Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Academic R&D and the #FiscalCliff

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published the comments of Michael McRobbie, President of the (R&D strong) Indiana University, on the vulnerability of academic research to the fiscal whim of Washington. The article and discussion may be followed here:

The Multibillion-Dollar Threat to Research Universities

Indeed, it's not a pretty picture for academic R&D, and we were already in a rut, well before this confluence of "fiscal cliff" events formed.

Nevertheless, there are several strategic initiatives that research universities can pursue, to ensure that they recover from what events may unfold over the coming months and years:

First, universities must diversify their sources of research funding. As long as I have been involved in academic research, faculty around me have relied almost exclusively on NSF, NIH, DOE, DoD, and the like. All of those sources are tied together by the short-sighted whim of Washington, and it is high time that academics who do R&D start thinking about how to supplement those funds and assist faculty with development of other resources. (And to make matters worse, I find that many junior faculty don't even know how to pursue funds from the traditional sources)

Second, academia needs to become a lot more engaged in the process of electing government leadership and finding strong advocates for research support. Academics generally regard lobbying as a negative thing, but... the time has come to get better plugged into the process.

Third, I worry very much about the junior faculty who've been through the rough patch in funding and may see more of the same, or worse. When I was a junior faculty member, there was *zero* adjustment made to tenure review standards despite the fact that funding probability was single-digit during those years (and hasn't really recovered since then). If the funding picture becomes particularly bleak then, you know what, maybe it's time to weight the teaching of our junior faculty just a wee bit more than how much funding they bring in. Mark my words, schools that don't adapt to the funding climate will lose a lot of talented people. That is short-sighted.

Fourth, on the topic of finding funds for research, I believe that our universities need to focus a lot more on center-level research funds, rather than the usual single-PI grants. There are many reasons for this but one of the most important, from my perspective, is that it's just become far too difficult for junior faculty to land the really prestigious career awards etc. And even if they do, they are generally receiving a lot less funding than they would have a few decades ago.

I have many more ideas about this but I confess I am frustrated by how little our academic administrations listen to the ideas. the usual assumption is that we should simply continue with business as usual, even as Rome burns.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Nonlinear Cost Scaling in Higher Ed

Here is my quick response to a Delta Cost Project report described on the Chronicle of Higher Ed at this link:
We need to distinguish between short- and long-term trends. If we don't do this, we run the risk of prescribing overreactive fixes that act to the detriment of what is best about American higher ed. And despite all the gloom and doom, there are many very good aspects about the "traditional" American college experience.

Tuition inflation, administrative bloat, and blur of the academic mission etc. all started *long* before the mortgage crisis of '08. Yes, the crisis certainly shone harsher light on the cost problems, but higher ed was already well embarked on several unsustainable trends more than a decade ago. 

The "college for all" theme rose to the level of national politics in the 1990s, but surprise: we've come to discover that the politicians don't know anything about the real expense of scaling the college experience that they tout. They assume more enrollment equals more tuition revenue and that's that. If only it were so! That would imply simple, linear cost scaling. Meanwhile, our schools have had to pour huge investments into the facilities (dorms, dining halls, classrooms etc), and personnel, and a *nonlinear* surge of expense was inevitable.

For better or for worse, we have to remember that much of our higher ed apparatus was designed to serve a select few, rather than to scale up in the way that our state and national politicians have urge. We *can* scale up to increase enrollment, but it will cost...

Saturday, December 15, 2012

After #Newtown, Where are the Pragmatists?

After the violent tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, many Americans are asking the same questions asked so many times before. We've asked them after similar events at Paducah, Denver, Blacksburg, and Aurora... and so many other sites of violence across the country. We've asked them for years and decades and generations.

Many Americans ask why no one saw this coming; why certain weapons are commonly available; what failures of law permitted these events; whether a particular door should have been better fortified; whether failures of counseling and mental health services played a role; whether a parent or teacher or friend didn't take the right actions when confronted by a disturbed young person.  And these are all reasonable questions deserving real answers.

The most important question is this: what ails our leadership, that we should find ourselves yet again unable to take even the most tentative steps toward solutions. Traumatized on the national scale yet again, why will we again deny ourselves that most potent therapy of taking some steps... any steps... toward solutions.

Fundamentally, ours is a failure of national leadership, and that weakness afflicts almost every current issue of our politics. Our anti-leaders fervently stake out wildly disparate positions that truly evoke our worst history- the dark times when we even contemplated separating ourselves permanently from discussion. Many of our media seem to delight and profit from this display. One party steadfastly asserts the social rights, almost to the complete exclusion of individual responsibility; the other asserts the individual rights, almost to the complete exclusion of social responsibility. Most of us, somewhere in between, wonder if it's really so difficult for a modern American politician to walk and chew gum at the same time.

In fact, most Americans are quite moderate in our thinking. Most of us are pragmatic. Most try to be good citizens. Reflecting on our finest accomplishments as a country, we speak with pride about a specially American "can do" attitude and ability to "get it done." And we have an enduring faith that, somehow between the vacillating extremes of our politics, our politicians will act as advocates for their causes, and eventually reach some moderate settlement in the court of public opinion. Yet, somehow, we continue to elevate anti-leaders of such poor character and short-term ambition that they cannot contemplate pragmatic compromise on any topic. Our politics is better described as precarious oscillation rather than balance. Under these circumstances, if we are to have any solutions at all, they are derived from short-lived swings to the right or left, during which one side has a temporary numerical advantage permitting some small piece of incomplete legislation to emerge. 

And so... we have half-fixes to our healthcare problems; half-fixes to issues of immigration; half-fixes throughout our educational apparatus; half-fixes to our fiscal challenges... and half-approaches toward the violence just unleashed yet again on our children.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Rapid Learning Therapy and the Brave New Classroom (a Satire)

The Fredersen Institution, a private biomedical research facility endowed to advance the science of learning, has released the results of an expansive study to develop new educational methodologies.  The results, says Institute Director Dr. Ross M. Zeug, will substantially alleviate the financial burdens associated with education, by helping schools introduce more efficient learning strategies. “This is a bold, pioneering work,” says Dr. Zeug, “and we are pleased to share this success with our colleagues across the academic profession.”

Dr. Zeug admits that the initial studies at the Institution were unsuccessful and frustrating. In the first phase of research, students of diverse background and interest were provided curriculum via intensive audiovisual media, using information assembled from the Network.  Students’ learning outcomes were subsequently determined via standard assessments such as the American Proficiency Exam. Unfortunately, many of the participating subjects developed symptoms of anxiety and dysphoria, and a significant number requested to leave the study. “Our entire approach,” says Dr. Zeug, “was at risk because the students were experiencing learning fatigue.” However, once these symptoms were diagnosed, researchers were able to seek therapies to mitigate it. They drew upon pharmaceutical approaches developed to mitigate fatigue in a very different context- on the battlefield.

Rudimentary pharmacological approaches to reduce fatigue were first developed around the second World War, as personnel working with new, complex machinery found themselves in circumstances demanding acute attention and focus over extended periods. Until that point, short-term stimulative supplements such as caffeine and nicotine had sufficed, but the new technical challenges required increased focus and lucidity. An important breakthrough was the isolation of amphetamine in the early 1930s. Following its introduction to the military, combat pilots could undertake extended missions with extraordinary focus and precision, with sufficient detachment to avert natural stress responses that can compromise performance.

“A light bulb went off,” recounts Dr. Zeug, “when we realized that we needed to focus our attention on mitigating learning fatigue… while also helping students feel rewarded for accomplishment.” This insight led the Fredersen team to explore a novel combinatorial psychotherapeutic approach.  Prior to treatment, students are provided an environment that encourages relaxation and eliminates stray audiovisual stimuli. Next, students are administered a combination of amphetamine salts, which greatly enhance mental acuity, as well as reuptake inhibitors for serotonin and dopamine, which positively modulate the mesolimbic pathway and almost instantly help students begin to find reward for positive learning outcomes.

The learning process begins as audiovisual media compiled from the Network are introduced at an accelerating rate into the rapid learning environment, and the supplements are automatically adjusted in order to optimize students’ responses to assessment queries.  The results indicate that almost all students enrolled in one of the Institution’s rapid learning modules outscore their traditionally schooled peers on standard examinations. In addition, virtually none of the participating students reported fatigue or discomfort, even as materials are introduced as much as twenty times faster than ordinary speech. “The students learn more information, at much higher speed,” says Dr. Zeug, “and they also report pleasing sensations as they gain knowledge.”

The most significant costs associated with the Fredersen methodology arise from the design of the encapsulated learning environments required to eliminate cognitive interference and prevent adverse interactions between students due to asocial behavior- a temporary side effect of rapid learning therapy. However, the expenses associated with these facilities are quite modest compared with the archaic infrastructure -libraries and classrooms- required to preserve traditional educational methodologies. “Cost was our foremost consideration,” says Dr. Zeug. “We wanted to ensure that the technology could be available and affordable to everyone.” Dr. Zeug notes that rapid learning therapy relies on commonly available medicines that can be produced in larger quantities to help reduce cost further.

Current research at the Fredersen Institute aims to develop more advanced learning assessments. One particularly promising method is to implement noninvasive brain scanning techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). “We find that we can quantify engagement of specific portions of the brain with fMRI,” says Dr. Zeug, “and that clears the path toward real-time assessment of engagement and learning.” These comprehensive assessments could be used to compile aptitude profiles for each student, to guide them efficiently toward their most appropriate career path.

The Fredersen approach is not entirely without its detractors. At a recent symposium on teaching, Prof. Carl Chapeck, Lecturer Emeritus at the Walden School, raised concerns regarding de-emphasis of the broader kinds of experience associated with more traditional learning environments. “I worry about the process of maturation and forming wisdom,” says Dr. Chapek, “and I worry that our pupils might not know what happens when one sips from the Pierian spring.” In response, Dr. Zeug notes that his team has already developed a rapid learning module that delivers a comprehensive treatment of Greek mythology within one twelve-hour session.

N.b. this piece is satirical in purpose and any resemblance to actual persons, facilities, or events is entirely coincidental. 

Recommended reading/viewing: 
"R.U.R." by Karel ńĆapek; 
"Metropolis" by Fritz Lang; 
MSNBC: Adderall Abuse on the Rise Among College Students

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Toward a New American University (some brainstorming)

Recently, as part of a brainstorming exercise, I compiled some of my more practical ideas aiming to transform the American university experience. The goal is to encourage application of knowledge and a smoother transition into the workplace. Here are the core ideas:

Foremost, I believe that the American university should refocus on individual student learning, application, and creative achievement. I would prioritize programs to help students develop the skills and credentials that they need for advancement, while reducing the overall cost to students and their families. In the following summary, I describe changes along the timeline of learning at "my" university...

Many students enter our colleges unprepared for advanced learning, and spend ~1 year on remedial material, delivered at high expense. My approach would incentivize thorough preparation and phase out “College 101.” Students would be required to demonstrate proficiency within their subject matter area, e.g. by entrance exam, if no suitable standardized exam exists. Guided by their results, some students would be prescribed hybrid online/offline, self-paced courses. Thus, my university would phase out large “101” classes, and make it possible for most students to complete formal study at the university in ~3-3.5 years. This would reduce cost substantially.

To help guide them through the academic experience and beyond, students need short-term and long term advising and mentorship. Upon entrance to my university, students would be assigned three kinds of mentors: a faculty major advisor; a senior student colleague in the 3rd year of the same major program; and a recent alumnus. I would also seek to place students within residential colleges with resident advisors and faculty fellows, providing broadly themed academic programs to foster social and teambuilding skills. No student would be able to "hide" in their specialty.

My university would emphasize experiences that allow students to distinguish themselves. General studies courses would be phased out, in favor of infusing major curriculum with material designed to improve students’ intellectual breadth. For example, students aiming to complete a major in science would encounter history of science, philosophy of science, and scientific writing coursework, rather than curriculum tangential to their interests. This is, I believe, key to reinvigorating the liberal arts approach. Breadth, yes; distraction, no.

Conventional A/B/C/+/- course grades would be abandoned in favor of a far simpler system with three kinds of grades: Pass with Distinction, Pass, and Fail. This system would be designed to eliminate grade inflation and simplify the grading process, while still rewarding distinction.

Completion of a summer practicum would be required of all students, and the university would develop the appropriate matchmaking facilities. Depending on the student’s major, this practicum could consist of assistance to a faculty member, an internship at a company or agency, or work in a research lab, etc. Students would receive credit for the internship via participation in a seminar during the subsequent semester.

An undergraduate thesis would be required of all students, as a means to ensure that they develop and improve written and oral communication skills. The thesis project would consist of ~1 year of research and should demonstrate a synthetic, creative achievement- not merely a book report. The final document would be placed on permanent record as a publication of the university and would bear the student’s final, cumulative grade.

Jacobs Physics: Article link: Keith Williams on the use -- and abuse -- of technology for technology's sake

I had a great time the other day visiting Woodberry prep school, a gorgeous facility for boys in grades 9-12 near beautiful Orange, VA. Friendly faculty member and physicist Greg Jacobs gave me a great tour. Quite a facility! And best of all, I got to interact a bit with some of the students who are tackling some rather complex problems in preparation for a competition.

My visit to Woodberry reminded me of where I was, in my own thinking, around grade 9- thoroughly absorbed in understanding new ideas, and quite relieved to find other young people who shared my interests.

Jacobs and his colleagues are doing a great job encouraging students to think out loud and work together as they play with new ideas and concepts.

Jacobs Physics: Article link: Keith Williams on the use -- and abuse -- of technology for technology's sake