Higher education

Teaching and / or research

by reestheskin on 27/02/2017

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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.

Why the NSS is garbage

by reestheskin on 17/02/2017

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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]

Education: no easy answers

by reestheskin on 16/02/2017

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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.

It’s hard not to make a profit (in education)

by reestheskin on 15/02/2017

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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

End of the party

by reestheskin on 10/02/2017

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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)

What is thing called medicine?

by reestheskin on 07/02/2017

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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.

Ed tech 2016

by reestheskin on 03/02/2017

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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.

It’s like judging piety by testing the Bible.

by reestheskin on 01/02/2017

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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).

Great Expectations

by reestheskin on 31/01/2017

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“I miss the 1990’s sometimes. People had no expectations, and so they thought bigger.”

Nice line in an article by Mike Caulfield on ‘New Directions in Open Education’ (original link via Stephen Downes)

We can’t work it out.

by reestheskin on 25/01/2017

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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”.

educational fMRI and diagnosing cars with a thermometer over the bonnet

by reestheskin on 13/01/2017

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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).

Big data: more big money than big ideas

by reestheskin on 12/01/2017

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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’.

Credential creep

by reestheskin on 11/01/2017

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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


I see the end brightly now

by reestheskin on 09/01/2017

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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”.”

“Four decades ago The City University of New York charged no tuition fees, and all its students were taught by full-time staff. Today, fees cover half of all teaching costs and half of professors are part-timers.”

Danny Dorling in the THE, reviewing Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education By Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier

Like bank robbers of old, investors turn to students “because that is where the money is”.

Danny Dorling in the THE, reviewing Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education By Michael Fabricant and Stephen Brier

A New Year’s resolution (to avoid)

by reestheskin on 02/01/2017

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“…professors fixated on crawling alone the frontiers of knowledge with a magnifying glass.”

Quoted in the Economist 10/12/2011

2017: the importance of being harmless and irrelevant

by reestheskin on 01/01/2017

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Geoffrey Boulton (University of Edinburgh) in, “What are Universities for?”

A university that moulds itself only to present demands is one that is not listening to its historians. Today’s preoccupations are inevitably myopic, often ephemeral, giving little thought for tomorrow. History is at its most illuminating when written with the full consciousness of what people wrongly expected to happen. Even in the domain of technology, future developments only a few years away have been shrouded from contemporary eyes. Many, possibly most, have arisen unexpectedly from research with other objectives, and assessments of technological potential have invariably missed the mark.

Thirty years ago, scientists who studied climate change, and I am one of them, tended to have long hair and very colourful socks. We were regarded as harmless but irrelevant. But the serendipitous investment in their work revealed processes that we now recognise as threatening the future of human society, and the successors to those scientists are playing a crucial role in assessing how we need to adapt.

A sensible way to start the year.

Roger Schank at OEB

by reestheskin on 31/12/2016

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His introduction is  at 1:10 and his talk begins at 25:00. I would skip the Andreas Schleicher (aka Mr PISA) talk, although Roger has something to say about testing. His style of presentation may make you think he exaggerates.

A nice way to end the year.



(The ever insightful) Gregory Clark, an economist at the University of California, Davis, finds that students with Norman surnames from Domesday are still over-represented at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Economist.

OEB16 musings

by reestheskin on 13/12/2016

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I went to the OEB meeting for this first time this year. I was not certain how much I would like it, but found it really enjoyable. Not a meeting I would go to each year but, if you are interested in teaching and learning in the broadest sense, it is well worth a visit. I would go again.

One of the sessions I enjoyed most was a fairly small concurrent session with the title ‘The value and the price: discussing Open Online Courses’, chaired by Brian Mulligan (IoT, Sligo), and with panellists Stephen Downes(NRC, Canada), Nina Huntermann (edX), Diana Laurillard (UCL), and KonstantinScheller (European Commission). It was all wonderfully informal, with not too many people there and plenty of time for questions and discussion. I got involved too, rather than just listening. The discussion ranged widely over MOOCs (c or x), online learning, ‘conventional teaching and learning’ and other topics, but that is to be expected. You cannot discuss online learning without thinking about offline learning; you cannot discuss new tech, without discussing old tech; you cannot discuss scale without discussing one-to-one; you cannot discuss value without talking about money and non-money.

I didn’t take notes but the thoughts going round in my head (prompted no doubt by the panel were):

  • You cannot hide from the question of value. You can think about this is terms of money, time, inner wealth or job prospects, but the calculus has to exist somewhere. If the learning takes place in an institution that performs other tasks and has other goals (research, outreach, engagement, certification), this value has to be factored somewhere. Cross subsidies will be under challenge, whether they are they are sensible, or not. Sensible for whom?
  • I am, to use somebody else’s phrase, a libertarian paternalist when it comes to higher education. I really do think I can guide people through difficult terrain. But putting glorious autodidacts to one side, to what extent do many students need coaches, and under what conditions. The answer, at least in some of the domains I know about, is far less than we like to think. And, those who require least guidance are, in many senses, those we want most.
  • Content. What is the content, how is it presented, how does it hang together, how tested is it, how has it been curated, how personal is it? I will start ranting about this soon, so I will shut up now. Except to say, it is not a rant: this is so important.
  • How important is place? Where is the community? How do you maximise the sense of place?
  • How do you balance private study with communal learning. What is the right balance, and how does the answer influence costs?
  • I can see differences between MOOCs and other forms of non-institutional learning, but only of degree. Penguin books, and BBC OU broadcasts were open to many of us, and used by many of us. But they only allowed local conversations, rather than networked learning. We can — or at least –could do a lot more now.

College is dead; you just don’t know it yet

by reestheskin on 02/12/2016

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Roger Schank at OEB16. But this is just the hook. What is going on is that school isn’t working, and people end up having to go to college, with a resulting increase in expense for both students and the state. It is wasteful — except for those selling degrees, and a proportion of students.

Reminds me of the Alan Kay quote, to the effect that the US has the best high school education in the world — it is just a shame you have to go to College to get it. Of course if you go to graduate school….

The mess that is Higher Education in the UK

by reestheskin on 24/11/2016

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This —‘Remaking Tertiary Education’ — is a terrific read. The report’s author Alison Wolf, asks: “How did we get to where we are? The obvious answer is ‘Government funded it this way’ and of course that is correct.” But the UK Higher Ed community was cheering all the way. £££££££.

I first came across Alison Wolf, reading her book ‘Does Education Matter?’ a few years back. The answer is, of course, much more nuanced than the many providers like to think. The most recent report points out that the current direction of travel is unsustainable, and that the students and tax payer are accumulating large debts. Once you have the blank cheque tax-payer-backed scheme, providers will expand and expand, with little end in sight ( tip: a marker of quality for UK universities is finding an institution that is not trying to expand undergraduate numbers). This was all pointed out at the time, but was buried under the trope of ‘education, education, education’. What Wolf has been right about for a long time is how the expansion of the historical 3/4 year degree level course has been to the detriment of technical education. And the needs of the population.

The graph below gives you some idea of what has happened, and there are two figures that should accompany it:

  • The contribution of student loans to net government debt is forecast to rise from around 4 per cent of GDP today to over 11 per cent in 2040.
  • 30 per cent of the English workforce being overqualified for their role, compared with an OECD average of 22 per cent. (quoted here).














This is a massive bubble, not in learning, or producing rounded citizens, but in certification. And it is evident not just at Bachelor’s level. UK Higher education 3/4 year degrees need to be cut drastically.

‘I feel truly ashamed.’

by reestheskin on 23/11/2016

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Sir Keith Burnett (VC, University of Sheffield) who accompanied Theresa May on a trade mission to India, quoted in the THE. Another quote provides a flavour:

I have tried to stay positive for the past four years as I’ve seen things rot. I have groaned as changes in visa regulations pushed more and more potential students away. The government has assured us that it was not deliberately trying to reduce the numbers. Well, that may be the truth, but the results are in. A 50 per cent drop!

Other countries are rubbing their hands with glee at our stupidity. Ms May is announcing that her trade mission has seen £1 billion in deals announced for the UK. But remember that international students are worth £14 billion to the UK economy every year. That’s equivalent to more than one major trade mission a month.

Now, this is indeed about direct threats to UK universities, but I will not be churlish here. You cannot have a strong and robust society without fine universities. What is worth remarking on, is how rare it is to see plain English being used to state the ‘bleedin’ obvious. That plain language is rare reveals how politicised the whole of education (and health) is in the UK. Remember the antithesis of science is not art, but politics.

You have the MOOCs and bla-bla-bla

by reestheskin on 19/11/2016

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“You have the MOOCs and bla-bla-bla – you can quote me on that,” he says, laughing, “but the real revolution that has happened is in YouTube, Wikipedia, Minecraft, and people publishing things on the internet.”

I think MOOCs are interesting, mainly because of the light they cast on dated and inadequate models of university mass education, but he is right.

Mark Surman of Mozilla.

Optimising the production of Masterpieces and genius work

by reestheskin on 15/11/2016

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There is a witty spoof on the ‘contact hours = quality education’ debate (sic) in the THE. AKA why are ministers so stupid.

Ministers are concerned that despite large differences in the quality of novels, they all seem to cost the same. From now on, under the National Assessment of Fiction Framework (NAFF), the quality of novels will be scientifically measured according to the number of pages they contain, and prices will be set accordingly. Ministers are said to be delighted to have finally proved that Riders, Jilly Cooper’s 900-page epic, is three times better than Jane Austen’s insubstantial Pride and Prejudice.

It reminded me (yet again) to track down something I had read many times on Brian Randell’s web page here. Computing was lucky because the inventors got to do so much before the academy tried to close it down.

Masterpiece Engineering, T. H. Simpson, IBM Corporation, (Via Brian Randell’s web page here.)

“Here on this spot in the year 1500 an International Conference was held”.

It seems that a group of people had gotten together to discuss the problems posed by the numbers of art masterpieces being fabricated throughout the world; at that time it was a very flourishing industry. They thought it would be appropriate to find out if this process could be “scientificized” so they held the “International Working Conference on Masterpiece Engineering” to discuss the problem. As I continued walking round the garden, now looking a little closer at the ground, I came across the bones of a group, still in session, attempting to write down the criteria for the design of the “Mona Lisa”. The sight reminded me strangely of our group working on the criteria for the design of an operating system.

Apparently the Conference decided that it should establish an Institute to work in more detail on production problems in the masterpiece field. So they went out into the streets of Rome and solicited a few chariot drivers, gladiators and others and put them through a five week (half-day) masterpiece creation course; then they were all put into a large room and asked to begin creating. They soon realized that they weren’t getting much efficiency out of the Institute, so they set about equipping the masterpiece workers with some more efficient tools to help them create masterpieces. They invented power-driven chisels, automatic paint tube squeezers and so on but all this merely produced a loud outcry from the educators: “All these techniques will give the painters sloppy characteristics”, they said.

Production was still not reaching satisfactory levels so they extended the range of masterpiece support techniques with some further steps. One idea was to take a single canvas and pass it rapidly from painter to painter. While one was applying the brush the others had time to think. The next natural step to take was, of course, to double the number of painters but before taking it they adopted a most interesting device. They decided to carry out some proper measurement of productivity. Two weeks at the Institute were spent in counting the number of brush strokes per day produced by one group of painters, and this criterion was then promptly applied in assessing the value to the enterprise of the rest. If a painter failed to turn in his twenty brush strokes per day he was clearly under-productive.

Regrettably none of these advances in knowledge seemed to have any real impact on masterpiece production and so, at length, the group decided that the basic difficulty was clearly a management problem. One of the brighter students (by the name of L. da Vinci) was instantly promoted to manager of the project, putting him in charge of procuring paints, canvases and brushes for the rest of the organisation.

Some people try to optimise the shit out of everything. Or, as we might say in South Wales, ‘tearing the arse out of it’.

Classroom learning, engagement and oxymorons

by reestheskin on 10/11/2016

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Undergraduates frequently complain that they don’t have enough contact hours. But a major study in the UK suggests that students develop skills better out of – rather than in – the classroom.

I do not find this claim too surprising, but if you read the article and go to the HEA ‘engagement report’, I find it hard to know how they claim to have established this as a fact. Confounding and hidden variables all around. But as has been said before, classroom learning has the air of an oxymoron. Contact hours are both relevant and  irrelevant. Context matters most.

This diagnosis is a forgery!

by reestheskin on 02/11/2016

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There was a story in the FT a few weeks back (paywall). It concerned the painting ‘Portrait of a Man’, by the Dutch artist Frans Hals. Apparently, the Louvre had wanted to buy the painting some time back, but were unable to raise the funds. However, a few weeks ago, the painting was declared a “modern forgery” by Sotheby’s — trace elements of synthetic 20th-century materials have been discovered in it. The story has a wider resonance however. The FT writes:

But if anything the fake Hals merely highlights an existing problem in how we determine attribution. In their quest to confirm attributions, dealers and auction houses seek the imprimatur of independent, usually academic, experts. Often that person’s “expertise” is deduced by whether they have published anything on a particular artist. But the skills required to publish a book are different to those needed to recognise whether a painting is genuine. Many academics are also fine connoisseurs. One of the few to doubt the attribution to Parmigianino of the St Jerome allegedly connected to Ruffini was the English scholar, David Ekserdjian. But too often the market values being a published writer over having a good “eye”.

Here is a non trivial problem: how can we designate expertise, and to what extent can you formalise it. In some domains — research for example — it is easier than in others. But as anybody who reads Nature or the broadsheets knows, research publication is increasingly dysfunctional, partly because of the scale of modern science; partly because the ‘personal knowledge’ and community has been exiled; and partly because it has become subjugated to academic accountancy because the people running universities cannot admit that they do not possess the necessary judgment to predict the future. To use George Steiner’s tidy phrase, there is also the ‘stench of money’.

But the real danger is when the ‘research model’ is used in areas where it not only does not work, but does active harm. I wrote some time back in a paper in PLoS Medicine:

Herbert Simon, the polymath and Nobel laureate in economics, observed many years ago that medical schools resembled schools of molecular biology rather than of medicine . He drew parallels with what had happened to business schools. The art and science of design, be it of companies or health care, or even the type of design that we call engineering, lost out to the kudos of pure science. Producing an economics paper densely laden with mathematical symbols, with its patently mistaken assumptions about rational man, was a more secure way to gain tenure than studying the mess of how real people make decisions.

Many of the important problems that face us cannot be solved using the paradigm that has come to dominate institutional science (or I fear, the structures of many universities). For many areas (think: teaching or clinical expertise), we need to think in ‘design’ mode. We are concerned more with engineering and practice, than is normal in the world of science. I do not know to what extent this expertise can be formalised — it certainly isn’t going to be as easy as whether you published in ‘glossy’ or ’non-glossy’ cover journals, but reputations existed long before the digital age and the digital age offers new opportunities. Publishing science is one skill, diagnosing is another, but there is a lot of dark matter linking the two activities. What seems certain to me, is that we have got it wrong, and we are accelerating in the wrong direction.

Academically adrift

by reestheskin on 01/11/2016

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“Applications from the EU to Oxford, Cambridge, medicine, dentistry and veterinary courses have fallen by 9%, with a 16% fall in those who applied to medicine. This is in spite of the government’s recent confirmation of continued funding for EU students applying for 2017, though the announcement may have come too late for many applicants. It’s still early in the cycle though, and numbers could yet recover, but the numbers are not helping the jitters.”

(BTW, the previous article is titled ‘Are we academically adrift?’ after the US book and survey (AKA: ‘students don’t learn nuttin at college’). Troubled waters. All puns intended.)