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May 28, 2019

The optimism bias and starting a university from scratch

Apparently, bad planning is in our genes. According to this Freakonomics show, we humans have an inherent optimism bias, and a related bias of bad planning. We tend to underestimate how much time and effort any project takes, and grossly underestimate the transactional cost of teamwork. So we optimistically plan all these projects, and then have to work evenings and weekends to try to see them completed. We also get frustrated that someone dropped the ball, did not follow up, or is late with his or her portion of the project. In many case, it is because we underinvest in communications among team members.

The Academia is similar to all other organizations, but also different. We have here the annual, Big Project: classes, grades, progress toward degree, and graduations. The Big Project runs smoothly, because it repeats almost exactly every year, just like the Church Liturgical Cycle. On the other hand, it is so massive, it takes most of our resources and waking hours – just to make sure it runs as planned. Any kinds of improvements to the Big Project, any one-time smaller projects often misfire, exactly because the organization has little capacity outside of the Big Project, and because we can take no risk on it – the Big Project must happen no matter what. We are not like a software company that is used to churning through regular new products. We are not like a construction company that has a beginning and an end to any construction project. We are more like farmers – 99% of all effort is spelled out in advance – we saw, we cultivate, we harvest; year after year, for decades.

Another big difference – in education, innovation within its core activity – teaching and learning – is very limited. It is a whole long argument that I will spell out one day; it has to do with the Baumol’s Cost Disease. The short version is that we will not see large gains in productivity of learning and teaching any time soon. However, we have tremendous marginal areas where much за possible innovation has not happened yet. For example, we have so many advisers and staff members, because our students and faculty cannot get though most processes in self-service mode. All those processes are way too complicated, and very poorly designed. In theory, it should be very easy to figure out which courses you need to take when. It should take seconds to ask for money and complete a travel reimbursement claim.

Yet just because information technologies are available in theory does not mean they can be implemented and integrated easily. Universities are patchworks of old, disjointed improvements that do not talk to each other. Banner and PeopleSoft were tremendous steps forward to integrate at least the most basic university functions. Everything else is kind of bolted on them, haphazardly. We still have hundreds of students run around the campus having their change-of-major paper forms signed by three people. It is not anyone’s fault; this is simply because we have the Big Project to take care of.

So the problem is that we under-invest in the trivia of small improvements. Or perhaps the size and complexity of a large university makes true improvements unattainable? I wish I knew the answer to that.

I would love to start a brand-new university from scratch, with some capable software architects. I know several people tried. However, they completely misunderstood the task. The task is not to mess with the core function – students meeting their professor for a conversation. It is to strip down everything else that gets in the way; literally everything – the scheduling, the registrar, the athletics, the grounds, the physical plant, the buildings, the deans and their assistants, the Academic Affairs division… All of it is really meant to help the essential human project of teaching and learning, of relating. The Intelligent Cloud should handle all that, or most of it. In 2016, Sac State had only 686 full-time faculty (and about 1000 part-times), and 1,290 full-time staff. As you can see, the helpers outnumber the helped. And most of us on the staff side wage the battle with disorganization, all day and every day. On good days, I believe it is winnable, but then again, it may be the optimist bias speaking.

May 13, 2019

The third spiral, or Why education is so interesting to study

Understanding education is key to understanding the story of our species. Like many of our animal cousins, we supplement the gifts received through genes with gifts passed on by our culture; we just do it a lot better. Education is the craft of weaving the biological with the social. We take the genetically determined ability to have a language and graft onto it the ability to write and read. We thank the genetic accident that lets us distinguish pitch and perceive rhythm, and turn into music. How do you make so much more out of what is given to us? The magical practice is called education. Culture is like the third spiral of DNA - it is closely bound with the two original ones, to the point that it is actually quite difficult to tell the boundaries between the genetic information and that transmitted through culture.

Tolkien’s mythology describes “the strange gift of mortality bestowed upon Men by Ilúvatar,” but not other intelligent species like elves and dwarfs. It is indeed strange to think of mortality as a gift rather than a curse, but it is definitely one of the most profound human conditions. The biological evolution has learned to pass a lot through the death barriers by reproducing biological copies. Because of sexual reproduction and random mutations, the copies are not exact, and sometimes are better-fitting than the originals. However, the third spiral of DNA can only be reproduced artificially, and with much higher chance of positive mutation. Education is thus the cultural enzyme that tells us which raw elements of chaotic human culture are to be expressed in every new generation, and which are to be suppressed. Hence, in school we study math rather than murder.

The fundamental human process is self-domestication, self-improvement as a species. Our long journey to freedom from violence and suffering is very slow and painful. However, in evolutionary terms, it is a wild success in a blink of an eye. How do you get from the total warfare and hunger to a relatively peaceful and prosperous world of 10 billion people in mere few thousand years, and without any noticeable edits in the genetic pool? How do we record more knowledge that anyone of us is capable of knowing? The answer to those questions is in our secret evolutionary weapon, education.

In any given society, there exists a set of practices based on selection of knowledge. They select certain kind of knowledge and deem it worthy to be curriculum. They also select certain social mechanisms to ensure that youngsters learn. The combination of the two creates a steady push for the human species to drift in a particular direction. Education provides directionality of human history as history of humans. Some believe it is the explicitly stated ideals, or the Universal Spirit, or the objective material forces, or god that provide the arch to human history. However, from the evolutionary point of view, the most powerful force is the slow wind that fills the sails of educational practices. It affects how the new generation will be a little bit different from the previous, intentionally so. Imagine a huge airship, the society, at the bottom of which is a small engine, education. The airship is at the mercy of huge economic and technological winds, however, the tiny engine pushes it in one direction; over decades, it wins.

Of course, kids will learn what they learn, with or without intentional education. A.V.Mudrik defined education as a relatively more manageable part of socialization. Yet again, even if the unmanageable part of socialization is bigger and stronger, the gentle boost provided by education is directional, not random. Education is nothing if not selection. A society has to decide which things are worth learning - both in content and in content and in social arrangements of educational institutions.

Do you want to know what a society wants in terms of redesigning human beings? - not what it says it wants, but what it actually wants?, - take a look at its educational system. For example California says it wants to prepare its workforce for 21 century jobs, especially in STEM. Yet it spends about average on K-12 schools, underpays its teachers, and tolerates significant shortages of STEM teachers for many years. It says it wants to educate in inclusive environments, and yet it tolerates both huge shortages of special education teachers, and many segregated classrooms. What it really wants is tax rates competitive for its businesses and population; and it wants them more than STEM workforce and inclusion. You can talk all about equality of opportunities, but be unwilling to provide quality schooling for all kids. You can talk about access to higher education, but unwilling to pay for mass university systems. I say unwilling, not unable, although in this context they are the same thing. To the extent we can assume there is a directionality of human history, the direction is the intent.

One can look at number of other policies: economic, social, healthcare, etc. to guess the direction. However, only education will tell you the prevailing anthropological project, the project of changing the human being.

Of course, the developmental direction of the California society is not created in one person’s head; it is a result of complex political dynamics. Indeed, there are significant policy efforts to reshape education in California to provide for equity, inclusion, STEM careers, and access to college. Within education, there are also competing interests and conflicting intentions. However, the point remains: if you want to know where a society is heading, take a look at its education, as it actually works, not how it is meant to work.

May 5, 2019

We are not that similar

There was an interesting discussion about generational misunderstanding in my Russian part of Fb. A teacher considered why a certain history documentary is inaccessible to contemporary students. The narrator uses tacit citations, allusions, and references that are well known to the generation that grew up in the late Soviet Union, but is alien to Russian adolescents today. Exactly the thing that makes the documentary interesting to us, makes it boring to them. It is the same language - they understand all the words; they just miss the connotations.

We have watched recently Sharp Objects - a great Netflix miniseries. I was wondering if anyone could understand much of it without some knowledge of American small town life, and without living in the US for decades. What one critic described as “honey-coated but often barbed dialogue” is delightfully hard to comprehend. I enjoyed it greatly, but am also wondering how many layers of meaning escaped me because I did not grow up in America, and missed some 30 years of mass culture and everyday banter. I do well in all kinds of professional conversations, but will miss certain nuances when Americans quip over a beer. When I listen to British BBC Radio 4, I don’t get perhaps every fifth joke, just because their context is not as familiar to me.

One of the greatest communication sins is to assume that your interlocutor is the same as you, that his or her cultural contexts are the same. It is easier to avoid when you deal with a foreigner, whose accent screams at you “I am different and may not know what you know.” It is much more difficult to avoid when dealing with a different generation. For example, some older folks who grew up in the 60-s and 70-s will drop an F-bomb in a formal conversation, because that was a signal of liberation from the formality of old institutions, and was a call for solidarity against the oppressive System. Yet today’s 30-something may hear nothing but mucho bullying. Are they too sensitive, too sheltered? No, they just have a different set of cultural references, and it is just too easy to miss. The same goes for regional differences: what is a friendly chat in New York City, will be considered an open conflict in the parts of the Midwest and South.

It would probably be best if we learned to treat everyone as a foreigner who may have learned our language, but will never be exactly the same as us. What we sometimes think are “wrong” reactions may speak not as much of moral deficiency, as a subtle cultural difference. Multiculturalism is easy when the other is very different. It become incrementally hard as the degree of difference diminishes. Intimacy is greatly overrated and sometimes trumps respect. It is hard to be generous and hospitable to thy neighbor, hence… but you get the reference.