Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The (Not So) Mystical Mom

I would have missed this piece about Betty Friedan and the Feminine Mystique (a snippet of which is below) had Gayle not posted about it.  I'm glad to have read this Gail Collins essay because it sets in contrast so much of my upbringing.  I also did a quick look up about Friedan's early life.  She was about a half year younger than my mom (my mom was born in 1920, Friedan in 1921), Jewish, but from Peoria, where she must have felt the outsider because of antisemitism.  Much has been made of Friedan's attending Smith.  One wonders if some of her revulsion was about WASP life more broadly, not just about the MRS degree aspect.

My mom was not a housewife, this in spite of the constraints on women's careers that Friedan describes.  Where the word demure might aptly describe the housewife, my mother was pushy.  Bulldozer might be a better description.  

She became something of a money making machine, with a tutoring business in foreign languages.  At the time New York (can't remember if this was the city or the state) offered three different diplomas from high school.  The Academic one required a foreign language.  There was a Regents exam that had to be passed after the third year of language.  This provided the necessary ingredients for a Stanley Kaplan approach before Stanley Kaplan (the test prep company) ever existed.  

I know that other teachers tutored on the side (and as a kid I did a little in high school).  But this was likely idiosyncratic work tailored to the particular kid's needs and of low volume, a sidebar, nothing more.  My mother had algorithms that she adhered to, for both the business model and the pedagogy.  These were of her own creation and is what made it into an ongoing business, where demand was fed by word of mouth recommendations among the satisfied clients. 

Our house had a den and there was a side entrance from the backyard directly into the den. So the den, which doubled as our family room and had a TV in it, served as my mom's office.  There was a card table which my parents used for playing bridge (they did that quite frequently with friends on the weekend).  The card table provided the working surface for the student and my mom.  There was a couch along the west wall of the room.  If a student for the next lesson arrived a few minutes early he'd sit on the couch till the current lesson was over.  There were no group lessons.  So a student could start with the tutoring at any time.  Students were therefore at different points on the trajectory in the tutoring and the lessons would be individualized that way, but otherwise not tailored to the students.  At the end of the lesson the kids paid - either cash or by check. There was no buying in bulk ahead of time.  I don't remember what the deal was for no-shows, obviously if the kid was really sick that was that, but there weren't many no-shows.  This was a serious business and since a parent had to drive the kid to and fro it had that supervision built in.

The lesson was based on learning grammar - perhaps not the best approach for learning to speak the language but a structured way to get at passing the test.  For example, the very simple sentence in French, je vais, can be translated into English in three different ways: I go, I do go, and I am going.  For translation in the other direction, particularly for the last form, my mother would say what became an incantation. "The word is helps make the sentence progressive and is not translated into French."  The student, most of the time not a high achiever at school, probably had at best a vague notion of the various tenses in English.  My mother's method was based on constructing a mapping of English tenses into tenses of the other language.  As a consequence, the learning of verbs dominated the lessons.  (In addition to French she taught Spanish, German, Latin, and once in a while Hebrew.)   So the kid learned some English grammar while becoming more proficient at the foreign language.  That I remember this all these years later is a testimony to how many times I heard it when I was a kid.

When we were young this was the only work I recall my mother doing.  As tutoring is an after school business, my mother had free time during the school day.  Much of this she spent playing tennis, which was her passion and which she did to great excess.  (Years later this excess exacerbated problems with arthritis.)  She returned to College as we got older to earn credits in Education so she could get a teaching license.  She substituted for a few years and then around the time I started high school she got a permanent job at Jamaica High School. (I went to Benjamin Cardozo High school, which was within walking distance. Jamaica was about a twenty minute car ride.)  She continued with the tutoring in earnest in those years.  Business, in fact, was booming.  During this time (I started high school in 1968) my mother surely was earning more than my father, a lawyer, the junior partner in a firm with his brother.  As lawyers go, my dad was pretty ordinary, or so is my understanding.  My mother, in contrast, was exceptional in her line of work. 

Before I turn to how superwoman did as a mom, let me make a brief aside.  I've recently finished watching the BBC TV series, The Hour.  The show is cast in the late 1950s, historical fiction about a BBC News program of the same name.  Interestingly, and relevant to the topic at hand, many of the gender issues come up as adjunct plots to the main theme of the show.  There is the bored out of her gourd housewife, who starts out in the Donna Reed mold but becomes increasingly angry and frustrated, particularly because her husband, the show's news anchorman, is cheating on her and she knows it.  There are women in very important production roles in the show and one of them, Bel Rowley is the character's name, is the female lead of the show.  These women are extraordinarily bright, very good at their work and passionate about it.  I don't know if this represents the actual reality at the time or is entirely revisionist history to attract current day audiences, but my surmisal is that not all paths were completely blocked for well-educated women then.  In any event, they also try to juggle romantic relationships along with the work, and on that front they do a less good job.  (The issue of children comes up only peripherally and then only about a kid given up for adoption far in the past.  So parenting really is not part of the show's storyline.)  In spite of the fact that women do play important roles, very senior management, entirely above the production level, is an exclusively male province.  

There is one character, the idealistic hero of the show whose character's name is Freddie Lyon, with a bloodhound's nose for where the next important news story will manifest.  He is pushy to the extreme, a virtue in the role of news reporter.  Apart from the investigative legwork, an important task of the reporter is to get power to speak the truth, especially when power would prefer to conceal things and deflect the reporter by offering a bone, one that may have a little meat on it but surely doesn't tell the whole story.  The good reporter, understanding the dynamic fully, has to push back to get at what is really going on.  In this sense, being pushy and obnoxious as a consequence is part of the job description. 

Let me get back to talking about my mom.  I believe that several other credible people who have argued that excellence as parent and high level job performance in a demanding executive position is well nigh impossible.  The time demands are too great and it is very hard to split attention between work and home in a way to be really good at both.  One can try and perhaps over a short period of time truly be superwoman, but in the long term the answer is to find the better tradeoff, not to propagate the myth that the woman can do it all and without sacrifice. (If a reader of this piece has a good current source on this please send it to me and I'll include it in a revised version of this essay.)  The obvious answer, then, for the mother who wants to have a rewarding career is to find surrogates to handle part of the parenting function.  

Every family has a baby sitter that they rely on occasionally.  On the matter of parent surrogates, the issue is not yes or no, it's extent of use.  In the case of my family the various surrogates appeared in different flavors.   I went to a private nursery school (all day) rather than a public kindergarten (part day).  I went to public school starting in first grade, when that went the full school day.  We had a live in housekeeper/cook who could also watch the kids now and then. There were many different women who filled that role over the years.  (We lived in a middle class neighborhood, so within this community the practice was quite unusual.  Our house wasn't that large and there was no bedroom for the live in.  She slept on a convertible couch in the basement.)  On the weekends my dad played an active role in our out-of-school education and unlike the parents of my friends played with us kids, particularly association football in the street.  As we got older we switched to a day person as housekeeper and then it went to once a week.  We kids took on some of the responsibilities.  Part of the time when I was in high school I made the dinners, not great food preparation but edible, and I served my mom her dinner in the den while she was tutoring.  When we were younger and my mom couldn't find somebody else to care for me and my brother at home (my sister was older and could take care of herself by then) my mom would schlep us to the tennis court and we'd sit on the ground outside the fence for the hour or two when she played.  It is the one memory I recall of a time where my interests were subordinated to my mother in a way where my welfare didn't benefit at all.  As we got older, my brother and I were home alone a fair amount.

Let me draw a perhaps surprising conclusion based on this experience.  By and large, certainly there were exceptions but I'm talking about overall, having the surrogates rather than my mom or being without adult supervision altogether was a blessing rather than a curse.  I developed more in accord with my own inclinations as a result.  Everyone should have their Walter Mitty moments and this way I was able to have mine. Plus, and unlike my younger brother, my best friend lived right across the street so I wasn't lacking in companionship. If a kid doesn't have close friends then a mom's absence may be harder to substitute for.   In my case, it worked out reasonably well.

The big issue between me and my mom wasn't about her absence in my day to day stuff.  It was about her pushiness in making my life decisions for me, where as with her tutoring she set the goals by algorithm somewhat oblivious to my personality and intellectual strengths, instead following the same path she had pushed on my sister some years earlier.  My sister is 5 years older than I am though was only 4 years ahead of me in school, because I started first grade early.  The gap is sufficiently great that I can't say whether this pushing on my sister was really for her benefit or not, but I'm quite certain in my case it was pernicious. 

It started in junior high school with French.  Overall I really was quite an excellent student and probably didn't need much parental interference with regard to school whatsoever.  Friendly suggestions, sure.  Absolute commandments, certainly not.  Nonetheless, in French I got the tutoring my mom provided, without having any choice in the matter.  One consequence is that I dropped French after tenth grade, the minimum time necessary, and never really learned it.   That experience speaks to the current preoccupation with helicopter parents.  If you're going to push the kid in some direction, the kid better have his say in the matter, and then try to base the decision partly on that and partly on where the kid's interests/inclinations appear to be.  In my case this lesson was learned the hard way.  It was very hard indeed.

My guess is that during adolescence many kids go through a disillusionment period about their formal education.  So much of it seems to be about impressing others and these others seem to care only about high level performance, not about the kid himself irrespective of that performance.  Recently in my teaching many of my students have written about going through such a period when they were in high school.  So I'm sure I wasn't unique in that respect.  And if my experience is typical of bright kids, it is something to reckon with. The feelings of anger hit me really hard, in 10th grade, when I was 14-15.  I had a very difficult time then, got some help outside of school, and though out of balance emotionally somehow got through it all.  In large part I blamed my mom.  We reached an armistice of sorts at the time though true peace wasn't obtained til years later.  Once she could no longer exercise control over me then she could just be my mom again and I responded accordingly.  When my parents had retired (1982) and I'd see them in Florida, I was fully able to surrender myself to their needs and wants.  I understood the necessity of doing that, as the dutiful son.  I was able to fulfill that role since there were no longer any larger psychological issues at play.  Yet some of those thoughts from high school lingered, even now, and it made me more emotional than I otherwise would have been after her passing last December.  

Let me bring this to a close by trying to tie what my mom did to Gail Collin's remarks about The Feminine Mystique.  I think there are two different dimensions that are being rolled up into one in the denigration of the MRS degree and the housewife aspiration.  One dimension is making money from paid work.  Here worth is equated with earnings, so a housewife is a very low status job, dependent entirely on the husband for spending money.  This dependency is something to lament and something to change.  It is where my mother had early success and where the women's movement has accomplished quite a lot since the 1960s, even if complete parity remains a ways off.  (In higher education, parity has been achieved within the learning technology arena, I believe, and perhaps also more broadly within the information technology domain.  It hasn't been achieved across the board.  The life of an assistant professor is extraordinarily stressful in any event and the prospect of tenure creates a heavy burden.  Often the environment isn't very nurturing of folks on the tenure track.  In such a setting parity will be very hard to achieve  even if out and out gender discrimination can be monitored and thus restrained by the EEO Committee.) 

The other dimension is the fear of boredom and the demand that work be relevant and intellectually exciting.  As an aspiration, it's fine.  As an expectation, however, I believe it excessive and unrealistic.  My mom, for example, actually was quite bored with the tutoring,  one piece of evidence to support that claim is that she knit incessantly as she taught the students.  She needed other things to occupy her mind.  There was insufficient novelty for her in teaching the same thing over and over again.  My current belief is that the realistic expectation is given by the 80/20 rule, where the 80% part is work done out of obligation and the 20% part is self-directed and creative.  In jobs where that is the norm the employees should be satisfied.  Beyond that the employee risks being regarded as a prima donna and thus will not earn the respect of her co-workers.  

There is also one silly bit in the Gail Collins piece, about who drove the family car.  For some reason Collins fails to recognize that the answer is largely determined by geography, not gender roles.  If you lived in Bayside, Queens like we did then the mom drove the car, not because she wore the pants in the family but because the dad rode a train to work, where we lived either the LIRR or the subway.  (My dad walked 3 blocks from our house, took the Q27 bus to Flushing, and then road the number 7 IRT line into Manhattan.  When we ultimately got a second car, my dad drove to Shea Stadium, avoiding the bus part of the trip but still took the Subway after that.)  Collins grew up in the Midwest (around Cincinnati).  Maybe there you could drive downtown from the suburbs as a reasonable trip.  In the Northeast, surely in the NYC area, the car was not driven into Manhattan.  That would have been both hugely stressful in the commute and very expensive in paying for the parking. There are enough other ways that the parent roles were unequal in the 1960s that there is no need to bring the car into the discussion at all.   It might have been a symbol for Collins.  But it is the wrong image to represent the struggle.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Unemployed College Grads In China

Have we finally arrived at the brink
Where severed is the college and job link?
Or is it just a near term out of sync?
These alternatives bound to make one think.

Tax revenue pay, once a tradition
Given way, to out of state tuition
Throngs of Asian kids came to fruition
Unstable be it, is my intuition.

If in hindsight this turns out a bubble
Then Higher Ed is indeed in trouble.
But before contemplating the rubble
Find an alternative way, on the double.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Coming Of Gray

Regarding a star's twinkle
A child expresses wonder
With age another wrinkle
And making one more blunder.

For me the telltale sign's the beard.
While not especially vain 
Its spread conveys what I feared
The displeasure of joint pain.

While as my pace has slowed down
My rhymes remain from hunger
The smile gives way to the frown
Wishing that I were younger. 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Upside Down

Mistaking the bottom for the top
Transforms success into a flop.

The cereal pours just the same.
It's not that creature we need to tame.

While eating, it's cleanup we juxtapose
And loathe the fact the box won't close.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Joe Stiglitz On The Economy

He does not care
For Laizze-Faire
Posing a dare
GDP share.

The Golden Rule
To give more school
Other retool
The growth rate fuel.

The nation skids
Hurts most the kids.
Poverty rids
Better life bids.

At his behest
In young invest.
He does suggest
It be our bequest.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Learning Technologist Becomes A Luddite

Norma sent a link to The End of the University as We Know It, by Nathan Harden and in her subject line said, "Interesting Article." I interpreted that as a request, first to read it, then to offer up my opinion on it. It took a few days. I don't process things very quickly now. Let's get to the punchline straight away. I gave it my thumbs down. That gets me to my title. If Harden's piece is indicative of up-to-date thinking about learning technology, then by comparison I'm a Luddite.

I don't think I've really changed that much in my views, certainly a bit more crotchety with age and with that more skeptical on the usability front. Take m-Learning, for example. (Please!) For quite some time I've been a big advocate of large font on the screen, particularly for material that is conceptually challenging. When the brain strains the eyes shouldn't. But if that becomes a stern requirement, it means that smart phones are really not the right environment for textual content. (I have the Kindle application on my iPhone. You can make the font to satisfy my requirement, so it is surprisingly readable. I've read a chapter of Csikszentmihalyi's Flow that way. But doing so tends to drain the battery.) In particular, how does one read the captions in a talking head video when viewing the video on the phone? Or, if the video is a screen capture of something with technical detail, how does one mentally process the content of what's on the screen? So I've got some usability criticisms regarding what is currently being preached, though that in itself doesn't make me a Luddite.

My initial thought in reading Harden's piece was to go back to the net.Learning documentary and ask, aside from the consequences of Moore's Law, what really has changed in regard to eLearning in the 15 years since that was made. In that documentary, which sought balance in its presentation, (it was, after all, a product of PBS which seems to have balance a stern requirement) the Luddite view was embodied in Neil Postman. Postman had been an instructor on the CBS TV program, Sunrise Semester, an early attempt to use television as a formal educational medium. If memory serves, it was a failure and thereafter Postman became a critic of the use of technology in instruction. At the time net.Learning appeared I thought of Postman not just as a Luddite but also as a pompous and pedantic person not to be taken seriously. I certainly have a pedantic streak in me. My pompous aspect is still a work in progress. In any event, my plan was to find the critique offered in net.Learning and see if it still seemed to have validity. (At the essay by Postman I linked to, near the end of the piece he makes some interesting points, in my view, but there is nothing specifically about video.) That would have made my job easier. Why write a long critique of Harden's essay if somebody else has already done so to good effect?

Alas, PBS has retired the net.Learning site. (That's too bad, since the picture of students on the site was from my intermediate microeconomics class.) I did learn that there is a video still in circulation based on the documentary. For folks at Illinois, the Library has a copy that can be accessed online. It is under password protection, however, so not available to the general public. I did watch it. Unfortunately, the segment with Postman was omitted. A good bit of what's there looks like an infomercial for the U of I's online efforts circa 1998. Burks is featured prominently. They show him on the road getting access to the network while at the airport or in the cab to and fro. (If memory serves, Burks was using ATT Worldnet at the time, a dial-up service. They didn't explain how he got online without actually having a phone line at his beck and call.) And they showed Burks doing one of his presentations where the PowerPoint slide had a graph of the growth of Internet usage measure in gazillions, which had the audience chuckling. There was a segment on NetMath mostly featuring the happenings at a rural high school in Illinois that didn't have the resources to teach a Calculus class itself. Near the end of that Jerry Uhl (now deceased) and Godfather of NetMath makes an appearance. And they've got Leigh Estabrook (former Dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science) talking about the LEEP program, via a Library student from Alaska, where they practice intensive face to face meeting of students both in the summer as predecessor to and then subsequently one weekend a semester to sustain the online interaction that happens the rest of the time. Estabrook also states unequivocally that going online doesn't enable increasing class size. The LEEP program was an early user of live synchronous sessions online, in addition to substantial asynchronous interaction and the facilitation that the faculty provided in their classes was arduous.

There is also a nice segment with Peggy Lant who became something of an evangelist for the use of technology in instruction and in particular for students writing online and responding to writing online. As a consequence of that documentary, we got Peggy to be one of our featured plenary speakers at FSI (Faculty Summer Institute). If memory serves, the first time she spoke the atmosphere was emotionally charged and some science faculty member in the audience (Peggy teaches English) challenged her in some of the assumptions but by session's end had come at least part way to her way of thinking. It was a truly excellent session.

The last segment of the video is with a student taking a correspondence course via VHS videotape viewed on his television. He is a widower with two teenage children, a farmer by occupation, a Captain in the National Guard who needs to earn his Bachelor's Degree to move up to the rank of major - the quintessential adult learner. He dislikes the videos - they're too slow and there is no way to ask questions. He says that when he on occasion goes for live sessions on a weekend, most of the students don't ask any questions, but he does. This bit is the closest in the program to offering a critique of Harden, though the gamut of issues with online learning are presented through the various segments.

Since the segment with Postman is nowhere to be found and since many people will not have access to the video, below I will offer up my critique of Harden's essay. It has two interrelated parts, one on pedagogy, the other on economics. Normally I begin with economic arguments, since as an economist that is where my opinion should carry the most authority. But in this case I'll make the economic argument at the end because it will be much easier to make after the pedagogical points have been introduced.

A good place to start with the pedagogy is Chickering and Ehrmanns Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever. I will focus on just two of the seven principles, #1 Good practice encourages contacts between students and faculty, and #4 Good practice gives prompt feedback. In effect, Harden argues that MOOCs have rendered principle #1 obsolete. Via automated conditional feedback or artificial intelligence and through the use of a social network that connects peer students taking the course, principle #4 can be satisfied while abandoning principle number #1.

It is incumbent on us to examine this proposition more closely. The nature of the subject matter is of consequence here as is the intellectual capacity of the student. Other factors may also matter but let's stick with these two as they are sufficient to make the point. Automated feedback may indeed be sufficient to analyze whether a piece of computer code written by a student has any bugs in it or to resolve whether a numerical solution to a system of equations solved by a student is correct. It is these sort of "analytic" domains of study where the case for MOOCs is probably strongest. In contrast, if what a student produces is primarily narrative in nature, including proofs of mathematical propositions in "why" questions posed even in analytic domains, then the efficacy of automated feedback is much more limited and human feedback therefore becomes more important. One then should ask whether there is sufficient expertise among peers in the class to provide that sort of feedback. It may be that there is. But, if not, then the role of the faculty member as the resident expert and the need for that faculty member to facilitate the discussion among the students becomes paramount. In this case, the world looks much more as Leigh Estabrook described it where class size needs to be limited because faculty facilitation is a labor intensive activity.

In my reading of the Harden essay, he simply ignores the subject matter issue. When I was a freshman back in fall 1972, Calculus was offered as a self-paced course. There were optional lectures. There were six exams to pass. If you failed one you could try again a second time. The exams were graded by upper level undergraduate students who knew the subject matter cold. This was MOOC-like efficiency before the Internet was around and I thought it a reasonable approach for the particular class. But no other courses were offered this way. Might it be that we arrive at a core group of classes that can be taught effectively as MOOCs and that's as far as we ever get?

Let's turn to the student capability. I will present two stark types of students, easy to refer to, but each type more extreme than is realistic. The first is the student as a latter day young Abe Lincoln. The myth about Lincoln the learner, you'll recall, is that he walked the many miles to and from school during the day and read by candlelight at night, presumably reading on subject matter outside the school curriculum. No extrinsic motivation was necessary for Lincoln. He was entirely driven by his own desire to learn.  Further, no feedback was needed for his nighttime reading. He was a genius and could process what he read on his own. If all the students are Lincoln-like in their approach and their intellectual capacities, MOOCs will work wonderfully. There'd be no reason to worry even about principle #4 being satisfied. The entire issue would be to provide sufficient breadth of high level content. A more recent articulation of this view is by the lead character in the movie Good Will Hunting, in the scene in the bar where he asserts the key to his education was a library card and late charges, orders of magnitude less expensive than the Harvard tuition his soon to be girlfriend was paying. Now we have videos replacing books in the argument, but otherwise it really is the same thing.

The other type I'll also take from movies, this time its the students in Ben Stein's classroom in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. These kids couldn't care less. Nothing will get their intellectual motor running. They have a Little Rascals' view of school, but now they're in high school so the antics are different. Some of these kids nonetheless end up going to college. They're the ones who provide the subject matter for Academically Adrift. Harden argues it's like throwing money down the drain to give these students a big bucks residential undergraduate experience. In good Marie Antoinette style he argues instead, "Let them eat MOOCs!"

Apart from the elitism in the argument, Harden doesn't fail to mention that he himself went to Yale, it is conceptually flawed. Our own type, presumably somewhere in between the two extremes, is not exogenous as Harden presumes but is strongly influenced by the academic environment the student confronts. While almost none of us are close to being latter day Lincoln's we have the capacity to exercise our intellectual capacities far greater than we actually do, which is one of the main themes of Flow, mentioned above. The key, then, is to convince the student that doing so will provide a good deal of satisfaction and, indeed, that striving for this provides a raison d'être. This, then, gives a rationale for college, quite apart from whatever vocational education the undergraduate experience provides in addition.

I've elaborated on this primary purpose a few years ago in a piece entitled The Purpose of General Education. That piece represents an ideal, one we are falling far short of today. We should ask, would a widespread deployment of MOOCs as an alternative to the residential experience do a reasonably good job in approximating the ideal? Let me note that there already is a different alternative, instructor facilitated online learning with modest class sizes. That segment of higher education has witness rapid growth. The bulk of the learners in online programs are non-traditional students meaning they are older, quite possibly have parental responsibilities, hold down a job, and so must balance their education with their other life obligations. In contrast, the traditional 18 - 22 year old student is single, works at most a part time job, and is free from other obligations so school is the focus.

Harden doesn't really concern himself with the non-traditional learner so he doesn't ask whether MOOCs might replace the distance learning that had become quite popular since the net.Learning documentary and of which the LEEP program represents a particular variant. I don't know the answer to that question. I know that six months to a year ago that question was of some substantial interest on the Sloan-C listserv. But most of these older sort of online programs, particularly at the undergraduate level, have far more modest tuition (and of course no room and board cost) than their residential college counterparts. So Harden's focus is on the latter, because that's where the big cost savings with education appear to be had. In the rest of this piece I'll follow Harden in that focus.

One significant aspect of traditional learners is their immaturity.  It manifests in a variety of ways - a focus on their new found freedom gained by living away from home rather than on their studies, a lack of a sense of responsibility to their parents when it is the parents who are paying the tuition, and a misguided view of school as a passport only, not an end in itself, a way to discover means for self-expression. Couple this with the observation that traditional learners nowadays are digital natives and that their use of technology when they were younger was primarily for recreation - think computer games and Facebook. Now ask the following question. If you want to create a transformative educational experience for these learners, should the learning environment aimed at encouraging the transformation be the same as the recreational environment or not?

In fall of 2008 when I was still working and we had just moved a large Finance class to blended format using videos of the lecture to replace one hour a week (out of three) of in class meeting time, we got an overwhelming response at the time to bring back the face to face lecture and ditch the videos. Some of this was our implementation; we had yet to move far down the learning curve in how to do a blended course effectively so the online pieces of the course didn't fit well at the time with the face-to-face components and the students were letting us know that. (This has since improved and the students no longer appear rebellious about the course.) But another issue was about them. The students wanted to have their class time scheduled and in that sense going to class is a personal commitment mechanism. Immature students need such personal commitment devices. This is an argument that sometimes constraint is better than freedom. Asynchronous learning may be wonderful for those who will act responsibly regardless of the mode of instruction. For other students, however, scheduled class meeting times provides a benefit.

There is a further issue that students are prone to multitask if they are sitting in front of an electronic device. Their attention becomes divided. I'm reminded about the old moron joke where the guy was staring at the can of frozen orange juice because it said, "concentrate." Indeed, the instruction should encourage the students toward thinking deeply and it should encourage students to put in enough time on task to master what they are studying. We know, however, that students seriously underestimate how long it takes to learn something, when to start writing a term paper, allowing for the possibility they might get stuck in working on a project, etc. With mature learners the technology might be neutral on these issues. But with traditional learners isn't it reasonable to expect pernicious consequence from going all MOOC? Harden doesn't take up this question. He presents MOOCs as if they are a free lunch. They aren't. There's good reason to expect that if MOOCs were widely deployed as an alternative to residential education they'd actually make student performance worse. (I should note that at places like the U of I much of general education is taught in large lecture mode and the large lecture may be equally as bad as the MOOC in encouraging the multitasking and thereby dividing the student's attention. So I'm not arguing here as a way to defend current practice, but only as a way to challenge the Brave New World thinking that Harden is advancing.)

This brings me to the next point, which is that you're a Luddite if you are ok in using the technology but think it largely should be a complement to face-to-face instruction, not a substitute for it. The folks who are talking about flipped classrooms are not getting any cost savings from the activity. Presumably they are doing it to further engage the students and because the old hypothesis, students did the assigned readings before coming to class, was measurably proving to be false. So maybe because the videos are easier to get at the meat of the subject and shorter in duration students will access them ahead of time and then be ready for class activity, which now has a social aspect to it mixed with the learning and therefore being prepared is a way of respecting one's classmates.

But worrying about quality of instruction puts you behind the times. With the hyperinflation in college costs we've experienced over the years, and as Harden mentioned the high debt burden that many recent graduates have to carry as a consequence of the hyperinflation, producing a cost effective solution to college is the new game in town and MOOCs look to be the game winner.  We've reached the point in the piece where I can now put forward the economic arguments.

Economists distinguish investment made under a perfect capital markets assumption, which leads to the socially efficient investment level, from investment done under a liquidity constraint, which leads to a smaller investment than is efficient, because that's all that can be afforded.  The traditional model for funding undergraduate education was to have third parties fund the investment, in the case of  public universities that was mainly tax payers, and thereby approximate the efficient investment level in human capital investment.  Presumably the enhanced productivity that the added human capital created would generate greater earnings for both the graduate and that person's employer.  This, in turn, would generate greater tax revenues and the entire investment would therefore pay for itself.

This way of thinking didn't survive the hyperinflation and the Reagan Revolution, so the cost share borne by tuition rose precipitously over the last 30 years and for a middle class family the price of a college education has become near unaffordable, especially in the absence of scholarships.  These middle class families are liquidity constrained and the ones for whom a decent low cost solution is being targeted.   It is important to observe in the economics of this that the investment in human capital temporally precedes the return from that investment, so while the cost of the education is near certain the return is far from it.  It is an investment that is hard for families of modest means to diversify.  So, from a social view, the wrong people are bearing the return risk.  One can make an argument based on moral hazard that it is necessary for the student and their families to bear the return risk, lest the student not try hard to be productive as possible post graduation.  Personally, I find that argument unpersuasive.  Not all immature 18 year olds will turn into industrious and hard working 25 year olds, having first entered the labor market.  But most will and the reasons have much more to do with upbringing than with debt overhang.  I know the default rate on student loans is quite high now, but much of that has to do with graduates being unable to find work, in my view. Solve the employment problem for new college grads and you will solve the loan default issue.

In these circumstances, from an individual student perspective or from the perspective of their immediate families, a low cost solution is very attractive.  Indeed, for the last fifty years or so, there has been at least one alternative low cost solution.  Community colleges and/or less highly ranked four-year public institutions have carried low tuition rates. From an economic efficiency perspective, one needs to consider lifetime earnings appropriately discounted from each possible solution and net tuition out.  The path that gives the higher net benefit is the efficient one to choose.  The liquidity constrained outcome happens when for a particular student an expensive college education is the efficient solution but the kid goes to community college instead or opts to delay college entirely and work full time at a modestly paying job, because that's all that can be afforded at the time. (People may do good works of very important social value but that carry little to no monetary reward for themselves.  If that social value can be monetized, the same sort of calculation can be done to determine the efficient education path for the individual.  If not, then for now it is safer to ignore that case here.  Regardless, what comes next in my post won't speak to that situation.  I simply want to mention here that the case for a high quality education is broader than what I discuss below.)

One wonders in the liquidity constrained case whether some third party other than taxpayers might step in to move the student's education to its economically efficient level.  The obvious candidate for such a third party is the future employer.  Presumably, the future employer is able to internalize the productivity gains from the the enhanced human capital, though it likely means the employee would be attached to the firm for some time after graduation, perhaps with the student and the future employer writing some long term contract concerning work, wages, and buyout from the relationship.

Obviously future employers wouldn't do this to be good Samaritans.  They would do it only if it makes sense from a long term profitability point of view.  So we should ask whether it makes sense or not in that dimension.  This is a different sort of criticism against Harden's piece.  He makes his prediction looking only within Higher Education.  He doesn't look at all at the determinants of demand for its graduates.  Presumably, whatever does come next does a reasonable job of matching supply with demand.

The current labor market seems to be characterized by excess supply in aggregate, which is why the unemployment rate remains high, but there is excess demand for certain types of jobs, vacancies that are hard to fill because people with the right skills appear to be in short supply.  Standard economic theory suggests that the wages and benefits for those jobs that are hard to fill should rise - employers who are desperate to fill such positions will bid people away from other places where they are already working.  It is only after a round or two of this type of musical chairs where it may begin to become apparent to the employers that the skill set is scarce in aggregate.  It is at this point where employers begin to entertain the idea of expanding the supply via their own investments.  This, at least, gives a first impetus for employer pay of tuition.

My friend and former colleague, Al Roth, who recently won the Nobel Prize in Economics (shared with Lloyd Shapley) is an expert on "matching markets" where factors other than price determine how matches get determined.  He has argued quite convincingly that if the matching mechanism is not stable, then matches start earlier and earlier.  (Think about big time College Basketball where it is not uncommon now for a coach to recruit an eighth grader who shows promise, while such behavior would have been uncommon if not nonexistent in the 1970s or earlier.)  If Roth's prediction holds true for the job types that are in scarce supply, this gives a further impetus for employer pay of tuition.

Note that employer pay is not unusual at all for executive education, where the student is already an employee, in their mid thirties to mid forties, with proven worth already and yet many years ahead of further productivity.  Younger potential employees have even more years of future productivity ahead of them.  What they don't yet have is proven worth.  So one needs to imagine mechanisms for establishing that.  Having internships of some sort or early entry modestly paying jobs that can signify the employees worth are candidates for such identification.  There would be more risk in paying for the education of such individuals, as there would be substantially less experience on which to base the judgement.  So the employer would need to be able to diversify that risk and would itself need to not be liquidity constrained.  This adds yet another factor of the current labor market into the story.  One reads periodically that Corporate America is sitting on a pile of cash, on the order of $1 trillion.  These are funds waiting to find a good investment opportunity.  What I'm suggesting here is that one such opportunity is to ensure a talented supply of younger workers who can sustain these companies in the years ahead.

Let me close with one last observation.  There is much being made at present about coupling MOOCs with some sort of certification that comes out of testing.  Certification is being regarded as a kind of magic elixir, because it in itself offers the proven worth of the student and therefore that the approach with MOOCs can resolve the aforementioned excess labor demand for certain job categories.  Unfortunately, certification does no such thing.  Certification provides an academic credential.  The correlation between someone having that academic credential and productivity on the job is something employers need to determine, based on their experience hiring people with the credential.  That productivity is determined in addition, presumably, by what else the employee knows, the employee's capacity to learn further, and the employee's drive in doing the work.  The credential communicates something, but that is far from all that the employer wants to know about the employee.  For years Microsoft has offered training coupled with credentialing .  My understanding of that is that Microsoft credentials were reasonably effective indicators for entry level positions, but not of much worth beyond that. precisely because the non-credential factors matter more in higher level positions.

Harden talks about a bubble in higher education, referring to the high tuition rates and the recent high growth rate in them.  But maybe it is MOOCs that are the bubble.  Many people seem to be bullish on them now.  Presumably the tonic to a bull stampede is to look closely at fundamentals, which is what I've tried to do in this piece. Harden claims to know the future.  I do not.  It is easy to see possibility, much harder to determine likelihood.  The normal approach to uncertainty is diversify and hedge.  The futurists, like Harden, want us to bet the house.   I'm not at all comfortable doing that.  If that makes me a Luddite, so be it. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Did Groucho Meet Einstein?

"Few people think more than two or three times a year; I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week."
       -- George Bernard Shaw

As amusing as a short story might be with the premise of what would go on in such a meeting as posed in the title to this post, I'll leave that story to be crafted by somebody else.  Here I want to consider them iconically.  Groucho is the quintessential symbol of the wisecrack, the type that emerges spontaneously and a propos in context.  Groucho also embodied a compulsive need to make humor.  It was part of his personality, not the "work" he did at the office and that he stopped doing upon returning home.  (I have no idea how Groucho behaved when he returned home.  I haven't read a biography of him nor do I recall stories by others about him in a social setting, though Dick Cavett, in particular, has written a lot about Groucho recently.  I'm simply guessing at how it must have been to be him and to have lived with him.)  Einstein represents a quite different sort of human behavior - deep and deliberate thought, highly abstract, creativity in the design of the particular abstraction.  And with that, I believe there was an equally compulsive need in him to engage in that sort of behavior, though if I understand his biography enough in later years he wasn't nearly as good at it as he was when he was younger.

Without concerning myself in regard to my proficiency in these dimensions, I find both compulsions in me and wonder why they are there.  In my peer group professionally - the members of the CIC Learning Technology group when I was a member as exemplar - this conjunction was unique.  I know enough about statistics to not be very impressed with outliers in small samples.  (In the statistics part of Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has a chapter on this topic and makes a compelling case that outliers will actually be fairly common in small samples - thus the use of the term outlier is a misnomer - because they aren't all that unlikely.)  But I do think that the observation might be indicative of a difference in views about education as I will elaborate below.  Also, to the extent there is a substantive difference, I want to look exclusively at nurture and ignore nature entirely as a possible explanation.  Presumably the modes of nurture and our approach to them can change and if some modes are better than other then perhaps we might move to embrace those better modes.  My sense is that too many in the nurturing business, mainly parents, but also educators and other mentors, have largely let inferior methods predominate.

Let me articulate this as simply as possible.  There are two possible theories of learning and how nurture impacts learning.  One I call the joie theory, the approach I advocate.  Learning is essentially play and in play there is learning.  For young children, this is an entirely ordinary idea that most people subscribe to.  For older children and adults too, many might find it a novel idea.  I've written about it earlier in my post PLAs Please, where there is an informal but highly important form of education in some parts of the leisure a person takes.  Families that cultivate the PLA in their children are the ones where Groucho meets Einstein, or so is my conjecture.  But there is a bit more to the conjecture than that.  Some play, a game of chess or a game of bridge, especially when played at an intermediate to high level for example, entails a substantial amount of reflection to it and in that sense may be closer to Einstein than to Groucho.  Wisecracks happen in the present tense and are part of the flow of the moment, near instinctual in their generation.  They are not rehearsed ahead of time.  A reflective wisecrack isn't.  The type of nurture I'm thinking of cherishes both the wedding of the PLA to formal learning and the marriage of invention that comes out of spontaneity with the sort of creativity that needs much reflection.  In so doing the nurture also helps balance the social life of the child with introspection.

As I said there are two theories.  The other I'll call the pain theory.  For its advocates learning is hard work.  To the extent that the child's instinct is to shirk, nurture under the pain theory requires pushing the child to do what is good for him or her.  Amy Chua may be the best known practitioner of the pain theory at present.  The singular activity that best represents the pain theory is making the child learn to play the violin, particularly at a very young age, and then forcing the child to practice diligently.  (This is not to say there can't be joie in playing the violin. Itzhak Perlman used to be a regular on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and after performing a piece would banter with the host with evident pleasure in doing so.  The pain comes not from mastering the instrument but rather from being forced into doing so.)   The role of recreation is different under the pain theory.  To the extent they allow themselves time for it or allow their children time for it, recreation is an escape from the pain.  So recreation is not a time for personal growth.  It is a time to veg out. 

The system, I fear, is skewed in favor of the pain theory.  The system seems to be breaking.  In looking for alternatives let me offer up joie. And in measuring student learning, something we now seem obsessed with, let me suggest that we pay at least some attention to what kids do during recreation, presumably when they have control of their own activities.  To my knowledge very few people are asking this sort of question.  This piece is meant as encouragement that more should consider the possibilities.

How as a parent or teacher does one embrace the joie theory, to make little Grouchos or little Einsteins or, if not that, children who end up with similar habits of mind, quite irrespective of what they produce as a consequence of those habits?  I wish I had a full model, but all I can suggest are a few sketches of ideas.  The first is to pose imperatives, but within them give a range of choice.  The kid needs a musical education, for example, but maybe singing instead of playing an instrument and maybe for a good while letting the parental example do the suggestion rather than saying its time to start lessons, now chose which instruments you want to learn.  My friend Shelli talks about "agency" so much in her work because, as I understand it, many people actually don't have a sense of it.  In the joie theory, agency is an indirect byproduct, one that is acquired at a young age to some degree because through his or her choices the child produces personal growth and joie and can see that to be the case. 

Then there is the sense of Bruner's "spiral curriculum," which in my mind should hold for learning in leisure as much as it does in the formal setting.  It is important to recognize that Groucho's wisecracks and Einstein's theories each represent highly developed forms of mental activity.  (I was going to say "mature" where I ended up writing "developed" but Grouchos humor probably is not best described with that descriptor.)  So we should be asking ourselves, what do earlier forms of this sort of behavior look like?  I know that in my household where I've otherwise been deliberately inattentive to the education of my own children, lest they buckle under the weight of having an academic as a parent, I have emphasized the making of the pun on the fly and the pure pleasure that results when they've come up with a "good one."  Both boys got the message and the making of puns is now part of their arsenal, though the quality of their product is variable at best.  My wife would have no compunction in saying the same about mine and my friends and colleagues, who likely would be more reserved out of politeness, probably think similarly in regard to the various rhymes I produce.  So, on the one hand, living in the glass house I shouldn't throw stones on the quality front.  And, on the other hand, my point is that the doing is more important because the activity encourages finding links between seemingly disparate ideas and making that sort of association is useful well outside the punning arena.

Wisecracks may be puns plus irreverence, with the latter emerging later as a natural response to authority that has gone awry or abused entirely.   I don't think irreverence can emerge directly from nurture.  But I do think it is a healthier response than what is likely to result under the pain theory - anger, possibly followed by revolution.  So it is my view that wisecracks of the sort that Groucho was so good at are a sort of intellectual buffer that enables moderation and accommodation.  The pain theory, in contrast, is more likely to produce an extreme response, utter disillusionment or rage.  This is another way of thinking about how we nurture and its consequences.  It seems unreasonable to expect authority to always respect its limits.  Some of the solution then is not with governing authority but with ourselves and our reaction when those limits have been surpassed.

On the predecessor of deep reflective thought, that has got to be reading in a way of getting lost in the story.  Nurture of this sort must cultivate that.  Many others have ideas on how to do this and perhaps better than what I can muster.  So here I will note my first memory of this happening myself was reading Charlotte's Web and sitting in a particular overstuffed chair in our basement while doing so.  Inferring backwards from that, the nurture required having the book in our house, either through purchase or borrowed from the Library, located in a place where I'd have access to it when I wanted, and a comfortable place to be able to read in isolation from others.  Of course, you can set the table and yet the guests don't show up for dinner, or they do come but it is a miserable experience because the food is overcooked or the guests are rude or something else bad happens. For me there remains much mystery on the encouraging reading front, turning it into a likelihood rather than just a possibility.  But it seems clear that is the goal and that it be part of recreation entirely outside of school is critical, in my view.

Without making a big stink out of it, in retrospect I think that there was something pernicious about the Harry Potter series, even if those books did encourage the kids to read for pleasure.   First, they really weren't starter books, as Charlotte's Web was.  Second, each book was kind of long, so wouldn't be finished in a sitting or two, allowing the child to move onto something else.  Third, they created a kind of addiction for a genre at too early an age, so the kids didn't read a broad spectrum of stuff for pleasure.  This leads to the next point.

The move from immersion in pleasure reading to a desire for reflection and one's own intellectual creativity is not an obvious one and maybe some children who are serious readers never make the leap.  I know for me it was doing math as much as reading that encouraged the Einstein-like habit.   But math for me came out of school and given how many kids get alienated about math in school, some quite early on, it seems foolhardy to advocate for it as the way most will come to embrace the joie theory.  I'm afraid to say, but I think it true, that math becomes the focus of the pain theory.  (Then later, for pre-meds especially, organic chemistry plays the role while for business majors its intermediate microeconomics that becomes the object of mental torture.)   So I think it has to be reading but reading across a broad spectrum, everything engaging - science, history, politics, fiction.  If this is true the kid needs something of a personal librarian, who understand where the kid is in what the kid has already read but also understands this need to try other things.  I'm not sure who the personal librarian should be - parent or somebody else.  But it is that type of nurture, I believe, that will let the kid make a good path.

Let me wrap up with a note of gratitude to my dad, who'd be 100 this April.  He understood the joie theory, intuitively if not explicitly, and his ideas about education were remarkably effective in my development, much more so on the informal front than in school.  He was no Groucho.  But he used to smile a few seconds before he'd tell us a joke.  The smile is what we should be after.