Monday, March 31, 2008

Old Dogs and New Technologies

Last week I found this post comparing email to wikis as a collaboration device, via Stephen Downes, who in turn found the post from Miguel Guhlin. Earlier in the week I had seen a presentation on campus by Amy Bruckman of Georgia Tech, where in the first part she talked about Wikis as a good collaboration tool because:

(1) novice users can at first try out editing a page anonymously (without logging in) to see if they like doing it before making a larger commitment to participate, and

(2) using the wiki creates a sense of collaboration that the students don’t know otherwise and a depth of engagement in the subject which is facilitated by having the pages about the subject matter, not about the authors.

I note that neither of these factors enters into the diagram linked above, but the factors do support the conclusion that wikis are good for collaboration. I wasn’t entirely happy with that conclusion, but I let that simmer over the weekend. This morning I thought about it some more and a few other questions came up:

(A) How many people are involved in the collaboration?

(B) Do those people know each other ahead of time or do they establish their relationship by doing the collaborative work?

(C) If they knew each other beforehand do they already have established work patterns in place?

(D) Is there some deadline that needs to be met to deliver the fruits from the collaboration?

Before I turn to answer these questions I want to note that I’m very tied to email and rely on it for a great part of my work. I know there are those who’ve been arguing that email is dying, that the Net Generation is into IM, texting, and social networks and email is a dinosaur, so we need to switch. I definitely don’t want to do that. So, for the record, I’m the old dog in the title of this post.

And I’m mindful of some conversations that I’ve had within the last couple of months to wit that some instructors embrace older technologies to good pedagogic effect, but the learning technologists in the crowd seem to want these instructors to abandon their approach in favor of newer technologies, e.g., wikis. What are we to make of that situation?

I’m involved in a variety of collaborations at present. The ones that are on campus almost invariably entail face to face meetings at the coffee place and those are supported with email for documentation, scheduling, and follow up work done asynchronously. The ones at a distance have phone calls instead of meeting over coffee. In a couple of those related to the Learning Technology Leadership Program, we use Google Docs during our live calls and make changes in it on the fly and as a living archive of the work after the fact. We also use email in between. We need to alert each other that some work has been done and now the ball is in the other’s court. Email is right for that. There is also a lot of sidebar commentary and for that we use email too. I dare say that everyone else with whom I’m collaborating is comfortable using email this way. But we’re all digital immigrants.

I’ve not really worked on larger scale collaborations. I’m on a variety of listservs where there is some element of collaboration, but when there is drill down on the work, that happens outside the list. And I’ve not done much with collaboration of late where there the work partners were fundamentally new to me. I’ve always had face to face meetings as a way to make progress on the relationship front, so there’s been some personal feeling for the work partner. I’d find it hard to collaborate otherwise.

Specifically on using wikis, there have been many flavors used here. My officemate Norma likes PBWiki and I know some of the folks who used to work under me when I was with Campus IT liked that environment too. And there have been projects elsewhere using MediaWiki. Recently there has been some embrace of Confluence, which can be hosted locally in a way that conforms to the Campus information security policy. I’ve found that environment clunky, at least when the various plugins are not installed. I found it disappointing that it didn’t take some standard html tags. Blogger is more flexible from my point of view and I could do better collaboration on a group blog than in Confluence, though a blog marks individual contributions more sharply and that can be a minus in some circumstances.

I suppose it’s safe to conclude that if we old dogs interact only with each other then we’re ok to use whatever tools we like for collaboration and likewise for the Net Gen. But I wonder if generational differences are the right way to focus the question. What if instead the focus is on the nature of what’s produced, who produces it, and how long that takes?

The success of Wikipedia (I, for one, increasingly use it as a reference in these blog posts) encourages some to attribute the success to wiki technology per se. But I wonder if the lesson translates to work related collaborations that entail a fixed number of people operating under a deadline. And even for those who really like wiki software, don’t they need to satisfy the issues of timing and sequencing for which I use email? I could see doing some of that with IM instead, but certainly the wiki alone is not sufficient for the collaboration, is it?

Since I cover this paper when I teach econ principles, I’ll bring up Paul David’s Qwerty article here because I think it’s relevant. It shows that in some way we’re all old dogs. And the question is whether the lesson is limited to only a few core technologies, the keyboard being one of those, or if cuts across many other domains as well, some which might cause learning technologists to become disheartened because they underestimate the nature of the lock-in.

My understanding of the primary complaint by the net gen against email is that it is just too slow. But how would one measure that? The net gen, by their comparative youth if nothing else, are relatively time abundant compared to those of us digital immigrants who still like email. So while they *multiprocess* they are actually ready to devote some time in the very near future to the issues that are at hand. When time is scarcer, there may have to be a substantial lag in dealing with issues simply to juggle other priorities which have taken precedence. Further, as one gets older there may be a preference to single process issues at greater depth and linger on the single issue for a greater period of time rather than to bounce from one issue to another.

So it is at least conceivable to me when the net gen kids hit the big 4-0, perhaps earlier and maybe even much earlier, that they’ll begin to see a reason for email and other slower technologies, just as children begin to appreciate their own parents more once they themselves have children. We’ve not been around long enough with Internet technology to know this one way or another. But if this is right, email is here to stay for the indefinite future. And even if it is wrong, isn’t it true that it is rare indeed for one technology to completely trump another for each and every user? So why argue for the inherent superiority of one technology over another?

The learning technologist is just looking for us old dogs to bark at him.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Get Rid of the Semester

There’s an interesting piece this morning in Inside Higher Ed about students preferring intensive courses (3 weeks) and taking them one at a time, rather than the more traditional approach taking many courses simultaneously over a longer semesters (15 weeks). I’d like to see more studies of this sort. It is a reform that makes sense to me.

In the first year of this blog I wrote a post about the idea:
and following that learned from Burks Oakley that Colorado College actually does this now.

My own experience teaching in Summer 1 (4 week intensive course where class meets 3 hours per day four days a week) supports the argument. Students don’t have as many other obligations on their time and hence are more committed. Instructors respond positively to that student commitment. It is a self-enforcing cycle we should encourage.

Much has been made about how busy students are and hence how it might be unfair for an instructor to place intensive demands on the students. But instructors should place intensive demands on students as a normal matter of practice and likewise students should engage deeply in their school work so what they learn is substantial. If there are institutional impediments to that, it should be the institutional practices that change. When the only argument for having the teaching and learning accommodate the institutional practice is inertia, that marks the time for change.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Obama Nibble Snowman

I was a sleepwalker as a kid. Apparently I made it down some stairs and back up again and into bed without a mishap and without waking up and did so on more than one occasion. I’m not sure why it happened, whether hereditary or environment or some odd combination of the two; this site which seems credible makes it look like sleepwalking is pretty normal. But I had a variety of phobias, a couple based on singular experiences – falling off a horse while riding in day camp and then not getting right back on, being chased by a dog who nipped at my shorts and who was unleashed with no apparent adult supervision so my brother and I just ran like heck till we got to our house. Then, accompanying those, there were some other fears that were entirely a product of my (perhaps tortured) imagination. So I wonder if the sleepwalking was a consequence of the phobias and trying to work them through. On the other hand, perhaps the sleepwalking was going to be there anyway and contributed to being more susceptible to the monster-in-the-closet type of fears.

A couple of those that I still recall, and here I won’t get the ages right at all, but my parents used to go out a lot on Friday night and at some point there was no baby sitter and no older sister to be with us. There was just me and my younger brother. We got to have the “treat” of TV dinners and Fizzies, eat in the Den rather than the Kitchen, and watch TV. All would have been bliss to the early teen or pre-teen I was at the time, but on occasion I would lose my nerve and be afraid to go upstairs (where the bedrooms were). Perhaps we’d have heard the house creak or some other unexplained noise or maybe it was just something on TV that made us jittery. Whatever it was, we’d wait downstairs till my parents returned before going upstairs, as if their presence alone would thwart the threat and then our confidence would restore enough to go up to bed.

The other fear I had on a recurring basis and this one makes no sense whatsoever but I’d bet it is pretty common. We lived in Bayside Hills (Google Maps on my old zip code 11364 calls it Oakland Gardens now, but centers it on the other side of the Long Island Expressway). It was a residential community of modestly sized individual homes. We were quite a distance from the Bronx, with the famous zoo, or from Central Park, with a good but not quite as spectacular zoo, or Flushing Meadows (home of Shea Stadium) in my borough of Queens which I couldn’t remember whether it had a zoo until I Googled it. But somehow I imagined that the lions would break out of their cages at the zoo, find the Long Island Expressway, the Oceania Street Exit and then track me down and come after me.

I grew out of these juvenile fears. I suppose most people do. Now when I read a story about a Tiger at the San Francisco zoo breaking out of its cage, it triggers no special emotional reaction. And there aren’t nightmares later on as a result. I still am fearful of a variety of things, for example I’m terrified of slipping on the ice in winter, but I’d term that a rational fear. There is both a proximate cause and, given my prior leg injury, a clear reason to be very concerned about a fall.

Yet I think it is wrong to conclude that we adults fear only in this rational way. As a kid in Bayside our house was the stop over for many international guests – friends and relatives whom my parents met on their whirlwind trip to Denmark, England, Israel, and South Africa in 1961. I remember one Israeli woman who stayed with us. Her name was Emma. She had never seen a thunderstorm before. (According to my recollection the ones in New York were mild compared to the storms we have now in Champaign, which are spectacular, even awesome, and quite frightening If you happen to be caught outside in one of them. ) As luck would have it, there was a thunderstorm while Emma was with us. Emma crawled under her bed to hide from the storm. I’ve never seen anyone else do that, child or adult, before or since, though our dog Ginger gets the shakes at the first inkling of thunder, and when the tornado warnings come on and the reports on TV or radio tell us to head to the basement and stay away from windows, that does cause some alarm in my kids even now.

Once the possibility of juvenile fears in adults is let out of the bag, it’s not much of a stretch to consider how others manipulate us by managing the specter of such fears. And from that, unsurprisingly, we can look at politics as fear mongering, a topic to which I now turn.

* * * * *

Mention the word “fear” in the same sentence as “Presidents of the United States” and many will think of FDR and his famous line, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, which is from his first inaugural address. (The linked Web page includes an audio recording of a selection from the address, including the famous line.) Literally speaking, Roosevelt was wrong with this utterance. In the throes of the Great Depression, many were hardly surviving, not knowing how to feed themselves let alone provide for their families. And the high unemployment that prevailed at the time made it ripe for employers to exploit workers as depicted in such films as Cinderella Man, Bound for Glory, and The Grapes of Wrath. There was plenty to fear – hunger, violence, and because so much of existence was tied up in the day to day, the unknown of tomorrow.

Figuratively, however, FDR’s idea was a master stroke. By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall. We could stay united but for fear itself. I think it important to note that the fear FDR referred to was not being caused by some enemy during wartime. It’s source was economic malaise, certainly more serious than anything we’ve yet to experience in the current downturn, but surely something to keep in mind now. United we stand is anti Darwin and his notion of the survival of the fittest. Human decency can triumph letting us get through the economic crisis relatively unscathed, but only if we don’t lose our cool by giving into fear.

FDR understood the task ahead of him and made a transcendent speech to galvanize the nation behind him for the work that had to be done. But this speech was the exception. The rule was exemplified in the 1988 Presidential race, with the Willie Horton ad, where the race card was juxtaposed with the soft-on-crime issue and where it did a great disservice to the facts regarding the matter. It’s hard to know how many Reagan Democrats actually were swayed by this appeal to their baser senses. Reagan himself was quite popular when he left office; the Savings and Loan Crisis was kept under wraps until the Bush Administration took over and though Iran-Contra Crisis was widely covered in the news it was not a pocketbook issue; so the voter perception might have been driven simply by the desire to stay with it when there’s a good thing going. But then why did Bush supporters need to run the Horton ad?

The world turns. We make “progress.” Bill Clinton’s attacks on Barack Obama in South Carolina were milder and they backfired. If Obama ultimately is undone on the race issue it will be of his own making, owing to his connection with Reverend Wright, ergo the speech.

The speech has been extremely well received, certainly by the Times’ pundits Nicholas Kristof, Bob Herbert, and from a variety of others. Many have applauded its adult tone and nuanced argument. Some have said its one for the ages. On the first I agree. On the second, I don’t. Here’s why.

Many people pine to have adult conversation and in a variety of contexts certainly, not just on the topic of race. I know I’d like to have that type of dialog with my teenage children but they are not quite ready yet. They likely have to leave home for college or elsewhere to learn to depend on themselves first and then return as an equal, not as an equal in waiting. They have the intellectual disposition so I believe they will get there. Others never will.

Adult conversation is either the antidote to the pandering to juvenile fears that has become the norm in political discourse, embodied in attack ads and other rhetorical distortions aimed at moving the electorate out of fear, or it becomes a separator between those who avoid the victimization and those who do not. It would be delightful to learn that Obama’s speech was antidote but I’m afraid it mostly will be separator, as Herbert’s column linked above argues. The rest of my argument is aimed at those who’ve found the cure.

Adult conversation is not one and done. It is ongoing and must stand the test of evidence as it is applied to argument. So if it succeeds it morphs and gets refined with experience and may emerge in a quite different form than it appeared at origin. And success is by no means guaranteed. Skepticism is good thing to hold until the outcome is determined. We call it healthy.

Obama would like to see a more hopeful future different from our imperfect past, where irrespective of our own race and family background we can appreciate the challenges of those with different histories and come together to form a more perfect union, an up to date vision of the FDR ideal. Many, including myself, would like to see that too. But can we get there and are we ready to try? William Kristol, who has adopted an interesting tone as the neocon in residence writing for the Times’ audience, argues correctly that Obama himself apparently saw neither need nor profit from advancing the case, and that the speech only happened because Obama was backed into a corner; so let’s not follow through with its promise to have a national conversation about race, because our nerve endings are too frayed and the likely outcome would be gridlock, not progress. I believe Kristol is wrong in this conclusion because the stakes are too high not to play the game, but he has a point and it needs to be considered and worked through.

The same fundamental question underlies not only the race issue but also the economy issue --- the issue the candidates must pay attention to, and to the international affairs issue particularly on the resolution of the situation in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, Iran, and elsewhere in the Middle East. And that fundamental question is whether the game is fair or if instead it is rigged. We can’t act as one if it is rigged. Many feel it is rigged and that is the source of both anger and cynicism. Any resolution of the race issue will surely need to stand the test that the solution is consistent with what fairness requires.

We need fairness in the economic arena too. Paul Krugman’s latest was a good column where he argued the need to regulate the non-bank financial sector (even Treasury Secretary Paulson seems to be singing that tune) and to close tax loopholes for the super wealthy, particularly hedge-fund managers. But Krugman is not optimistic that either will come to pass, because the lobbyists don’t want these things to happen and the lobbyists usually win out. Politically there needs to be a counter force. The obvious candidate for that counterforce is fairness. So the race discussion, as important as it is as a thing unto itself, is bigger than that. It needs to happen and we need to find the cure, or at least to know we’re on the path to that cure. The economic argument can’t be won otherwise. (And essentially the same argument applies to the international affairs side of the equation.)

But on what might we base an optimistic view that we can succeed in this endeavor? Historically, an imperfect but relevant analog might be found by looking at Jimmy Carter’s efforts with the Camp David Accords. This piece is fascinating to read in retrospect for many reasons. Carter was the agent for change, playing the role that Obama has preached in the current campaign. Carter clearly played the strategy of making progress where he could rather than going for an overall solution straight away, and while the two state solution between Israel and Egypt has largely held since, a fact that seems to go unrecognized today, it has not begat other like solutions between Israel and neighboring states, and I doubt anyone feels that we’re closer to solving the Palestinian issue now than we were then. But most would attribute that lack of success to events that succeeded Camp David, particularly the assassination of Anwar Sadat. The Egyptian President was himself ready for change and showed remarkable courage in negotiating and signing the Agreement. But some of his countrymen clearly were not ready and they were not passive in their resistance to change. One might ask whether if knowing the assassination would occur would we still consider the Accords a good thing overall. I believe the argument can be made both ways. If you support the no side of the argument, you are helping to make Bill Kristol’s case.

In retrospect, most have come to consider the Carter Presidency to have failed. He was already vulnerable before the Sadat assassination owing to the stagflation, largely a creature of the wage and price controls under Nixon and the oil price shocks from OPEC, neither of which he could control. And he was played by Ayatollah Khomeini during the Iran Hostage Crisis, in my view largely because of this prior weakness. In toto these factors gave the appearance of impotence in Carter and gridlock on managing change.

Obama, if he does become the President, will start out with a greater mandate than Carter ever had. (See my post on The “L” Word that argues Ford would have won the election in 1976 if not for the Pardon.) And that mandate will be an asset, though the Obama popularity will surely stem in part from a rejection of all that is Bush rather than an affirmation of those things Obama, particularly those things where he has not yet fully articulated his position. The question is whether that asset will be enough.

Change comes with risk. That is the lesson from considering the Carter Presidency. Every theory of management I know says to go for easy wins at first to build strength and make progress. The flip side is that early defeats sap strength and weaken the chance for further change. Yet sure wins that don’t achieve much may not satisfy those who are impatient for real change. To keep the coalition intact there likely will be a need to take larger bites, even early on. This makes what Obama wants to do really hard.

The problem with ongoing conversation such as mine above, adult as it may be, is that gridlock might seem the likely outcome either way. It will take a lot of patience, courage, and persistence to thread the needle, all of which will be a hard sell. So it is tempting to want adult conversation but want it to be one and done. Unfortunately, that will not do. We either get real adult conversation, likely along the lines I’ve sketched, or we get more pandering to fear; today’s monster of choice is Yeti. Discussing him is what I’m really afraid about.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chat with Barbara Ganley

Above is a conversation with Barbara Ganley recorded with Gizmo, which unlike Skype has a built in recorder. (Skype relies on third parties for recording the call and we've found that less satisfactory.) The recorder produces a .wav file and then I plopped that into Audacity to convert to .mp3. Note that during the call there is some mention of hiss. I heard a lot of it during the call and Barbara heard some, but it wasn't recorded. That's very nice.

During the call Barbara mentioned, which she uses with her students to make recordings with commentary and images about student presentations. Barbara records the students in class. Some of that work can be found here.

The latest version of Camtasia seems to have support for recording video conferencing sessions, so if Barbara and I had used webcams, we would have captured that too. I need to try that out in the near future. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I like the idea of human interchange as depicted on and if we can make that sort of thing from our own desktops with little or no trouble, it would be a real boon. But we've tried a variety of approaches and so far they've been imperfect. Our best experience has been with ooVoo.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A schlub* in a business school


You can readily guess what I’ve been wondering about by taking my latest poll at the top in the sidebar to the right. I’m somewhat surprised that nobody in the edublog arena has written about the current financial crisis and its implications for learning --- the direct implications regarding the total failure of group think we’ve now witnessed, not the indirect consequence that many families of current and potential future students have seen their personal wealth decline and so may be less willing to attend (or to pay tuition). But really, it’s not intelligence that’s at issue. It’s responsibility, as David Brooks’ most recent column makes abundantly clear. There’s been a massive failing of individual responsibility. One wonders why.

I also wonder, as one not typically swept up by the herd, about how strong a force “everyone else is doing it” can be. What about doing the right thing? Doesn’t that serve as a counterweight? And, if not, is this a merely a timeless human failing. (A couple of nights ago I watched The Illusionist, where every character in the movie and I as well drew the conclusion that Crown Prince Leopold had murdered his bride to be Sophie out of jealousy because she was in love with the magician Eisenheim, only to learn in the last minute or two of the film that there was no murder at all; the entire thing was staged to get Leopold out of the way. In fact he committed suicide because his predicament formed by the perception of others was so dire.) Or is the situation worse now in this land of plenty because we expect in our material existence the good things in life – Brooks mentions Corian countertops as exemplar – irrespective of whether we have the means to pay for them, where there was no such expectation in our parents’ generation because they knew what it was like to be poor and took steps to prevent that from happening again.

I’m particularly sensitive to this question having now worked in the College of Business as an administrator for the past 18 months or so and getting a sense of the culture here in a way that I never had as a regular faculty member when the Econ department was part of the College of Business, because then I was oblivious to these concerns. But they matter to me now. So in the rest of this post I’m going to work through the conundrums.

The first part is deconstructing what responsibility means. There’s the type of responsibility that is obligation, the type that parents nag their teenage children about – clean up your room, put your dishes in the dishwasher, do you homework before you start playing video games, that sort of thing. I was never very good at that and I’m not all that sanguine that education/indoctrination can get very far here. Our state requires every University employee to take ethics training each year and while there is a lot of monitoring so the training gets completed in some way, shape, or form, the training fails from an educational view for these very reasons. Next, there is responsibility to oneself, a form of enlightened self-interest – the gas tank is getting low and tomorrow the forecast is for it to be really cold outside so I better fill up tonight on my way home rather than wait till tomorrow though I have enough gas to wait till then. This has a better chance of working because the incentives are right, though some people are better than others seeing how through choice of their actions today they can make their lot in life better today and tomorrow. But then there is the social form of responsibility, where the beneficiaries are others and the imperative is the golden rule, not enlightened self-interest. These three need not be mutually exclusive, but I take them to cover in entirety what we mean by responsibility.

It would be an interesting study to find out how many of those bankers and others who work at financial intermediaries that offered those ridiculous mortgages to subprime customers also attend Church on a regular basis. My conjecture is that many people don’t make the connections between their work lives and their Church participation so you’d find a significant number who did both. But here I don’t want to focus on what won’t work in generating a sense of responsibility. I want to talk about what has a fighting chance and to do so I want to take a detour for a bit and talk about myself and the golden rule and then use that as a launch point to talk about Business education.

Regular readers of this blog will note that I have a point of view on a variety of matters and I go to some lengths to articulate that. The point of view in turn stems from those things I value, those things I’m curious about, the experiences I’ve had, and how I can tie these together. In this way the point of view is mine, it’s individualistic, it’s not a product of the herd though some particular technologies or ideas I find interesting may very well have come from the recommendations of others. To elaborate further and to make the title of my post clear, one of the things I value is to be physically comfortable and as unconstricted by my environment as possible so I can focus my thinking elsewhere. Particular examples include that I favor SAS shoes and will wear them in cases where others will wear dress shoes and I don’t wear a tie and rarely wear a sports coat; I prefer sweaters. As a faculty member, this is no big deal at all. As an Associate Dean in a Business School, it makes me an outlier. In this and in many other matters that are work related, I’ve come to trust my own judgment first. On other matters I will definitely seek input from a variety of others, but I will retain the choice for myself whenever that is possible.

To the extent that I adhere to the Golden Rule in my work, it stems from an abiding value of collegiality and a personal desire to promote collegiality wherever possible. It is also why I find in my own work that it is much easier to manage horizontal relationships than vertical ones – I have no problem criticizing a colleague for making an argument I don’t agree with, it’s part of the give and take, but I find it much harder to critique a subordinate for their work done in a way that doesn’t meet my expectations because it is much harder to make that work both ways. I understand that this notion of collegiality that we prize so much in academe doesn’t necessarily survive when going outside. This is most relevant to us during procurement. In the process of trying to get you to buy their merchandize, vendors are apt to tell you what you want to hear ahead of the sale irrespective of the truth of the matter and then once the sale has been completed these same vendors quite likely will change their tune and be indifferent to how you react to what was purchased. The potential to be a repeat customer partially mitigates this problem but not entirely. Relationships with vendors have to be cautious for that reason; they can’t be fully collegial. But that is because of caveat emptor. If contrary to fact vendors were fully collegial, I’d be delighted and be collegial back to them.

There are certain books I read while I was in college that I should probably read again, because they didn’t have much meaning for me at the time, but would have much more meaning for me now. I probably won’t get around to it, but I should. One of those books is The Organization Man by William Whyte. While I may be summarizing inaccurately because I read it in 1972-73 and haven’t discussed it since, I believe the book is mainly about how those who work for a large corporation surrender their own point of view to a large extent and instead conform to the perspective of their organization. I can’t recall whether it was in the book or in the class discussion around the book, but I know we talked about working for IBM, which in the early 70’s had a definite image to keep up. And I believe the finding was that many of these folks ended up feeling empty and disillusioned, but by the time they had come to this reckoning they didn’t have a way to reshape their work lives into something more meaningful for themselves.

Business school education has much that encourages conformity in it; attire is but one small piece of a collection of common practices that are meant to define the business professional. Some of these practices no doubt promote efficiency – hustle is seemingly valued more than in other disciplines and to me that appears to be a good thing. But there is a risk that with conformity the individual perspective is lost.

The problem is exacerbated because, as I’ve learned recently from our Dean for the undergraduate Honors Program, most of the students really don’t understand Business Education as an intellectual endeavor before they arrive on Campus. They desperately want to get into our college, as a gateway to a good job and high future income. But they are willing to treat their entire education as instrumental to that and the prestige that goes with it. Therefore they are less likely to be self-critical of the education as they are getting it, and here I’m talking about the subject matter, not class size or the facilities where the courses are held, things they are willing to criticize. (This also explains why there seems to be rampant cheating in Business Schools. The instrumental view of education encourages that.) Hence it is more likely that they will repress their own perspective in their learning and go with what they think is expected of them. When I was entering college I was equally clueless about the education I would be receiving (and of course the education I would be making for my own). But I was far less mercenary in my outlook and consequently my point of view developed fairly strongly, even then.

Our college teaches the obligatory course on ethics and we have a new Center for Professional Responsibility that is developing a variety of programs aimed as a counterforce for the good. The efforts are laudable. But I’m skeptical about the likely consequences because the underlying issue of conformity is not being addressed and so much if not all of this will end up as responsibility as obligation rather than responsibility that stems from personal and deeply held values and hence responsibility that is an embrace of the golden rule.

And while the issue is most acute in Business Schools, it really is a matter to concern the entire campus and all of Higher Ed. The hyperinflation in tuition over the last 30 years or so has made college education less accessible to those of modest income – many have commented on that. But it has also encouraged the mercenary tendencies of those who do attend and you simply can’t have it both ways. The more mercenary the students the less they will be self-critical about their own education while they are getting it. It is partly for that reason that I was critical of the focus at ELI on Collective Intelligence. There may be intellectual benefits from social networking that are profound. But there is also a need to develop a strong sense of the individual mind, to have it speak for oneself only. Responsibility will emerge from that, not from the collective.

The issue is how to do that. It won’t do to have other rules to obey to replace the ones that currently exist – all students should wear SAS shoes, for example. That’s just creating a different standard to which they should conform. Somehow we need to create a grades-don’t-matter environment where the decisions that students make have clear consequences on others and where the students can readily see those consequences, then reflect on them and on their own choices. This would let them learn the lesson for themselves, not to please others. But I don’t know how to do this in the current environment. All I can conclude is that it seems more likely to happen in a co-curricular setting than in actual courses. Yet even then it seems more likely that students will learn the opposite lesson to what we want – everyone else is cheating so why shouldn’t I? This is a tough one to crack.

Let me close with the following observation. I’m not sure how many others in Higher Ed would make the connection between conformity and (lack of) personal responsibility. But if there were agreement on that, then it could serve as a basis to discuss potential solutions, not that they’d be easy but at least we’d know what we’re looking for. As it is, we’re not that far along.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Is reflective practice about teaching research?

A study group I attend regularly had an interesting discussion yesterday about the role of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) in influencing teaching. The basic idea is that if students are the objects of faculty research, then the faculty member must obtain informed consent from the students. Here faculty research is *defined* by the characteristic that it will lead to external publication. If the faculty member does this work only to improve the instruction itself, there is no need for informed consent. That is simply good teaching practice.

In the case of research, there is the further stipulation that the consent must be given voluntarily by the student without any coercion from the faculty member. This stipulation provides the reason for why the IRB asks that faculty file a form either for exemption from review or an application for review, because the faculty member herself is not necessarily in a good position to determine what is or is not coercive for her students. Indeed, upon occasion after submitting a proposal to IRB the faculty member must alter their proposed approach because what they intended to do was perceived as coercive by the IRB. In this way the IRB can exert some influence on the type of research that is conducted.

In this blog I have from time to time talked about the courses I've taught and in doing so have included some information regarding student performance measured in aggregate on some particular assignment. The outcomes were provided to illustrate some point about the teaching approach. For the sake of the above discussion, I'd like for my posting to be regarded simply as part of good teaching practice, reflecting on what I did in my course. But by blogging the reflections I'm communicating those publicly, outside the class setting. Is that a problem?

I know what I'd like the answer to be. Externally communicating about aggregates of class performance as well as about any information that is already available online and that identifies a particular individual (e.g., that person wrote a blog post so I can readily reference it) requires no prior consent. But I'm not sure this is the answer that IRB would want to provide if they were asked to weigh in on the question.

When I was the Campus learning technology guy, there were analogous type of questions about Fair Use. The Library wanted instructors to go through eReserves and then the Library would do the obtaining of permissions, if necessary. But many instructors simply made PDFs of their documents and put them up in the LMS, because from a convenience point of view that was easier. These faculty very likely did not obtain permissions when they should have (the second time through using a copyrighted piece of material that was timely in the first use so no permission obtained then) but who'd be the wiser?

So perhaps the answer is that instructors are agents of the university who are delegated some discretion and armed both with an imperfect knowledge of what is required from them as well as an imperfect understanding of the likelihood they will get caught for being in violation, they take risks they deem prudent. The University can then maintain a fairly hard line overtly, understand quietly that compliance won't be universal, and operate in that realm. That seems to be where we are now.

But I don't like that. I'd rather be in a world where we can openly agree to have rules that are liberal concerning Human Subjects in the teaching setting, rules that balance the need to protect human subjects with the need to have an open exchange of ideas about teaching and hence rules under which my preferred scenario would be permitted. Having tighter rules that inevitably produce a substantial amount of non-compliance is worse. That breeds an air of cynicism.

Identifying where the sensible middle lies is always tough. I understand that. Yet I find myself feeling on a regular basis that we as a campus don't get the cost-benefit calculation right because we can more readily see potential institutional liability than we can identify incipient institutional benefit. And we seem unaware of how deciding these things on a case by case basis has an overall impact on the campus culture. I suppose such is the fate of large public institutions.

Monday, March 10, 2008

When to use audio instead of text

Lanny with Microphone
The recording part is pretty easy and as long as you have a decent sound card in your computer the incremental cost is quite low. That stick mic is from Koss and costs less than $20. The software is Audacity which is open source and hence free. (You need the file lame_enc.dll on your computer for Audacity to convert your recording to MP3. That file is also free.)

The harder part is thinking through when audio really is better than text. Here are some suggestions.

A screen shot of a technical graph that might require audio explanation as example.

Embedded audio in blog post or Web page

I've done an update on this for the how do it part because the older method no longer seems reliable.

Argument for embedding audio

How to do it
Note: if you used Blogger for this, it will say the embed tag is not closed so add "/embed" (without the quotes) inside < > and put that afterwards and you'll be fine.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

It’s Time to Talk about Progressive Taxation

Last night I watched Matewan. It is a good movie. Chris Cooper gives a very effective performance as the Union organizer. But the movie is very disturbing. The mining company treated the coal miners as chattel. When the miners went on strike, the company brought Blacks in as scabs. (James Earl Jones is also very good as the leader among the Black miners, someone with real spine.) After the Black and Italian miners joined the other miners in the strike, the company brought in ruffians, dressed in suits and calling themselves the law, to terrorize the miners. There was a Judas among the strikers who worked with the company thugs. He made things even worse. All were on edge and much violence ensued. The miners learned they had to stick together and stand up for themselves collectively. But even with that, they suffered horribly and many of their brethren were killed.

* * * * *

The Clinton-Obama struggle to be selected as the Presidential candidate for the Democratic Party has become emblematic of class warfare, with the working class (annual income under $50K, as represented by the electorate in Ohio) squarely in the Clinton camp and the middle and upper classes just as squarely for Obama. The party is unified against Bush, against the war in Iraq, and against the notion that government can’t solve problems. But it is divided along income and class lines. The division is not as stark as it was in Matewan, but if it persists it could be the source of the Dems snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory, something that seems to be on the minds of the many in the party.

While health insurance has been a big deal issue in the campaign, there has not been a broader discussion about social safety net and promoting worker mobility that is necessary for our economy to function efficiently. Perhaps the right answer for the unemployed in Ohio is for them to move to where the new jobs are likely to be. But who should bear the costs of that move? And who should bear the costs of those who stick it out in Ohio trying to find other work? Those are the questions that should be debated. But so far, they haven’t been.

The candidates have also been disingenuous on the issue of taxes, each calling for a middle class tax reduction, to be financed by increased taxes on the very wealthy. It sounds nice, but I don’t think it will cut it policy-wise, and it won’t unify the party. Instead, we need to abandon this Robin Hood type of thinking and move toward a vision of shared responsibility. I believe that is only possible if we voters ourselves communicate the desire to participate in that vision. In the rest of this post, I’ll draw out how it seems that should happen from my position as a taxpayer. If there are enough others who think along the same lines, those ideas will provide the source of the solution, a move toward unity in conception.

I finished doing my taxes last weekend. I used Turbotax Basic for that and based on the results from my return plus a bit of knowledge about how the marginal tax rates vary with income, I will give what I hope is an easy to understand analysis. Then I’ll draw some conclusions from that.

My family is in the bracket where the marginal tax rate is 28%. (University employees in Illinois belong to SURS, and income withheld for retirement is tax deferred, so does not count in calculating the marginal tax rate.) I would call myself middle class, but perhaps based on this information some might term that upper middle class. Regardless, the key observation is that my family’s average tax rate is less than 16%, which is much lower than the marginal rate. Between exemptions and, more importantly, itemized deductions we get to shield a good chunk of income from taxation. If we took the standard deduction instead, our average tax rate would be about 19%. My sense is that for fairness considerations, a family in my tax bracket should have an average rate of about 20% or perhaps a bit higher. A 4% increase in average tax rate on a taxable income of $150K is an additional $6K in taxes. That’s the magnitude of tax increase I’m talking about for families like mine.

The biggest part of our exemptions are related to housing, the mortgage interest deduction and the property tax deduction. My sense is that both of those should be capped much more tightly than they are now. (The proposals by the Bush panel are not nearly severe enough.) If you look at the underlying rationale for these deductions (this is the same rationale for why the sub-prime loan market should exist) they are ostensibly to promote the American Dream – families should live in their own homes; we should be a nation of homeowners, not of renters. It’s a nice aspiration. Yet I learned some time ago that in the name of income redistribution ideas aimed at benefiting those of modest income, in actuality we end up redistributing income in the other direction. This is a case in point.

Champaign-Urbana is probably not the best place to illustrate this problem, since housing prices are modest relative to those prices in larger urban areas. So for illustration follow this link to find some home listings in Naperville and then mouse over some of the home icons. At these prices a million dollar mortgage seems natural, even low, and with a 6% interest rate, about the current rate for a 30-year fixed rate mortgage, that is $60,000 of deductible income. That deduction is in excess of the total income of the typical Clinton voter. So people who can afford to live in Naperville get a huge tax break. Obviously, that’s a private benefit to those people. But what social benefit does it create? I’d argue there is no social benefit whatsoever. Indeed there is some harm created in that this bids up the demand for mortgages makes rates higher than they’d otherwise be and ditto for home values. Each of these effects makes it harder for lower income folks trying to purchase a home.

The mortgage on our house in Champaign is much smaller, a million dollar home here is still comparatively rare, yet our mortgage nonetheless produces a substantial shrinkage in our average tax rate and the point remains that the benefit is purely private, not social. We’d own a home anyway, with or without the deduction. (Without the deduction we might have opted for a smaller home or to have stayed where we used to live at a more rural address where property values were lower.)

The argument is that where tax breaks don’t produce some social benefit and where they are skewed toward middle and upper income individuals, they should be reduced if not eliminated outright. And in making the case for this point I’ve not yet even mentioned capital gains as income and how capital gains are (not) taxed. (This type of income is even more skewed in favor of high income earners than the mortgage deduction.)

Tax policy as a political issue has been the province of the Republicans, not the Democrats. That needs to change. But politically it can’t unless people in my bracket (and in the higher brackets too) willingly accept an increase in their average tax rates as a necessary burden to bear, to help those who are more needy.

Even if socially there has been great harm from the rising income inequality in society, people in the higher tax brackets have gotten a private gain from the tax policy changes that started with the Reagan Presidency and continue to this day. So in the jargon of the economist, the question is what is their willingness to pay to see inequality reduced? In my opinion, the candidates won’t go near this question until we in the electorate hash it out for ourselves for a while.

If the candidates are to take their lead from us on anything, this is the issue where that should happen. Otherwise, all they’ll do is pander to us. And what has been an entertaining and energizing race until now, will come to naught.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

On Passions, Courses, and Other Devices

David Brooks has a eulogy as homage to William Buckley. Though I’m not a Buckley fan, I thought this a very good read. Brooks points to the human side of Buckley and what in the persona enabled him to become the champion of the conservative movement. I wondered if Brooks was being overly sentimental and because I had seen a snip on the Charlie Rose show the night before which included an episode with Buckley and Arthur Schlesinger, I searched for that episode and found this video on YouTube of a show from 1995. (The audio is not very good so you need to turn up your volume to hear and it is not well synched to the video. But it is interesting in several respects.)

Though Schlesinger and Buckley are at the opposite ends of the spectrum politically, Buckley takes a protective stance about Schlesinger personally, forcing Rose to acknowledge the Pulitzer Prizes Schlesinger won, and the tone in the conversation is respectful and collegial, in spite of the differences in point of view. This is a gentler Buckley than I remember from the times I saw him on Firing Line, though this review seems to suggest it was representative and it is my memory that is faulty. The show is also interesting on two distinct bits of politics and history. The general debate between the two is essentially the same argument about the role of government we are having today. In that sense things have not changed at all. The show, aired in January, followed the elections from the preceding November, where it was apparent the electorate was quite fed up, and the reason was pure economics – the middle class was feeling threatened because of the dislocation caused by the move to the information economy. Schlesinger had that part of the story completely right. But this debate preceded the boom and neither he nor Buckley anticipated that at all. So on that they were both spectacularly wrong.

* * * * *

The above was written on Friday. I thought I’d complete the post over the weekend, in between trips to Chicago to get our Executive MBA program started using Adobe Connect and to Purdue for the CIC Learning Technology Group meeting. But travelling takes something out of me and some other obligations got in the way. So here it is Wednesday and I’m trying to pick up where I left off as best as I can. Also, in the meantime I read Gardner’s post about his encounter with Buckley, with more confirmation that the gentler side of Buckley was the real one – why can’t the people you disagree with be ogres? That would be so much simpler. Perhaps the stereotype I depict next is also not quite right.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been involved in two separate conversations about General Education courses in science, taught by instructors who win the Campus awards and who really care about their teaching and invest in it heavily, and who report that the students won’t put in any effort whatsoever if they don’t get course credit for it. In one case the issue was a pilot blended learning offering in a course on Severe Weather, where the students were supposed to do substantial out of class work in preparation for the live class session and to post their questions about their readings online ahead of time so the instructor would have read through these by the time the live class session was to start. The finding, however, is that the students would do the reading but then get stuck someplace, usually the same place for the bulk of the students, and then the questions they posted would be about how to get unstuck. They t put in neither the time nor the effort to get unstuck on their own. So they never got to the point to ask follow up questions.

In the other class, a course on Plants and Pathogens, an extensive Web site was developed over many years to provide complementary content to the textbook and in some cases novel content that has no parallel in the textbook. The instructor’s original idea is that different students prefer to get their content in different ways and some students would prefer the online presentation to the traditional text presentation. But the finding was that the students used the Web site only infrequently, and then mostly to do the required lab notebooks. They hardly used it in an exploratory way, though the instructors had wanted that outcome.

Judging by the behavior that we can observe, these students don’t seem passionate about these courses and the conclusion the instructors have drawn is that their behavior is typical. The Plants and Pathogens instructor, citing the book My Freshman Year, hypothesized the students are too busy to spend idle time in search of ideas garnered from optional material on the Web site. I’m hearing about the student time constraint fairly often. I continue to wonder whether it is the real story or a place holder for something else. Perhaps the students just don’t have the requisite level of commitment. Then again, maybe it’s that they don’t really know how to make use of such a Web site in a way that would help themselves as learners. Likewise, maybe the students in the atmospheric class don’t have the ability to get themselves unstuck.

My suspicion, and I base this on what I’m witnessing with my own kids as they struggle through some of their homework is that there is a vicious cycle afoot with the following elements:

a) The kids have been told since day one that they are very bright so they feel they shouldn’t have to work hard to master what they are being taught.

b) Some of the work is, in fact, difficult for them. They really don’t know how to cope and need some personal coaching.

c) Absent the personal coaching, the next best alternative is for them to put in the time on their own and muddle through. But the ego is really on the line this way. Blowing it off is much easier and certainly much less painful to the psyche.

d) Their peers don’t seem to be putting in the time either so from a cultural perspective putting in the time would be leaving the herd. For many, that is hard to do.

e) So they develop a lack of confidence that they can accomplish their learning, even though they are bright. And then the cycle repeats.

I have to say, it’s not just the kids. I’m guilty of some of this, particularly with mobile technology, like my cell phone. I don’t learn it well enough at the outset and I find it hard to use. I believe that many instructors are that way with presentation technology to be used in the classroom. The difference here, if there is one, is that these instructors have demonstrated intellectual competency and an ability to learn in some area of endeavor. With the kids, it’s not clear whether they have or haven’t. And if they haven’t, how could they possibly be passionate about their courses?

In an effort to help the instructor in the Severe Weather course, I did some searching on “Getting Unstuck” and in short order I found this paper, Successful students’ strategies for getting unstuck (your Library has to subscribe to the ACM Portal for this link to work.) The focus here is on computer science but I believe the lessons are much broader than that. Much of the answer seems to be in finding help from someone else in the know, not very surprising but certainly worth mentioning. However, I’m more interested in those techniques that allow the student to get unstuck on his own. It seems to me that is the key ability to develop intellectual confidence and learn how to teach oneself in the future. In that regard, I really liked the following quote. This student has figured it out.

I would say, deviate from the assignments on your own time and write programs that you think are completely useless and stupid. You think of these programs, no one’s going to use them. ... Just do it anyway because you’ll understand. You’ll run into problems and you’ll find the solutions to that problem. [...] And then, when the school project does come, you’ll have had the experience from what you’ve done on your own. But I think it’s important that you don’t just do the schools. You’ve got to do it on your own.

It seems to me it’s not so hard to figure this out, but it does take a willingness to put in the time, and between those two there is a bit of a chicken and egg problem. So I’m not sure we can teach doing those useless and stupid things that get you to understand what is going on (so they clearly are neither useless nor stupid). But it’s worth pondering.

* * * * *

On the useless and stupid front, I’ve been screwing around with presentations that are meant for online only, not to be delivered face to face, and using a series of blog posts to achieve that. Here’s one on professional development for learning technologists. I know I make my movies too long for the content that’s in them. But perhaps the format suggests something that others can see could be valuable if done well, and then make some improvements on what I’ve got so far.