Building to Scale

An obvious effect of increasing the number of people pursuing higher education is the increased the stress on resources available to the institutions providing higher education. Expanding physical classroom space in light of current economic conditions is probably untenable. Building materials and labor costs are high and if there isn’t space on campus then there is the need for land purchases and the like. And in the future, if a particular university were to suffer a dramatic decrease in the population of students attending the physical campus, these same buildings would be under utilized, perhaps even vacant much of the time.

To put it succinctly, physical classroom space does not scale well. It cannot quickly grow or shrink as needed. The virtual classroom, however, scales remarkable well. Doubling the size of the online student population would likely burden the university with minimal hardware and software costs Likewise, if the demand for online classes were to diminish, the infrastructure used to support the university’s online product can easily be scaled back, perhaps even re-purposed. With cloud technology, adjustments like this are trivial compared to brick-and-mortar resources.

So much for machine scalability. The question regarding faculty usually arrives about this time. “Online professors don’t scale so how will you solve the problem of finding qualified instructors with experience teaching in online environments?”

This is a false dilemma and, pardon the reflexive reference, “old school” thinking. Professors, or at least their presentations, are scalable. An example will help: Imagine a physics professor who teaches at several universities. He accomplishes this by having his lectures video recorded at the first presentation, for which he is paid. The recorded lectures are then played at subsequent classes, for which he is paid again although it is a lesser amount. The payment model is more like royalties than salary. This model works better for subjects that are more basic or general (like undergraduate subjects) and for which the content does not change appreciably. Conceivably, if this physics professor is very good, he can be teaching a dozen classes simultaneously. That’s how faculty can scale.

The role of the teacher/instructor/professor needs to change in the virtual classroom, as will the responsibility of the student. The student will have a greater responsibility for content assimilation (i.e. reading, watching lectures, etc.) while the professor will focus less on content presentation (lectures will be previously recorded and web content would for the most part be static) but an increased role in verifying student comprehension (monitoring and participating in discussion forums, grading essay responses to questions and who knows what else is yet to be invented.) Although, given some of the innovative work being done with simulations in online education contexts, the evaluation responsibilities may also be significantly reduced or eliminated.

As for employment and steady income, teachers/instructors/professors may be challenged to diversify their sources if no one institution and support them. Will we see accreditation on a more granular level, i.e. at the level of professors? Will freelance professors become the wave of the future? How this looks in the next 5-10 years is unknown, but that’s what makes this exciting, eh?

A Liberal Arts Education and Asperger’s Syndrome

In a conversation focused on the value of a liberal arts education in today’s economic and social climate, a classmate took the following position:

The problem lies in the social aspect of non-traditional schools and an example of this would be the Colorado School of Mines. Mines is a very tough engineering school that focuses on engineering and computer science. It technically is a traditional school that is specialized on engineering (they don’t have art appreciation). Once you have a chance to walk on campus you will realize that most these students are not socialized. They walk around with their heads in a book and spend their days in a lab, library, or in front of their computer screen. They do have a few sports teams, but maybe 10% of the class population attends the competitions. There are very little parties and even less campus events.

These students are extremely smart, but have a very difficult time interacting with one another and working as a team. This may be due to Aspergers disorder (which it is found that a lot of them have) or the lack of community events that happens at the school.

A second classmate chimed in:

I can relate to your description of the School of Mines. When I worked in marketing at a computer company, we had many engineers, computer scientists and programmers on staff. It was obvious that they were incredibly smart and had a strong technological education, but they could not interact in a social way with each other or anyone else. When they were required to work as part of the team but just came and zoned out at meetings. To discuss projects with them was frustrating and difficult and rarely resulted in getting what we needed.

At my current organization we have two technology guys who are laid back, funny and articulate. We joke that they must have had a liberal arts education first as they don’t fit the stereotype of the computer nerd. They are incredible at problem solving with very non technical staff and never talk down to us. Their social skills are way above other computer technicians of my experience. I think I will ask them about their education. Now I am just curious!

There was much to disagree with in each of these positions. In this post, I’ll focus on a few of the major issues.

I have a measure of familiarity with students and graduates from Mines, MIT, and a few other technical universities. They are truly remarkable people and have a few odd behaviors or eclectic interests. And it’s been observed: “The reason that every major university maintains a department of mathematics is that it’s cheaper than institutionalizing all those people.” The same could be said of the little niche of chemistry students I belonged to as a student at CU Boulder. But that’s just how it looks from the outside. My challenge to these classmates was surely you cannot be suggesting schools like Mines are somehow handicapping their students by emphasizing math and science over art and literature?

As a model for all schools, Mines would be a bad thing. But they do serve a specialized market. And, I would add, an important one. The beauty of a free market system (for ideas and commerce) is that each of us can choose the school most closely tailored to our skills and interests.

I also challenged the claims that

  • A lot of students at Mines are afflicted with Asperger’s syndrome.
  • Students with the type of character traits prevalent on the campus of Mines have trouble working as a team.

Neither of these challenges were answered.

I was not aware of any research that concluded “a lot” of students at Mines (or any predominantly technical university) have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, nor could I find any.

I’ve worked with many of these types of individuals and, when I managed technical teams, was responsible for hiring them. The key is to understand who you’re dealing with, what their capabilities are, and how to manage them. Give them a problem to focus on, a direction to follow and they will get there. In my experience, they do work together very well. It was my job to bridge the gap between other functional areas of the business.

I’ve also worked with extremely creative marketing types at Ogilvy & Mather’s in New York. Arguable on the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of STEM subjects and liberal arts subjects, they were just as difficult to communicate with. Their socializing patterns were equally confined to their own tribe but were much more overt. In comparing the two, I would also add that many of the socializing patterns observed with the marketing types were much more likely to be self-destructive. Failure to recognize the socialization pattern of a particular group does not mean they are absent.

During the engagement at Ogilvy & Mather’s, I worked very well with my counterpart from the marketing department. Our unique set of skills for bridging the gap between the two tribes was essential to successful communication. To illustrate the narrow perspective from my classmate, consider rewording her response as follows:

When I worked in marketing at a company, we had many Frenchmen who only spoke French on staff. It was obvious that they were incredibly smart and had a strong linguistic education, but they could not speak English with each other or anyone else. When they were required to work as part of the team but just came and zoned out at meetings. To discuss projects with them was frustrating and difficult and rarely resulted in getting what we needed.

At my current organization we have two French guys that also speak fluent English and who are laid back, funny and articulate. We joke that they must have had a liberal arts education first as they don’t fit the stereotype of the non-English speaking Frenchman. They are incredible at conversing with the English speaking staff and never talk down to us. Their social skills are way above the French only speakers of my experience.

Just like imposing advanced math and science classes won’t automatically produce competent engineers, imposing art, music and literature classes won’t automatically product a “well rounded” individual. There is one difference, however, as noted by Paul Graham: “When people are bad at math, they know it, because they get wrong answers on tests. But when people are bad at openmindedness, they don’t know it. In fact they tend to think the opposite.”

Forward to the Past

Medieval university, from Wikipedia:

Initially medieval universities did not have a campus. Classes were taught wherever space was available, such as churches and homes. A university was not a physical space but a collection of individuals banded together as an universitas.

Virtual Universities – the new midieval. Who knew?

What is the scariest novel based in a workplace?

Mike Wade asks “What is the scariest novel based in a workplace?” and suggests Moby Dick.

The scene in which Ishmael realizes that he is stuck in a vast expanse of ocean on a whaling ship captained by a mad man with unquestioned authority still gives me the chills.

Strictly speaking, I’d have to go with Heart of Darkness. Wet, rotting, and sent to find a boss you really don’t want to meet. I hate those jobs.

Not strictly speaking, I’d go with Alien (a movie, so not actually an answer to Mike’s question.) A space vaster than any ocean, limited resources, coworkers with scary secrets, and a customer you just can’t please.


Dot Com 2.0: The Revenge

Interesting article:

A Boom Time for Education Start-Ups

The dollar amounts mentioned in this article are impressive. The growth even more so. But what is particularly interesting is the formula.

  1. Start with a large bowl of fresh Internet
  2. Add 10 years of Moore’s Law seasoned hardware advances (broadband, wifi, “stuff in the cloud”)
  3. Add millions of dollars
  4. Mix thoroughly
  5. Pour mixture into LMS-that-doesn’t-look-like-Blackboard-but-has-social-media-stuff-bolted-on cake pan
  6. Sprinkle with digital textbooks that are nonetheless textbooks
  7. Half bake and serve immediately

Given this is an article from the “Chronicle of Higher Education”, it isn’t surprising that the focus is on traditional university and public education transformation. In my view, this isn’t where the substantive innovations are going to manifest. This article reflects that position in that entrepreneurs face steep resistance from educrats.

Furthermore, when I read quotes like this:

But recently, Mr. Staton said, “something in the zeitgeist” is giving education entrepreneurs access to money, advice, and talent that was once reserved for other sectors.

Or this:

The company (OneSchool), whose mobile application was inspired by a cellphone photo of a homework problem, pulls in publicly available data to connect students with real-time bus maps, faculty directories, and local eateries near their campuses. It has raised $750,000 in seed money so far.

I’m reminded of much that I saw during the dotcom boom and bust. Zeitgeist, eh? That must be some sort of one word business plan. And maybe its a cool app OneSchool has coded, but take the student/campus context out and all it appears to be is …well, another cool app. It may help with personal organization or whatever, but how is it advancing a transformation in education? Yesterday’s killer web site is today’s killer mobile app, apparently.

“There would be a lot more investment in companies that are figuring out how to serve schools if schools simply streamlined the process of making decisions about whether or not to adopt technology.” Colleges have students’ best interests in mind, but “in a world full of good intentions, our biggest competition is indecision,” Mr. Staton said.

Well then, fasten your tuition seat belts, brush aside the school’s good intentions, and roll out Mr. Staton’s good intentioned solutions filled with all that zeitgeist goodness. On the plus side, those who paid attention the first time around will know when to cash in and leave the party.

Fifteen years ago, the perception was that whatever your problem, technology was the answer. In particular, one needed web-based technology. Today, the perceived solution to what ails education is again technology. Its like saying the solution to homelessness is tools when in fact the solution to homelessness is homes. Tools are needed to create that solution, but we have to understand the problem before we can design the solution and then choose the most effective and appropriate tools to build the solution.

Vicarious Learning Assignment

If you’re of the opinion password protecting your smartphone (or dumb phone, for that matter) is a nuisance, go read this article:

Most Finders of Lost Smartphones Are Snoops

These are pretty compelling statistics in favor or securing your smartphone. And this experiment only involved smartphones that were “lost”. It is a safe assumption that targeted devices are more thoroughly explored.

Read the rest of this entry »

SQL Tip: Running Totals with Multiple Joins

Here’s one for the geeks.

I had need to collect a running total in SQL. There are plenty of good examples for how to do this when the records are in a single table. But there were few examples (that I could find) for how to do this involving joins on multiple tables. In my case, the table structure (simplified, using MySQL) is as follows:

Multiple Tables

(Click for larger image.)

The output I wanted was as follows:

The SQL that accomplishes this:

Hope this is helpful to someone.

Stress Test for Professionals

This stress test has been floating around the Intertubes for quite a few years.

The picture at the link below shows two identical dolphins. It was used in a case study on stress levels at Harvard/Yale/Mayo Clinic/Oxford/Cambridge/Etc.

Look at both dolphins jumping out of the water. The dolphins are identical. A closely monitored, scientific double blind study involving a group of IT professional revealed that in spite of the fact that the dolphins are identical, a person under stress would find differences in the two dolphins. The number of differences observed matches closely to the amount of stress the observer is experiencing.

Study at the image and if you find more than one or two differences you may be experiencing stress.

Click here for image.

So…what does it mean if I saw two identical cows jumping out of the water?

Blog Haiku #33

A conversation.
More than words, sounds in the air.
Hands, elbows, and nods.

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Constitution 101: The Meaning and History of the Constitution

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