Jun 152017

College education is supposed to involve more than just ‘knowing stuff’. It might be just that in the minds of bean counters who increasingly drive campus policies. After all, they want bigger revenue streams and lower overhead, so the faster they can declare delivered! on an undergrad experience, the sooner they can bring in the next customer. Get ’em up, move ’em out! Nevertheless, classically it was a lot more – and our society needs it to be a lot more.

That’s why interested scholars look cautiously at articles like Many Colleges Fail to Improve Critical-Thinking Skills. And you should too. (Sorry about the pay wall, but you should be able to get that from on-campus accesses.) Same for Is the U.S. Education System Producing a Society of ‘Smart Fools’? We might not like the answers to that question.

Objective evidence of our collective failures on campus can be found everywhere. We see activities reported such as The Campus Inquisition at Evergreen State College, and also Those ‘Snowflakes’ Have Chilling Effects Even Beyond the Campus. (Another pay wall.) These articles report how communication skills are going down, perspective is narrowing and any sense of respect for diversity or selfless dedication to causes greater than an individual is becoming lost.

[And there are plenty of examples of how the products of today’s educational systems think that there ought not be consequences in the marketplace, which historically has served a hard but most excellent mechanism for quality improvement. Take for example: The tech world is rallying around a young developer who made a huge, embarrassing mistake.]

Utterly not a coincidence is the economic link, as mentioned in The US college debt bubble is becoming dangerous. In fact some of us have been trying to raise the alarm that higher education is in a bubble which is bursting around us. (What a shame College Park is driving itself to a place that will not allow our campus to be one of the survivors, much less to a leadership role in transforming higher education for the better.)

 Posted by at 10:01 am on June 15, 2017
Jan 142017

As always seems to happen, then end of fall semester was a time of hard deadlines then the holidays were a time of fatigue and recovery. With that behind us, now is the time to comment on a few of the many articles we followed along the way even if there wasn’t time or energy to link to them previously.

The theme of today’s catch-up is a common one here: calling out how campus opportunities and academic freedom are threatened across the nation. While I’ve seen several great articles and commentaries on this over the last month, I flag a few representative examples below.

The Week carries a commentary about students who want to delegitimize the very institutions from which they seek credentials. This does seem odd, don’t you think? Paying money to buy the attention of experts in order to denigrate them for being wrong? Perhaps these students are not actually paying with their own money. If they were then it seems more likely that they’d care whether the resulting credentials might enjoy some legitimacy.

Not just students assail campus scholarship. Other scholars (or at least those charged with leading them) are doing their best to dismantle scholarship too. In a Washington Post opinion piece, José Cabranes, a federal appellate judge and former trustee of Colgate, Yale and Columbia universities, laments how the system is gradually narrowing the scope of speech on campus, to the detriment of our scholarly work products. To find the best results, scholars need freedom to vet all ideas; we learn even in shooting some idea down since the effort to articulate one’s rationale helps us better organize the body of knowledge. Stifling speech because it is unpopular or inconvenient – as happens even here at College Park – thus delegitimizes our results, since objective viewers won’t ever have seen them tested against competing assertions. They won’t have been shown how the results are better. As we’re fond of quoting, if everyone is thinking alike, then nobody is thinking.

We can’t note the limits of speech (as above) without linking to National Review’s roll up of 2016’s most ridiculously PC moments. (Look closely to see how many of those might well have been College Park antics.)

Finally, and with regret, we mark the final columns penned by Prof. Thomas Sowell, as the 86 year old thinker steps back from his regular on-line commentary. We have often quoted Dr. Sowell, and hold in high regard his scholarship, so we will miss him. His farewell column is titled Random Thoughts, Looking Back. But one of his best regular columns appeared just a week before, The Diversity Fraud; he may as well have been staring straight at College Park. We commend to you the tribute to Dr. Sowell published by the Foundations of Economic Education site, since it is grand. Professor Sowell: thank you.

 Posted by at 11:26 am on January 14, 2017
Nov 152016

Readers here may know I often lament the failure of campuses overall in genuinely bringing forth diversity in ideas and views, and this has been a topic shared with others as sidebar in the last week especially. One bit of writing from a good friend deserves to be more than sidebar, and with permission I reproduce it here.

I graduated from Oberlin in the late 70’s and I currently live in Portland, Oregon. I am not sure which place is causing me more embarrassment at the moment, but I have decided to blame Alanis Morissette for recent events. Her song “Ironic” has apparently confused a whole generation of snowflakes about the true meaning of the word. They therefore do not see the irony in talking about inclusion, diversity, and tolerance while proudly stating that they don’t know a single person who voted for Trump (Oberlin student) or blaming all the violence on “those anarchists” and then immediately stating that they don’t intend to follow any of Trump’s laws (Portland resident). Such complex people who are yet apparently incapable of seeing such simple inconsistencies. I have repeatedly asked a number of them why they don’t see the irony in their positions and statements, and they respond with a blank stare, all because Alanis has a whole generation believing that irony is something completely different. And that is just sad.

Robert M. Slugg PhD

 Posted by at 8:49 pm on November 15, 2016
Nov 112016

The Marine Corps culture of innovation gets some great visibility in this light HuffPo article.

Knowing how to distill quality – and do it fast for cheap – is central to my message in SEAM about why software engineering is more important than ever. Most attention in the industry is on cyber, cyber, cyber, but really, no stakeholder would be much happier for his system being down due to bad design as compared with being down for some outside hack. Down is down.

Quality is a holistic thing, and security is a piece of the quality puzzle. My view: knowing how to predictably make systems of good quality – they work and are secure – is important but knowing how to do that lean will be the life blood of any economic rebirth in this country. The field is actually less able to do the predictable part today as compared some years ago, so UM’s role in this should be to lead the way.

The saying used to be “pick any two” but we need good, fast and cheap, which don’t come as a set from most crap-for-practices software development environments today. (Yes, ridiculous practices are promoted on this campus too, since Main Admin has business incentive to cash checks and move students out the door fast without regard for long term impacts. A pity we don’t do this right.)

A renaissance in quality needs more than promotion of technology, of course; contracting practices need some liberation as well, since the exclusive club of companies which might know how to do things both good and fast have very little incentive to agree to do it for cheap. That exclusive club will only become more exclusive over time if there isn’t strong leadership. The lore of evidence-based process improvement in software systems will continue to fade.

Good on USMC for promoting a culture of innovation, quality, measurement and continuous improvement; too bad for UM that our culture does not reflect the same virtues.

 Posted by at 7:54 am on November 11, 2016
Oct 222016

Of course, to skeptics who lament the absence of privacy practices that put consumers in control of their own information, there is no surprise in the the following: Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking (link to ProPublica). There was just too much money to be made not to join web tracking data with Google user profiles.

User profiles like in Google Apps for Education, for example. This would mean all Maryland students, faculty and staff who use our campus-supplied, Google-implemented mail and services are not only coloring in profiles for Google to use in commercial ventures – Google does that already – but these profiles will be joined with all our web activities (on and off campus.) All as a condition of being affiliated with University of Maryland.

Can you opt out? Maybe, but at some point employees will be opting out of getting official information from their employer and students will be opting out of getting traffic from their instructors. At least this is how it looks from here.

UM leadership puts our personal information into a stream of commerce in order to obtain its technology infrastructure. Once again Wallace Loh writes checks that we must cash.

 Posted by at 4:36 pm on October 22, 2016
Sep 212016

At Quanta today a nice article written for the masses tells about formal methods.

Many of us believe that such methods are what we need in the long run, not just for security but quality in general. We can’t get much solace from a program which defies malicious use if it also fails users with benevolent needs. And it turns out that the issues of security (itself a big definition) go hand-in-hand with the business of getting your functionality right.

Please understand a particular challenge called out in that article. It talks about hardening just some critical points (for security), and the reality is: designing with mixed levels of formalisms is incredibly hard. You would not presume a house is secure for having done a really good job on properties of the deadbolt lock if your door was not correctly fastened to the hinge side; you sort of need to know things about both, not just a lot about one side.

Other analogies apply. If you take a glass of pure spring water and drop in a bit of sewer water, you end up with sewer water; if you take a glass of sewer water and mix in pure spring water, then you still have sewer water. The suggestion is you’re no better off than the poorest piece of your system, and moreover systems are often not built from discrete blocks so much as code blends. Just pouring in some quality ingredients doesn’t make the rest palatable. You usually only know something strong about a program’s value once you see it in context.

Students in our program should reasonably ask what our department offers in the way of formal methods, whether just for security or for quality overall. Today the answer is “not much”, but years ago all students starting in our introductory programming sequence learned our crafts using formal methods (functional notations and some specification frameworks pioneered by a fellow named Harlan Mills.) The canonical ‘old guy’ observation is that we consistently graduated some of the best programmers of the era, which we attribute to the fact that they all learned fine code design in a framework that rewarded structures about which someone could reason. You had to take the time to make it clean and simple so you could meet the spec and move on. The debug-by-friction habits we see students picking up in our Java sequence (and often never shaking) would not get you far. As it turns out, and judging by what we see in learning outcomes assessments, those hack-and-slash techniques aren’t getting students very far today either.

What happened? The long-standing internecine warfare between field committees in our CS department left formal methods a thing of the past; software engineering lost. Today’s leadership has pretty much put a nail in the coffin of the robust software quality perspective which helped put our department on the map. This is true in our curriculum, and to a great extent even in our research, wherein resources and policies support the pet programs of select faculty doing other things.

And what a shame. The linked article makes clear the formal methods of that era grew and are blooming today, in ways we might never have dreamed but had certainly hoped. It is a space in which Maryland might have led. Our courses would certainly not be using tools from a couple decades ago – after all, our insights would improve over time as did everyone else’s – but we’d at least be in the game and talking authoritatively about the big picture of quality. Our campus leaders instead have just what they engineered: a department that, lacking its own vision, whores after dollars in a cybersecurity market built by others instead of setting the industry’s standard for quality (of which security is one piece).

 Posted by at 10:53 am on September 21, 2016
Sep 132016

A few articles on university competitiveness turn up with this morning’s coffee. A fine article from the Foundation for Economic Education (whose links you see sprinkled around our web site here for good reason) addresses what we would call the mission drift on campuses; as stakeholders are freed to define more of their own roles, understandably many define them to be something other than the mission which created a campus in the first place.

An Atlantic article comments on administrative bloat. The author could very well have said “see Maryland.”

So it is also thus not necessarily a coincidence that we place where we do in the latest US News and World Report rankings which just came out. College Park lives among the also-rans (tied for number 60 with with Fordham, Purdue, Syracuse, Connecticut and WPI), and a drop from last year. (Formerly at 19 among public schools, now at 20.) Compare for yourself at USNWR.

 Posted by at 6:52 am on September 13, 2016
Aug 252016

… where your cronies give you a $75,000 bonus without feeling the need to actually explain what it is for. Maybe they felt sorry for him trying to scrape by on just $600,000 a year in salary and the housing, travel and administrative expenses they pick up for him on top of that.

STEM majors paying differential tuition and increasing fees here at College Park might want to look into whether we offer any classes on being a chancellor, so they can learn how to get by like this someday. (Our view: maybe he did something worthy of a bonus, but the fat-cats writing that check should be on the hook to explain to hard-working taxpayers what it is for.)

 Posted by at 8:09 am on August 25, 2016