Jan 172018
 

While we all try to ward off the winter chill, I flag for your reading list an article that has made something of a stir, Higher Education Is Drowning in BS. Most of the author’s messaging will reprise a familiar theme here, where indeed so much of what is handed down from Main Admin wouldn’t pass for butterscotch pudding. We lack accountability; we lack transparency; we lack genuine shared governance. And in the absence of these cleansing agents, equity is lost, quality diminishes and costs keep going through the roof.

In other words, we are indeed drowning in BS.

 Posted by at 11:42 am on January 17, 2018
Dec 292017
 

It seems fair to say that higher education has become an intellectual mosh pit, where young people who are charged top dollar to get in are free to bash into one another as they like while sages on the stages can perform to themselves and the venue owner cheerfully looks the other way so long as he’s getting paid.

It didn’t have to be this way. Stories of how we came to this point are the stuff of another day, but as to what comes next we’re starting to see signs that other people than the performers and venue owners are thinking hard about the future. Maybe market forces will have their sway after all.

The world might be better off without college for everyone is the banner in the recent Atlantic article, which talks openly about credential inflation that is running rampant in higher ed these days. And F.H. Buckley weighs in on the matter of tax credits for universities, asserting that it might be time to stop subsidizing the hard-left practices which are endemic here; doing otherwise, he asserts, would be the wrong way to save academia. Let market forces work their will.

We haven’t cleaned up our campus system. At some point the people who clean it up for us will be neither our customers nor our friends.

 Posted by at 1:26 pm on December 29, 2017
Dec 292017
 

It’s always nice to see examples where careful research challenges popular dogma, so in that spirit I flag an article about measurement of rates at which uninsured people use emergency rooms (first noticed in a Washington Post article about same.)

Healthcare insurance is of course not squarely in our software/cyber wheelhouse, but the skeptical “show me” temperaments illustrated here surely are. Many very expensive policy decisions have been sold to the public on the premise that uninsured people rely on emergency room visits in place of regular health care offerings, with a consequent increase in costs and clogging of the facilities. The authors (who publish their work in the above Maryland-based journal) study the question and report the ER visit rates of insured and uninsured people are comparable.

The threat to validity of old lore might be one of perception, they say; uninsured people are not as commonly seen in the waiting rooms of non-emergency offices, so their appearance in emergency rooms is noticed more. In other words, it wasn’t that uninsured people used the ER more so than insured people so much as they used regular facilities so much less. (To which we would say: “Duh.”)

The cited paper has more nuggets regarding linkages between costs and quality of care, and we commend to you a reading of the full paper – just as we commend a willingness to question, not just accept assertions that “sound right.” Especially if assertions are made to you from people who have a business interest in willing them to be true.

 Posted by at 9:35 am on December 29, 2017
Nov 262017
 

The NCAA season starts with sleaze and scandal, observes columnist George Will, who goes on to observe just how much cash is associated with collegiate sports. Enough, apparently, that some of the taller hogs at the trough went past bad taste and into violations of the law. At least that is what we see in the FBI investigation on several campuses and the indictments for corruption.

Campus leaders have a business interest in looking the other way, since there’s a pretty penny to be made by (pardon the analogy) playing the game. [Best quote from the linked article refers to a case of yesteryear: “At the University of Washington, Don James resigned as head [football] coach after failing to notice that his quarterback owned three cars.”]

So far no suggestion that investigators are looking at Maryland yet.

 Posted by at 3:38 pm on November 26, 2017
Nov 232017
 

How business bullshit took over is required reading for students who would like preparation to make meaningful contributions to the world rather than serve in the cycle of production, distribution and consumption of bullshit.

The article will tell you where the cartoon Dilbert came from, and goes on to explain how ideas that may be weak on their merits can be plumped up for sale by wrapping them in novel language, slathering on generous portions of hucksterism and blending in a pinch of mysticism (or just plain elitism for the agnostics among us.)

Most of what the author treats involves industry as a whole, but his points apply equally well in the education industry. And indeed, much of what we do on campus involves performing tasks that both feed and result from the ‘culture of bullshit’ – tasks that, when objectively portrayed, can’t be firmly connected with core missions which might have inspired a university system in the first place. We measure ourselves with elastic yardsticks that reward make-work yet often don’t stand up well as predictors of students’ success, generation of knowledge that others usefully apply in science, or development of products (or services) that capture markets.

Preference for an elastic yardstick is understandable. Our campus lacks accountability so mostly we have freedom to define our own success criteria. Why not make the yardstick fit what we do rather than what we aspire to do? It sure is easier to sell students “experiences” rather than prepare them to perform hard tasks. Doing the latter would get them – and us – out of our comfort zones. Ewww … that makes for tough teaching reviews and a rockier time promoting like-thinking friends.

And look what happens to heretics who try to pierce the language barrier and figure out what practices generate intrinsic (instead of virtual) value? There’s always one who politely points out how the Emperor has no clothes, and then it gets ugly. The masses quickly recognize the importance of going along to get along. Keep your head down and keep the system going.

Speaking as one of the heretics, I hope students take a lesson from the linked article. Get past the educational leet speak, push yourself out of the linguistic comfort zone we build in our majors and learn how to tell when you’re getting served content of genuine value instead of a big cup of tasty, well, you know.

 Posted by at 7:59 am on November 23, 2017
Nov 142017
 

Two recent articles add to the list of materials that students in my lab should ponder.

The first deals with limitations of statistics in science, or at least, limitations in our understanding and application of statistics. This is an on-going topic for our data scientists to track.

A NYT article on NSA Shadow Brokers is especially worthy of your consideration, since so many of our present projects involve analysis and prediction of security-related properties.

To see how the above two readings are modestly related to one another, think about what data are used to predict opportunities to penetrate a site, what data predict potential intrusions over time, and what data are used to track uses of exfiltrated materials. Then … think about whether the science behind each is equally-well developed or applied. What limits someone performing those activities and how would scientists offer that person stronger tools? There are some great research activities lurking in the answer to that question.

 Posted by at 7:54 am on November 14, 2017
Nov 142017
 

A Cambridge University physical sciences professor had his moment of fame after being caught advocating hard work. And at expense of a social life, no less!

How dare he!

Fortunately (judging from the article) his campus leadership rallied around students and reassured them that “balance”, booze and convivial behavior are still encouraged. Meanwhile, College Park shows its mettle in promoting such temperaments, so now that we’re a Big Ten school and offer booze at big events, we may soon offer napping pods in the library. Take that, Cambridge!

 Posted by at 7:34 am on November 14, 2017
Nov 062017
 

I often talk with my students about bias when we are conducting a research project. Usually this discussion launches with me getting on a soap box to throw around words like old school methods and sound experimental design (also met with small eye rolls they think I don’t notice.) My extended rant will cover a lot about how to conduct risk reduction exercises, which after a fashion resemble agile development methods except in hacking our insights instead of code. Overall we’re pretty interested in knowing how to make good engineering decisions on use of our time; we want the greatest illumination for least cost on each step along the way as we converge to results.

With that in mind, a nice read about bias is The Trouble With Scientists. This reminds us that while there are the things we want to know, we need discipline to ensure we’re not just cherry picking data to support a conclusion we already want to reach; we need discipline to force ourselves to look coldly at what we don’t know. These go hand in hand.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm on November 6, 2017
Nov 062017
 

Keeping up with the many projects on campus at the moment is still taxing, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t trying to keep an eye out for others’ content worthy of our study. And some exceptionally thoughtful writing about campus speech is found over at Vox in a pair of articles.

Robert Post offers There is no 1st Amendment right to speak on a college campus while Erwin Chemerinsky asserts Hate speech is protected free speech, even on college campuses – obviously messages in opposition to one another, and very timely for what’s happening on many campuses.

An aggressive piece over at Spectator looks past discussion about the basis for speech on campus to the (flawed) practices: Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, by commentator Mark Pulliam.

 Posted by at 3:23 pm on November 6, 2017
Sep 282017
 

This campus recently adopted a Web Accessibility Policy, which earlier today Provost Mary Ann Rankin reminded us of by means of a memo to campus administrators. Soon “all university Web pages used for academic and business purposes must be compliant with applicable state and federal regulations, specifically, Sections 504 and 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990.”

The essence of her memo was to alert campus stakeholders to this and offer guidance on how to move forward, for which one of the helpful links given is to a campus Web Accessibility page whose sole apparent purpose is to then offer the reader a chance to click through to another campus Web Accessibility page.

Awkwardly, and as of the point I blog this morning, neither of the pages to which Provost Rankin refers us for 504, 508 and ADA compliance is actually 504, 508 or ADA compliant, at least according to freely available web tools which one can use for checking. (There are also broken links – that’s business as usual for the Provost site – and W3C compliance problems.)

We always appreciate how leadership offers us teaching examples for our students.

 Posted by at 10:01 am on September 28, 2017