Tag Archives: Education

Getting High for Higher Education

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa...

English: A domestic US propaganda poster circa 2000. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Two major problems faced by the United States are the war on drugs and the problems of higher education. I will make an immodest proposal intended to address both problems.

In the case of higher education, one major problem is that the cost of education is exceeding the resources of an ever-growing number of Americans. One reason for this is that the decisions of America’s political and economic elites damaged the economy and contributed to the unrelenting extermination of the middle class. Another reason is a changing view of higher education: it has been cast as a private (rather than public) good and is seen by many of the elites as a realm to exploited for profit. Because of this, funding to public schools has been reduced and funding has been diverted from public schools to costly and ineffective for-profit schools. Yet another reason is that public universities have an ever-expanding administrative burden. Even the darling of academics, STEM, has seen significant cuts in support and public funding.

The war on drugs has imposed a massive cost on the United States. First, there is the cost of the resources devoted to policing citizens, trying them and incarcerating them for drug crimes. Second, there is the cost of the social and personal damage done to individuals and communities. Despite these huge costs, the war on drugs is being lost—mainly because “we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Fortunately, I have a solution to both problems. After speaking with an engineering student about Florida State’s various programs aimed at creating businesses, I heard a piece on NPR about the financial woes of schools and how faculty and staff were being pushed to be fund-raisers for schools. This got be thinking about ways universities could generate funding and I remembered a running joke from years ago. Back when universities started to get into the “businessification” mode, I joked with a running friend (hence a running joke) that we faculty members should become drug lords to fund our research and classes. While I do not think that I should actually become a drug lord, I propose that public universities in Florida (and elsewhere) get into the drug business.

To be specific, Florida should begin by legalizing marijuana and pass a general law allowing recreational drugs that can be shown to be as safe as tobacco and alcohol (that sets the bar nicely low). The main restriction will be that the drugs can only be produced and sold by public universities. All the profits will go directly to the universities, to be used as decided by boards composed of students and faculty.

To implement this plan, faculty and students will be actively involved. Business faculty and students will develop the models, plans and proposals. Design and marketing students and faculty will handle those aspects. Faculty and students in chemistry, biology and medicine will develop the drugs and endeavor to make them safer. Faculty and students in agriculture will see to the growing of the organic crops, starting with marijuana. Engineering students and faculty will develop hydroponics and other technology.

Once the marijuana and other drugs are available, the universities will sell the products to the public with all profits being used to fund the educational and research aspects of the universities. Since the schools are public universities, the drugs will be tax-free—there is no sense in incurring the extra cost of collecting taxes when the money is going to the schools already. Since schools already have brand marketing, this can be easily tied in. For example, Florida State can sell Seminole Gold and Seminole Garnet marijuana, while my own Florida A&M University can have Rattler Green and Rattler Orange.

One practical objection is that the operation might not be profitable. While this is obviously a reasonable concern, the drug trade seems to be massively profitable. Also, by making such drugs legal, the cost of the war on drugs will drop dramatically, thus freeing up resources for education and reducing the harms done to individuals and the community. So, I am not too worried about this.

One health objection is that drugs are unhealthy. The easy reply is that while this is true, we already tolerate very unhealthy products such as tobacco, alcohol, cars and firearms. If these are tolerable, then the drugs sold by the schools (which must be at least as safe as tobacco and alcohol) would also be tolerable. The war on drugs is also very unhealthy for individuals and society—so ending at least part of the war would be good for public health.

One moral objection is that drugs are immoral. There are three easy replies. The first is that the drugs in question are no more immoral than alcohol and tobacco. If these can be morally tolerated, then so can the university drugs. Second, there is the consequentialist argument: if drugs are going to be used anyway by Americans, it is better that the money go to education rather than ending up in the coffers of criminals, gangs, terrorists and the prison-industrial complex. Third, there is also the consequentialist argument that university produced drugs will be safer and of higher quality than drugs produced by drug lords, gangs, terrorists and criminal dealers. Given the good consequences of legalizing university-manufactured drugs, this plan is clearly morally commendable.

Given the above arguments, having universities as legal drug sellers would clearly help solve two of America’s most serious problems: the high cost of education and the higher cost of the ineffective and destructive war on drugs. As my contribution to the brand, I offer the slogan “get high for higher ed.”

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Presidents, Pay & Student Debt

Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State...

Picture of Gordon Gee, president of Ohio State University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since I received my doctorate from the Ohio State University, I usually feel a tiny bit of unjustified pride when I hear that OSU is #1 in some area. However, I recently found out that OSU is #1 in that the school is the most unequal public university in America. The basis for this claim is that between 2010 and 2012 Gordon Gee, the president of OSU, was paid almost $6 million. At the same time, OSU raised tuition and fees to a degree that resulted in student debt increasing 23% more than the national average (which is itself rather bad).

Like many schools, OSU also pursued what I call the A&A Strategy: the majority of those hired by the school were Adjuncts and Administrators. To be specific, OSU hired 498 adjunct instructors and 670 administrators. 45 full-time, permanent faculty were hired.

While adjunct salaries vary, the typical adjunct makes $20,000-25,000 while the average professor makes about $84,000. University presidents make much, much more (the average is $478,896) and the number of presidents making $1 million or more a year is increasing. Such a president would make at least as much as 40 or more adjuncts (teaching 8 or more classes an academic year).

Given that the cost of higher education has increased dramatically, thus resulting in a corresponding increase in student debt, it is well worth considering the cause of this increase and what could be done to reduced costs without reducing the quality of education.

One seemingly obvious approach is to consider whether or not presidents are worth the money spent on them. For the million dollar pay to be fair, the president of a university would need to contribute the equivalent of these 40+ adjuncts in terms of value created. It could, of course, be argued that the public university presidents do just that—they bring in money from other rich people, provide prestige and engage in the politics needed to keep money flowing from the state. If so, a million dollar president is worth 40+ adjuncts. If not, it would seem that either the adjuncts should be paid more or the president paid less (or both) in order to ensure that money is not being wasted—and thus needlessly driving up the cost of education.

At this point, a rather obvious reply is that for big public universities, even a million dollar president is but a tiny part of the overall budget. As such, cutting the presidential salary would not result in a significant saving for the school or the students (assuming savings would be passed on to students). However, something is obviously driving up the cost of education—and it is rather clearly not faculty salary, since the majority of faculty at most public universities is composed of low paid adjuncts.

One major contribution to the increasing costs has been the increase in the size and cost of the administrative aspect of universities. A recent study found that the public universities that have the highest administrative pay spend half as much on scholarships as they do on administration. This creates a scenario in which students go into debt being taught by adjuncts while supporting a large and often well paid administration. This is not surprising given the example of OSU (hiring 543 instructors and 670 administrators).

It is, of course, easy enough to demonize administrators as useless parasites growing fat on the students, adjuncts and taxpayers. However, a university (like any organization) requires administration. Applications need to be processed, equipment needs to be purchased, programs need to be directed, forms from the state need to be completed, and the payroll has to be handled and so on. As such, there is a clear and legitimate need for administrators. However, this does not entail that all the administrators are needed or that all the high salaries are warranted. As such, one potential way to lower the cost of education is to reduce administrative positions and lower salaries. That is, to take a standard approach used in the business model so often beloved by certain administrators.

Since a public university is not a for-profit institution, the reason for the reduction should be to get the costs in line with the legitimate needs, rather than to make a profit. As such, the reductions could be more just (or merciful) than in the for-profit sector.

In terms of reducing personal, the focus should be on determining which positions are actually needed in terms of what they do in terms of advancing the core mission of the university (which should be education). In terms of reducing salary, the focus should be on determining the value generated by the person and the salary should match that. Since administrators seem exceptionally skilled at judging what faculty (especially adjuncts) should be paid, presumably there is a comparable skill for judging what administrators should be paid.

Interestingly enough, a great deal of the administrative work that directly relates to students and education is already handled by faculty. For example, on top of my paid duties as a professor, I have a stack of unpaid administrative duties that are apparently essential for me to do, yet not important enough to properly count as part of my workload. In this I am not unusual. Not surprisingly, many faculty wonder what some administrators actually do, given that so many administrative tasks are handled by faculty and staff. Presumably the extra administrative work done by faculty (usually effectively for free) is already helping schools save money, although perhaps more could be offloaded to faculty for additional savings.

One rather obvious problem is that the people who make the decisions about the administration positions and salaries are typically administrators. While some people are noble and honest enough to report on the true value of their position, self-interest clearly makes an objective assessment problematic. As such, it seems unlikely that the administration would want to act to reduce the administration merely to reduce the cost of education. This is, of course, not impossible—and some administrators would not doubt be quite willing to fire or cut the salaries of other administrators.

Since many state governments have been willing to engage in close management of state universities, one option is for these governments to impose a thorough examination of administrative costs and implement solutions to the high cost of education. Unfortunately, there are sometimes strong political ties between top administrators and the state government and there is the general worry that any cuts will be more political or ill-informed than rationally based.

Despite these challenges, it is clear that the administrative costs need to be addressed head on and that action must be taken—the alternative is ever increasing costs in return for less actual education.

It has also been suggested that the interest rates of student loans be lowered and that more grants be awarded to students. These are both good ideas—those who graduate from college generally have significantly better incomes and end up paying back what they received many times over in taxes and other contributions. However, providing students with more money from the taxpayers does not directly address the cost of education—it shifts it.

Some states, such as my adopted state of Florida, have endeavored to keep costs lower by refusing to increase tuition. While this seems reasonable, one obvious problem is that keeping tuition low without addressing the causes of increased costs does not actually solve the problem—what usually ends up happening is that the university has to cut expenses in response and these cuts tend to be in areas that actually serve the core mission of the university. For example, the university president’s high salary, guaranteed bonuses and perks are not cut—instead faculty are not hired and class sizes are increased. While the tuition does not increase, it does so at the cost of the quality of education. Unless, of course, the guaranteed bonuses of the president are key to education quality.

As such, the primary focus should be on lowering costs in a way that does not sacrifice the quality of education rather than simply lowering costs.

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Performance Based Funding

Florida A&M University from State Capitol, Tal...

As a professor at Florida A&M University, I am rather familiar with performance based funding in higher education. While performance based funding is being considered or applied in numerous states, I will focus on my adopted state of Florida (it is also present in my home state of Maine).

On the face of it, performance based funding can sound like a good idea: state universities are funded based on performance, so that good performance is rewarded and poor performance is not (or punished). As a competitive athlete (though less so with each passing year), I am accustomed to a similar model in running: those who run better at races get rewarded and those who run poorly typically go home with nothing (other than the usual race t-shirt and perhaps some bagel chunks). This model seems fair—at least in sports. Whether or not it is right or sensible to apply it to education funding is another matter.

One obvious point of concern is whether or not the standards used to judge performance are fair and reasonable. In Florida, the main standards include the percentage of graduates who have jobs, the average wages of those graduates, the cost of getting the degree, the graduation rate within six years, the number of students getting STEM degrees (STEM is hot now), and some other factors.

On the face of it, some of these standards are reasonable. After all, a university would seem to be performing well to the degree that the students are graduating after paying a reasonable cost and getting well-paying jobs. This, of course, assumes that a primary function of a university is to create job-fillers for the job creators (and some job creators). In the past, the main factors for determining funding included such things as the size of the student population and what resources would be needed to provide quality education. Universities were also valued because they educated people and prepared people to be citizens of a democratic state. But, now that America appears to be an oligarchy, these values might be obsolete.

Another point of concern is that the competitive system in Florida, like most competitive systems, means that there must be losers. To be specific, Florida has nine state universities competing in regards to performance based funding. The bottom three schools will lose roughly 1% of their funding while the top six will receive more money. This means that no matter how well the nine schools are doing, three of them will always be losers.

This might be seen as reasonable or even good: after all, competition (as noted above) means that there will be winners and losers. This can be seen as a good thing because, it might be argued, the schools will be competing with each other to improve and thus all will get better—even the losers. This, obviously enough, seems to bring a competitive market approach (or Darwinian selection) to education.

The obvious question is whether or not this is a proper approach to higher education. The idea of public universities fighting over limited funding certainly seems harsh—rather like parents making their nine children fight over which six gets extra food and which three will be hungry. Presumably just as responsible parents would not want some of their children to go hungry because they could not beat their siblings, the state should also not want to deprive universities of funding because they could not beat their fellows.

It might be contended that just as children could be expected to battle for food in times of scarcity, universities should do the same. After all, desperate times call for desperate measures and not everyone can thrive. Besides, the competition will make everyone stronger.

It is true that higher education faces a scarcity of funding—in Florida, the past four years under Rick Scott and a Republican legislature have seen a 41% cut in funding. Other states have fared even worse. While some scarcity was due to the economic meltdown inflicted by the financial sector, the scarcity is also due to conscious choice in regards to taxing and spending. So, going with the analogy, the parents have cut the food supply and now want the children to battle to see who gets a larger slice of what is left. Will this battle make the schools stronger?

Given the above, a rather important point of concern is whether or not such performance based funding actually works. That is, does it actually achieve the professed goal of increasing performance?

Since I serve on various relevant committees, I can say that my university is very concerned about this funding and great effort is being made to try to keep the school out of the bottom three. This is the same sort of motivation that the threat of having one’s food cut provides—the motivation of fear. While this sort of scenario might appeal to those who idealize the competitive model of natural selection, one obvious consequence is that the schools that fall into the bottom three will lose money and hence become even less able to compete. To use the food analogy, the children that lose the competition in the first round will have less food and thus be weaker for the next battle and so on. So, while “going hungry” might be said to motivate, being hungry also weakens. So, if the true goal is to weaken the bottom three schools (and perhaps ultimately destroy them), this would work quite well. If the goal is to improve education, things might be rather different.

It might be countered that the performance based funding is justified because, despite my argument, it will work. While academics are often accused of not being “practical” or in “the real world”, we do tend to do a reasonably good at figuring out whether or not something will work. After all, studying things and analyzing them is sort of what we do. In contrast, politicians seem to be more inclined to operate in “realities” of their own ideologies.

David Tandberg of Florida State University and Nicholas W. Hillman of University of Wisconsin-Madison recently published a study assessing the effectiveness of performance based funding. They concluded that performance based funding “more often than not” failed to effect the completion of degrees. Of considerable concern is that when it did have an effect it tended to lower graduation rates. Assuming this study is accurate, performance based funding (at least as implemented) is ineffective at best and likely to actually negatively impact the professed goals.

It should be noted that Florida State University is very safely in the top six schools, so Tandberg is presumably not motivated by worries that FSU will fall to the bottom. The study, can, of course, be challenged on the usual grounds for critically assessing a study—but mere accusations that professors must be biased or that academics are incompetent hold no water.

Since I am a professor at Florida A&M University, I might also be accused of bias here.  FAMU is an HBCU (one of the historically black colleges and universities) and has long had a mission of providing educational opportunities to students who have faced severe disadvantages. While overt racism is largely a thing of the past, FAMU students rather often face serious economic and preparatory challenges (thanks largely to poverty and segregation) that students from other backgrounds do not face. Some of my best students face the serious challenge of balancing part or even full-time work with their academic lives and this can be very challenging indeed. Because of this, students often take longer to graduate than students at other state universities—especially those whose students tend to come from more affluent families. These economic disparities also impact the chances of students getting jobs when they graduate as well as affecting the salary paid in such jobs. Roughly put, the effects of long-standing racism in America still remain and impact my university. While FAMU is working hard to meet the performance standards, we are struggling against factors that do not impact other schools—which means that our performance in regards to these chosen standards might be seen as lacking.

As might be imagined, some will claim that the impact of past racism is a thing of the past and that FAMU should be able to compete just fine against the other schools. This would be ignoring the reality of the situation in America.

Performance based funding of the sort that currently exists fails to achieve its professed goals and is proving harmful to higher education and students. As such, it is a bad idea. Sadly, it is the reality.

 

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Gainful Employment & Education

For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

Since education is rather expensive, it seems reasonable for a student to expect a return on her investment. Given that the taxpayers often contribute to the education of students, it also makes sense that they also receive a return on their investment.

As it now stands, the return on the student’s investment is supposed to be a job that is proportional to the cost of education. Roughly put, a student should be able to reasonably work out of her school debt with the job that education is supposed to get her. In terms of the return on the taxpayer’s investment, the return is similar: the students funded by the taxpayers are supposed to get jobs and repay the investment through the taxes they pay. The student becomes the taxpayer, thus enabling the next generation of students to also become taxpayers.

Because the cost of education is so high these days, it is natural for some folks to place their hopes in the free market. The ideal is that for-profit schools will provide a high quality product (education that leads to a job) at a lower cost than the (supposedly) bloated state and traditional private schools. As might be suspected, the ideal is rather different from the real.

While state schools obviously receive state funds, the for-profit schools receive massive federal support—about $26 billion per year in grants and loans. Unfortunately, this money seems to be ill-spent: 20% of the for-profit school students default on student loans within three years of entering the repayment period. About half of all student loan defaulters went to such for-profit schools, although these schools make up 13% of the student population. The estimate is that about half of the loans funneled through students to the for-profit schools will be lost to default, which is hardly a good investment.

One of the main reasons a student defaults on loans (though not the only one) is financial hardship. As might be imagined, not earning an adequate paycheck is a clear way to end up in such hardship. While there are over 2,000 programs where the students had load debt but who paychecks were not adequate to keep them above the poverty line, 90% of these programs are at for-profit schools. As such, these schools seem to be a bad investment for both taxpayers and students. While public and traditional private schools do account for the other 10% that need to be addressed, they are quite clearly a better investment for taxpayers and students. This is not to say that such schools do not need improvement—but it is to say that the current for-profit model in not the solution.

There have been some attempts, such as those in 2011, to impose regulations aimed at addressing the predatory exploitation of students (and taxpayers) by institutions. Not surprisingly, these were countered by the well paid lobbyists working at the behest of the for-profits.

Interestingly, some states are pushing hard for performance based funding for public institutions. For example, my adopted state of Florida has seen the Republican dominated state legislature engage in what some might regard as micro-managing of education. In any case, we are been transitioned to a performance based model in which funding is linked to achieving goals set by the state. Naturally, for-profit schools are not impacted by this since they are private institutions. As such, the current trajectory seems to be for state schools to be state regulated in accordance with performance measures while the for-profit schools enjoy unfettered access to the federal largesse.

Some might suspect that the performance based funding approach being taken towards public universities and colleges is cover for reducing funding even more. This seems reasonable since one of the main effects has been to cut funding for some state schools (such as my own). It is also the case that the approach is designed to shift funding to schools that have more political influence—which is supported by looking at where the money goes.

It might also be suspected that the performance based funding is also designed to harm public schools and push students towards the for-profit schools. These schools typically enjoy excellent political connections and certainly would benefit from reduced public education opportunities. Of course, the profits of such schools come largely at the expense of students and taxpayers—they are thus well-subsidized by the state in a new twist on the old corporate welfare system.  Shockingly enough, there is little conservative rage at this wasteful socialism and these welfare queens.

 

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Relative Cost of Education

A Plumber at work.

A Plumber at work. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a professor I am aware that the cost of a university education has increased significantly, even adjusting for inflation. I am also well aware that this cost increase is not due to proportional increases in faculty salary. One reason for this is that the salaries of professors, especially those at state school, tend to be compressed. For faculty who have been around a long time, such as myself, the compression can be quite extreme. This is one reason why star faculty move around relentlessly in search of ever larger salaries. Another reason is that universities are relying very heavily on badly paid adjuncts. While the rates vary, a typical adjunct can make about $24,000 over nine months for teaching eight classes. There are generally no benefits at all, so the cost to schools is rather low. Given that such faculty typically have advanced degrees, they are perhaps the worst paid of the best educated.

It is true, as I mentioned, that there are some star faculty—they are the celebrities of academics who can use their status and connections to slide smoothly from one well-paying job to an even better paying job. Such stars also sometimes enjoy exemptions from the mundane duties of faculty, such as teaching. As with any profession, such stars are relatively rare and they are generally not a significant factor in the increased cost of education. As such, blaming the faculty for the higher cost is not, in general, a legitimate complaint.

That said, I do agree that complaining about the cost of education is legitimate: costs have increased significantly while there are increasing doubts about the quality and value of education. However, it is worthwhile to put the cost of education into perspective. Being a professor, I will focus on the educational aspects of the matter.

At a state school like my own Florida A&M University, a student will typically take a class from a person with a terminal degree in her field, usually a doctorate. A standard class is three credit hours, which means that a student is supposed to be in class for two and a half hours per week. My fellows and I typically teach four classes per semester and we are required to hold two hours of office hours per class. We also have various other research, advising and administrative duties. Thanks to email, students can also contact us around the clock—and many faculty, including myself, respond to emails outside of normal hours and on the weekends. We also typically do work for the classes, such as grading, preparing lessons and so on throughout the week and during “vacations.”

While the exact hours will vary, a student at a school like FAMU will have access to a professional with and advanced degree for 2.5 hours in the classroom, have access to 8 hours of office hours, and typically have unlimited email access. Most faculty are also willing to engage with students in their off time—for example, I have stopped while grocery shopping to explain a paper to a student who also happened to be shopping at that time. This is in return for the cost of tuition, only a small fraction of which goes to the professor.

Now, compare this to the cost per hour for other professionals. For example, a psychiatrist might charge between $125-$285 per hour. As another example, a plumber might charge $90 an hour. As a third example, a consultant might charge anywhere from $30 to thousands of dollars an hour. As a fourth example, an attorney might charge hundreds of dollars per hour.

Imagine what it would cost to have a plumber, medical doctor, or attorney spend 2.5 hours a week with you for 16 weeks (divided by the other people, of course), be available an additional eight hours a week, do work for you outside of those hours, respond personally to your emails and so on.  If professors billed like plumbers, lawyers or medical doctors, the cost of school would be insanely high.

It might be replied that plumbers, lawyers and medical doctors perform services that are more valuable than mere professors. After all, a plumber might fix your pipes, a lawyer might get you a nice settlement and a medical doctor might re-attach your quadriceps tendon. A professor merely teaches and surely that has far, far less value. The obvious practical reply is that people with college degrees make considerably more than those without—this would suggest that teaching does provide some value. There is also the obvious fact that plumbers, medical doctors and lawyers need education in order to do what they do—thus showing that education does provide something of value (although plumbers typically do not go to college to become plumbers).

As such, while education is too expensive, the actual cost of paying professors is ridiculously cheap relative to what other comparable professionals cost.

 

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Education & Negativity Bias

StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students recei...

S (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In general, people suffer from a wide range of cognitive biases. One of these is known as negativity bias and it is manifested by the tendency people have to give more weight to the negative than to the positive. For example, people tend to weigh the wrongs done to them more heavily than the good done to them. As another example, people tend to be more swayed by negative political advertisements than by positives ones. This bias can also have an impact on education.

A colleague of mine asks his logic students each semester how many of them are planning on law school. In the past, he had many students. Now, the number is considerably less. Curious about this, he checked and found that logic had switched from being a requirement for pre-law to being a mere recommendation. My colleague noted that it seemed irrational for students who plan on taking the LSAT and becoming lawyers to avoid the logic class, given that the LSAT is largely a logic test and that law school requires skill in logic. He made the point that students often prefer to avoid the useful when it is not required and only grudgingly take what is required. We discussed a bit how this relates to the negativity bias: a student who did not take the logic class when it was required would be punished by being unable to graduate. Now that the class is optional, there is only the positive benefit of a likely improvement on the LSAT and better performance in law school. Since people weigh punishments more than rewards, this behavior makes sense—but is still irrational. Especially since many of the students who skip the logic class will end up spending money taking LSAT preparation classes that will endeavor to spackle over their lack of skills in logic.

I have seen a similar sort of thing in my own classes. At my university, university policy allows us to lower student grades on the basis of a lack of attendance. We are even permitted to fail a student for excessive absences. While attendance is mandatory in my classes, I do not have a special punishment for missing class. Not surprisingly, when the students figure this out around week three or four, attendance plummets and then stabilizes at a low level. Before I used BlackBoard for quizzes, exams and for turning in assignments and papers, attendance would spike back up for days on which something had to be done in class. Since students can do their work via BlackBoard, these spikes are gone. They are, however, replaced by post-exam spikes when students do badly on the exams because they have not been in class. Then attendance slumps again. Interestingly, students often claim that they think the class is interesting and useful. But, since there is no direct and immediate punishment for not attending (just a delayed “punishment” in terms of lower grades and a lack of learning), many students are not motivated to attend class.

Naturally, I do consider the possibility that I am a bad professor who is teaching a subject that students regard as useless or boring. However, my evaluations are consistently good, former students have returned to say good things about me and my classes, and so on. That said, perhaps I am merely deluding myself and being humored. That said, it is easy enough to draw an analogy to exercise: exercise does not provide immediate rewards and there is no immediate punishment for not staying fit—just a loss of benefits. Most people elect to under-exercise or avoid it altogether. This, and similar things, does show that people generally avoid that which is difficult now but yields lasting benefits latter.

I have, of course, considered going to the punishment model for my classes. However, I have resisted this for a variety of reasons. The first is that my personality is such that I am more inclined to want to offer benefits rather than punishments. This seems to be a clear mistake given the general psychology of people. The second is that I believe in free choice: like God, I think people should be free to make bad choices and not be coerced into doing what is right. It has to be a free choice. Naturally, choosing poorly brings its own punishment—albeit later on. The third is the hassle of dealing with attendance: the paper work, having to handle excuses, being lied to regularly and so on. The fourth is the fact that classes are generally better for the good students when the students who do not want to be in class elect to not attend. While I want everyone to learn, I would rather have the people who would prefer not to learn not be in class disrupting the learning of others—college is not the place where the educator should have to spend time dealing with behavioral issues in the classroom. The fifth is I prefer to reduce the amount of lying that students think they have to engage in.

In terms of why I have been considering using the punishment model, there are three reasons. One is that if students are compelled to attend, they might very well inadvertently learn something. The second is that this model is a lesson for what the workplace will be like for most of the students—so habituating them to this (or, rather, keeping the habituation they should have acquired in K-12) would be valuable. After all, they will probably need to endure awful jobs until they retire or die. The third is that perhaps many people lack the discipline to do what they should and they simply must be compelled by punishment—this is, of course, the model put forth by thinkers like Aristotle and Hobbes.

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Monetizing MOOCs

Money

Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Having been a professor for a while, I have learned the obvious: fads come and go in higher education. In some cases, a fad turns out to not be a fad—that is, it lodges in the system and becomes part of it. At this point, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be a fad. Within the academy, administrators and some faculty sing the praises of the MOOCs…at least until one starts asking for specific details. Then the song turns to whistling and a bit of hand waving, followed by a quick departure from the stage. Outside of the academy, MOOCs have also become a subject of buzz—there are those eager to use MOOCs as money siphons and others who delight in throwing around the term at every opportunity—ranging from motivational speeches to training sessions.

While there is a multiplicity of issues relating to MOOCs, one obvious point of concern is how the MOOCs are going to be monetized. That is, how will the MOOC companies make money in order to sustain the MOOCs and, perhaps, make a profit.

One of the biggest and best known MOOCers is EDX. This nonprofit is funded by MIT and Harvard, which puts it in a fairly good position in terms of money. Since EDX is a non-profit, it does not face the burden of generating a profit. Since it is backed by two academic powerhouses with considerable funding, it can rely on them for the cash needed to keep their MOOCs MOOCing. That said, EDX might not be able to rely on the funding indefinitely and even a non-profit needs cash flow to keep it in operation.

Other big MOOCers include the for-profit Coursera and Udacity. Unlike the non-profits MOOCers, they face a dual challenge: 1) having enough cash to stay in operation and 2) making a profit. For profit MOOCers are typically funded by venture capitalists who are gambling that the MOOCs will be MOMMs (Massive Online Money Makers).

One rather obvious challenge of monetizing the MOOCs is the “Open” in “Massive Open Online Courses.” For the most part, “Open” is taken to mean “free.” One obvious problem with a business model based on giving away the sole product for free is that free product does not, in general, result in much income. The obvious solution to the lack of income from being free is to make the product non-free. However, this would require changing how people see the “Open” in “Massive Open Online Courses” or changing “MOOC” to “MOC” (For “Massive Online Courses”).

If MOOCs become online paid classes, then they would need to offer services that people would be willing to pay for and they would need to compete with established alternatives (such as universities). This could be done by providing a better or cheaper product—or, as some for-profit colleges do, massive advertising and perhaps a bit of deceit.

Not surprisingly, the for-profit colleges do provide an excellent look into how to monetize a MOOC. The for-profit colleges have managed to tap into federal money quite effectively: in 2011 25% of all Department of Education financial aid money went to the for-profits. They have also tapped into Pell Grants and veteran’s educational benefits. No doubt the for-profit MOOCers will endeavor to follow the same tactics, only with the MOOC spin on the selling. MOOCers are already hard at work lobbying and have enjoyed considerable success, especially with certain governors. As such, student financial aid seems to be a likely source of money for well-connected MOOCers. Of course, this would just be the same as the for-profit colleges, only with massive classes. This might result in change in education from a small scale operation (in terms of class sizes) to what could be regarded as industrialized education: massive production via automation. Naturally, there are concerns about the quality and value of such massive courses—at least to those who are concerned about education.

MOOCers can also make money by selling their services to existing universities. Based on my own experience and a bit of research, many administrators and politicians are excited about using MOOCs to reduce the cost and increase the availability of public education (and funnel money to the right people). A university might fund MOOCs and allow students to take them for free (which would be the traditional MOOC) or they might offer MOOCs as they would offer an online course of their own—by charging students a fee. This might seem to be an odd approach for a university—like a sign shop hiring someone else to make their signs or McDonalds hiring a catering service to make the food they will sell. After all, universities already have people who create and teach classes, namely professors. Why not have university faculty create and run the MOOCs? The obvious answer is that faculty are often not “the right people” when it comes to who should be receiving the money.

Another approach, borrowed from the freemium games, is to provide the basic product for free and then make money charging people for extras. For example, a student might be able to take a class for free, but have to pay a fee to get a certificate proving that she passed the course. This would require offering courses where the certificate would mean something (or hoping that people will buy them to print to hang on their walls). As another example, the basic course could be free, but students would have to pay for extra tutoring or access to premium course material. Given the success of freemium games, this could be a viable option for the MOOCers—provided they can offer premium options that people will buy in quantities enough to sustain the MOOCer. One point of concern is, of course, that the freemium approach could run counter to one of the “selling” points of MOOCs, namely that they are supposed to open education up to the masses. If people have to shell out for premiums and these premiums are actually important or essential to the course, then the divide between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot will exist in the land of MOOCs—just as it does in traditional higher education. But, perhaps the premium content would still be far less than the cost of traditional education.

Whatever the approach, the MOOCers are going to need to monetize the MOOCs. This might result in the MOOCs ceasing to be MOOCs—that is, becoming just more online for-profit colleges (only with really big courses). Then again, maybe MOOCs will go the way of Friendster rather than becoming the Facebook of education.

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Researchers Discover Backwards Causation Particles

English: Matt Smith at the 2011 Comic Con in S...

Dr. Smith answers questions about F-ons and D-ons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While time travel has long been the stuff of science fiction, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found proof of backwards causation. In the normal course of events, a cause must occur before the effect. In backwards causation, the reverse happens: the cause occurs after the effect.

The head researcher, Dr. Juanita Ocheloco said that hearing anecdotes from fellow faculty members put her on the track that led to the discovery. “At the end of every semester, I would hear stories about students who earned F and D grades experiencing retroactive problems. For example, one student who failed a statistics course lost his grandmother to backwards causation caused by his F grade. Another student who earned a D, was retroactively injured in a car accident. Although he had seemed fine all semester, his D caused him to have an accident two months before the end of the semester.”

At first the researchers considered the obvious hypothesis: students were just making up stories to play on professors’ sympathy and to try to avoid the F and D grades. However, Dr. Albert Ninestein’s research revealed that D and F grades shed D-on (pronounced “Deon”, as in “Deon Sanders”) and F-ons (pronounced “ef-ons”, not to be confused with FU-ons) respectively.

Dr. Ninestein said, ‘it was really a matter of luck—I happened to be testing out my theoretical particle detector at the end of the semester and caught all these particle flows. I traced them back to the university’s servers and got the IT folks involved. We pinpointed the emissions to the servers used for grades. A deeper analysis showed that the D and F grades were shedding these particles like mad.”

Additional investigation revealed that D-ons and F-ons, like tachyons, travel backwards in time. Unlike tachyons, D-ons and F-ons exhibit considerable malicious intent: they have been shown to kill the relatives of students, cause mysterious and unprovable illnesses and injuries, and do other bad things. Said researcher Dr. Matt Smith, “Those particles are right bastards.”

Dr. Smith added that the particles seem to travel via the internet and that they attack through smartphones, tablets and laptops. “At our request, the university has issued a warning to all students and relatives about the danger to their health and well-being posed by these particles. We are working round the clock to develop shielding to stop the particles from travelling back in time to do their damage. Until then, the university has adopted a policy of not issuing any D or F grades. This has proven to be a success: the number of retroactive cases of illness and injury has dropped to zero.”

When asked about her next project, Dr. Ocheloco said that she was working on finding the particle that “makes journalists write about whatever damn thing passes as research these days” and also a doomsday weapon made from squirrels.

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Smart Phones & Sad Students

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(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Several years ago I was teaching a night class and noticed a student smiling broadly with his arms twitching a bit. Looking closer, I noticed that his hands were moving rapidly under the desk—I immediately thought “well, this could be the most awkward and bizarre moment of my teaching career.” Fortunately, it turned out to be my first encounter with a student using a phone to text in class rather than the awful alternative. Since then, I have seen smart phones take over not only my classes, but the world. Like digital versions of Heinlein’s puppet masters, they are the new rulers of humanity.

Like most educators, I saw it as obvious that the phones would be an impediment to the students. After all, if a student spends the class time texting, booking their faces, and gazing upon the awful majesty of grumpy cat, then they will not be paying attention to what is occurring in class. While some students are capable of self-educating (or effective cheating), a failure to pay attention would generally have a negative impact on the GPA of a student. I predicted, correctly, that the phones would evolve and become ever more distracting. I am now waiting to see whether or not wearable tech becomes a thing with students—just imagine the impact of things like Google Glasses on students.

Apparently other educators share my concern about the impact of smartphones on students. Recently Kent State researchers Andrew Lepp, Jacob Barkley and Aryn Karpinski did a study of 500 university students. The study involved tracking phone use, measuring happiness (defined in terms of anxiety and satisfaction) and retrieving official grade point averages. The study population was composed of 500 undergraduates taken equally from each class (freshman, etc.) and included 82 different majors. As such, the study seems to be adequate in size and diversity in regards to the target population.

The analysis showed that as phone use increased, GPA decreased and anxiety increased. The overall conclusion was that high frequency users will have a lower GPA, greater anxiety, and less life satisfaction than those who are lower frequency users. Naturally, these results involve college students. However, it seems reasonable to infer they would apply more generally.

On the face of it, these results seem intuitively plausible and it makes sense to accept that increased phone use can lead to lower GPA, greater anxiety and less life satisfaction. First, it certainly makes sense that a student who spends more time using the phone is most likely spending less time paying attention in class, studying and doing coursework. This would tend to have a negative impact on the student’s GPA. Second, the lower GPA could certainly lead to more anxiety and less satisfaction. Third, there are various other studies that link the things people do on phones (like checking Facebook and seeing the awesome staged photos and crafted status updates of friends) that cause dissatisfaction.  As such, these results seem believable.

That said, as with any causal claims it is important to consider alternatives. First, the possibility of a common cause must also be considered. The basic idea is that when it seems like C is causing effect E, it might be the case that C  and E are both effects of a third factor. In the case of the phones, it might be the case that there is a factor (or factors) that are making students anxious, making them less satisfied, lowering their GPAs and causing them to use their phones more. Personal issues, such as with family or with a significant other, are likely candidates for common causes. In fact, it certainly makes sense that this could be the case in some instances.

Second, there is the possibility of reverse causation. The gist is that when it seems as if C is the cause of E, it might be the case that C is the cause of E—that is, the causal arrow is backwards. In the case of the phones, it might be a low GPA that leads to the anxiety and dissatisfaction and they lead to more phone use.

Third, there is also the possibility of mere coincidence—after all, correlation is not causation. However, the existence of clear causal mechanisms makes it unlikely that it is just coincidence.

While the alternatives are worth considering (and probably hold true in some cases), it does seem sensible to accept that higher phone use is a detriment to students (and people in general). While I would oppose schools passing regulations limiting student use of phones (after all, I consistently hold to the right of self-abuse and poor decision making), I do think that university faculty, staff and administrators should make students aware of the harms of phone use and should encourage students to look away from their phones more often, especially in the classroom. So, kids, if you do not want to be stupid, sad and a failure, put down that phone.

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For-Profit, Non-Profit & Education

For-Profit Education

For-Profit Education (Photo credit: Truthout.org)

As a professor, I have some interest in the increasing trend to turn education into a profit focused industry. One example of this is the push for schools to partner with for-profit companies that provide MOOCs. Another example is the relentless push for assessment that involves instruments provided by for-profit companies. There are many other specific examples, but it is clear that education is being regarded as a new frontier for economic exploitation.

Being a reasonable person, I do favor things that can increase the availability or quality of education (or both) while doing so at a lower cost. As such, I was rather intrigued by the idea of MOOCs and their promise to provide quality education to the masses at a low cost. Likewise, I was interested by the idea of for-profit colleges that were touted as providing quality education at a low cost—all driven by the invisible hand of market forces. As someone who has served on assessment committees since 2004, I am always eager to hear about effective methods of assessment that take as much workload off the faculty as possible.

Unfortunately, I have been rather disappointed by the reality of MOOCs, for-profit colleges and assessment. Since I have written numerous essays on these specific topics already, my focus will be on the generic problem that seems to arise from the for-profit model relative to the non-profit model of traditional education.

On the face of it, the problem with the for-profit approach is obvious: a for-profit must charge to a degree that covers the costs and also provides for a profit. In contrast, a non-profit needs to only cover its costs. To use an analogy, a for-profit is like a vehicle that is loaded with extra weight—it has to burn fuel to move itself, but also to move that weight. In contrast, the non-profit does not need to move that extra weight.

To take a specific example, consider a university that is considering contracting a for-profit company to provide instruments of assessment or online courses. The for-profit will need to charge the University for the cost (including paychecks for workers) of the instruments or courses, plus extra for the profit. That is, the university is effectively giving the company some of the money in return for nothing. After all, the university could simply create the assessments or courses itself and pay just the cost, thus saving money that could be used on other things, like student scholarships or updating obsolete classroom technology.

The obvious reply is to argue that a for-profit can provide goods and services at a lower cost than the university and, even with the profit tacked onto the bill, the cost to the university would be lower than it would be for the university to do it itself. For example, consider the development and operation of an online course. The university would need to pay faculty and staff their usual salaries to do this while a for-profit could hire cheaper labor to do the work (perhaps even outsourcing it to countries with very low wages). Also, the university would need to create the online infrastructure to  run the classes and this could cost considerably more than having a for-profit company provide infrastructure it already has in place (perhaps in another country).

The obvious counter to this reply is that university could simply do what the for-profit does and thus bypass the middleman. That is, if a for-profit company has lower costs because it will hire people in low-wage countries to do the work, the university could simply hire people in low-wage companies to do the work. There is, after all, no special for-profit magic that allows a for-profit company to do things that cannot be done by a non-profit. The university could thus save money or, alternatively, pay the low-wage workers a better wage.

It can be objected that while there is no special for-profit magic, for-profits have the advantage of the profit motive. That is, to steal a bit from Adam Smith, they will work hard to provide a better product at a lower price so that they can make that profit. Since non-profits do not make profits, they lack that motivation and hence will deliver inferior products at a higher cost.

The easy reply to that, as I have shown in my essays on for-profit MOOCs and for-profit colleges, is that the for-profits in education consistently deliver inferior products at higher prices than the non-profit colleges and universities.  This is not to say that a for-profit education company cannot deliver high quality at a lower cost than a non-profit. After all, just as there is no for-profit magic, there is no special for-profit curse that precludes this. However, universities should be cautious before turning to for-profit companies—assuming their goals are to provide quality education at a reasonable cost (as opposed to more corrupt goals).

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