Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Voters' Ire Turns Toward Springfield

1/4 of a year with no budget
Why oh why don't they fudge it?
Once the lights go out
The public will shout
Our mood you did misjudge it.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Ack! Countability

The onetime mantra, bring data, has turned into a cult
From which every sane person should now openly revolt.

Expecting to find truth in numbers is an alarming trend.
There are good uses.  But the many bad ones we should end.

When the bulk of performance happens clearly in plain sight
Developing numerical norms of excellence then perhaps is right.

Sportometrics in baseball, for instance, is perfectly fine.
Indeed some thoughtful people consider Bill James near divine.

But when the critical performance piece happens outside our view
Taking seriously the bit we can see is something to eschew.

Rewards based on that measure create all sorts of distortion
As people game the system by this and that contortion. 

Then there is the matter if behind the numbers there is theory
The absence of which brings to question validity of the query.

Yet just because there is a model doesn't mean it's true.
Elevating untested hypotheses as facts tends to the results skew.

People are in a rush to demonstrate just how much they know.
Real learning demands modest claims and that they go quite slow.

Research showing near term impact likely will win grant renewal.
It satisfies the grantor's demand for metrics though is unlikely to produce a jewel.

Did Barrett Browning's counting love create numeracy of the cute?
Or is it that the source of human feeling fundamentally does not compute?

The point I want to bring home is to not always insist on a number.
Far from making us seem smarter, doing so really makes us dumber.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Kindly Old Professor - Mr. Chips 2.0

I'm a fan of Dictionary.com.  I have a bookmark to it in my browser and I use it multiple times each day.  Once in a while, however, it really lets me down.  A few days ago I did a look up of "tsoris," a Yiddish word that I believe should be part of the American lexicon.  Dictionary.com fumbled that ball badly.  A quick Google search produces the desired answer, found at The Free Dictionary. Tsoris means troubles or worries.  Ahead of time I would have said it meant problems.  Everyone has tsoris now and then and sometimes in between as well.  Given its ubiquitous nature, tsoris should be a word that Americans know.

What I'm increasingly coming to realize is that college students have tsoris.  I don't know if that's always been true and that I'm only becoming aware of the fact after a very long time or if it's really a more recent phenomenon.  Thinking back to my own college experience, especially the last two years when I lived on Wyckoff Road in Ithaca, it was a time of joy in a friendly and sheltered environment.  It's true I had no plan for what would happen post graduation at the start of those two years, but I was entirely untroubled by that.  I had good health.  I enjoyed the people I lived with at Wyckoff very much.  And the classes I took were for the most part engaging, and entirely separate world from my living situation.  If you abstract from an instance of unrequited love, I had no tsoris at all then.  Whether that was the norm or an outlier, I really don't know.  I wonder what my contemporaries recollect of their time in college.

When I TA'd at Northwestern, my second year in grad school, my impression was that most of the students who were in my sections were from upper middle class families and lived a comfortable existence.  Many of them dressed up for class (meaning they wore something that cost more than bluejeans and tee shirts).  Their attire would have given me tsoris if I had been in their shoes, but they seemed at home doing that.  The bulk of these students were White and I gathered mainly from the Midwest.  I do recall one Black student whom I would see in the Library, seemingly all the time.  Isolated from his classmates, he may have struggled.  But he seemed to be coping with it, admirably so.

My first two years at Illinois I taught typical undergraduates in the fall semester in intermediate microeconomics.  They didn't dress up like the Northwestern kids.  Sweats and baseball caps, while not quite the uniform, were pretty popular.  Otherwise these kids seemed pretty much like the NU kids.  Many of them were Business students.  (There was no undergraduate Business major at NU.  The Econ major was a proxy for that.)  I recall in my second year I got fed up with one particularly obnoxious accounting student and gave him a bit of a hard time in class.  That student surely was from a wealthy suburb of Chicago.  A while later another student, who was from down state, told me how much he liked that I gave grief to the accounting student.  I may not have thought about it that way then, but the down state kids, particularly those from the smaller and less well funded high schools, probably had tsoris about keeping up with the kids from the Chicago burbs.  I'd say the inner city kids probably had tsoris too except that I don't remember teaching them, though perhaps I had a few.  This could just be a hole in my memory; after all we're talking about 35 years ago.

I've come to realize since that you can be quite materially advantaged yet have tsoris.  Most of the administrators I know on campus are in this category.  They are well paid.  But they have worries....lots of them.  Yet I'm still not sure whether those business students in my intermediate micro classes back in 1980 and 1981 had tsoris.  In my way of thinking, if you have tsoris then you are pretty aware.  My sense of those students is that they were pretty insulated.  I've written before about their provincialism.

Nowadays I only have one or two Business students in my class.  The bulk of my students are in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and are Econ majors.  Many seem to have tsoris that is already evident to me.  I'm guessing that many others also have tsoris; they just hide it better.

* * * * *

I bear little similarity to the fictitious character that Robert Donat played in the movies.  Far from being an enjoyable form of recreation, for me hiking in the mountains would be an excruciating experience, one bordering on torture.  I'm not sure when was the last time I wore a cap and gown, but maybe it was graduation from junior high school.  I don't recall whether I went to high school graduation and I'm quite sure I haven't worn a cap and gown since.  The point is that I'm not big on ceremony at all, though I did dutifully go to the graduation ceremonies for my own kids.  I'd have been perfectly delighted, however, if that part of the celebration were omitted.  Circumstance is fine, but I can do without the pomp.

Nevertheless, I find myself falling into the kindly old professor role and to my own surprise there is a good deal of enjoyment in that. Here's a little background as to why.

Of course I have my own tsoris, some of which is a matter of aging and experiencing the senior moments and health issues that go along with that.  I am mentally slower than I used to be.  There is no doubt on that score.  I also have less energy, both mentally and physically.

The last time I went in for a physical I told the doc that I've got all these currently minor problems (for example, a hernia in my belly button) and I really don't know whether I should ignore them till they get much worse or try to be proactive about them and do something now.  I ended up being proactive about joint pain in the knees and got a steroid injection for it.  The treatment made me so hyper I couldn't sleep for three days.  The pain did go away but only for about a week.  I concluded I didn't want more treatment like that.  So now I'm in ignore it as best I can mode.  Ironically, that seems to have moved my mindset closer in attitude to my students.

There is also some angst from looking back at my academic career.  (If I were asked to distinguish angst from tsoris, I'd say with tsoris you still have your sense of humor, the troubles notwithstanding.)   I have performed better as a pinch hitter than as a starter.  It is a painful realization.  This goes back to grad school when I wrote my first paper with Leon Moses.  The topic was Leon's idea.  I was there to beef up the math modeling, nothing more.  It happened again when I took over from Burks Oakley in running SCALE.  Burks had gotten the grant and set up the structure for SCALE.  My job was mainly to keep it running smoothly.  And it also happened at the Learning Technology Leadership Program, where Kathy Christoph asked me to substitute for an ailing faculty member who was unable to serve.

In this role of pinch hitter, the task to be done was already set.  I might tweak it a wee bit, but the structure was in place already and the focus would be to perform the job well.  There is nothing wrong with being a pinch hitter.  It is clearly a necessary function.  But it doesn't capture one's imagination.  When I was a kid I pretended that I'd be the next Mickey Mantle.  That was the fantasy.  Not once did I pretend that I'd be the next Phil Linz.

When I do cast myself as the star of the team I typically come up short.  A case in point is given in my recent Inside Higher Ed piece.  My goal at the outset for the students in the discussion group was to get them to be more creative about their learning in their other classes.  Had I been successful at that, it would have really been something.  But I failed.  Perhaps there was no chance at success from the get go.  Or perhaps our discussions were too little too late in their academic careers.  In any event, it seems I often aim high but then don't get there.  It is pretty much the same with my teaching.  (More on teaching in a bit.)

Being kind to a student with tsoris is a reactive thing.  You are not preventing the problem from cropping up to begin with.  You are dealing with the problem in some manner after the fact.  And here I'm talking about small acts only, something that usually can be addressed in a single face to face meeting, often in only 10 or 15 minutes.  It's not a big deal and afterward when the student says, thank you, the correct response is, think nothing of it.

As a teacher my own personal metric of success is to see evidence of intellectual growth in the student.  Once in a while that happens....maybe.  Perhaps it never does and thinking otherwise is merely self-delusion.  The Campus Strategic Plan has as its second goal to provide transformative learning experiences for students.  The teacher, envisioning himself in the Mickey Mantle role, expects to hit a home run and thereby produce such transformation in his students by himself.  When it doesn't happen it cuts deeply into his idealism.

Recently there seem to have been several pieces like this one, about youngish faculty members who are leaving higher education because of this sort of disillusionment.  I believe I understand that sort of thinking and if I were in my mid 30s I might do likewise.  Indeed, I've considered the possibility of in the future not teaching the one course a year I currently do teach.  Some of the students can be infuriating, with their lack of commitment to their studies and the games they play to get through unscathed grade-wise.  I've had about enough of that.  But then there are the kids with tsoris who indicate that to me and let me help them.  That matters.  Perhaps it matters a lot, even if it doesn't match my preconception of what my role as teacher should be.

* * * * *

There are two bits to the Mr. Chips 2.0 in my title.  You think of the kindly old professor as something of a commonplace at a small private college.  It doesn't quite fit in with the image of a large public university, particularly nowadays where many of the instructors undergraduate students see in their classes are adjuncts and where especially in the high enrollment classes where there are rules that seemingly govern everything and then the student is expected to deal with any problem that may arise by himself or herself.

Indeed, much of the tsoris is a consequence of the institution seeming to be too big.  Perhaps there is somebody on campus who can address their problems, but the students don't know how to find that somebody.  It may be that in the past they tried to address some other problems they had, only to find that they were running around in circles.  Armed with that sort of prior experience, they develop an attitude that nobody cares about them.  The act of kindness then comes as a pleasant surprise.  We learn more when we are surprised.  Perhaps the students learn that decency can happen.  Maybe they can demonstrate they've mastered the lesson by themselves being kind to another student or a friend or family member who could use the help.  I really don't know if this happens or not.  I hope so.

One thing that makes me optimistic about this is something I learned at mentor training for I-Promise students.  There was such a training session earlier in the week. Susan Gershenfeld told the group something that she has also said in previous training sessions that I've attended.  Mentors tend to think that what they do doesn't matter.  Mentees, in contrast, think the mentoring helps them enormously.  This difference in perspective is something to bear in mind.

I also want to point out something I learned many years ago from reading Peter Senge's The Fifth Discipline.  Causes are not always proximate to effects.  Sometimes there may be quite long lags between the two.  Just because the instructor offers up a lesson doesn't mean the student is ready to embrace the lesson then and there.  It may take quite a while for the lesson to sink in.  The instructor may no longer be around when that happens.  But that doesn't mean it never occurred.

The other bit about Mr. Chips 2.0 is that some of it happens online.  Rumors to the contrary, at least some students still do email.  These students respond, quickly, to email from their instructors.  Kindness can be expressed in writing and delivered online.  Face to face is not necessary all the time.  Depending on the situation, sometimes email is better than face to face.  Surely it is quicker.

And sometimes a mere expression of concern can matter, with no solution to the problem offered up beyond that.  If you are going to set up a meeting about some issue that a student has, that probably will create an expectation beforehand that the issue can be resolved.  I've got one student now who has a rather serious health problem that forced him to miss class earlier in the semester and potentially could impact his performance later in the term.  There's not one single thing I can do to fix that.  All I can do is assure the student we'll deal with the situation if and when it arises.  That much can be done electronically.

* * * * *

Time abundant retired faculty can afford to be kind to students.  I know many who are and I'm beginning to understand the attractions to them from doing so.  But their absolute numbers are not that great.  So one wonders if those numbers could be buttressed by many other faculty who are in mid career and who therefore are not time abundant at all. If it were possible, then one might ask whether students could experience some of these instructors during their first year on campus.  That's something to keep scratching our heads about.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Will I use Google Apps for Education in my teaching next year?

The campus finally seems positioned to roll out Google Apps for faculty and staff.  I am glad to see it.  The is a very good thing.  Even just the form tool that is associated with the Google Sheets and Google Drive could have a profound effect as it could be used to get early feedback from students.  (For example, see my post on The Grid Question Type.)

However, it is no panacea and I'm wondering if it is too little too late, especially with regard to what I currently do, which makes extensive use of Google tools, but the regular commercial kind.  Below I will illustrate with a variety of issues.

Students don't consistently use their campus email

Many students do use campus email but many other students use a commercial account (often gmail but sometimes something else) and simply forward campus email to the commercial account.  There are probably many reasons why a student would opt for the commercial account but let me list offer only two here that seem obvious to me.

(a)  Students want to use a lifetime email address, one that was good before they became students at the university and one that will be good after they graduate.

(b) Asian students, in particular, often want to use an "American name" on their account rather than the name as it appears in the class roster.  They can do this with a commercial account, but they can't do this with their campus email.

If a good fraction of the students are not using campus email regularly, it is an inconvenience to force them to use it for access to Google Apps.

What about open access to documents?

My preference is to make my files available to anyone on the planet who might be interested in looking at them.  Right now, I use the university's Box.com service for posting PowerPoint, PDF, and Excel files and I've had one reasonably successful experiment posting an audio file in MP4A format.  Ironically, I went to Box.com only after in using the commercial Google Docs (now Google Drive) I found that many students could not access the commercial version when they were logged in with their campus accounts.  So I'm wondering if the reverse is true.  If I used Google Apps for Education would the rest of the world be denied access to these documents?

This is an issue that doesn't seem to be on the radar of anyone else on campus, but it should be.  The campus has an outreach mission.  That mission would be much better served if the campus had a significant OER presence.  At a minimum, it should be that instructors have the option of placing their course documents in and open to the world container.  The LMS already offers a closed container for distributing course documents.

Admittedly, Web documents rather than downloadable files offer an improvement on collaboration possibilities, so Google Drive is attractive for students doing group work.  I don't make heavy reliance on that in my teaching, but other instructors might. My focus here is on the documents the instructor distributes to the class.   Box is a little clunky for this in that it is a multi-step process.  Upload the file, change it's access to allow anyone with the link access, then provide the link in a location where the students can find it.  But it is quite good thereafter and the preview function, particularly for PDF files, is good enough that download isn't necessary much of the time.

Blogger is not part of the Google Apps for Education Suite.

I don't know why Google does this, but my view is that Blogger is much more functional than Google Sites and as I have students blog under a class assigned alias, keeping a blogroll of their most recent posts in the sidebar of the class Web site, the students need access to some blogging software.  Truthfully, they could use the campus blogging service at publish.illinois.edu, which is based on WordPress.  I have tested that enough to know the site owner can adjust the screen name to whatever that person wants.  But if part of the idea of Google Apps for Education is to offer an integrated set to tools, why isn't the blogging tool integrated in as well?

My further experimentation is facilitated by using commercial tools.

While my usage of technology in instruction has settled down a great deal, so this year's class site is functionally quite similar to last year's site, I'm always open to doing things better than I currently do or trying different wrinkles to get at functions I can see would be valuable in my own course.  In the past, for example, I've tried Scribd, Slideshare.net, Archive.org, and other external hosts for content.  I've got a bunch of video content at my ProfArvan YouTube channel.  (Note that each of these hosts readily makes content publicly available.)  In the past, before the YouTube service improved, I used blip.tv for video.  So it seems an obvious proposition that even if a suite of tools is currently very attractive, it need not remain that way for very long.  There is simply no way for the campus to change and upgrade the tools it supports at the same rate that the market does.  I am reluctant to become too reliant on campus tools, just for that reason.

Let me wrap up.

As I was the one leading the campus edtech efforts ten years ago, I know all too well how difficult it is to get all instructors to use campus supported technology.  Many will.  Many others, however, will find it is not for them, for whatever reasons.  When I left CITES to go to the College of Business, I soon learned of a complaint from the MBA students, that their classes were in too many different environments with no obvious advantage (from their perspective) for any one particular environment.  It seemed instructor whim mattered, but at the expense of student convenience.  Partly for that reason and partly because at the time there wasn't enough resource to offer a college specific alternative, we standardized on Illinois Compass.  That created some momentum for standardization and even some of the reluctant faculty came on board eventually.

There was behind this decision some substantial effort put in place to encourage it.  I knew the environment quite well and was able to get my staff up to speed with it and gained them administrative access so they could do trouble shooting when necessary for college faculty.  That faculty would get helpful and friendly support for using the College recommended app but would be more on their own otherwise mattered for their use.  I don't recall a single faculty member at the time whom I would call an innovator with technology and there were only a very small number whom I would describe as early adopters.

Now I find I'm one or the other of those.  Several years ago I did try blogging with Moodle, for example, but didn't like it at all.  I much prefer letting my own taste dictate on these matters.  I know full well that means I must do my own trouble shooting and tech support much of the time.  So be it.

As a retiree, I know that it is unlikely for much of my practice to be embraced by full time faculty, since it is labor intensive and most instructors already have too much on their plates.  But at least what I do is out in the open, so if anyone did care to look they could.  If teaching innovation is to diffuse around campus, the majority adopters need to become aware of the novel practices.  Workshops mainly end up preaching to the choir.  Broader diffusion would be facilitated by having course sites open and then letting social networks do their thing.  That ideal might drive the choice of what the campus supports down the road and/or might eventually get the campus to give its imprimatur to the use of commercial tools that innovative faculty have deployed in an interesting way.  I'm not sure whether Google Apps for Education advances that ideal or if instead it fits into the same old closed container model.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


A quick demo of audio streaming using the campus Box service as the host.  Below the player is a screen shot of the access stats from a different audio stream that I used in my class this past week.  Nice!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Don't Use Generic Names for Specific Instructional Practices

This is a response piece to a new essay in the 7 Things You Should Know series, this one about Personalized Learning.  While I'd like to support the concept in this piece, I had a strong negative reaction to the use of this particular expression as the label for that concept.  I also thought that there are a couple of important underlying issues that should be brought out in the open but are for the moment veiled.  So here I'd like to mention them and argue for their importance. It would be good for that argument to continue and then be carried by others.

The mantra - teach the student not the subject - is surely good and important.  It is something all instructors should aspire to, even if they end up doing it only some of the time.   Smart quiz/homework software is also surely good and I wish it were more important than it currently seems to be.  I got hooked on the idea back when I taught with Mallard and later when I became the executive sponsor of Mallard and saw how other instructors were putting it to very good and interesting use.

More recently I have been promoting the notion of High Touch teaching on campus.  (For example, see this post Everybody Teaches as well as the remaining posts in the Everybody Teaches series.)  By high touch teaching I mean - small classes taught in a seminar style where a significant part of what the instructor does is to respond to students, in speaking or in writing or both ways.

In case it isn't obvious, high touch teaching is personalized.  So are office hours in larger classes, Writing Across the Curriculum courses where the papers students produce are on varied topics and where the instructor provides response to that writing, one-on-one mentoring, and quite possibly many other educational settings.  But these are instances of personalization that don't fit the definition provided in the 7 Things You Should Know essay.  If in general personalization in instruction should be encouraged wherever possible, while being mindful of resource limitations that make it far less than ubiquitous, it does a disservice for the technology mediated kind of customization to the student to appropriate the label that really should attach to the broader of idea of teaching the student.

Now that I've got that one off my chest, let me turn to the issues.  The first is about how the student profile is formed and what information is available for construction of that profile.  When I teach a class at Illinois the student profile gets constructed mainly by the their blog posts, sometimes amplified by additional things the students tell me about themselves in email, or what I may garner from them in person if we have an office hours visit.  The way Illinois interprets FERPA,  I can't see transcript information for the student unless the student releases that to me voluntarily.  So I don't know their grades in other courses or what courses they've taken, how they've done on standardized tests, or any other instructor's opinion of the student.

In the 7 Things You Should Know Essay, the transcript information is available to the software up front so there is a pre-formed profile of the student even before the class has started.  Would an institution like Illinois be willing to take such an approach?  If so under what circumstances?  Does having this up front profile information matter a lot or only a little?  How do we know that?  If it turns out that it does matter a lot, would Illinois consider changing it's interpretation of FERPA to allow instructors access to student transcripts?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions.  I've got a feeling that for the time being the campus is so absorbed with other issues that it would not be fruitful to explore these questions here at present.  But Illinois is not the only public institution that has made a rather restrictive interpretation of FERPA as part of its policies.  So these questions can be posed readily elsewhere, at a place that might be more willing to explore them now.

Let me switch gears again and now consider the pedagogy of math instruction and what smart software is good at as well as where it is of limited use.  While I don't teach math per se, I do use a considerable amount of math in the economic models I do teach and I design interactive Excel worksheets that embody many of the principles smart software should have as a homework tool.  What I say next is based on my experience.

The software is excellent at being judgmental/non-judgmental.  It lets the student know if he or she is right or wrong, but doesn't make an opinion about the student in the process.  The students like this... a lot. So this sort of software engages the students and likely encourages time on task.  It then helps get the student familiar with the material and proficient in manipulations that must be done to produce answers.  All of this is good and necessary.

My experience, however, suggests that students can know the manipulations quite well but can't explain why a particular manipulation works, nor why that is the appropriate manipulation to do when confronting a particular problem, nor what the process is which generates the result.  Any one of these things requires producing some narrative to tell what is going on.  Students can become aces at manipulation but remain incompetent at producing explanations in the form of narrative.

It is my view that real understanding of the math requires competence in both dimensions, manipulation and producing narrative.  Software is good for developing proficiency in the former, but not the latter.

There is an obvious argument here that we should have both software mediation and human mediation in learning as well as where each has its comparative advantage.  This is not in the 7 Things You Should Know essay, but many take software mediation and human mediation to be substitutes when they really should be understood as complements.  (I am using these terms as they typically are employed in a course on intermediate microeconomics.)   The lure of the substitutes way of thinking is that it seems to offer a route toward effective instruction at very low incremental cost (the cost to an additional student once the software has been designed).  We really need to get past that sort of thinking and instead talk about building a full understanding of the subject matter in the student, irrespective of the cost.

Anything less than that doesn't cut it.  This is a case where half a loaf  may be better than none, but it is not much better.  We should want the full deal.  That would be much better.

How do you get there for here?  I really don't know.  But if others also started to unpack these sort of underlying assumptions, maybe some folks could begin the search to find an answer - one that works.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Eponym's Impact

Have you ever wondered about how you've been effected
By the given name for you that your parents selected?

With that choice were they trying to shape your life -
Your choice of career, who you'd take for your wife?

It's something that now I'd really like to know.
Did they understand these things from the very get go?

As to this query some of you will look askance
Understanding response to a name will be mainly by chance

For it's the little things that one's name determines most.
That's the take away you should get from reading this post.

Some names begat nicknames ad infinitum
Turning whatever you're doing at the time into an item.

Other names work well with your persona to blend
Then image and name blur and both doth extend.

As for me the urge to rhyme has proven uncanny
A probable consequence of being named Lanny. 

Saturday, September 05, 2015

We need active fiscal policy

If the economy's slow growth causes pains
Let us return to the ghost of Keynes.
With the sluggishness never ending
We need more government spending.
Monetary policy can't do it alone, he doth complains.

Friday, September 04, 2015

It used to be only on Saturdays

Isn't Thursday night football rather crass?
Surely some players will have to miss class.
Is it really impudent
To ask, are they students?
The money machine doesn't tolerate such sass.