Thursday, February 28, 2013

En Route to Florida

An AA flight not all that bad
With some legroom and Chopin on the iPad.

Traveling used to be such a pain
Joints would ache and fried would be the brain.

A pleasure to have expectations confounded
Perhaps AA has actually rebounded.

I hope the rest of the trip goes just as well
And offers up more good news to tell.

Sent from my iPad

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s

I will begin this exercise with some arithmetic, the type economists are prone to perform, not because that is a way to establish reader interest, surely it isn't, but to develop some initial sense of relative price changes over long periods of time. I will compare the situation when I started at Illinois, 1980-81, with the situation now, and compare Northwestern and Illinois tuition at the time I started to Illinois tuition now.

Historical tuition rates at Illinois are available from the Public Affairs division as a spreadsheet for download.   For a newly entering Freshman  in fall 1980, the annual tuition rate was $682.  At the time, all entering students paid this rate, irrespective of the College they entered.  And there doesn't appear there were any fees then.  Now there are both fees (such as a Library and Information Technology fee) and surcharges by certain Colleges (such as Engineering and Business).  This 1980-81 number should strike people as incredibly low, by current standards.  It is.  Some sidebar ways of looking at this rate are to consider the U.S. News College Ratings historically and see what they said about Illinois.  I recall reading one year that we were considered a great "deal."  I believe that was true from when I started and stayed that way at least through the mid 1990s and maybe even later.   Note that it is possible that students with need or merit also got scholarships, so paid even less.  I don't have any information on scholarships as financial aid, so I'm going to use the full tuition number only and not be concerned much about scholarships in this piece.  

To get at the Northwestern tuition rates, instead of relying on a published table I will rely on memory.  I was a doctoral student at Northwestern from 1976-80, came to Illinois as AbD in 1980 and got my PhD in 1981.  During my four years at Northwestern, I was on fellowship each year.  I believe that my fellowship rate more or less coincided with the tuition rate.  Those fellowship rates as I remember them were:

1976-77  $2,700
1977-78  $3,000
1978-79  $3,300
1979-80  $3,500

Also note that during that time there was "Stagflation."  The real economy was hardly growing at all, but nominal GDP was growing quite quickly because inflation was rampant.  So those increases didn't measure increased generosity by Northwestern in paying graduate students but rather tried to keep what they did pay constant in real terms.  Using the above and the conjecture of parity between the fellowship rate and tuition rate, and noting that inflation was still high in 1980-81 (it did come down a couple of years later via Paul Volker's tight money policy), my guess at Northwestern tuition for 1980-81 was $3800.   The relative tuition rates between Northwestern and Illinois in 1980-81 were therefore a bit more than 5.5.

The next bit is to control for inflation.  What would those rates look like today?  Asking this sort of thing one can get different answers depending on how inflation is measured.  We don't experience "pure inflation" where all goods and services experience price growth at the same rate, so relative prices between them don't change.  Some goods and services experience rapid price growth.  Others might actually experience price decreases.  And inflation measures typically don't account for well the results of innovation and new products substituting for old ones.  So all the usual caveats apply when looking at any one inflation measure.  With that I'm going to do a quick and dirty computation based  on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation Calculator.  Plug in $1,000 in 1980 and ask for the equivalent in 2012.  It should spit out $2,786.33.  This gives a false sense of precision - too many significant figures.  For my purposes, which are to do a ballpark calculation only, I will round the ratio to three, meaning a tripling of prices in those 32 years.

College education is an area where tuition has been hyper-inflationary, tuition has grown much faster than the normal inflation rate.  There are multiple causes - Baumol's cost disease, the rising inequality of society at large putting upward price pressure on goods and services viewed as "luxuries," increasing regulation that imposes costs on institutions, and for public universities in particular that tax revenues have been declining as a share of the revenue base. There may be other factors as well.  The consequence is that the hyperinflation has persisted for essentially the entire 32 year period.  The results of that mount up.  Tuition at Illinois (base rate) for entering Freshmen this academic year is $11,636.  That is the in-state rate.  In other words, in real terms Illinois now is more expensive than Northwestern was when I started.  Price-wise, public education at R1s has become like what private education used to be, focusing only on in-state students. (Illinois is now at the upper end of the tuition scale across peer institutions.  But one gets a similar message looking at comparable places such as Ohio State, Purdue, and Wisconsin.)

So far there isn't much that is news here. The only value add I've provided above relative to how these issue are discussed in The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed is to give the historical reference points and a little more drill down on the the actual tuition numbers.  One can argue that the public R1s are still great bargains, certainly as compared with private R1s, though now the relative tuition price of the latter as compared to the former is closer to 4 to 1 and nowadays the privates might be offering a substantial amount of scholarship aid on a need basis, which makes the effective ratio even lower than 4 to 1.   Nevertheless, I want to argue that these historical reference points matter, a lot, particularly in addressing the question: what quality of experience should the public R1s be offering now to their students?  What principles can be articulated beyond budget balance (expenditure on that education can't be too different from tuition revenue collected) that determine how that quality of experience is shaped?  The dilemmas I refer to in the title of my post come from attempting to answer these questions.

If my experience over those 32 years is at all representative, public R1s traditionally have taken what might be called a "grab the brass ring" approach to undergraduate education.  Those students who grab the brass ring are the vivacious or very diligent students.  They are the ones who get the opportunities - they get into the honors classes, they develop a personal relationship with a professor they like, they get to work with a faculty member in the faculty member's lab, etc.  For these students the academic side of college is a very rich experience.  For the rest at public R1s, perhaps not so much.  They maintain anonymity from the faculty, may skip classes quite frequently, don't go to office hours and don't put themselves at risk with regard to their own learning.  For these students the academic side of college is not a particularly transformative experience.

In the grab-the-brass-ring approach the elite students, the uppermost decile more or less, consume a disproportionate amount of the faculty's attention. To the extent that membership in the elite group is not predetermined on admission to the university but rests instead on the students prior performance in college, there is a tournament (grading on a curve) aspect to the approach.  It is meritocratic, or so it seems, and in an ex ante sense may be the efficient way to provide an education, given the high student/faculty ratio as compared to private R1s or ritzy liberal arts colleges.  In a more cynical view, it may also be the way to maximize alumni contributions, especially if those graduates who become very rich and therefore are candidates to make big contributions to the university are apt to come from this elite student population.  Even with those benefits when viewed ex ante, however, the grab-the-brass-ring approach is far from democratic ex post.  It certainly does not do as much as might be possible for the median student.

An alternative to the grab the brass ring approach might be termed the "nurturing" approach.  In the Declining By Degrees documentary, the nurturing approach is represented by Amherst College, one of the most elite private colleges in the country.  With nurturing, all students command substantial faculty attention once they begin to matriculate.  Nurture is a condition of enrollment, not of student performance having enrolled.  No doubt an Amherst education is wonderful.  Yet it is very expensive and doesn't scale well.

Private R1s may be somewhere between the public R1s and the ritzy private colleges on the grab-the-brass-ring versus nurture approach, have more nurture than the public R1s and more opportunities for elite students to grab than the ritzy private colleges.  With these caricatures in hand we can now proceed to the business and ethical issues.  With both the business and ethical issues the key question is: should public R1s maintain the grab-the-brass-ring-approach or instead move in the direction of more nurture?  There is a practical aspect to this question, how well do the students who don't grab the brass ring do?  What quality of education do they receive?  There is a further question that is both practical and philosophical.  Does the quality of education these students get matter?  If it does matter, why is that?

It would be very good if we could look at quality of education measures across the 32 years in the same way that we considered tuition.  I don't believe there is any good way to do this.  There are certainly beans that could be counted, e.g., credit hours taken with tenured and tenure track faculty versus credit hours taken with adjuncts.  One can also look at retention rates in classes, and grade distributions and that sort of thing.  At least one can do this in principle.  Much of this information tends to be locked down and hence not available for analysis.  There is also a question of what historical data of this sort exists from the pre-ERP world.  Even if you have the data, however, I'm not sure what picture you can draw from it.

So instead here I'm only going to use anecdotal information based on my experience teaching upper level undergraduate courses.  I will contrast the 1980s, when I would teach a Math Econ class on occasion, with the last couple of years where I've taught courses at the same level on Behavioral Economics (once) and Economics of Organizations (twice).  Let's note before reporting what I've observed that there can be selection bias in I report.  Students with math aptitude usually perform well in economics classes and the Math Econ class, in particular, would typically attract one or two students wanting to continue studying economics to the PhD.  With those caveats, the more recent classes have had senioritis problems with students not coming to class and not doing the assigned work that I never experienced in the 1980s.  The better students in the most recent Econ of Organizations class could have done well in the Math Econ class from 30 years earlier.  But the poorer students didn't seem like they belonged in the course at all.  There was, of course, variation in student performance in the Math Econ class, but I don't have any memory of students not being fit to take the class.  This population is small in total so one must be wary of drawing strong conclusions from it.  But I've come to the opinion that the middle students I'm seeing and those performing below the middle are significantly worse than their counterparts from 30 years ago.   That is one big reason for writing this post.

The U of I is selective in it's admissions.  The Colleges vary in their selectivity, with Engineering and Business more selective than Arts and Sciences.  (It's this increased selectivity of Engineering and Business that provide the economic rationale for the college-specific fees.)  To an economist, selectivity implies excess demand.  So, even with the current downturn in the economy, the business dilemmas I'm speaking about shouldn't manifest any time soon.  But the concern should be that the excess demand won't persist, even after the economy rebounds fully.  And the obvious reason why is that a degree from the U of I stops being a strong credential in the labor market, particularly for kids in Arts and Sciences.

Economists have two different views of how college might impact the labor market.  One is the human capital view, which coincides more or less with how non-economists view college.  Students learn.  What they learn, viewed as an asset, is general human capital.  (General human capital means the knowledge should be valuable throughout the labor market.  In contrast, specific human capital matters for a particular job, but no other.)  The other view regards signaling, as articulated by Mike Spence.  In this view, it doesn't matter one whit what students learn in college.  What matters is that the student got through and others of less ability wouldn't or couldn't get through, so the potential employer interprets the degree as an indicator of ability and therefore is willing to hire the grad but wouldn't be willing to hire the non-grad at the same wage.  Note that the human capital view and the signaling view are not mutually exclusive, so one can speak of the relative importance of one or the other. 

In the human capital view, then, the demand for college could dry up if the perception I articulated above becomes the market perception - many of the graduates haven't acquired the human capital that their degrees suggest they have obtained.  In the signaling view, the demand could dry up if those of lesser ability, having been admitted, can also get through. Put a bit differently, with enough grade inflation college stops being a signal.  Did I flunk the kids below the median in my Econ of Organizations class?  No, I did not.  Should I have done that?  Scale up that question to the campus as a whole and you begin to get at the business issues.

This is a good juncture to point out that nurture and grade inflation are two quite different things.  Nurture is providing help for the student to perform well for a given performance standard.  Grade inflation is a lowering of the performance bar.

I haven't looked at graduation rates recently, but when I did look private R1s like Northwestern had very high graduation rates (over 90%).  At the time the U of I was something like 83%, tied for third in the Big Ten with Penn State.  Michigan held second place.  A few Provosts ago, the then Provost articulated a goal of raising the graduation rates.  If grade inflation could be controlled for, that would be a worthy goal.  With ifs you can put Paris in a bottle.  Engineering courses are typically fairly tough on grades and that college has a high washout rate. Many of the students who drop out of Engineering typically end up transferring to another college, often Arts and Sciences.  If Arts and Sciences also were tough on grades and had a high washout rate, those student's would likely drop out of the university rather than transfer to another college.  So it's not the same consequence.  Students who fail to graduate are black marks on the campus.  Nevertheless, letting students through who are not qualified should be viewed equally as a black mark.  The business issue then is that if that is happening a lot the market will assign the black mark, discount the value of the degree accordingly, and the demand for the education will dry up. 

Let me turn to the ethical dilemmas.  It is my opinion that the rhetoric we use biases how we view the answer to the maintain the grab-the-brass-ring approach or move to a nurture approach question.  At Illinois, the rhetoric focuses on excellence and innovation.  This rhetoric favors the best students and therefore encourages the grab-the-brass-ring approach.  A different rhetoric would focus on the in loco parentis function, not just as it pertains to student drinking, but to the classroom as well.  Parents nurture their children not out of excellence but out of love.  (The issue here is which is cause and which is effect.)  When it is not your children, "love" may be too strong a term.  A more appropriate term is decency.  Nurture is the decent thing to do, even for middling students. We admitted them.  We should care for them and ensure their academic success.

To this a response might be, that's all well and good but the U of I is not Amherst College.  There is no affordable way for the U of I to do nurture at scale.  This gives a second and quite different reason for writing this post.  I'm seeing hardly any attempt at innovation that, were it to succeed, could counter this response.  (A couple of possibilities are mentioned below.)  Instead, we're seeing innovation in the form of new and better brass rings.

Last week I attended the plenary sessions at what used to be called the Active Learning Retreat.  This time around the focus was on undergraduate research.   I thought that Paul Diehl, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at the U of I and the first plenary speaker, showed some sensitivity on the question of how scarce the brass rings are by discussing where the bar should be for defining what counts as undergraduate research.  The main speaker, Allison Snow, Paul's counterpart at Ohio State, made the point that undergraduate research can both be transformative in itself and provide strong complementarities for student learning in courses unrelated to the research.  I don't doubt the benefit of undergraduate research to those students who do it.  But if impact is measured by the number of students who present at the undergraduate research conference on campus, that magnitude is on the order of  2% of the undergraduate student population, so in my jargon counts as a brass ring.

Prior to my very recent teaching, when I had my full time administrative position I would teach on occasion as an overload.  If your business is educational technology, touching students once in a while is a good thing to do.  The last three times of doing that it was with CHP classes (Campus Honors Program).  It's fun to teach CHP students.  The classes are small and taught as a seminar.  The students do the reading they are assigned, motivation is much less of a concern, and they are more likely to "get it" the first time through, regardless of what "it" is.   But so far since I've retired I've not attempted to teach a CHP class, because I've been vexed by the ethical questions.   Does the elitism that is inherent in CHP make sense at a university that calls itself public?

Yet I've also become distraught with the regular classes - too many students don't have enough on the ball.  Then there are a few students who do, but some are so alienated by what I gather has been their prior experience, anti-nurture if you will, that they've tuned out.  My little corner of the world may be just that and the rest of the world may be quite different.  But if not, somebody in the know should be screaming about this.  That's what I'm trying to do with this post.

Let me close with a couple of suggestions of possible movement in the direction of nurture.  Others have talked about proper professional development activities for adjuncts, but that suggestion doesn't go far enough.  Both the grade inflation issue and the teach to the test mindset that becomes a consequence needs to be tackled.  I've written quite a longish post recently, Why does memorization persist at the primary way college students prepare for exams?  It gives an analysis of the issues and suggests a solution based on the analysis.  People might find the recommendations extreme.  I meant the piece to be provocative.

The other idea is to heavily rely on students to nurture other students.  Nurture that is fully dependent on the instructor will fail at the U of I because, indeed, we are not Amherst.  The issue is whether peer mentoring of this sort (upperclassmen mentoring freshmen and sophomores) can actually be effective or if it would merely be the blind leading the blind.  Soon after I started this blog I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning that explored this idea.  A good chunk of the thinking is that the mentors learn too and if we understood that better we could then appropriately look at the activity as both service for the mentees and learning for the mentor and give rewards appropriately.  I have wanted to see campus level experiments of this sort since back when Dave Liu was as Associate Provost.  I used something akin to this in a large intermediate microeconomics course I taught in the late 1990s.  The results were quite promising.  I know that Michael Loui uses peer mentors now in his ECE classes.  Undoubtedly the approach requires a dedicated instructor to mentor the mentors.  Whether it works with early adopters but not with majority faculty is something to test.  Yet that sort of test doesn't seem to be on anyone's agenda.

It may be that the grab-the-the-brass-ring approach is the best that public R1s can pull off and hence that much of the responsibility for the student's learning must rest with the student.  However, I can't let go of the thought that we should at least be giving a try to be more nurturing of all our students.  At the tuition rates currently being charged, there should be enough revenue in the system to be serious about the effort.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Keyboard and Writing

The year book from my Junior High School years was really more literary magazine.  There were essays, many of them, written by a diverse array of students, and art work to accompany the essays so that the pieces displayed within a bigger picture. There were all these students and all this writing but there was nothing by me.  Now I'm puzzling why.  One reason might be on the content.  These essays were bits of memoir, the students wrote about themselves and their own experiences.  I may simply not have been ready for that.  Better (for me) to write something about a subject viewed from quite a distance, one where the writer is not a participant.  There was a Social Studies Magazine and I wrote something for that, on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the 1967 War fresh in one's memory.

A year later in ninth grade, which was in High School since the Junior High had converted to a Middle School, we had to write essays on occasion for English class.  The teacher liked the pieces I produced.  On the back of one he wrote, "Do try for Salamagundi," which was the school literary magazine.  I didn't take the teacher's advice, with no reflection about the choice for the next 35 years or so.  But with the blogging exposing an interest in writing quite regularly and a joy from doing so, I started to regret my decision from High School.  Had I denied myself this sense of joy for all these years?

Then happenstance brought me into contact with a classmate I had been fond of in High School.  She had become a writer and a teacher of writing.  I asked her if we had been "slotted" in High School and thereby not allowed to explore our full range of potential talents.  So I was a math guy and she a writer, because that's where the vast majority of encouragement came from, even if we might have fared quite well in the other's domain.  She said she had wanted to be a writer since early on, so she didn't feel slotted. And then she said she didn't know me well enough to make a judgment in my case.  Perhaps it was just me putting myself in a box because it seemed appropriate at the time. 

There is a different explanation entirely that rests in the tactile act of handwriting.  Mine was atrocious.  My father was particularly disturbed by that.  Starting perhaps in fourth grade, a couple of schoolmates would come to our house and then we'd walk to school together.  On more than one occasion my dad would ask them to open their loose leaf binders and show their written work, not for the content but to display the handwriting.  Then he'd take out mine.  I did dismally in this comparison.  Much later in life, as I began to learn the elements of effective pedagogy, I came to understand that such comparisons would only achieve the opposite of what they were intended to produce.  Shame rarely amplifies motivation to better performance.

One experience in fourth grade offers some explanation for why my handwriting was so bad.   The teacher gave us a few paragraphs to copy in a letter and the one that was the best in terms of the quality of the handwriting would be selected (for what purpose I no longer recall).  I wrote larger than usual and took my time to produce well formed letters.  This was cursive writing.  My approach that time went against my usual inclinations, so there was little flow in the process but it did result in a readable product.   There was another kid in the class who could dash off elegant looking script and his letter clearly looked better than mine.  But the teacher chose mine, an A for effort the operative principal.  So I could produce decent handwriting if I exercised patience, which I could do when copying somebody else's ideas.  But with my own thinking there was a discord between the pace of the flow of ideas and the tempo of the handwriting, with the quality of the latter suffering as a consequence.  There was no multiprocessing.  Paying attention to how my letters formed would block my ideas.  The handwriting offered a telltale sign regarding what I cared about, but it may have been quite myopic on my part since it quite possibly blocked the writing as well.

In the High School year book, my biology teacher writes, "A handwriting analyst would have a ball..." offering some confirmation for my interpretation above. I doubt he wrote about the handwriting of any other student.  I also doubt that any of my classmates had teacher comments in their year books that spoke to their handwriting.  And reading the student comments in my year book, they either had excellent handwriting or they printed.  I hadn't yet figured out to do the latter, perhaps because it was even slower than the script.

One might think an obvious solution would be typing.  Term papers were typed but shorter pieces were not.  We had a Royal manual typewriter at home.  Using it was arduous, especially if you didn't know how to type.  For the term papers I would hand write a draft and then my mother would type the version to be handed in, editing it somewhat in the process.  (Hand written shorter pieces got no editing whatsoever.  It was one and done.)  This worked fine through ninth grade.  Then, as I had a personality clash with my mom and a war over who'd make my life decisions, something else was needed.

In the summer after tenth grade I took a typing course from a commercial school in Flushing.  This was an odd thing to do.  I believe most of the students were taking the course so they'd have the appropriate secretary skills to land that sort of job.  I was doing it mainly, because I wanted to just bum around, but I wasn't allowed to do that.  Something had to be found and this was the something.  Also, we got an electric typewriter at home.  I'm not sure when that was and whether there was some causal aspect in that with regard to taking this course.  But it might have been that I needed qualifications to be allowed to use our electric typewriter.  Also, there was this vague thought that typing might help me in college.  I surely wasn't learning it to obtain a job qualification.

Typing on a manual typewriter is a physical act.  Of course there is the hard return.  But one also had to strike the key firmly and squarely to ensure a good imprint on the paper.  I had a weak left pinkie.  My "a's" and my "z's" would appear below the line of text for that reason.  It took mental focus to avoid that consequence.  So while the result was clearly more attractive than my handwriting, I'd never have gotten interested in writing if I had to use a manual typewriter.  The same issues about conflicting with the thinking would have arisen.  Near the end of the course we got to try out using an electric typewriter.  The experience was more enjoyable because it was far less physical work.  This was not the IBM Selectric, if memory serves.  There were still keys, as in the manual typewriter, and they could jam if you went too fast.  But you could now get a pace and learn to type to it.  The weak pinkie hardly mattered with the electric.

Electric typewriters were a bit pricey at that time.  To justify having one you needed to know with certainty that it would get a lot of use.  In college I had a cheapie manual typewriter and did what most kids do, write the term paper the night before it's due, with the first draft being what was submitted.

Let me take a different angle into this writing question.  This is about the need that writing satisfies.  Conversation with a friend satisfies a similar need.  In high school and in college I had enough good friends to have such conversation on a regular basis.  I enjoyed that a lot and it was enough.  So I didn't feel the writing compulsion.  But in High School I did develop a bad habit at home.  I started to mumble.  Ideas I had needed to get out but I knew they'd create a negative reaction in my parents.  Mumbling seemed at least a partial solution.  Keeping a journal may have been a more healthy alternative, but it didn't occur to me.  At the time it would have involved handwriting.  You do what you can do.

I still enjoy conversation immensely and if I had the choice of having a coffee with a friend or writing a blog post, I'd choose having the coffee every time.  I'm sure the conversation is better because I care about the person and because I can get immediate feedback on my ideas.  Neither of those are available in writing.  But I've come to like writing, first because most of my friends have a day job and I'm often alone with my thoughts and, second some of my interests are quite idiosyncratic and wouldn't be the basis of a good conversation. To pursue those interests, I need to be reflective and writing helps greatly with that.

Composing at the keyboard now, the typing is semi-autonomous.  That typing class after tenth grade ended up paying big dividends, though only after a lag of several decades.  The left pinkie still creates problems once in a while hitting the Caps Lock key instead of the Shift key.  And the typos that seem more and more apparent result in part because the brain says one thing and the fingers say another.  But the minimal amount of pressure that one has to put on a key to get it to work and my proficiency with QWERTY means for the most part I can think of the sentence I'm generating and not be mindful of what I need to do to produce that sentence on the screen.  It is quite different with texting on my iPhone, where it is effort to get a few words out, and even on the iPad, though I can do two finger typing (using both the left and the right index fingers) on it, though it is not bad in the absence of a regular keyboard.  In other words, if the input function doesn't interfere with the generation of thought, writing can be a pleasure.

There is, of course, still work in writing, but it is mental work, not of the manual sort at all.  One is proofreading each sentence as it appears and then asking whether the flow in the piece is right for the reader.  It is not stream of consciousness.  It is one part that and one part self-editing.  Student writing is more pure stream of consciousness, to the teacher's chagrin.  Having gone through implicit writing lessons getting papers rejected at economic journals and coming to understand to not give them an excuse for rejecting the paper I learned the popular mantra.  Let the writer do the work so the reader doesn't have to.  It is something students need to digest.  Applying it requires spending more time with their own creations.  Composing the term paper the night before it is due doesn't allow that time.

On the other hand, if one inputs by hunt and peck, then input and the composition of the idea must compete for the person's attention.  That is tiring.  Then the person may be too exhausted to attempt any self-editing.  It has never occurred to me until now to ask my students about their typing skills.  I simply have assumed they have the requisite skill.  (I no longer worry about whether they have access to a computer connected to the Internet and in that I think I'm justified.)  I'd like for them to find the same joy in writing that I do.  Some do and it is apparent as they compose longer blog posts as we get further into the semester and that they play with the ideas more in the posts.  But other students do not.  Writing for them seems an obligation, nothing more.

If they can't type, that could be the reason why.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Just when you begin to find equilibrium again after a parent's passing, you get your legs cut out from under hearing about a classmate.  It's more than forty years since graduation.  So it shouldn't be too surprising.  We tend to make mistakes thinking about averages as they are applied to people.  Everyone makes it to the mean and some cheat beyond it a bit.  That's where the head is even though it's not what the math says.

I am not ready even to begin to think about it.  It seems a time for sharing, aches and pains as well as reminisces.  We're old enough for that, too old for mommy to make the owie go away, but still very young.  I really regret not having made it back to the reunion last spring.

It is said that justice is blind, but so must be the grim reaper regarding his next selection.  This is neither about punishment nor atonement.  It is simply a random act, one that seems horribly unfair.  The tears come and that's what they have to say.

And then you try to find recollections of school when the memories were formed.  He was really skinny and wiry.  It's hard to know what's a true memory anymore, but I believe I used to tickle him in the stomach and he would bend over in response, just boys being boys.  He was a science guy but bio, which wasn't my thing.  The classroom memories are nada. The memories are only about his appearance and his tone.  He got along well with people.  He was gentle.

It was a very big school.  There are so many classmates.  They have children.  The process self-replicates.  Yet the circle morphs into a line segment, one where the end may be coming into sight.  Denial tempts us.  Recall pains us.  Is this what it's going to be like from here on?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Scapegoating Lack of Technology

Sometimes the message is the message and the medium is just the medium.  Romney tacked hard right during the Primaries, because it was the only way to win in an incredibly weak but ultra conservative field, and then he tacked toward the middle after.  He had to run away from the Massachusetts Health Insurance plan that was the basis for Obamacare.  So he simply looked disingenuous to many voters.  And he was like a robot in front of audiences.  The economy is in terrible shape, that's true, and that fact favored the challenger.  But nothing else did.  Why not recognize that instead of overplaying the technology card? 

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Learning, learning everywhere, but not a sop* to think**

What happens if you feel like Paul Revere, there is an imminent threat that compels you to warn others, but unlike during Paul Revere's Ride these others are not ready to hear the message?  In this I'm reacting to this video of a recent Board of Trustees meeting which focused on learning facilitated by technology and comparing and contrasting it with my recent experiences teaching, where my lament is that too many of the students are not bringing enough to the table.  I've only watched the video to the 22:30 minute mark so far, so I'm reacting to what was in that piece, particularly the remarks of President Easter and the subsequent speaker.  There is a mis-characterization of the nature of the innovation in these remarks, as I will try to illustrate below.  I believe that mis-characterization is what's creating a blind spot for the message that needs to be delivered.

The speaker who followed President Easter, as so many talks with a historical look at technologies impact on learning, went back to Gutenberg and the "teaching" that followed from the printing press.  I will focus only on the recent past,  going back less than 30 years ago, and my personal experience with technology and instruction.  I got my first personal computer, a Mac SE, in 1987.  Two or three years later I learned about Eudora and started to do email with it.  Then I learned about FTP with Fetch and using Gopher.  An important application for me was OzTeX, a Mac version of TeX, which enabled me to do technical word processing on my own and share drafts of papers with collaborators.  None of this mattered one whit in my teaching.

The first software that mattered was PacerForum, a Mac based conferencing program, remarkably easy to use.  I started with it in spring 1995 in my intermediate microeconomics course after the semester had already begun, not because that's the desired way but because I didn't get access for my class till then. So the use was optional only.  The class had about 60 students.  Two of them took advantage of the option after they had done poorly on the first midterm and they improved thereafter via my responses to their online queries.  This very small numbers experience hooked me regarding online learning.  But for the topic at hand the more relevant question is what about the other 58 or so students?   Why didn't they make use of the option?   Was it a lack of access?  Or insufficient interest?   If learning online is effective, then finding mechanisms (which are social, about course organization and course requirements, not technical) that encourage the students to participate online in a vigorous manner are the important innovation.

The technology changed around that time.  PacerForum itself, which relied on the AppleTalk network, didn't survive the move to TCP-IP, the Internet protocol.  Burks Oakley, understanding the issue completely, had the SCALE project embrace FirstClass, which did run over TCP-IP and which worked with both Macs and PCs.  A friend of mine, Gail, who loved PacerForum, really criticized us when we stopped supporting it in SCALE.  But what can you do?  The company had gone out of business.  Soon after FirstClass, SCALE started to look into Web based conferencing.  (FirstClass at the time required a dedicated client.  With Web conferencing the browser was the client.)  In general, these changes moved in the direction of increased access and convenience for users, though Web based conferencing was pretty raw in those years and it took a while before WebBoard became a reasonable substitute for FirstClass.  Yet regarding the learning itself, a move from FirstClass to WebBoard had essentially no impact whatsoever.  We used to say, "it's not the technology, it's how you use it."  The how you use it part wouldn't change even as the technology did change, as long as the mechanism remained effective in generating vigorous student participation online.

Let me turn to this issue of too many students not having enough on the ball.  The explanation for this, in my view, lies in that for these students their experiences don't translate into intellectual growth.  Here I mean both their life experiences, the school of hard knocks if you will, and their in class experiences.  I've had one student I'm aware of who did have something on the ball, but evidently most of it came from the former.  He held the latter in very low regard. (This in commenting about other classes he had taken.  It's virtually impossible for students to be so frank about your own class while that is going on.)   If in the instrumental way students go about their studies the immediate goal is to do reasonably well on the upcoming test, the issue is whether they can get the "right answer" to a question without knowing the reason why.  This seems to be the case quite frequently with the students I've had the last couple of years, when I resumed teaching regular students again.  (Prior to that, when I did teach it was for the Campus Honors Program.  Those students did have something on the ball.)  The issue, then, is non-learning masking as learning and the related question of whether we can get students who have been going through the motions this way to actively want to learn about the reasons and applying those reasons in different contexts.  This is the message I want to deliver, but I'm afraid too many people don't want to hear it.

This is not a new message.  I first heard it publicly articulated by Lucinda Roy, then the Dean or Arts and Sciences at Virgina Tech, and one of the Plenary Speakers at the first Faculty Summer Institute.  Subsequent to that it has been articulated by many others.  George Kuh called it the Disengagement Compact and implicated the instructors as much as the students for accommodating the behavior.  Of course, the institution too should be implicated for accommodating the instructors.  But because it is the same old same old and people have an appetite for the new, it is not a message that will gather much enthusiasm at present.

So let me conclude with something that might possibly capture the attention of Board of Trustees members.  I have had quite small classes the last two times I've taught, so any inference based on that experience is subject to a small numbers critique.  At best it is suggestive of something that might be looked into more deeply across a large number of students.  Among the worst students I've had are students that Banner says were admitted as transfer students.  In one case I know the student attended a community college before attending the U of I.  I don't know in the other cases.  But I do know that in the last several years the Board has pressed the campus to accept many more transfer students from community colleges, in a way to find a lower cost path to the entire college experience.  The goal is admirable, but somebody should be looking now at how those students are doing academically.  My guess as to what would be found is that community college transfer students on average are doing significantly worse than students who started at the U of I as freshmen.  My hope then, and admittedly it is just a hope, is that somebody might ask whether even in the comparison group is learning fine and dandy or are there some significant issues.  That's how the message might be delivered.

I'm impatient about it.  We can't afford to wait.

*sop.  See definition 4. 

**A play on words of a misquote.  The misquote is Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.  The actual line is Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.  From Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

This is not reassuring

The picture below is a side by side comparison of scans being done on my home computer.  The one on the left is by Microsoft Safety Scanner, which has found 14 files infected so far.  The one on the right is from McAfee VirusScan.  It has been running longer than the Microsoft product, yet it has found no infected files.  It looks like either Microsoft is identifying files as infected that the rest of the world isn't worried about or McAfee is missing detecting a virus.

I don't normally run the Microsoft product but the OS did one of those auto-updates early this morning and after the machine rebooted I got a message about having some virus.  (It says I have the Virtool:Win32/BeeInject virus.)  I am not completely sure of what is happening here, but after this gets cleaned up I might start looking for some different virus protection solution.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Predicated Nominatives (Or the IRB blues)

Are human subjects actually objects?

The method is based on informed consent
I wish I knew what that really meant.

In practice it's via check box they choose.
That's why we call it the IRB blues.

With software most accept the license blindly
While hoping the product treats them kindly.

If true with human subject research as well
Then not much informing goes on, pray tell.

One then wonders why the IRB is so insistent
To keep this aspect of the research consistent.

If a Prof on her own sans outside provocation
Queries her students regarding course innovation

Thereby demonstrating to the students her dedication
They then become partners in course modification.

This sort of collaboration can be easily confused
When emphasis shifts to getting the results diffused.

In the former instance the IRB has no place at all.
With the latter the IRB gets to make the call. 

Students as true contributors, that is the question.
If they are, then there goes the main objection.

Saturday, February 09, 2013


Concerning Firefox and Flash
They have a tendency to clash
The result a report of crash.
Delete the plug-in though that's rash?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Prediction And A Wish

In January the day after the Illini Men's Basketball team got pulverized by Minnesota, I wrote in the tail end of an email to some friends:

Still taking enough pain meds to believe the Illini can bounce back and make the Final Four.

There is an art to prediction.  If you're going to be wrong then do so spectacularly.   Now, with a 2-7 record in the Big Ten, I don't have enough confidence in the team to feel like watching a game will be enjoyable, the outcome predetermined, another loss.  The fortunes of this team have been more Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than most (though remarkably similar to what happened last year) but there is a lesson in it that the recent past doesn't predict the future.  First, you may have the underlying model wrong and thus make an incorrect inference based on what is a small sample.  In the case of the basketball team, the model that was floated in December was that Coach Groce had really energized the team and the new offense was much better for these players than the one that Coach Weber used.  That doesn't look right now.  Second, even if you've got the model right, most people fail to understand regression to the mean.  I made both errors in writing that line above.

Economists are trained in efficient market thinking, and for stock market prices in particular, I think it a reasonably good first pass at not using history to predict future price movements because history is already fully accounted for in the current price.  There are occasional anomalies, sure, so those aware of them can take advantage.  But the more serious problem is naive investors buying near the peak and selling near the trough, because they are forecasting poorly.  The Efficient Market Hypothesis is a humbling theory that emphasizes our ignorance.  It is helpful to have it in mind.

Nevertheless, after Norma sent me this link to Online Class on How To Teach Online Classes Goes Laughably Awry, she had been enrolled in the course and was saddened by what happened, I felt a need to say something, especially since I wrote my post The Learning Technologist Becomes A Luddite not too long ago. So here is my prediction.

Neither Thomas Friedman nor David Brooks nor any other well known columnist who has written recently in a bullish way about MOOCs and the future of Higher Education will write anything at all about the experience in that Coursera instructional design class.  These columnists have a track record of bullishness on our economic issues (of which education is a substantial component) and that will not change.  Further, they'd like to see that bullishness spread, so even if they are aware of the attendant risks with any new approach, they are loathe to talk about these because it cuts against the diffusion goal. 

For myself, I started to think about energy policy rather than higher ed.  For years I've believed in a $.50 or $1.00 tax increase on a gallon of gasoline as the right thing to do in encouraging conservation and paving the way for alternative energy sources.  Tom Friedman has advocated for this too and it is quite possible by my being for this policy idea comes from him.  While I still think this is a good idea, I have to admit that the alternatives are each risky, so especially if we expect quick results from such a tax we might be terribly disappointed.

Getting back to Higher Ed, MOOCs, and that particular Coursera offering, I will on the one hand take the efficient market approach and not try to predict what will come next in this dimension, but on the other hand hope that the experience with this recent course gets us to seriously consider alternative approaches.  I believe, quite strongly, that the online components of on campus courses should be open for the most part.  The grade book needs to stay private but much of the rest of the course can be publicly available.  (Copyright concerns can be managed in a way where the restricted material is behind an authentication wall but the rest of the course is not and in the rest of the course reference is made to that material where outsiders are invited to find it on their own if they can.)  This issue has been on the back burner, at best.   Mainly, it's not being talked about at all.   I've done that in my own teaching (most recently here) to good effect for those students taking the class.  It certainly would be a benefit to students who are considering taking the course in the future.  And it might very well be a benefit to outsiders who can peruse course materials for their own use and possibly contribute to class discussion.  Further, it would ignite some talk about OERs and bring that alternative more to the forefront. So my hope is that other people take up this notion and we move the discussion about online learning to where it is part of what on campus instruction is rather than separate from it.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Can courses be autotelic?

This is a bit of follow up to my previous post.  I mentioned having a sense of deja vu in reading psychology books, which is true conceptually but doesn't hold for the terminology.  Autotelic, for example, is a new word for me.  The New Oxford American Dictionary built into the Kindle software says it means having a purpose in and of itself.  If a course were autotelic, what would it look like?

When I finished my undergrad studies, I hung around Ithaca for another semester and did a bunch of different small things that together occupied me.  One of those things was to go to a Political Science lecture.  I had taken a fair number of upper level courses, in Poli Sci, but I missed the principles classes, so this was going back to fundamentals.  I had heard good things about the instructor, Isaac Kramnick, and a girl I was kind of crazy about at the time was also interested.  We attended together.  We didn't do the readings or the assignments, but if memory serves we also didn't miss a class.  This was an attraction not unlike good foreign films, which were compelling.  Perhaps an autotelic course has other aspects, but shouldn't attractiveness of this sort be at least a part?

This morning I had a coffee with Jim, which we do once in a while, and we got to talk a little about Econ courses online and whether having a famous economist as the "teacher" in the course mattered or if that were trumped by the course materials being well designed.  Put a different way, among the leading principles texts on the market, one is authored by Paul Krugman and his wife Robin Wells.  Krugman has his column in the NY Times every Monday and Friday, and he seems to be on TV a lot, on Charlie Rose, The Daily Show, other stuff as well.  It is not hard to imagine that most undergraduates know of Krugman, whether they've taken an economics course or not.  Another leading textbook is by Greg Mankiw.  Mankiw is pretty well known too.  He was Chairman of the Council of Economics Advisers during the term of Bush II. 

Now ask the following simple question (though the answer is not transparent at all).  Suppose I teach a  principles course using either Krugman's or Mankiw's text.  Among other things, this means I write the exams, so the tests are original for that particular offering of the class.  Now suppose there is a lot of online video content.  Should that video content feature one of these superstars?  Or should it feature me?  In other words, does star power matter more or does it matter more that the author of the exams be the presenter?  Then ask whether either way, is the course autotelic?  Or do autotelic courses not have exams?

My university has a requirement that every course must have a final exam.  I suspect that many other places have similar requirements.   I violated that requirement in a course I taught a year ago.  I wasn't trying to shirk at all, but there were so few students I taught the class as a seminar and the students did enough other activities to be assess that I thought an exam was redundant and perhaps pernicious.  There is much teaching to the test especially in the high enrollment classes.  That seems the opposite of a what an autotelic class would be like. 

George Kuh, pretty clever guy in my view, use the term "engagement" in talking about well functioning college instruction and NSSE is an instrument aimed at measuring that across the entire college experience.  I haven't tracked it recently but in the early years of that survey the findings were disarming - students weren't engaged much at all.  If memory serves, some of NSSE concerns an undergraduate research experience, which likely would be outside a course setting.  If a college student works in a professor's lab, that experience might very well be autotelic.  And that's great, but it still leaves us with the question, what about courses?

Suppose we concluded that courses can be autotelic and that star power isn't the key ingredient.  Rather it is making the course challenging to the student but with the right sort of feedback where the student sees that by intensive effort the student can do well and sees how what is learned can be well applied outside the course setting.  (I'm pretty much lifting this directly from Flow, but then translating it into an instructional setting.)    The course design is not a guarantee that students will experience flow in taking the course.  If they are hell bent on being disengaged, that will trump the course design.  But the design should be reasonably effective on students who try it earnestly.  Again, this is a supposition so I can pose the next question.  If it's possible, then would it become a mandate to produce autotelic courses? 

It certainly doesn't seem there is such a mandate now.  Should we infer from that that people think it impossible to make an autotelic class?  Or have folks simply not taken up the question? If not, why not?

Friday, February 01, 2013

Teaching with Technology as a Flow Experience

I am fortunate to have never taken a course in psychology.  I only started to read in this area after I turned forty and my career took a fork in the road.  The reading was driven by my self-imposed needs to learn, not by any external mandate.  It means I was my own teacher.  Authors sometimes write - let the reader draw his own conclusions.  I did that.  In some sense this reading was more like reading On The Road as an undergraduate, a result of hanging out with other kids for whom that was an important book, than my Economics reading in graduate school, where much of that was prescribed in courses or happened by my adviser suggesting I read a particular paper.  The Econ stuff was also extraordinarily abstract.  I had the right preparation for it - undergraduate math - but otherwise I had little prior experience so the process was much like drawing a picture on a blank slate.  Even On the Road, much more grounded in its subject, was something of an alien creature. I was a middle class kid who lived in a pretty comfortable and non-threatening environment.  I had never been on the road.

It was different with the psychology reading.  (An incomplete list of these readings is here, constructed from memory and with no firm rule of what made it to the list and what was excluded.  Some of it clearly is not psychology but it is sufficiently tied to thinking and learning, while I excluded books about school and about teaching because they seem less connected.  I have read everything on that list except the book by Isabel Briggs Myers.  For a while I got quite into personality typing and my MBTI, which is INTP.  I read a lot of short essays about it online.  This particular entry is intended as a placeholder for something in the personality typing arena.)  Here I had my own prior college experience plus 15-30 years of life as a faculty member and teacher.

I found that in reading these works I would frequently feel a sense of deja vu.  I had thought similar if not identical thoughts myself and had done so in order to make sense of the situation.  The vexing question was that many of my undergraduate students didn't seem to be learning and I tried to get at why.  This was true in the upper level courses I taught a few times (Industrial Organization) but was most painfully evident in Intermediate Microeconomics.  For the kids who were blowing off the course, there was no real mystery.  But there were other kids who seemed quite diligent yet their efforts were largely ineffective in producing understanding.  That was the puzzle.  Either their mechanism for learning as a student worked well in their other classes, so why should they change just for my class, or the students were clinging to a flawed approach in spite of getting other feedback that the approach wasn't working well. All the reading I did was indirectly done to address this question and to be able to talk with others, instructors and learning technologists, about these issues with an informed basis.

By the late 1990s I had convinced myself that it was these earnest but not very effective students fooling themselves and then the system accommodating that which was the core issue.  At the time I thought that Higher Education would never be able to reform itself from within to get these kids to embrace a different approach without the public becoming aware of the issue and then urging change.  I asked myself why would a member of the public become so informed.  Parents read grades on a report card.  If there are A's they are happy.  Most seem willfully ignorant about what the grade actually signifies, perhaps because they are unable to make an independent determination of whether the kid has learned significantly.  (Even though I consider myself well educated, I couldn't make that determination in the biology class the kids took in high school, on the content, and perhaps not in classes other than math where the issue was not so much the content but where kids at that level should be approximately.)  The kids themselves get it beaten into their heads that grades are what matters.  That's the feedback which sustains them in clinging to a poor approach to their learning - to memorize content in a way disembodied from everything else they know rather than to find ways to integrate the new stuff with their current understanding of things or to revise that understanding because the various notions are not compatible with one another.

So it occurred to me at the time, implausible as it may seem in retrospect, to write a novel that would be gripping as a story in and of itself (my role model at the time was John Grisham and I tried to produce a page turner as he does) while talking about the issues and the cure.  I wrote about half of what I had planned originally before it occurred to me that you need to have a better understanding of character development than I did to keep the story interesting.  It looked too daunting to have to learn that so I stopped.  But readers of this post might find The Introduction interesting to read now.  It was originally written in May 2000.   Anyone who read my recent post, The Learning Technologist Becomes a Luddite, will see many of the same themes.  That introduction is a few years at least before I heard of George Kuh's piece in Change Magazine that discussed the "Disengagement Compact," which itself preceded the Declining By Degrees Documentary and the more recent Academically Adrift.   So it is indicative of my pattern.  I glom onto something via self-discovery.  Then perhaps years later read about it when somebody else has published on it, though in this particular case these other works are not about psychology but rather about undergraduate college education.

There is a bit in that Introduction about my own college experience which implicitly shows the tie-in to the psychology.

When I was an undergraduate, I had the luxury, or perhaps simply the frame of mind, to treat the entire experience as one of self-actualization. I took courses either where I had some obvious aptitude (math) or where I had some prior curiosity (philosophy, American political thought) without much regard either for my grade point average or for preparing myself for my future career. And indeed, I only did modestly well in both of these aspects. Like my kids, where I could get past the initial engagement process, I did quite well and the experience was a rich one for me (a topology course unaided by a text, where all the ideas were invented from primitives and where I’d spend entire Sundays thinking through the homework problems and frequently, after several hours of concentration, finding the needed arguments to solve those problems). In cases where the engagement didn’t occur the experience was superficial (a course on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason which was opaque to me and painful to read, and where I spent a good part of class time simply watching the philosophy students, in awe of how hip they were).

From where at the time I knew to use the term "self-actualization" in that paragraph I'm not sure.  And the truth of the matter, though I didn't have the courage to write it at the time, was that for the most part the courses I took were subsidiary to the learning I had in a social context with my friends who lived at 509 Wyckoff Road (in Ithaca NY), one of whom gave me the impetus to read On the Road.  That's where the self-actualization happened the most, where learning and play intermingled, serious argument (for example about Watergate) mixing with having a meal together, listening to music and camaraderie a big part of it all.  I most recently wrote about learning of this sort in a post called Did Groucho Meet Einstein?  It's my sense of what heaven on earth looks like. 

The term self-actualization is due to Maslow and I must say that Toward A Psychology Of Being is my favorite on that reading list I provided above.  It touched me so much because that time between late adolescence and early adulthood when one asks the meaning of life questions was so important to me.  Maslow provided the answer, one I had stumbled on myself much earlier but needed confirmation from others to validate.

For me blogging is one way I try to self-actualize now and sometimes my writing tries to capture the process of thinking, not just the results.  The process is where the fun/compulsion lies, though I know that sometimes the reader is not interested in my process and only wants the results.  I will indulge myself in the next paragraph and thereafter try to keep the reader's interests in mind.

In constructing this essay I knew I had to give some background on self-actualization and that immediately brought to mind Maslow.  But how I got involved reading Maslow was not immediate at all.  It occurred to me that I discussed self-actualization with Vince Patone some in the late 1990s.  Vince was the head tech guy in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science and I believe previously was a Masters student there.  So while I had a professional need to have a relationship with him as part of my campus job with learning technology, he had his own interest in learning and was genuinely happy to hear my thoughts in this area.  Vince, if I recall correctly, was the first person to mention Maslow to me.  Vince hasn't been on campus for quite a while, and it took me some time to come up with that connection.  Armed with that thought I then searched my PC for messages from him.  I'm kind of surprised by what I find - a message where he says he hasn't read my book yet but was planning to do so in the near future.  With that additional cue I find the introduction.  This is the process.  One step leads to another.   There is anticipation of motion, but not of the particular next step to be taken.  And until some culmination is reached it is quite absorbing finding and then taking the next step.

Many of the other authors on the reading lists come up with different names for self-actualization, perhaps because their focus is a specific context.  Donald Schon calls it reflective practice, referring to the work of highly skilled professionals in fields like architecture or psychology.  Ellen J. Langer calls it Mindful Learning, concentrating on a school setting.  Anders Ericsson calls it deliberate practice, when referring to how experts become that way.  In this last case, there may also be some difference in meaning because the way Maslow discusses self-actualization via the hierarchy of needs, it compels itself when other needs have been satisfied.  In contrast, Ericsson argues that sometimes the learning is rather effortless and intrinsically motivated but at other times a plateau in the learning has been reached and an external push is needed from a coach or mentor to get motion to resume.   A child who likes piano lessons and enjoys practicing self-actualizes and continues to do so as her performance improves but the vast majority of such children give up the activity well before reaching near to the level of world class performer. 

I am currently reading Flow by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi.  I'm a bit more than halfway through it.  Based on what I've read so far, flow is deliberate practice, but without the outside coach.  It is characterized by prior competence that makes the current activity do-able, a sense of control, which is reduced or blocked entirely when their are outside interferences (in this sense like Maslow's hierarchy of needs), and demands feedback to witness the consequences from exercising the control and knowing the efforts have been put to good effect.  I chose the title of the post to emphasize those factors.

Nonetheless, my preferred term in reference to the behavior is futzing.  One reason for that is that ahead of time we can't predict a good outcome or not.

“I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
Thomas A. Edison

Flow is supposed to produce personal growth.  Sometimes we say we learn more from failure than from success but it is my opinion that is only true if the failure drives us to find the better way.  It is not true if we stop trying.   Since I'm an economist, let me assert here that the trying comes with an opportunity cost.  Other things are not being pursued simultaneously.   If we give up on the current activity to turn our attention elsewhere, it may be that as Edison says there has been some benefit in exploring what ultimately proves to be dead ends, but most would not call that personal growth.

Then there is that if you think a bit harder on the prior competence front, you will realize there is a rather large chicken and egg problem.  Most people who've considered this issue, I believe, would concur that enthusiasm plus sitzfleisch really matters more than prior competence and that is how the novice begins to get more proficient.  If you're engaged with an activity as a novice, then futzing may not be such an undignified term.  In many instances I can't tell ahead of time whether I'm proficient or a novice.  The approach for me is more or less the same either way, as long as the way to the solution is not immediate.

Another very important issue is the matter of getting stuck, not yet giving up but not knowing where the next step lies either and not having an action plan to find it.  After knocking your head against the wall for a while, it might occur to you to give yourself a break and relax.  Implicitly you're saying to yourself, if the conscious self can't find the way let the unconscious mind have a crack at it for a while.

“It takes a lot of time to be a genius. You have to sit around so much, doing nothing, really doing nothing.”
Gertrude Stein

Then, finally, particularly when trying to initiate something new,  you might discover your state of mind to be dull rather than sharp.  For me, not sleeping well the night before is one explanation for the dullness that occurs with some regularity.   You might nonetheless try in earnest during this dull phase, but you likely won't be satisfied with the product thereafter.  In this sense futzing is an at-the-time descriptor while flow is an after-the-fact descriptor of what happened when the futzing happened to lead to a productive outcome.

Nevertheless, futzing used this way is idiosyncratic to me and when I've shown that Gertrude Stein quote to students they are surprised by it.  They instead will think of the more popular genius quote, also attributed to Edison, as being 99% perspiration and that futzing must therefore be unproductive.  So I used Flow in my title because it is in more general use and I do like Csikszentmihalyi's points in regard to control and feedback, which I concur are absolutely necessary.

Let me turn to the rest of the title and ask the obvious question: a flow experience for whom?  A very hopeful person might respond - for the students.  Were that the case we'd have found the Learning Technology's version of Shangri-La.  In my class last semester, where in general my students responded positively to the course, only one or maybe two out of the seventeen students gave evidence of flow in the work they produced.  The rest futzed a bit, that's all.  As an ideal getting the students to experience flow and then provide evidence of it is a very good thing.  As an expectation I think it's too much, for now.  A more modest goal, taken from Made To Stick, which discusses effective presentation, is for the students to actively build connections to the subject matter.

In this class students blogged weekly to a prompt that asked them to provide some of their own experiences relevant to the topic on hand.  I read their posts and commented on them in a way to give response situated in what they had said.  But I didn't grade the posts in that response till much later and then graded a bunch of posts by the student as a collection, not individually.  So the grading was remote while the feedback was more immediate. Then in the subsequent class session we'd discuss the topic generally and try to tie some of the experiences from the blog posts to that discussion, bring in the particular to match the general, go from what the students already know to what they've not yet internalized in their thinking.  The approach was new to them and they liked it.

The approach was not perfect by any means.  Only a handful of students took it upon themselves to write a response to my comments. Why?  I don't know.  My guess is that school as obligation is their expectation.  School as learning is still novel to them.  For this same reason it was very rare indeed for a student to comment on another student's post.  In prior versions of this approach I had required this sort of commenting to build community in the class. But it's not simple to track.  Students have a tendency to push past deadlines.  I told the students, and this was true, that if they were a little late with the posts but it was still before the time I planned to read them, then it was no big deal at all, but if they were late beyond that then they'd not receive comments on their posts.  If students are late with their comments on another student's post, then the post author may very well not get the feedback at all because the author has moved onto other things.  That's what's hard to monitor.  So I'm not sure a coerced solution is the answer but I definitely would like to have seen more student to student commenting.   There is also the issue of whether if the novelty were to wear off because the practice were more broadly embraced would the students push harder with the blogging because they've had positive reinforcement and become more proficient at it or would they take a step back with it because it became humdrum to them and they hadn't made strong connection with it in their prior uses of the approach.  I really don't know what the likely outcome would be.

The students had the right in the mechanism I designed to write something not on the prompt but on a topic of their own choosing as long as their post tied to the course in a way they could justify.  I didn't anticipate this when I first started teaching with blogs, but in my experience it is rare for a student to do this.  It requires some courage.  But it does provide some evidence that the student is taking control.  The one student I mentioned who I thought had experienced flow chose to write about a topic we had been discussing the previous week, because he thought it important and he hadn't processed it sufficiently yet to his own liking.  I thought he experienced some AHA at around that time.  And here's the thing.  If you evaluated that post on it's correctness, you'd probably not have given it high marks.  It said some things that were errant.  But thinking doesn't go to the good answer in the next step.  This post was him going to the next idea that occurred to him and it was quite interesting to see him push these thoughts the way he did. 

Let me also say here that the blogging was only half the student obligation.  They had to learn formal math modeling on the topics we covered and there needs to be a different approach to that.  It is my sense that students don't know how to internalize the math and that makes it a tough challenge for anyone teaching economics.  So there is still much for me to try to improve things in the course.  When I read Atul Gawande's book Better, it was an eye opener in that it should be the goal.  Our rhetoric may be about excellence and in that way is about best.  I think a more modest goal is sustaining and in so doing it is regular growth that's the aim not reaching the ideal in a short time. I also believe that most students who do not now induce flow in their own classroom learning never will unless they see it modeled in the instructor's behavior.  So the reason to want teaching with flow is not as an end in itself but rather because some of that will rub off on the students. 

Now let me generalize from my own experience.  I count myself as an early adopter with the technology.  I have found, especially in the last four years, that in my own experimentation with technology it is far easier to use technology that my campus does not support.  I have to visualize the student experience with the technology and only then can I feel comfortable deploying it.  The LMS, in particular, is asymmetric in how students and instructors confront it and that makes this visualization harder, even if the LMS allows the instructor to temporarily adopt a student role.  To give a specific example, I wanted the students to blog openly but under an alias that I assigned and with the blog description saying they were students.   There is now a campus blog service, but whether I could achieve what I wanted with it I don't know and I didn't know how to find that out.  There is further that the LMS provides restraint where an instructor like me wants control.  The LMS itself offers a blog, but it is not open, and I don't believe there are permalinks to enable one post making reference to another via linking. 

But this going outside is troublesome for two reasons.  One is that the instructor then has to rely on himself as tech support and when things arise that were not anticipated that can be a major bother.  In this particular case I had started the class using Google Docs as a way to distribute files, but many of my students couldn't access them.  I learned the hard way that even if the creator makes the Google Document publicly available, if the student is logged into Google Apps for their institution then they can't access the document without the creator actively sharing it with them.  Had I known this in advance I'd have opted for a different approach and avoided the headaches here.  Perhaps the more worrisome reason is that going outside may inhibit the diffusion of the the good things that happen with the approach.  In the ideal, instructors should learn from one another and embrace good ideas that are garnered this way.  It's harder to foster this sort of learning with instructors who are not themselves early adopters.  They likely have a strong preference to only use campus supported technology and are leery of other instructors who do not.

This brings me to the role of the learning technologist in the equation.  In my view, the learning technologist's core mission is to assist majority faculty in teaching with technology as a flow experience.  In so doing they themselves must have flow experiences.  It follows that a good chunk of their own learning is exploration with new technologies and applying those technologies in an instructional setting.  If they can do this they are then in a position to offer options to the majority instructor and then be able to work through the analysis of which options to choose, and why, as well as to assist the instructor in getting useful feedback from the students about the effectiveness of what is being tried and how the approach might be improved.   This view of the relationship between the instructor and the learning technologist is one of partnership based on comparative advantage.  It is an ideal to strive for.  In my experience things come up short for a variety of reasons.

One is the faculty time constraint and the instructor comfortable in the view of being the lord of the manor with everyone else who is not faculty as vassal.  Even if over a short time period that partnership is achieved, the faculty member who doesn't want to do the grunt work is prone to push that off on the learning technologist.  Understanding the incentive, my view has been that as long as the faculty member is learning about the approach some of this offloading may be okay, but when the instructor has plateaued in her understanding and implementation of the method, it only serves to make the relationship more vertical and hence no longer a partnership.

Another issue is the learning technologist looking for shortcuts and still wanting to be relevant, so pushing recently hot technologies without working through how embracing the technology will improve the instruction.  This becomes technology for technology's sake and is thus self-defeating. 

A third issue is like the first one, but it is the learning technologist who initiates.  An assumption is made that as the subject matter expert the instructor can figure out how to best deploy the technology, once the instructor understands how the technology works.  But effective use is not obtained via one big gestalt.  It requires exploration and tinkering.  An early adopter faculty member will do that on her own, so the learning technologist's assumption may be valid in this case.  But otherwise the assumption is incorrect and what will result is dull use only.  The majority faculty member needs help here, although many won't ask for it.  The learning technologist must be more assertive in recommending approaches to try that are based in the faculty member's experience in teaching.  This is undoubtedly time consuming.  But it is necessary.

A fourth issue is that the bilateral approach discussed above is too simple.  There are other players to consider:  someone from the center for teaching, a librarian, another faculty member in a similar field who serves as teaching mentor, and perhaps still others.  Flow in a team setting is possible.  But it is harder to arrive at.  If control comes first while coordination and identifying comparative advantage only later, the group will degenerate.  I call the issue, "everyone wants to drive the bus."  The group flow requires each participant to willingly blend with the group.  And, especially if each member's competence is not recognized ahead of time by the other members, the blending is very hard to get.  One must ask, if you can't have it all from the get go, what does half a loaf look like?  On my campus over the years different faculty have developed affinity with different supporters of teaching.  Is that a good outcome or can we do better?  I don't know the answer but it seems an important question to ask and try to address seriously.

Let me wrap up.  The challenge that drew my attention back in the 1990s, that too many of the students are not learning deeply is still with us.  Addressing it should occupy the attention of many people.  One fairly obvious step in doing that is to get the instructors to regard their teaching as an opportunity to learn deeply and then for them to take advantage of that opportunity.  Flow offers a good frame of reference for considering how and why that might work.