Friday, May 30, 2014

The Long Game

Via Bryan Alexander I found this post by Audrey Watters, The Future of Ed Tech is a Reclamation Project.  I thought it started out promising.   Indeed, in the very first section, there was a paragraph I really liked.

But I’m going to will myself to craft a story for you today about education in 2030 that resists that dystopian narrative. I want to project a story for the future where learning technologies support and foster learner control and learner agency. (My emphasis.)  It’s a story where students are the subjects not objects when it comes to education and education technology.

And then in the next section there is introduced the Manilla Envelope concept that each of our parents kept for us, with various markers of our progress in school.  I have my own manilla envelope on the bookshelf in my office, so I was keeping step with what she was saying.  But then the rest of piece was about the technology itself with no circling back on learner control and learner agency.  Watters was implicitly making the case that a digital version of the manilla envelope would do the job.  It wouldn't.  So I ultimately found the piece disappointing.

Not wanting to leave it there, and because I thought there were some documents in my manilla folder that demonstrated my lack of control and agency as a learner that were from such a young age that I don't feel embarrassed sharing the one below, I thought it might be a good launch point to get at the type of piece I wish Watters had written.

Let me deliver the punchline first.  Fostering learner control and learner agency will be difficult.  It will not happen en passant simply by implementing a good technological approach.  It will require careful attention to learning blockages and then gentle encouragement for the learner to practice sufficiently and in the right way to overcome those blockages.

Now my little story to get things rolling.  The document below is a report card from pre-school for me. During the period covered I was 4 years old.  I would turn 5 that January and would start first grade the following September.  I may have been the youngest kid in that group.  I was surely the biggest and the klutziest.  There is a certain psychology that goes along with being the biggest and the youngest.  (I suspect it's a fairly unusual combination.)  I hope this specific example will clue the reader in that each kid with a learning blockage has a unique psychology that pertains to those specific issues, though there are common elements in the sense of shame that results when the blockage becomes prominent.

My klutziness manifested everywhere, not just at nursery school.  For example, at around the time of the report I got my finger slammed in the car door as we were getting ready for the ride home from school.  So the klutziness was a general problem.  The specific problem documented in the report is that lunch was served on one floor of the school and students had to carry the lunch on a tray to another floor where it was eaten.  I was unable to do this.  (I don't really remember, but I believe every other kid could do this.)  So I got one-on-one help to practice carrying the tray up the stairs.  Likewise, in other areas that required fine motor coordination, I also got some special assistance.  I don't believe I caught up to the other kids in the group.  That would take a few years still.  But I did make progress and, as the report indicates, the progress was noticeable to me.

All these years later looking at this document, I wonder how the coaching on the fine motor stuff impacted my future intellectual development, an area where at the time of the report there was no blockage.  Did the lesson generalize - if you found yourself lacking proficiency in some area could you practice enough to get reasonably good at it, with that being true pretty much irrespective of the area where the poor performance manifests?  I don't know, but if it did generalize then in retrospect I'm remarkably lucky to have learned that lesson at such an early age.

Consider the alternative where a kid develops reasonably well till say the age of 10 but then hits a block.  And suppose the blockage is not quite so obvious as spilling the food on the tray was, so the teacher doesn't pick up on it for a while, and then maybe simply labels the kid as less talented in that area.  It seems quite possible that the kid will become quite frustrated and end up concluding that the blockage is permanent.  At that time it will be a point of shame and the kid might very well put all effort into hiding the problem rather than into practicing enough to eliminate it.

* * * * *

Recently there seems to be a lot of fascination with the work of the Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, such as this post from the Tomorrow's Professor Listserv, Mindsets Toward Learning.  To put things as bluntly as possible so as to tie into Watters piece, Dweck divides learners into those with a fixed (intelligence) mindset and those with a growth (in intelligence) mindset.  The growth mindset should be associated with learner control and learner agency.  The operative questions are first these.   How does one change somebody from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset and, then, how does learning technology help in doing this?  Then, tying this to my little example, how does one do this knowing that those with a fixed mindset have hit a block and have been stuck, perhaps for some time?

I don't want to champion Dweck, whom I have not read, over other psychologists, with Maslow still my personal favorite.  I suspect the message will be similar across various psychologists though their methods of analysis and particular questions may vary.  Ken Bain, who is an historian by training not a psychologist, but who has spent much of his career in support of good college teaching, writes about surface learners versus deep learners in What the Best College Students Do.  This dichotomy lines up with Dweck's in a straightforward way.  I did not think Bain's book great and his method of doing focused interviews with people who ended up highly successful has elements of cherry picking, in my view.  But it does serve as a table setter in asking how to get more students to behave like the best students as well as to ask whether we can tell one from the other before they have graduated from college.

Let me turn to personal experience and what I know about how the technology might help.  These are three nuggets, hardly a full picture, but as much as I've garnered since I got involved with ed tech in the middle 1990s.  First is on the idea of intelligent automated feedback.  At the time we used Mallard software for this.  Now I do something similar in exercises I've designed in Excel.  I'm not talking about the quizzes in the LMS, which are mainly multiple choice with one question disconnected from the next.  Those lack the intelligence in design.  In addition to the intelligent design the software I'm referring to has a judgmental-non-judgmental aspect.  It gives feedback to the students.  It identifies their current answer as right or wrong, and perhaps gives additional information as well.  But there is nothing personal in the software making these judgments.

Students learning something new will stumble from time to time.  We have to allow that, encourage it,  and express some confidence that it is an intermediate step towards a better understanding.  Human assessment of student work is judgmental.  A student who has supplied the wrong answer has failed when there is human assessment.  A few students are mature enough to accept failure as an intermediate step.  Many are not and are impatient for the good grade.  Then the human assessment can be the source of a block.  The intelligent automated assessment is better.

A second idea is that in discussing their misunderstandings, which requires opening up and showing a vulnerable side, students are more comfortable talking with other students than they are doing so in front of older authority figures (the instructors).  So, especially in large classes, the use of undergraduate peer mentors who conduct online office hours, particularly during the evening when the students are apt to be doing homework, can be a real boon.  Alas, our universities are so into the graduate student/TA model that this use of undergraduate peer mentors didn't take off, in spite of the reported benefit in those limited instances where it was used.

A third idea is to extend writing across the curriculum ideas into courses that traditionally have not had a writing component and do so with regular student writing online, weekly blogging for example.  If students are to open up with the instructor, that will take a period of warming up.  Some may never get comfortable in the face to face setting to do so.  Over time this is achievable through weekly writing, if the instructor does his part.  This entails providing feedback to the students that is specific to what they have crafted, intelligent in suggesting possibilities where an idea can be extended or multiple ideas can be connected, and yet with as little judgment otherwise as possible.  The WAC philosophy focuses on feedback and what makes for effective feedback.  The technology helps in this especially when the writing and the feedback are done in the open, so one student can see the type of feedback that another student is getting.  Students want the feedback to be fair.  The technology helps in assuring that the instructor is trying hard to provide that and in getting the students to perceive this is so.  It also helps the students benchmark their writing with other students instead of comparing their writing to the writing of the instructor.

* * * * *

My title, The Long Game, is lifted from the TV show Homeland.  It is an expression that the female lead, Carrie, a CIA operative, uses in reference to Al Qaeda's strategy of planting a turned American soldier, Brody, the male lead of the show, who is a sleeper only to rise in the fullness of time and then take retaliation against his targets.  It is a strategy that requires patience, and constant adaptation to the situation on the ground as it plays out, but with the long run objectives always in mind.

This post is meant as encouragement to educational technologists to play the long game, which to me requires a real marriage of the learning issues to the technology capabilities.  I've been at this stuff for nearly twenty years and mainly I don't see other ed tech folks doing that. Let me speculate as to why.

I believe most people in the field have their own blockages with learning.  They want to appear as professionals, so the instructors they support will have respect for them.   They can readily demonstrate their expertise when talking about the technology itself.  But in discussing the psychology of learning they will be at best amateurs and possibly show their ignorance of the learning issues from time to time.  My personal advantage here is that I was an amateur for all of it, the technology and the psychology.  My expertise is in economic theory, the kind with a lot of math. What I know about the technology and the learning issues comes from personal exploration. What I fear most about educational technologists is that they have no path for an amateur approach to the learning issues because: (a) they don't teach undergraduate students, (b) they don't get the instructors they support to verbalize enough on the learning issues the instructors see, and (c) they don't perceive that (a) and (b) are limitations for their own development.

So Watters provides us with a pure technology vision, the digital version of the manilla envelope, coupled with a domain of their own, all done on the open Internet.  On the one hand it is perfectly understandable that Watters does this, because her talk is cast as an alternative to MOOC mania, which itself is a pure technology vision.  But one wrong turn doesn't deserve another.  Neither is playing the long game.  I should also note that within a limited domain of study MOOCs might be quite a good thing.  It is the inductive thinking that they are good and effective in every domain of study that so bothers me, and I suppose also bothers Watters.  Likewise, reclaiming the Internet is a noble idea, one I personally embrace as I prefer to use the browser to specific applications where I can.  (Excel is my Achilles heel on this.  Google spreadsheets doesn't cut it for me.)  But lets not confound noble ideas, in their purity, with empowering learner agency, which often won't happen at all and when it does will require a hodgepodge of different approaches depending on the nature of the specific learner's issues.

Let us change our rhetoric and move away from pure technology visions to a more complex view that embraces learning blockages as commonplace, with unblocking the goal, though movement down that path will be arduous.  That's the way to play the long game. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Gold Team Fight Song - Color War 1963 - Camp Oxford

The Blue Team won the Color War, but the Gold Team definitely had the better fight song.  It is sung to the theme from How the West Was Won

Listen well - and hear the tale of victory
Gold Team's story of how we won this war.
Straight and tall - march on to meet the enemy
Friends united will fight for ever more.

Men of Gold - we strike the blow decisively
Like the thunder that echoes through the sky.
Side by side - we join to crush the enemy
Friends united will fight to live or die.

As the dust clears from battle at the close of the day
And the sun fades into the western sky
See the bright golden banners soaring over the fray
Sons of gold stand together spirits high - on high - on high!

Sons of gold - are once again victorious
Praise the triumph that must forever be
Hail the deeds - of gallant men so glorious
Gold Team united - a Gold Team vic-tor-y!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The visible handout

I'm trying to put together several disparate pieces of information into a coherent narrative.  Let's see if that goal is achieved by the end of the piece.  The operative question to be kept in mind while reading is whether we can tell if a certain type of competition is healthy or not. We'll start with some of those info bits.

* * * * *

The College of Engineering graduation had two ceremonies back to back, because Huff Gym wasn't big enough to hold everyone (and the Assembly Hall is being renovated).  Fortunately for us, my son graduated in the earlier ceremony.  During the ceremony it was repeatedly mentioned that this is one of the great engineering colleges in the world.  (Say something enough....)  Here I'm going to take that as true.  One of my subsidiary questions is this.  What's implied by that regarding the education of the undergraduate engineering students?

I had the feeling that during the ceremony I was watching a reincarnation of Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat.  Part of this was the featured speaker, an alum of the College of Engineering and now Dean of the Booth Graduate School of Business at the University of Chicago.  He is the only Business School Dean in the top ten b-schools who has his doctorate in Engineering.  (Most were in Economics.)  He did his undergraduate work in Bangalore (and maybe he grew up there, but on this I'm not sure) and then came to Champaign-Urbana, but not directly.  He worked first and at the time didn't want want to be a student any more - the student life was too austere or so he thought.  It turned out he didn't like work so he went to graduate school and this time fell in love with academe.  His career trajectory is the personification of meritocracy.  It also demonstrates the value of engineering thinking even in non-engineering environments. 

The other part in this World Is Flat redux was the demographics of the students and their families.  My eyeballing of the audience indicated there were more students whose lineage is Asian than there were students whose lineage is European.  The College of Engineering is its own sort of melting pot.  In contrast, the class I taught in Economics last fall did have a couple of Chinese students and several more Asian-American students, but taken together they were less than a third of the class.

My son's department, Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, had a comparatively small number of graduates at the ceremony.  The big departments in that session were Computer Science and ECE (Electrical and Computer Engineering).  After the ceremony and some picture taking in the parking lot between BIF and Huff Hall, we drove our son back to his apartment.  On the way I mentioned to my son that I thought the student body in engineering was majority non-white. He said....maybe.  Then after thinking for a minute he added that Civil and Mechanical Engineering, the big departments in the later session, probably were majority white.  Computer Science and ECE, in contrast, attracted a lot of Asian students.  I wonder if the data actually bear that out.

My younger son is in Computer Science.  The day before I drove him to Indy so he could start his internship. (The first work day was last Monday.)  We chit chatted for a good part of the drive.  Much of that was about school.  Somewhere along the way he said - engineering is just so damn competitive.  I had heard somebody else say that recently - a grad from the 1990s who now works on campus.  I'm not sure exactly what that's in reference to, so I'll speculate a bit. It has me wondering.

Engineering has always been a grind, with more work assigned in Engineering courses than in courses elsewhere around campus.  My first semester after transferring to Cornell (this was spring 1974) I lived in a dorm and one of the guys on my floor was in Engineering.  He seemed to be working all the time, while the rest of, in Liberal Arts had more time to engage in conversations - about politics, life in general, music, who knows what?  This engineering student didn't participate most of the time.  He was a nice guy, but not as quick mentally as some of the other kids on the floor.  He was the personification for me of the "grinder type."

There is a difference between being a grind - lots of coursework to do - and being so competitive.  One way to get the latter is for all grading to be on a curve - the top 20% get an A, the next 20% get a B, etc.  This sort of grading does indeed induce competition between the students, the sort where they try to outwork each other.  In this respect it shares elements with certain types of sports competition, like golf tournaments.  There is an economic literature on when "relative performance contracts," aka tournaments, are better than absolute performance contracts and vice versa.  If an instructor doesn't know whether the exam is easy or hard (they all seem easy to the instructor) then grading on a curve is a way to control for exam difficulty.

But there are issues with it for learning.  If somebody is already motivated to study hard (whatever that means, I'll get back to that) then is the added pressure useful?  Watching sports tournaments, sometimes it seems that players choke up.  (See definition 18b.)  Performance anxiety can happen in a variety of circumstances.  Grading on a curve is likely to exacerbate performance anxiety for some students.  Then there is a related big deal issue - students get discouraged because of  early poor performance.  Some of these students will double there efforts thereafter and get by.  In that case the early poor performance serves as a wake up call. But other students will become so discouraged that they will drop out.  Indeed, some of this is by design in Engineering and certain courses serve, unofficially, in the capacity of "weeding out" the less well prepared or less committed students.  Consequently, engineering education has an aspect of Social Darwinsim to it.

Engineering at Illinois can afford this approach for two reasons. First, the students who drop out of Engineering typically transfer to another college at Illinois, so they still end up getting a degree from the university. Second, Engineering is committed to take in a substantial number of transfer students, mainly community college graduates from around the state. In a business sense, these transfer students fill the slots of the students who have dropped.  In this way the college can maintain essentially equal size of cohorts, from the freshman through the senior years. 

One can argue the merits on a Social Darwinism approach to undergraduate education, but the reality on the ground is that it's extremely unlikely to see it implemented broadly across campus (and broadly across the nation).  High graduation rates are a brag point for campuses that have them and a shame point for campuses that don't.  If  Liberal Arts and Sciences at Illinois produced dropout rates like what Engineering has, that would be a cause of concern for the campus, since most of those students would not transfer to another college; they'd leave the university entirely. So, instead, to the extent that teaching and learning is emphasized, the focus is on pedagogy and student engagement or, more recently, on student creativity.  (No doubt, highly creative students are engaged, but what of the not so creative students?)

And there is still a chicken and egg problem on the creativity front.  Do some students find a creative approach pretty much on their own and then use school as a means of expressing that creativity or does school develop creativity in these students where it wasn't present previously?  At the graduation ceremony, several of the famous products developed by Illinois Engineering grads were mentioned - Netscape, PayPal, YouTube, etc. - wanting the audience to believe that the Engineering College caused the creativity that led to these new products.  The social science on that is far from clear.  I know that Mosaic, the predecessor of Netscape, was a skunk-works project done by a few graduate students.   Perhaps there was a similarly informal development environment at the gestation of each of the other products.  If so, maybe Engineering should get credit for providing the milieu in which such playfulness occurs, a necessary if not sufficient component for a successful innovation.

It's possible that a handful of this year's graduating class will produce equally successful but not yet known products that will make a bundle for their creators and will serve as brag points for the College of Engineering during commencement for the class of 2025.  That many will try, there is little doubt.  The winners, if there are any, will be aided by substantial good luck.  That a competition among ideas in the form of new products or services occasionally produces big winners is good.  We all benefit when that happens.

* * * * *

I want to switch gears and talk about a different sort of competition, the one between the Titans of Wall Street and the American tax payer.  The recent release of Stress Test by Timothy Geithner, the former Secretary of Treasury caused, a substantial reaction in the media.  Here I will comment on several pieces that I've read in the last week or so.  To introduce the issue, let me quote from John Cassidy's book review of Elizabeth Warren's new book, A Fighting Chance.

Even if Warren doesn’t run for president, she is a significant figure, and her arguments demand to be taken seriously. When she declares, “Today the game is rigged—rigged to work for those who have money and power,” she is reflecting the beliefs of countless Americans, many of whom don’t share her progressive outlook, but do share her scathing views of the Wall Street–Washington nexus.

Taking the Wall Street side of this equation is how I got my title, the visible handout.  In various ways those on Wall Street influence what is going on in Washington and in return cash is put into their palms, most of the time, but with the possibility that overall the activity destabilizes the system.   I want to try to explain the Wall Street position here, but to do so I want to make the case that this position isn't strictly rational.  I need to explain what I mean by strictly rational.  Then I will make a brief detour to offer a plausible explanation why Wall Street doesn't behave in a rational way.  Then I'll return to the pieces about Geithner's book.

Because of the explicit guarantees with deposit insurance and implicit guarantees behind institutions that are "too big to fail," from the perspective of the big financial houses the game is a bit like heads I win, tails you lose.  Understanding that, the quid pro quo should be that the tax payer has the right to impose prudent regulations on the financial industry, to prevent tails from coming up.  And the industry should agree to this regulation because if it is always heads, they win.  This is what I mean by the rational view.  But instead what we seem to be getting is that with heads they want to win even more, yet by doing that tails remains a possibility.

Now for the detour.  Last January there was an interesting piece in the NY Times Sunday Review, For the Love of Money.  It was written by a former Wall Street trader who was addicted to money, as were his bosses.

But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”

I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.

The "not having enough brain capacity" itself signifies a lack of rationality.  But this, in itself, didn't seem like a full enough explanation for the full behavior of Wall Street.  Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, has enough brain capacity.  So does Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan-Chase.  And there are others on Wall Street too with enough brain capacity.  Yet in dealing with Washington they don't seem to make it their business to develop a system that is stable - all the time - tails doesn't come up.  Why not?

By means of explanation, I thought addiction was on the right track, but addiction to money couldn't be it.  For the guys mentioned in the preceding paragraph, they have so much money already how can they be addicted to making more?  For them, that's merely the accoutrement, how the score is kept in the game of high finance.  So I did a Google search on "addicted to winning" (without the quotes). This first hit made it seem as if many of us are likewise so addicted, but otherwise the piece wasn't that helpful.  Then I found this piece written by a psychologist, which was more useful.  His explanation, which I found quite plausible, is that we have a fear of being ordinary.  Winning "proves" we're not.  The beauty in this straightforward explanation is that the fear must be greater for individuals who are way up in the hierarchy of a large organization and who are visible by their brethren from below.  They need to win all the time, just for personal validation. 

(There is also a related issue as described in John Cassidy's book, How Markets Fail, in that there is a prisoner's dilemma aspect to the determination of whether winning has happened.  The firm is judged via its near-term performance relative to its competitors in the industry.  If a prominent rival takes a riskier long term approach but that approach is also more lucrative near term, then taking a more sensible approach appears like losing.  This puts the pressure on to also embrace the riskier approach.)

Effective financial regulation serves as an impediment to this win-at-all-costs mentality.  Alas, we don't seem to have effective regulation.  Now to those promised pieces that are a reaction to Geithner's book, which do agree that we don't have effective regulation.  This first one, from The Atlantic, was written by someone who worked under Geithner when both were at the New York Fed.  His thesis is that Geithner is a particularly cautious sort of person, especially in the clutch.  The argument the author makes is that in the aftermath of the crisis once it appeared that the contagion would be contained and no more big institutions would fail, roughly around summer 2009, there was the opportunity to impose effective regulation.  What was needed was a strong voice - from Geithner who was then Treasury Secretary - to argue for the legislation that would do the job in combination with executive mandates that he could initiate on his own. But this Geithner did not do, presumably because he felt there was still a risk of the financial markets freezing up again.  Yet by putting time between the crisis and when a sense of stability was restored and doing nothing else about the financial system in the interim, the author argues that Geithner "blew it" insofar as getting tough and effective regulation into being. 

This next one is more specific about the requisite effective regulation, where the entire focus is to make the system stable.  In other words, it ignores consumer protection issues, another part of financial regulation.  For system stability, there needs to be stern minimum capital requirements for each bank and there needs to be transparent accounting (which there isn't now) about how capital is measured, so an auditor can readily read the banks balance sheet and determine whether it is healthy or not.  The author of this piece argues that the current capital requirements are too weak and the accounting standards too opaque.  The blame is spread around.  Dodd-Frank is taken to task.  The legislation is too complex.  The regulators are taken to task.  Only about 50% of Dodd-Frank has been implemented.  Nobody seems in an uproar about the other 50%, perhaps because financial markets have settled down.  The clear message is that half a loaf is all we expect regarding financial regulation. 

This last piece, a recent column by Joe Nocera, Rethinking Campaign Finance, is not specifically about regulating Wall Street, but it does look at the dilemma that Members of Congress face at present.  In the current model, campaign financing is a major focus and most campaigns rely on donations from a small group of big donors.  The views of the big donors become well known to the campaign they are giving to, so much so that they drown out the views of the ordinary voters.  The proposal is for campaigns to be able to opt for the small donor route - no contribution over $150, but have matching funds that are 6 to 1 (or possibly larger, I have no sense where they get the multiple from) so that a candidate taking this approach can compete with a rival who is going after large donors.

I know that Nocera intended this column to show serious people are thinking about how to do something effective to address the problem.  But it had the opposite impact on me, particularly with regard to regulating Wall Street.  Campaign financing is but one way to influence Members of Congress.  Most lobbying happens between elections, not during them.  There is also that we now seem to have these PACs which are not part of the campaign but can spread publicity as if they were.  Even if the campaign part goes the small donor route, there is no reason why these PACs shouldn't woo big givers.  Then there is the issue of how Members of Congress come to their views on issues.  If a MOC relies on small donors, and most voters are not well informed on most issues, what then?  Do Members of Congress have the means to educate themselves on issues other than through the people who are lobbying them?  If so, how?  And finally, there was no discussion of personal integrity.  It's the last part that is really disheartening.  It seems to doom the entire process.

* * * * *

This next bit of info is about administrative bloat in two sectors of the economy, healthcare and higher education.  There seems no doubt about the phenomenon.  The issue is the cause.  To the outsider, this may seem a similar thing as to what is happening on Wall Street.  Maybe that is true in healthcare, particularly at the big insurance companies.  But in higher education, where I know something about what is going on, I believe the explanation lies elsewhere.  There are two distinct issues.

First is how higher education embraces the new.  Quite often, new initiatives happen on top of everything else that is being done.  Old activities are only rarely phased out.  If new activities require somebody to run them and existing activities see no reduction in personnel, then it is simple arithmetic that the new activity must be a cost add.  For example, when I moved from the campus information technology organization to the College of Business at Illinois, I took on a position that hadn't existed previously, and in my negotiations with the College I asked for and was allowed to hire two people who would report to me.  As it turns out, one of those people was already working for the College and her old job was not backfilled.  So that was a cost neutral change.  But my position and the other person who was hired constituted cost adds.

This sort of thing happens over and over again with the consequence a proliferation of administrative positions.  Ironically, one area that has seen steady growth is advancement (fund raising coupled with alumni relations).  Higher education has seen greater reliance on gifts as a source of income.  Small gifts may come like manna from heaven.   But large gifts require cultivation by the institution.  Somebody has to do the cultivating.    And with more cultivating to be done...

The other is the rise in administrative salaries over time.  Here I believe the story is more complex.  I will begin with my own experience.  I witnessed a doubling of my own salary over a 10-year period, from 1999-2009.  This amounts to a hefty 8% annual growth.  The general rise in salaries over that period was much more modest.  While I don't have the precise figures, I'd guess it was less than 3% annual growth.  But annual growth rate is misleading.  Indeed, my experience was that within a specific job my salary would grow at the campus rate.  (Sometimes it grew slower than the campus rate because, being already paid well, during years where there were modest salary programs there was a tendency for administrators to get smaller percentage increases than the rest of the staff.)   There were big steps up in salary after promotion or after a switch in jobs.  While for me those all happened at Illinois, for many other administrators the job switches occur by moving from one campus to another.

When a campus is recruiting to fill a position, new or old, there is a need to pay "market" at the least.  This is basic economics.  But what exactly does it mean for administrative positions?   Here I want to distinguish between a candidate who is money grubbing, which does happen, from one who is not really in it for the money but wants his or her boss to appreciate the candidate.  This is true in the job over time but, for the reasons I discussed in the previous paragraph, it is especially true for the initial salary offer.  I have had several friends tell me recently that they turned down job offers where the institution tried to low-ball it. To these candidates they were making an inference about what that initial offer said would happen during the course of working in the position.  And the inference they were making is that they'd feel squeezed and under pressure all the time.  Nobody wants to move into that sort of position.  On the flip side of that, filling a vacant position is not the time to practice cost containment.  All that will do is either leave the position vacant or have it filled with an unattractive candidate. 

So there is a feedback loop between the new employer demonstrating they do care for the candidate and what the market salary for the position is.  The market salary is benchmarked by the history of salaries at similar positions nationally that were filled recently.  If in the filling of each of those positions the offers were generous relative to the market at the time, then the market salary for the position will rise.

Candidates who end up taking a job at another campus often do so to climb the job latter.  The saying goes - to move up, move out.  Moving up is associated with a salary increase to accompany the increase in responsibilities.  But the feedback loop mentioned in the previous paragraph suggests that even horizontal moves will be associated with salary increases, because the candidate wants to be "shown the love" and those filling the position want to satisfy the candidate's wish.

But here is the thing.  What the candidate wants is not something absolute.  It is relative to a reference point, one provided by the market.  If the reference point were lower the candidate would be just as happy should the position come with an offer that seemed generous relative to that lower reference point. 

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  When markets work, laissez-faire is right.  What it means in practice for markets to work, however, may be something like beauty - it's in the mind of the beholder.  Above I've given three distinct scenarios.  Some might argue that markets work in each of them.  Others, in none of them.  I'm closer to the latter view.

When markets don't work, some sort of regulation is preferable.  Before I started at Illinois (fall 1980) there was an informal cartel that set the salaries of new assistant professors in economics.  I recall the cartel price at the time was $19,000.  (That was a nine month salary and didn't include summer money.)  I was able to get a $500 bump on top of that because I had another offer from a credible competitor.

I don't know if this informal cartel still exists but it makes sense to me that something similar should exist now for upper level administrative salaries in higher education, as a method of cost containment.  A general inflation would also be needed to make this work.  Then the market reference point could fall in real terms even as it rose in nominal terms.  One reason there is this focus on administrative salaries now is that inflation has been so low.  The cost add aspect of administrative pay then becomes more prominent.

I'm less hopeful for a realistic prospect to rein in Wall Street.  Congress appears to be broken as does the relationship between Congress and the White House.  But reining in Wall Street is what we need.  I hope there would be general agreement on that score.

As to Social Darwinism in undergraduate education, it is something to contemplate if only to contrast with current practice and for us to get a more realistic view of undergraduate education as it actually occurs.  Until the last decade undergraduate education was largely praised.  Now the vogue seems to require demonizing undergraduate education.   Perhaps that is a necessary stage to pass through before sensible improvements can be made.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Call me Ishmael

Here is a not so tall tale
Not about a big blue whale.

Really just a little quip
Apropos post nasal drip.

Stories of the sea enchant.
This sorry verse really can't.

So when you hear, "Thar she blows!"
Know it's only Lanny's nose.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Corner Solutions

The expression 'corner solution' comes from economics.  I want to apply it elsewhere, but first a little background to help the reader make sense of this alternative use of the expression.  Beware, there is some economics jargon below.  I hope it is useful for the subsequent discussion. 

I took my first course in Microeconomics in the fall quarter 1976 from the beloved Mort Kamien, now passed.  The subject matter was price theory, or if you are of a more mathematical bent, as I was, then you'd call it partial equilibrium analysis.  While the more popular textbook at the time was by Henderson and Quandt, we used a different book by Kogiku, Microeconomic Models, as well as a complementary text by Gary Becker, to provide us with a more narrative approach to the subject matter.  A significant piece of the course was devoted to theory of consumer choice, the first example that the economics student confronts that features constrained optimization

There are two sorts of constraints.  The first says that the consumer's choice must be within the Consumption Set.  When you teach intermediate microeconomics, as I've done fairly often, the Consumption Set is taken to be the first quadrant.  The interpretation is that in the simplest model where there are two goods, the Consumption Set describes purchases of those goods, and purchases must be nonnegative. The second is called the budget constraint.  It says that what the consumer spends on purchases can't exceed the consumer's income.  These two constraints taken together define a choice set.  The consumer's problem is to maximize preference within the choice set.

Logically, there can be an interior point that is optimal (meaning it solves the consumer's problem).  Such a solution is referred to as a bliss point.  While it is logically possible, a bliss point is economically uninteresting.  Economics is fundamentally concerned with allocating scarce resources to competing ends.  With a bliss point, there is no scarcity.  (The reader might want to recall the old TV show, The Beverly Hillbillies, where Jed and Granny were seen throwing money out of the window of the Bank, with the bills raining down on passersby.)  To get the economics concern into the consumer choice problem, a restriction is imposed on the consumer's preferences.  In intermediate microeconomics that restriction is described as more is preferred to less.  It implies the consumer will spend all available income or, in the jargon of this course, that the budget constraint will bind at the optimum.

An interior solution happens where at the optimum the consumer buys positive amounts of both goods.  Symbolically, it is characterized by the method of Lagrange multipliers.  Graphically, which is how I teach this stuff in intermediate micro, it is characterized by the indifference curve being tangent to the budget line, the economic tradeoffs implied by that characterization.  A corner solution happens when the consumer spends all income only only one good, so the consumption of the other good is zero, the least it can be.  The characterization is different in this case.  Symbolically, it is characterized by Kuhn-Tucker Theory.  Graphically, tangency between the indifference curve and the budget line is still possible, but it is no longer necessary.  At the corner where only the X good is purchased, the indifference curve can be steeper than the budget line.  Likewise, at the corner where only the Y good is purchased, the indifference curve can be flatter than the budget line.

This completes the development of the jargon I will use in the rest of this piece, but I'd like to make two further points on the economics before I continue.  One is that essentially the same math is used in looking at other economic models, such as how two consumers who barter with one another will arrive at final trades from which no further bartering will occur.  The other point is that having only two goods in the model is there primarily to make the explication as simple as possible.  It can be readily extended to have a very high number of commodities, though then graphical techniques are no longer useful and one has to rely on a symbolic characterization only.  Think of your own shopping behavior when going to a supermarket to buy groceries for the next week or so.  There are many product categories where you likely don't purchase at all and within product categories where you do purchase, there typically will be one brand you favor while purchasing nothing of the other brands.  The issue, then, in describing this behavior is whether to focus on the tradeoffs between the goods you do purchase at positive levels, or to focus on the exclusion of those goods that you don't purchase at all.  Where the focus should lie is what's at issue in the sequel below.

* * * * *

Via traditional media and social media too we have gotten more polarized in our discourse on social and political issues.  That is not news.  More important here is the seeming natural reaction to respond in kind to a view expressed in extreme form. Further, even if making an initial claim rather than reacting to the claims of others, there is strong temptation in making the case to reduce dimensionality in what is at stake and then claim that a corner solution is optimal in this simplified and more abstract universe.  This type of argumentation, which Milton Friedman practiced par excellence, appeals to the purist nature in all of us.

But it denies the complexity of reality.  If we are to embrace complexity, something I try to do, though admittedly with mixed success, then abstraction can be seen as a deal with the devil.  In describing what is happening on the ground, the causes for why it is happening, and possible amelioration of the problem(s), complexity should be embraced at each level.  This is hard to do, intellectually.  Abstraction is useful for that reason, but then we too often become intellectually lazy and confound the abstraction with reality; it's close enough or so we convince ourselves.  That we act as if we know this ahead of time is the real problem.  We don't.  We're ignorant on this score.  Those of us who wish to be considered thoughtful should be biased toward finding an interior solution, for this very reason.  A corner solution may have superficial appeal, but we should be wary that we've gotten the full story.  Nobody likes to sound wishy-washy.  Yet certitude is worse and really needs to be guarded against.

Via a few of my posts taken in reverse chronological order, let me illustrate my own struggles this way.  About a half year ago I wrote a piece, Do I have to consume conservative media to consider myself thoughtful?  It marked my own movement toward corner solutions.  I should note that while that piece certainly did not go viral, it got about six times the number of hits as my typical post gets.  This indicates to me more return visits than usual and some readers forwarding the piece to their friends, both indicators that others are bothered by this question.  The next previous piece is a very short one called Taking a Sabbatical from David Brooks.  The focus there was one particular columnist, not all conservative pundits.  But I had been a regular reader of David Brooks for many years, so it still represented a substantive change in my behavior.  My complaint with his pieces was as follows.

Both in his "I told you so" tone and on his analysis that frequently over simplifies the social science (and occasionally is just wrong) his writing has become more than I can take now.

Then there is this piece, the topic of which still vexes me: Is it possible to have thoughtful conversation about America's future between Conservatives and Liberals?  If it were possible then I'd view it as desirable, and I guess so would many others.  With gridlock in Congress, one would like to see thoughtful people of both political persuasions identify those areas of agreement where some progress might be made.  In my way of thinking, such conversation might not happen face to face in a live forum but rather through essays published online, with some substantial lag between the original posed argument and the response, and then possible further response.  Way back when Pat Buchanan and Michael Kinsley were on Crossfire I would watch the show from time to time.  It was not very satisfying, partly because of the rude style where the interviewers regular interrupted the guests,  and partly because I don't recall it ever producing a synthesis of views that each side could embrace.  I know it is back on the air now, but I haven't watched it and have no desire to do so.  Indeed, I don't watch MSNBC shows - presumably representing the Liberal view - because the style is too righteous and unaccommodating.  (I did for a while watch Keith Olbermann and a bit of Rachel Maddow, but gave that up several years ago.) 

This last piece, entitled Theism - "Pan", "Mono", and "A", is the closest thing I've produced aimed as a thoughtful rebuttal to an opinion piece written by a Conservative pundit.  It is a response to Heaven and Nature by Ross Douthat.  His essay is a critique of the movie Avatar and the implied pantheism in the storyline.  My response, which was written a week or two before I saw the movie, once I saw it I thought it was cool in its special effects but benign in its message, was composed because that semester I had experienced "religion in the classroom" for the first time in my long career teaching and I wanted to comment on that as well as to comment on Douthat's essay.  I have a routine where I republish my blog posts in Facebook.  Most of them just sit there, people tell me my essays are too long, but this one evoked a couple of strong approvals from friends, indicating that I came closer to the mark than usual.  My friends, however, are not Conservative, as far as I know.  I don't know how a Conservative reader would have reacted to that essay.  It is also true that the topic of Douthat's piece was not particularly troubling.  Even if a Conservative reader would have reacted favorably to my piece, it doesn't mean that such a reader would likewise react favorably to other responses I produce on different topics, where the passions run hotter. 

Below I will give a response to Douthat on his previous two columns. Where in writing the Theism... piece I was actually grateful to Douthat for stimulating my own thinking, now I'm angry at him for what seems to me his closed mind. The reader might ask whether its me, or him, or the times in which we live, or that Conservative columnists who write for the NY Times and who are not named Safire eventually get fed up with the hand they are playing.  I don't know which is the best explanation or if those should be taken in some combination.  I do think in playing that hand the Conservative columnists should aim for an interior solution, to give us readers something we can react to - thoughtfully.  These last two columns seem to me to provide corner solutions.  While I will try to walk them back below, I'm still angry about what was said in them.

* * * * *

Douthat's column from May 3 is entitled College, The Great Unequalizer.  Most of the column is spent on the the book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality.  Douthat accepts the hypothesis of the book without equivocation.   There is a kind of social crowding out.  The rich kids, the ones headed to the fraternities and the sororities after the freshman year, set the tone.  They party in the bacchanal way depicted in Animal House.  They study not much at all.  But they get through and then because of family connections find good jobs afterwards.  The working class kids, for whom college should offer a step up from where their parents are in the income distribution, have to do likewise, if they are to have any social life at all.  But because they work a part time job, they too get through where they really should be aiming to excel in the schoolwork, because they don't have the family connections and need a superior resume to get a good job.  Instead, many graduate saddled with debt and with limited job opportunities.

Ultimately, Douthat embraces the message of Paying for the Party because it serves his own need to moralize about what college kids should be doing.   In his penultimate paragraph he writes:

By this I mean that an upper class that practices and models bourgeois virtues — not only thrift and diligence but chastity and sobriety — will be more permeable, less self-protected and self-perpetuating, than an upper class that tells the aspirational that they can’t climb the ladder unless they join the party first.

If I weren't a college professor, I might let this slide.  Earlier in the year The Atlantic featured this piece The Dark Power of Fraternities, which is a compelling if disheartening read, and which set the stage for Paying for the Party and Douthat's column.  But I am a college professor.   I taught a class last fall that had several working class students of a total population of 23.  (I know this from what they wrote in their blog posts and from talking with some of them face to face.)  And what I was hearing from them didn't exactly jive with the message in Paying for the Party.  So here is a different angle to get at these issues.

First, look at some statistics about how prevalent Greek Life is on Campus.  At Illinois (my campus) the Dean of Students maintains a Web site about Greek Life.  It reports that about 23% of the undergraduate population are members of a Greek house and a bit more than a third of this population reside in a fraternity or sorority.  Wondering whether Illinois was typical or an outlier in this regard, I also checked Michigan.  There 20.09% are members of a Greek house.  (There is a typo on that page, reporting the percentage as 120.09%, but I ran the numbers through a calculator to get at the right percentage.)  I also looked at Wisconsin.  I didn't find a Greek Life statistics page such as the ones at Illinois and at Michigan, but I did find this Student Life page and it reports about ten percent of the students are members of the Greek House.  This is a small sample of universities, but they are each prominent Big Ten Schools, the type of university Douthat is writing about.  And the reality is that the vast majority of students are not in the Greek system at all.  So either most of those non-members find their social lives at Greek parties, or the story is more complicated at these campuses than what is depicted in Paying for the Party.

Next I want to talk about what I learned from mentoring an I-Promise student a couple of years ago.  He was a transfer student, starting his junior year at Illinois.  He lived in a dorm that year, as way to get acclimated to campus.  Most if not all of the students on his floor in the dorm were freshman.  I believe the floor itself had a single long corridor with the rooms (doubles) on one side or the other and the bathroom and shower located somewhere in the middle of the floor.  Perhaps there was a lounge on the floor as well, though of that I'm not sure. The custom was for the doors to the rooms to be open when they were occupied, so somebody else on the floor could just come in, which they would do mainly to socialize.  The kids were up to the wee hours of the morning - every night, not just on the weekend.  And they were engaged in some sort of having fun.  My mentee wasn't getting enough sleep as a result and he needed to find another place, the Library for example, if he was going to study.  His big issue was time management coupled with location management.  I think this is common for students in their first year on campus.

I don't think drinking was part of this picture, though I don't really know.  But what seems evident is that the kids on the dorm floor wanted to play.  They had their new found freedom from not living at home and that's how they wanted to spend their timeIt might not be the choice each kid would have made if left on his own, but the group dynamic of the dorm floor inevitably led in that direction.  I should add that this dorm, close to the Engineering Quad, probably had a majority of students who were in Engineering, which is known to be demanding academically.  If this was happening there I suspect something similar is happening all around campus.  It may not be too many steps from wanting to play - video games or card games or some other diversion during the nighttime hours coupled with some sports activity or working out in the late afternoon - to wild parties at a Greek house with lots of booze and sex.  But they are not one and the same. So one wants to know whether the kid, in moving from the dorm to an apartment, finds a better balance between the academic side and having fun or if the lure of excessive drinking is too hard to resist. If enough kids do the former, then the social crowding out that is the story in Paying for the Party overstates the case.

The last bit I want to discuss comes from what I learned in this domain when I taught an upper level course on Behavioral Economics in spring 2011.  Many of the students had an extremely instrumental view about employment.  For these students the entire goal was to make money.  There was no larger sense of purpose nor any recognition that work might be a path to find self-expression.  I want to try to tie this observation into the excessive indulgence that is at the center of Paying for the Party and The Dark Power of Fraternities.

There seems to me three possible explanations that drive undergraduates toward excessive consumption of alcohol and all the rest that goes with it.  One is satisfying curiosity.  Another is running away from responsibility: the academic side of school offers punishment in the form of looking stupid in front of one's teachers and classmates or cowering into anonymity to avoid the more overt form.  This is the escapism explanation.  The third is running toward fun - the adult form.  At root here is a very hedonistic view of life.  Pleasure comes from having candy.  All that changes in going from being a kid to being an adult is the type of candy that gives pleasure.

To the extent that curiosity is the explanation, there is little that a university can do other than to educate students about possible risks and encourage the students not to go over the deep end as they experiment.  The students do have the agency to satisfy their own curiosity.  We should acknowledge that and consider it a good and healthy thing, even if there is occasional abuse.  Experimentation is the way students learn a more mature approach to life.  That learning should be encouraged, not blocked.

It is on the other two possible explanations that we should focus.  They offer a potential area where Conservatives and Liberals might agree.  If either of these explanations is right, it shows that college is failing on the academic side, by not encouraging students to open up about their own thinking and in not getting students to ask the meaning of life questions that has been a traditional role of a residential college experience.  Viewed this way, Douthat's call for abstinence is treating the symptoms, not the cause.  What is needed, instead, is a program that takes on the cause squarely. 

* * * * *

Let us switch to Rape and the College Brand, Douthat's most recent column.   Douthat is even more irate here.  He writes:

Such arguments add up to a plausible case against some of the activists’ prescriptions. But they don’t inspire much sympathy for the colleges’ position in this controversy. The protesting students may be overzealous and unduly ideological, but when you’re running an essentially corrupt institution, sometimes that’s the kind of opposition you deserve.

Corruption is a strong word, but not, I think, unmerited. Over the last few generations, America’s most prominent universities — both public and private — have pursued a strategy of corporate expansion, furious status competition, and moral and pedagogical retreat. But the moral retreat has in certain ways been disguised: elite schools have abandoned any explicit role in policing the choices and shaping the character of their students, but they have masked that abdication in the nostrums of contemporary P.C. piety — promising diversity, tolerance, safe spaces, etc., with what can feel like a preacher’s sincerity and self-righteousness.

This is an extraordinarily sweeping indictment.  One issue in reading it is to identify the "you" in whom Douthat is referring to when he talks about running the institution.  Is he talking about the faculty?  There is faculty governance, an important piece in how things gets done, and typically a very conservative factor.  Or is he talking only about the administration?  Does Douthat understand that major public universities are very complex organisms with distributed decision making power and where it may not be so easy for an outsider to identify where particular decisions are made.

Much of the administration is made up of former faculty, who have then "risen" to perform administrative function.  If the faculty themselves are absolved from the charge of corruption, is it then reasonable to assume that all moral backbone becomes lost when the person turns to administrative work?

One area where the administrators are not former faculty is campus legal.  When I was doing my campus educational technology job I interacted with campus legal on a somewhat regular basis.  My biggest source of frustration there is that I tried to get a clear statement of where the campus agreed a certain behavior with online materials constituted a "Fair Use" and thereby gave the faculty guidelines on how to proceed with materials in teaching their courses.  I could never get this done.  Campus legal did not want to risk the potential liability from drawing a line in the Fair Use gray-zone. That there is much non-action at universities because of a desire to limit liability is something insiders will understand, if not embrace.  It may not be something that occurs to outsiders at all.  The point here is that the decision making may never get outside of campus legal to where faculty governance has a go at it or where the Provost or Chancellor (the top academic officials on campus) weigh in.  I don't know that to be the case in the campus response to sexual assault.  But I wouldn't be surprised to find out that it is true.

Poor management is not the same as corruption.  That universities are reactive to a variety of social issues instead of getting out in front of them goes without say.  But instead of asking how university decision making might be more streamlined to address the issues it confronts, Douthat feels the need to play the corruption card, using the old Conservative critique on political correctness, and generally smear institutions of higher education.  Is that what thoughtful critics should do? 

* * * * *

I apologize that this post is such a long slug to get through.  I felt it necessary to illustrate the problem with corner solutions.  Such "answers" tend to block more reasonable analysis and don't show us a better way out.

As regular readers of my blog know, I am no fan of the status quo on campus, particularly to how we go about undergraduate education.  I would welcome constructive criticism from the outside, if it helped to spur change that really did make things better.  But after some time waiting for that, we get impatient and are driven to want purist answers.  They really aren't answers at all.  All they do is satisfy a need to vent on the issues.

Columnists for the NY Times should not do that.  You'd think their editors would admonish them when they do.  I hope Douthat's last couple of pieces represent only a temporary misstep.  I would prefer not to go cold turkey on him too, as that would further presage my own slide to the corner, something I'd like to avoid, if possible.

Friday, May 09, 2014


Does Wikipedia know Yiddish?  In my Google search I wrote "schtick" and did get some hits on that, but the first entry was to Wikipedia (surprise!) and the word was minus the first "c," causing me to ask, who gets to determine the English spelling of Yiddish words?

I do it fairly often and wonder if that is from growing up in New York or from being the son of Sidney Arvan or for some other reason.  Gail Collins does it frequently in her column.  That is doubly impressive because, as my parents would have said, "she is SO goyish."  And she does it in writing, where her style is more Bob and Ray than it is Mort Sahl.  For me it is harder to do in writing.  You need something to react to and that is usually provided in the flow of conversation.  Collins does have a leg up on the rest of us though, writing about the goings on in the nation's capital.  Reality there is already well peppered with absurdity.  With that starting point, it doesn't take as much to get to shtick.

I wonder why more people don't do it.  Most of the people I know are so earnest - all the time.  We really need absurdity as part of our daily interactions and to bring it into the conversation from time to time.  It lightens things up, gives us a little bit of distance from the current travails, and might just be the antidote to a more permanent sarcasm, which is far less healthy.  With people you don't know, it's a way to get over the awkward shyness of the initial encounter.

Yesterday I went to the Library to pick up a book that they were holding for me.  I had printed out the notification I received and gave it to the woman at the counter.  She started typing something on her keyboard and then groaned a bit - her computer hadn't been able to process the request.  She said I should move over to the person at the station next to her, who would be able to help me.  On the way to do that I said that sometimes dropping the hard drive on the floor fixes the problem.  She then echoed the thought, saying that often dropping things on the floor gets them to work.  I responded, it does with kids!  Fortunately, they hadn't yet scanned my I-Card.

There is a tiny bit of risk in doing schtick.  How do you know the other person will go with the flow?  I'm pretty much a coward.  I don't believe I ever did it with my boss when I was working at CITES.  But with friends and colleagues I do it all the time.  Where's the harm?

I encourage you to try it a few times.  Getting egg on your face is not fun, but it's no big deal either.  And if it works, then you've really found something.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Traffic Helicopter Theory of Management - Tips and Tricks

I was very fortunate in starting out as an administrator to work in a small and nimble organization, SCALE.  I was extraordinarily green at the time, but very eager for the work and with some intuitive feel for how to get things done.  Probably, this is what it's like in a startup and why running your own business has such appeal.  Having a strong sense of motion was more important than reaching a pre-specified final destination and the primary near term goal was to sustain the momentum.

The University of Illinois is a large organization and like any large organization, it has its bureaucratic side.  That can place unintended roadblocks on innovative activity, particularly with teaching and learning.  Many things are done by rules.  Even if the rules were conceived with good intent and were sensible in the environment in which they originated, as there are changes in the environment the rules can seem like impediments to innovation rather than as sensible regulation.  (This is what provides the small business person's natural antipathy to government.  But to assess whether the rules are still appropriate or have become excessive burden, one must look more broadly.  I will make some brief comments about that at the end of this piece.)  The traffic helicopter theory was born by the observation that such blockages occur fairly frequently and thus should be anticipated.  When a particular blockage was detected, the idea then was to "reroute traffic" so as to keep things moving.  I will illustrate with a few examples below. They will show that the traffic helicopter approach is not strategic.  I would call it tactical+.  There is a bit of forward look.  Then it is very opportunistic in finding ways to keep things working.

* * * * *

I came into SCALE with an open portfolio, simply to promote ALN (online learning) around campus. Four months later I was running the show.  I came up with the traffic helicopter theory after only a few weeks on the job.  There were quite enough examples already within that time frame.  I continued to practice the traffic helicopter theory for several years thereafter.

One source of blockage on campus is that there frequently are several distinct units with overlapping or complementary missions.  Each unit sets its own agenda.  Often those agendas are in conflict.  It is rare to see the actions of the various units brought into concert, at least that was my experience when I became the Assistant CIO for Educational Technologies - six years later.  SCALE, because of its soft-money status and small size, could cut through a lot of the red tape.

The first activity with SCALE I was involved in was the evaluation.  It was an important component of the project as it was the formal way that the sponsor (The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) would learn about the results and how interested parties around campus - the Provost's office, the faculty who were already doing SCALE-supported ALN work, other faculty who might be interested in trying ALN, and various other related players could see what SCALE was accomplishing.  But the evaluation was done outside of SCALE, by then OIR (Office of Instructional Resources).  OIR had a certain methodology they used on all evaluation work.  SCALE leadership was unsure that this method would get at the interesting questions to ask about ALN implementation.  There was also the issue of how to report bad news - part and parcel of the data collected or subordinated so the sponsor was presented with a more rosy picture.  My recollection is that this question about bad news was more an issue in anticipation of how to handle the problem than it was after the fact because there was much to cover up.  Actually, much of what SCALE did was quite good in those days so there were real reasons to be proud of the activity.  Nonetheless, there was unmistakeable tension between OIR and SCALE over the evaluation at the time I got involved. 

There were two main components of the evaluation.  One focused on faculty experiences and was done both via survey and via interviews with individual faculty.  The other centered on student experiences, which was done mainly through a survey and then some sampling via focus groups.  For the faculty part, OIR was having trouble getting the faculty to grant them interviews.  I wanted to meet these instructors so I could develop an ongoing relationship with them.  So it was agreed that Cheryl Bullock of OIR, who was tasked to do the faculty interviews, would conduct them with me.  Cheryl and I would go to the faculty member's office or to a convenient location of mutual agreement and discuss things with the faculty member.  Cheryl's role was quite different from mine.  We agreed on (I believe 5) questions that needed to be posed during the course of the conversation.  But given that those question were posed the conversation could otherwise be free ranging.  I did much of the talking for our side and Cheryl did all the note taking.  The faculty were willing, even eager in some cases, to talk to me.  This approach worked for all parties concerned and it helped build some trust for what came next.

The student component came next and it was harder - partly because SCALE staff weren't directly involved at all, partly because the data collection effort for the spring 1996 had already taken place (there had been a prior such effort for fall 1995) and the issue of whether the right sort of data was being collected came up pretty soon after I joined SCALE.  This could have readily come to an impasse, which in some sense is the easy way out.  In that case, everyone gets to stick to their guns.  On the other hand, there's no use crying over spilled milk.  While I don't recall exactly how this happened, the resolution we arrived at was for me to edit the evaluation document.  I could correct errors and suggest other changes to frame things better.  But the evaluation team needed to okay these.  My training on doing this, it might not seem obvious that it was the right sort of preparation but that turned out to be the case, was in writing referee reports for Econ journal pieces.  Over time I learned to be a reasonably good referee in that setting, where if I didn't think the paper should be rejected outright then I saw my role as trying to make the paper better.  Refereeing is quite unlike writing the paper yourself.  The author is still the owner of the ideas in the paper.  In other circumstances, I'd have liked to play more of the author role with the SCALE evaluation.  The traffic helicopter theory has no room for such wishful thinking.  It requires finding what will work in the here and now.  Editing the evaluation document worked.

Another source of blockage is with innovative activity that emerges in one college on campus, but which has value in other places on campus.  The first college doesn't have it in its mission to diffuse the innovation elsewhere.  But unless that first college goes beyond its own mission to enable such diffusion, that can block the diffusion and thus prevent the activity from scaling enough to where it is supported more centrally.

At around the time I started as an administrator in SCALE, I became the first person on campus to teach with Mallard who was outside the College of Engineering.  I did that in the summer session 1996.  Mallard was the brainchild of Donna Brown, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and a graduate student who was doing his Masters work under Donna, Mike Swafford.  It was run on an Engineering Workstation Server.  Randy Cetin administered that server.  Randy worked for the then campus computing organization, CCSO, and the College of Engineering contracted with CCSO for such server administration work.  In that contract the rule was the Engineering Workstation services were for faculty and students in the College of Engineering. This is the backdrop for my first encounter with Randy.  He initially told me I couldn't use Mallard, for that reason.

I should say that Randy is a nice guy and was patient with me.  Further, it was evident that an exception should be made in this case, as it was in the interest of Engineering to promote Donna Brown's work and therefore to let instructors outside the College of Engineering use Mallard, especially early on till a more scalable solution was found.  Eventually I was given permission to use Mallard, though I don't recall exactly what greased the skids enough to enable that outcome.  But do let me point out here that SCALE itself was administered in ECE, with the SCALE office on the third floor of Everitt Lab, so quite apart from my use SCALE wanted to see Mallard promoted.  That may have been what did the trick.  In any event, the experience was not so unpleasant at the time and laid some foundation for Randy and I to negotiate on other matters soon thereafter.

Within six months - a few months after I started to run SCALE, Dave Liu, who was a new Associate Provost with online learning in his portfolio, purchased a new Sun Server that CCSO would run and that was supposed to host all the Ed Tech applications on campus, a grand vision.  Randy was the administrator for that server.  This mattered in two ways. 

First, one of the applications that Dave thought would run on this Sun Server would be Mallard.  Dave was a professor of Computer Science, another department in the College of Engineering, and he understood the issues entailed with instructors outside the College of Engineering using Mallard on the Engineering Workstation server.  He and somebody else (maybe Randy, I don't remember who the other person was) came to visit me at SCALE with the following proposal.  Campus would support Mallard on the new Sun server if SCALE would fund an FTE for a Mallard administrator, whose job was to interface between faculty who wanted to use Mallard, the Mallard development team lead by Donna, and the server administration team that Randy oversaw.  Given my earlier experience with Mallard and that the students in my summer class reacted favorably to the way we deployed it, I was very receptive to Dave's proposal.  We ended up hiring John Groppe as a consequence and later Konstantinos Yfantis to replace John.  Mallard use grew substantially over the the next several years as a result.

Eventually that usage outstripped the capacity of the Sun server.  But early on there was substantial idle capacity.  Part of the reason was the CyberProf, an alternative to Mallard, ended up not being on that Sun server.  Another part was that a planned home grown development into a toolkit to support online learning failed.  So, given this idle capacity, Randy was looking for other content to support.  At the time SCALE had an interest in instructors experimenting with RealAudio, the then current way to stream audio over the Internet.  Randy and I agreed that his unit would support the software if SCALE paid for the license.  That arrangement stuck for quite a while.

Yet a third blockage can emerge when higher ups tell an innovative faculty member how to proceed, based on an emerging technology that the higher ups would like to see promoted on campus.  Innovative faculty are used to making their own decisions, based on their local knowledge of the issues at hand.  The higher ups may very well believe they are empowering faculty on campus by promoting the new technology.  But the innovative faculty member will view this more as a constraint than as anything else.  The innovative faculty member trusts her own instincts about what works and what doesn't.  This promotion by the higher ups is really asking the innovative faculty member to surrender her own good judgment.

SCALE had an internal grant program, one of the more important things it did, and once I took over my job was to read grant proposals early on and then negotiate with the proposal writers about their ask - what they intended to do, why that was the approach, make suggestions, and provide counsel about possible pitfalls.  Armed with this I could then be quite informed in discussing proposals with the larger review committee.  The total ask was in excess of what was to be granted, so there were issues about whether some proposals should be funded but at reduced levels or if some proposals should be rejected outright.  My views were important on this as to how the ultimate judgment should be made.

One of those proposals came from Diane Musumeci, who was then teaching the introductory course in Italian.  Like me, Diane was using both Mallard and FirstClass to support instruction and we learned soon thereafter that we had several students in common.  That was more than mere coincidence and offered some indirect evidence that at least a few students were interested in online learning for their own benefit.   Diane and I hit it off almost immediately.  We later got quite involved in a larger project in Spanish, did a presentation on that work at the Sloan-C annual conference in 1998, and still later wrote a paper together on some related work.  Hitting it off is what got us through the obstacle.

That obstacle was provided by the aforementioned RealAudio streaming.  To an outsider like me, foreign language instruction seemed like a natural area to do early experimentation with streaming audio.  Burks Oakley, in particular, who was my predecessor running SCALE and who was still on the proposal review committee, thought it should be the centerpiece of Diane's project.   But Diane wasn't particularly interested in that.  She had in mind the production of an image database.  The pedagogic reason is that language learners have ideas that are separate from the English word used to connect to the idea and one can learn the word in the foreign language quicker by making reference to the image than to the English word.  There is translation with the latter while no translation is needed with the former.  To me this seemed insightful and I wanted to support Diane in this work.  It only occurred to me later that such an image database could be used in teaching any language, so doing it then for Italian would accelerate the development of the Spanish project when that came along, the following year.

It is also true that RealAudio was an exotic application at the time.  Bandwidth was scarce - on many places around campus and certainly at home where most of us were on dialup.  Without ample bandwidth the files could choke and the user would grow impatient with the software when that happened.  Larger classes might very well experiment with technology a little, but there are limits to doing so based on the reliability of the software.

So in this case I provided some cover for Diane by pushing back against Burks.  She got to do the project she intended to do and it went well.  Subsequently, the Spanish project became the most important of the various SCALE Efficiency Projects, which saved our necks with regard to support from Sloan, so all was forgotten about this temporary conflict.  It was brought up here not for that reason, but to illustrate a different point.  A campus administrator needs to trust his innovative faculty.  They are his greatest asset.  Running interference for them is part of the job description.

* * * * *

With these examples in hand let me switch to some lessons learned.

1.  The traffic helicopter theory is fundamentally a bottom up approach where others drive the bus.  As an administrator, you will not hear from these others most of the time unless they are having problems.  From the administrator's perspective, the approach is to be on the look out for the problems and then to find reasonable fixes asap.

2.  Being on the look out means you keep a file of potential issues (I kept it in my head) and another file of potential uses and then you periodically check whether some issue might block a particular use.  In the ideal, the data gathering on issues happens well before the use and the issue is managed in such away that most users are never aware there was a problem to begin with.  This is another reason to champion innovators and early adopters.  They identify these issues for you and can give a heads up so that those who come later don't have to got through all that hassle.

3.  The role is primarily as broker - matching the person(s) with the problem to the person(s) with the fix.  There may be a bit of creativity involved in reframing the problem in a way where a fix can be found.  But there is not creativity in the sense of fundamental design.

4.  The willingness to engage in the broker function vigorously and sublimate the design function requires a suspension of ego.  Indeed much of the conflict discussed above can be viewed as different egos butting heads.  Adding one more ego to the mix doesn't help.  There is a question then about how ego can be suspended.  Most of us are not saints.  Taking care of number one is a prime motivator.  What can offset that?  Here are two different answers that make sense to me.

I was very naive when I took over SCALE.  I felt inadequate to do the job as a result.  In many respects that was actually an advantage.  I put in a lot of effort to compensate for the lack of experience.  And I was quite willing to suspend my own ego at the time because I didn't have the experience on which to base good judgment, so I was willing to assume others knew more than I did.

The above works for anybody who is new to the job, but over time the novelty wears off.  What then?  Here I think failure has a lot of value.  There are some obstacles that are insurmountable.  It may not be clear why that is up front; one can try and yet fail with those.  A substantial area where I failed, and the campus failed, quite miserably actually, was in tech transfer.  Mallard should have been commercialized.  CyberProf too.  They may not have succeeded on the open market, but we couldn't even get them out the door.  I experienced other failure with particular people who worked for me.  Failure enables a sense of humility based on experience. With sufficient humility, ego can be suspended.

Nevertheless, I believe it is hard to sustain the traffic helicopter theory indefinitely as done by a single individual.  Eventually the person wants to have his hand at being a designer.

5.  There is enormous desire by others on campus for somebody to practice the traffic helicopter theory and do so effectively.  Everybody and his brother does strategic planning.  We've been to that movie many times before.  Who does effective implementation?  It is rarer to see.

One of the true surprises for me after I had been running SCALE for between six months and a year was to see an embrace of these efforts by some of the techies at CCSO, who had apparently been waiting to see this for quite some time.

Via Donna Brown I learned about Bluestem, a Web Iso, then a hot form of Internet security.  Donna was very keen on putting Bluestem in front of Mallard.  Doing so was one of the reasons why its use grew geometrically at the time.  Grade information was being stored there.  That information was secure.  Elsewhere similar transactions were happening in other online environments, but done in the clear.

Bluestem was developed by Ed Kubaitis, a top programmer at CCSO, who marched to the tune of his own drummer.  At around the time that Mallard implemented Bluestem I gave a presentation in then Comm West (now Wohlers Hall) about SCALE activities and during it I must have talked about Mallard and possibly showed my own class use.  The presentation was targeted at potential faculty users.  But Ed Kubaitis was in the audience.  At the end of the talk he came up to introduce himself, shake my hand, and thank me for my efforts.  It was one of those MasterCard moments - priceless.

6.  There may be no rewards from one's superiors in embracing the traffic helicopter theory, even if it works quite well when implemented.  Let me say this cuts both ways.  Building a good reputation does matter and effective implementation of the traffic helicopter theory helps, no doubt, in building one's personal reputation.  But for the same reasons that research trumps teaching on campus, the rewards, and here I'm talking about personal recognition - salary and promotion in particular, result from designing a program that works.  That's what is visible and what one's superiors can judge.  In contrast, making the design of others work when their project starts to confront "traffic problems" is not something you should claim credit for.

I don't know that this is the reason why only a few practice the traffic helicopter theory.  I think it more that people don't perceive the need or don't feel they should play the role given the position they are in.  Yet if you are enlightened enough on that point, you should not be naive on how it will impact your own career advancement.  There might be no impact at all.

Wrap Up

The purpose of this piece was to use a bit of personal history to advocate for an enlightened tactical approach to support of teaching and learning on campus (and quite possibly in other areas as well, and maybe the same message applies to other large institutions).  Motion is important, more important than most people acknowledge.  Gridlock demoralizes terribly and becomes the recurrent expectation.  To cut past that things must get done.  But Illinois is a very decentralized place and to expect things to get done in a top down manner is for administrators to kid themselves.  The Traffic Helicopter Theory offers a way to make progress.  It is not perfect.  But it can work.

Another possibility would be to have fewer obstacles by having fewer rules and mandates - the deregulation approach, so to speak.  In considering this alternative I'd ask whether the rules make sense to govern ordinary function.  There can be bad regulation, which should be gotten rid of, here measured by how the rules do in regulating ordinary function.  (Here I'm talking about campus imposed rules as presented, for example, in the Campus Administrative Manual.  Those are the rules that are within scope to possibly be changed or eliminated.)  If the rules do reasonably well in the ordinary context, however, then they should be preserved, even if they serve as blockage of innovative activity.  This is an argument for rules plus the Traffic Helicopter Theory rather than for no rules and Laissez-faire.  That's what makes sense to me in the academic environment, if not more broadly as well.