Friday, September 30, 2016

When do you do cost-benefit and when do you do social obligation?

An answer to the question in my title is meant as a guide to individual decision making, in the world of work and really in all of life.  I wonder if my friends and colleagues can unpack their own decision making apparatus enough to offer up an answer of their own.  It's probably easier to first look at some obvious decisions that are in one category or the other.  Regarding how fast to drive, for me that is determined solely by cost-benefit and I believe most people do likewise.  When a friend is in trouble, you lend a hand.  That is determined purely by social obligation.  That part is pretty easy.  The real question is where the boundary lies between the two.  Determining that is much harder.

My students need an answer to this question, one that is not pure expedient, but also one they can embrace so that when the situation arises they have an inner compass that guides them.  In the little I see of their behavior, too much is driven by cost-benefit.  And in much of that they are myopic, even in regard to their own welfare.  Some of this is immaturity.  And some of this is rudeness, which they may not perceive as such.  Another part is a sense that they are in some kind of Darwinian struggle, so anything goes as long as they are advancing their own agendas.  Most of my students are juniors and seniors and in their early 20s.  By this age their attitudes on these things have somewhat hardened.  It would be good to get at this question earlier, when the students are first on campus.  How to do that is something to consider.  As of late I've been on a kick to encourage the freshman seminar.  Providing a real answer to the question in the title gives one rationale for such an approach.

Ten years ago the CIC Learning Technology Group held a conference at the University of Minnesota, where the featured speaker was Thomas Reeves.  He gave a talk about the Conative Domain, which I thought interesting and challenging.  He subsequently gave a similar talk at the ELI national conference.  The slides for that are available online and are interesting to consider.  Below is a screen shot of slide 38.

The part of this I find most interesting is that ethics is in the conative domain, not the affective domain.  In any event, the bulk of Reeves' talk argues that we have ignored the conative domain in education for quite a long time and we need to restore its importance.

A starting point would be to have a working answer to the question in the title of this post.  For me, I know that inner compass works so that only rarely do I encounter a situation that calls for me to think through an answer to this question.  Mainly the answer presents itself immediately without any deliberation whatsoever.  Once in a while I ask myself how I got this way or if it was always there, even in early childhood.  I wish I knew.   It is evidently not in everyone.    What type of education might bring that about?  I wish I knew the answer to that one as well.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Enrollment Puzzles

A colleague mentioned that we had more students on campus this year than last so it occurred to me to go to the DMI Web site and look at the data.  The very first link on the page is to another page on Student Enrollment data.   There is a lot of information there.  Unfortunately, in my view, the information is clustered by semester so it is not immediate how to make longitudinal comparisons.

So I downloaded some of the more recent information and put that into one spreadsheet.  These give the last four fall semester enrollments (including fall 2016) sorted by class level.  If you stare at this a bit there are some interesting things to observe.

First, my friend was right, overall enrollments have been drifting up.  Second, focusing just on undergraduate enrollment, enrollments rise with class level, lowest with Freshmen and highest with Seniors.  Third, if students advance one status level per year, the Freshmen in one year would be Sophomores the next year, etc. So you can track how an entering class seems to be doing by going up along the diagonal and to the right.  It appears that enrollments for any class rise with class level.

As there surely is some amount of separation from the university - students drop out of college entirely or transfer elsewhere - there must be more students who transfer in and/or students who stay within the same status level for more than one year.  The effect is particularly pronounced for Seniors.  I found the size of the Senior cohort relative to the size of the Freshmen cohort quite surprising.

So what explains these observations.  I'm going to guess a little as to what is going on.  Somewhere around 10 years ago the U of I was under a lot of pressure to accept transfers from within state for students who had graduated from Community College.  This was the so-called 2 + 2 model and was a way for students and their families to keep the cost of college down because Community College tuition is much lower than U of I tuition.  I am sure that with some more digging one could isolate the magnitude of students who enter under the 2 + 2 model as well as to consider the volume of other transfer students.  I, for one, would be interested in knowing how different the composition of undergraduate enrollment is now as compared, for example, to the mid 1990s, when the U of I was still considered a best buy by U.S. News, before the U of I had embraced a high(er) tuition approach. In turn, I'd be interested in what those composition effects do to student life, both in and out of the classroom.  To my knowledge, the matter has gotten little or no discussion.

Something else must be going on to explain why there are so many Seniors, especially since students probably don't transfer in just for their senior year.  Among the possibilities there are: (1) some majors may have substantially increased the requirements, necessitating more time to degree, (2) more students are getting dual degrees and that takes longer to accomplish, (3) students can't get into some required classes that are oversubscribed so have to stay additional semesters to complete those courses, and (4) some students may simply draw out their Senior experience so they make it more than a year even when there is no academic necessity for that.

Another question that arises, looking at these numbers, is what sort of pattern should we want and how should that pattern depend on how much money the U of I gets from the state?  Still another question is about the relationship between tuition revenue and cost of educating the students.  Presumably, large lecture classes entail much lower expenditure per student.  In the old days, when the number of transfer students was comparatively small, the Freshmen and Sophomore classes, many in large lecture format, provided a subsidy for the Junior and Senior classes.  If that subsidy isn't really there now, because those transfer students are taking their Gen Eds elsewhere, does the U of I break even financially on the transfer students?

I, for one, wasn't expecting to find this pattern when looking at the numbers.  (I expected the numbers to be flat across class level.)  So I encourage you to take a look.  You'll find it interesting. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Real Lie-Able Polls

I've concluded that I will no longer answer polls.  Last week somebody from the Democratic Party came and rang our doorbell.  He wanted to know whom I'd be voting for in the Illinois Congressional Elections.  I told him I will be voting but that I don't give out that information.

I am swamped with solicitations for my opinion - on candidates, issues like Citizen's United, my last doctor's visit, a recent purchase at Amazon, you name it.  Why is it that my opinion should be offered up for free?  Will my privacy be respected if I do offer up my opinion?  Or is it likely to be the basis of a slew of future such queries?

No Mas.  In my case, in particular, since I do write a lot in this blog and that is out there, if you want to know what I think, read what I have written.  Otherwise, tough gazeebees on you.

I have no way of knowing whether I am alone in this or if there are many others who have reached the same conclusion.  If the latter is correct and if those of us who are tuning out to pollsters are otherwise not uniformly distributed among the rest of the population, then the pollsters themselves have a problem.  Good.   The way polling is done now is way too much beauty pageant and not nearly enough getting at why people hold the views that they do.   At best it is measuring how people have been conditioned by the various media they have been exposed to.  It thereby becomes an accomplice to such conditioning.

We need something better. 

Friday, September 16, 2016

Fracture - When the gap between instructor expectations and student performance becomes too great.

Last year I really struggled with my class - I could hardly get any discussion going at all.  This year, in a different room where we can move the furniture around some, I've been able to make some headway on discussion by having the students sit in an approximate horseshoe, with each student able to see the face of every other student.  Class topography does matter some, though it is not the be all and end all that instructional design folks might hope it is.

This modest success notwithstanding, if anything my class is performing worse than it did last year.  One indicator is attendance, which has ranged from poor to abysmal.  Yesterday there were 13 students -12 for the first half hour and then another entered the classroom as our in class experiment was winding up.  There are 31 students registered for the class.  We've never had anything close to full attendance and now we've finished the fourth week of class (8 class sessions).  Though I don't formally track this, because the class is comparatively small, I do a count on most days before class starts.  I believe the highest attendance has been 19 students.  There may be some students who have never come or who have shown up only once.

If attendance is some measure of student commitment, doing the online homework is another.  At present there are 26 students with blogs linked to the class site.  (There are weekly blog posts due as a regular part of the homework.)  Last week all but one of those students wrote a post, though some other students submitted pieces below the required minimum (600 words).  There is also Excel homework, which is auto graded and which students are to do till they get all questions right.  There were 27 submissions of that homework, with many of those submissions near the deadline and a few afterwards.

The upshot is that if you look at student commitment by these rather coarse measures, there are different layers.  A handful of students are on the roster but otherwise not really in the class.  There are then some who seem to think they can do the course as if it were taught totally online and ignore the face to face class session.  This group actually bothers me more than the first, since I emphasize and teach collegiality as the basis of productivity in organizations  (Akerlof's model of labor markets as partial gift exchange) and you have to walk the walk to learn this lesson.  These students are definitely not getting it.

Then there is the group of students who regularly do come to class and get the course work done on time.  Relative to their peers, these students are to be commended for their efforts.  It's this group I want to focus on next.

Yesterday in class we did an experiment on bargaining, one of my own design, to test an important principle articulated in the textbook called the Efficiency Principle.  The principle states that small groups will come to an allocation decision that is efficient for the group.  (Here efficient means in an economic sense.)  The students had just completed an Excel homework on efficiency, which demonstrates what those concepts mean in a partial equilibrium (supply and demand) and a general equilibrium (Edgeworth box) setup.  In intermediate microeconomics, which students take before taking my course, they learn that perfectly competitive markets tend to produce efficient outcomes.  In that sense my course is an interesting extension, taking up the issue in the small numbers situation where individuals do have some bargaining power.

In the experiment students were paired, one buyer and one seller, and they were to trade perhaps several units of some good at prices that they'd negotiate to.  The experiment was to test whether they'd find the efficient volume of trade or if as a result of the bargaining some trades would go unexploited.

The experiment largely failed, however, for reasons I didn't anticipate at all ahead of time.  The students made decisions that were economically irrational.  If in order to make a good decision the student would have had to perform some calculation which itself had some degree of difficulty, then you could chalk up the irrationality to cognitive error.  We know that people make mistakes and sometimes in a systematic way.  For example, see this discussion of the bat and ball problem.  But in my experiment, students could eyeball whether their decision was rational or not and I specifically had them write down the price they negotiated to, so it wasn't all kept in their heads.

This failure really bothered me, so I performed an analysis of the results, wrote that up, and published it on the class site.  A snip of the writeup is below and if you care to look at the results themselves you can see those here.  Of the 6 pairs who did the experiment, one pair did demonstrate rationality.  The other 5 did not.  They made trades that lessened the group surplus including several instances where one party lost while the other party netted zero, and one instance where both parties lost.

My mental model of an earnest student who has something on the ball can't be reconciled with this sort of result.  It is hard to understand why students who are not earnest would keep coming to  class, but given the earlier discussion about layering of student commitment, perhaps there is still layering among those who do show up.  The other possibility is that the students don't have enough on the ball and then make mistakes as a consequence, mistakes that I would hope no rational person would make.

On this latter one, I have been scratching my head for much of the day about the following.  Many of these students will end up working somewhere in the financial services industry.  It's the sort of career they aspire to.  Would I trust one of these kids to manage my IRA if the kid demonstrated irrationality in this experiment while giving it his all in the process? 

I do believe that my job is to teach students where they are rather than at some hypothetical where they should be.  But my value add to them does require getting over some bar.  If they otherwise do get over the bar, it is my job to adjust to them accordingly.   If too many don't get over the bar, what then?   For now I've come to the tentative conclusion to take a hiatus from teaching after this semester concludes.

There is no joy in Mudville and it's not just because it looks like the Yankees won't be making the playoffs this year. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

On The Line

Sometimes odd detail captures my attention and offers up what I think maybe is a puzzle, though it is not one to anyone else.  This post will illustrate.   I watched a good deal of tennis on TV last week.  I saw both of the Williams sisters matches when losing to Karolina Pliskova, who is a very gangly player but also a very effective server.  I also saw the women's final where Pliskova lost to
Angelique Kerber.  And I watched the men's final between Stan Wawrinka, the eventual winner, and Novak Djokovic, the number one rated men's player.

In this post I will focus on the use of a 'challenge' by a player to question the ruling by a lines person or by the umpire that was unfavorable to the player.  Each player gets a quota of challenges per set, I believe there are 3 of those.  If the challenge goes against the player, that challenge has been used up.  If the player is right, the player gets to keep the challenge.  Near the end of the set a player might use a challenge simply to get a bit of a breather, knowing that the challenge will be lost.  The set is near conclusion and getting the breather is a good tactical move.  Earlier in the set, challenges are a scarce commodity so they are hoarded unless the player feels an injustice has been done.  Then the challenge is used to right a seeming wrong.

Unlike in pro football where humans arbitrate the challenge based on the video replay, in pro tennis the challenge is entirely technology mediated, by a system called Hawk-Eye.  For the fan watching the match on TV, or on the big screen at the stadium, Hawk-Eye shades in a bit of the tennis court, presumably where the ball touched.  If the shaded area overlaps the line, the ball is called in.  Otherwise, the ball is called out.  Hawk-Eye has the last word on the matter.  The announcers treat that last word as if it is infallible.  Here I'm wondering if such deference is warranted.

In particular, both during the semifinal match between Serena Williams and Karolina Pliskova as well as during the final between Pliskova and Kerber, Chris Evert, a truly great player in her day and now one of the announcers who called these matches, consistently saw balls as out that Pliskova would challenge and that Hawk-Eye would confirm were in, sometimes by only a sliver.  Chris Evert talked about her failing eyesight.  She's older than I am, but by less than 1 month.  I can identify with this sense that our skills are deteriorating but that our judgments are still basically sound.  So how can it be that Chris Evert and Hawk-Eye were in such discord?  And what is it that Hawk-Eye actually does to determine that gray shaded area that marks the court? 

There seem to me to be two issues that are related but distinct to consider.  The first is the duration in which the ball is in contact with the court.  The second is the part of the surface area of the ball that is in contact with the court during this time interval.  Mis-measurement of either of these can be a source of error.

And here is the fundamental problem, both for Hawk-Eye and for human judgement on the matter.  The view is from above, looking down on the court.  This is not determined by sensors at court level.  So some inference must be made, about when the ball touches the court and how much of the ball touches the court, based on the view from above.  (Hawk-Eye relies on 10 different cameras, but they are all from above.)  In a hypothetical world where there are sensors built into the court that track when the ball touches and how much of the ball touches, the shaded area might be different from what Hawk-Eye produces.

Now we've reached the limits of my knowledge of physics and all else that matters in this domain.  But I wonder if this particular technology is biased in a way that favors Pliskova.  She is known to hit a flat ball (one with less spin) and on her serve, in particular, she gets a different angle than most of the other women players because she is so tall.  Do these things matter?

Human judgment on these matters is marred not just by failed eyesight from old age but by something called parallax, that results because we're looking at this from an angle, not from directly above.   For Pliskova, who is taller, the angle is not quite as severe.  So she may be more accurate in her judgments than other players put into the same situation.  But parallax is still an issue, even for her.  Hawk-Eye relies on some triangulation algorithm from multiple camera views that presumably adjusts for the parallax, which is why it is trusted.

Moving away from the technology and toward the human side of the equation, I'd like it for Chris Evert to perform better in this dimension, as her being a contemporary would give me more of a sense that I can still do it and not screw up, whatever doing it means at the moment.  So here I'm rooting for Chris and against Hawk-Eye.  Who else will take up that cause?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Doing Good Works On Rich People's Dime - The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

I thought this piece, The Facts And Falsehoods Of The Clinton Foundation, interesting and worth reading, if only to show the inherent complexity of the situation.  Rather than take the where-there's-smoke-there-must-be-fire approach, let's think this through from the bottom up to try to understand what's going on.

We should begin with a social issue that most everybody would agree should be addressed, like eradicating malaria in Africa.  We should be able to agree that doing that would be a good thing.  The issue is how to get it done and who pays for that.

In my view of the world, tax rates in the U.S. would be higher and eradication of disease internationally would be one of our goals as part of U.S foreign policy, a goal that would be amply supported with tax revenue.  I'm going to call this the first best solution.  Given our current national politics however, this solution is entirely out of reach, witness the debacle in Congress over funding to fight the Zika virus.  So one would sensibly look for a second best solution, one that can be implemented.

The second best solution would have some NGO act to coordinate efforts and get funding in line to accomplish the job.  In effect, this NGO is acting as a substitute for government.  It gets revenue to do these good works via charitable contributions rather than via taxation.  So part of the NGO's job is fundraising.  The other part is directing those monies to do the good works.

This is where it begins to get interesting.  How exactly does fundraising work?  Why do the people who give make their donations?  What are their expectations?

Now a bit of an aside to consider the little I know about fundraising in the university setting, where the bulk of the giving comes from wealthy alumni and other wealthy friends of the university.  Anybody who knows what Deans do is aware that they spend an inordinate amount of time on the road schmoozing the high rollers.  The high rollers clearly expect access to campus leadership.  That seems like a minimal requirement for giving.  Do they expect other things as well?  In other words, do they expect to be able to micromanage university function in some ways as a consequence of their gifts?  That is the charge about corporatist higher education as offered up, for example in the book, University, Inc.   How does a dean who tries to be ethical but also knows that job performance is measured in part by success in fundraising balance these dual objectives?

And now another aside, this time a quote from an episode of The West Wing, In God We Trust.

Sen. Arnold Vinick: If you can't drink their booze, take their money and then vote against them, then you're in the wrong business.

It's a good line.  It seems to strike the right balance.  I will point out, however, that if it were common knowledge that this is the behavior then, in the language of economics, this is not an equilibrium.  If you are going to vote against them, why should they be giving you the money?  For this to be an equilibrium, they have to be fuzzy on how you will vote and be uncertain about whether their money will influence your vote or not.  With the fuzziness and the uncertainty, then something like this is possible.  But then we need to ask, how does the fuzziness and uncertainty get maintained?

Now I want to change the perspective and envision an outsider looking in, first one who does not have a political agenda, but is merely trying to understand what is going on.  For this it helps to put on the table the most egregious type of unethical behavior possible embodied, for example, in the persona of Rod Blagojevich and his use of pay to play and influence peddling.   Can the outsider distinguish between an Arnie Vinick approach and the Rod Blagojevich alternative?  How hard is it to do that?  If it is not so easy to distinguish the two doesn't that provide ammunition for those who do have a political agenda to assert there is corruption going on here?

Finally, let's get at the question of whether it would be better for there not to be this NGO so as to avoid any appearance of corruption whatsoever.  Instead what we'd have is a bunch of foundations operating largely independently, each trying to do good works but in a far less coordinated way.  In my view, this is third best, but it does remove any appearance of corruption from the equation as these independent foundations are formed largely by the bequests of the founders, so they need not do further fundraising themselves.

One question then is whether forgoing the coordination work of the NGO is too high a price to pay to avoid the appearance of corruption.   If the NGO does operate, another question is whether there is much evidence that corruption actually occurred.  These are the issues to consider when reading the Benjamin Wallace-Wells piece linked to at the top of this essay.  People seem to want easy answers when considering these issues.  If you buy the analysis I've given, there aren't any easy answers.  The evidence that Wallace-Wells presents suggests there really wasn't corruption, but that many rich donors got played some.  That's quite close to the Arnie Vinick approach, though many readers might still find it unsettling.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Excel for Course Management - Tips and Tricks

It occurred to me as I was setting up my own course grade book that every instructor needs to do something of this sort but that there is probably no training on those things that would make life much easier.  Way back when we were contemplating first going to an enterprise learning management system, winter 2003, I had the thought that if we could give large class instructors various spreadsheet tools that we designed, then they could use that for the grade book and simply use the lms to import csv files with the grades and then render them in a way students could use.  What I discovered then is that knowledge of Excel for this practical purpose was much more limited than I had expected, particularly in disciplines that otherwise would not use Excel and this wasn't just true for humanities courses but was also true even in the STEM disciplines, such as Chemistry.  I doubt things have changed that much since.  And now I am aware that many instructional designers don't have this knowledge either, as it really has nothing to do with pedagogy, so where would they learn it?

I thought I'd share a few things that might help the typical instructor, and perhaps with that start a thread about what other things people would like to know in this regard.

Let me begin with a movie that I made this morning about going from NetID to Email Address and then going in the other direction as well.  The idea is to process a string of these in one fell swoop, using built in Excel functions for this purpose.  What the video demonstrates is the right set of functions and the correct syntax to use.  For somebody who already knows Excel, this is all pretty trivial.  For those who don't, they might find it remarkable how easy it is to do this sort of thing.

This next one is about making a smart histogram based on the data, better than what the LMS will produce, so for example to show students how the class did on a particular exam.   You must download the Excel workbook from the link to use it.  Then in column A you paste in the scores, starting with cell A1.  At present it is set up to accommodate as many as 1000 scores.  If the instructor wants more than that, the spreadsheet formulas can be edited to do so.  Note that the spreadsheet is password protected but the password is blank, so it is easy to unprotect.   The other information that the instructor types in is the Column Heading, which is put into cell I1, and the maximum possible score, which goes into cell I7.  Everything else is then generated from that information.  The instructor can then take a screen shot of the graph and post that in the class Web site.  There is no need to post the actual Excel file.

This next Excel Workbook is about computing a Smart Sum, for example from a set of n scores delete the bottom m scores and then sum the remaining n - m scores.  Many instructors want to use this sort of grading scheme, but probably have to do some manipulations to generate the result.  Here the spreadsheet does all the work.  The instructor simply has to insert the data and voila.

The last one is useful for considering survey data, where each record is in its own row and the survey has multiple questions, with answers to questions in different columns. It is called Choosing a Row of Data and is used to elevate an individual's response to the survey and then insert that information elsewhere for it to be used in some way.  The real action in that workbook occurs inn the middle worksheet called formulas.  Though the spin button goes from 1 to 1000, the thing is set up to handle a maximum of 50 rows of data at present.  Though the process by which it could be extended to more rows should be evident.  On the data worksheet, only the first 9 rows have responses to the paragraph question, but it is enough to illustrate how the thing works.  The last worksheet shows how the response renders within the form.

It seems to me that a Library of these type of items should be shared globally and that the various units that support online learning on the respective campuses serve as custodians of that Library, so as new uses get requested and somebody produces a way to address that use, the solution then can be broadly distributed and others can learn about the availability of that particular Excel module.  I don't want that Library management function to be my responsibility, but I probably would find it interesting to design additional spreadsheets that can do other things.