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Thursday, March 29, 2012

Milo and the Rhinoceros, part 2

In a previous column I wrote about a conversation I had with Milo, my six year old grandson.  I asked him if he had learned anything interesting in school lately and he told he me that he had been learning about how the rhinoceros is an endangered species.  We discussed that a bit and my reaction was to teach him that one person’s endangered species was someone else’s food. So when I visited him later on, we ate kangaroo, elk, wild boar, rabbit and pigeon (not all on the same day.) He loved them all.
I visited him again earlier this week and he handed me a piece of paper. It was a letter to parents jointly written by the kids in his class, asking for a donation to the “save the rhinoceros fund.” He had addressed his letter to me (and as an afterthought it seems, he included his mother as well.) I asked him why he was asking me for money for the rhinoceros, and he said it was because we had discussed it. 
I am, of course against indoctrination in school of any kind. I can think of a lot more important social problems to be concerned about than dying rhinoceroses. But this was “science” you see, and not social studies.
I may be morally opposed to indoctrination, but I am profoundly in favor of Milo learning to think hard, so I gave him five dollars to contribute to the fund. (His mother had earlier refused. “That’s my girl.”)
I then added that he could simply keep the five dollars for himself and buy whatever he wanted with it. His eyes lit up. He said he was confused about what to do. I said it was his decision.
Today I learned that he kept the money. 
Another blow against school indoctrination.

Monday, March 19, 2012

R.I.P. Encyclopedia Britanicca; Google to the rescue? Not so fast

Encyclopedia Britanicca (EB) announced last week that there would be no more printed versions of the Encyclopedia. The company also announced that they still were in business, presumably meaning the web site they are putting out.
In this column, I usually rant and rave about some education silliness or other that I have just encountered, so, readers may be wondering why I care about the demise of EB. 
In 1990 or so, I was asked to be on the editorial board of EB, presumably to bring some fresh ideas to a board whose average age at the time was over 80. I had just arrived in Chicago (where EB was headquartered) and had opened a new institute about computers and learning, so I guess they thought I might know something that might help them going forward. I was also hired as a personal consultant to the Chairman of the Board of EB. My job was mostly to have dinner with him and discuss the future.
He would ask me at every dinner: “will there be books in ten years?” And, at every dinner I would reply: “yes, but not EB.” (So I was off by a few years.)
Am I sorry that the printed EB has died? Not really. EB represented an ancient concept of knowledge that is the very one that still haunts our school system. The board meetings at EB were something from another century. Scholars discussing what belonged and did not belong in EB. What was important truth and how much space did that truth need devoted to it?
When I suggested that in the future they would not get to be the arbiters of the official truth, they objected. I was told sneeringly that soon “minds less well educated than our own would be in charge.” While I suspect the speaker of these words meant me, he was right. Wikipedia has overtaken EB and while those who write and edit the content of Wikipedia are certainly well meaning, probably things would be better if the people at EB were still in charge of truth.
The problem is that no one can or should be in charge of truth. Truth can be learned from folks wiser than you but you have to know whom to ask and you have to know what to ask.
EB didn’t really answer the questions that actual people have. And while I knew the web would kill EB (even before there was a web) what has replaced EB is Google, and this is a problem. 
There is a program that enables me to see what questions people type into Google that land them at one of my Outrage columns. Here is a list of words (sometimes as questions) typed in the last few days. I assume this is typical of what is typed into Google. Google matches key words so the columns of mine that these questions uncover are quite often totally unrelated to the question the user typed. (What they typed is unedited.):
tell them what you want to tell them tell them tell them what you told them
why must i go to school
school is bad for children
Eassy on why do students cheat?
what should i go to school for
questions measuring academic achievement
byu idaho college stories
essay on why do student cheat on their exam
remember something story
my textbook sucks
what do you want someone to remember about
is schizophrenia taught in schools
john stuart mill view on education
majoring in history
rick santorum education yesterday\
"makes a good college education"
someone telling a story about softball
pat tillman silenced
why education matters
do you think school and prison are alike
good editorial about math
So here is the real issue: People have stuff they  want to know. EB really never answered their actual questions. (Only the John Stuart Mill question above would have been answered in EB.)
So, while the web may have killed EB it is has not done that particularly well. People have questions they want to ask and conversations they want to have. Also, as is clear from ethos question, they need help in even formulating their questions. The web is still not conversational and people are still not well educated but the good news is that many still want to know more. They typically are not trying to know more about what is taught in school, or what was in EB, as is clear from the above questions.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

What is all the fuss about online education? Do those who are designing it understand it?

I have a story I want to tell about online education but first it needs a small preface.
These days I am working on the possibility of building online master’s degree programs with various universities which would be financed by Wall Street.
The reaction to my ideas about online master’s degree programs has changed a great deal in the last ten years. When I offered to do this for Carnegie Mellon (and built quite a few of them) I was asked by the provost if I wanted to put golden arches over the campus. (By which he meant “over a billion served.”) When I said "sure" he said that CMU wanted to preserve its elite brand name and would not offer what I built on line. (They still offer them in one way or another, but usually face to face.) These days I hear they are re-thinking this point of view.
I left CMU and then went to Trump University which said they wanted to build the next online university, but apparently Mr. Trump hadn’t calculated that this would cost actual money to do, so that “university” never went anywhere.
Then I met the folks at La Salle University in Barcelona, which to make a long story short, now offers two online masters that we built for them.
The Spanish economy being what it is, I figured it was time to talk to Wall St. and to talk to universities that would like to offer masters degrees on a worldwide basis, especially if they didn’t have to put up any money to do it. So, we have formed a new company XTOL to do just that, More on that here:
Now to my story. 
The university world has changed. Whereas ten years ago no one cared about on line education, now it seems that everyone does. Because of XTOL, I was visiting a well known university to talk about working with them. At this university, the decision had already been made for faculty to start to meet and discuss how to put their courses on line.
I met with a very reasonable faculty member at this school. I showed him the MBA program we had built for La Salle and it became clear that he realized that his faculty was never going to be able to build that kind of thing.
He wrote to me a few days later after his faculty had met:
“I'm curious to get your take on a statement I heard recently from a faculty member:  "Moreover we still know very little about how students learn in online settings or about what models of online teaching work well for different types of content and student."  Do you think this statement is true?”
I replied that while those of us who had been working in the trenches for the last ten years certainly know the answers to these questions, his faculty would have a good time debating them (and many others) for several more years, before it actually did anything.
What is it about on line education that people don’t understand? As a guide, here are ten things to know about online education, all of which require some explanation:  
  1. Online education has to involve teaching
  2. Online education can and therefore should be part of an actual experience
  3. Online education facilitates learning by doing
  4. Online education should not be the same old course that is now on line
  5. Online education should involved the use of video from experts but that video must be delivered just in time
  6. The subject matter of online education needs to be defined differently than before because the same old university politics are dead
  7. Taking an online course can be a seriously lonely experience
  8. The designers of online course ought not be professors
  9. Online courses need to lead to degrees
  10. Courses are the problem in the first place
So, let’s take them one at a time.
  1. Online education has to involve teaching
What do I mean by this? it is all too simple to take a course and put it on line. It is especially easy if that course is in computer science. In CS students learn to actually do something. So you can give them programs to write and it is easy to check if the program did what they were supposed to do. So this is why we hear such a racket these days about some the CS courses that Stanford is offering. Hundreds of thousand of students -- oh my. But are there say 100,000 teachers for these students? Of course not. 
Here is a review of one of those courses that I found in the Chronicle of Higher Education written by someone who says he is affiliated with the Mathematics Department at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.  

The CS101 class focuses on Python and consists of seven one-week units. We just completed Unit 2, which focused on procedures, if-then statements, and loops. It’s been an interesting experience so far.
The pedagogy of the class is quite sound and well-designed. Each unit so far has consisted of 20-30 short lectures (averaging around 2-3 minutes in length) on YouTube, many of which are followed by quizzes that are either multiple choice (think: clicker questions) or exercises in writing code in an interpreter.  The main body of student work comes from weekly homework sets, which consist primarily of code-writing exercises that are graded by scripts.
Maybe it’s my lack of programming skill, but I’m surprised at how rigorous the course has been. It’s not a cakewalk at all for people who are relative beginners — I’ve seen more than one “farewell” post on the discussion boards from students who just can’t keep up with the pace and are dropping out. The quizzes, although they entail no risk to my grade, have been quite challenging times, as have some of the homework problems. (One problem from Unit 1 — to write a procedure that rounds a number to the nearest integer using only string methods and basic arithmetic — took me multiple sessions to figure out.)
Or, to put this another way, he could have used a good teacher, and like most professors, he knows nothing about sound pedagogy. 
But massive numbers for online means eliminating teachers. Try eliminating teachers in a course where coming up with your own ideas and thinking and explaining is at the root of the subject matter.
  1. Online education can and therefore should be part of an actual experience

What is missing in most, but not all, education, is the lack of actual experiences. Computers offer the possibility of building simulated experiences. This is what makes online education worth doing. It can be a challenge and a real change with respect to what passes for education. It should eliminate lectures, not provide them online. There is really no reason to do online education if we can’t use the new medium to change the old message.
  1. Online education facilitates learning by doing
Scholars from Plato to Dewey have pointed out that we only learn by doing. The fact that universities have for the most part ignored this does not mean they can continue to do so, not in the online world in any case. Computer Science is often taught using learning by doing. Even so, when I built the online CMU courses, which were in Computer Science, many (but not all) of the CMU faculty objected because they wanted to continue to teach by lecturing.  The amount of actual teaching I wanted them to do seemed to them like it would be a lot of work.

  1. Online education should not be the same old course that is now on line
The actual goal ought not be to put courses on line. Courses are the problem in the first place in education. Taking five courses in five different subjects simultaneously fits the lives of faculty just fine since they don’t have to teach much. For students it is a disjointed set of experiences that don’t relate to each other. This model of education needs to be re-thought. Putting degree programs on line makes sense, but those programs should be a series of experiences, each of which builds upon the one before it.
  1. Online education should involved the use of video from experts but that video must be delivered just in time
This means no online lectures. Experts should tell stories just in time to students as they need them. That expert story telling should be in short videos.
  1. The subject matter of online education needs to be defined differently than before because the same old university politics are dead
Students need to take one from column A and one from column B in order to satisfy university degree requirements. Those requirements exists because every faculty member wants his or her specialty to be required so that they will have courses to teach. This concept of requirements by political consensus makes no sense in an online world unless you actually let the faculty of the department design the degree program, in which case you will get the same old stuff, but this time it will be online.
  1. Taking an online course can be a seriously lonely experience
My team and I have been doing this for a long time. We used to build simulations where one person interacted with a computer and nothing else. It is a lonely experience. Now we have students work in teams with mentors. Everyone is happier.
  1. The designers of online course ought not be professors
While professors all think they can design on line courses it really doesn’t work like that. You would have had to have thought seriously about learning, which is typically not the specialty of most professors. They just teach the way they were taught. Also you would have to know something about what you can and cannot easily do on a computer, which is again, why computer science courses are the first courses being put up at Stanford. Without a deep knowledge of learning and computers, faculty members will simply recreate what they have always done. It will be online, and it won’t matter.
  1. Online courses need to lead to degrees
Students want certification. That is why they go to school. Some want to learn but they are in the minority.
I saw this the other day from Cameron Wilson of the ACM:
Just to give you some sense of how the news around the Stanford/MIT online offerings is generating interest, I was at a Senate hearing yesterday on education and the economy:
It wasn't the main thrust of the hearing, but the President of the
Committee for Economic Development raised the discussion around
Stanford and MIT offerings as transformative for higher
education. This sparked clear interest among the Senators when they
heard the scope of students involved in these courses. Senator Enzi
engaged with the witnesses on this issue. It was one of the few new
points during the hearing as most of discussion was focused on the
same sets of education issues that have dominated debates for 30+
It seems the Stanford offerings have confused everyone about educational change. Not too odd they that also confused the U.S. Senate. 

  1. Courses are the problem in the first place
I will make it real simple. As long as we hear that courses are being put on line, no matter how many students have signed up, nothing important is happening. When we hear that whole new degree programs that offer experiences mentored by real teachers are being put on line, it will be time to take notice.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How not to choose a college: don't ask Aunt Rose

When I was 16 my Aunt Rose helped me decide on what college to attend. This was a bit odd since I had no reason to believe that Aunt Rose (who was a substitute teacher in an elementary school) knew anything about colleges. But when she told me that Carnegie Tech was a very good school, I took it seriously.

I chose which schools to apply to by deciding that since I was good at math, I should be a math major and that since I liked real things, I should study math in an engineering school. I got a list of engineering schools and picked a few and applied. I got into them all so I needed to choose one. Aunt Rose cast the deciding vote.

I had visited most of them with my parents the previous summer and was impressed that the computer at Carnegie Tech was very big.

What set me off thinking about this was a sign I passed while in a taxi yesterday in New York. It was billboard for St Joseph’s College, a school I have certainly never heard of, and it advertised that it was the “most affordable top-tier college in Brooklyn and Long Island.”

I didn’t know there were any top tier colleges in Brooklyn or Long Island and have no idea which is the most affordable. But I couldn’t help but think about the unfortunate students who might take this billboard seriously. They would have been better off with Aunt Rose.

What does it mean to be a top tier college I (or a very good school)? What is St Joseph’s in the top tier of? Unfortunately for American students, most people’s answer to that relies on US News and World Report, a magazine that ranks hundreds of colleges on the basis of average SAT scores and average class size and a range of other variables that tell one very little about the quality of the school.

In some sense these rankings do a terrible disservice to the colleges they rank because they make them obsess about the variables tracked by the US News rather than obsessing about real quality. Still they manage to get Harvard and Yale and MIT at the top of the rankings and that probably isn’t all that wrong.

Professors rank schools (not explicitly) by asking if they or their colleagues would rather be there than where they are. There is much agreement amongst them. It is analogous to asking if a minor league baseball player would like to join the Yankees. He would. And similarly, a professor at the University of Illinois would prefer to be at Harvard.  But actually, that might not be true. There are departments at Illinois that are better than their counterparts at Harvard and there are probably plenty of professors there who would not accept an offer at Harvard.

But when it comes to that top tier college called St Joseph’s, not so much. Although I know nothing about this school, it is safe to assume that the entire faculty would leave for Harvard in a New York minute.

Why am I writing all this?

Because when I was 16 I made a major decision in my life with no knowledge, no really useful advice, and I suffered for it. I had no business being a math major. It was not important that I attend an engineering school, and Carnegie Tech was not that great an experience for me. What was good about my decision was that Carnegie Tech had a large and first rate Artificial Intelligence faculty and that that attracted my attention and altered my career choices in a very positive way.

This was all random of course. Apart from having seen a big computer there, I had no idea that this piece of serendipity would matter to me. In other words, I was lucky. Aunt Rose happened to be right, although she didn’t know why, because Carnegie Tech wasn’t a great place to study anthropology or linguistics for example, which became two of my interests.

Advising students that they must go to college, as is the rule these days, and advising them where to go via billboards or their Aunt Rose is simply absurd.

These are important life choices and ranking in a magazine or nonsense about being top-tier should not be deciding factors.

We need to start helping students make sensible choices about whether they should go college at all (my advice, take a few years off after high school, older students do better in college because they know what they want.) And, we need to help them find out who they are, whether college is for them, and what they would do when they get there. Colleges are very bad at helping with this. Changing the high school curriculum to something more diverse that is less about test scores and grades would help a lot in this regard.