney Award winner, from the Atlantic entitled Are You There God? It’s Me Monica. This too is a fascinating read, about the oral-sex craze in younger adolescents, entirely gender biased (girls on boys) and a seeming fantasy that might be reality. How does one know whether it is or isn’t? It’s not the sort of thing that direct observation helps to inform. I feel reasonably comfortable in asserting that my kids are not involved, but how I really know that?

Flanagan raises some interesting questions. Representing the view of a parent, what type of cultural environment do we want for our kids as they learn about their own emerging sexuality? And does that view match or conflict with our prior views about sexuality for ourselves? The conflict between the two is brought out and certain recent trends, for example the mainstreaming of the porn star Jenna Jameson and the explicit nature of the of the sex ed info on the Planned Parenthood Web site (particularly as it speaks to the oral sex issue) are taken to task. I’m with Flanagan in thinking this is a very good question to ask, though I don’t necessarily agree with her on the conclusions.

Flanagan spends much of the piece considering the issue from the (female) kid’s view, about how to satisfy a healthy and inevitable adolescent curiosity about sex with information that is true, useful, and not moralistic. There is so much of the other sort of information and Flanagan seems to say that part of the current problem may stem from a lack of good models through which the kids learn a more fulfilling approach, where sex become part of a bigger picture of tenderness with a caring partner. Yet Flanagan also advances another possibility – the kids, though from good middle class families as judged by outer appearances, have nonetheless been numbed via a dysfunctional family life that doesn’t satisfy any of their needs and hence are placed in a position to be victimized by the oral sex trend, engaging in acts that have little or no personal meaning for themselves. This is in essence the Hannibal Lecter origin story en masse and while the story certainly works in the Thomas Harris fictional world, I’ve been scratching my head about whether it is believable in the world in which we live.

A couple of nights ago, I saw The Pianist. My wife and I had seen it several years ago at the theater. This time around I watched it by myself on one of the HD movie channels. It is a haunting story based on a real life experience of a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, Wladyslaw Szpilman, brilliantly played by Adrien Brody, who won the Academy Award for this role. Szpilman experiences all sorts of horrors, the senseless murders and beatings of Jews at hands of the Nazis, the mass deportation of the vast majority of the Jewish population to the death camps, including the rest of Spilman’s family with whom he had lived. He stayed alive via the help of others, who appreciated the brilliance of his music, and through his own wits and instinct to stay in the shadows just out of harms way. He did not fight back and try to overcome. He just tried to endure.

A significant aspect of the film is the haunting look of Szpilman’s face – a gaunt look, doleful eyes that simultaneously convey sensitivity and emphasize the assault he must have felt at each indignity caused by the Nazis, and an aquiline nose that signifies his Jewishness and that his artistry and sensitivity are interwoven with that. I focused on the eyes through much of the picture. And I could not help but think that though Szpilman experienced horror after horror, the essence of his personality remained intact.

I thought about people I knew who had gone through something similar. As a child I met on several occasions a childhood friend of my mother’s, Lilly Kramer, who had tattooed numbers on her arm, she was in a concentration camp but somehow managed to get out. Lilly had a harsh personality; she was a smoker and I remember coming home from a visit with her at her Manhattan apartment where I was crying, though I don’t remember why. Some of her ways must have been the result of her experience under the Nazis, though I’m not really in a position to know what type of change that experience caused.

And because I was so taken with the face of Szpilman, I thought of somebody I once knew who had his sort of eyes, Ellen Taus a student of mine in economic statistics when I was a TA at Northwestern. She endured as well, in this case through a poor performance on the first midterm of the course, not exactly the type of horror I’ve been writing about above, but trying for her at the time nonetheless. (It is amazing to me what type of memories emerge from a stream of consciousness association like that and also that some 29 years later I was quickly able to find mention of Ellen on the Internet.) She seems to have done quite well for herself since.

Although completely unscientific in its basis, I want to advance a tentative hypothesis to try to tie these strands of thought together. Some of us have it in us to fight adversity, to overcome it via force of will. Others (and I’m much more in this category than in the first one) are more prone to capitulate than to counterattack. Fighting back likely increases the odds in terms of Darwinian survival. But fighting back increases the risks of surviving yet with broken spirit and leaving the individual vulnerable for something else demonic to fill the void. Capitulation makes it more likely to lose the battle. But capitulation aids in keeping the former self intact and particularly in preserving sensitivity to the world in which we live.

It’s some tradeoff. I don’t know if it’s right, but if it even remotely approximates the truth it might offer some clues for us in terms of what we should truly value.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Macro versus Micro Economics

I'm still getting used to Blogger Beta. Apparently there is no command to republish the index or republish the entire site. Instead, each item is stored separately in the database and gets republished when it is updated. Sounds good in concept and seems to work for posts. But I updated my profile and yet the update doesn't seem to appear. I hope that works in the near future. (I'm now writing later and it did work....interesting about the lag.)

In the meantime, here is a new feedburner feed for the site

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Following David Brooks' suggestion in his Sidney awards, yesterday I read Alan Blinder's piece in Foreign Affairs: Offshoring - The New Industrial Revolution? Blinder is a good economist and this piece is fairly straightforward reading and makes one very important point - on the question of what services are "tradeable" and hence subject to off shoring --- that cuts across historic distinctions and it may very well be that getting a good education, the traditional remedy posed in light of the threat of competition from foreign workers who can produce goods more cheaply, may very well not insulate workers from offshoring for electronically delivered services this time around.

But I think of Blinder as a macro guy, one who is comfortable aggregating up ideas into a simple framework so that can be analyzed, not particularly disturbed by whether that type of aggregation distorts reality too much. I was trained as a micro guy, and below I'm going to comment on things that Blinder leaves out of his story that I think might matter a lot.

Let me focus on a few key issues. First, and here I'm biased by my old job and listening to the Network folks talk where they used the categories "voice" and "data" let's consider those as two different forms of electronic delivery of service. One can get services by interacting with a Web site such as,, or And then one can get service on the phone, talking with a customer service agent. They are both electronic services and there is some convergence between the two but I think for this purpose it is helpful to consider them separately.

The data type of service provision matches the Blinder description quite well. He talked about India being much more type of a threat in this domain than China, then I think it worth noting that written English is much more international than spoken English, which has regional elements, accents and patois. The off shoring of the Web work, in this view makes full sense, both the database content behind the scences and the content we all see, but the off shoring of the phone content is harder. is an example of the success and failure of both approaches - their Web site for building your own PC in a custom way is very well thought through and effective. Their "help desk" for solving technical problems, much more problematic.

If that distinction is sensible, there is an argument that cuts the other way than Blinder argues - voice services, which may not be quite as immune as face to face is from the Baumol's Cost Disease Problem (and if voice to data conversion techniques continue to improve there is the possibility of data mining from voice conversations bringing the above mentioned convergence that much closer) may require regional providers if not local providers to assure the customer feels comfortable in the conversation. Further, being an effective negotiator in voice conversation is potentially a skill that will be in high demand, especially as more of the population becomes comfortable with providing self-service in smart Web sites and hence the voice communication acts less as a substitute means for data communication and more as means for negotiating complex and idioysncratic situations for which the form driven data communication is ill suited.

Indeed, this will be possible if the data technology helps to address the routing problem of matching customers with their specific queries to people with the right expertise to address them. Solve the routing problem completely and I believe much of what Blinder argues about the off shoring of electronic services might prove opposite to how he argues.

Let me turn to a second issue - this is the question of ongoing (trust) relationships, what Arthur Okun coined as the invisible handshake, versus anonymous and one-time intereactions. Blinder's analysis does not differentiate between these two quite different type of transactions. The latter are likely to be commodity-like and the tendency would be for the supply of those type of activites to be off shored. I'm much less certain that true is for the former.

Here is a very special example of this and it is not so much about off shoring as it is about having insiders or outsiders provide a service. One may wonder why college textbook publishers haven't branched out into "online TA" services, since they presumably can leverage economies of scale better than we can at any campus and hence could have a network of such providers online at all hours of the day and night to helpf students. In turn, if they did this and were indeed more efficient at it, it would reduce our need for on campus TAs and hence take a bite out of the tuition bill. But as I've said, we haven't seen this market emerge and if I were betting I'd guess against it happening.

On the other hand, we might very well have online TAs from our own campus, students who took the course in the past from the same instructor who is offering it now and hence who can internalize the nuance and idiosyncracy of how the course is taught. So this is not fundamentally a strength or weakness of electronic delivery. Rather it is about how customized the content is and how to make such custom material well. Again, this seems to favor local knowledge and cuts againts off shoring. Admittedly, we are not offering both alternatives to the students and letting them choose. And the way instructors choose may depend on other factors than price. But let's also agree that students can now take online offering of these course and while some have done this, we are not witnessing wholesale switching to that mode.

Finally, and on this one Blinder does comment a bit, I want to consider the so called "blended" service provision issue - some of it is up close and high touch, some of it is electronic, and the pieces might fit together in as of yet hard to predict ways. Since we're talking about Blended Learning a lot now on campus, this particular issue has gotten a lot of my attention. And the question I'm asking myself is whether one can off shore the electronic piece if it must fit in with a customized and idiosyncratic face to face piece. Blinder talks about reading CT scans as such an off shored activity in Health Care, providing an example both involving some high level skill and one where the cost argument seems to swamp any other consideration of customization. Perhaps it is a portent of things to come. But I've got the feeling that in this case the service is treated in a commodity like way - indeed, that's the way doctors view all services provided by hospital labs. So, yes, that stuff can be off shored but customized stuff...

Friday, December 15, 2006

Blogger Update

I've converted my Blogger account so I can now access it with my Gmail password and I'm using the new Beta version. I'm a tiny bit surprised that even after logging into my Google Homepage I still need to log into Blogger, but I assume that convenience will be coming shortly.

In the meantime, I'm taking this as a signal that now is the time to migrate my blog to a different location for hosting and I've chosen blogspot for this purpose. So, assuming the url is available, the new site will be:

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Coordination Problems and Large Class Redesign

When I used to teach intermediate microeconomics, the last time was over 5 years ago, near the end of the course I would give a lecture on bi-matrix games as a sequel to the more traditional oligopoly theory. Among these games are the Prisoners’ Dilemma, which has a dominant strategy equilibrium (both players cheat) that is a reasonable first pass at the problem faced by cartels. But apart from Prisoners’ Dilemma, I also spent some time on games of “pure coordination” where there are multiple equilibria and where each player agrees on which one is preferred. The issue at hand is whether the players naturally “find” the good equilibrium or if they can get stuck in the bad equilibrium. The following link represents this type of situation.

There are two different games depicted, each game symmetric for the two players. In both there are two equilibria, the blue one (Top, Left) is better for each player than the red one (Bottom, Right) and the payoffs in these equilibria are identical across the games. Yet even with these similarities, game theorists would predict different outcomes in the two games because of differences in strategic risk.

The Row Player’s payoff is the number to the left of the comma, the Column Player’s to the right. In the first game, Top gives the Row Player 300 if Left and 80 if Right, so 80 is the worst the Row Player can do by choosing Top. Bottom gives 20 if Left and 100 if Right, so it is not just that (Bottom, Right) is a bad equilibrium. It is also that by playing Bottom the Row Player can get really hammered (earning only 20) if an out of equilibrium outcome (Bottom, Left) is reached. Each of these factors reinforces the other and the consequence is for the Row Player to be inclined to choose Top and, since the game is symmetric, for the Column Player to be inclined to choose Left, so in this game the coordination problem is only a minor issue.

The situation is different in the second game. Now it is Bottom which is the safer strategy, since the minimum payment under it is 80. Top is riskier, with a minimum payment of 20. So while (Top, Left) is still the good equilibrium, risk averse players may very well find their way to (Bottom, Right), in which case we might characterize the situation as being stuck in a lower level equilibrium – there is definitely a better play to be had that if found is self-enforcing, but owing to both lack of pre-play communication and the caution of the players, they instead find the inefficient equilibrium. In this game the coordination problem is severe.

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I think the second game, though too simple to completely describe the situation, provides an apt metaphor for how our campus manages many issues related to instruction, particularly as they pertain to large classes. I want to describe some of these but before I do so, I’d like to summarize the circumstances under which these issues became sufficiently prominent for me to connect them with the elementary game theory discussed above.

As part of the Campus Information Technology Advisory Board, I serve on the standing subcommittee for Learning Technology. We had a meeting yesterday to talk about the potential for a Campus Blended Learning Initiative. I thought it would be useful for the group to hear from Carol Twigg about the National Center for Academic Transformation and their new Redesign Alliance of which my campus is a member. So we had a teleconference with Carol, which I believe was helpful for the group and got a bunch of core issues on the table (thank you Carol), and then we had a fairly animated conversation afterwards mostly about the impediments to undertake such type of reforms on our own campus. Part of the action items from that discussion was for me to write up a list of bottlenecks that the group has identified and then to consider whether a Blended Learning Initiative might seriously address those issues or be constrained by them.

Here is a glimpse of some of the issues we discussed yesterday from as viewed from coordination failure perspective:

Grade Inflation/Measuring the Effectiveness of Reform/Disengagement Compact – I told the group a story of a conversation I had with the course instructor for our large intro to accounting class. She is an adjunct who enjoys the job and whom I know from a long time ago because when she was a doctoral student she took graduate microecon from me. I asked her about the grade distribution in her class and in particular whether she gave out a lot of C’s. She told me that she did when she first started but there were student complaints. She doesn’t grade so hard now. We know from Declining by Degrees, among other sources, that this is a ubiquitous issue, not at all unique to this particular instructor. The grades are high and the work requirements imposed on the students are low. There are few complaints about the course and in this way the instructor maintains a sense of job security. If other courses had harder grading and more demands placed on the students, then this instructor could do it too, indeed she might very well be so inclined. But doing so unilaterally is self-defeating.

Juxtapose this with the question Eric Meyer, our rep from the College of Communications and member of the Campus Gen Ed Board, posed. Eric said the Board was concerned about technology solutions that are replacing traditional approaches and in particular whether there was any way to know whether the reforms were really effective or not. Eric posed a question to Carol on that subject. Carol gave what I thought was a good response, emphasizing the importance of evaluation in reform and in establishing baselines with prior practice if possible via common exams and performance on those or common exam questions within exams that are otherwise differentiated if there is need to change tests over time (e.g., to deter cheating). And if such type of “objective” testing in the course didn’t make sense as a means to assess student understanding, then rely on a fully specified rubric for assessing students and demand that rubric be the same in the pre and post reform environments. In other words, take measurement seriously and then implement those measurements and learn from them.

But, getting back to my accounting professor friend and indeed my own experience with large class instruction, students here fully expect exams to have question that are only very minor variations on a theme to which they’ve already been drilled repeatedly and so testing in this way can measure familiarity with the material and discriminate against those students who are entirely unprepared, but it really does not do a good job of identifying those students with facility to use the material in interesting and creative ways from those who don’t have that capacity. Consequently, even if we do really want to measure the effectiveness of the reform and want to take that seriously, we strain to do so given that our pre-reform methods of assessment don’t discriminate across student performance in interesting way.

Facilities Scheduling and Course Reform – I think we could have talked about this issue for hours and hours. Everyone in the room had lots of stories to recount about the difficulty of scheduling large classes – there is a very high utilization rate for large classrooms exacerbated the last few years by exceptionally large entering classes – as well as the difficulty involved in finding technology classrooms when the class is not so large. We heard stories about how departments will opportunistically hoard the classrooms to which they have priority for scheduling even when they don’t have a class to put into the room immediately, for fear that by generously giving back the room for general assignment they will lose their priority in the future. Obviously, such opportunistic behavior makes the classroom scarcity problem seem all the more grim, for those looking to find a space to which they don’t have a priority assignment.

Related to scheduling we discussed the campuses Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) approach to compensating departments for teaching classes, where the revenue flows based on bums in seats, so there is an incentive to jam more seats into each classroom and indeed the scheduling/budgeting people in the departments communicate to the facilities folks needs to that effect. But in other conversations the department administrators and the faculty may argue the goal is to increase student critical thinking, while keeping that notion on an entirely abstract plane, outside the facilities dimension. It is interesting when the two are indeed put together. You will see the faculty argue for taking seats out of the classroom and encouraging more flex space. In my college where we have a new classroom facility currently under construction, precisely that discussion has occurred.

The RCM formulas are under assault for a different reason. Our implementation here strongly differentiates students in the major from those outside. Departments have a great incentive to attract students into the major and hence will offer a variety of perqs to students to compete in this manner. The competition for students between departments might and colleges might affect class size the other way. But for students outside the major, it is hard to see that encouraging high quality under the current formula and indeed it has been an impediment to encouraging interdisciplinary offerings, such as a new minor in Informatics, which sounds like a great idea but which can’t go forward because the costs of teaching the courses can’t be covered. So on the one hand our Campus Strategic Plan emphasizes the importance of such interdisciplinary activities, but on the other the RCM approach creates a disincentive. The RCM approach will be modified and that might address some of this issue. But as an economist let me point out that in the absence of heavily increasing tuition revenues overall, there is a zero sum aspect to any type of funding reform – if there are winners there will also be losers – and since I know we are struggling to make ends meet with our major in my College, we want to offer the students a truly outstanding business education but with largely in-state tuition rates even with the recent tuition differential it is hard to make the math work out correctly, we will be none to happy if the reform to RCM means a lower revenue stream from the majors.

Technology Support Adequate to Sustain Course Reform – My campus is known for its decentralized approach and this is seen clearly in the learning technology arena where some of the colleges have very substantial offerings that serve as a counterpart to what the campus does. This means what the campus provides must be very generic and it may not be suitable for some audiences or it may miss some requisite functionality that therefore gets provided by some college, or doesn’t get provided at all. The decentralization can be seen as a direct cause for diversity in approach and I (having worn the central provider hat for quite some time) would argue that we have too much diversity on campus (and my current student advisory committee in the College of Business has made it clear that they feel that way insofar as the issue is course logistics rather than important pedagogic function). But the issue is not just on the demand side. There is the question of wasteful duplication of function, duplication that is costly from the perspective of the institution as a whole. And the way this issue manifests to most is that many services which are provided are done so in a shoestring manner, often without adequate recurrent funding.

Large scale course redesign is likely to demand substantial up front technology support, quite possibly in areas that don’t represent current areas of production strength. In our discussion Carol, she made it quite clear to cost out any of the technology pieces that were fundamentally new as a consequence of the course reform. But, for example, in the case of online video to support instruction is the institution already headed down the path or is it going to dawdle unless pushed by course reform? And if it does move in this direction, what is the implication for other learning technology services?

Let me sum up. I will do so by appealing back to a post I made a while ago about whether technology is the problem or the cure. The coordination problem view of these issues is enlightening, I believe, because it does suggest that we can do better, but we likely won’t do so if we have a series of unilateral attempts at course reform rather than a concerted effort across the board. That’s why I’d like to see a campus initiative, one with some real teeth.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Tech Tidbits

The College of Business where I work is primarily a Microsoft operation and they take advantage of features of the OS that as far as I know my former EdTech unit didn’t use when. One of these is Remote Desktop, which gets the remote computer to act in terminal emulation mode and run the host computer at a distance. In layman’s terms it gets you to run your office computer from home. I’ve found it quite functional over my cable modem connection. Here is what I needed to do to get it to work.

1. Find the IP address for the office computer. Since my office computer is on DHCP, I had to do this from the command line:
a. Under the Start menu, choose Run…
b. Where it says Open, type in cmd, then push the OK button
c. Type in the command ipconfig at the prompt.
That should do it.

2. At the home computer log in with the VPN client.

3. Then go the Start menu again, All Programs, Accessories, Communications, then choose Remote Desktop Connection. Where it says Computer type in the IP address of your office computer. Then you will have to log into your computer as you do at the office.

Apart from accessing applications you may not have at home, it’s a way to make sure important documents stay on your office machine.

* * * * *

In the same spirit, I started to wonder about whether I could readily do screen sharing, which could be used, for example, to have the instructor’s Tablet PC on wireless and screen share with the computer that is resident in the classroom or have a TA with a Tablet screen share with a student who is having trouble with a homework problem that has some analytic component.

For this I tried Windows Messenger. I’ve got two accounts and used one on my Tablet and the other on my office computer and I did a little online session between the two. On the Tablet computer I chose Ask for Remote Assistance. It took a little while to connect so people need to expect that if they want to use in this way. And the other computer has to accept the invitation. But once connected it functioned very well. There was essentially no latency. Some time ago I had tried doing this sort of thing with Groove but it chopped off a good part of the screen and there was latency. Perhaps that was the network rather than the application, so I would like to try this more before going out on a limb and saying it’s the best thing since sliced bread. But I will say my initial experiment was quite positive with it.

* * * * *

Google announced recently that it now has an application to receive and send Gmail (with attachments) on the Cell Phone. If I were a student who walked around with a cell phone but not a laptop, I’d set up forwarding on my campus email account and (this can either be done from the Electronic Directory by specifying the mail server for the forwarding, or from the campus email account) use Gmail for the forward, and then I’d be able to check my mail whenever I want, something I believe many students would like to do. If, in fact, we do witness a big upswing in the number of students who forward their email in this manner, perhaps we’ll reconsider our current stance on outsourcing email.

* * * * *

I have a new computer at the office (finally, hurray!!) and the guys who set it up have the screen resolution at 1280 x 1024 and so far that has been fine for me even though at home I prefer 1024 x 768. I do not that the monitor is higher at the office and perhaps that matters. I never thought about it before from an eye comfort point of view, only from a back and neck comfort perspective. At home it’s easy to change the angle of the screen, but not its height.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Feeling tugged in too many directions

Sometimes we get trapped in the metaphors we live by. For the last several days the email message from the Campus spam filter, which lists all the messages that got blocked at the central mail relays and hence didn’t get through to my account, arrived in my Junk Mail folder. Unexplained but not a mystery that I will dwell on, today’s message arrived in my Inbox. That we are subject to censorship and suppression of information not of our own choosing and that in this country of the Bill of Rights it occurs in haphazard fashion with predictability only in hindsight makes one feel ill at ease, uncomfortable in the general smugness and the lack of rhyme or reason.

* * * * *

Right before the Holiday I watched Brian Williams on Charlie Rose. I must have been desperate for some type of stimulation because Brian Williams, NBC News anchor, is not the type of guy I would normally watch --- too plastic, too predictable. And much of what he said was in that category, platitudes about what a great job he has, too namby-pamby even when talking about Bush’s avoidance of reality in Iraq. But Williams said something that I hadn’t heard before and maybe it’s part of my generation’s current state of mind (Williams is 4 years my junior). He cheerily reported that the first things he looks at in the newspaper are the obituaries. It is odd to be fascinated with the accomplishments of those who have died recently, and how those people affected us, isn’t it? Perhaps not.

The various news outlets certainly have been playing to this angle as of late. For example, the handling of Robert Altman’s passing has been played as a center stage news event, even if the movies we know him for, mainly Mash but also Nashville and a few others, appeared more than 30 years ago. To be fair, Altman kept creating movies to the last. And his influence is likely greater than I indicate here. One of things I really liked about his approach, something I subscribe to as it is applied to my own domain, is keeping his actors in a relaxed and festive environment, allowing them to improvise at their own discretion, as the best way to produce a really creative result. But surely there is more than a bit of nostalgia at work in playing up his passing this way.

The effect on me, not just from Altman’s death but also the passing of Milton Friedman, R W. Apple, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Styron, and others is a sense of loss of deep intelligence; these were really smart people whose absence creates a void that will be hard to fill, a void seemingly all the larger because of the sheer idiocy of the Bush administration, a void that makes it hard to feel idealistic about the future. Idealism is a feeling of youth, one that folks my age associate with the Kennedy presidency, even if we were too young to be justified in that belief (I was only in the 4th grade when Kennedy was shot and hence have no direct adult memories of the time). Galbraith served in the Kennedy administration, as did Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who for reasons that I can’t recall provided me with the mental image of an intellectual, at least till I went to graduate school and started to read the writings of some of the great economists. Kennedy, whatever else his failings, chose to have great minds work for him.

Bill Gates on Charlie Rose, while talking about how Microsoft is waging a multi-front war – with Google over search, with Apple over iTunes, and with Sony over Playstation, not a strategy that would seem to commend itself it the appropriate analogy is military history, but an approach that does make more sense if instead the right comparison is with financial investment where the adage of every financial advisor is “don’t put all your eggs in one basket,” recounted some of the naiveté early on at Microsoft where the management idea was to bring in really smart people and then give them free rein to make things happen, without concern for whether the individual’s comparative advantage was in doing the task to which he was assigned. So, surely intelligence is not sufficient, and on this my personal experience jibes with Gates’ observation. But equally surely, it is necessary, isn’t it? Armed with this realization, how can one be idealistic today?

* * * * *

Barbara Ganley, in her initial post after visiting here the week of Halloween, wrote many complimentary things about colleagues here with whom she visited and about me she wrote that it was as if we’ve been having these type of conversations/arguments for a very long time, a feeling that I share and so I think it was a good way to capture the essence of that visit. But at least for me, that type of feeling is not something new. It goes back to the time when Altman was in his heyday and I was an undergrad at Cornell. At least in terms of tone and just wanting to keep talking it really is the same thing.

And yet nowadays we might think such conversations emerging as an outgrowth of blogging, a place where connections are made. In the early to mid ‘70s we would have said the same thing about smoking pot. Both the sense of openness and synch were a big part of then, at least they were for me. Nowadays I can’t imagine folks my age using pot as a way to break down barriers and create an emotional bond, but I think those who look to the genesis of blogging only from the perspective of networked computers are missing a part of our history that we should tie into. Conversations about pot smoking are probably rightly censored, especially in household like mine with young adolescent kids. They are entitled to learn about my own experiences in this regard, calling them either “finding self” or “indiscretions” as they see fit, but it should be their curiosity that drives such discovery and until they express such on their own I’m quite willing to help preserve their sense of innocence. So I for one will not be further drawing ties of this sort. Nevertheless, it seems to me an obvious connection to bring out and I encourage others whose children have already left the nest to explore it in depth.

True to her promise, Barbara gave a full explication of how she teaches the first two weeks of the semester in her second post after her visit here. There was a lot of interest here in the scaffolding of that, given how much of a point she made that the students are not ready to blog as a well functioning community at the outset of the courses. So I found her Cracking Open the Course page quite interesting and from there I read Charles’ Knowledge Tree, the one other students were to read for inspiration.

But I’m afraid from there I lost track of teaching the first two weeks and instead found myself in my own past, the first two years of graduate school at Northwestern, and where Charles’ recollections are of romance and nostalgia mine are of intense cold, austerity, and a lack of humanity. I lived four blocks from the Howard Street El stop, along Sheridan Road right before the bend around the cemetery that serves to separate Chicago from Evanston. My first winter there we had a day where it was minus 26 degrees (minus 72 with the wind chill factor). I had never experienced anything like that. The second year we had the big snow, the storm (and the lack of getting the plows out on a Sunday morning) that got Jane Byrne elected mayor. My car was buried under the snow for 6 weeks, which was just as well because there was no place else to park it. During that time I had to take the El to school. And most of my meals were canned soup and sandwiches, because I couldn’t do real grocery shopping and had to buy stuff from the convenience store on the corner.

The brutality of the weather matched what I was experiencing in the econ graduate program. Two of the students dropped out in the second quarter – many of the students weren’t prepared for the intellectual rigor of the program – and while that was evident I was miffed that the program seemingly expressed no concern for the well being of these people. That second quarter we had Macro from Bob Gordon, someone who has done interesting empirical research on productivity growth or the lack thereof, but who as a teacher offered very little when it came to people skills, he looked at the floor rather than at us when he was lecturing, and who because he was the director of financial aid at the time and could use performance in his class as a metric for who was meritorious in that regard and because aid was comparatively scarce at the time created a terrorizing effect hurt the self-esteem of many, including some who did ultimately get their doctorates from NU. Whether my classmates and I would have been more into arguing about the economics in our free time outside of class had our instruction been less like The Paper Chase, I can’t say.

I must add here that with the Math Center faculty and students I fell into by the third quarter of the first year there wasn’t this type of tone, but the rest of the students in my cohort weren’t really involved with the Math Center and so I had the same sense of isolation about my studies as I had as an undergraduate, but in the undergraduate setting it made sense. In grad school I hung around with Econ classmates socially and that social life was not intellectual about the economics.

So I lost an opportunity to learn about vigorous intellectual argument and that truth might emerge from that even if the conversation gets heated at time. This is clearly the approach of Milton Friedman. Seminars at Chicago were well known to produce smoke as well as light and if there were a flaw in the paper, the presenter might not be able to get through the session. During the late ’80s and early ‘90s we had a Chicago economist here, Pablo Spiller, who was the senior Industrial Organization guy and who ran his workshop in the Chicago style. I became one of those people who gave harsh critique to the presenter and it was a role I liked because my technical training encouraged me to find the flaw in the argument/model.

Is there a way to reconcile the Milton Friedman view that truth come out of a Darwinian struggle waged as argument with the Robert Altman position that actors have to feel festive to give their best performances? I’m struggling with this. I’d like the answer to be yes but at first and even second blush it seems otherwise. When a bond has been formed among us, can we indeed air all ideas or do we risk losing credibility by doing so and hence have to self-filter to preserve the bond? What in Barbara’s teaching approach survives when teaching economics rather than writing and at a place like Illinois rather than at Middlebury?

* * * * *

In my new job I started in with the naïve belief that my main goal was to transform the culture and that blogging would be a key element to that. I’m finding the on-ground issues that folks are dealing with more urgent and it has caused me to take a step back and reflect. Until now all things technology have been done with a bottom up approach creating a diversity of solutions that from the students perspective creates bewilderment and costs them time. The expressed concern of the students regards better management of course logistics.

Most instructors lecture. And the ones I’ve talked with are either tenure track faculty who are quite concerned about putting in any time into activities outside of their direct research, while those I’ve chatted with humor me when I talk about how blogging may help them, even in their research where it might create a bigger audience for their work and it might help to expose some of the process ideas that lead to the creation of a publishable paper, they clearly have other fish to fry; or they not on the tenure track but then are teaching huge classes and have other burdens like advising and supporting co-curricula activity. The status quo fits into their approach, though there definitely are stresses, these folks are not in a position to take on risks so better to deal with the known stresses than to try something else that might prove to be a disaster when there only seems to be a vague upside to it. And, of course, for the very same reason these instructors don’t hold the students to a high account. Viewing time as money, doing so would break the bank.

The College runs a large variety of high tuition professional programs, some face to face at distance, and technology in the classroom has become a significant concern, at present as an indicator of the quality of the environs – adult learners who are paying substantial tuition have certain expectations about the facilities that may or may not tie directly into the quality of the learning experience itself. The last week or two I’ve put in a significant amount of time on learning, for example, why teaching with a pen sensitive monitor, like the Smart Sympodium is unlike teaching with a Tablet PC (PowerPoint in Slideshow mode functions differently in XP, no eraser or marker pen, than in the Tablet PC version, which has these functions) as well as the intricacies of VGA capture and in particular whether that can be done well when the instructor hand writes out presentation on his Tablet PC or alternatively does a demo in Excel that involves some manipulation of data. These are logistical matters of a different sort. We’d like to do this right, especially given the clientele, but exactly what does that mean? And do we have a way to train the faculty who teach in these programs to use the technology effectively?

I’m still in my honeymoon period in the new job and will be there at least till the break between the fall and spring semesters. The current question running through the back of my head is whether making logistics the initial emphasis of my work is correct tactically --- satisfy the current expressed needs in an effort to build goodwill or burn up that goodwill before getting to the heart of the matter.

But behind all of that is a more fundamental question. I want to create the preconditions so I can openly learn from the students, the faculty, and the administration what they really want and I’d like those conversations to happen in a setting where each of these participants has some depth of knowledge regarding the possibilities. So I’d like to do the metaphorical equivalent of Barbara’s first two weeks of the semester, building a bond so we have a common language for conversation. But I don’t have the luxury of enrolling these folks in my eLearning/CIO class and the question is how to make the bond without that or whether it is even possible.

Maybe I need to tell them what they want to hear and filter the rest.

Monday, November 13, 2006

What If?

I had a somewhat unusual day Saturday. Lazing around the house, catching up with sleep, that was the normal part. But then I saw a really offbeat movie called The Waterdance, about guys in a hospital ward, all wheelchair bound, because they had spinal injuries. I was drawn to the film (the Dish Network guide gave it three and a half stars) in part so I wouldn’t watch football and in part because of my own leg injury – there but for the grace of god… It is an interesting study, apparently based on a true story, about how the guys in the ward, filled with anger about their condition and ultimately hostile toward the ones they love the most just because they are other than themselves – they are healthy, discover each other as human beings, their paralysis below the waist a common bond. I didn’t think it was a great picture, but it was interesting to view. It made me wonder if I’m repressing anger about my accident, though I believe my condition to be temporary. I nonetheless share some aspects with the characters in the movie. Certainly I would not yet characterize my circumstance as normal.

The other thing I did was read a good chunk of the Spellings Commission Report on Higher Education. This report got some discussion at our CIC Learning Technology Conference last week, some of my peers were excited about it – perhaps our LT Group should spend some time discussing it at our next meeting and contemplating a reaction, particularly on the measurement front, where some of my colleagues have done interesting work. And the report got a mention from Tom Reeves in his keynote address, as something we should pay attention to and consider as we plan our own activities – he was talking primarily to our staff, who made up the bulk of the attendees at the conference.

I probably read this sort of document in a different way than my peers do, my economics background and general cantankerousness gets in the way. I do recognize that many of the commissioners are luminaries in Higher Education for whom I have a good deal of respect – James Duderstadt, former President of the University of Michigan and a true visionary; Charles Vest, former President of MIT and instigator of the Open Courseware Initiative, and Robert Zemsky, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author with Bill Massy of a variety of NLII White Papers that I cut my teeth on about ten years ago prior to engaging in the SCALE Efficiency Projects, on using technology for reducing cost of instruction while enhancing quality. But there are also a variety of politicos among the commissioners and any report such as this, the product of committee decision making, may reflect compromise in such a way as to lose the sense that it represents a coherent point of view. Further, none of the commissioners appear to be economists, so their recommendations are unlikely to be disciplined by some consistency arguments that any right thinking economist would insist upon.

Let me illustrate, as I think my metaphors/analysis might be a bit alien to others who think about these issues. This is the same type of analysis I would teach in Economic Principles. Divide the potential student population into three segments: extramarginal, those not currently enrolled because “they can’t afford college;” inframarginal, those who are currently matriculating and who would continue to do so even if tuition or other factors that influence the enrollment decision were modestly tweaked; and marginal, those who are on the boundary between the other two groups. For those in the marginal category, the benefits from attending college, which are mostly in the form of higher future wages and direct consumption benefits (the latter may be hard to monetize in a simple way, but conceptually there is no problem in doing so), must equal the opportunity costs, mostly the direct tuition costs and the foregone wages from spending time in school rather than at work. It’s useful to keep this result in mind (the Commission seems to ignore it) so one can see what’s at issue with some of the recommendations. I should note that the result does have to be adjusted for risk – the current foregone wages and tuition are known items while the higher future wages are uncertain and in the present arrangement it is the student who bears that risk, something I’ll come back to in a bit.

If we applied a uniform approach to all students enrolled in college, with a common tuition and quality of instruction (this is far from the truth but it does help simplify the argument), then it might be as the Report argues that lowering tuition and thereby increasing access would be good for our economy, since some of those extramarginal potential students would now have the benefits of a college education and their contributions to society would be enhanced as a consequence. But it also might be that raising tuition and hence raising expenditure on those students who are enrolled is better for the economy, the inframarginal students will gain in productivity in such a way that more than offsets the enrollment decline that will result. A priori, it can go either way. The Commission presumes the former is the right answer, though the fact that ritzy private schools are in huge excess demand, in spite of their very high tuitions, suggests perhaps it should be the other way. I’ll return to that point as well.

Actually, the Commission wants to have it both ways and argues that by pulling the proverbial rabbit out of the hat --- technology, that little rascal that can improve quality and lower cost, if only we in Higher Ed wouldn’t block innovation in practice, innovation that would effectively leverage the technology towards these ends. And with that they cite Carol Twigg’s work with the National Center for Academic Transformation. Now I really like this work – I was directly involved with the first year of the projects when this was funded by Pew Charitable Trusts and I plan to do this sort of thing in the high enrollment courses in the College of Business here, as we move to a Blended Learning approach. But it is a far cry from achieving these type of gains in a few high enrollment courses to reducing costs across the board at the institution level for an entire university.

The latter requires addressing a host of issues that are not on the radar of the commission, for example: Should adjuncts or “clinical professors” become the primary teaching faculty to hold down the cost of instruction and should such instructors not have tenure? Should we continue the common practice where course offerings are idiosyncratic to the particular instructor, with syllabus and teaching approach determined at that level rather than from above? Should we continue to be comprehensive in our offerings or narrow down to the more popular disciplines with only a few specialties?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. My point is that to answer them one has to make tradeoffs and I explicitly presented my analysis as one of tradeoffs – lower price to increase access or raise price to spend more on those who are enrolled. But the commission has no use for tradeoffs. It gives us a free lunch in the guise of technical innovation unleashed by a widespread innovative culture. Do these folks really believe the stuff they are pushing?

And that gets me to the next point. This report ignores incentives, a big mistake in my view. For example, the report deplores the building of expensive sports recreation facilities that we are seeing on so many campuses. And it may very well be that this is a form of rent seeking, a dissipative activity that is socially wasteful, in spite of the fact that students do need physical fitness and that some aspect of college, particularly in the residential setting, is consumption benefit. But the report doesn’t ask at all why colleges engage in this type of rent seeking. The documentary Declining by Degrees does. It observes this is a necessary consequence as colleges engage in a non-price competition to recruit students, especially high ability students, and facilities clearly matter in this type of competition.

If one did focus on incentives, however, and if one was prompted with the observation that some forms of competition are inclined to produce social waste, then one might be led to ask a different type of question. Can we change the rules of the game so that the type of competition that emerges produces more of the type of results that we’d like to see? This is the type of question I wish the Commission had put on the table, because it would have been interesting to see what they come up with. Instead, they seemingly presume the answer, a Higher Education version of No Child Left Behind. (I am dismayed but not surprised that No Child Left Behind got nary a mention in the recent run up to the election. Between Iraq, Katrina, and the various scandals we have the three main points that I was taught recently are the essence of getting an effective message out when dealing with the press (particularly our student reporters at the Daily Illini) and No Child Left Behind somehow doesn’t even vault ahead of immigration reform as the fourth bullet on the list in the public consciousness, at least according to CNN. Yet the recent work by Jonathon Kozol makes it clear that No Child Left Behind has been a disaster for those it has been intended to benefit, so much for increasing access, and it has also resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a reduction in enrichment programs at schools with a primarily middle class student body, so much for raising the quality of instruction for those students who are already getting a “good education.” Perhaps we can procrastinate on implementing the recommendations of the Spellings Commission until the Bush Administration is out of office and its successor can try some other approach.)

What if we had a draft?

Of course, I don’t mean a military draft. I hope that our country never again imposes conscription, though I would not oppose an analogous requirement for public service. By draft, I’m thinking of the sports kind, the type the NBA holds (along with the lottery for choosing the draft order) or the type the NFL holds, where there has developed a cottage industry of experts such a Mel Kiper Jr. and Paul Zimmerman to handicap the draft itself. Indeed, keeping with the sports metaphor, and I know this analogy will bother some people but bear with me for a bit so we can work through the entire thought experiment, what if we viewed undergraduate education as the Minor Leagues for Corporate America, a place for “player development,” a place where the parent clubs had already invested in their talent and want to see good return on that investment, a place where not everyone makes it to the big club but where those with potential can get more effective attention than if they go to the Bigs straight away.

So envision a huge national draft held during the summer where students who have completed their junior years in high school could declare themselves for the draft (but they could opt out and go through the college application process and the paying of tuition in the more traditional way) and older students, those who have finished high school or those have some college credit but are as of yet undrafted could declare their eligibility as well. They would be registering for a system where if they were drafted and if they then signed with the company that drafted them, that company would pay for the student’s college education and perhaps pay a stipend during college as well in exchange for the student providing years of job market service after graduation (say 5 years) at a wage that was pre-specified by the draft (a la the NBA minimum salary for rookies.) There would also be a “free agent” market of this sort so that students who either went undrafted or who didn’t sign with the company that drafted them would have other alternatives to sign this sort of deal, but to prevent opportunism by students in high demand because they are obviously of high ability, there would be some restrictions on when such students could declare for free agency, say two years after they’ve completed their junior year in high school.

Corporate America, for their part, would participate in such a draft so they could ensure a high caliber pool of new talent down the road and so they could more actively engage early on with the education this talent is receiving and, frankly, so they are not out-recruited by their competitors. Indeed, as long as the starting salaries the drafted students would receive upon graduation are not too high, the corporations would view this entire enterprise as one of paying of the student loans in advance in exchange for getting these talented individuals to work for the company over at least a 5 year period and in so doing achieving an efficient shifting of risk, since these big companies are in a far better position to absorb the productivity risk of the students than are the students themselves.

I really don’t know if such a thing could work, but imagine if it did exist. Then regarding admission Universities would deal not only with individual students and their families, but also with corporate buyers who might be in a much better position to tie what they pay in tuition (and in other forms of grants as well) to the performance of the students upon graduation (just what the Spellings Commission would like to see). But in evaluating the job colleges do, they would be evaluating their role as coaches and as producers of mature talent, not by the performance of that talent per se. That too would have to be evaluated, but it would be a separate deal.

Further in this type of market with several big “buyers” one might envision that the buyers themselves recognize they have many common interests and so form intermediaries that advise both the Corporations and the Colleges on how best to structure higher education offerings and how to make effective deals between the Corporations and the Colleges. Such intermediaries might be much more effective than current accrediting bodies, because they’d have a dual accountability and their own viability would depend on the performance they deliver.

And consider the impact both on student seriousness and on faculty seriousness as well, particularly regarding the issues around grade inflation. Contracts between the companies and students might specify that if effort by the students is lacking then the deals become null and void, perhaps after a probationary period where all parties are on alert. That would put the universities in the position of monitoring student effort and providing convincing evidence of it to the companies. And, of course, the companies would be interested in student performance too as it might affect bringing the students up early or affecting the job to which they ultimately might be assigned. So the companies would want accurate information about performance and they, unlike the students themselves, would prefer to see an accurate grade instead of an inflated one.

There are a host of other issues that would naturally arise and should be considered before embracing such a system, quite apart from the obvious about whether anyone would play the game even if it were so designed. A short list of such questions is:

(1) What would be the role of government? (To help make a market by facilitating information flow and by assuring that abuses get unearthed and then punished.)

(2) What would the impact be further down in K-12? (I would hope to create aspirations that students would be drafted and therefore to create the analog intellectual experience to that of practicing jump shots at the backboard nailed to the garage at home.)

(3) What would be the impact on how college is taught? (I have no idea, but I do know that if such a system were in place the pressure would be much higher to deliver results and necessity is the mother of invention, so this would be a source of innovation.)

And then there is the other obvious question:

Lanny, do you really believe this sort of thing can work? (My answer to that is it depends on whether there are crucial attributes of students, identifiable early on, that make them likely to be high performance in the corporate setting. If SAT scores were such an identifier, it would be a cinch, but now we’re being told by many that SAT scores don’t even predict performance in college. (I’m guessing that outlier scores actually do predict quite well but that small changes in scores near the mean don’t have much impact.) I’m somewhat aware of the (highly criticized) work of Lewis Terman, but I’m not knowledgeable at all about whether big corporate personnel departments collect data about employee characteristics that get them onto the fast track. If there are such data and if the crucial characteristics are observable early on in people, then this market can flourish. Otherwise the solution can’t work at all as everyone would play the Billy Beane strategy of trying to pick up cheap but productive talent, by staying out of the draft entirely and dealing only with more mature free agents.)

Even if it can’t work, let’s note that I’m just one guy, not an entire commission, and I produced this blog post in a couple of days, not after months and months of study. Let’s also note that I certainly have not exhausted the possible solutions to the question – what if we changed the game in which Colleges compete to produce outcomes that are more in tune with what is socially desirable? So even if you reject my ideas out of hand, you might want to consider other institutional arrangements that you deem more likely to occur and more appropriate for obtaining good outcomes. Part of my aim here is simply to provoke thinking in that direction.

It might help you to get in the right mindset if you broke your leg first. And then get angry.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Akeelah and Adult Precocity

It’s hard for my family to find a movie we all can watch together. As I’m writing this the kids are watching Lord of the Rings II for the Nth time – my wife sat down with them at the start but she made a quick exit to make dinner. I didn’t even make a pretense. I’m satiated with that sort of thing to the point that I’d rather stick a finger down my throat.

I have watched some adventure movies with the boys that my wife didn’t care for, namely Kidnapped (the 1995 version of the Robert Louis Stevenson story) which is a boy’s delight and Last of the Mohicans, in which the Madeline Stowe character (Cora Munro) does go through a personal transformation akin to what we’d like to see instructors do when embracing technology in their teaching, but if you watch it for that you’re really stretching it, and occasionally am ok with that sort of picture on its own terms. But more often than not it’s more oil and vinegar when it comes to movies that the kids and I both like. And my wife’s taste for schmaltz (think Fried Green Tomatoes) also runs contrary to my own taste, where I’d like to be challenged more, intellectually or emotionally. So I tend to record films and then watch by myself, most recently Touch of Evil, a black and white classic with Orson Wells in the role of a police chief in a border town playing both sides of the law and Charlton Heston, tall and elegant and with dyed skin because his character is Mexican, as the more virtuous type of law enforcement officer whose jurisdiction is across the border, a reversal of our American stereotype.

So it is a delight to find a movie that appeals to each of us in the family and really captivates us and I can report that Akeelah and the Bee fit the bill nicely – a few weeks after the first viewing we watched it a second time together, very unusual and a testament to it being a film that really worked for us. It is an improbable but convincing story of a South LA African-American girl, Akeelah, enrolled in a majority Black middle school that has no reputation for academic achievement, who has a fondness and aptitude for words (and hence spelling) that enables her to compete with students from the best schools in the city, and ultimately at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The story works on many levels. It is about the need of African Americans (and, frankly, the rest of us too) for role models of achievement that can uplift us, give us pride, and bring us together. It is about how the dominant culture, in general but especially in the predominatly Black communities, anticipates mediocre performance and hence a precocious kid like Akeelah must overcome that, enduring the jeers and mockery of her schoolmates, something which at first is what holds her back. It is about how even the very talented, indeed perhaps because they are very talented, need intense coaching and commitment from dedicated and inspired teachers. And it is about overcoming racial stereotype, something which the vast majority of us want, if only we have good examples to point to so that we can show convincingly that there can be high achievement in all of us.

Watching the movie I felt challenged – could this be real? I considered several possible angles. It was my own view that spelling and memorization was not a good signpost of intellectual achievement. But the movie made a good case to the contrary. Akeelah had an old computer at home which had a scrabble game on it and that became her refuge, a way to express herself without the companionship of anyone else. I’ve experienced that sort of thing too (though not with computer scrabble) and so on that score the story was credible. And then later in the story when the Laurence Fishburne character (a Professor at UCLA, Dr. Larabee, former chair of the English Department there and currently on sabbatical) who ends up coaching Akeelah and takes over her program of development, it is much more about understanding the power of language than it is about memorizing particular words – though that definitely is a part. So on that score, I think the story did a good job of convincing us this was real and that Akeelah was not some idiot savant but rather an incredibly bright young woman with a penchant for language.

So I considered another dimension and for a while I thought I had found the lie to the story. It was my contention that serious intellectual engagement is accompanied with humor and laughter, the two go together like bread and butter, or so I thought. The movie, however, has none of that. The characters are earnest – always, but funny – never. I can’t envision learning like this happening if it is not play, and in play there is laughter. So I thought this must be it, a good try at a story but not the real McCoy.

Then, subconsciously at first and more deliberately after a while, I monitored the exchanges I was having with others while at work on campus, in a variety of different meetings. Humor wasn’t part of most of them either, but the sense of earnestness was omnipresent. I wonder why I had felt it was otherwise. Perhaps it was wishful thinking, perhaps I project too much about my own persona. In any event, based on that Akeelah passed the reality test.

There are two particular scenes in the movie I want you to consider. After Akeelah wins the spelling bee at her local school, figuratively without breaking a sweat, the Laurence Fisburne character interrupts the proceedings by giving Akeelah more challenging words to spell. She gets the first few and the rest of the audience are awed by her ability. But she eventually stumbles on a word and some of the other girls in the audience laugh derisively at her error. Akeelah runs out of the room in shame, her performance ruined by that last bit, as if nothing she had done before mattered. The Laurence Fishburne character catches up to her on the stairwell and explains to Akeelah, teary eyed, that they mock her because they are intimidated by her.

Later in the film, after Akeelah has survived the regional Bee, and gotten through the state qualifier, and she has appeared on TV news so that the entire community knows she is going to the nationals, we see the community come behind her fully with support, proud of her excellence, inspired by the performance, and willing to help her with the few last steps before she goes to Washington.

* * * * *

This past week we had a delightful visit by Barbara Ganley of Middlebury College. I met Barbara online through blogging and based on reading her blog had an intuition that she would give us a needed spark here in our efforts with a virtual component for the Learning Commons and to jump start our approach to blogging. She delivered on that and gave us much, much more.

Those who can, do. Yet precocity, particularly in adults, goes beyond the doing. Others have to witness the doing in action. And they have to feel that the doing they see transcends what they themselves are capable of, but with that they feel inspired to try it themselves – imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

Barbara is very much about the human interaction and not about any particular technology, but given that she really is for blogs because it enables the telling of stories and because it keeps a sense of individual identity. She is ok with other technologies – notably wikis – but doesn’t make use of them as much because they are much more about constructing knowledge than they are about telling stories and because they obscure a sense of identity. She’s also not into virtual environments (e.g., Second Life) again for those same reasons.

Barbara’s visit made it clear to me that there is a potential symbiotic relationship between small Liberal Arts colleges, where intensive teaching is the expectation, and large research universities, such as the U of I, where many people do research on innovative approaches to learning. We don’t seem to be exploiting this potential very well at all at present. We should think more about how it might be possible to do so.

And yet there is a different dimension to this type of collaboration. I and others here talked openly with Barbara about how the incentives for good teaching are weak here and that the institution struggles to find the right balance between teaching and research. Yet based on who attended her talks, there clearly are several faculty here who are seriously looking for ways to better their teaching and who are willing to put in the effort if somebody would just point them in the right direction. That somebody might very well be at a small liberal arts college, somebody like Barbara, who has done it and has a lot of experience doing it. So effective practice might transfer this way, albeit there is a class size issue that Barbara is very cognizant about. She was extremely impressed with Christian Sandvig’s work here as he has done something similar with the blogging and in very large classes.

There is still another aspect of this type of collaboration, one I’ve felt before when working with Gail Hawisher and with Peggy Lant. That is the benefit from collaboration between humanists, English profs in particular, and scientist and other technical types, with regard to the teaching approach, at least when the technical type is ripe with suggestions for improving the teaching, such as is the case with Walt Hurley. This is such a rare thing at present, but it seems such a natural. I wonder how we can make it a more regular occurrence.

In all these respects, Barbara’s visit was a sheer delight. She has the power that Akeelah showed in the movie - to awe, inspire, and bring others to action. Barbara told me she is in big demand to make visits to other universities and deliver, I assume, a similar performance. I can understand why she’s such a hot item these days, though I wish I could keep her power our little secret, so I might have a chance to lure her back to CU in the not too distant future.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

From Behavior to Belief

My personal style is to scratch my head about some issue for a while and then try something based on the head scratching to see if what I was thinking holds water or not. The approach seemingly worked the last couple of times I taught, with Campus Honors students here, and the feeling of having taught them in a style I’d call my own and having that work (though they definitely didn’t like not knowing where the stood grade-wise) is a cause for believing the approach can work elsewhere and is more generalizeable . But how much so? I really struggle with that. How much that works for me in all its particular manifestation and idiosyncrasy is evidence of the general and how much is not? And how is one to tell?

I’m no longer the ed tech guy for the campus, where I can’t say the approach worked particularly well at all but where I believe there were too many constraints – does it scale – to try much of anything at all. Instead, I’ve now got that role for the College of Business where in advance I told myself I’d play it balls out rather than close to the vest, but really, balls out in support of precisely what and to please exactly whom? Before starting on the new job but thinking about how it might play out it was to please me, to justify a certain process of interaction I thought I came up with between the faculty and me, to provide substance to a personal claim that I have a reasonable grasp on human nature and how people learn.

But what I’m discovering is a bunch of circumstances that look to find quick fix solutions, that collectively don’t fit into easy categories, and that have me feeling reactive rather than reflective – looking for a solution rather than for something else to try. I’m responding at first in more or less a knee jerk manner and then when I get a response based on where I see individual excitement. And the reality is that lecture, or should I say instructor performance, because many of the good instructors in the College of Business are really good performers, is a key facet. What if in the technology implementation I propose I take away their ability to perform and ask them to do something else? Will they go for it?

I’ve been urging the use of desktop video, the type that can be embedded in a blog post, the type that can be made without too much of a fuss, either with a Webcam or screen capture software and a microphone. I’ve got one colleague who is liking the idea of doing that with the screen capture approach. He asked me about where to put the completed video and I urged him to use Google Video rather than the Web/file space the College provides for him, because I said that way he’d be doing something that the students could replicate – his behavior as a model for theirs. And for the last couple of days I started to think about instructors assigning homework/projects to the students that would be about making these type of videos in the process of completing the work.

These students have Tablet PCs (and increasingly, so do the faculty). They are either MBA or Executive MBA students and Tablets have been embraced by this group, mostly getting high marks from the users in the process, in spite of the high margin relative to laptops. But are they really taking advantage of the pen technology from a pedagogic perspective, or is all just convenience? I thought of the movie homework partly so they could draw simple pictures and diagrams – much better for conceptual ideas and of course economic theory is full of that sort of thing – and also because the voice over would illustrate the flow of their thinking, where often in this type of homework when the student gets stuck or goes down the wrong path it is hard to tell what is driving the ideas based on what is on the written page.

That seems all well and good to me but do MBA faculty want to concern themselves with the homework/simple projects that the students do or is that all delegated to a grader, with the faculty left to concentrate on their own performance? Indeed is the focus on performance so great that trying to get them to think about the work of the students is a losing battle? I don’t know. I do know some finance faculty tried an experiment to teach online some years ago and they eventually aborted --- too much work --- but in that pre-podcasting time the work was about capturing the audio from the lecture and syncing to PowerPoint slides. I think that’s where the mindset still lies.

So if I start to preach about screen capture movies that students produce – will I be given the time of the day or will people just look at me funny? But even more to the point, even if they can envision the pedagogic benefit, what if the “can be made without too much of a fuss” part is itself a con job, that the students who haven’t yet been doing this and who feel unnatural in making these sort of things feel it is a lot of work, and for what, a trivial homework problem? Is the effort really worth it? Why can’t they just do the homework on paper? It’s not that big a deal, right?

How can you know the answer to these type of questions? But really, they are less fundamental. The bigger question is what should the College support vis-à-vis communications software. I’m pushing for blogging and am encouraging us to look at Elgg for this purpose. I love to blog and what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? But I love to write too, and I know not everyone loves that. There are some alternatives to using blogging on the table, including using the Campus Course Management System as one such alternative, and relying on Microsoft Sharepoint as another.

In my gut I don’t feel that those other alternatives are right. Might they be right under certain circumstances? Sure. If we gave all the MBA students accounts on our Exchange server or if these students had accounts (Microsoft’s education offering in this space that accompanies it soon to be released service). Then the Sharepoint might integrate in. (That is a possibility but I don’t know it to be the case.) But the University is in go slow mode about allowing contracts with third parties for email and the like. So for the time being the students will be into something else for email. And does that integration really matter so much or is it the community building and user defined access control (an Elgg strength) which is the right thing to focus on? I know what I like here, but does my leadership mean I’m falsely generalizing from my own like? Hmmm.

There is an entirely different take on blogging, one that I hadn’t considered at all until my colleague pointed out this piece on the role of email in Enterprise 2.0. This has to do with patience and wondering whether “the message is received.” I’ve got confidence that this post will be read, sooner or later, by many of the people I care about whom I’d like to have read it. But even with that, some will and others won’t. Email is more of a direct wire and from somebody I already know certainly I feel there is more of a social imperative to read the email they send than to read their blog post. If you’ve been used to that direct wire, letting go of it is…..scary.

In an already formed social network where this is one additional blogger contributing to the stew, the mental calculation goes one way. When that network is not yet formed and I’m asking earlier adopter types to try this in the hope of forming such a network --- well, they have to take a lot on faith. Those early adopter types are used to trying things out just like I am. And they’re used to coming to conclusions based on what they learn from their little experiments.

Will the blogging work in this context? The only way to know is to try.