Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Is #CNN wagging the dog over #MH370?

CNN has given me the motivation to blog again… and unfortunately not for a positive reason.

By now, almost everyone on the planet is familiar with the sad mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, lost for more than two weeks after departing Kuala Lumpur. Certainly, this is a tragic event and the families and friends of the passengers deserve our ongoing support and consolation.

There are two tragedies here: foremost, or course, the loss of the passengers. The second tragedy is the inexplicable and sudden loss of CNN’s credibility as a news organization. The network has been parroting wild speculation, and repeating the same news ad nauseum. Worst still, CNN appears to be manufacturing or at least repurposing old news, to give viewers the impression that they are delivering something significant... when in fact the story has barely advanced in weeks. And some details, presented as sufficient grounds for wild speculation, have been revealed incorrect, e.g. the famous "alright goodnight," now refuted. The truth is that this could be an approximate repeat of the Helios Airways Flight 522 tragedy... we simply don't know yet, and we may not know for months or years.

The tactics that CNN has used to boost ratings are rather obvious. At regular intervals, we see “Breaking News” splashed across the screen. This is accompanied, of course, by the familiar theme reinforcing the urgency. We see a checkerboard of ‘experts’ who, instead of clearly delineating what is known from what is not, as any responsible expert should do, often appear to attempt to outdo each others’ gut feelings. We see two “pilots” installed in a flight simulator, where they game all manner of scenarios, with no apparent relationship to evidence. CNN has entertained virtually (pun intended) every possible scenario… and a few impossible ones too. Anchors of several CNN shows have been pulled into the ratings frenzy, shoving aside many stories for which far more substantive information exists, e.g. the tragedy in Washington, and the annexation of Ukraine and subsequent massing of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border.

It’s not CNN shouldn’t report on MH370- of course they should. But shouldn’t the amount of coverage be proportional to the availability of newsworthy content? That this isn’t the case opens the door to the frightening proposition that CNN is manufacturing a story… wagging the dog, so to speak. Meanwhile, CNN’s ratings have indeed improved. But at what cost?

There is news, there are newsmakers... and then there are journalists. Does anyone at CNN know the difference?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

How Many of our Students are Adequately Prepped for Maximum Return on a College Investment?

The subject of how to prepare a student for college continues to be on my mind...

Recently, an article appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education that describes many of the issues associated with computing return on the college investment:

As I consider the viewpoints expressed in this article, I again wonder if the role of preparation is given sufficient attention.

A common assumption made by students and their families is that college will illuminate a clear career path and guarantee a certain salary. In other words, college is a ticket to the good life; you simply buy that ticket, and off you go.

My feeling is that we need to communicate much more clearly to the students that college is an enabling experience... not an entitling experience. If a student doesn't understand that key difference and realize that this is in fact a good thing, then that student probably isn't ready for college.

A transformative college experience is something in which students must truly participate- i.e. it's not a movie that they can sit through, passively view, and exit with more than they arrived. College should not be viewed as mere credentialing. Our students should be better prepared to engage and expected to engage; this is the "collegium" of college- it's not just some high-priced theatre that you watch. When students are ready to come and participate with the faculty and with each other, then the outcome is far greater for all.

And on this overarching topic of preparation to engage... what I think is most obviously missing from so many discussions of college's return on investment is how to gauge preparedness. Pre-college preparation is not measured simply by points on an ACT or SAT! The important question is whether the student has the academic and social maturity to get the most out of their experience. Many parents seem unaware that their students simply aren't ready to dive in... in which case, all the points and counterpoints about the college return on investment are fairly moot. Even the very best programs will do little for an underprepared student. 

I first wrote about the 'prep problem' on this blog around a year ago.... and I'm even more convinced of its importance today.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Campus Counseling Visits on the Rise.. Why?

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that "The number of college students with severe psychological problems continues to increase, while anxiety, depression, and relationship issues most commonly send students to seek help at their campus counseling centers, according to a report released last month."

Here's the article link; you probably need a Chronicle subscription to read it:

First, I have to say that it's very sad to read this today, on the anniversary of the tragedy at Virginia Tech, which took place six years ago. Have we made any progress toward prevention of such events? It doesn't seem to me that we have. There are so many distressed young people, and our discussions about these issues are still so superficial.

Interestingly, the study cited in the Chronicle reports an inverse correlation between the number of counseling visits per student, and school size:

"Centers at small, private colleges typically draw a greater percentage of students than do those at large, public institutions. At private four-year colleges with enrollments between 1,500 and 2,500, roughly 18 percent of students visited the counseling center, the report says. At public universities of more than 30,000, only 7 percent of students did."

On this topic, I suspect that financial issues are one of the main drivers behind the anxiety that students feel. If that's the case, then there may be a correlation between counseling visits and sticker price. Also, based on recent discussions with several sets of parents, I'd say too many parents make an incorrect assumption that a small school is necessarily more socially welcoming and supportive than a larger one. Usually, those making this assumption cite the student-teacher ratio, which is very limited metric, in my opinion. Parents often assume that smaller is better, but it's really not that simple. I have worked with a number of students who really loved and took great advantage of the more diverse student population that they found in a large public university. They like the social options and, perhaps to some extent, the anonymity. 

One young fellow I've worked with on career goals for a few years told me that a small college he visited felt too much like high school... cliquey and full of the same kinds of kids. This is consistent with my own experience. I don't know about you but for me, high school was a rather awful social experience, where it was very hard to find kids with whom I could identify. My transition into a fairly large public college brought tremendous relief!

Overall, it seems to me that many of our schools have become places of great stress, with too many students believing that every test is make-or-break... and too many faculty teaching to the tests, rather than really connecting with the students. Grade inflation has made it so hard to distinguish oneself that the students are scratching and clawing over every plus or minus. And we now have a quarter or more of our students resorting to amphetamine-based prescription medications to assist with cramming... 

...not to mention the anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. It seems that college has become a fabulously profitable pharmaceutical enterprise. Is anyone really surprised? Is today's college environment where students want to come and feel inspired to take those first, tentative steps toward finding themselves?

Far too many discussions I have with students now revolve around finances and related anxieties, e.g. whether there will be a job for them, whether they can cram it all into three years, etc. In addition to that direct financial stress, several other factors seem to elevate the anxiety in our colleges. The enrollment surge is something many of our colleges were ill-equipped to handle, and that surge led to larger and less personal classes and now perhaps even acceptance of courses that students won't even attend in person, because that's how the system thinks it can pare instructional costs. And this is "college"... collegium... a social environment.

Monday, March 25, 2013

"Robots Aren't the Problem" in our economy, but what about our schools?

In an essay on the topic of technology entitled "Robots Aren't the Problem" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Florida writes:"we should look at how [technology] affects our social and economic arrangements—and how we have failed to adapt [it] to our circumstances."

This raises deep concerns about higher ed in general and the STEM disciplines in particular. Surely I am not alone with my concerns about the widening disconnect between the economy surrounding the highly integrated consumer technology... and the faltering economy of learning. 

Full disclosure: I am a nano / device physics guy; I and students built lovely nanotube-based transistors and whatnot together over the years before I left academia, so I'm about as close to the most hyped tech directions as you can find on a typical college campus. Even as a very tech-friendly academic, I have real questions about what exactly I am teaching for. I know that I can't simply break open an iPhone and fish out some parts and teach classes about those. Many of these devices that surround us are so integrated that their operating principles are obscure even to experts.

Okay... I could teach courses on this material... but those classes would be nothing at all like what most of our students take now, and very few students would be sufficiently prepared to delve into the black boxes that fill our lives. Within our current curriculum, frankly, we're doing well to bring students up to speed on technology a full decade (or two) prior. The tech fields have gone into so many different directions of late, it's very hard to keep students abreast without diluting the core curriculum. Do our institutions of learning really have any idea just how big the gap has become, between what we teach and what a student would need to thrive in the tech sector?

After completing the lectures and proceeding into the research labs, our students typically do very basic research sponsored by the likes of NSF, i.e. with very little tie-in to companies like Apple ($AAPL) and Google ($GOOG) and other tech leaders. And those tech leaders aren't really investing in next-generation talent; in fact, they aren't really investing in much of anything- they have huge amounts of cash on hand. Where do we go from here... Apple University? Google University? And do those companies have a faculty job for me... ;)

In summary: what economic growth we do have in this nation right now is very much about consumer tech designed by a few specialists and manufactured abroad, and ed is almost totally disconnected from that. This is a very worrisome trend, in my view. 

N.b. I am certainly not criticizing the underlying technology and I am no Luddite.... but I do question how consumer technology comports with ideas about a liberal higher education as a means of career advancement beyond academia.

P.S. Just for Mr. Coburn: my work to teach nanotechnology to undergraduates was partially supported by NSF Nanoscience Undergraduate Education (NUE) Grant 0532515, entitled "'We're Not in Kansas Anymore' - A Hands-On Introduction to the New World of Nanoscience and Technology."

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just For Mr. Coburn: The Evolution of Transsexual Attitudes Toward Gerrymandering in the Context of Global Warming

Fresh news from the budget battleground in Washington: tension is high... it's coming down to the wire... we're a week or so away from partial government shutdowns...

...but Tom Coburn (R-OK) thinks there's enough time to dig into the details of NSF studies on the political science of filibustering. Seriously.

It seems Mr. Coburn is taking issue with political science research on the filibuster and on cooperation between Congress and the President. And note: Mr. Coburn's issue is not with the research itself, which I am sure Mr. Coburn never actually considered; no, Mr. Coburn's issue is that the NSF has research funding for such topics at all.

This particular intrusion of national politics is highly ironic. As Mr. Coburn should know, American politics is now all about filibustering, gerrymandering, super-PACs and widespread voter disillusionment. And that certainly isn't the fault of the NSF.... but it is certainly a valid scholarly topic.

Full disclosure: as a libertarian, and there is all manner of wasteful government spending that I'd dearly love to eliminate. Let's talk about gargantuan agricultural subsidies, the incredibly bureaucratic and directionless Department of Education, etc. But Mr. Coburn's views represent a new kind of thought control- the ultimate intrusion by a national politician through the legislative manipulation of taxpayer funds. This is Ken Cuccinelli vs. UVa at the national scale. This is the intrusion of short-sighted political whim into scholarly thought, and it evokes some of our darkest history, when differing points of view were silenced for reasons of power and domination rather than intellectual argument. And this is yet another embarrassment for thinking libertarians and conservatives like myself who aren't afraid of dissenting views.

At a time when we should be talking about eliminating massive and unnecessary trillion dollar projects like the joint strike fighter, we're instead wrestling in the weeds over... academic studies of the filibuster? Because one politician doesn't like an NSF proposal title...?

This truly makes me want to send in an NSF proposal entitled "The Evolution of Transsexual Attitudes Toward Gerrymandering in the Context of Global Warming" ... just to get myself on a talk show opposite the likes of Tom Coburn. Let's talk about wasteful spending, shall we?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

#Privatization: an Important Ingredient Missing from the Budget Discussions

Paul Ryan recently released his latest budget, and it envisions some rather large cuts to the Federal workforce. I'd be the last to defend government bloat, but... Ryan's politics on this point is disappointingly amateur.

With their poor messaging, the national Republicans are missing a large opportunity to present with a theme that worked quite well for them in the past: privatization. This is a theme well familiar to the Reagan-era Republicans, and it does provide many opportunities to connect with a brighter vision of the future, as we see many green shoots in the private sector. Some recent, visible successes like SpaceX suggest that the private sector could snatch several batons from the public sector... and run with them, creating more jobs as they go.

The theme of privatization also connects well with the recent optimism throughout the financial markets, which do appear to be taking sequestration well in stride. What could quickly halt that momentum and produce a sharp downturn is any indication of further job loss. I suppose that some politicians might actually welcome a return to 8% unemployment and higher underemployment, as a short-term, political opportunity before the midterms, but surely there are enough reasonable centrists to overcome those few on the fringe.

Rather than letting job cuts and layoffs and furloughs remain the headline theme, Republicans could and should be emphasizing ways to transition public-sector work to the private sector. Privatization is a long-term political strategy with real opportunities. And, if properly implemented, privatization could produce much of what the Republicans want.... while installing a mechanism to ensure sure that public-sector jobs don't simply vanish.

The public sector has already shed many hundreds of thousands of jobs in the past few years. The perception that Republicans are willing to let many more public-sector jobs go really exposes their longstanding political Achille's heel, namely that they seem to care less about people than they do about abstract numbers.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

#Sequestration and all the things it does not accomplish

It appears that sequestration will happen. Our politicians have made the decision to test the markets and the voters, and simply walk away. Serious negotiations should have concluded a year ago, but were swept under the rug by electioneering on both sides.

Obviously, the agencies are working very hard to take make headlines of these cuts. Cancelled carrier deployment, long lines at airports... let the drama begin. One might think that responsible administrators would try to work with the cuts and minimize ill effects, but no! This is the theater of the day.

Because sequestration will not occur within the context of an overarching fiscal plan, the cuts are disruptive by design- i.e. there is no strategy to mitigate ill effects. Moreover, the ten year program of cuts can be stopped or even reversed at any moment, so there is no real commitment to rein in spending. Sequestration is not a real strategy to cut government spending; it's designed to be a political scare tactic and nothing more.

The cuts that really need to happen will not happen. Sequestration will not dial down production of hyper-expensive fighters; it won't reduce agricultural subsidies; it won't take one tentative bite out of the fat at the Department of Education and other agencies that have run off the rails for decades; it won't fight the rising cost of health care; and it certainly won't set our entitlement spending on a sustainable path. 

Sequestration is not some principled Coolidge-era shift of economy from public to private; there's nothing being shifted at all and there is no strategy on either side to accomplish that. Instead we'll have just small, disruptive cuts designed for partisan headlines. And those cuts truly add up to peanuts in terms of total federal spending.

Imperfect though it may be, the Simpson-Bowles plan has been on the table for years and could easily lead us out of this silliness, with responsible cuts of significant magnitude.

I guess I just have to hope that the next election is as anti-incumbent as I dream.

P.S. This informative blog post by Rick Newman shows, in good detail, what sequestration does and does not do:

Rick Newman / US News & World Report : Charts reveal likely sequestration effects