Thursday, May 25, 2006

Rainy Day Woman

Midi Version

This has been a weird week for me, at times surreal. We had FSI, this time an event jointly for Four-Year College and Community College faculty, support staff, and a few administrators. FSI has always been something of a catharsis both because of the intensity of the experience for the attendees but also because hosting any conference has something of that element in it, and one with technology all the more so especially because of Murphy’s Law and the consequent need to manage more of the details. In this case both because some of the EdTech staff were handling a good part of the program and especially because Michael Lindeman of ION was putting in yeoman’s effort, it was easier for me to relax. So, why worry? Well, that’s only for starters.

Monday morning, before FSI started, the CITES Roundtable (this includes all the administrators at my level plus all of our direct reports) was greeted with the news that my boss, Pete Siegel, is headed off to new stomping grounds, UC-Davis. Bully for you, Pete. We wish you well. But what does that mean for the rest of us, both within CITES and those on campus who care a lot about IT? No matter the ability or character of the interim person named as replacement, things usually come to a standstill during that period, so they can be left for the next permanent person in the job. And it’s definitely a seller’s market now. There are a lot of CIO openings nationally and within the CIC I believe about half the positions are vacant, either due to retirements or to turnover. It’s not unrealistic to expect a long time before we fill the CIO slot with a permanent hire.

Because at this point I’m the old veteran of FSI, I got to kick off the opening session with some brief remarks. In trying to be a little humorous, and playing off all the attention at present to Biblical ideas stemming from the DaVinci Code movie release, I coined an expression “BG” meaning Before Google, and referring to the time not when Google was formed but rather when it first entered into our consciousness. I’m really not sure when that was for me, but for the sake of this presentation I was referring to summer 1999. I do think that now Google is the most profound force shaping how we use the Internet today and so it is worth marking when we became conscious of it; even if I’m a bit off in my dates.

From my own personal perspective, however, all of these things pale in comparison to what happened to me starting at 12:30 AM Tuesday morning, when I woke up feeling a pain in my lower back on the left side. Thinking I had wrenched something, I started to walk around just to try to loosen up. But that wasn’t helping. After about an hour or so of that, I decided it was a kidney stone. I had a kidney stone perhaps twenty years ago. Then it happened over a weekend. A friend took me to the emergency room. My recollection is that they fluoroscoped me and found some of my “pipes” quite swollen indicating something was blocking them. But by the time that discovery had been made I had passed the stone on my own accord. My friend took me home and though shaky, I slept it off and was fine the next day.

So I started to drink water with the hope that I could replay history. And I was pacing around our downstairs because that seemed like the best way to relieve the pain. Of course, I was asking myself what I should do about FSI (and my other work). I had no formal obligations in the morning, but did have a meeting in the afternoon and one of our featured speakers was arriving at the airport and I was supposed to pick him up and take him to dinner. Could I bluff my way through the pain? Somewhere around 5 AM I decided that after my wife took my kids to school (she is between jobs and not working this week) that she should take me to the doctor and also that I needed to have a contingency plan about my obligations in the event I didn’t pass the stone by early afternoon.

That turned out to be prudent. It’s now Thursday evening and I’ve still not passed the stone. The doctor gave me some Vicodin after a basic urine test confirmed something wrong with me and kidney stones seemed a plausible explanation. I didn’t take the pain medicine immediately, because I wanted a clear head in case I had to deal with FSI stuff. But by around 4 PM, the pain was overwhelming. So I caved in and took the stuff. They had given me Demerol twenty years ago. My recollection is that it made me nauseated and the pain persisted, so I wasn’t that optimistic this time around. To my surprise, the Vicodin surpressed the pain substantially and for a period of time it seemed the pain went away entirely. I can see why this type of drug is habit forming.

One of the lessons learned from being in intense pain like this but still having important work obligations is that it is a must to rely on others to get things done. It was literally not possible for me to do my job. In a pinch, others stepped up. I don’t know if it was a big deal for them or not, but they did it and FSI ran smoothly without me. The dependencies are almost certainly there even when there is no kidney stone, but then I’m apt not to ask for help (I’ve got the male gene) and I’m not sure people would be so responsive and willing to step up to the plate otherwise. This is something to ponder. A more cooperative less individualistic approach probably makes sense but I’m not sure my persona is fit to shape that. For now I’m just appreciative of their efforts.

Sometime Wednesday, I started to think of Dylan’s song, “Rainy Day Woman,” and especially the tag line, “Everybody must get stoned.” During the previous day or so I know I had promised myself to repent on my worst sins, if only the pain would go away. And for whatever reason, probably just play on the word “stone,” I started singing that song to myself.

That song was extremely popular with some of my high school classmates in 1972, the year I graduated. And of course then the tagline referred to smoking pot, which all the kids I knew then thought was the hip thing to do (but I only knew one kid who actually smoked pot in high school and it was only him and his mom, his dad having passed away).

I’m not sure what I thought about smoking pot when I was a senior in high school, but I know the first thing that comes to mind now is the Bill Clinton line, “I didn’t inhale.” Why did he come up with that one? Of course he came up with other gems of moral certitude, such as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” thereby paving the way for the know-nothingness of the religious right. So lesson here is that with a kidney stone and a little Vicodin you can get pissed off at Bill Clinton.

But let me turn to the other meaning of stoned in Dylan’s song. This is the same meaning as in Shirley Jackson’s story, The Lottery, which I believe was read aloud to us in English class, either in middle school or early on in high school. Stoned in that sense is a brutal assault on someone by others, both in Jackson’s story and in Dylan’s song. In my case this assault was from within, physically and painfully from the kidney stone, and emotionally from some of my other demons. If one believes that everybody must get stoned in this sense, then asking why is paramount. The answer I can come up with now, and I’m still looking at some more physical pain for me before this episode is over, is my need for absolution, a commitment to mending my ways, and in particular in placing greater trust in others as I’ve already mentioned. If I’m looking for a larger meaning in getting this kidney stone, that is the meaning I would attribute.

But this is a purest solution and Dylan’s song is anything but pure. Everybody must get stoned, in the sense my high school classmates understood the song, to drown out the pain and take on a sense of gay merriment. I achieved that with the Vicodin.

This morning, after having gotten a CT scan yesterday that confirmed a kidney stone and also that it might still be several more days of the same before it passes, I decided I could function well enough and returned to FSI to be in the audience and listen as the various “Learning Teams” gave their 5 minute reports to showcase what they had accomplished.

It was weird for me. I knew I was quite drugged up and so I was registering things with a lag and felt like I was inside an echo chamber. The Learning Teams concept was not one I had come up with. My sense is that it was Robert Baird of EdTech who championed the idea after some prodding from Michael Lindeman that he didn’t want an FSI with many plenary sessions. Some of the people at the podium giving the reports had a lot of fun with their presentations. One team literally sung their lyrics. The mood in the room was festive, not scholarly. And the attendees being in high humor is how we marked that the session was a success.

For me, in a glazed torpor due to the Vicodin, the presentations at this session seemed other worldish, and my own emotional reaction to the situation – elation for the mood of the attendees, some jealousy because I was not responsible for that success, and some disappointment because the depth of conclusion didn’t seem to be there, with all of these feelings interwoven but also muted and therefore less profound. I don’t think I’ll linger on that. It’s just how I felt then.

Perhaps everybody should get stoned when seeing something new. Then first impressions don’t mean as much. And we can linger on a worthwhile idea rather than discarding something that is promising because the book cover didn’t look quite appealing enough.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Baby Boomers and Lack of Retirement Planning

Computer Generated Voice of Post via TextAloud

Last night on Frontline, I watched the beginning of a Hedrick Smith documentary with the basic premise that many baby boomers have not prepared adequately for retirement and hence are going to come to an unpleasant reckoning when they reach the point where they want to leave the labor force and have “quality time” with family, only to find out that they can’t afford to do that. In other words, whatever pension or other retirement plan that these people have, they will often find at this reckoning point that the plan is inadequate either because of stock market vicissitudes, self-delusion, or inattention to the saving activity and managing the portfolio funds that are to finance retirement.

That data on savings in this country, particularly in the last year or so, is truly abysmal. (See this chart from the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis.) The only way to rationalize zero or negative savings rates is to have personal wealth increase without needing to save, i.e., there are capital gains to be had on already held assets. In the mid to late 1990’s this happened, of course, due to the massive run up in the stock market, fueled by the astonishing growth in technology stocks. More recently, it appears to be the boom in housing prices that is the primary driver. Some economists, notably Robert Schiller, have warned there may very well be a bubble in housing prices. This makes the low savings rate all the more disturbing.

The documentary starts off with a focus on the United Airlines bankruptcy and restructuring under which many of the long term United employees lost a substantial fraction of their pension benefits and many of those who continue to work for the company today have had to do so with lower wages and benefits, while upper level management and the lawyers and bankers who crafted the re-org made out like bandits. Unfortunately, in my view, this later point of corporate greed triumphing at the expense of the ordinary Joe in the company, while good for creating empathy with those employees who have been disadvantaged by the process, is really a distraction from what I think is the fundamental point.

That point is the death of defined benefit pension plans in the private sector, because companies that have them and have a substantial number of senior employees can strategically profit from gaming ERISA and the bankruptcy laws, by forcing such a restructuring. Hence a modern company will not offer this type of retirement plan, opting instead for 401Ks or other defined contribution options. Under the defined benefit plan (assuming the company does not go under) the employee is “taken care of “ and doesn’t have to worry about retirement except in the event of a premature severance from the firm. (Thus these plans served as a way to bond the employee to the firm.) In contrast, under a defined contribution plan, with the contributions optional and left up to the employee, then of course the employee does have to worry about contributions and about how those contributions map into an adequately sized nest egg.

Because I love Excel and to make little models in it that illustrate issues such as these, I made up this spreadsheet to give an idea of what is going on. Let me explain a bit of that here.

First, you are setting the time path of income during the lifetime of the individual over which savings occurs. (One of the points of the documentary is that many people are not forward thinking on this issue so while in their twenties and thirties they don’t save for retirement. They only begin to think about retirement in their forties when they’ve been working for quite a while and the day they stop working begins to seem like a possibility. However, do note that if they are paying off a mortgage they are indirectly saving through that vehicle, by building up equity in their home.)

To set the time path, income is fixed at three different times along the trajectory: at the beginning, at the end, and somewhere in the middle. The duration till the endpoint is also set as well as where that middle point lies. With that information, the graph then plots a quadratic function consistent with those set points to give the entire income trajectory till employment ceases. You can change parameters to see how the graph changes. The graph moves after you let go of the relevant spinner button. One of the key variables to play with is the Years of work.

Having set the income path during the working lifetime, I next assume that savings per period is a certain percentage of income and one can set that percentage for the entire working cycle. In other words, I’ve assumed it fixed throughout the working lifetime. That is not realistic when contributions are optional, but it makes us able to vary the savings rate easily over the entire trajectory rather than adjusting it on a year by year basis. The penultimate parameter is the interest rate, which should be interpreted as the real interest rate, meaing the market rate net of the inflation rate. But it doesn’t mean that the investor is in bonds rather than stocks. If the investor has a portfolio of stocks, this should be interepreted as the average annual return on that portfolio. The interest rate determines the interest income generated by the nest egg.

Then, putting your cursor in the lower window and scrolling down, you should be able to see how th nest egg accumulates. In any period the contributions toward increasing the nest egg are the current savings out of income plus the interest return on the previous asset value of the nest. Thus the nest grows faster the higher the interest rate or the higher the savings rate. Regarding the former, it is certainly true that high interest rates can cover up other sins with respect to preparing for retirement. And, conversely, there is the temptation to overestimate the rate of return so as to offset the need to save vigorously for retirement. Regarding the latter, the fact that actual savings rates are much more modest suggests that collectively we don’t understand the issues at stake.

Finally, you can look at the the income per period during retirement, which is the bolded number in blue found in cell C10.. This is a function of the size of the nest egg at the end of the working lifetime, the interest rate, and the number of years during retirement. The per income per year during retirement is calculated in a manner similar to the calculation of the monthy payment in a fixed rate mortage. In other words, there are a pre-specified number of periods and a fixed payment per period such that over the duration the payments are set to pay off the loan and outstanding interest charges but to provide no surplus beyond that. If the interest rate were zero, then this annual payment would simply be the final nest egg number divided by the number of periods in retirement. With a positive interest rate, however, and since the nest egg that does not get paid out all at once, the asset earns interest and hence that gives more to distribute. Equivalently, we can think of dividing the nest egg among a fewer number of periods. Cell D10 gives this dividing factor. It is interesting to observe how that value changes with the interest rate.

What, if anything, does this have to do with learning technology? I’m sure some of my readers found the previous few paragraphs a bunch of econ mumbo jumbo. So let me get away from technical details and move to the main point. If there are a lot of people approaching retirement who are not adequately prepared, these people will look to enhance their income in the labor market. To the extent that these people can’t do this by staying in their old jobs, or returning to their old jobs, they may very well demand education to assist them in finding different type of work.

So the Baby Boomers’ debacle may turn into a big reward for Higher Ed, cementing a demand for online programs that heretofore seemed real but hard to identify, as these Boomer’s are looking to improve their incomes in their next careers, and additional educational credentials are viewed as the path for achieving this goal. Think of the possibility of an equivalent ot the GI Bill, targeted at encouraging these Baby Boomers back to school so they don’t have to work at McDonalds or WalMart in their second careers.

Advocating for education of this sort is the upside of the under saving problem. The downside is noting that the retirement age will have to be be pushed back because these folks won’t be able to retire otherwise. I wonder if the politicians will steer clear of the education part, because of this uncomfortable fact.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Is IT The Solution Or The Problem?

Computer Generated Voice of Post via TextAloud

Today’s quote of the day (from the Google homepage) is by George Orwell. It says
To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.

Sounds like a a motto worth adopting. So what are we looking at or at least trying to see? The big issue from where I sit is that we on campus don’t know how to cannabalize, by which I mean end services, departments, or even larger units that either are no longer in demand or perceived as of quality below the rest of the institution. Every activity has some constituency and is considered important by them. Schumpeter talked about creative destruction. In contrast, we have uncreative, and really unspoken about, retention.

What’s the big deal. Universities keep on keeping on. We’ve known that for some time. Anybody who adopted learning technology in the ‘90s and wanted to see that as the spur for institutional change had to wake up to the fact that universities are conservative instituions, especially because of faculty governance, but also because the interdependencies are substantial, its not very likely to excise units or activities that under a “corporate” approach would have been axed a long time ago.

The implication is that to do anything new either new revenues have to be found to fund the activity, or the activity itself must be cost saving in other areas so it is implicitly self-financing, or it just can’t be done. This wouldn’t be so terrible, but for the politics. New revenue comes with strings attached. There are earmarks. So for bottom up activities, and while I’m reasonably highly placed in the campus administrative hierarchy, I still view teaching and learning with technology as primarily a bottom up activity, new revenue becomes something of an oxymoron. This leaves cost saving or doing nothing as the viable alternatives.

But let’s not focus on teaching and learning here and instead consider IT more broadly. One might sensibly ask, “How can IT be part of the problem? It’s such a big factor in our lives. It’s an integral part of the way we work, how we communicate, what we produce. It’s the solution, not the problem, isn’t it?” And from the point of view of a home owner who has a PC in the office with a cable modem, some other rather inexpensive hardware and software, it sure seems like total cost of ownership is low, while benefits from use are extremely high. The access to information, timely stuff, interesting stuff to read, reference stuff to fill in personal gaps of knowledge, fun stuff to entertain when the mind goes blank from work, all of that is a wonder in itself. And, of course, it’s not just the getting but also the making and communicating about it. There’s email, blogs, IM and a lot more. It creates an unbelievable sense of connection. And most of the stuff is free. Surely IT paves the virtual road to the brave new world.

Consider Google. I don’t know about you, but I’ve learned, for the most part, to ignore the ads and promos, unless I’m actually in shopping mode when that is what I’m searching for. In this respect about using Google, it’s like TV commercials, press the mute button, get a tall one, and come back when the programming has resumed. Many of us learn this type of behavior and once learned it’s not that big a deal to have this type of external presence. But, of course, if everyone behaves this way than the ads don’t have impact, Google can’t generate sufficient revenue to support its exploding infrastructure, and then the walls start tumbling down. So, we who are in love with being online but also in love with being cheapskates hope the rest out there are “power shoppers” and give Google’s commercial clients a tumble. We can then leech, er, really I mean free ride, on these others who actually do provide the financial skids to the system.

So all the cool software services that are provided out there seemingly for free to us have at root a Catch-22 style foundation – it’s the ads that make it work, but we try our darnedest to ignore the ads. Is this a stable business model on which to rest the case about IT being part of the solution? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that I don’t find this a comforting thought.

Now let’s turn to big IT inside the university, where clearly there is no ad financing of university activity and, I believe, state law actually prohibits that from happening. (But if the state share of the university budget continues to wane perhaps that law changes and then maybe the university starts to emulate Google in this resepct. Perish the thought.) I believe the new hot issue is data integrity and data security. Research data, financial and personnel records, grade information, etc. All of this needs state-of-the-art storage and archiving, insurance against power outage or hardware failure, and proactive steps to ensure confidentiality and privacy. The needs in this area are growing geometrically as our business processes become digital and we increasingly rely on those.

State of the art, in this case, means having expensive “data centers” with appropriate environmentals – temperature control, no direct sunlight, redundant electric power, secure physical access, and as leakproof as possible. Big servers take up a lot of physical space. As our data preservation needs grow, the square footage of data center space that is needed also grows. We are currently estimating new data center growth on the order of 1% or 2% of the campus operating budget to handle needs for the next five to ten years.

Normally, it is a mistake to consider capital projects like building a new data center, which has a multiyear lifetime, and therefore the installation costs should be amortized over the lifetime of use, with operating budgets, which are calculated on an annual basis. This is the standard stocks versus flows distinction that we teach in economic principles.

But in this case I made a point of making “this mistake” because new data centers typically won’t carry additional external revenues with them (although one could argue that the revenue is there in the overhead from federal grants, but there is the countervailing argument that the overhead money has already been fully allocated) and hence such data centers are not self-financing. They also don’t seem to be directly cost reducing. That leaves only one other way to get them built, via a diversion of operating revenues from their current allocation. With this line of thinking, its not hard to view IT as part of the problem.

To an economist, the real problem is an abence of markets. Things like data centers are funded off the top and are therefore lumped in with unavoidables like increases in heating bills do the the rise in price of crude oil. Instead we’d argue there should be Pigouvian taxes (or their Groves-Ledyard equivalent to ensure incentive compatibility) so that we jointly determine the level of public good provision and who pays for it. But this really only makes sense if every individual faculty member and administrative officer plays the role both of tax payer and consumer.

Yet this idea is so alien from our culture that I don’t believe it will ever happen. Instead we live in a world where deans are customers, in the sense that they control budgets that are potentially subject to a campus imposed tax, and individual faculty and administrative officers are users, who want every service on campus to be provided according to the “Library Model,” where except for late charges everything is offered up for free. In this world there is a gap in expecations and demands between the customers, who tend to be more penurious about IT, and the users, who tend to be more expansive about IT. A big part of managing IT on campus is about reconciling that gap.

Is IT part of the solution or part of the problem? I say, “yes, it is.”

Monday, May 15, 2006

final final test

netfiles post

I changed the url for the file from https to http to see if feedburner makes the feed. Netfiles, I believe, is smart enough to bump that back over to https. Let's see.

last test

Another russian song and a link to the campus home page.

still one more test

a russian song

this is from someone in the math department. the one from netfiles didn't work. i wonder if the url starting with https:// matters.

testing again

this is from an online lecture

and some additional text but no additional links

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dialog with Computer Generated Voices

Audio of Script Below

The feedburner site didn't create an enlosure with my prior attachment at Netfiles. Now I'm trying again, with a different file, this time on guava, the same server that hosts the blog.

This audio file was computer generated using a program called TextAloud. The script is below. I'll make no claims for the quality of the dialog, but the voice itself is pretty good.

* * * * *

This is an attempt at dialog

I'm Paul and we're starting this presentation with me. I'm patient but masculine and sometimes show a little bravado. I need to be tempered by a softer side. {{Pause=1.0}}

I'm the softer side. My name is Kate. Though I'm a girl, I can be tough. Don't you believe me? Just watch out. {{Pause=1.0}}

Now that you know my better half, let's think of what we can do with this sort of capability. We can script a presentation as dialog. That seems pretty cool. {{Pause=1.0}}

Sure. But good dialog is hard to write. If the writing isn't well done, this will sound tedious and less interesting than if there is only one voice. How many people know how to write good dialog? {{Pause=1.0}}

Paul, don't be such a Doubting Thomas. Of course most people don't write good dialog. That's a skill not usually called for. Let them practice a little and see how they do. Don't judge them on their first try at it. {{Pause=1.0}}

Kate, you're probably right. Let's see if people can learn to write dialog and yet convey the type of useful information that they would have done, had they been writing a blog post where they focused on the content only and not the form of presentation. Let them get used to this new approach before we give it a thumbs up or thumbs down. {{Pause=1.0}}

Patience is a virtue Paul. {{Pause=1.0}}

I suppose it is Kate. See you later. {{Pause=1.0}}


test post

Just trying to see if the mp3 file that is linked shows up at my feedburner site as an enclosure. The mp3 file is on my Netfiles site and I was having trouble getting links from there to work.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

De-constructing Community

I’m just back from Chicago where there was a Sloan-C Workshop on Blended Learning. It was interesting for me and I’ll comment about some of the things I learned there below. I did skip out of the workshop early because I’ve had a hacking cough that seemed to be getting worse and making me feel kind of out of it and since I knew I was looking at a three hour drive, I thought I’d take that during the middle of the day rather than latter and be pooped out for tomorrow.

I’m prone to compare my own undergrad experience (as modified in my own memory by the 30 years or so since I graduated) with what I’m hearing now about good approaches to encouraging learning. So let me review a few quick points about my college experience. By my junior year at Cornell (I transferred there in the middle of my sophomore year) I had a very complete and engaging intellectual/social life with the people who lived at 509 Wyckoff Road. This was entirely outside the course experience. None of the people I lived with at Cornell took classes with me. This contrasted to my Freshman experience at MIT, where my roommates and I had several classes in common. The courses, in contrast, created their own contacts/friends and the work I did in them was entirely at an individual level. For some of these course – a topology course in particular but some other advanced match courses as well and some advanced political science courses – the work relied on intensive introspection and I really don’t see an alternative to that. On the other hand, I had plenty of social argument on issues and construction of ideas, with my housemates. I am thankful, in that respect, of being able to have both of these things are integral parts of my education. I view them to both be essential. That prefaces for what I have to say next.

For students who either are commuting in face to face instruction or who are taking a totally online class and who are holding down a job at the same time, there is probably no chance to fit in an intellectual social life on top of that which resides outside both the world of work and school. There just won’t be enough time for that. As a consequence, there may very well be a reasonable role to be played by school as a provider of intellectual social interaction and hence having the pedagogy done with that in mind may make good sense. For residential students of the traditional age, who are busy to be sure but without the burdens of work and family to compete for their attention, one wonders whether many of them do intellectual activities outside of class, for their own entertainment and personal growth. My sense is that it happens much less here and now than it did for me at Cornell. I’m not sure about this, but my impression is that this is far from the norm. So I can see, even at the undergraduate level, some folks arguing for a social and constructivist approach to education in the formal classes, as a way to provide this type of intellectual life.

However, there now seems to be an argument being made, implicitly if not overtly, that intensive introspection – hard thinking, working through a complex argument that solves a difficult problem, and doing that on one’s own and thereby establishing a sense of competence in being able to think this way – is not a necessary part of education and that all problem solving can be done in a social context. I believe there are many, including most of my colleagues in Economics, who think otherwise. If the two sides are to do more than simply growl at each other, it would helpful to sharpen the issue and also to ask whether there is any middle ground.

Yesterday afternoon, there was an interesting presentation by Gary Brown from Washington State University on joint work with Tamara Smith and Tom Henderson involving student evaluation in online and hybrid (some but reduced seat time) courses on something parallel to but not identical to the dimension I discussed above. Gary and his co-authors pose two possible and intended to be mutually exhaustive constructs for learning. The first is “School” and the second is “Community” and students were asked which construct most aptly reflects the learning in the particular course where the survey was administered. The principal finding in this work is that novice learners appear to be neutral to these constructs but more experienced learners speak more about community as being important and particularly that peer assessment is of value. I found this provocative but also a little unsettling.

On the drive back today I stopped in Kankakee at a Starbucks for a coffee and a sandwich and read through Gary’s PowerPoint for the presentation. Reading the slides confirmed my initial impression. I thought the cards were stacked a bit unfairly against “School” in that it was presented in an unappealing manner, not attached to personal growth of the student at all but only about getting a good grade via doing well on the tests. With this characterization of school, the results are less surprising. So I wonder whether one might get a more interesting picture (though probably not so strong results statistically) if one made a better case for School and in the process peeled the onion a bit more.

Consider these further issues. There are some courses where “students feel lost” and if the students were interviewed by somebody outside the class who was knowledgeable in the subject but who because they were not in a position of authority in assigning a grade could get the student to open up, would readily establish that the student felt a sense of incompetence in the course. There are other courses, however, whether the student though a novice feels that she is gaining mastery of the subject and making good progress and capable of functioning well with the material.

From the days when I had office hours at the same time as my undergraduate TA and could witness students walking past my office though I had nobody else there so they could meet with the TA, I’m quite convinced that many students who feel lost don’t want to talk with the Professor about it. It is painful to show intellectual weakness of this sort, especially to someone in authority. It is understandable to such students that they would want to seek out a knowledgeable peer, who might help without creating that feeling of embarrassment. But if this is the primary driver of why experienced students want peer critiques, it might be rightly criticized and resisted as the blind leading the blind.

Now consider a different type of student. This student is not just progressing nicely in the course; she is proceeding at a more rapid pace than her peers and is getting deeper into the subject matter. How does this very able student express her questions and issues since most certainly anybody with this type of aptitude will be curious about what comes next? Does she do it with her classmates? Wouldn’t that be asymmetric and unsatisfying? Or does she seek out the instructor whose authority is now not a threat but an opportunity for arguing about the issues that she is confronting. Does this type of student choose “School” on the Brown, et. al. survey?

Students who are in the middle between those two extremes and who find themselves interacting mostly with like students (neither clueless nor prodigy-like) may find that they work better in groups and getting some fresh ideas from peers while holding their own on the giving up of ideas as well and that might be satisfying.

But what happens when the subject gets really hard? Do these type of students avoid such courses? Does the social form of interaction and the group problem solving overcome the inherent difficulty in the subject? Or do we get blather of the blind leading the blind type.

While the Physics faculty here don’t practice constructivism per se, I know that they do follow a Just In Time Teaching Approach and that they reported some time ago that the approach tends to give more focus on the middle students and the very high level students feel they are being held back. Is this focus on social settings for learning and constructivism as an approach in particular really a veiled argument for taking a utilitarian rather than elitist approach toward instruction? If so, might there be a flipside argument that we should be encouraging these middle student to jump a bit higher and not be so comfortable in their mode of learning? And does it matter whether we are thinking about this with adult learning in online or blended courses or traditional college students in on ground courses?

Who else is asking these type of questions?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Getting Testy

Sometimes justice is delivered through life’s little ironies. According to this article from yesterday’s New York Times, we’re experiencing a shortage in psychometricians, those who practice that esoteric “science” a big part of which is to assign the mapping from raw scores on standardized tests into percentile rankings. This, apparently, is an indirect consequence of No Child Left Behind and its reliance on such testing for measuring learning (or non-learning as the case may be). It seems we’re testing so much that we don’t have enough of these measurement folks to validate the tests. First, there was the scandal with the SAT scoring. Now this. If I didn’t know better, I’d think God was trying to send a message to President Bush.

Here, it’s Finals Week. Many of our high enrollment courses (and some smaller classes too) use those scantron sheets for scoring final exams. Apart from individual student complaints about erasures not being treated correctly, I’ve never heard of us having scoring problems with the scantrons. But as far as what those final exam scores mean about student learning, I am more doubtful now than I’ve ever been as to what the exams actually measure and on why the entire culture is immersed in this type of high stakes testing.

There are some narrow instances where I understand what the tests do and indicate. After I had entered the doctoral program in Economics at Northwestern, I was told that the GRE in Economics was meaningless, but the basic GRE in Math was a strong predictor of success in the Economics program. That made sense to me. More recently, I learned something similar about the Chemistry sequence here. The Math part of the SAT is a very good predictor of performance there. This is not surprising: math aptitude is necessary for doing well, both in Chemistry and in Economics. The SAT and GRE provide reasonably good measures of a simple type of math problem solving skill – exactly what I mean by math aptitude. But I’m guessing this is the exception rather than the rule.

After getting killed in my course evaluations by students with comments like “test us on what we know, not on what we don’t know,” I stopped writing exams in my intermediate economics course where to get the right answer the student would have to show some cleverness in set up of the problem and its analysis. Coming from graduate school, I had thought it was that cleverness that the instructor wanted to encourage and hence that should be a big part of any exam. The students, in contrast, wanted something else. They had studied and put time into the course “learning” the material. They wanted some way to show that on the test. After about 10 years of teaching (I stopped teaching intermediate microeconomics after my second year except for an honors section and only returned to it 7 or 8 years later) I figured out that if students had seen essentially the same type of problem in a homework assignment or a practice exam, then they would feel the exam was fair because they’d be prepared for it. They had their bag of tricks and my test questions could be found in it. Even with that, my exams were perceived as hard by the students. But beforehand, they were viewed as impossible.

Impossible tests, of course, don’t measure very much, unless there are a handful who can actually do them. When that is the case, it is really not very hard to identify these individuals. But for the rest, it is not at all clear that gradations in exam performance measure much of anything. That has always been my issue with relying on tests. So in the Honors course that is just ending, I didn’t use exams at all. I had homework and projects – that’s it. I learned about what the students knew from their writing and their discussion in class. It seems to me to be far more informative, and clearly preferred if their performance doesn’t have to be sited on a bell curve and I can rely on my qualitative judgments in giving them their end of semester grade.

Then there is the issue of the stress in the students that exams can cause. We know there is good stress and bad. The good encourages elevated performance as if running a race. The keyed up individual “competes” whether the grading is on a curve or not and taking the test is a way of proving oneself worthy (though of exactly what I’m not sure). I was a good test taker when I was a student. I know the feeling. I’m guessing that most of my Honors students know the feeling as well.

But what about those students who don’t have reasonable expectations that they will perform well on the tests? How do they feel under this stress? Don’t many under prepare because they hate the feeling of coming up short and thus have a ready excuse in their lack of prior effort? And for the diligent types who do put in the hours beforehand but feel that their performance might not show the benefits from their work, where is their reward? Do they benefit from the pressure induced by the exams?

My own sense of irritation (the instructor can get testy too) is that we’re so enveloped in this method of evaluation without much if any critical thinking on why. We do it because that’s the way it’s been done. If we don’t do it, then somehow we’re cheating, getting away with it.

Maybe, just maybe, when God is speaking to Mr. Bush, he’s speaking to us too.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Durable or Ephemeral?

Today was my last class session for the semester. I’ve been having the students do “book reviews” on a team basis where each team of three students would have two hours spread over two class sessions to do an in class presentation on the book. I coached the teams ahead of time on things that they might cover during their presentation and on methods for engaging the class in discussion so that the other students also contributed. This worked partly ok, but sometimes not so great. Sometimes they posed questions that the other students could only answer if they had the book open and at the appropriate page. And sometimes they asked a good question but the rest of the class sat on their hands. Then they got flustered and moved on rather than reframing the question or asking something related to get the class started in response. Sometimes I let this happen and sometimes I intervened. I had no firm rule, other than a gut feeling that if there was important economics being omitted I should step in.

During the second hour of class I had been covering other economics or talking other issues that I thought would be of interest to the class. (These kids are in the Campus Honors Program and they find it fun and interesting to reflect on their own education, particularly their last couple of years in High School. So we would sometimes do that and I would try to tie in to issues I’m engaged with as a learning tech guy, even if it wasn’t directly about economics.) Monday, in our penultimate class, we did a brief review of how the class went for them. In the main they liked it and apparently it was quite a tonic to their engineering courses, at least for some of them. But they were a bit miffed about my deliberately being vague on how final grades were to be determined. I wrote them up a document where I argued that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are in conflict – typically one can be effective but not both – and that I really was trying to appeal to their curiosity in the course and so tried to eschew a focus on extrinsic motivation. In a regular class this approach could be seen as capricious grading but because this was a seminar with only 12 students and because what I was trying to do is exactly what the Campus Honors program wants to achieve with such courses, I felt within my rights. Some of the students were ok with my argument. A few of them wanted it both ways.

So I had to come up with something to do in the last hour of the last class – a way to end the semester. I tried something wacky but consistent with my initial goals of getting them to be interested in economics beyond the course. I decided I would do a book give away (really a book loan over the summer program) where my choice set was partially affected by what books I had on my own bookshelves at home or at the office that I thought either would be enjoyable and educational for them (a distinct subset) or some other books that I thought “would be good for them” even if reading them might be a struggle. And I included some titles of non-economics books that were either political science or humanities.

Their assignment, so far none have done this but the class ended only a few hours ago, is to email me with what books they took. I told them I wanted that just so I can have a record in case I want to track them down next fall. But, truthfully, I also want to know if they’ll actually read the books they took. Some would let me know anyhow. This way I can contact the others and perhaps exercise a miniscule prod in the process in case they haven’t.

It is certainly a peculiar mechanism. But how else can I tell whether I’ve given any of the students “the economics bug,” and if teaching the course had any impact on them beyond the semester? In that respect, it is so much easier teaching a course in the major.

For those who might be interested, here is the annotated list I sent out.