More on College Tuition as a Bubble

I blogged a couple weeks back about the similarity of college tuition and health care costs (up, up, up). I then linked to story about High Point University, and its highly leveraged play to recruit students.

There were several interesting comments about these stories, and many others are weighing in on related issues lately (Josh Barro, Ezra Klein, I am sure there are more).

My main thought about the escalation of college costs and worrying if it is “a bubble” is as a producer of college, a Professor; I worry that the cost structure of what we produce is too high, and that Universities will be too slow to adapt. I suspect that universities will have to look for non-traditional ways to generate revenue from non traditional students. The move toward providing free on line classes could be understood as a back door way of doing this by saying yes we are expensive, but we are providing benefit to those who cannot pay, get in, or who don’t want to do so, making the myriad subsidies “worth it”.

Continue reading “More on College Tuition as a Bubble”

Doing the right thing for the wrong reason

At my company (less in my unit of it), teaching is basically treated as a tax you have to pay to do your research, and faculty are hired and promoted for research and encouraged to avoid this tax where possible; indeed, one of our principal recruitment gestures is a reduced teaching load for the first couple of years. “Load”?  I’m not going to further review the evidence for this summary here; I’m comfortable with the simple version. Its spirit is pervasive, in the details of our promotion and tenure practice (which are greatly at variance from official statements of policy and even from the formal rules that are supposed to govern it) and in the resources of all kinds invested in increasing student learning.

Hard on the heels of my plaint about science teaching generally, our teaching listserv just circulated an article from the belly of the super-competitive big-time science beast in the ASCB newsletter. David Botstein makes a series of good arguments, and I love hearing the case that we are not at the production possibility frontier of teaching and research from someone in his shoes. I think what he says about the complementarity of research and teaching is mostly correct.

But without disagreeing with his claims, this line of argument sort of makes me reach for my revolver, as I do when someone says we should have arts in the schools ‘because music helps kids learn math’, or have a symphony orchestra ‘because it’s good for economic development’.  These arguments are (i) very risky; if it turned out that a dollar spent on another hour of (or better) math class increased math learning more than a dollar spent teaching violin, as is probably true, would that mean art is not worth doing? (ii) just wrong: art is not about learning math, it’s about art being worth doing and having for its own unique payoffs.

Teaching is costly in time and effort, and hard to do well.  It’s worth it, so we should have a lot as we should of anything that’s a good deal. But its purpose, professor, is not advancing your research career (even if it has some payoff of that type), nor about its intrinsic non-research rewards for you. Teaching is about advancing the learning of students, including students who are not in college or even grad school to become you. What if the time required to teach a course would advance my research even more if I spent it in the lab and not on the course; wouldn’t Botstein either have to say, “OK, lose the teaching”, or fall back on reach up for a much higher-level version of his case?

This article has lots of useful insight, but justifying teaching by its peripheral benefits to research is an unnecessary concession to careerism. Teaching doesn’t have to be free of research cost to be worth doing well; the world would probably be better off if all the students in universities this year learned 10% more of everything (an easy target, the way we operate now) and only 85% of the research got done, even if that’s what it took.  It would be enormously better off if 5% of our research effort were invested in improving learning, because the learning payoff would be way more than 5% given the infinitesimal base (of effort) we’re starting from.

Professor who shut student’s laptop acquitted, fired.

Professor who closed the laptop of a student surfing the web during class acquitted of battery–and fired.

Four months ago, I posted about the case of Frank J. Rybicki, a college professor at Valdosta State who was sued, arrested for battery, and suspended from teaching after he took it upon himself to shut the laptop of a student who refused to stop surfing the web during class.

A couple of days ago a Georgia jury found Rybicki not guilty of battery. To the surprise of no one—including, I’m fully confident, the student in question—“nobody was able to offer evidence that he intended to hurt his student’s finger.” In response to the “customer is always right” argument made by some RBC commenters the first time, Rybicki

said he thought the real issue in the case was the right of a professor to maintain the classroom as a learning environment. He said that he realizes that some students disagree, and tell him things like “I paid for this class so I should do what I want.” But Rybicki said that what a student pays for is “for me to teach,” and that means setting some standards in the classroom.

It sounds as if the vast majority of Valdosta State students backed Rybicki, a popular teacher.

This is not, however, a happy ending. Given the acquittal, Rybicki will now be free to teach in 2011-12. But the university told him in June that he wouldn’t be welcome after that. (Rybicki doesn’t have tenure—but unless the reporting is very bad indeed, it sounds as if he’s been fired well before his tenure review.)

As I said the first time, if your opinion on this resembles mine, a certain college president needs to hear it. And now that opinion will enjoy the backing of twelve duly empaneled citizens.


Professors on Film

Last week, I gave grand rounds at a small hospital in Northern California, and they filmed it for medical staff who couldn’t attend in person. A few days later I attended a drug policy conference where every talk and every comment from the floor was filmed. My university has a deal with YouTube to post many lectures for whoever wants to watch them. Any student at any university can video lectures on a cell phone or laptop videocam. My working life, and those of my colleagues, is increasingly going straight to video.

I can see the upsides: Progressively cheap technology frees audiences from the constraints of time and location. If you have a surgery scheduled during grand rounds, no problem, you can watch it later when you have time. More importantly, a kid in Cairo who gazes mesmerized at the stars and dreams of being an astronomer can view a Stephen Hawking lecture at the neighborhood Internet Cafe or even at home if his family can afford web access with a reliable broadband connection.

Yet I also have two anxieties. The first is that being filmed all the time can accentuate some of the bad impulses to which all people, including professors, are subject. A professor who delights in his or her reputation for obnoxiousness or withering comments may be tempted to engage in such behavior more often if there is a chance a video-gone-viral could be the result. I also worry about the untenured assistant professors who want, at a conference for example, to put a controversial but important idea up for debate in front of colleagues for critique before it goes into the film-and-web-o-sphere. Will they censor themselves knowing that if the idea turns out be ridiculous or offensive, it will be preserved forever and more broadly distributed? Will professors who aspire to be deans or provosts (or simply hate public controversy) shy away from anything other than the safest, most banal pronouncements lest their filmed remarks come back to haunt them later?

William N. Lipscomb, 1919-2011

In my freshman year I took the introductory chemistry course for people who had had some chemistry, and as it happened, that year William Lipscomb took it over from a popular prof who was on sabbatical. His long line of PhDs (three more Nobels, uh-huh) and colleagues will be writing remembrances of his scientific contributions, and the Times obit gives an idea of what an interesting person he was; I crossed his path only three times but still remember him as a very important source of guidance.

The first day of that course, he wandered on stage and said “I haven’t really prepared anything, so I think I’ll just talk about my research; we can get to work on Thursday”.  There followed a quite demanding session about the spherical trigonometry with which one can infer the molecular structure of boranes by x-ray diffraction.

The next session was significantly less well-attended. Lipscomb looked around and said, “Well, I guess that cleared out some of the dead wood” and launched into what may be the best conventional (lecture/section/lab) course I ever took. He continued “I ordered the textbook from last year, so if you want to know what colors things turn when you mix them together you can look in it. But we’ll be using Pauling’s College Chemistry – be sure you don’t get General Chemistry, it’s too easy.”  Through the semester, Lipscomb went through the periodic table adding electrons and orbitals with quantum mechanics to explain how different atoms could attach to each other.    The final exam was especially memorable: one question was “Discuss the chemistry of the second series of transition elements.”  Panicked, realizing we had never discussed them in class and didn’t even know their names, we looked for the periodic table that had hung above the podium all semester; it was rolled up and the proctor said he had instructions not to display it.  We realized, though, that even if we had to call them Oneium, Twoium, etc., we knew so much real chemistry that we could make a pretty good stab at how the orbitals would fill up and what kind of compounds they could form: yes, an exam can be a learning experience. I distinctly recall a chorus of “Oh, yeah!” sounds popping up around the room, like frogs announcing themselves around a pond on a summer evening.

When I accidentally found out what chemists actually do for a living more than a year later, and how different it was from learning chemistry, where you encounter a great new reaction every week, I went to his office hours for some sort of reassurance that it would be OK to start on another career path.  I got it in just the right reassuring and encouraging tone; it was clear that he knew there was a lot more to life than what he liked to do every day, and he showed real interest in my various uninformed speculations.  I crossed his path once more, decades later and well after he retired, when I wrote to him about how much I had learned about teaching from him in that first year and thanking him for it, and got a long, funny, thoughtful, gracious reply.

Profs like Lipscomb justify the academic enterprise in the face of its myriad discontents.  Flights of angels for this one, please.



Student refuses to stop surfing the web during class. Professor shuts her laptop. Result: professor sued, arrested, suspended.

A Valdosta State University student refused, after repeated requests, to stop surfing the web during class.  The professor shut her laptop.  As a reward for noticing when a student wasn’t learning, and caring that she wasn’t, the professor has been sued, arrested for battery, and—the least forgivable, since completely under the administration’s control—suspended from teaching.

Commentary fails. The only silver lining is that other students have apparently supported the professor.

I have an opinion about this. If you do too, I think a certain university president ought to hear it.

(via my brilliant ex-roommate Larry Saul at Lawrence of Academia)

Transcendence through art and a soldering iron

If one shining example of everything going right can redeem an awful couple of weeks, this is it.  You have to read the whole story and watch the video.  Just go do it and come back here (or not; what I have to say about it will be at best a few flowers strewn before its triumphant progress).

There is so much to like about this story, I don’t know where to start.  Black is personable, not full of himself, self-aware, smart.  He presents himself as a musician, and a reflective, critical, attentive one who knows why this speaks to him and that does not.  But because no-one successfully told him he couldn’t do these things, he also blithely (but not insouciantly) undertakes to be a luthier and a first-person journalist, not to mention figuring out how to push through his hero’s entourage protection without being a jerk or whining.   And he writes beautifully, at large and small scale (I’m dying to know how much copyediting his piece needed); the article  is a textbook demonstration of how to write personally without being arrogant or egotistical, and technically without showing off or making the reader feel ignorant. (Post-posting afterthought: Icing on this cake for me is that Black fired up a soldering iron and used his hands to actually make something. )

If you get out of their way, provide the kind of stuff they can’t get for themselves – whether it’s ice time, a workbench and some tools, an obedience course in the back yard for the dog, or an allowance to buy guitar parts with – kids this age will reach higher than you think they can and accomplish wonders that will stay with them all their lives. Campbell gets props here, too; he welcomes Black as a member of his guild, trades chops, gives encouragement, doesn’t head-pat or condescend, and plays out the whole story without upstaging Black.

I hope Black turns up in my class down the line, but he’s already reminded me to be extra-careful to give my own students (older, but no less capable of stuff they and I don’t realize they can do until they try it) space,  complements to their own latent talents, and the balance of encouragement and tough feedback Black’s parents and teachers obviously got right.

Online education: notes from the field

A colleague shared the following priceless reflections, a letter to Chris Edley from July 28:

Dear Dean Edley:

I’ve been following with interest what you’re saying in the press about UC online education.

I teach Statistics N21, the first online course at Berkeley to be approved by COCI [the UCB faculty Committee on Courses of Instruction].  It was approved in 2007.  I’ve been teaching it for four years, this year to 400 students. The current syllabus is here:

Statistics N21 a gateway course: probably one of the first 10 you would want in your pilot. It satisfies major requirements for several departments, and is a “hurdle” course for intended Business majors.

The online course comprises an interactive textbook (SticiGui: that has Java applets to illustrate key concepts, examples and exercises that change when the page is reloaded so that students can get unlimited practice with the material, machine-graded assignments scored using a mastery model, videorecorded online lectures, online and in-person office hours, a discussion board, etc. Every student gets a different version of the online assignments.  The final is administered in person.  Most students take the final on campus, but about 85 will take off-campus proctored finals this summer, in several countries.

SticiGui has been used at other colleges and universities to teach statistics classes and to teach methodology classes in economics (at CUNY) and political science (at Bard).

But it also has interactive chapters and machine-graded assignments suitable for general education classes: Reasoning and Fallacies, Categorical Logic, Propositional Logic, and Set Theory. It has been used to teach linguistics and logic classes at UCSC and SJSU.

The infrastructure, applets, and so on that I have built could be adapted most easily to teach introductory courses in mathematics, economics, demography, sociology, and similar fields.  But I think it would take a considerable amount of work–years of careful attention from devoted faculty–to develop pedagogically sound, interactive content worthy of UC.  Even to build a more advanced statistics class using the same plumbing would take a solid year of full-time work.

It has taken about 8,000 hours of my time over 13 years to develop (what I consider to be) pedagogically effective interactive content and assignments. The materials wouldn’t have worked well as an online-only course for at least the first 5 years of development.  I used it to teach hybrid classes while I was developing it, starting in 1997.  Work continues: I’m building a searchable database of lecture “clips” on individual topics, edited from my webcast lectures.  The clips will also be linked to the text where the topics are introduced, and to the glossary.

Tailoring material and pedagogy to online media and creating and honing effective, interactive, online content  is quite challenging.  It requires subject-matter knowledge, teaching experience,  careful writing, programming skills (I’ve had to learn Java, JavaScript, XML, CSS, and Perl-cgi), seemingly endless debugging on different operating systems, and lots of user testing with students–many cycles of iterative improvement.   Accessibility, especially for blind students, is an issue that must inform design and the choice of technologies and standards.  Technical maintenance is demanding as web standards and browsers evolve.  Developing and supporting a first-rate online course is not easily subcontracted or delegated to GSIs or technical staff: It requires a great deal of faculty attention.  And it is not fast.

In a large-enrollment course like Statistics N21, ensuring that students have up-to-date browsers before the class starts and providing technical support during the first week or two of class are virtually a full-time job. (Those are jobs that GSIs and technical staff can help with.)

The “bandwidth” of online instruction is lower than face-to-face instruction: it takes longer to convey the same information, both from instructor to student and from student to instructor.  One side effect is that online office hours are less efficient than in-person office hours, so more office hours need to be offered.  Online courses therefore need correspondingly more staff, even before factoring in technical support.  To hold online office hours at times that are convenient for students in, say, Taiwan, requires working odd hours.  For reference, here is the office hour schedule for N21 this summer:

I’d be happy to talk to you about what was involved in developing Statistics N21, the resources required to teach it, and what would be needed to do something similar in other disciplines.



Philip B. Stark | Professor of Statistics | University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-3860 |  |

Going online on the wrong foot

My colleague Chris Edley is out in front of the push to get Berkeley in the on-line education business .  Kevin Carey and Matt Yglesias discuss whether the new product should start upscale, like the Tesla sports car as a pilot product , or downmarket, like a knockoff LV bag that holds just as much as a real one, or maybe a Lite Vuitton that cuts some corners in the stitching and doesn’t have real leather trim .

Naturally this has all occasioned a fair amount of debate at Cal and the UC President’s office, debate that strikes me as missing a lot of points, many because of insufficiently respecting the great intellectual principle of “compared to what?”

Continue reading “Going online on the wrong foot”

Two big industries that don’t understand their business

What does cheating in college have to do with markets for digital goods?  More than you might think, and two links connect this weekend’s report from the battlefield between professors and students and a book review by the interesting and insightful jazz critic Devin Leonard.

The cheating story is profoundly depressing; the University of Central Florida has a “testing center” with snooping video cameras, keylogger software, dated scratch paper, and the like, all intended to drive cheating below its current intolerable, flagrant, pervasive rate of … of 14 suspected incidents out of 64,000 exams??!!  The article details an arms race between students widely and blithely determined to cheat and professors happily leaping into a technical battle to nail them for it.

What no-one in the story seems to get is how off-the-rails the institution must have gotten for students to believe that the point of college is to submit right answers and get grades. The easiest way to do this, a game that has precisely nothing to do with, um, learning, is to find such answers the fastest way possible (for example, from classmates with whom you divide up a problem set, or on the internet).  The pettiness of the colleges’ position is astonishing. For example, and only one:  plagiarism, operationally, is copying text, while copying ideas and rephrasing them is not pursued. Should the difference between an A and an F really be rewriting a sentence someone else wrote so  Turnitin doesn’t find it? Might students have gotten the idea that parroting the thinking of others is what college is about from profs who reward them for repeating back true propositions they ladled out in lectures? Cheating is a big deal, but responding to it at retail and confrontationally is just wilful blindness to the problem cheating really indicates – and not incidentally, allowing ourselves to play a game of mutual infantilization.

Leonard reviews a biography of Edgar Bronfman, Jr. (who bought Warner Music six years ago [yes, those last three words appear in just that order in Leonard’s piece; plagiarism!]) as a frame for reflections about the music industry. This industry, and Leonard, I think,  don’t understand the real business of music, just as the colleges have lost touch with their real value creation model. Music executives think they are in business to sell physical objects like CDs, or countable mp3 copies of performances, to listeners, and have chosen to do battle on a field of piracy and sharing suppression.  But that business model was an accident of technology history, like the temporary conditions during which newspapers could sell readers to advertisers.  The value music companies add to musicians and listeners is search efficiency, helping you find something you will be glad you heard in a universe of possibilities you don’t have time to begin to browse in, but they are leaving that whole territory, the only one in which they can conceivably survive, to peripheral players like Pandora and Rhapsody because they are too scared, or maybe just too dumb, I guess, to really think how they can monetize that service. Leonard, by the way, correctly recognizes that this mental straitjacket has not only cost the labels and artists a lot of money, but also impoverished consumers with “all Lady Gaga all the time”.

A big problem for them, of course, is the universal implicit recognition by music listeners that a digital recording is a non-rival good: because there’s no less of it for anyone else if I copy a song for you, “it just doesn’t feel like stealing” and in fact its efficient price is zero, its marginal cost.  Of course their response to this recognition has been spectacularly dysfunctional and maladaptive, suing downloaders and messing with hopeless DRM technologies. This divide between the moral stance and perceptions of provider and customer matches what’s happening in the colleges: students are comfortable finding useful stuff on the whole internet and, I think, have a sense of the non-rival property of all digital discourse, including text, close to the way they see recordings.

And they have a point: grownups in any workplace do not write closed-book memos with ballpoints in bluebooks, sitting in a room with cops watching to be sure they don’t learn anything from anyone else: they vacuum up everything they can get from peers, media, and the like to find a solution to a problem they know they have.  Of course, it’s wrong – and known to be wrong – to steal that work from the guy in the next cubicle and offer it as your own.  But as Lauren Resnick immortally observed, “collaboration in a workplace is essential and rewarded; collaboration in school is cheating and punished.” Students know this and it doesn’t help the college to get up on a soapbox and preach; the students see a lot of the hoops they are expected to jump through as unrealistic artificial exercises set to maximize the comfort of a bunch of stuffed shirts from another era, not to enable them (the students) to create value in the world. Possibly excepting those very few who will create value as professors, but almost no students are baby professors, or apprentice professors.  If we don’t learn to discern intellectual merit among our students (and other kinds – Howard Gardner describes eight kinds of intelligence, of which maybe three will help your grades the way we operate now)  in a more adult and realistic fashion, we are fighting the wrong war with the wrong weapons on the wrong field against the wrong ‘enemy’.