Tag Archives: Education

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

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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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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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MOOCing Education

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On the face of it, a MOOC looks rather good to administrators worried about budgets and for-profit education industry companies. After all, the MOOC promises to do for education what automation and outsourcing did for manufacturing. In the case of the purely online college level MOOC, a pre-packaged class is delivered to students via the web and grading is either automated or outsourced. From a financial standpoint, the main virtues of this sort of college level MOOC is that it eliminates the expense of the full time professor and allows for mass education.

While the main concern of the for-profit and the financially focused administrator is money, actual educators tend to be concerned with education. As such, there is the question of whether or not the fully online MOOCs can deliver adequate education. While some faculty have been accused of opposing MOOCs simply out of fear of losing their jobs or because they fear or do not understand the technology, my main concern is the issue of whether or not MOOCs can deliver. If they can, in fact, deliver quality education to more people and at a far lower cost than traditional education, then I would supports MOOCs—even at the cost of my own job. This is not to say that I want to lose my job, just that I am willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. That is, in part, why I passed on vastly more lucrative careers in order to be an educator.

Last year San Jose State University (SJSU) conducted what amounted to a controlled experiment comparing MOOCs to hybrid and traditional classes. SJSU partnered with the non-profit edX to offer hybrid classes combining MIT lectures in engineering with SJSU faculty providing direct educational support for the students. These hybrid classes proved to be winners: the students performed better than in the traditional classes.

The results of these hybrid classes matches my own experiences. I taught a successful hybrid class on Ethics last spring and have incorporated hybrid elements into all my classes to good effect. One reason that the hybrid classes seem to be effective is that it allows students to watch the educational videos and consume other material at their own pace (and repeatedly) while also being able to be directly guided and supported by an actual professional. Another reason is that providing the students with the ability to do or submit work online frees them from the need to be on campus at a specific time.

Unfortunately for the students at SJSU, the school also partnered with the for-profit Udacity. This company got a no bid contract to offer online-only classes in developmental math, algebra and statistics. While the price was only $150, most of the students did not pass the classes. In the case of developmental math, the pass rate was 25% compared to the pass rate of 65% for the traditional versions of the class. None of the classes had a higher than 50% pass rate, which is clearly rather bad. Not surprisingly, 80% of the students indicated that they needed more help with the class content than was offered online.

Udacity did have some apparent success: one summer algebra course had a 72% pass rate. However, this class was mostly people who had already graduated and the online exams now came with hints to help the students. As such, this mainly showed that college graduates who are given hints on exams will be able to pass such a course. This hardly serves as support for MOOCs in general.

It is worth considering that this is but one “experiment” and there very well might be factors specific to Udacity or SJSU that caused the poor results. As such, it could be possible for fully online MOOC to be a success and MOOCs should not simply be dismissed based on Udacity and SJSU and more data is needed. That said, there is a clear moral concern in regards to additional “experiments” involving MOOCs.

One aspect of this moral concern is that charging students to serve as experimental MOOC subjects seems to be unethical. A student who is paying has a reasonable expectation that the course will be up to the proper standards of a college course.

Another moral concern is that students who take a MOOC class as part of their required curriculum are at risk of losing time due to the failures of the class (and not their own failures). As such, testing MOOCs on students when they are paying for the classes and taking them for real seems to be unethical. However, there is the legitimate concern that students who are taking a free class that does not count will be far more likely to drop out or not put in much effort—thus making it challenging to judge the efficacy of a MOOC. A partial solution might be to offer such classes at a significantly lower cost (or free) and allow students to retake the class as a traditional or hybrid class if they fail (with the new grade erasing and replacing the MOOC grade).

As a closing point, I am also concerned about the partnering of for-profit MOOC companies with colleges and universities. The rather obvious concern is that universities and colleges already have full time education experts that are creating and running classes, namely the professors. As such, there would seem to be little need to contract with a for-profit company to do what can already be done in house.  To us an analogy, it would be like a hospital deciding that it will contract out its health care to a company that provides automated medical care and bypass its own doctors and nurses.

Providing such classes is also the core mission of an institute of higher learning. To contract out education is to bypass the professors and to hand over the core mission of the institution to an outside company. While this is clearly a good deal for the for-profit company that gets the contract, it seems to take a significant step towards turning the institution into a shell. This, of course, could be the dream of some: a school that has no faculty, but only well-paid administrators and well-paid education contractors.

Naturally, it might be contended that I am merely expressing fear about losing my job. However, as noted above, my concern is with the quality of the education that such MOOCs provide. The existing data indicates that they are lacking in quality. As such, handing over education to the MOOCs would seem to be a bad idea. Except, of course, for those who see education as merely another area of profit.

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E-Reading & Education

English: A Picture of a eBook Español: Foto de...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While there is considerable push to move education onto the internet and textbooks are readily available as e-books, there are still reasonable concerns about the impact of the shift from paper text to digital text. Fortunately, there have been some studies and experiments to determine the impact of digital text.

Ferris Jabr’s article, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper”, appears in the November 2013 issues of Scientific American and raises some points well worth considering. While he is not writing explicitly about e-text in education, the findings discussed in the article are clearly relevant in academics.

One finding is that paper text seems to be better than e-text in terms of comprehension and memory. That is, people who read text on paper tend to have a better understanding of the material and remember it better. One possible reason for this is that a paper text allows people to navigate the material using abilities that they have developed in the “physical” world. The physicality of the paper text is thus an advantage. A second reason is that people also seem to be better at creating mental maps of long texts when they read it on paper. This also seems to be linked to the physicality of the paper text.

Another finding is that e-text can tire both the mind and the body. One obvious example is that scrolling text requires more effort than simply reading and turning actual pages. This can be avoided by software or hardware that allows reading without scrolling. For example, dedicated reader devices like the Nook allow the reader to “turn” pages rather than scroll. Another obvious example is that staring at a screen is more tiring than reading text on paper. As with scrolling, dedicated reader devices endeavor this problem by trying to replicate the experience of paper. For example, the Kindle uses an E-Ink display that creates a paper-like visual experience in that it uses reflected rather than projected light.

Because of these factors, it is hardly surprising that the studies and experiments generally indicate that reading digital text is inferior to reading paper text in regards to matters that are of concern in academics such as understanding, retention and performance on tests on the material. In short, the use of digital text puts the reader at a disadvantage relative to using paper text.

It might be claimed that the problems with digital text are primarily caused by the fact that the people studied grew up reading on paper and thus have a paper bias. If this is true, then the generation that grows up reading digital text will not experience the same problems as those who grew up with paper.

Interestingly, studies of people who are “digital natives” indicate that even they do better with paper than with digital text. One explanation for this is that the e-book and e-readers are distracting. However, these studies are still preliminary and more time will be needed to determine the impact of being a digital native on reading.

The apparent inferiority of digital text relative to paper text should be a matter of concern for educators. If an educator is choosing between digital and paper text, these findings would indicate that the paper text is a better choice in regards to understanding and remembering the material. If an educator is relying entirely or primarily on digital text, then these findings suggest that the grading would actually need to be adjusted in regards to testing that involves understanding and remembering text—students using digital texts will, in general, perform worse than those using paper texts. Then again, they would actually be learning less and thus the lower grade could be regarded as justified, but not the fault of the student.

While paper does seem to be superior to digital in many ways, there are still advantages to digital text that educators should consider. One is that a digital text is better than no text. Like most professors, I have found that students often do not buy the text. Not surprisingly, students often claimed that it was the cost of the book that deterred them. In response, I created free PDF readers using public domain material (which is very easy to do in philosophy). While paper text might be better than digital, a digital text is better than no text (and students can print the text, although they rarely do). Digital texts that are not free do tend to be cheaper than printed versions, which might result in more students actually reading the text.

A second advantage is the convenience of digital texts. When I was a student, I had to lug around a book bag full of my books and notes. That was a bit inconvenient and I, like most students, ditched that bag as soon as I could. With digital texts a student can carry a vast number of books with her in her phone, tablet, e-reader, or laptop. As such, a student can read digital texts without the hassle of carrying around a stack of books. On the downside, students generally seem to prefer to text, Facebook or game rather than read and these distractions are always present on most devices. As such, the convenience of e-text could be outweighed by the distraction factor. While my books were heavy, they did not include built in distractions—printed books do not receive texts or allow one to get birds that are angry (except by throwing books at them—which should not be done).

In any case, the shift to e-text is ongoing and inevitable. That said, educators need to give the impact of this transition considerable thought in regards to selecting texts and assessing student performance.

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Defending the Humanities: Practical Value

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In a previous essay, I noted the concern that the humanities are in decline in the academy. In this essay I will argue in defense of the practical value of the humanities.

Honesty compels me to admit that some of the problems faced by the humanities are self-inflicted. First, humanities faculty have generally not done a very good job “selling” the practical value of the humanities to students, parents, politicians, and society as a whole. Part of this might be the result of the notion that humanities faculty should not stoop to selling their beloved disciplines like a pimp sells his hookers. My view is that the practical value of the humanities can be shown without descending to the level of what would amount to intellectual prostitution.

Second, some humanities faculty devote considerable time to saying and writing ridiculous things about absurd matters as well as creating pointless academic problems whose solutions would achieve nothing of significance. These absurdities infest the professional journals and abound at the professional conferences—thus perhaps making it a mercy that the general public studiously ignores these venues. Those who become masters of both self-promotion and empty absurdities are often the most lauded of faculty—enjoying excellent compensation, modest workloads, and considerable attention. This enables critics of the humanities a ready stock of easy targets when they wish to argue for the uselessness of the humanities. Having endured finely nuanced deconstructions of cybernetic genders in fictional spaces, I have considerable sympathy for their disdain. However, I will endeavor to show that this fluffy absurdity is not all there is to the humanities and that there is actual practical value to the disciplines of the humanities.

Before entering into my defense of the humanities, I must first engage in a brief discussion of practical value. After all, to show that the humanities have practical value requires having a concept of practical value. There is also the matter of the often overlooked concern about why a specific view of practical value should be accepted as the proper measure of value.

Interestingly enough, defining practical value and arguing why a specific view of practical value should be accepted are both subjects that fall solidly within the humanities, specifically my discipline of philosophy. While some will obviously be tempted to go with their own view of practical value because it is “obvious”, this would be to engage in the fallacy of begging the question—that is, assuming as true what actually needs to be proven. Thus, one obvious practical value of the humanities is that it is needed to sort out the very nature of practical value and to determine which view of practical value that should be accepted.

For the sake of the discussion and brevity, I will stick with a fairly simple view of practical value that is popular in certain circles. The basic idea is that the practical value of a major is its economic value. Put a bit crudely, this can be considered in terms of how effectively job fillers are created for the jobs created by the job creators. The general measures of value would thus involve employment rates and salaries.

One common stereotype is that those majoring in the humanities are doomed to unemployment or, at best, poor salaries. Anecdotes (and jokes) do abound about people who got a degree in a humanities discipline and ended up doomed. However, as any philosophy major should know, an appeal to anecdotal evidence is a fallacy. What is needed is not anecdotes but statistical data.  Conveniently enough, Georgetown University released a detailed report on this matter.

Based on the usual stereotypes and common anecdotes, one would expect theatre majors, literature majors and philosophy majors to have very high unemployment rates as recent college graduates. Interestingly, theatre majors have an unemployment rate of 6.4%, literature majors are at 9.8% and philosophy majors are at 9.5% (unemployment rates are significantly lower for experience degree holders). Interestingly, the information systems (14.7%) and architecture (12.8%) have the highest unemployment rates. Computer science (8.7%) and accounting (8.8%) are fairly close to the humanities. Those doing best are elementary education majors and (5%) and nursing majors (4.8%).

Taking employment as being a measure of practical value, these statistics show that humanities degrees have practical value. After all, the employment rates for those with humanities degrees are competitive with non-humanities degrees.

In terms of compensation, the humanities fields generally offer less salary than some other fields. However, the average income of a college graduate in the humanities considerably exceeds that of the average income of a high school graduate. Thus, by this measure of practical value the humanities do have practical value. Thus, when people ask me what someone can do with a humanities degree, my cynical (but truthful) answer is “get a job and get a paycheck.” Some people get some very good jobs and some even become famous.

In addition to the concern about the practical value of a humanities there is also concern about the value of humanities classes—especially those that students are “forced” to take. While schools do vary, it is common for universities to have a humanities requirement and various non-humanities majors often require classes in the humanities. For example, the Florida public university system requires students to take two classes in the humanities. As another example, many of the students in my Critical Inquiry, Ethics, Aesthetics and Introduction to Philosophy classes have to take these classes for their non-humanities major.

It could be argued that “forcing” students to take humanities classes is a waste of student time and money (especially given that tuition is at an all-time high and graduation rates are still depressingly low) because such classes have no practical value to the students. That is, these classes do not contribute provide practical skills that would have a practical payoff. As with the humanities majors, it will be assumed that practical value in this case is a matter of economics.

Some humanities classes do have clear and general practical value. Obvious examples include the basic English classes (writing skills are uniformly useful), critical thinking classes (which is all the rage today), and logic.

Other humanities classes have practical value that does depend on the context. For example, those intending to be involved in overseas business can benefit from humanities classes covering these nations. This relative value is not unique to the humanities. For example, a class in biochemistry will not be particularly useful to someone who plans to manage a company that develops game apps for iPads, but it would be unreasonable to dismiss the class as useless simply because it is useless to some people.

Since the practical value of a class can be relative it is well worth considering whether or not a specific class has practical value for a specific major or student. As such, I would not claim that all humanities classes have practical value to all majors and all students. I would also not claim that all science or math classes have practical value to all majors and all students. However, the mere fact that a specific class does not have practical value to some students or some majors does not entail that it has no practical value.

As a final point, there is some concern that people should be reluctant to make an appeal to the practical when defending the value of the humanities. After all, this would seem to concede too much to those who regard themselves as opponents to the humanities. Rather, it could be contended, the defenders of the humanities should avail themselves of more traditional appeals to the inherent value of the humanities.

There is some merit to this concern and appealing to the practical does run the risk of handing a considerable advantage to those who wish to diminish or dispose of the humanities. However, I would contend that the humanities can be defended on practical grounds without abandoning the more traditional arguments in its favor. In the next essay in this series I will endeavor to argue for the value of the humanities on non-practical (that is, non-economic) grounds.

 

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The Decline of Humanities

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One of the current narratives is that the humanities are in danger at American universities. Some schools are cutting funding for the humanities while others are actually eliminating majors and departments. At my own university, the college of arts and sciences was split apart with the humanities and soft sciences in one new college and the now exalted STEM programs in another. Not surprisingly, I was called upon (at a moment’s notice) to defend the continued existence of the philosophy and religion unit I head up. Fortunately, I could point to the fact that our classes regularly overload with students and the fact that our majors have been very successful.

While this narrative is certainly worrisome to faculty in the humanities, this is actually not a new narrative. For example, while about 7% of majors are in the humanities, this has been the case since the 1980s. As another example, humanities programs have been subject to cuts for decades. That said, there is clearly a strong current trend towards supporting STEM and cutting the humanities.

As might be suspected, the push to build up the STEM programs has contributed to the decline of funding for humanities programs. Universities and colleges have to allocate their funds and if more funds are allocated to STEM, this leaves less for other programs. There is also the fact that there is much more outside funding (such as from the federal government) for STEM programs. As such, STEM programs can find themselves getting a “double shot” of increased funding from the university and support from outside while humanities programs face reduced support from within the institutions and little or nothing from outside.

Those who argue for STEM over the humanities would make the case that STEM programs should receive more funding. If more students enroll in STEM than in the humanities, then it would clearly be fair that these programs receive more funding. If humanities programs want more funding, then they would need to take steps to improve their numbers.

There is also the argument based on the claim that funding STEM provides a greater return for the money in terms of job creation, educating job fillers and generating research that can be monetized. That is, STEM provides a bigger financial and practical payoff than the humanities. This would, clearly, serve to justify greater funding for STEM. Assuming, of course, that funding should be determined primarily in terms of financial and practical values defined in this manner. As such, if humanities programs are going to earn increased funding, they would need to show that they can generate value of a sort that would warrant their increased funding. This could be done by showing that the humanities have such practical and financial value or, alternatively, arguing that the humanities generate value of a different sort that is still worthy of funding.

Those in the humanities not only need to convince those who redistribute the money, they also need to convince students that the humanities are valuable. This need not require convincing students to major in the humanities—getting students to accept the value of the humanities to the degree that they will willingly enroll in such classes and support the programs that offer them.

It has long been a challenge to get students to accept the value of the humanities. When I was an undergraduate almost three decades ago most students looked down on the humanities and this has not changed. Now that I am a professor, honestly compels me to admit that most students sign up for my classes because they have to knock out some sort of requirement. I do manage to win some of these students over by showing them the value of philosophy, but many remain indifferent at best.

While it is a tradition to claim that things are worse now than they were when I was a youngster, this is actually the case. Recently, there has been a conceptual shift in regards to education: now the majority of students regard the main function of college as job preparation or as vocational training. That is, students predominantly see college as a machine that will make them into job fillers for the job creators.

Because of the nature of our economic system, most students do have to worry about competing in a very difficult job market and surviving in a system that is most unkind. As such, it is not unwise of students to take this very practical approach to education.

While it is something of a stereotype, parents do often worry that their children will major in the humanities and it is not uncommon for students to pressure their kids to major in something “useful.” When I was a student, people I knew said just that. Now that I am a professor, my students sometimes tell me that their parents are against them taking philosophy classes. While some are worried that their children will be corrupted, the main concerns are the same as that expressed by students: the worry that majoring in the humanities is a dead end and that the humanities requirements are delaying graduation and wasting their money.

Those of us in the humanities have two main options here. One is to make the case that the humanities actually do provide the skills needed to make it in the world of the job creators. While some regard philosophy as useless, an excellent case can be made that classes in philosophy can be very helpful in getting ready for employment. To use the most obvious example, philosophy is the best choice for those who are considering a career in law. This approach runs the risk of devaluing the humanities and just making them yet another form of job training.

The second is the usual argument from the humanities, which is based on the idea there is more to life than being a job filler for the job creators. The usual line of argument is that the humanities teaches students to address matters of value, to appreciate the arts, and to both think and question. This, as might be imagined, sounds good in principle but can be a very hard sell.

Unfortunately, humanities faculty often fail to convince students, parents and those who control the money that the humanities are valuable. Sometimes the failure is on the part of the audience, but often it is on the part of the faculty. As such, those of us in the humanities need to up our game or watch the shadow over the humanities grow.

 

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