Not much to say at the moment except that this post goes via Fargo 2.

Reading Ecologies and Information Architecture

I caught Andy Fitzgerald’s last post titled Architecting the Connected World this morning. He writes:

Here (the model of down-scrolling) we can see different modes at play. The trackpad isn’t strictly symbolic, nor is it iconic. Its relationship to the action it accomplishes is inferred by our embodied understanding of the physical world. This is signification in the indexical mode.

“Embodied understanding” is the language I’ve been looking for in the context of thinking across or against digital and analogue objects. Translation: reading a NYT article in a database vs the paper NYT vs the digital NYT. Fitzgerald’s analysis has to have something to do with how teachers approach research and reading with their students. Objects can be out of their original context. Sure, a rattle snake in a boot is still dangerous. But the serpent is “out of context.”

I’ve always thought scrolling was a bad idea. Such a text is fundamentally different than a page turn or swipe text. As the scrolling habit has evolved, I’ve begun to rethink how reading on the screen and scrolling through hidden abundance just adds to more hidden abundance. The prior paragraphs slide out of field. There’s only so much one can see in the traversal, and then there’s the swipe. In Tinderbox, the writer can side-by-side the draft. He or she can write against the scroll.

It’s a different leverage to craft.

Part-Time Teaching and Mentorship

I’m doing certain work at the college which has brought back certain issues about part-time teaching. There are many numbers. 70% part-time to the other full-time, tenure track. I don’t know what to think about the veracity of the ratio, but I’d venture it’s pretty close. When we have courses to run to meet enrollment or offerings, we have a limited number of full-time faculty to fill all the sections. When a full-time person retires in our system, the slot will not typically be filled by a sparkling new tenure-track hire. The slot will be plugged by a couple of adjunct faculty.

Adjunct, a corrosive term, means a non-essential add-on. The above scenario, however, doesn’t really mean “non-essential.” It points to a trend toward cost saving, which some people would claim is “essential.” In this case another term might be used: “contingent.”

We could get a whole bunch of smart people together and reengineer the college or university to run only on contracted faculty. No tenure track, no full-time teaching, just a lot of people running into the office with their signed contracts and hoping to land the same slot next semester or next year. One extreme result of this type of “college” might be “fun with sabotage,” where in order to complicated a competitor’s end-of-semester review, I simply make their computer difficult to use, the equivalent of removing a wire to just one spark plug.

I doubt this would be such a standout place.

The solution to our present mess is to go on a hiring spree. One argument against this is that money is insufficient in local, state and national budgets for education. This is diversionary non-sense. The money may be going to the wrong place. Then there’s the throw money at the problem argument, but then we have to rush to identify the problem. That rush will drive us into the murky dungeons of politics and economics. Is there light in those tunnels? For example, do tax incentives to draw investment in a state really work? Throwing money may be easier than a football.

Once the spree is over, elevating colleges and universities to sustainable ratios of teaching and learning, we can get down to the real business of reframing part-time teaching into what it should be: providing experience to people who will be seeking either full-time work at colleges or research institutions or other areas of the living sector. Mentorship, in other words. There’s a lot more to say about that approach than I have time for at the moment.

Teachers need places to park and think about what they’re doing. Places to sit with students and colleagues. Part-time faculty have great difficulty vesting in the institutions where they’re often lucky to find a course or two. Part-time faculty worry too much about staying healthy because they typically don’t possess the benefits that come with tenured positions.

Our current neglect is unsustainable and unethical.

There are a couple of notable benefits: growing full-time staffs will enlarge the pool of good-paying jobs (Samsung will sell more TVs), thereby encouraging investment in institutions and curriculum (TVs or no TVs). Enlarging staffs will improve the development of skill in both faculty and students and will encourage innovation. Full-time faculty are on campus most of the day. They’re parked and can listen and take part in what needs doing. Finally, institutional ethics has been seriously harmed. We’ve treat people poorly. Enlarging staffs is just the right thing to do and that includes supportive, professional staff.

So, my call is this: go on a hiring spree.

The Year of the Neglected Subordination in Politics

It’s probably going to be the year of “if you like your current insurance you can keep your current insurance. Period. End of story.” The story line is already broadcasting.

This is why I can’t go into politics because what I would say is: “Yes, I said it, now go fuck yourself.”

In one instance, in Green Bay, the president said this: “No matter how we reform health care, I intend to keep this promise:  If you like your doctor, you’ll be able to keep your doctor; if you like your health care plan, you’ll be able to keep your health care plan.” Here’s a link to other instances.

The president made a blunder because this is an incomplete thought. The subordinating conjunction problem in politics  should be a famous war between the devil and its details. In other words, President Obama should have said, “You can keep your insurance unless it doesn’t meet the new specs because there are new specs which I’ve listed ad nauseum.” The conjunction problem comes with the existence of Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus, who represents “foresight.”  Sometimes it’s impossible to know the political consequences when many people are aware of unarticulated but obvious facts. For example, many people after 2011 knew that certain insurance products would not meet the “new specs” and would therefore be illegal. But agents, like insurance companies, and members of Congress, and the President, neglected to provide a photo of the devil to their customers.

Now, here’s why the statement is not a lie. Everyone knew that the ACA would prohibit price gouging. There were insurance plans priced higher for women than for men. Logically, if a person likes being gouged and the law prevents this gouging, then regardless of whether one likes being gouged, one cannot keep the plan that gouges them, and certainly a company can’t offer the gouging plan as legal. Here’s another way Obama could have said what he knew at the time: “If you like your compliant plan, you can keep it.” But that wouldn’t be accurate either because an insurance company, I’m sure, might have numerous compliant plans and simply not offer them for renewal.

The president’s statement is like defining pornography. Most people knew what he meant because they read between the thick strokes. But the quotes make for good fun, I suppose. His statement is a broad assurance for the majority yet inaccurate and a blunder.

It should be noted that there are many corollaries. Let’s say you like your car but you like your car precisely because it doesn’t have seat belts. You will hear many people say: “You can drive whatever car you want in this country.” You know what they mean.

So, if I were a politician I would not make stuff up to defend against the “keep it if you like it” generalization. I would say: “Yeah, I said it, but you can’t drive a car with seat belts made out of toilet paper.”

Inequality, Unemployment, and Making Things

I’m not an economist, but it’s unfortunate that Rand Ghayad posted a link  on his blog to his policy brief called “A Decomposition of Shifts of the Beveridge Curve.” It’s also unfortunate that the paper might have been read by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who wrote an article called “Taxpayers, jobless Hurt by Extended Aid” for the Kentucky website. The reason I say it’s unfortunate that Ghayad posted the link is because it lead to his having to write an article at The Atlantic called “… No Reason to Cut Unemployment Benefits.”

Paul writes:

In fact, it’s worse than that. According to a study by Rand Ghayad and William Dickens for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, employers will choose a less-skilled worker who has been unemployed for two months over a worker with more skills who has been unemployed for two years.

So yes, extending unemployment benefits to two years does a disservice to the unemployed. I want to be clear: No one is blaming the worker. Economists are simply looking at the facts that motivate employers.

Ghayad writes:

So why does he want to end unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for 6 months or longer? Well, Paul cites my work on long-term unemployment as a justification—which surprised me, because it implies the opposite of what he says it does.

Now, we clearly have a long-term unemployment problem. The question is why. Paul says it’s all about incentives. He thinks extending unemployment benefits does a “disservice” to the unemployed by encouraging them to stay unemployed for too long. And as a “big-hearted” member of a party that cares about the jobless, he wants to protect them from making such mistakes—by cutting their benefits, of course.

In my view, cutting benefits when it’s pretty well known that people are getting tired of looking for work that isn’t there should be construed as cold blooded. In Paul’s piece there seems to be a striving imperative of getting the policy right. Maybe that’s true, but just because one policy might be good for people doesn’t mean that we should dash the ones that immediately assist.

Some economics scholars argue that leaner government is better. The austerity story. Others argue we need much much more stimulus to make up for the loss of demand in our current “free market.” Here’s a round-up of some the context of the debate on the issue. If the Obama administration is going to do something, I’ve argued in the past for making and fixing things, like rails, bridges, schools, and crashing the world with new energy sources and solutions. We need to do this Yesterday. If I own a pizza shop and more and more people are unemployed with no income at all, I’m eventually going to have to close up shop. If only 20% of people in the country can afford my product, I’m losing the potential other 80%.

Paul writes:

As a nation, though, there is more to be considered. The biggest consideration should be our $17.3 trillion debt. Should we continue to borrow from China to pay for unemployment benefits? Currently, unemployment benefits are paid for by employer taxes for 26 weeks — anything beyond that is borrowed money.

One reason that the above bugs me is that it implies several good reasons why unemployment benefits should be cut (I can’t actually think of any, though I could fabricate something). One: China; two: the debt; three: the research supports it. Ghayad strips the last one. And I don’t see how the first two are connected to the problem at all.

Computer Savvy vs Gadget Savvy and other Booleans

Anecdotally, since the 80s, I’ve seen a rapid rise of general computer savvy in students and am now seeing a decline in computer savvy with a corresponding rise in gadget savvy students, though I’m not quite sure if that’s what I mean since I’m not really sure what computer savvy or gadget savvy actually means, in any meaningful sense.

Let me see if I can parse this out. By computer savvy I mean a general comfort and “comfort in the” interest in the workings of the machine, which I would attribute to newness or greenness of the object (not a general interest with its next iteration when that “its” becomes an annoyance). Has anyone cared about the next iteration of the stove?  In the nineties we were excited about computers for all kinds of reasons. Telephony gadgets were things you feared being clubbed with. The Walkman wasn’t a digital gadget but it was the iPhone of the 80s. In the 90s, students were still using typewriters. Before the ’00s, computers, I would argue, were “exploratory.”

I don’t think this is true for most college students these days. Computers are things people just have. I don’t see a lot of students “exploring” the possibilities. In the recent years, I’ve observed platform cliches (people still argue Redmond vs Cupertino and now vs Mountain View)  but the chatter’s all old hash and you can hear the hinges creaking.

Still, things are changing fast and I don’t really know what to expect when I say, “Send it to me through email.” Not a lot of  “savvy” that maybe one doc might not work if sent through mode of transfer. The proliferation of “types” is driving me crazy. I cringe when a student sends me something with the extension .pages, and wonder when I get one that says .odt (hm, I know when someone’s using open source but isn’t worrying about the information contained in the dialogue or context box dropdowns). In other words, thinking about “what one sends” matters. But what people hear when I say “through email” is “okay, my doc is the same as yours, so, I’ll send my .pages doc or ‘whatever I’m saving.'” But I wonder if people are thinking about the object they’re actually saving. One way of thinking about this is the “personal cloud”: drag it to my public file, but then I have to worry about what’s being dragged in.

I have students who text during class. They have their phone on the desk and periodically tap a message out. And then get one back. It’s amusing to think about this activity. It doesn’t get me anywhere to judge the behavior, but it is curious to think about what sort of compulsivity to which this points. I tell students we need those things to look up information. When you want to evaluate data it’s good to have the real numbers from the CDC or the FBI. Computing devices, wifi enabled, are fantastic for that.

Which finally gets me to the reason why I started this post: the recent news about the NSA and the iPhone, about which I’m holding a certain amount of skepticism. I need someone to tell me how this actually works. And thus the problem: how does one search for a piece of software on the iPhone or the iPad. How does one know, and manipulate, specifically, “all” the software on their gadget?

This story, true or false, tells me something about the relationship people have had with computers and the technical relationship they’ve developed with the iPhone.  This is the “decline of the computer savvy” narrative. My conclusion or observations here may, of course, be true or false.

Must Reads for Americans: When the Bizarre becomes Logical

After more reports on NSA and tech, these concerning Apple, I decided to include the recent ruling by Judge Pauley in the morning’s reading. I think the ruling should be required reading for Americans. The prior link goes to what appears to be a photocopy of the tezt, which is just about as bad as a pdf for cutting and pasting. One of the significant issues at the heart of the ACLU’s case is the fact that they’re Verizon customers and that the NSA has access therefore to their workflow and communications. We learn this under the Claims section on page 12. The next section has to do with whether or not the ACLU has standing to sue. The government is claiming that the ACLU doesn’t have that status, which is a good move because Verizon has a lot of customers (see page 24), potentially making for a pretty bad-ass class action. I’m a Verizon customer, also, and I also use lots of keywords that might flag me on this blog and in my Twitter stream.

The court argues, using an Amnesty International case wherein Amnesty failed to “concretely” prove “imminent” injury, that the ACLU does have standing to sue because the NSA had indeed captured its data. That’s about all the love the ACLU is going to get  from the Judge, though (and I’m not quite sure after reading the whole thing that he thinks they do have standing). Most of the reporting on the ruling goes to a question of constitutionality. But my reading of the ruling is that the thinking here is much more complicated. Consider this snippet:

Read in harmony, the Stored Communications Act does not limit the Government’s ability to obtain information from communications providers under section 215 because section 215 orders are functionally equivalent to grand jury subpoenas. Section 215 authorizes the Government to seek records that may be obtained with a grand jury subpoena, such as telephony metadata under the Stored Communications Act.

The Section 215 question here is significant. That’s the part of the Patriot Act that requires, say, the FBI to prove that it needs certain info to pursue a case, and that’s where the FISA court comes into the picture. But the distinction for the court is that it’s not the FBI doing the collecting. That activity is limited only to the NSA. (See page 33). I think Judge Pauley is at his best when he explains why bulk collection can be done by the NSA. He argues that “all phone call metadata” is a class of things the FBI might require as “relevant” in an investigation and that to prohibit the collection of this class of things would  “require the Government to determine wrongdoing before issuing a subpoena–but that determination is the primary purpose of a subpoena” (34). And that’s followed by this: “And in the context of a counterterrorism investigation, that after-the-attack determination would be too late.” And, “Here, there is no way for the Government to know which particle of telephony metadata will lead to useful counterterrorism information.”

Then comes the typical Katz case argument about the “presumption of privacy” issue. But I don’t intent to minimize Pauley’s arguments in this regard because he goes into some pretty good analysis against the ACLU on their privacy assertions and their assertions about “sweep” and “bulk.”

But now to the point. This ruling should be read in full and not just by lawyers. There’s more in it than I can go after at the moment. However, reading the ruling leaves me with a bad taste in the mouth, and I think that Pauley is incorrect. Everyone can understand that keeping information from “the enemy” is critical. If the Red Team coach knows the Blue Team’s plays, then there’s no real game to be played, and if the NSA or CIA broadcasted its moves, whatever group or individual who intended harm would alter their strategy, as any criminal would. But it seems to me the judge is writing in the bizarre context or world where a “war on terror” has been unleashed, and outside this context or world–this new “war condition”–his arguments wouldn’t be required. So the real question is, is any of this stuff legal, not just one program or several by the NSA? If the Patriot Act works inside the context of a “war on terror,” then maybe it’s the “war on terror” that’s the problem here.

I did a little reading on the controversial 215 section. Such language is about as bizarre as it gets, so many safeguards, so many “presumed” safeguards that the law of the falling dominoes would seem to be realized. It’s terrifying language, a house made of a million toothpicks. Why, because it sets up a massive “begging the question” argument: it’s constitutional because it’s constitutional, like claiming that something is legal by virtue of it being on the books, and by the way we just need to do it.

For Pauley, we’re caught between a piece of steel and an anvil. But he sets up his own and our problem with all this, the balance between liberty and security.  He writes, first quoting from Boumediene, “‘Liberty and security can be reconciled; and in our system they are reconciled within the framework of the law.’ The success of one helps protect the other. Like the 9/11 Commission observed: The choice between liberty and security is a false one, as nothing is more apt to imperil civil liberties that the success of a terrorist attack on American soil” (52). That’s a pretty big generalization and amounts to telling people what they should fear most. Rising sea levels will also do a number on civil liberties. This language could only be written in the cloud of the “war on terror” paradigm. And that’s what scares me the most about our current NSA mess.

How to Write a RSA Press Release and Other Sidetracks

It’s that time for the habit of the semester roundup and some thinking about what I’ve learned. But first a bit about how news stories tend to follow a path that might look like a mole’s tunnel. Not sure why. This goes to the NSA and the more recent issues with RSA, what we might call the “back door” story or the “purposeful vulnerability” story or the “How did this happen in the first place” story. Here’s what I mean about the mole’s tunnel. Tomorrow the story will turned nuanced. The stories will become the “well, it was sort of the back window not really a back door” or “vulnerability but with invulnerable characteristics just to make sure it still worked” or “well it just sorta happened by chance and we feel awful about it, and that you can believe, and this finger I’m wagging at your face proves it” stories. And so forth.

I’m reading this Guardian article at the moment titled “Security Company RSA Denies Knowingly Installing  NSA ‘back door.'” And then the subtitle, which acts as a thinner mustache: “Denial follows allegations that pioneering company made NSA algorithm its default in return for payment” (italics mine).  If the Guardian is accurately representing the verbs here, then I’m reminded of how I used language like this as a kid to slap accusations away. “Okay, sure I ate all the peanuts, but I didn’t know they were the last ones.” “Okay, I broke the plate, but I swear I didn’t know that I would drop it and didn’t think that the water on my hands would be so slippery.” It’s the “I didn’t know I was doing it” excuse that always works because it appeals to both an epistemological bias and a prevalent but often suppressed ability in people to trust in facts and discernible evidence. Since we really can’t know that RSA hadn’t known that they were actually doing something even though they were doing it goes to the question, “Hey, did you know you were just now talking to yourself?”

But it gets even sillier. Here’s the first paragraph of the article: “The security company RSA has denied that it knowingly weakened the encryption it used in its products as part of a secret contract with the US’s National Security Agency.” There’s little congruence between the title and this first paragraph: “knowingly installing” and knowingly weakening.” Indeed, the first paragraph is much better. It gives that nuance we all so love. Now RSA denies “it knowingly weakened the encryption …” Think about that. I’ve tried to tighten things up, tidy things, or make something thinner, but I’ve never actually verbed any of that “unknowingly.” I intended to make my bed. I’ve even tried to write some encryption myself. Consider this fiction:

He cracked his knuckles but before he could start, Larry said, “Put a J there in that as an extra expression.”

He said, “Duh, okay.”

Larry said to himself, “Ha, ha. He doesn’t know that that  J will open the back door. He He.”

Not only did RSA not “knowingly weaken the encryption” but they deny doing it knowingly AND as a “secret contract” with the NSA. In the first paragraph, the “as part of a” elbow acts like a conjunction in an unwritten compound sentence. We deny “knowingly doing something” AND we deny “knowingly doing something as part of a secret contract.” As every good obfuscator knows, ANDs make for future denials. Consider this part where Charles Arthur quotes from a RSA blog post

RSA initially declined to respond to the reports. But in a blogpost on its site posted Sunday, the company now says: “Recent press coverage has asserted that RSA entered into a ‘secret contract’ with the NSA to incorporate a known flawed random number generator into its BSAFE encryption libraries. We categorically deny this allegation.”

In terms of the  AND theory of obfuscation, this is grandiloquence. We “deny that we entered into a secret contract to incorporate a known flawed [something]”  Very good writing, I would say. The reporters one flaw here is the use of the word “now says” which would imply a change of heart or alteration.

In all seriousness, knowing what people did or what they were thinking is always hard. Of course it is. I would submit that the solution is pretty simple and it goes according to the deux ex machina formulation in storytelling. Some powerful person or force, maybe the American president, tells the NSA: “That’s it, stop storing Ersinghaus’s data.” Believe me it ain’t all that interesting.

Driving in the snow

When I was much younger, we’d take the cars out in the (rare) snow or heavy rain (not rare) in El Paso, Texas.

To test things.

Did the same tonight for the new tires in Connecticut. Nice. Very very cold. A few inches of the white powder. No donuts.

Is Code Really Poetry?

In the “wrapper class” of the WordPress.org footer element someone wrote this: <h6>Code is Poetry</h6>. If the reader asks the browser “what is h6 in html” he or she might stumble on the w3schools explanation, which goes: “<h1> defines the most important heading. <h6> defines the least important heading.”  In the study of literature and language or rhetoric, we call this relationship irony. In this case, I would argue that the subtlety of the footer claim–Code is Poetry is a Fact Claim, but it’s also a Metaphor (it doesn’t say Code is kinda sorta like Poetry, which would be a Simile)–is an example of visual irony in relation to h1 and h6. Because while h6 is supposed to be a less kind a sorta header, on the WordPress website, if one bothers to scroll down to the footer, that “Code is Poetry” argument is pretty prominent. So, it must mean something.

I would argue, however, that WordPress in the future should reconsider the Metaphor as in a few years the casual scroller of its website might not know what it means or implies. It implies that someone thought about it. Someone was at a meeting and suddenly had a thought and said, “Hey, you know, we ought’a put Code is Poetry in the footer, man.” The boss, maybe Matt Mullenweg, responded, “That’s a fantastic idea. I know exactly what that metaphor’s all about.” Mullenweg was a PoliSci major in school. He also played the  sax in high school. He also likes music, you know all that useless stuff. I read all this at the Wikipedia page on Mullenweg. I made up the quotes.

Before the reader wonders at all this nonsense, the above paragraphs were generated by Faith Middleton’s interview and talk with Gina Barreca regarding the latter’s article in the Hartford Courant titled Humanities are at the Heart of a Real Education. As an aside, the title of the article is enclosed in h1 tags. The heart of Barreca’s piece goes to the current and all the past battles over what higher education in the United States should be doing, and, in addition, what constitutes an educated person. Hard or soft, Chemistry or Poetry, Math or English. Employment, unemployment. I hinted at this in an early post on the issue of programmers. The title to that one goes: “Do We Need More Coders”? My answer is an emphatic No and Yes.

Here’s another way of putting the problem. Are Universities and Colleges places where people should be trained or are they places where people should be educated? Barreca writes:

Administrators who market (their verb, not mine) education as a passport to success instead of defining it as pathway to knowledge are, essentially, advocating for the training of workers rather than for the education of citizens.

There are three terms that need defining here: “education,” “knowledge,” and “training.”

In a recent class I provided this metaphor to the students: You have a factory. You’re provided materials sufficient only to manufacture a Pinto. So you make a Pinto. Out comes the Pinto. The Board of Regents of the State of Connecticut observe this and say, with astonished dismay, “Where’s the cadillac?”

It’s not the most precise metaphor. Students are not Pintos. And I don’t like relating schooling to factories. That’s not the point.

Some of the students in class were Poets enough to grasp the figures of speech here. Most, however, had to no idea what “Pinto” meant.

Writ large, the Humanities is about significant stories. The story of women, the story of men, the story of horrors, the stories of success. What we did; what we didn’t do; what wasn’t said; what was known and unknown. It’s about the things we do to ourselves and why. Stories can be lost and forgotten.

To those students who hadn’t a clue about the Pinto, I told the story. They chewed on it for a while. They learned a little bit about the power of metaphor and that maybe paying for expectation might make sense in the long run.

On Change, Horses, and Water

For some reason I find this Fast Company article on Sebastian Thrun fascinating.

Here’s where I got really excited, regarding Thrun’s Stats 101 course and the relationship between the quality of the course and whether or not it would be successful:

Only it wasn’t: For all of his efforts, Statistics 101 students were not any more engaged than any of Udacity’s other students. “Nothing we had done had changed the drop-off curve,” Thrun acknowledges.

Here’s some context for the above quote that has nothing to do with online education, Udacity, or Smartboards. The good teachers I know mostly consider themselves failures. A particular semester will end and the dejected class of faculty will go back to the drawing board, rehearsing their future plays, and adding to the perennial checklist of things to alter for next time. At the beginning of the semester, the syllabus was newly minted with additional directions, already. Other content was added to stave off that unforeseen and persistent, naggly question. “It’s right there on the syllabus,” a teacher will say. “I’ll clarify further.” Done, as summer work. The links were refreshed. The Calendar was shined to perfection. And so the semester ends with half the students gone and pretty much the same ratio of grades puncturing the brains of the bewildered.

I had a conversation just the other day with a seasoned Psychology prof ready to go at the online course with a mouse pointer sharpened by “student success foreshadowing.” She paused. She said, “Yeah, we do this every semester.” But still, that video showing students how to find the directions for the assignment could always be made a little clearer.

Teachers worry a lot about students, learning, assessment, and curriculum. But they also know that revisions come with unforeseen consequences. This is something that novice faculty learn over time. We will always seek better learning and better clarity. That’s the nature of the ecosystem. Every course will tell a story and some courses can themselves be a story. Maybe the final exam is the climax. First we’ll do this, then this, then that, and by the time we get to Oedipus the student will have this, that, and the other thing to work with for improved analysis and interpretation of our despairing protagonist.

I pretty much have the curriculum nailed for my Comp II course. But it still doesn’t work right. There’s still a part of the story that’s missing. I’ll hunt it down next break and rewrite the syllabus.

But in all seriousness, the theme that appears to be missing in the story of Professor Thrun, at least as far as FC tells it, is that “students” are human beings. Human beings experience the world in the private space of their minds. Most of the time, I don’t know what my students know, and I’m just as much a solipsism to them as they are to me. Most of the time motivation, technique, expertise, and the relationship between effort and evidence are a mystery. There’s that old trick of the greenhorn writer  who scribes a query thusly: “This is the best damned story every” and so on. Here’s a hypothetical: we’ve had lots of geniuses over time who have walked the planet, shod and unshod. We could hire this superteam to construct the “killer app” of online or on-ground courses. The result will be the same, and this is where statistics get us into trouble. The students who grasp and demonstrate will grasp and demonstrate. Those who do not grasp and demonstrate, or, more importantly, do not demonstrate and either grasp or don’t grasp will grasp and demonstrate OR not. (Hm, that was tough to formulate.)

In my view, statistics are problematic in determining the success or failure of a college course, whether it smells of chalk dust or is warmed by binary code. Chafkin quotes Thrun here in regards to the “painful moment”:

As Thrun was being praised by Friedman, and pretty much everyone else, for having attracted a stunning number of students–1.6 million to date–he was obsessing over a data point that was rarely mentioned in the breathless accounts about the power of new forms of free online education: the shockingly low number of students who actually finish the classes, which is fewer than 10%. Not all of those people received a passing grade, either, meaning that for every 100 pupils who enrolled in a free course, something like five actually learned the topic. If this was an education revolution, it was a disturbingly uneven one.

“We were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, and at the same time, I was realizing, we don’t educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product,” Thrun tells me. “It was a painful moment.”

The arithmetic in my head tells me that 10% of 1.6 million is 160,000. Additional math leads to this after the equals sign: 8,000. This means 8,000 people passed whatever courses are a part of the smorgasbord. Is this a problem, given that out all the courses unmentioned in the above quote a million and change people did not eat their vegetables? We don’t know the reasons. We can’t know the reasons. Degrees of interest, access, modes, prerequisites, time, ability, attention, disagreement with technique? I would submit that this has little to do with “lousy” products and more to do with being human. The system I work with to do online ed is, in my estimation, not that great of a product. It’s not a fantastic communication tool, which is what a decent system ought to do best. At heart, any learning system is about getting ideas across and getting ideas back in a context that makes sense. Classrooms simulate that most ancient and persistent of situations: a group gathering to share ideas and maybe learn something in the process. The key here is “maybe.” Then again, why is “coworking” space all the rage these days? Because its pretty basic human stuff.

Here’s a further at heart: a) people cannot be forced to learn (or watch Youtube videos) and b) institutions cannot guarantee learning (no matter the quality of TED talks). See a). That’s why accountability in education will always lead to comedy sketches. And there’s more to doing it than just wanting to. I’m not a great fan of thinking about education in the context of for-profit because of the human quotient. Imagine if I sold tables to customers with a sign that said: this one got a C. My point of view on this is that education is best viewed as a public service that will succeed or fail on the tenacity and mindfulness of students, not chocolate-covered systems that when bitten into reveal their broccoli center (You know, the chocolate covered broccoli syndrome typically associated with education games).

Just to refer back to that first quote I started with. I say, join the club.

I think it’s fascinating that Thun is really bugged by his perceived failure. I would have to conclude that, given this, he’s a good teacher. Teachers who don’t obsess about improvement and who think they can actually teach well should find another line of work.

 

What College/University Transfer Should Mean

Given the implications of the content of this CT Mirror article, it would be interesting to consider what “transfer should mean.” It’s a good question to ask: how many courses from one institution should transfer to another institution in the higher ed “ecosystem” without compromising the authority of a degree granting institution?

Assuming scenarios. A student might take several courses at a university, then transfer those courses to a community college, such as Tunxis Community College, where I teach. That same student might accumulate a pretty good sized number of credits or hours. How many of these should the ending institution accept as accumulations toward, say, a degree in English or Biology.

The question assumes a paradigm. The model is: what constitutes a degree. It’s rare that universities differ all that much in their amounts and curriculum. Is Biology different in Kansas than anywhere else, assuming a graduate might go off and work somewhere in Washington State? All degree-granting institutions should have the freedom to determine the authority of their degrees within the construct of the larger discipline. So, claiming this or that number is the correct amount is both arbitrary and coherent.

My message to students is typically this: if you take a writing course and this course transfers to Yale, then consider yourself at Yale. That makes sense to me.

Do We Need More Coders?

John Dankoski did a fine show today on coding skills in relation to children, with some brief relational context built from healthcare.gov issues (well, you know, maybe those old systems should be rebuilt). One idea that could have been developed has to do with curriculum. There were two driving questions in the broadcast: do we need more children learning coding (get em into Alice) and do we need more coders (grab some javascript skills). These are two separate questions. Another question is this: should school curriculum include machine logic and engineering in the bag? I think that’s the more significant question.

The reason it’s a significant question is because of the way people think about the purpose of an education. There’s a lot of talk today about S(Science)T(Technology)E(Engineering)M(Math) as a sort of new space-race for the future. But the acronym should be this: STEMH. Doesn’t make for a very good sound, but that H is for the Humanities. Okay, call it STHEM. Let’s say math is difficult. So is writing good poetry.

Let’s say we want to make something really complicated:

this.poem with an argument in the function generatePoem(poem) and eventually we’ll be sorting through an array.

One of the things we need to know is why something can be complicated. I don’t mean complicated in terms of thinking about why an activity might be difficult, like working through limits in calculus. Sometimes complication has to do with thinking about what we “might want” to do. The might adds complexity. For the above javascript we might want to make preexisting data available to the array. We might want to add an argument to the function: genre, for example. How?

The question could be: do we need more poets who can understand the complexities of machine code? BUT ALSO, do we need more coders who can understand human language? Those are good questions too.

June 10

Today I’ll be working on more fiction questions for the online course I’m teaching this summer. I’m using the required Blackboard Learn system. Options for assessment are much improved, but the design and management issues are still pretty crude.
Also some touch ups in the kitchen.

I don’t know, I think it’s a question of trust. Or its diminishment. The past exists in memory, artifacts, and, of course, Facebook data. Demos can’t exist constitutionally without trust in the contract.

June 10

Today I’ll be working on more fiction questions for the online course I’m teaching this summer. I’m using the required Blackboard Learn system. Options for assessment are much improved, but the design and management issues are still pretty crude.
Also some touch ups in the kitchen.