Friday, August 29, 2008

Dissonance - Cognitive and Otherwise

This is the first (almost) full week of school for the boys.  For some reason they had a half day today.  The long weekend got even longer. The older one has all his buddies over at the house; I think there might be nine of them in total.  So I’m staying late at the office to keep out of harm’s way.  I almost always start writing a blog post in the morning, when I’m freshest and the ideas flow better.  I’ve got nobody here to go have a beer with – everybody else has taken off already and I can’t see hitting a bar by myself, just too depressing.  So, weird as this may seem, I’m blogging as an alternative, at least till I think it’s sufficiently subdued back at the ranch.

* * * * *

With politics on the brain, the Times this morning asked a bunch of Old Hands about their behind the scene experiences at prior Democratic Conventions.  They vary in quality.  This one by Gary Hart is unbelievable.  If it’s true it shows why most of us can’t run for high office – we wouldn’t have the presence of mind.

* * * * *

Just before writing this piece I read the “surprise” announcement that John McCain had picked Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate this fall.   The bit about the piece that got me is this.  Palin is a pro-lifer with five children of her own.  The last is only a year old.  She brought to term a child she knew ahead of time to have Down syndrome, rather than have an abortion.  One can only assume the child has special needs and is very much dependent on adult supervision.  Earlier in the week I watched this interview with Michelle Obama done by Judy Woodruff, where Obama says in no uncertain terms that the supermom concept is a myth, nobody can do it all.  If McCain-Palin win in November, does Palin outsource all her parenting to a nanny or does she become a stay-home Vice President?  How can the Conservative Right like either of those alternatives, as they seem to based on the quotes in the announcement article?

* * * * *

I’ve got a copy of Declining By Degrees, which I’m reading to see if it is appropriate to use in a course I may teach next semester.  It is a collection of essays, with a common theme to be sure but where each can be read in its own right.  So I’ve been picking and choosing.  The day before yesterday I read the chapter by Arthur Levine.  There is a section in it about financial aid and access and about how Colleges have changed in their approach to awarding aid where first there has been a shift from grants to loans and second, even with grants there has been a shift from need based aid to merit aid.  Both of these make going to college more onerous for low income students.  And the data bear out that, indeed, College enrollments of low income students have been declining. 

The Democratic Convention made clear that the agenda at home is to restore The American Dream.  A good part of that is to make College accessible to all and to have a much larger fraction of the population matriculate and graduate.  Those goals seem noble to me.  So it would follow, based on the Levine piece, that we should advocate for a return to need based aid even if done unilaterally it means some of those students getting 1600s on the SATs go elsewhere. 

My older boy is a high school junior now.  He took an ACT prep course this summer and seems to have a reasonable chance to score quite high on that test.  He wants to go to College away from Champaign-Urbana and I concur with that preference; he needs to experience different environs.  There’s a reasonable possibility he’ll end up at a ritzy private college.  (I graduate from Cornell after starting at MIT.)  Even the top rated public universities are pretty pricey if you have to pay out of state tuition.  Realistically we can now afford about the first two years of such an experience for him and his younger brother too.  After that we’ll have to go into hoc.   I’ve thought about retiring in a couple of year when I’m 55, then going to work elsewhere so I can double dip income-wise, just to solve that problem.  If the kids got substantial merit scholarships because they were perceived to be elite performers in the classroom, that would be a welcome alternative.  So as a parent, I lust for our kids getting merit scholarships, especially if they opt to go to College away from home. 

Until this week I hadn’t seen the contradiction but now I wonder if that’s just being greedy – the altruistic preference would be to advocate for need based aid consistently and simply be willing to take on the additional debt.  (That’s the American way, right?) But, more honestly, I tend to think – take care of the family first and suspend societal concerns until those family needs are met.  On the other hand, if faculty collectively have that point of view and most of us are probably in the 90th percentile nationally regarding family income, doesn’t that smack of elitism?  I’m really struggling with this one. 

Maybe I should consider voting Republican.  And by the way, that course I’d be teaching is for Campus Honors Students

* * * * *

Yesterday, I spent a good chunk of my idle time considering the word “cloying” after reading this column by Roger Cohen that I thought was on the mark.  In this case it refers to both Barack and Michelle Obama “dumbing it down” in order to show they’re just plain folks, to connect to the White ethnic voters who hold the key to this election.  If it’s agreed that this is what they were trying to do with the Convention, and perhaps what they will do with the entire remainder of the campaign, is this an approach that we early supporters can embrace?  It’s obnoxious for the smartest kid in the class to show off, sure, but do we really want him to pull his intellectual punches? 

There is a passage in that Levine chapter which deals with the Teaching and Learning Mismatch that seems apt.

Here is the problem. More than half of college students learn best by means of “direct, concrete experience, moderate-to-high degrees of structure and a linear approach to learning.  They value the practical and the immediate and the focus of their perception is primarily on the physical world.”  In contrast, three-quarters of the faculty “prefer the global to the particular, are stimulated by the realm of concepts, ideas, and abstractions, and assume that students, like themselves, need a high degree of autonomy in their work.”

Barack Obama was a faculty member.  So maybe it’s not a racial thing.  But does the candidate denying this tendency toward the academic way of thinking make sense? 

* * * * *

I’m not ruling out racial motives in the voting.  But the economy seems to be in the crapper, at least for a good chunk of the population whom you might say are low to middle income.  As Paul Krugman makes clear in his column today, there is a stark choice to be made between the two parties on economic grounds.  And it would seem that in that dimension every working stiff would prefer what the Democrats have to offer, overwhelmingly so.  So why is this election a horse race?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

For The Time Series Folks

I stumbled across this tool will looking at Google Spreadsheets yesterday. Then I learned that others (here and here) have posted on this from a while back. This might be quite useful in addition to being fun and entertaining.

In my little example, there are two dimensions of numerical data, in this case income and wealth. I generated the data as follows. Income is a uniformly distributed random variable from -50 to 50. [Rand()*100-50]. Wealth is last year's wealth plus this year's income. Initial wealth is 10,000. There are three fictitious individuals plotted over a 50 year interval. Two of those individuals are female. The other is a male. Gender is one categorical variable. If you have your mouse hover over the bubble, it should indicate the name of that individual. There is also another column of random variables between 0 and 1 that can be used to size the bubbles.

Whether this is useful for real data I leave to others. Here is a specification of Google Spreadsheets limits on size. That might help determine the use value of this application. But it is definitely cool, no doubt.

By the way, originally I couldn't get the player to install. My time period started 0,1, 2, etc. Ultimately I changed that to 4 digit years and it worked fine. So if you do try it, don't make that mistake.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A gem of an article

Hillary Clinton is on tap to speak to the Democratic Convention tonight. So, of course, the New York Times has an Op-Ed Contributor piece by Susan Faludi where she provides a historical perspective that explains why so many of Clinton's supporters remain miffed by both the process and the outcome. At one level I understood the piece, but at a visceral level I didn't get it. So I did a search for angry Clinton supporters, or something to that effect, and found this piece at from last June. It's more blatant on the emotional issues, definitely better that way. But I still wasn't satisfied with understanding Hillary Clinton's supporters. So I did more searching.

For some reason the next thought that occurred to me was to look up Bobby Kennedy's Senate race with Kenneth Keating in 1964. Keating was the incumbent in New York, then the most populous state. He was a Nelson Rockefeller Republican, reasonably popular as I recall, though I was only 9 at the time. And Kennedy was obviously not from New York, but rather from Massachussetts. Clinton had a background similar in those respects when she first ran for the Senate.

After striking out for a while in my search I found this piece, the gem of my title. It makes a strong case that Bobby Kennedy won by riding on Lyndon Johnson's coattails. Johnson carried New York by 2.5 million votes (we were terrified of Goldwater). But Kennedy's margin was only 720,000. On that score Clinton obviously was a stronger candidate since there was essentially no coattail effect from the Bush-Gore Presidential election. (Alternatively, the Republican Senate candidate in 2000 was weaker, with less name recognition.)

In the midst of this piece I stumbled across the following to which I had to outwardly utter a loud WHOA!!

The chairman of Kennedy's Senate campaign, R. Peter Straus, said he came to view Kennedy's Massachusetts residence as perhaps the biggest obstacle to winning the election. ''It was a big issue, this carpetbagging thing,'' he said.

Mr. Straus sounded much like Mrs. Clinton's advisers, though he would not offer any direct comparisons with Mrs. Clinton's situation, noting his own particular relationship with the first family. (Mr. Straus is married to Marcia Lewis, the mother of Monica S. Lewinsky.)

That last parenthetical remark made the world seem so small - and politics so much inside-baseball. I really didn't anticipate seeing Monica Lewinsky's name come up in this piece.

Bobby Kennedy is now an icon, but in 1964 he was no such thing. Indeed, he owed much of his own success in politics at the time to others' vision of JFK, who was an icon, his assassination still very much in the nation's consciousness a year later. This truth seems self-evident.

Likewise it seems self-evident that Hillary Clinton's initial Senate run owed much to the popularity of Bill Clinton. Later, she became the early favorite for the 2008 Democratic Presidential Candidate, again because of this tie. Ultimately, in my opinion, it's this connection that did her in.

I suppose it's just human nature to see your own favorite candidate as virtuous and the rival as Machiavellan. For me, at least, it helps to look outside the current setting to prior circumstance in making this sort of judgment. People do grow, change their modus operandi, or modify their beliefs based on experience, sure enough. But there are parts of us that are our nature and change little if at all. That article is a gem because it provides that sort of window into Hillary Clinton.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

For Presentation to New Faculty

This post is for a presentation to new faculty about ways to use Web technology in a fruitful manner to enhance teaching and learning.

Main Theme:

There are lots of new, cool, and quite useful tools that are part of the The Cloud. Each of these can be used as a stand alone or in conjunction with Campus supported tools such as Illinois Compass, the Campus Learning Management System. This presentation is aimed simply to wet the appetite and encourage further exploration when the faculty have the time to do so.

Things To Keep In Mind:

Do you have a sensible teaching and learning reason for using the technology, either pedagogic or logistical? Is there a way for you to evaluate whether the technology delivers on that ex post? Do you walk the walk? If you want your students to use some technology for a class purpose, do you do likewise?

Citation/Web linking

Kwout is a simple tool for referencing a Web page with both a cutout of that page and a back link to the page, both of which can be embedded in some other page like a blog or a discussion board in Illinois Compass. One can add personal commentary to the Kwout content. Since it is easy to use (the back link is done automatically) making posts with Kwout is an easy habit to develop. If Firefox is the preferred browser, there is a Kwout plugin that can be accessed via a right click.
  • Encourage students to cite references with Kwout.
  • Spend some of your teaching time providing "translation" of results published elsewhere, perhaps in the popular press, to the topic of study in your course.
  • Encourage students to chase down the reference because the back link is right there.
Ebsco page for Akerlof Article (This link might require being in the UIUC domain.)
Show Kwout of this Ebsco page displayed in Illinois Compass.

Refworks This is bibliographic software that the Library Licenses for Campus Use. It integrates with many Library databases and it will produce bibliographies in the appropriate style, such as in MLA format. Grad students working on their dissertation love this application. Undergrads might also find it useful, but beware of undergrads citing papers they haven't read.

Building Community/Text, Audio, and Video Discussions

VoiceThread this is a very nice tool to encourage commentary and group discussion. Text, Audio, and Video commentary are possible. The free version allows up to three presentations stored on the site. The pro version has unlimited storage.
  • Multiple ways to participate.
  • It can be a place for groups of students to make and practice online presentations.
  • Or it can be a place where students comment and react to instructor created presentations.
Give demo of VoiceThread and show how students can use it to comment on PowerPoint presentation.

Facebook - should there be a class group in facebook? Since I'm over 50, I'll give the old fogie answer. If your students want it, let them create the group and then invite you to join. Don't force your academic space onto their social lives. They very well may not want it.

Recording Video Conversations is a site of video debates or conversations. Some of these get featured on the New York Times Web site. Students tend to shy away from reasoned argument and instead want "right answers" --- what the professor says. Recording video conversations with peers or "online guest lecturers" is a straightforward way to get multiple points of view into a course. (And if done with peers, they can use the recording in their classes too!)

The same technology can also be used to bring in the student perspective into the class - record "office hours" where the students drive the conversation and the instructor responds to the student queries. See if other students watch these, even if they aren't a required part of the course.
  • The Campus has a particular honors program called James Scholars. Such students must do projects to receive honors credit. A nice project would be for them to "volunteer" to be recorded for these office hours.
ooVoo is a video chat software, a competitor of Skype. The pay version on the PC has a recording capability and the video chats can be recorded in fairly high resolution (big files). A nice place to host those videos is It accepts files that are bigger than what YouTube allows. Further the pay version allows you to keep the files private yet still embed them in other Web pages where you want them to appear. Like all Video hosting services, it tracks the number of times the video has been played.

ooVoo chat with Jim

Screen Capture Movies

Jing This is a freebie good for making short movies with voice over, but no editing after capture.
Camtasia This is commercial software with editing and captioning capability.
Cost Movies
  • Students captures as assignments.
  • Brief captures to add commentary between class sessions.
  • Mini lectures done online so in class time can be devoted to discussion.


Computer ownership among students is quite high, 95% or more. (See ECAR Study on Student Technology Use.) Most of the students nowadays opt for a laptop. Nonetheless, the majority of students don't have that laptop with them when they come to class. The portable device of choice is the cell phone. Virtually all students have one and they do bring those to class (preferably with the ringer off).

Google Calendar Students need help with time management. There are many Web based calendars, including within the Learning Management System. But are these calendars accessible when the students are away from their computers? If you put your class calendar into Google Calendar and make it public students can subscribe to it. They can also receive alerts about class deadlines.

Google Docs
This is a nice collaboration tool where groups of students can share documents and work on them together online. There is a feature to access the document list and to browse each document from a cellphone.

Where do we go from here?

The magic words are "opt in." Use these tools or not at your own discretion. If you see the value and feel comfortable using cloud computing then go for it. If not, don't. There may be a bit of a learning curve with some of there or some initial setup before you can use successfully. Better to use one or two of these well than to embrace them all but use them poorly. You can build up your bag of tricks as you gain teaching experience. In the meantime, good luck with the start of the semester.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Schon and Gawande

The family got back Saturday evening from a week of R&R in Door County. The week itself was a lot of fun but the drive is a bit on the long side for me – my knees especially don’t like sitting in a car for the almost eight hours we were in route. So there was a need to recover from the travel. While the rest of the family hunkered down to watch some junkie movie I tuned into the Olympics. The women’s marathon had just started. I watched for about 45 minutes, after some jockeying at the front of the pack the runner from Romania made a sustained push and broke well ahead of the other runners. (She ultimately won.) Soon afterwards I nodded off. When I awoke, after I’m not sure how long, the men’s 100 meter final was just getting underway. The announcers seemingly anticipated the result – Usain Bolt obliterated the field, setting a new world record while relaxing and showing off before reaching the finish line. Bolt is the fastest man alive which, in spite of his obvious talent, comes as a bit of a surprise since he is so tall, 6’5”, and usually tall people have trouble getting out of the starting blocks so are more adept at longer races. (The 100 meters is a sidebar for Bolt. His prime race is the 200 meters.)
I thought back to the first Olympics I watched on TV, the 1968 Games in Mexico City, when I was thirteen, a regular reader of Sports Illustrated, and Track and Field was showcased (on Wild World of Sports and perhaps other programming) quite apart from the Olympics and the Olympic Trials. There is some parallel between Bolt and Tommie Smith, who most readers will remember did the Black Power salute (along with John Carlos) while on the victory stand after having won the Gold medal in the 200 meters. People may not recall, however, that Smith at full stride was the fastest person alive back in 1968, faster than Jim Hines the Gold medal winner in the 100 meters. But Smith, almost as tall as Bolt, was slow out of the starting blocks and hence didn’t run the 100. (The other candidate for fastest man alive was Bullet Bob Hayes, though I only saw him in football uniform for the Dallas Cowboys, never as a track star.) Of course it’s not possible, but I wonder how Smith and Bolt would do head to head in the 200 meters and I wonder as well why we see world record times continue to fall in these races. I found this rather interesting interview with Lee Evans (a contemporary of Tommie Smith, Gold Medal winner in the 400 meters, and subsequently a track coach, the interview is in the middle of the page under the subheading Running Vagabond) where he argues that especially in the U.S training is less strenuous nowadays and the athletes substitute weight lifting and supplements for calisthenics and more traditional conditioning. The modern approach may produce more spectacular results in the top performers, particularly sprinters, even if it is worse for stamina, though I don’t really know how to test that proposition.
* * * * *
The comparing of current developments with things I know from my past is a recurrent theme for me. I do it in all sorts of areas. And, as above, I will do it in the rest of this post. Thanks to a recommendation from Gardner Campbell a good chunk of my reading while on vacation was Better by Atul Gawande. I had seen Gawande in this interview with Macarthur Fellows from the Charlie Rose show. And I had read a couple of his opinion pieces in the New York Times, such as this one, which seemed sensible and well written, so I was well disposed to Gardner’s recommendation. Indeed, it struck a chord in me. Gawande’s core hypothesis, something that Gardner quotes and I excerpt below, rings a familiar bell.
Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.
The combination of these factors I would term “intelligent guessing.” It is neither trial and error nor is it direct application of known research results. It is a different, though perhaps hybrid animal. One might try to define it more precisely, but that’s already been done. The Reflective Practitioner, by Donald Schon, something I read more than ten years ago, is an elegant argument and a complete epistemology about how professionals make real world decisions. The approach is meant to work across fields. Though Schon doesn’t write about Medicine specifically (he does write about psychiatry as one of his examples) his approach carries over in a straightforward manner to Medicine and to other professions as well (like teaching and learning). So somewhere in the middle of Better I started to ask myself about what is in it apart from the interesting stories of particular patients and the novel treatments their doctors devised, certainly good reading in and of themselves, that is value add over the Reflective Practitioner in terms of describing what is going on with professional practice. I have a few answers to that.
But before I get to them, let me pick on the two chapters in Better that I found the least satisfying. I do want to embrace much of what Gawande preaches; it makes for a very good agenda for learning technologists. But I want to do so in a critical way so I don’t want to merely echo what Gardner has already written. Then too, I didn’t know how to bring out these negative reactions after a complete endorsement of Gawande’s main themes. So I though it better to get to those reactions first.
There is a chapter on Capital Punishment and what, if any, role doctors should play in administering the death penalty. The rest of the book can be read by omitting that chapter without skipping a beat on the argument. I can only guess why it is there – Gawande feels a need to confront the ethical dimensions of being a doctor – and on that level I’m sympathetic because I feel that same need in the realm of learning technology. But the conclusion he came up with makes no sense to me whatsoever. The core issues are these. Doctors’ raison d’etre is to preserve life, improve health, and maintain the well being of their patients. Any behavior that departs from these norms is antithetical to the doctors’ core mission. The State, however, has found Capital Punishment acceptable in light of certain crimes, subject only to the provisions of the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Gawande’s conclusion, he does discuss and has interviewed some doctors who have actively participated in carrying out executions, is that doctors should not be involved in administering the death penalty. He does not seem to feel a need to take a stronger position, to wit that doctors should openly argue against the death penalty because administering it is inherently cruel and unusual. Nor does he argue that doctors should be part of the administration because that would make the punishment humane. Rather he clings to a middle ground that to me has no footing and, I might add, it seemed to me that doctors would be abdicating responsibility if they collectively behaved according to Gawande’s argument. As I said, the rest of the book can be fruitfully read by ignoring that chapter, or one can come back to it after the rest of the book has been finished.
The subsequent chapter, titled On Fighting, makes an argument that doctors should always fight for the health and welfare of their patients. Fine. He does recognize that there are possibly cases where the doctors view shout not ultimately prevail. The patient’s perspective can serve as a trump card. And he gives as example a teenaged cancer patient who forgoes an invasive and low probability of success treatment, dying peacefully soon thereafter, because the patient had already been through the ringer. Enough is enough. In this chapter Gawande tries to personalize the patient’s point of view by talking about the severe skin problems his own daughter has gone through and the impact of that on her and the family. But Gawande lumps together two groups of patients into a single category, those who are near the end of life, regardless of their age and hence regardless of their prospects of a good life should their medical problems be cured. He thus ignores the intergenerational income transfer issues that Larry Kotlikoff raises, issues that are inherent in the “Fighting” approach. And on a more personal level, since I’m going through this now with my mom, he ignores the issue of dementia (Alzheimer’s) and whether Fighting continues to make sense once the patient’s mental capacities have been severely diminished. Here I mean Fighting about general health problems, say removal of a skin cancer, not Fighting about restoring the mental capacity to its earlier state. The issue is if the latter is likely not possible, how much of the former should be done from the patient’s perspective or, since the patient likely can’t work this through given the mental state, from the perspective of the immediate family or those with medical power of attorney. Gawande doesn’t touch this issue. It’s a tough one. I would have liked to see some of that moral clarity arguing either side of it – Fighting is still right in this case or no, this is time to give up the ghost. Moral clarity would be very helpful. When I discuss this issue with my wife or my siblings, I’m prone to mumble.
* * * * *
Let me turn to Better’s value add. First, consider this passage from Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind…. Celebrate Your Amateurness. The admonition is essentially the same as Gawande’s core theme, but the labeling is different. The labeling matters. Gawande makes clear the behavior is not outside the role of the professional. It is the core of what makes the professional excellent. Gawande does a more or less complete sociology of intelligent guessing; he shows that not all doctors do it but those who are most successful with their patients do. Moreover, he is able to carefully distinguish between the intelligent guessing that is an outgrowth of practice from research, the type we think of happens in labs or in carefully monitored clinical trials, the source most of us think is responsible for improvement in medical outcomes. Gawande argues to the contrary that it is diligent application of intelligent guessing rather than research that is the primary cause.
This leads to the next area where Gawande adds to Schon. The quintessential reflective practitioner is perhaps Sherlock Holmes. His solving of cases by careful attention to detail and putting the pieces together are acts of genius. The rest of us couldn’t do it. But did Conan Doyle’s fictional detective advance the state of criminology in the process? Did his solution of any particular puzzling case help the rest of us with cases we’re trying to understand? Schon’s depiction of the reflective practice is in this sense like a depiction of Holmes, with the one exception that Schon argues much of it can be learned, through an apprentice model of some sort. Of course, Schon’s focus is not on how the field advances so much as to how expert practitioners operate. Gawande has a different focus. His title is a double entendre. Making the patient better is, of course, the doctor’s imperative. Making the medical profession better is the mystery he wants to explain. Gawande makes clear that there is a double edged nature to reflective practice. It solves the problem at hand but it also adds to the stock of knowledge of approaches that might be used to help other patients.
Gawande’s third contribution is bringing a scientist’s sensibilities to what is essentially a humanist’s undertaking. And it is here that Medicine may be somewhat special, though as Gardner notes in his post it does make us wonder whether we could come up with meaningful performance metrics (I take a modest stab below) to do similar comparison’s in teaching and learning that Gawande reports in his book. At various places he talks about survival rates, the well being of newborn babies, the efficiency with which lungs respire, each of which is a sensible and quantifiable performance measure, so comparison across approaches can be made. The scientist wants to know whether intelligent guessing works. The only convincing evidence for Gawande is that it creates improvement in accord with such performance measures. Gawande’s book is full of these sorts of demonstrations. But this is not proof a la hypothesis testing in controlled experiments. Indeed, the point is that controlled experiments are too slow and won’t produce needed answers in situ. One necessarily needs ad hoc solutions, but solutions that make sense and stand a decent chance of being right. Given that, there should be evidence of the post hoc variety to speak to whether the approach really trumps a more conservative one, applying only what has already been proven via clinical trials. Personally, I don’t need that sort of evidence in thinking about my own teaching. I’m already there. But in trying to convince other teachers to embrace an approach founded in intelligent guessing, as this Educause Quarterly piece argues, having that sort of evidence would be hugely helpful. The anecdotes are fine but the numbers are very useful too.
So with that in mind here is my first stab at creating an index of class function (not individual student function) that instructors might score their classes on, perhaps on a session by session basis, or if done online on a week by week basis. Mimicking the Apgar scoring system for newborns, each item gets from zero to two points. There are five items so a top score is ten points. Scores well below the maximum are fodder for the instructor to consider possible improvements in the teaching approach.
· There is lively discussion with lots of back and forth.
· There is diversity of input with all students participating in the discussion.
· Students don’t just ask questions or voice opinions but also respond to the questions and opinions of other students.
· The discussion produces a transfer of an idea that was previously presented to a scenario that had not been previously analyzed.
· The discussion produces a synthesis of ideas and this synthesis emerges from the students themselves rather than from the instructor.
One might also envision doing a similar such index for small group function and have the students in the group score themselves. Obviously there is some subjectivity in doing the actual scoring (as there is in judging events like gymnastics at the Olympics) and knowing that might prompt a diligent instructor to write a line or two to explain the rating. Perhaps the ratings could be shared with the class – after all it is not an individual performance thing – and maybe that would help the students see what their role in the class should be and also to get them to reflect on how class function might improve. Could we implement something like this? I don’t know. Gawande’s book is an inspiration to try.
Let me now turn to two issues that are not in Gawande’s book or are there in a tangential way, but seem like next steps. The first is how to transfer learning that has occurred from an intelligent guessing approach to others who were not initially involved but who would benefit from the knowledge. In the chapter on India, Gawande does talk about the doctors, overwhelmed with work, nevertheless making time in the afternoon for a Chai to share stories and have some down time from the grind. Undoubtedly peer networking of this sort is a good vehicle for transfer. It clearly solves the problem of whether those who need to learn find the information credible and it prevents having to reinvent the wheel every time, but scale-wise perhaps it is limited. And, indeed, in the chapter on cystic fibrosis treatment Gawande makes clear that such transfer doesn’t happen well in the profession as a whole and consequently there is substantial difference in performance from one center to the next. So I wonder if Gawande is looking for other possible transfer mechanisms. Perhaps as I’ve suggested here (read these three posts from the bottom up) that like open source development there should be a center, embodied in a particular and perhaps charismatic individual, whose primary job is to facilitate transfer of this sort of knowledge. This is an area where learning technology might lead Medicine and it is an argument for why the person performing this center function should be a faculty member rather than a staff person.
The other issue is about who is doing the intelligent guessing. With the exception of the first chapter where the focus is on epidemiologists (who I take it are PhD’s not MD’s), all of the characters in the book who engage in the heroic solving of medical problems in place through this intelligent guessing/reflective practice approach are doctors. In particular, there is no section where nurses are the heroes doing this sort of problem solving. The question is why. I will speculate about the possible answer. One alternative is that this simply reflects Gawande’s center of gravity. He is a doctor so his focus is on other doctors. Some nurses do engage in this reflective practice and produce substantive improvements. It’s simply that there is no chapter on that sort of activity.
Another possibility, however, is that there is much less of the activity on the nurse side compared to the doctor side, relative to their respective numbers, because of the hierarchical relationships that exist in Medicine. Indeed, even with the doctor side, it may be that only certain doctors spend a lot of their effort in this sort of intelligent guessing behavior. Here I speculate based on those instructors I’ve seen who do this in their teaching. They tend to be senior, don’t have to worry about achieving tenure, feel a certain dissatisfaction with how their classes are going, and then once having started down the path find the journey self-reinforcing. Teaching and learning would benefit if other instructors similarly traveled down these paths, but the other instructors are not so disposed.
If this is true, the question emerges then at an institutional level if there are structural changes that could be put in place to change the mindset of the individual instructors – for example an open embrace of experimentation in the classroom. Likewise in Medicine one might ask what structural changes would encourage more of the participants to engage in a systematic program of intelligent guessing. My belief is that hierarchy discourages it. Can we move to flatter structures and still preserve the essence of what we do?
Let me close with the following observation. Sometimes we learn important lessons for our field by looking outside the field, where similar lessons have already been learned. Better is a great book for educators precisely for that reason. And it’s a really good read to boot.

Friday, August 08, 2008

ooVoo Chat with Mike Dyer

Mike is the instructor in the Intro to Finance course in the College of Business. It is a large course with several hundred students per semester. We're trying a Blended version in the fall where one hour of lecture per week is replaced by online content. The semester starts in about two and a half weeks and this brief chat is meant to take a pulse reading before we get into the thick of it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sometimes there may be no good alternatives

Robert M. Blitzer, who formerly directed the F.B.I.’s section on domestic terrorism, bristled at criticism of the bureau’s methods in the anthrax case and called them a necessary part of tracking down the killer.

“You do the best you can, and it’s not always pretty,” he said. “A lot of times you interview folks over and over again, and you know they’re lying and you’ve got to figure out why. It’s a tough business. Here, you have a bunch of people dead and several diminished and you’re charged with solving the crime. You try not to step on peoples’ toes, but sometimes it happens.”