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Aug 26, 2011

Google, the Big Brother

Here is what happened: Google deleted this blog, and then it was brought back from the dead within a few hours. After a half-billion settlement for advertizing fake Canadian pharmacies (RI prosecutors did the work, I am so proud), the Google team is just a tad paranoid. Who can blame them? Apparently, they now delete first, and ask questions later. My son Gleb guessed, the algorithm thought my blog was about gay porn. I must confess, I learned about all the bear connotations much later, after the blog was published for a while. I was actually going after the Cold War imagery of the Russian Bear; you know the one always invading the neighbors. But the algorithm did not know that. It happened to me before – the Providence Public Schools’ spam filter put me on their junk sender’s list, because I include the word Russian in my signature. The stupid machine thought I am trying to hook up all those fine eligible district bachelors with Russian fiancés. Thanks to Spencer, I was white-listed. Oh joy of being white-listed.

The challenge Google faces is enormous. I own dozens of documents, most of published on the web. Other people may have hundreds and thousands. The size of the Internet is approaching astronomical scale. How do you police all of that info-space, if you could be found liable for the content you host? The only way is to use the digital Robocops – computer algorithms that will kill bad blogs by the hundreds. Google’s human capacity is limited; its server space is not. It is probably cheaper to kill automatically, and then restore by hand than the other way around.

But I have to tell you, it does not feel good to be on the receiving end of the cyber justice. You want to update your blog one fine Friday afternoon – and it is just gone. Coincidentally, someone marked my Weekly Updates Google Doc as inappropriate – who knows, by error or as a prank. Maybe another stupid machine did not like a word or two in it. Now try to prove you’re innocent! The presumption of innocence does not seem to be working on the internet anymore. And the human mind is paranoid; it tends to believe the machine on the other side is just like us. Two things occurring at the same time look like a conspiracy. Am I being attacked? And then, on the same day, Google decided to check my password on the Droid phone. Well, I don’t wear reading glasses (although I should), so I simply could not see their scrambled pass code, you know the one you need to enter to prove you are human. Not fun; I must have tried a dozen times. With each attempt, I could feel how the Big Brother is becoming more and more suspicious. Each attempt made me a little more guilty. But I just could not see the damned made-up words! I had to come home, find a pair of glasses, and only then prove I am human. How did we get to the point where we must prove the machines we are human, over and over again? And since when having good eye sight has become a pre-requisite for being human?

And you want to please the Big Brother; you don’t want to offend him, oh no! Those of you who share with me the totalitarian past know exactly what I mean. You want to make sure the Big Brother knows you’re OK, while being angry more at oneself than at him . You don’t want to pick another fight with him, because those fights are just plain exhausting. You are ready to challenge him and die, but please spear me the small little every day fights, over every single little thing. Totalitarianism does not threaten; it exhausts you.

This is new, and paradoxical – Google is desperately trying not to become the Big Brother, and yet it is being dragged into the role against its will. Americans, who are genetically allergic to all these annoying things, may soon learn how is it to be watched. Life is surely full of irony. What Stalin could not do to the free word, its own technology may just accomplish.

Aug 19, 2011

The planting season and risk management

Summer is the planting season for us, college administrators. We plan, anticipate, try to see what’s coming, prepare for what we don’t see coming. Some of the seeds are easy to plant. For example, I started a whole new journal in a matter of days. It already has about half the editorial board (more people from around the world will be joining). No one knows whether this particular plant will thrive or even survive. But the idea seemed to be good, the cost is minimal, and potential return on investment can be significant. This is a no brainer, really. Another easy picking: we figured out a simple way of collecting students’ Praxis II scores and sub-scores (which we always need for accreditation and quality assurance). No one could see potential downside, and the time commitment is minimal.

Risk is best measured as ratio of investment size over likelihood of success over the potential benefit. OK, for those mathematically inclined, I*B/S, or I/S/B (I is investment, B is benefit, S is likelihood of success). If the investment is small, and return is large, even less likely to succeed projects should be attempted.

Other examples are less certain. There seems to be support for some program revisions, and new programs to be developed. These things are expensive in terms of time and effort. The outcomes are more certain – the programs will be improved, but it is never clear to what degree. The more radical is the change, the larger is our investment in development and implementation, but since the rate of return is uncertain, at some point radical changes become unwise. Now, once you tried a specific practice and found it to be both effective AND replicable, then a more radical change becomes less risky. But there is always cost to change: time we spend trying to change is not spent on tiny every day improvements, which are sometimes more efficient in the end than the large change with uncertain outcomes. However, if a program’s enrollments are dropping, or it has not been revised in 20 years, a higher degree of risk is quite justified.

This is not exactly math, because too many variables are in place. For example, I really want to start an innovation lab. Why? - Because we don’t spend nearly enough time and resources on innovation. It is not a priority for us. We may say it is a priority, but we do not act as if it were one. A real priority is something you spend a lot of time on. So, in this particular case, the investment is relatively large. I plan to spend several hours every week to work on it, and am planning to ask other people to do the same. The likelihood of a radically new and effective idea is not very high: there are hundreds of institutions just like ours, and most try something new once in a while. However, there are significant side benefits that are almost guaranteed: it is a lot of fun, and quality of work experience is going to be better for me and all those involved. Activating creative collaboration is very likely to bring better morale, better communication across departments. At the very minimum, these conversations will help us learn about each other’s work, and it is not a small thing. Even if the big idea never materializes, many small ones will be shared or created.

And one last concern: we only have so much of a garden plot; time and human resources are limited. Planting too much leaves no breathing room; we end up working too hard, chasing too many projects, and doing none of them really well. I always try to overplant just a little, because not all seeds germinate, but not too much, so we don’t have to weed out perfectly good plants. And of course, one can never plan for floods, droughts, and hail.

Aug 12, 2011

How do we really do?

As I am working on the State of the School talk for the faculty Fall retreat, some very simple questions come to my mind. The simple questions are not necessarily easy to answer. For example, how do we do? Of course, I can simply give my enthusiastic assessments, like, “The School is in a terrific shape!” Or, “The School is in trouble!” It becomes just a rhetorical choice; what do I want to do more, to raise the morale and cheer people up, or to create a sense of urgency? The choice somehow feels wrong. Mainly because my colleagues will immediately see through whichever rhetorical choice I chose. Who are we kidding?

So, how do we really do? Any time you cannot answer a question, you should step back and ask – what kinds of things would help me answer that? That’s what a researcher does, and so should all people.

So, OK, there is the court of public opinion. No one has asked Rhode Islanders what they think about RIC’s School of education. And I am not really sure if there is a good way to ask. Judging from the local media coverage, we hardly exist at all (did we try to pitch our stories? You bet). But then again, the media creates, as much as reflects, the public opinion. Judging by the Fall elections, there is a lot of good will toward public higher education among the voters, who approved some serious money for our new Art building. We are definitely lucky to have a Governor who believes in public higher education. But that’s about all we know.

Next, there is the opinion of our professional community: teachers, principals, superintendants, RIDE, various non-profits, the two State boards, etc. Again, it is hard to tell. The last thing these people want is another survey. Because I have been specifically asking many of them, here is my summary, highly unscientific: “You have good traditions, but the place is not dynamic of forward-looking.” And yet another big question – are these people right about us? I personally I don’t think it is a fair assessment. RIC as a whole is on the move, and our School is no exception. But to I know it or do I simply believe it? What’s the argument, “Yes we are, no you ain’t?” Is there a dynamism index somewhere?

External evaluators? NCATE thinks we are wonderful, for we are continuously accredited for decades. They have liked our recent report, and are coming back in November to verify it. NCTQ, on the other hand, does not think that much of us – our student teaching is rated week, believe it or not. The first is a national professional association, but have been criticized for approving not only good, but also marginal institutions. NCTQ, in my opinion, has very little research credibility, but they surely can publish sleek reports and generate publicity. The sticky pint is this: neither can actually prove that their approval means an institution is producing better educators.

How about some hard data? Our students have high GPA, pass both basic skills and professional licensure tests (some are slightly above the national average, and some are slightly below). We know for sure that our future teachers do not come from the bottom third of the class, contrary to some popular myths. They score higher, for example on SAT than non-teaching majors, have higher GPA and more honors. But still, is this good enough or what? It would be great to report that we score much higher than the national average on all licensure tests, but it is not clear if the tests are good proxies for quality. There is a lot of internal data, but none of it compares to other institutions. We develop our own measuring tools, so whatever they show cannot be used to say how well we do for sure.

And of course, there is our own self-perception. Most of us believe we are doing a good job, just by seeing our students perform, and by being tired all the time.  I, for example, always think that I was not nearly as well prepared as are students these days. But I don’t know for sure. Can one trust self-perceptions? I am sure people who worked in all of those companies that go bankrupt every year were tired, too, and believed they are doing a good job. But we don’t have market or bottom line to provide the final judgment on quality and competitiveness.

This is the age of sound bites and clips. I have no problem looking into a camera and saying,“ We are the best in the State and one of the best in the nation,”  and actually believing it. It would be nice though to add “And I can prove it to you.”  The truth is, I can’t, and neither can you, or any of our peer institutions across the country. We want to, but we cannot. The entire higher education cannot figure out a way of objectively measuring an institution’s comparative effectiveness. The US News and World Report rankings are simply entertainment: they all are based on measuring inputs, none of which has proven to affect outcomes.

In the absence of real evidence, the next best thing is to do what you and your colleagues believe is right. Whenever the belief can be reinforced with actual research, it should be. In the rest, it just an opinion. The important qualifier is this: we should acknowledge that and live with the uncertainty. If you are clear on it, it is easier to change your mind when new evidence comes in. When you deny your own ignorance, you end up defending an empty dogma.

Aug 5, 2011

The technology dilemma

In the last twenty years college campuses went through an extraordinary revolution. Here is how RIC home page looked on November 13, 1996; nothing before that survived. Anyone remembers Gopher? Mouseless Word? Registering for classes by phone?  IT departments grew in size and sophistication, the information infrastructure has been evolving, and there is no end in sight. Right now, we live through a peculiar moment, with some unique tensions. I am an outsider, not a part of the IT world, so you should not take my comments too seriously.
One relatively recent big shift was adoption of integrated data management solutions that include human resources, financial management (purchasing and payroll), records, financial aid, admissions, reporting, and almost anything else, including custom applications. There are two main competitors: PeopleSoft (Oracle) that we use at RIC, and Banner (SunGard); there are probably others, as well as home-built systems. They address the mind-boggling challenge of multiple data systems that colleges were and still are suffering from. Heroic IT teams all over this country have more or less tamed the beast, which is very difficult even with the help of either of the two commercial providers.
But here comes the dilemma. The comprehensive data management systems are so complex, you need to have specialized knowledge to mess with them. This is not just because of security (which is very important). Allowing many non-specialists deeper level of access can clog the system with repetitive and bloated quires, create redundant and improperly related fields, and generally destabilize the system. It’s like letting airline passenger kids play with flight controls. However, faculty and administrators on campuses got used to instantly available data, online workflows and forms, and functional websites. They do not understand why cannot be more of this stuff. But because everything is locked into one or two data management systems with little backroom access, all requests go to the same few exhausted IT people. They become the organizational bottlenecks unintentionally, and at no fault of their own. Of course, those on the academic side usually cannot even comprehend what sort of challenges the IT deals with, so there is often disconnect.
Here is an example. I received an e-mail today from one of our partner schools; their new hire for second grade fell through, and they wanted to find a year-long sub with permanent prospects, preferably within a few days. I am thinking, all I need to do is to export the class roster of those who did Elementary student teaching in the Spring, and send them an e-mail. One of our grads may land a great job, and we may help out a partner. OK, but the course ID number from Spring Semester is not available on schedule, at least I could not find it. NO roster can be exported without an ID. This is Friday afternoon; by the time I get someone at IT to do it, it will be a few days, and too late to be helpful. And besides, I cannot afford to spend my time, and commit the IT resources to this task. And what is frustrating – the data I need is right there; potentially at my fingertips.
Another example is the websites. They are not easy to figure out, as I have mentioned before. You need to try, to experiment, preview every step, tweak, play; it is a dynamic and highly interactive learning process. All of this is very time consuming as it is. However, if you add to the task the need to schedule a meeting with someone else (a web master), sit down and explain your needs, then check how it turned out, and ask for fixes and revisions – if you add all this, it becomes simply impossible. Most academic departments just give up; they type up whatever they need to publish, and ask these files to be uploaded. They print out handouts, and just keep them in the front office. Students come in, take them, and the life goes on. The web site in the meanwhile becomes a graveyard of past projects and old announcements that no one remembered to remove, and did not have time to update. So, students learn to mistrust the sites; they learn to come and ask someone at the office, or send an e-mail; just to make sure. As a result, chairs, advisers and secretaries become burdened with volumes of unnecessary advising, and hundreds of e-mails a day. They get so busy, there is even less time to update websites; the task becomes a chore rather than a way to communicate more efficiently.
What’s next? I am quite convinced the next will be the devolution of access. Many more people on campus will have to be able to edit websites, create queries, put together online forms, collect data, and collaborate online. There is just too much of it for a few IT types to handle, and I don’t see a sudden hiring splurge. The cycle is going to repeat itself: from chaos to centralization, and back. Hopefully, it will be done with less chaos than in the earlier age of information technology. But we need to learn to accept a little more risk in exchange for access. We also need to accept more fragmented and less coherent solutions. We must re-think our over-reliance on the comprehensive, complex, and by definition fragile informational superstructures, and look into outside providers. It is already happening, and will happen regardless of what we decide. It is much better to control the process somewhat, rather than just let it happen.
In our School we already use several unrelated platforms: People Soft, SurveyGizmo, Chalk and Wire, Google Docs, SharePoint, Twitter, Blackboard, Face book, networked drives with Access, Nabble… there may be a few more I cannot remember. They all suffer from inability to link data easily from one to another. None of the products (except PeopleSoft) are professionally designed and carefully edited. They are buggy, glitchy, have typos and possibly factual errors. But so what? The other option is stagnation, relying on the involuntarily bottlenecks, the loss of dynamism. We all did manage to use word processing, spreadsheets, email and online shopping. Now it’s time we all learn to build websites, surveys, forms, collect information, share it, and most importantly – maintain clear, simple and accurate information flow to benefit our students and ourselves. The overworking is self-inflicted; we need not to work more, but work smarter.
Technology does not move forward only. Just this week, we figured out it would be simpler and less work to collect hard copies of OPR, and have our work-studies to enter the data manually, then to train and support hundreds of cooperating teachers to use Chalk and Wire. The same goes for faculty – they all can, of course, enter the data online, but then again, perhaps they are over-qualified for this kind of work? It is still hard to take a laptop into classroom for observations, so most take written notes, and then enter on-line. It is really not hard, but subjectively may feel a little boring and unproductive. But then, others may do some thinking and writing when they fill out the form online. Anyway, there will be a choice for people and an experiment for us.