Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Rise of JCU - Then and Now

It occurred to me to write a post about how my beliefs about teaching and learning have evolved over the years.  So I asked myself a related question - how can I pinpoint what my beliefs were on this topic during the early years?  As it turns out, this question has a remarkably easy answer.  About 15 years ago I started to write a novel, my way to express my frustration as to the general state of undergraduate education, with the book intended to be a wake up call on the matter.  This was years before I learned of other such critiques of undergraduate education and years before I started to write this blog.

The book went through a name change with the second and still title called The Rise of JCU.  About a year before I started in on this writing effort I read The New New Thing by Michael Lewis.  That book, a sort of biography about Jim Clark written in the wake of the Netscape IPO, captured my attention.  In the title of my book, JCU stands for Justin Carruthers University, and Justin Carruthers is meant to be a fictionalized version of Jim Clark.  Likewise, there is a character in my book called Martin Lenox, who is meant to be a fictionalized version of Michael Lewis.  The protagonist is Fred Garvin, as in the SNL sketch.  Garvin is a fictionalized version of me.  I chose the name deliberately as I've been plagued by my given name much of my life, so I wanted the character to bear that sort of cross.

This morning I started to read through it again.  I've gotten through the front matter and the first five chapters.  As I did this I converted the files to PDF and posted them in my campus Box account.  They can be read online at the link above.  Box does quite a good job with its preview of displaying PDF files.  As I read the subsequent chapters, there are 5 more of those, I will post them in a likewise manner.

In total that is about half of the book I originally intended.  I stopped for writing reasons.  It occurred to me that I really didn't have a clue about character development and had somewhat painted myself into the corner that way, but I only came to that realization around the time I stopped.  Also, and it is transparent to me on this rereading, while I had in mind a story that would be as breezy as some of the early fiction of John Grisham, and I think chapter 1 succeeds at this level, when I start to talk about the learning issues themselves in later chapters I get bogged down in what I call lecture mode.   Then the reading starts to become a slug.  As entertainment, nobody wants that.

Why write a book to its conclusion when people will put it down well before reaching the end?  Yet I found myself wondering this morning whether I should go back to it, finish what I started so I have a decent draft, then go back to the sections that seem particularly pedantic and see if I can rework them so they flow better.  There is also the issue that 15 years ago I was writing as if the action were happening in the present.  Some of it will seem dated now.  (For example, there is mention of the software that JCU develops and that it can function reasonably well with a 56K modem.)  If any of you who read this post are so inclined to read some of the book, I would greatly appreciate hearing from you about your reaction to it.  Sometimes it is difficult to take an objective view about your own work.

* * * * *

Getting to where my beliefs about learning were 15 years ago, the Introduction to the book is quite informative.  It provides a setup to the issues.  Except for the bit about my kids in pre-school (the younger one now is a junior in college) it could just have well been written today.  On that score, things have not changed much at all.  On the one hand I'm pleased with the fixity in my beliefs.  On the other hand it is surprising to me that given the changes with technology in the intervening years there hasn't been a larger change in my attitudes about learning.

There are some subtle differences between then and now and I want to discuss those here.  One is on the need to establish trust between student and (not yet) beloved professor.  In the book, I assumed that would simply happen of its own accord.  Now I've come to believe that it must be built with intention.  I thank Barbara Ganley for making that point clear to me.  Some years ago I wrote a post about her visit to the U of I.  This is the relevant passage.

Barbara explains her approach to teaching both in theoretical terms – the social constructivism of Pierre Levy – and in terms of the practical reality of building a trusting environment for her students while getting them to commit fully to the activities of her class. I learned many things from Barbara during this visit, some of which I describe below.

I’ve had intuitions for much of what Barbara talks about and have achieved some of these things in my own teaching, but especially on the building trust idea it’s been my experience that it happens en passant as we become familiar with each other and consequently in the past I’ve always hoped it would happen but have never previously made it an explicit goal of the teaching. Barbara takes the first two weeks of class and devotes them to this dual purpose – and during that time she does not push on the content of the course at all because the students aren’t yet ready to engage with it at a deep level. That was an entirely new idea for me.

My own mechanism for doing this comes out of student blogging and the instructor comments on student posts.  This way manages the issue with quiet students, who don't voluntarily talk up in class, an increasingly prevalent phenomenon.  I've now come to believe that there should be a sequencing where in the first semester the students interact with the instructor via blogging and trust is established that way.  Then, after the semester concludes, the interaction can change to face-to-face conversation, either one-on-one or in small groups, where those conversations are buttressed by the trust asset that is more fully formed.

Another idea that has developed since the writing of the book is that the teachers may better be retirees than current research faculty, though I have to admit my sample is one (me).  The idea for this is that the interactions require time abundance.  Retirees who teach part time have that time abundance.  Current research faculty do not.  But, of course, the teachers need to be willing to put in this sort of time and have some understanding of the type of sympathetic interactions they need to have with students.  I know a few other recent retirees who have the right sort of mindset.  But I'm far less sure that the bulk of retirees could be educated and motivated to make this a useful suggestion.  The ones I have in mind cared a great deal about teaching when they were full time employees.  It's an open question to me whether attitudes about the importance of interacting with students on an individual basis can change for those who previously viewed teaching as largely a matter of delivering lectures and administering exams.

A third thing that has changed substantially since 15 years ago is the increased number of international students, to the point where their numbers are great enough to contrast them with the domestic students (the vast majority of whom are from Illinois).  Most of international students I've had of late are from China or Korea.  As a group they seem more receptive to the type of interventions suggested in The Rise of JCU than the in-state students I see, though I will admit the samples are small and there may be a kind of selection bias at work here because those international students are paying much higher tuition and they are following a path in college that was unlike the path their parents took.  Those factors may create seriousness of purpose that is absent from upper middle class domestic students whose parents are college educated.  The Rise of JCU was written with those domestic students in mind.  But it might be that the positive suggestions presented therein are better suited as a way to maintain the pipeline so international students continue to want to come to our campus and to other like campuses in the U.S.

Let me bring this discussion to a close.  Most of the current popular discussion about college revolves around the (tuition) cost issue.  There is actually much less discussion about the (learning) quality issue.  The best value proposition looks to find a balance along these two dimensions instead of going to extremes, which it seems to me much recent innovation with technology in learning has been doing.  In order to find a good balance, however, one needs to contemplate what the opposite extreme looks like - high cost and high quality.  In other words, if good balance were attained by having students take one low enrollment class taught in a seminar format each semester, with all other classes of the large lecture type, we should first consider what it would be like for typical students to take courses that were all small seminars and designed in coordination with respect to their learning goals.  Would typical students be transformed as learners by such a high cost approach?  If the answer to that question is yes, would it then make sense to look for the least cost way to achieve such transformation?   The alternative requires assuming ahead of time that we can't afford it and thus must conclude that typical students won't be changed very much at all by their education at public research universities.  It seems to me those are the sort of questions we should be asking.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Optical Ill Luzhin

Yesterday while reading I had an odd visual experience that I don't recall happening before.  In my right eye it felt as if I could see the edge of the lens in my glasses.  If I stared straight ahead I could avoid this feeling, so that is what I did to concentrate on the reading.  But it is hard to constrain peripheral vision entirely.  So I kept returning to this odd sensation.  I don't know how long this persisted.  Ultimately, it occurred to me to take off my glasses.  When I did I found a hair, one that must have been from the top of my head rather than my eyelid, fully extended near the middle of the lens.  I removed it and the sensation went away.  One mystery solved, though how the hair got there in the first place will remain a puzzle.  I don't think I'm shedding. 

During that session I finished reading Nabokov's novel The Luzhin Defense.  Somewhere recently I read something, a review of the book or a critique of Nabokov as a writer, that said the story was very familiar.  But it was not known to me and the story in the book is so different from the one in the movie that seeing the movie first did not prepare me for how the book concluded.  In my previous post I wrote that I had reached the part of the story where Luzhin has a nervous breakdown.  This is a bit past the middle of the book.  What then?

I don't want to give away the story, so instead will describe things at a rather abstract level.  I hope this can shed some light on the matter without being a spoiler for the book.

Chess and math are similar in how they are depicted from the perspective of the extremely skilled practitioner, i.e., a genius. That person has intense powers of concentration and uses those powers to find patterns or discover metaphors in the object of study that others don't see.  This universe of thought becomes a world into itself.  In the late 1980s the students who were studying economic theory at Illinois would wear a sweatshirt that said: Do you live in your model?  That question conveys the fundamental idea.  The requisite concentration makes for a life of its own, one entirely apart from what we consider normal living.

There are many more aspirants than geniuses.  As one of the former, I have some sense of what it is like to be in that mental world where thoughts of anything outside that world fade into oblivion.  And on some occasions when in this aware state it has been possible for me to see things that others miss.  But as a pretender to the throne I've learned that if I don't experience that seeing rather early in the quest I'm much more likely to get stuck in the mire than to find something beautiful.  The true genius can let the pattern unfold without loss of patience or concentration in doing so.  The discovery then can be bigger and more elegant.  It requires the fullness of time to develop to maturity.

Having some sense about intense mental focus on a hard problem, there then is the question about how or if the person brings normalcy to the rest of his life.  This is far easier to do if the person has a diversity of interests - variety is the spice of life.  But then the pastimes compete with the main event for attention.  The singular genius may reject other interests or treat them at surface level only, so as not to disrupt his concentration.  And when in creative mode this singularity of mind is a very good thing.  The genius will produce wonderful stuff.

But it is a double edged sword and can be a trap.  The genius may then start to apply his familiar metaphors to the world of normalcy and find in normalcy patterns from his abstract universe.  This can reduce possibility rather than help with coping and can come to feel like the walls are caving in.  The genius is more prone to this form of depression than the rest of us, because the genius has made it a habit to block out thoughts others would welcome as normal.   This I believe to be the main theme of the story.

There is one other, related theme.   Can a genius have feelings of intimacy that are profound enough to serve as a sustaining counterweight?  Or is it that even if the genius has a wife whom he "loves" that he nonetheless fundamentally feels alone because the genius can't share his inner world with his spouse?  And what does the spouse think of the situation?  Does she believe, perhaps falsely, that she is getting through when in fact she isn't?  Or does she recognize that in spite of her efforts to comfort her husband and protect him from his inner demons that his ability to block out normalcy is so strong that it includes blocking her out as well?

It may be interesting for us non-geniuses to reflect on communication in our own marriages by reading about Luzhin and his wife.  But, to be truthful, I didn't find this part of the book as compelling to read as the part that led up to the breakdown.  Yet in retrospect, the way Nabokov tells the story seems like the inevitable conclusion.  If genius could fully transform from one domain to another - in the story this would be drawing to replace chess - then a different outcome would have been possible.  Such a transformation was the wife's hope, but that hope was steeped in unreality.  How is it possible to turn off thoughts from the first domain where the genius is world class?  That has become a vortex from which there is no escape. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Aspiring Narrator

Bend at the knees, not at the waist.  It's so easy to say, yet so hard to remember.  My lower back suffers as a consequence.  When in that state it's hard to concentrate.  The last couple of days I haven't been able to write much at all.  I've had to get up from my seat every few minutes, taking several steps before the pain dissipates and something approximating normalcy gets restored. 

I decided I'd be more comfortable sitting in a lounge chair in our "library." (That space used to be the dining room but has now been repurposed with a bookshelf and some overstuffed chairs.)  On my Kindle Fire tablet, I've been reading The Luzhin Defense while listening to Chopin piano music.  I am puzzled about this and what I believe the research shows on multi-processing.  We can't have our minds do two tasks simultaneously, each of which require our attention.  Yet I now prefer to read while listening to music, even if the piece is not familiar.  I don't believe the music distracts from my concentration when reading.  But other things do distract.  The Kindle Fire is a regular tablet, so has tablet functionality on it, including email and Internet browsing.  So I flit between applications - read a chapter, sometimes less than a chapter, then check email and/or Facebook and other Web sites, and then repeat the cycle.

Further I found this book a bit difficult to engage with at first.  It is one of Nabokov's books written initially in Russian.  I had seen the movie recently, this was the second or third time viewing it, and that got me interested in reading the book.  I found Nabokov's introduction somewhat off-putting, as the writing style seemed especially boastful, yet it was informative too in giving a sense of what he was trying to create with this story. Then the early part of the story, which focuses on Luzhin's unhappy childhood, is perhaps necessary to set the stage for why all his attention would eventually be drawn into thinking about chess, but is not so compelling in itself.  It is the chess prodigy that attracts our attention.  There is a fascination with genius of all sorts, but the chess player may be the most intriguing for me, perhaps because Bobby Fischer became world champion during the summer before I entered college.

And I had reached a very interesting part of the story.  In his match against Turati, the Italian grandmaster and Luzhin's principal rival, they had jockeyed back and forth but had now reached adjournment.  The intense concentration needed to play chess at this level, coupled with excessive fatigue and stress, end up being too much for Luzhin and he has what appears to be a nervous breakdown.  As he begins to recover the doctor prescribes that Luzhin should avoid chess if he is to make a full recovery.  So at this juncture of the story, it is rich with possibility.  Yet because my back is bothering me I still have to get up once in a while.  When I eventually sit back down it is hard for me to resume again with the reading.  Instead I begin with my flitting.  But, looking for a little bit more diversity in my activity, and because I was trying to understand what all the icons on the homepage of the Tablet refer to (I didn't figure that out) I came to understand that this device is supposed to be good for viewing video.

So I start to watch episode 1 of The Wire, but only for a couple of minutes. The video quality is indeed quite good but the story is so different from The Luzhin Defense that I'm not that attracted by it.  Yet it is enough for me to pose the following question.  If I had my druthers which would I prefer to do, read a good book or watch a good movie (or TV show)?  Yet my back was bothering me and I knew that then and there neither form of entertainment would provide sufficient distraction for me to ignore the back pain.  Instead, I fix myself a drink and become comfortably numb.

This morning having the first cup of coffee I find open on my computer this essay by E. L. Doctorow from the series Writers on Writing.  It must have occurred to me to look at it while having my martini.  It's funny but not all that unusual for me.  After posing one question, I end up trying to answer a different question, though suggested by the first.  What is the difference between a novel and a movie from the perspective of the viewer/reader?  Doctorow's essay, written 15 years ago, is still a good read.  It laments the current situation where the movies are the dominant form and the novel plays second fiddle, at best.  Novels had to adjust in their style because of their marginalized status.  Pure description, setting the stage if you will, is not found in novels by the middle of the 20th century, where it was a feature of fiction a century earlier. Action is the key.  It must be ever present.  Yet even with these changes, novels remains different from movies.  Doctorow puts it this way.

In the 1930s and 40s, when stage plays and books were a major source of film scripts, the talkies were talkier (as adaptations of Shakespeare are still). Films of that period were, by comparison with today's products, logorrheic. Even action films, the Bogart film noir, the Errol Flynn swashbuckler, abounded with dialogue. Now, after a century of development, the medium of film generates its own culture. Its audience is as schooled in its rhythms and motifs and habits of being as Wagnerians are in der Nibelungen. Films work off previous films. They are genre referential and can be more of what they are by nature.

Literary language extends experience in discourse. It flowers to thought with nouns, verbs, objects. It thinks. That is why the term "film language" may be an oxymoron. Film de-literates thought; it relies primarily on an association of visual impressions or understandings. Moviegoing is an act of inference. You receive what you see as a broad band of sensual effects that evoke your intuitive nonverbal intelligence. You understand what you see without having to think it through with words.

Yet because Doctorow's focus is on contrasting fiction with film, I think he missed something that is quite obvious to me from reading Nabokov.  There is actually very little dialog in The Luzhin Defense.  Instead there is the omnipresent narrator, who can go on and on, with some paragraphs lasting for pages.  (Some books on the Kindle seem to have both location numbers and page numbers.  This book only has location numbers.  They are hidden from view unless you tap the screen to reveal them.  Given the font size adjustment - one of my favorite things about eReaders - going through several screens one really doesn't know how much has been read.)  The narrator talks in a way that differs from the the characters in the story.  The narrator explains things.  The characters do things that might defy explanation to the reader if not for the narrator.  This is how novels differ from plays.  Most plays don't have a narrator.  Novels always do.  A novel is never completely dialog.

What I came to understand while reading the Luzhin Defense is that the voice in our head aspires to be a narrator.  Further, reading good fiction (and perhaps good non-fiction as well) trains us in our own skills at narration. 

As our lives become more media intensive I suspect that fewer and fewer of us do a lot of pleasure reading.   It is probably all the more so across generations.  With current teens and young adults the reading habit may have never really developed.  This seems to me apparent with the students I teach.  I wonder what we actually know about their pleasure reading.  I suspect they don't do much of it at all, because they often seem to not "get it" when I ask them to read something; yet I think the meaning is plain. I'm very disturbed about this, yet I don't know what I can do as partial remedy.

If the voice in our head wants to be a narrator but gets little training, what then?  This is the question we should be asking.  

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Recording the Instructor without First Asking Permission

One of the important topics in my course on the economics of organizations is trust relationships - how they are built, what sustains them, when breaking the trust should be expected.  There are different analytic frameworks from which one might consider these issues.  I teach a couple of these.  One is infinitely repeated prisoner's dilemma, which casts the issues in way that trust is privately optimal in equilibrium.  This is pure economics in its explanation as all behavior is rational.  Another framework takes a sociological perspective and is based the notion of reciprocity.  An act of kindness from one individual to another begats another act of kindness by the receiver, though not as a quid pro quo but rather as a contribution to the social good.  This is how I understand collegiality in the university.  A third idea, this one I don't teach, take an evolutionary approach.  Some people are the trusting type.  Others are the doubting type.  Under suitable population dynamics and the right initial conditions, trusting types can come to predominate.

Any organization that I work in, where I do so voluntarily and with enthusiasm, must be one where trust predominates.  In teaching, I try very hard to create that atmosphere in my classroom.  It doesn't happen immediately and, truthfully, it doesn't happen with all the students.  But it does happen with the vast majority of those who regularly attend.  The structure of the class makes that an important byproduct. Given my mindset, I was very bothered when reading this piece from today's Inside Higher Ed as well as this piece from about a month earlier on the events that triggered the current piece. While there is much here that one could find upsetting, and indeed there has been a lot of commentary on this episode, I want to zero in on one specific act that I found quite troublesome.  The student who was offended by the TA's dismissive treatment when another student mentioned a ban on gay marriage confronted the TA after class and in that conversation recorded it with his cell phone.  He made the recording without first alerting the TA that he was doing so, though apparently she suspected as much, as she asked him whether he was recording the conversation.  This act of recording the TA seems to have received little to no commentary elsewhere.

If a student recorded an after class conversation with me and did so surreptitiously for the purpose of entrapment, I would be outraged when I discovered that the recording was made.  This so violates my sense of trust that I would view the recording as an unpardonable act.  (In contrast, students often ask to record the live class session.  Invariably such requests come from students for whom English is not their first language.  Such recording are benign for others in attendance, because the student is trusted to use the recording for self-study purposes only, not for broadcast.)  Is there a way to discourage such surreptitious recordings in the future so as to make this a non-issue?  Alternatively, might it become a regular apparition as disgruntled students get back at their instructors who were the immediate cause of their dissatisfaction? 

Before I speculate about the answers to these questions, let me note the irony in that this recording happened after a philosophy class on ethics.  Given that, and given the student understood the recording would be irksome to the TA, he lied to her at the time and denied making the recording, if one were to take the student's perspective on this there must be an ends justify means sort of argument to rationalize the behavior.

I also want to note that this sort of behavior - steeped in anger from prior held grievances - is the other side of the coin from the students-as-sheep sort of behavior that I've discussed over the last few months in a variety of posts.  In both cases there is a sense of hopelessness in the face of authority.  The only real difference is in the decision to capitulate or to combat.  A potential third path, to negotiate, appears infeasible to the student. 

Then I want to observe that there is no First Amendment issue here.  The student may perceive that there was a First Amendment issue at root earlier, in the live classroom when the other student brought up the ban on gay marriage.  (I don't believe there was.  Every teacher has the obligation to deflect comments or questions that appear off topic.  The student isn't free to pursue the topic in the classroom against the instructor's wishes, though he certainly is free to do so later, outside of class.)  But with the surreptitious recording, the only issue is that the TA has a reasonable belief that she is speaking to the student with nobody else listening in.

Now to my hope on how to discourage the behavior.  My answer is to encourage the opposite - respectful communication between student and teacher.  As I strongly believe that reciprocity is the key, from the get go the teacher must treat the student with respect.  By this I mean that the teacher asks the student do make voluntary contributions to class, and does so repeatedly in a polite and respectful way, perhaps also in a playful and friendly way.  This may seem so ho hum as to not accomplish anything.  But at least in respect to the culture on my campus, where much of it is rules based and meant to deter bad actors, an approach that instead promotes collegial interaction at the outset is a radical departure from the norm, one most students should welcome. In a more welcoming environment, the reasons to engage in offputting behavior are lessened considerably.

Can collegiality in the classroom overcome the inimical tension between liberals and conservatives?  My sense of this is that it requires an open mind.  The teacher must feel she can teach the students irrespective of their political views.  Likewise the student must feel he can learn from the teacher irrespective of her politics.  Suppose this is true most of the time, but then in some instances there is the possibility that they will come to loggerheads, as the political views get in the way.  Here prior collegiality, and I mean the real McCoy no some surface things only, will allow each party to give the other the benefit of the doubt.  If the situation doesn't linger, things can return to normal where the tension is absent.

What we seem to have instead is aggrieved parties who are looking to take offense at the first provocation.  It's that sort of mindset that leads to the surreptitious recording.  The thinking is that we're at war and all is fair then.  It's that thinking which must be defeated. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Tilting at Windmills

When I was a young kid, sharing a bedroom with my even younger brother, my dad used to read us bedtime stories.  While those were many and varied, three characters were repeatedly in the lead, each with his own book.  One was Till Eulenspiegel. (I had trouble with the spelling here and remember the pronunciation of the last name as oy-gan-spiegel.)  Another was Baron Münchausen. These two don't seem to get any mention in the stuff I read and watch.  The third was Don Quioxte, who seems ever present even now.  I mention them because of a new pet hypothesis of mine.  We spend our working life trying to become the characters from the bedtime stories we were read as kids.  And in our retirement, we reach fulfillment.

This December marks 20 years since I got started with learning technology.  The early SCALE years especially, which coincided with the emergence of the Internet, encouraged the kind of thinking that blended fantasy and reality.  Some of that was the time period.  It was an era for lofty expectations.  Another part was that cash flowed so freely then.  But mainly, I think, it was the people involved.  There was a group of exceptionally talented people, from a variety of disciplines, each dedicated to using technology to improve learning.  It allowed a great deal of improvisation in our interactions.

I recall a SCALE retreat that I hosted, this one at Grainger Library.  It was for on campus folks only. Sometime earlier my sister had given me a gag gift, a pocket terminator.  It made very loud noises of the type you hear in the movies.  It occurred to me to use it as MC.  At the beginning of the event I pointed it at the panelists and let go on the Death Ray button.  Then I informed them that if they exceeded their time limit they'd get blasted by me.  Alfred Hübler, developer of CyberProf, became particularly startled by this unanticipated turn of events.  The rest of the day went remarkably well. 

To give a different example, at the very first Faculty Summer Institute, where the plenary sessions were held in the basement of Illinois Street Residence, Donna Brown and Pat Shapley were giving a joint session on Web applications when, to my horror, the electricity went out.  There was no projection.  Indeed, there were no room lights.  But, being the real troopers they were, they just kept on going and didn't skip a beat.  By the presenters staying in the moment, the attendees were kept in the moment as well.  I believe that session was quite highly rated in our evaluation of the FSI.

SCALE overlapped for one year with the Center for Educational Technologies, summer 1999 through spring 2000, though most of the CET staff didn't feel the connection to it.  But for me, SCALE coming to an end was like a good friend passing away.   The experimental approach, with its willingness to embrace what might appear to be a low probability of success activity, gave way to the sensible business model approach in support of learning technology.  Though I didn't realize it at the time, I ended up pushing my wild ideas, though they never seemed that wild to me, into venues where it was just me without CET involved.

The first of these that I recall happened in early fall 2000, when I chaired the oversight committee of the Center for Writing Studies.  I tend to borrow/steal most of the ideas I come up with.  In this case the New York Times recently had run a series called Writers on Writing and then produced an archive of those essays.  I became quite enamored with these pieces.  At the same time, I was desirous of getting faculty to produce essays of how they were integrating technology in their teaching, in order that we could publish the essays on our Web site.  So I put two and two together.  Working together with Gail Hawisher, who at the time was Director of CWS, and Joe Squier, who had been named a campus Distinguished Teacher/Scholar, we came up with an idea for a site, On Writing, that would host pieces by faculty who taught Writing Across the Curriculum courses.

If you are going to talk the talk then you must walk the walk.  That much I understood.  So I produced a draft of an essay that was meant as the first piece to go into this collection.  It gives a more detailed history of this project than I gave above, personalized from my perspective.  Both Gail and Joe thought it quite good and fitting for the purpose.  Yet the idea failed miserably.  That essay generated no coattails whatsoever.  The project was stillborn.  All these years later I still think the idea has merit, but I also know there are very real and practical problems that need to be overcome to generate contributions.  These problems defy obvious solution.  They include: many potential contributors don't otherwise have an online voice, so would feel awkward writing such a piece; the value of such a site is unproven and hence doesn't encourage others to put in the effort to write pieces for it; and, of course, everyone is incredibly busy with other work.  So the failure is easy to understand, though the upside from possible success remains alluring.

Over time, the generation of the wild ideas became more and more an insular activity for me.  A prominent example happened during the summer after I started this blog.  I wrote a series of posts on Inward Looking Service Learning, by which I mean older students at the university helping younger students, doing so in campus sanctioned activities, with the entire effort done at scale.  Deploying undergraduates to teach and mentor other undergraduates seems to me something that public research universities should be doing in a big way.  Indeed, on the keeping the costs of the education down while making the learning better front, I believe it to be the single biggest and best thing that might be done.  I tried to push this idea on a variety of my peer administrators, ultimately teaching a class for Campus Honors Program students on Designing for Effective Change, to see if I could jump start its implementation.  This too was a complete failure. 

Let me close with one more example, this one more recent and related to current teaching.  I tried to form a discussion group in the spring with students who took my course the previous fall, with the purpose to have an ongoing conversation about their learning.  I did get a couple of nibbles from students and another student asked me to supervise her Honors project.  But this thing also failed.  It never got started.

The failures notwithstanding, I'm fascinated both with trying this idea again and with other possible ideas that probably have no way to see the light of day, but that are inherently much more interesting to me than those that are more evidently possible.  This absorption with the reasonable but somewhat out of reach is where my head is now.  If I could fill my days with new ideas of this sort, I'd be very satisfied.  Possibility matters.  Accomplishment does not.  What an odd way to live, and yet incredibly natural for me now.  

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Baby, The Bath Water, and The Newsroom

That is the greatest fallacy, the wisdom of old men. They do not grow wise. They grow careful.
Ernest Hemingway (1899 - 1961)

Here's a bit of a confession.  I loved The West Wing and continue to watch episodes of it on Netflix from time to time. It is "comfort food" for those with a Liberal inclination, even if it is also now somewhat dated.  The story lines remain compelling.  Yet never did I think of The West Wing as real social commentary or as somehow telling us about the politics that we should want.  The episode where President-elect Matt Santos chooses his opponent in the general election, Arnie Vinick, to be the next Secretary of State did seem to foreshadow President Obama's selection of Hillary Clinton.  That is the exception that proves the rule.  Though it might be no exception at all, as at the time of this choice there was mention in the press of Lincoln's selection of Seward and that may have provided the real model for President Obama. 

This brings me to The Newsroom and how this particular fan of the Newsroom sees that show. The use of the word "fan" in the previous sentence may be a stretch.  I do watch the show, but I don't love the show like I loved The West Wing.  Indeed, I often don't like the show.  But that's for a very specific reason.  The underlying theme of the show is whether an in-your-face style of TV journalism and indeed characters who lead an in-your-face style of life, both in work and in romance, is compatible with an ethical approach.  The show asks further whether the ethical piece is necessary, given that so many others are also in-your-face in their behavior sans ethics.

The appeal of in-your-face TV journalism to serious elements of the audience, both Fox News and MSNBC practice it even if those channels show little concern for "balance", is that other real life news programs that persist in a more staid approach and do aim for balance, notably the PBS NewsHour, seem incapable of dealing with those in government who are Tea Party members.  As interviewees, these people would stonewall on the show and deliver responses that didn't address the questions of the interviewer.  Given that, viewers like me wished the interviewer would have adopted a more prosecutorial tone, to get the interviewee to offer up a real response.  This is motivation that the viewer already has.  It is what gave The Newsroom its opening.

But I find that characters that are in-your-face all the time, on the air and off, at work and at play, is too grating for my sensibilities.  The people I know aren't like that.  They give each other more space to breathe.  It is evident that the show has tuned it down a little in this third season, because of the critics and viewer reaction to the previous seasons, but it is still too grating for me.

The above, it seems to me, is the right sort of criticism for a TV show.  But others take The Newsroom to task because as social commentary it is not spot on, witness this recent piece found in the Washington Post, 'The Newsroom' is the worst prestige show on television.  (I found this critique also too much in-your-face, clear evidence that I'm getting too old.)  So I'd like to segue to the social commentary front, where the Newsroom hits and where it misses for me on that score, and what themes I'd like to see addressed.

Yesterday (December 12) on Twitter I wrote four tweets, each meant as a verse in a rhyme, intended to take on the question of disruptive change versus the incremental kind of change.   This theme was addressed not that long ago by Jill Lepore in her New Yorker piece that criticizes the work of Clayton Christensen on disruptive innovation.   Yesterday I thought I was being cutesy offering up thoughts this way.  (The tweets were spread out time-wise, with the gap about an hour before the next one appeared.)  In hindsight, it may just be obnoxious.  Nevertheless, the message I was trying to send yesterday is that there is no right answer here, even if some answers appear better than others in certain situations.

The Newsroom has taken up the issue of disruptive innovation in the last few episodes.  With that the question is posed to the audience, though not in so many words, do those who promote disruption have responsibility for consequences that can be anticipated but are not the direct result of their actions?  In the most recent episode, those journalists who believe the answer to this question is yes, so that when the consequences are pernicious the actions shouldn't be undertaken, even if their is near term economic profit to be had, are cast as white knights on the show. Those who take the opposite view are cast as villains.  Neither has any self-doubt about their own held position.  This is the black and white morality of a TV show.  It is comfortable for the viewer, if not very educational.

Then, in the most recent episode, the show had the temerity (really, the lack of good judgment) to use the experience of a woman who has been raped as the set up for some subsequent reality TV, where it has been proposed that the victim confront her attackers.  This segment caused quite a tempest in social media.  As it turns out, last night on The NewsHour there was a segment, I thought it quite good, on the binge drinking many students on campus do.  The segment asked why student binge drinking has been so hard to contain, and why it is so difficult to talk about the issue sensibly.  Near the end of the segment there was some discussion about the correlation between rape on campus and binge drinking.  It was pointed out that most campuses have elected to treat the issues as two separate things rather than as parts of a whole, out of fear that if the issues were linked it would seem as if the campuses were blaming the rape victims.  It was also pointed out that the binge drinking itself is embraced by the larger culture to a great degree, making it not just a campus problem but a societal problem.  The piece from earlier this year, The Dark Power of Fraternities, made it seem that the fraternities' need for liability insurance would contain the most egregious behavior.  The segment from last night suggests we all should be skeptical of that conclusion.  Given the points raised during this segment, that actors on the Newsroom seem to believe their show can promote intelligent discussion on the subject seems to me the worst kind of hubris.

Let me close with one bit where I think the Newsroom got it pretty much right, which is how the character Charlie Skinner reacted to his news division being bought from the previous ownership by a "punk" who planned to disrupt the current format and embrace "crowd sourced journalism" instead.  During the first two seasons of the show, the episodes regularly featured Charlie fighting the good fight with the previous ownership to get the story done and in the right way, even if it is a tough call and doing so might cut into the bottom line of the parent company.  But now Charlie has reached the end of the line and has no more fight left in him.  (Sam Waterston, the actor who plays Charlie, is in his mid 70s and he does shake a little, so physically this seems quite credible.)  When the new owner takes over, it is just too much for Charlie.  There is no way that he can conceive of to get things to turn out well.  He opts for the lesser of two evils, capitulating to the new owner rather than having his division shut down entirely.  But he lives in constant dread.  He has a fatal heart attack in the most recent episode.

The plot here is similar to what Leo McGarry goes through in The West Wing, after Leo breaks with the President over peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis.  But by that point in the story, Leo doesn't protect his staff in the same way as Charlie does and President Bartlet, more Liberal than Leo, is not a threat to the current order the way the new owner is to Atlantis Cable News.  So Leo doesn't seem to have the same dread that Charlie has, though that might be my viewer's spin on it.  In any event, I've felt that same sense of dread, quite a lot as of late.  The object is different and my health is not the issue.  But that we face too many social problems that are beyond our abilities to address them reasonably or, more accurately, that there are two few people around who want reasonable solutions to these problems, that generates a sense of foreboding that I've had for some time.  Charlie's got that feeling too.  That feeling is real, even if the rest of the show, not so much. 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Gap Between Student Performance and Faculty Expectations

Try as hard as we may for perfection, the net result of our labors is an amazing variety of imperfectness. We are surprised at our own versatility in being able to fail in so many different ways.
          Samuel McChord Crothers
As a word with more than one meaning, "expectations" sometimes confound the layperson.  To an economist, expectations first and foremost refer to forecasts of future variables.  In that flavor they are sometimes modified with other words, such as adaptive or rational.  Adaptive expectations are predictions of future variables based on past realizations, where more recent observations receive greater weight.  Rational expectations have to be consistent with the model in which they are used, so there is no systematic forecasting error.  Either type of expectations can and will be wrong after the fact.  Nobody knows the future for certain, even when armed with a good model for prediction.  But rational expectations must be right before the fact, on average, if the model is correct.  That is their defining property.

Of course, expectations can mean something else entirely.  They can be desired norms of behavior, aspiration levels if you will.  In this meaning expectations refer to what the holder would like to see in behavior, either his own behavior or the behavior of others.  As a teacher, I have very high expectations for my students.  These expectations are neither adaptive nor rational.  We are told, for example by Ken Bain, that the best teachers have high expectations for their students.  Alas, the causality doesn't run in the other direction; necessary doesn't mean sufficient.

Given that, I wonder what the answer to the following is.   After some time in the classroom with a great teacher, do the two notions of expectations begin to coincide, when considered from the teacher's perspective as the teacher focuses on student performance?  For me, they do not.  The aspiration level remains considerably higher than the rational forecast of student performance.  In this post I want to look more closely at why this is and in the process, if I have any students among my readers, give these students some sense of "what I'm looking for" from them.  That shouldn't be a mystery, though it apparently is for students in my class.  Once the students come to understand that there is no teaching to the test and that their performance, particularly as writers, will be evaluated on many dimensions that are other than whether what they say is factually true, they need something else to guide them as to what constitutes good performance.  I also want to observe that I wish it were otherwise.  I would much prefer to see that the two notions do coincide, but only by having student performance rise to my aspiration for it.  I have no desire whatsoever to lower my aspirations to be more in accord with student behavior.

I would like to qualify things before we get started.  There are some students who survive to the end of the semester and are still registered in the class but they seem to have given up long ago.  They stop coming to class.  They don't do much of the homework.  They show up for exams; but that's about it.  In my mind, these students should have dropped the course.  And if the U of I had the same rules in place that Cornell had when I was an undergrad there, they would drop the course.  But the U of I is more rigid this way, so on occasion the sorting of who sticks and who drops has imperfections to it.  In any event, I want to abstract from these students entirely.  I will only consider those students who are sufficiently diligent about their work throughout the semester.  Diligence is a good thing, but it is not enough.   It seems to me that a good number of the diligent students believe it is and/or they believe their "hard work" can compensate for any of their shortcomings they have about insight into what they are studying.   

Let me get to the heart of the matter.  The goal of the academic side of college is for students to develop their own capacity for producing insight.  This development can only happen with lots of practice, where each episode entails student thinking that aims to penetrate the surface.  When I look at student work I want to see evidence of such student thinking.  It does happen, on occasion, but it is much rarer than it should be.  With most of what I see, the student remains on the surface of the subject the entire time and goes no further.

This post by a student in my class (he is writing under the alias Daniel Kahneman), and his response to my comment on the post, are thoughtful and give a sense as to one explanation for the surface learning.  In his comment he responds to mine and in the process reformulates a hypothesis I had mentioned in class.  Further, he provides evidence that is in support of the hypothesis, a signpost that the surface has been penetrated.  He mentions the student as sheep idea, making reference to the recent book by William Deresiewicz.  In the variant on that theme that is applicable to my class, the students perform as if their job is to spit back whatever it is the instructor has spooned out.  This has replaced the main mission with what should be a byproduct attained en passant while in pursuit of the mission.  The trivial gets elevated in importance and then obscures what is actually essential.

A complementary idea emerges that supports the student as sheep theme.  We are all creatures of habit.  Spitting back what the instructor spoons out has become so routine that it is all the student knows how to do.  Students lack the tools for penetrating the surface of something they study, because they haven't previously practiced doing that.  They do what they know how to do.  Mostly, they don't receive feedback that they should do otherwise.  So in the rare instance where they do get such feedback they nonetheless respond as if it's business as usual.  It is hubris on my part to expect the rest of the world to conform to my views on this point.  Hubris or not, it is the primary explanation that I can come up with for why the two notions of expectations don't converge for me and what it would take to get them closer together.

An alternative hypothesis that is also worth considering is that the problem is with the observer (me), not with the students.  Here the thought is that as a so-called expert many of the subsidiary issues one needs to confront when thinking are managed in an autonomous way by me so I can focus on what is important.  Further, this happens in a way where little to no effort seems to be extended to achieve that focus.  So when I look for evidence of penetrating the surface on a topic, I look for rather deep penetration only.  In contrast, the students as novices must devote intellectual energy to matters that for me don't require any concentration at all.  With their attention so divided, they have less to bring to understanding the subject matter.  They do try to penetrate it.  But they don't get very deep in so doing.  I then am overly dismissive of their efforts, because I don't see the progress they do make.

I am mindful of this alternative from time to time.   But mostly I ignore it.  This is where I probably make my biggest error.  I expect the students to be younger versions of me.  I was once a novice too.  And I have some memories of me as a student.  What I tend to do is compare my current students to my recollection of myself. This is how my expectations are generated.  But it is unfair, for at least two reasons.  First, I ultimately became a professor and as an undergraduate there must have been inklings that I was headed on that path, even if it wasn't obvious to me at the time.  It may be natural for professors to expect their students to be professors in waiting.  But that so distorts reality.  One needs a respectful view of the student that is closer to the way things actually are, one where the student's career is not wrapped up in the deep thinking professors do as their life work.  Second, our memories evolve over time and current circumstance tends to cloud what things were like back then.  In doing this my students end up competing not only with me at age 20, but with  me as I am now.

Let me move on to a subsidiary issue though one that remains important.  This is the matter of time and with it the division of labor between the student and the instructor.  With this I have in mind the mantra about the writer and the reader --- The writer does all the work so the reader doesn't have to.  Treat this as a norm and then cast the student as the writer and the instructor as the reader.  This is how the world should be, or so it seems to me.

But this is a far cry from how things actually are.  Students don't have a good sense that thinking takes time.  Further, they maintain a belief that in advance you can forecast how long an intellectual activity will take.  They don't account for the possibility of getting stuck and that getting unstuck can be quite time consuming.  They also don't account for that some thinking is immediate but other thinking is far more deliberate and that ahead of time it is often hard to tell which it is. 

Then many haven't been schooled on the virtues of proofreading and on the further benefit of proofreading after some considerable interval from when the prior version of the work has been completed, so they can come at the work with fresh eyes.  They tend to turn in whatever they just finished typing.

As I write this I must add here that there is a big gap in my own understanding of what students would be capable of if they did proofread their own work carefully.  Would they eliminate much of the redundant verbiage in their own writing?  I don't know.  Would they correct a point they make where the conclusion doesn't actually follow from the premise they maintain?  Again, I don't know.  For me, the distinction between won't and can't is under identified.  Sloth becomes a convenient hypothesis absent data to confirm it.  Sloth probably explains much of it.  But it is also possible that students don't know how to proofread well because they don't practice doing so.

With recent student extra credit projects I have found that a good chunk of what I do is to be their proofreader.  Regarding my ideal division of labor, this is quite wrong.  But without a relatively clean draft to consider for the rewrite, I don't know how the students can make progress. 

Let me make one further observation on this point and then close.  Our current hyper-connectedness makes the above problem worse.  It is far too easy for a student to take an electronic document, attach it to an email, and send it to the professor, irrespective of how far along the document is, with full expectation that this is not the last submission, just a stage in the process.  I have no desire to go back to typewriters and liquid paper, where it was often one and done regarding the number of drafts the student produced, because of the lags in document production and transmission.  But let us be cognizant that given those lags there was far greater incentive for the student to produce a tolerable first draft.

My expectations are steeped in that actual experience.  A decent first draft should be within reach for today's student, the vast majority of them, not just the exceptional kid.

One can only hope.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Big Public U - Cruisn' for a Brusin' (Regarding Undergraduate Education)

On Thursday in the penultimate class of the semester we were covering the Shapiro-Stiglitz "efficiency wage" model.  In that model workers receive a wage premium as incentive to encourage them not to shirk.  As I had already made an online video to go through the technical details of the model, in class I spent time on interpreting the model and contrasting it with other models we've covered during the term.  In particular, I informed that students that with knowledge work, shirking isn't the real issue most of the time.  Instead the real concern is "the alignment problem."  Most employees put in substantial effort, but they often do so while focusing on activities that management would prefer they'd ignore.

We dug a little deeper into why this is.  At first the students didn't see it, so I tried to set up a scenario where the issue would play out in a more obvious way.  I suggested that the students consider a long time employee who has a supervisor relatively new to that job.  The long time employee does his work based on habit and/or on where he feels he's competent.  At one time, what that employee did was aligned with the organization's mission.  But times have changed, and the supervisor wants what employee to move onto something else, which is more consistent with current circumstance.  The employee resists, partly because the employee will be a novice at the new thing.  In this setting the students began to understand why alignment is such an issue.

In my view, there is a big time alignment problem at public research universities, such as Illinois.  When I started, back in 1980, tuition was a pittance.  For that reason and because the mission of the university clearly has research first and foremost, there was benign neglect of undergraduate education.  For the real go getter students and the extremely bright students, there were opportunities for deep engagement in learning.  These students took advantage of those opportunities and got a reasonably good education.  The rest of the students, a much larger fraction of the overall population, got a mediocre education.  But the rest had the same opportunities to privilege themselves.  They just didn't avail themselves of the opportunities.  Elsewhere I've termed the model a grab-the-brass-ring approach. It is an approach that made perfectly good sense when tuition was modest, which it was for the first twenty years or so of my time at Illinois.

Tuition is still modest, in a relative sense, as compared to private universities we regard as peers, Northwestern providing a notable example.  But in an absolute sense attending the U of I is no longer inexpensive.  In-state tuition (the base rate) for an entering freshman this year is in excess of $12,000. In real terms, this exceeds the private school tuition my parents paid when I went to college (first at MIT then, after I transferred, at Cornell).

To get a sense of what's been going on in aggregate I took a look at UIUC revenue data made publicly available at the OBFS site. (Each report presents data for the system in aggregate first.  That is followed by data for the individual campuses.)  I then did a comparison between FY 2008 and FY 2015 numbers for the Urbana campus.  (In the 2008 table there was some garbling of the labels for the line entries.  I believe what I did is correct but there could be an error as a consequence of this garbling.)  Two lines are highlighted, the general revenue fund (State Tax dollars) is in red and the Income Fund (tuition and fees) is in blue.   The comparison is intended to make plain that reliance of the campus on tuition dollars has gone up, fairly dramatically in such a short period of time, while reliance on state support has diminished in both a relative and an absolute sense.  Further, it is expected that state support will decline substantially after the new Governor takes office.

The hyperinflationary increase in the base tuition rate is but one component of the increase in tuition revenue for the campus.  Other components are:

  • An increase in assessed fees.
  • An increase in tuition surcharges for certain colleges.  (For Business and Engineering the surcharge is about $5,000 for an entering freshman.)
  • An increase in the number of international students who are paying tuition at a rate that slightly exceeds the out-of-state tuition rate (which is itself roughly double the in-state rate).  
  • Some expansion of professional Masters level (big bucks) programs.
  • An increase in the overall student population.  (See the Campus Profile, starting on line 3600.) 

It would be good to have a breakdown of the increase in tuition revenue on a component by component basis, to assess the importance of each individual component.  I don't have that here.  What I can report is that roughly half the undergraduates are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (where there is no tuition surcharge).  For those from Illinois who are candidates to apply to LAS in the future, the relevant issue is the rate of growth of the base rate tuition plus the assessed fees.  (I am abstracting here from room and board costs, which clearly do matter for attending but which don't tie in so readily to the quality of the formal education the students are getting.) 

As tuition and fees continue to rise in real terms, the grab-the-brass-ring approach increasingly looks like the wrong model, though we remained aligned to it.  Indeed, the increasing reliance on non-tenure track faculty and other economy moves seems to be pushing more and more towards an income inequality view of undergraduate education, where the elite students command the lion's share of the educational resources and the other students get bubkes.  If a kid and his family expect the kid not to be an elite student, why pay for that sort of education?  Any sensible realignment would devote more educational resource to the typical student.  The issue is how to do this in a way that actually improves learning yet without costing an arm and a leg. 

One way to think of the issue is in terms of teaching loads.  When I started back in 1980, there was a four course load in Economics (two courses each semester).  Further the expectation for a typical faculty member is that there would be and equal split between undergraduate and graduate teaching.  From what I know of the department (not that much at this point) the load is now three courses and tenure track faculty expect at least two of those to be at the graduate level.  I really don't know what these teaching loads are around campus, but it should become a topic of discussion.

Teaching loads in any one department naturally reflect what these loads are like at peer institutions nationally.  If they become less attractive at Illinois than elsewhere, we'll lose the better faculty to our competitors.  Presumably, this is what explains the move from four courses to three that I mentioned above.  So a move back to four would have to happen at competitor institutions as well as here.

Let's say that could be accomplished.  The mix of offerings would have to change as well.  My sense is that it would have to move to something like 2.5 undergraduate courses and 1.5 graduate courses.  (Meaning either that some years the instructor would teach 3 and 1 and other years the instructor would teach 2 and 2, or some instructors would stay with the old balance while others would be primarily undergraduate instructors.)  Further, that extra .5 undergraduate teaching would be targeted at courses for first-year students taught in small class (seminar) format.  The aim would be for each first year student to get at least one seminar class.

This isn't the only adjustment needed to get effective realignment, but it is the simplest one to discuss.  The need is self-evident.

In my class I've told the students that research universities are weird as organizations because the faculty act like they're the boss rather than like employees.  As bosses they should be pushing for realignment in the direction of where the revenue is coming from.  As employees, they like the old way of doing things.

Something has got to give.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Early Morning Noise

After a week of holiday, the peace and quiet of this Monday morning welcome me back to the normal routine.  Only it is not so quiet as one might think.  The wind is howling.  Yesterday the temperature was in the high 50s.  Now it is in the low 20s.  The wind contributes to the sense of desolation.  When friends from the East Coast come to visit I tell them about the austere beauty of the Midwest.  Sometimes it is austere but not so beautiful.

The other sound, ever present when I'm writing, is from the fan on my computer.  It's very loud now, almost unbearable.  I wonder if it is a not so subtle message that it needs to be replaced.  It will have its fifth birthday this week.  I like Windows 7 and Office 2010.  Not sure I could cope with a replacement.

They are beginning to stir upstairs.  The dog shakes her collar.  It's time for her to go outside.  My reverie will be interrupted soon.  My wife is up too.  The morning has officially begun.

What does it mean when you prefer the unofficial preamble?  Simon and Garfunkel told us about the Sounds of Silence.  I am captivated by the quiet of the early morning noise.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Pensions for State of Illinois Employees - Again

The piece linked below is now almost a week old.  So it no longer counts as news. But it's been on my mind and now that Thanksgiving has past, I thought I'd write a bit on the topic.  One has to wonder whether defined benefit versus defined contribution is the real issue.  My guess is that it's not.  To me, the real issue is how generous the benefits are.  This discussion about defined benefit versus 401(k) plans masks this issue.

In the plan that I retired under, 8% of my salary was withheld for pension.  I didn't pay state income tax on that amount.  (I also didn't contribute to Social Security.  My retirement income is in lieu of Social Security.)  In theory, the state matched my contribution dollar for dollar.  So each year 16% of my salary was going to fund my pension.  Plus there was interest earned on already accumulated funds.

But since I was in a defined benefit plan, the above was all an accounting fiction.  The annuity I'm currently receiving doesn't depend on contributions and accumulated interest.  It depends on a formula based on years of service, average salary over the last four years of service, plus the COLA increases received since retirement. This formula does not depend, for example, on age at retirement.  If you are 10 years younger than somebody else, but have the same years of service (because you started earlier on the job) and the same last four years of salary income, then your annuity per month will be identical, but your expected annuity earnings over the time of retirement will be much greater, because you should expect to receive that annuity for a much greater duration.

Given that I retired at age 55 (the earliest possible age) I'm maximizing on the duration of retirement variable.  When I did a quick and dirty calculation to compare expected contributions to expected benefits, I got a ratio of something like 1 to 3.  (This calculation didn't include any risk adjustment.  If inflation returns big time and outstrips the COLA adjustments, then those later year benefits would have to be discounted accordingly.  Since I retired four years ago, the COLA 3% per year has exceeded the inflation rate, so my actual benefit per year has risen in real terms.)  But even if I were 65 when I retired, the definted benefits would be generous, with a ratio of contributions to benefits of something like 1.7  (Note that I worked 30 years and got an extra year of service credit for unused sick leave when I was being a prof full time - the first 15 years of work.)

Why is the defined benefit so generous for me?  One reason is how my wages grew since I started in the job.  There was roughly a seven-fold increase in pay, a not quite 7% annualized rate of increase. Early on this was because inflation was running higher than that.  Later it was because of job switching, with each job switch accompanied by a nice pay increase, while salary increases within job were rather modest.  For someone with fewer job switches the formula would be still less generous.  But would it produce a contributions to expected payout ratio that is on par or would it still be generous?  I don't know but my guess is that it still would be generous, which is why the unions resist so much a move to the defined contribution sort of pension.

In a perfectly competitive labor market, if pension benefits go down then wages paid must go up.  Otherwise the jobs will look less attractive and the people who are candidates to fill the jobs will choose to work elsewhere.  For those state employees where the labor market is perfectly competitive, such as the market for new assistant professors, should this change in pension provision go into effect, they will have to earn a salary premium as compared to working elsewhere.  Otherwise, we'll be unable to recruit them.

Of course, the labor market for many state employees is not perfectly competitive.  Most state employees, particularly those who are long timers, are earning considerably more in their current jobs than they could earn elsewhere.  That differential is an economic rent, which accrues to the employees.  One way for the state to save money on such employees is to cut their wages.  In effect, that is what the move to a defined contribution retirement plan would be doing, while at the same time keeping the nominal wage paid unchanged, so to the naive a claim could be made that it is neutral on compensation.  But that would not really be true.

There is one further issue between defined benefit and defined contribution plans if they were otherwise constructed on par.  This is on whether an individual with a a pot of money from a defined contribution plan can annuitize that in a reasonable way (convert it to fixed monthly payments that will exhaust either after a known time horizon has past or at end of life).  The ease of doing this is greater the larger the size of the pot of money.  Those with modestly sized retirement accounts will not fare as well and if they can only select fixed duration alternatives they will end up bearing the risk that they outlive their retirement savings.  Really, they should not bear this sort of risk.  The state should because it is much better able to diversify the risk.  This last is a reason to stay with defined benefit plans, really the reason.

But this reason is not how people are thinking about it.  They are thinking about it from how generous the plans are.  I expect a lot more hyperbole on the issue before (or if) we ever get to a resolution.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Believe It OER Not

I'm schizophrenic and in several different ways.  I suspect that many of my friends and colleagues in higher ed are schizophrenic too.   One dimension of the schizophrenia that might not be so common but it quite strong with me is about letting go versus still caring.  It has come to the fore especially over the last 4+ years since I've been retired.  I love flaunting that I take naps - both that I have the time to do so and the peace of mind to be able to find that temporary reverie.  The next LMS? - I don't care.  The future of learning spaces? - I don't care about that either.  Yet the truth is that I remain vexed about where higher ed is heading specifically in regard to undergraduate education and where my campus is heading in particular.  An overused expression as of late is "race to the bottom."  We seem in it, at full stride. Might it be possible, via forethought and quite public argument, that we can identify a shared mission to benefit both the students and their university and thereby move, not quite so quickly, though still with all due speed, to a somewhat higher plateau?  In this post I will try to sketch what some of that forethought might be about. In my dreams, that sketch would be sufficient to engender a good chunk of public argument about the ideas.

Another dimension of the schizophrenia, this one I'd guess is much more common, is about whether universities should be guided internally by hard headed business practices - is there a revenue stream to attach to the activity in a way where revenues cover the costs? - or if, instead, social obligation should drive the mission and revenues be damned. The circumstance that brings this issue into focus on my campus juxtaposes the decline in state dollars as a fraction of the university's budget with the university's historical mission as the Land Grant college in Illinois.  During the four years that I was an associate dean in the College of Business, it is this particular schizophrenia that bothered me the most, as my peers (department heads and other A-Deans) seemed to feel comfortable ignoring the mission aspect when the revenue piece wasn't forthcoming.

Let me include one further dimension, not meant to make for an exhaustive list, but to round out the other two so as to be able to construct a picture with more depth. This one is on charitable giving versus what I would call social gifting,  The issue from the point of view of the donor is whether they are two separate things or substitutes for one another.  The IRS has confounded the issue for us, by having us consider gifts to organizations rather than to individuals and by calling it a charitable contribution if the organization has not-for-profit status.  Plainer meaning would require the recipient of charity to be poor or in need in some other obvious way.  In contrast, social gifting is done irrespective of the status of the recipient other than that the recipient benefits from the gift.  An instructor who goes out of her way to help students in her class, students who are struggling and might fail the course absent her help, is providing a social gift. Others might not see it that way and argue instead that she is merely doing her job.  That really is the point.  The boundary between doing the job and social gifting is amorphous.

Given that, at issue when juxtaposed with charitable giving is whether the abilities of the giver should matter as much as the needs of the recipient.  The university has a charitable fund drive each fall.  It is something done without much reflection at all, yet it has the imprimatur of the university behind it.  Social gifting on campus, in contrast, happens in a much more ad hoc way - whether through students in an RSO doing volunteer work for a good cause, a service-learning course situated in the community, the teaching example I gave above, or many other small but uncoordinated acts of selflessness on the part of the giver.  The reason to consider social gifting from the institutional perspective is that a much larger consequence might be attained were this done than with comparable effort to charitable giving, because the social gifting reflects the expertise of the giver.

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The above is meant as preliminary matter for considering institutional embrace of MOOCs and OERs.  My campus, which is a Coursera partner, seems to be going gangbusters over MOOCs, as they now have found a place with a business model behind them.  This has been happening while the attention given to MOOCs by Educause and other national ed tech organizations has cooled considerably.  That cooling notwithstanding, the embrace of MOOCs on campus may be a very good thing, because it is happening with eyes wide open rather than merely as a matter of faith.  Time will tell whether this was a good choice or not.  Yet I can see it having a clear side benefit now.  The people who support ed tech activities on campus and are involved in MOOC creation have a clearer mission, a more obvious sense of purpose.  That in itself is empowering.  Its good to see friends and colleagues so engaged.  

Yet in a different way that I find regrettable, the embrace of MOOCs seems to have crowded out in the campus thinking any effort to promote OERs.  Let me take a brief sojourn on how OERs might emerge and what the campus should be doing about this. 

First, here is a quickie definition.  OER to me means online modular content, such as simulations and micro-lectures, that is freely available to potential users of this content and is findable by them.  This conception of OER doesn't require a depository, such as MIT's OCW, nor a referatory, such as MerlotUNESCO provides a definition that includes licensing for re-use.  Maybe that is necessary when considering OERs from the institutional perspective.  It has been my experience that it is not necessary in the transaction between creator and users - the licensing is implied by the the placing of the content where users can find it.  What OER rules out in my definition is that the content can't reside in a closed container that requires authentication to get access.

Further, the focus on modular content is meant to get at the online stuff that accompanies courses with a substantial on-ground component.   Many of those courses are taught with some Learning Management System.  Out of convenience primarily, also perhaps because a culture has developed to support the practice, most of the modular content created for these courses also resides in the LMS.  There is no necessity for this, especially when the content has been created by the instructor.  The content could just as easily be place in an open container.  For example, here are two folders meant for my current class that reside in my university account at  The first is for presentation content and the second is for Excel files, most of which are self-grading homework.  This is sufficient to satisfy the requirement that the content be open.  Let me defer on the content being findable for a bit and first get at the question of audience for such content.

When Merlot was a brand new initiative, the focus on audience was other instructors who are teaching the same or a similar course at their own institutions.  The thought was that if somebody has developed a really great module on some topic, then it would make a lot more sense for other instructors to use that module too rather than develop something similar themselves.   But as content of this sorts proliferates the instructor who is willing to use content created by somebody else needs to identify the really good content and distinguish it from the mediocre stuff.  Absent some way to find good content quickly, the search for usable stuff might prove too daunting.  Merlot's solution at the time was to have the content peer reviewed, an interesting thought but ultimately one that didn't work well.  I suspect that most faculty today don't know about Merlot at all, let alone check their site to see if there is interesting content for the course they teach.

An alternative solution to the identifying-quality-stuff problem is to rely on institutional branding.  Indeed, UNESCO's embrace of OCW as the quintessential example of OER fits with the further idea that the instructors who utilize the content developed elsewhere will be teaching in an LDC, where the online content may be even more important than it is for the class where it was originally developed, because substitute content, such as from a textbook, may not be available.  Thus OER was conceived as a way to export educational material in a very inexpensive way from the rich nations to the poor, one that bypassed the normal market processes.  While MIT, as first mover, got a lot of mileage out of OCW, it doesn't seem to have produced a lot of coattails among other providing institutions, as far as I can tell.

For a while iTunes U was a hot item and seemed to offer a solution.  Content could be branded by institution but housed in a common repository for all participating institutions.   Yet interest in iTunes U has cooled considerably since 7 or 8 years ago and it really never was a place for modular content but rather for full lectures that were recorded by campus video producers.  For content directly produced by instructors, other video repositories were preferable then and that remains true now.

This brings me to consider a different audience - students who are taking the same course on their own campuses but are looking online for supplemental material on a specific topic or a small subset of topics.  Many students are reluctant to ask for help from their own instructors.  Finding supplemental help online is much gentler on the psyche of the struggling student.  And it may be substantially more convenient as well.

This audience is potentially much larger than the audience of instructors who might use the materials.  Hence, even if one is still primarily interested in the instructor re-use of the content, the student use can be considered as a way to crowd source the evaluation of the content, with crowd sourcing more effective than peer review.  Further, while we have been considering the adoption decision by other instructors, the creator needs feedback too as to the quality of what was produced.  The class where the content is initially deployed offers one venue for getting feedback on the content quality.  But students in that class will tie evaluation of the content to how well it prepares them for the exams the instructor writes.  Students elsewhere won't evaluate the content in this way, since to them it is supplemental only.  They will evaluate it only on whether it helps them to understand the topic at the time they work through the content.  So their evaluation will be interesting to the creator, especially in those cases where the external audience is quite positive about the content but students in the class are antagonistic to it.

Now we're ready to get at the issue of how to make the content findable by the audience.  I offer a few bits of evidence on this point from my own experience.   This is not a controlled experiment and I don't want to claim otherwise.  But I think it is highly suggestive.  First, take a look at the results of a search at on my name.  Focus on the audio (podcast) content and video content only.  None of the items have gotten more than 100 hits - meaning very low usage.  Next tale a quick look at the Web site called The Economics Metaphor.  This is a blog that has the audio content available in individual posts via an embedded player.   This is also quite a bit of other content.  But that site also gets very limited traffic.  Finally, take a look at the videos in my profarvan channel at YouTube.  There is much more traffic at this site.  The one video called Income and Substitution Effects (a real barn burner) has over 15,000 hits.  There are quite a few videos with more than 1,000 hits.

The conclusion I draw from this is that to make the content findable there must be a video micro-lecture about the content, even if there is also a simulation on which the video is based.  (The Excel files that form the basis of my videos can be downloaded too.  The links to those are in the description of the videos.)  The videos themselves must be housed in a place where the users looking for similar content will find it.  YouTube may be the single best place for that.  A more diligent person than I am might place the same video in different places, Vimeo and DailyMotion, for example, in addition to YouTube.  The content will compete for attention with other like content at these sites.  That it is findable is not the same that it will be viewed.  But clearly, the former is necessary for the latter.

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The above is the easy part.  The hard part is getting tolerably good content produced in significant enough volume that it matters at the level of the institution.  There are several impediments to reckon with here

1.  It is quite time consuming to produce good content.

2.  The creator needs understanding both of the technology and of the learning issues in order to produce good content.

3.  Much of this should happen in the high enrollment courses, where there is apt to be a much larger audience for the content, but such courses are increasingly taught by adjuncts.

4.  The textbook publishers have incentive to keep this activity from happening, as potentially production of this content could undermine their sales down the road. Further, the large course instructors typically exhibit substantial lock-in to the textbook.

5.  Somebody with the facility to produce high quality content may prefer to do so to amplify his or her own income rather than to give away the content for free.  Such people, therefore, are candidates to product ancillary materials for a textbook, if they are not doing so already. 

6.  Undoubtedly there are other issues that I'm unable to anticipate here but that would emerge were an effort put forward to try to generate such content.

Instead of trying to develop a coherent plan to address these issues, one that I don't really have, let me instead make a case for why such a plan is needed and provide some elements that might very well be put into such a plan.

A.  Rich kids who have gone to good suburban high schools bypass many of the high enrollment classes by already having the AP credit to place out of them.  Those who do take these courses, then, are apt to be from less well off families and poorer schools districts or are the less able students admitted from those suburban high schools.  Partly for this reason, it is imperative for the campus to make the high enrollment courses as good as they can be.

B.  The high enrollment classes are taken disproportionately by first year students.  It is their initial experience with college.  There are many inadvertent but pernicious consequences.  Students often get comfortable with being anonymous in class and find they can get by with little effort most of the time and then some cramming right before exams. Rote is rewarded, disproportionately so.  This is the other reason to make the high enrollment courses as good as they can be - to counteract these tendencies.

C.  There needs to be a sustained faculty development program aimed squarely at the adjunct instructors.  Many are too isolated and don't have a community of peers to rely on to improve their own teaching.

D.  Students can and should be involved in producing online content.  At present the campus promotes undergraduate research as a way for students to become more engaged with their learning.  Being part of an ongoing, instructor-led project to develop online content for the instructor's course would also engage students in their learning and have the additional benefit that the product that results from this engagement would have positive social value.

E.  Some metrics of quality are needed to assess whether faculty development activities and student produced content are at all worthwhile.  Usage of OER content provides metrics that would be interesting to look at and that stand apart from the usual course evaluation data which we tend to rely on.

F.  Illinois is certainly not the only only campus facing issues with the high enrollment classes.  If parallel efforts happened at peer institutions, then instructors should also become importers of OER content developed elsewhere and quite possibly become part of a community of practice for both developing and sharing OER content.

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Let me wrap up.  OERs may be less sexy than MOOCs.  They certainly imply less control of how the content will be used or whether it will be used at all.  But OERs are more consistent with the outreach education mission of the university.  Further, they are more consistent with making an effort with online content development across the board. (Though I focused on high enrollment classes, above I didn't mean that only high enrollment classes should produce OERs).  Therefore, pushing OERs offers potential to positively benefit the entire curriculum.

I confess that there is quite a bit of wishful thinking here, too much of which is based in my own experience.  Now retired, I am not time constrained in my own content production.  I've been doing stuff in Excel since 2001, have been recording my voice in an instructional setting for even longer, and have substantial accumulated knowledge that others might find difficult to replicate.  And for many years learning technology was my job.  During those years I lived my job. 

These are all weaknesses with the argument put forward here.  The weaknesses notwithstanding, it seems to me there is enough upside to consider OERs seriously and then argue the case, for and against.  I hope the piece will encourage others to do just that.