Comment on an FT article. How things have changed. Even I can remember a colleague — a few years my senior — who went for a Wellcome Training Fellowship, only to be interviewed by one person, with the opening question being, ‘Imagine I am an intelligent layperson: tell me what you want to do!’
I was a war baby, a small farmer’s son and in 1960, at 17, I had a chat with my most trusted teacher about what I should do to apply to become a doctor for which I had just acquired a good group of Scottish highers. He advised me that because I should have applied a number of months before, to write a letter to the University enclosing my qualifications. I was asked to come and have a chat with the Bursar and the only thing I remember him saying was that my qualifications were good but did I realise that I might be preventing somebody else from getting in. I am ashamed to say that I replied that I was not really too troubled about that. I was accepted, and was fine.
That’s a question I just got at our most recent all-hands meeting. I’ve been reminding people that it’s Day 1 for a couple of decades. I work in an Amazon building named Day 1, and when I moved buildings, I took the name with me. I spend time thinking about this topic.
“Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”
Resist Proxies: As companies get larger and more complex, there’s a tendency to manage to proxies. This comes in many shapes and sizes, and it’s dangerous, subtle, and very Day 2. A common example is process as proxy. Good process serves you so you can serve customers. But if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right. Gulp. It’s not that rare to hear a junior leader defend a bad outcome with something like, “Well, we followed the process.”
(Do you know what they know they want?)
Good inventors and designers deeply understand their customer. They spend tremendous energy developing that intuition. They study and understand many anecdotes rather than only the averages you’ll find on surveys. They live with the design. I’m not against beta testing or surveys. But you, the product or service owner, must understand the customer, have a vision, and love the offering. A remarkable customer experience starts with heart, intuition, curiosity, play, guts, taste. You won’t find any of it in a survey.
Jeff Bezos here. I dislike process, and in education or research, whatever promise it offers, is offset by its tendency to lead to institutional denigration of those who keep their eyes on reality.
Bruce Alberts talks a lot of sense about science education and education in general. And of course he produced a book that ‘educated’ a whole generation (or more) of people like me. But in this recent Science piece he is taking on some of the big questions, questions that have been asked before, but for which few have managed to follow through on. As ever, the emphases are mine.
In previous commentaries on this page, I have argued that “less is more” in science education, and that learning how to think like a scientist—with an insistence on using evidence and logic for decision-making—should become the central goal of all science educators. I have also pointed out that, because introductory science courses taught at universities define what is meant by “science education,” college science faculty are the rate-limiting factor for dramatically improving science education at lower levels.
For example, there is a long-standing belief that every introductory college biology course must “cover” a staggering amount of knowledge. There is no time to focus on a much more important goal—insisting that every student understand exactly how scientific knowledge is generated. Science is not a belief system; it is, instead, a very special way of learning about the true nature of the observable world.
His phrase, “college science faculty are the rate-limiting factor for dramatically improving science education at lower levels”, could equally apply to medicine and medical teachers. It is not hyperbole to say these are some of the central problems of our time. And it is not just science education that is the issue.
Universities are idea factories. Current corporatization approaches emphasize the factory rather than the ideas.
Ralf Buckley in Nature. I would say— for the short term at least — unless somebody finds a way to create new ‘dissenting academies’ things in UK higher ed will get worse.
Given your past views on measuring quality in universities, what do you think of the teaching excellence framework, which the government would like to use to measure teaching quality?
The government needs to think more about the evidence we have showing that measuring performance, and in particular ranking performance, creates strong incentives – but all too often the wrong incentives.
What is the biggest threat facing higher education today?
Too much emphasis on comparative achievement, not enough on the pleasure of learning or the importance of doing at least some things really well.
Amen. Nora O’Neill interviewed in the THE
‘I think we’re seeing the benefits of a good funding environment, and – to be frank – no research excellence framework’
Brexit and the Emerald Isle. Your mileage may vary. Here.
last month (, for example, when) the University of Copenhagen fired seismologist Hans Thybo, president of the European Geosciences Union. The official explanation for Thybo’s dismissal — his alleged use of private e-mail for work, and telling a postdoc that it is legitimate to openly criticize university management — seems petty in the extreme.
Nature December 2016. Little hygge on show here, then.
If you want to pick at the cracks of modern medicine, you look at psychiatry. This is not a criticism of psychiatry or psychiatrists (some of my best friends are….). If you want to do similar things with the academy, look at economics first.
For my studies I moved to Berlin and later to Innsbruck in the Tyrolean Alps. Innsbruck was a great place to study: The teaching in both philosophy and economics happened in small groups and the professors were fantastic teachers. Geoscience was a very broad course and had the advantage that we traveled a lot and spend quite some time out in the field.
This weekend, my wife and oldest daughter visited her first-choice college, the University of Tennessee. There was one curious moment in an otherwise wonderful weekend. The tour guide noted that the university was there to help students get through the trauma of exams. It brought in masseuses to massage away the stress. It rolls out a sheet of paper, passes out crayons, and lets the students express their rage against algebra. Oh, and it vowed to bring in puppies, so students could cuddle something cute to take the edge off their anxiety.
Refreshing to read an article in which I can find something to disagree with in almost every sentence. And the title — in the print edition only —‘Taking your research to the real world” was probably the work of the subeditor. But the tired trope of academia versus the real world is like a red rag to a bull (self-reference intended). Most of all, I find the belief that unless you are changing health care in the short term is some distant country, you are somehow deficient as an academic, conceited.
Capitalism has helped lift more people out of poverty than most public health researchers; economists basic work on how societies work may do the same; and I am not certain how Watson and Crick would have fared under this self-congratulatory humbug. The real danger is that we are forgetting that universities are some of the few places left to do genuinely transformative and generative work. There are plenty of alternatives for much other ‘close to market work’: private corporations; NGOs; national health agencies; consultancies. Delivery and revolutionary science belong to different scales and cultures (mostly).
One of my mantras is that unless we do the online better, we cannot make use of the offline opportunities. Online, should allow us to make better use of the bedside. The following are some quotes from an FT article on MBA degrees.
The great thing about a virtual classroom is that your students are already in a digital format, which means you can run algorithms that recognise patterns in facial expressions to assess understanding and identify students’ emotional state and levels of attention in your class,” says Prof Boehm. Analytics can be used in real time to address students whose attention is wandering or later to improve teaching plans or faculty performance, he adds.
Teaching staff also find students to be more engaged in the virtual classroom. “Because of the way students are positioned on the wall, a headshot from the chest up, it’s very difficult for them to text on their phones or work on their PCs,” says LizHess, managing director of HBX. “It’s very easy for faculty to see if people are distracted — they joke that there’s no back row any more.”
The technology looks terrific in the images shown. But there are other factors at play. Note the group sizes are small in comparison with what many undergraduates receive, and the investment in technology is focussed on those who pay most (upfront). If you look at the money apparently going into medical education, this should be the norm for most undergraduate medical students.
Take your pick. Article in the Observer, a response, and Martin Wolf of the FT here(paywall) and here. Some sense in all of them. But the ‘our (i.e. tax payers) money’ argument (from the Observer) always galls me, and should inform any bright graduate about where they want to build a career. As in any tragedy, the players walk on stage, and you know how it will turn out.
Interesting editorial in Nature. And unexpected. The issue is support for science and the state of politics in the US.
Just telling the same old stories won’t cut it. The most seductive of these stories — and certainly the one that scientists like to tell themselves and each other — is the simple narrative that investment in research feeds innovation and promotes economic growth. ‘It’s the economy, stupid’, so the saying goes, and as nations become a little less stupid by pushing against the frontiers of knowledge, so the benefits of all this new insight spread from the laboratory to the wider population, as improvements in the standard of living and quality of life. This comfortable story has all the hallmarks of a bubble waiting to pop.
The article goes on:
It is right that more scientists should tell stories of the good their research can do. But it is more important and urgent than ever that researchers should question how these stories really end — and whether too many of the people they claim to act for don’t really get to live happily ever after.
Much science is in a vacuous bubble, and arguments for more funding from its practitioners is increasingly viewed as self serving. Universities share some or much of this blame, all too happy to ‘shift more units’. This lack of intellectual honesty will harm academia in the long term. The one uniting feature that justifies higher education is the pursuit of truth in whichever direction enquiry moves. Universities are not businesses, profit centres, or corporations. They have a different set of norms that are distinct from those advertised by much of the rest of the corporate world (or government). STEM has never been enough, and truthfulness is not something you can opt in or out of, like you can some undergraduate modules. The role for universities — and science — is greater than ever: the issue is whether the universities have the necessary leadership. Even with the right leaders, it is a tough ask.
There is only one way to ensure that assessment is light-touch. Universities should rebrand themselves as banks.
Comment (Mintaka) on an article on the TEF from one of the HE commissars (Nick Hillman).
There is a good piece on Wonke by David Morris, dealing with the issue of how research and teaching are related, and the dearth of empirical support for any positive relation between the two. R & T are related at the highest level — some universities can do doctoral research and teaching well — and although I have little direct experience, the same can apply at Masters level. The problems arise at undergraduate level, the level in which most universities compete, and which accounts for the majority of teaching income. As ever, I think we have to think ecology, variation and the long now. What seems clear to me, is that research is indeed often at the expense of teaching, and that the status quo needs to be changed if universities are to continue to attract public (and political) support. Cross subsidies and the empty rhetoric of ‘research led teaching’ do not address what are structural issues in Higher Ed, issues that have been getting worse, driven by poor leadership over many decades.
For many universities this is a pizza and / or pasta issue: some of us like both. Just because the two show little covariation in ecological data, does not mean that they shouldn’t inform each other much better than they have over the recent past. On the other hand, scale and education are unhappy bedfellows, and staff time and attention matter. Do you really think about teaching the same way you approach research? If T & R do not covary, then are your students in the best place, and why did you admit them? Honest answers please.
Here. But your knew this already. This is not about truth, or doing the right thing, but about power and the imposition of an ideology in which the natural world has to be subservient to a dogma. Most of all, this is not about improving education, but of an expansion of power and patronage. And money.
[Or see what Martin Wolf of the FT, has been saying in this week’s Time Higher]
Nice piece in ‘Science’ with the title: ‘No easy answers: What does it mean to ask whether a prekindergarten math program “works”?’ Geoff Norman, many years ago, used the term RCT in the context of medical education to stand for Randomised, Confounded and Trivial. Research into what works and what does not work in education is hard, and most studies (IMHO) fail to inform. Education isn’t a product like a drugs is, and gee it is hard to demonstrate when and where most drugs will work if you do not have an understanding of the biology and large effects to play with and outcomes that need to be measured over the long term.
I think about this a lot, but have no easy rules to guide action. Which is, of course, exactly the problem.
As one Credit Suisse analyst looking at the $35 billion industry put it, “it’s hard not to make a profit” in the for-profit education sector. The stock prices of for-profit colleges and universities (FPCUs) reflected that; they rose more than 460 percent between 2000 and 2003 with much support from public subsidies. Their promotional budgets rose, too—Apollo recently spent more on marketing than Apple, the world’s richest company.
But education, sadly, did not benefit. As A.J. Angulo outlines in his detailed history of the for-profit sector, Diploma Mills, that’s because such schools [for profits] spend a large majority of their budgets not on teaching but on raising money and distributing it to investors. In 2009, for example, thirty leading FPCUs spent 17 percent of their budget on instruction and 42 percent on marketing to new students and paying out existing investors. Is it any wonder, then, that investigations into the industry from 2010 to 2012 found that while it represented only 12 percent of the post-secondary student population, it received a quarter of all federal aid disbursements and was responsible for 44 percent of all loan defaults, many of them by working-class students who either couldn’t afford to graduate or, once they did, found their degrees were largely useless in the marketplace?
Employers outside academia place no financial value on skills or training acquired through a postdoc position, the study says.
Quoted in Nature
Not so long ago, at an internal meeting, the message was ‘things are tough for this year, and next, but after that all the tightening and discipline will pay off, and things will get back to normal’. I doubted that at the time, and stick to my conviction that things are going to get a lot worse for much Higher Education in the UK. There is plenty of blame to go around: institutions have preferred their own propaganda to reality; they have allowed their business (sic) to grow fat on subsidies; and they have lost touch with the academic ideal. Most of all, they have failed to keep with up the rate of societal and technological change — ironic, since this is a world that universities, more than any other institutions, created. As we can see so bluntly in medical education (for an egregious example, just read this recent editorial in the BMJ), governments view universities not as meaningful components of a healthy society, but as providers who are required to do contract work for the government. The more the students have to pay for their own training rather than their own education, the better. The independence of many or most universities is illusory. They are like temporary post-docs, jumping from grant to grant, doomed to follow the ideas of others: renters not home owners. The institutional question remains: where do you position yourself? And how.
(Wonke has a little on some vibrations — aka shocks — that will only become bigger)
It was reading Herb Simon’s ‘Sciences of the Artificial’ that woke me up what some professional schools had in common. I even wrote a piece in PLoS Medicine arguing that medicine is more engineering than science (‘The problem with academic medicine: engineering our way into and out of the mess’). And I think I called it right. But the parallels between medicine and many other other traditional professions is large. I am thinking law, architecture, teaching, and engineering. These are all design sciences, or since I sort of object to this use of the word science, design domains. One of the reasons medical education — and to a lesser extent medicine is in such a mess — is the way that we have failed to grasp this distinctions. I wrote last year:
Simon was a genuine — and it is an overused word— polymath, and at that time I was ignorant of his many contributions. His work ranged through business administration, economics (for which he was awarded a ‘Nobel’ prize), cognitive science, computing, and artificial intelligence. But what fascinated me most was the content of his most famous book, ‘sciences of the artificial’. In this work Simon set out to unify and provide a common intellectual framework for many human activities that involve creating artefacts that that realise a purpose of our choosing. Unlike our dissection of the natural world, whether that be identification of a gene for a disease, or a virus that causes a human disease, Simon was concerned with how humans build artefacts. In particular how do we navigate search spaces that are large, and where uncertainty is all around, and where there may be no formal calculus to allow us to fire across boundaries. He was thinking about thinking machines of course, but quite explicitly he was concerned with the professions, architecture, law, and of great interest to me, medicine and teaching and learning. I was hooked.
One of my favourite quotes is from Simon’s ‘Models of My Life’
More and more, business schools were becoming school of operations research, engineering schools were becoming schools of applies physics and math, and medical schools ere becoming schools of biochemistry and molecular biology. Professional skills were disappearing from the faculties.…they did not fit the general norms of what is properly considered academic. As a result, they were gradually squeezed out of professional schools to enhance respectability in the eyes of academic colleagues.
So I warmed to an article titled ‘Building a future for engineering’ in the Times Higher, linking to a Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2014 report, ‘Thinking Like an Engineer – Implications for the Education System’. I have not read all of the latter, but I warm to the phrase in the THE, referring to the report: ‘Even more fundamentally, engineering is a set of habits of mind’. Clinical medicine is more engineering than science.
From Audrey Watters excellent round up of the year that was:
I think it’s safe to say, for example, that venture capital investment has fallen off rather precipitously this year. True, 2015 was a record-breaking year for ed-tech funding – over $4 billion by my calculations. But it appears that the massive growth that the sector has experienced since 2010 stopped this year. Funding has shrunk. A lot. The total dollars invested in 2016 are off by about $2 billion from this time last year; the number of deals are down by a third; and the number of acquisitions are off by about 20%.
To the entrepreneur who wrote the Techcrunch op-ed in August that ed-tech is “2017’s big, untapped and safe investor opportunity.” You are a fool. A dangerous, exploitative one at that.
Lots of good reasons for this, but surely the main one is that the products are so awful. It is a big domain of human activity, although whether it is a market I will leave for the moment. But people may prefer to spend their money on something that works. And that is before we mention LMS. Of course we can just sell our students user data….
Lots more good stuff from her here, although a stiff drink may be seasonally appropriate.
More worrying is the role of scoring in these judgments. For decades educationists have tried to assess the output of schools, and largely failed. They have fallen back on anything they can find that is measurable. The outputs are not happy children or well-adjusted or even well-paid ones, let alone a more productive economy or a more stable society. They are merely exam results and test scores, places in a league table. It’s like judging piety by testing the Bible.
Simon Jenkins, awhile back in the Guardian. In the UK, this is the madness that Thatcher set off all across the pubic sector, including health and education (and soon higher education). Teachers matter, it is just that measuring teachers may wreck genuine attempts to improve teaching (pace Dylan Wiliam).
There are many worthwhile insights on show in the THE interview with the Nobel physicist Saul Perlmutter, ‘You can’t order up a breakthrough’. But this caught me eye:
“I think for students it’s never too early…to realise that they should be helping…to figure out the world together, not just learning the received facts and the things we already know,” he says. “We find ourselves looking at a world where I don’t think almost any of the problems I see today would worry me, if we knew how to work together and how to think through problems together in a rational way that wove together fears and needs with a rational understanding of the world…Maybe one of the best ways into that is to start teaching.” (emphasis mine)
I think this is the kernel of the problem we face, and the trite “we need more STEM’ or ‘teach all students to code’, is missing the key issue. We are, as has been said before, a ‘civilisation that is face to face with its own implications”.
At the risk of raising the ire of many researchers, I should note that I am not basing my assessment on the rapid growth in educational neuroscience. You know, the kind of study where a subject is slid into an fMRI machine and asked to solve math puzzles. Those studies are valuable, but at the present stage, at best they provide at most tentative clues about how people learn, and little specific in terms of how to help people learn. (A good analogy would be trying to diagnose an engine fault in a car by moving a thermometer over the hood.) One day, educational neuroscience may provide a solid basis for education the way, say, the modern theory of genetics advanced medical practice. But not yet.
Keith Devlin, talking sense — again. I want to believe the the rest of the article but, worry it may not be so. But it contains some gems:
Classroom studies invariably end up as studies of the teacher as much as of the students, and often measure the effect of the students’ home environment rather than what goes on in the classroom.
This just adds to the problem that Geoff Norman (DOI 10.1007/s10459-016-9705-6) and others have talked about in course evaluations, namely that many studies — even accepting of the limitations outlines above — are riddled with pseudoreplication.
What is missing is any insight into what is actually going on in the student’s mind—something that can be very different from what the evidence shows, as was dramatically illustrated for mathematics learning several decades ago
But, like many outwith medicine, I think he puts too much store by the robustness of the RCT approach — even with digital tools to allow large scale measurement. RCT: ‘randomised, confounded and trivial’, as has been said before (Norman).
“Trouble is, the intrusions cannot be ignored or wished away. Nor can the coercion. Take the case of Aaron Abrams. He’s a math professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. He is covered by Anthem Insurance, which administers a wellness program. To comply with the program, he must accrue 3,250 “HealthPoints.” He gets one point for each “daily log-in” and 1,000 points each for an annual doctor’s visit and an on-campus health screening. He also gets points for filling out a “Health Survey” in which he assigns himself monthly goals, getting more points if he achieves them. If he chooses not to participate in the program, Abrams must pay an extra $50 per month toward his premium.
Abrams was hired to teach math. And now, like millions of other Americans, part of his job is to follow a host of health dictates and to share that data not only with his employer but also with the third-party company that administers the program. He resents it, and he foresees the day when the college will be able to extend its surveillance.”
Cathy O’Neil, ‘Weapons of Math Destruction’, excerpt on Backchannel.
This sort of thing is going to be all over education and our private lives. Big data masquerading as big ideas, or just ‘big money’. Its just because ‘we care’.
Nice essay and phrase from Audrey Watters:
Credential creep doesn’t solve the problem of credentialing at all, of course. But it’s great business for all these new credential providers and their investors (or so they hope).
It is (in part) what is driving an educational bubble
Laurie Taylor in fine form
“Our university is to appoint a “nostalgia liberation officer” to protect the small number of academics who are unable to come to terms with the exciting new nature of higher education.
Concerns that even these steps may not prove sufficient have raised the prospect of the university creating “a safe space” where nostalgia dons would be free to talk endlessly about the time when universities were “a community of thinkers engaging in intellectual pursuits not for any external purpose but as an end in itself”.”