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
Aug 232017
 

The Sun tells what everyone already pretty much knows: fewer than half of the students in Maryland public schools are on track for college readiness, according to latest PARCC scores, or Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers. This is grim news given that the instrument is itself only the most basic indicator of college preparation.

Preparation is worst where the state spent most. Quoting the linked article:

In Baltimore, math scores held steady while English scores inched up. Still, fewer city students passed the exams than in neighboring districts. Only about three of every 20 city students in grades three through eight passed both math and English. Almost 12 percent passed math, about the same as last year. Fifteen percent passed English, an increase of 1.4 percentage points from last year.

Maryland implements spending plans, not education plans. For those keeping score, the state dramatically ramped up funding for public schools over the last twenty five years, measuring its success by how much it spends, not what students can do as a result of their often not-so-close encounters with schools. As a result, the present news will be viewed by officials as a success … after all, the checks cleared, which was the whole point. Too bad for parents who thought their taxes were supposed to have been buying more than teacher union fealty.

Anyone who thinks this doesn’t impact us at College Park is kidding himself. This is a campus that lists skin color and orientation (among other characteristics) among ways an applicant can be deemed prepared for the flagship, so dismal PARCC scores which don’t factor in those characteristics won’t significantly affect our admission practices. We will maintain business as usual at the front door. But the professoriate in charge of generating scholarship will increasingly struggle in the face of a student base that similarly struggles with preparation. Time spent back-filling substandard education coming in to the flagship is time not spent pushing back the frontiers of knowledge in our respective disciplines.

All this is a recipe for implosion. The entrepreneurial mindset of public school officials does not stop at our front door; overall we continue to increase tuition beyond sensible limits, basically just raking in cash because it is on the table. Thoughtful people watch this knowing it is not sustainable. We have previously pointed out here how the bubble is already bursting around us, and we thus say it again: the market will reach a tipping point, after which consumers will demand to know why they pay so much for such poor outcomes, often in restrictive environments that negate the entire argument for campus as a place of free expression and thought in the first place.

We’re doing it wrong.

 Posted by at 12:31 pm on August 23, 2017
Jul 062017
 

We love tracking the unwelcome consequences of policy decisions that are made under a banner of righteousness but which bring surprises to those who weren’t listening to scholars who tried to point out what was in the fine print. This one’s a doozy.

National Review points out Discarded solar panels are piling up all over the world, and they represent a major threat to the environment. If you only measure the value of solar power from after the panels are up and before they come down, then probably there is a net plus – plus or minus those awkward moments when the sun isn’t shining of course. If you only drive forward with that in mind, the surprise waiting you is a net loss to our environment’s health, since the cost of procuring the more exotic materials needed for these panels is great (a lot more waste water, a lot of pollution) and the discarded panels pile up rather than become recycled. (Also batteries, this is not a prime consideration in the linked article.)

Scholars would want to objectively weight the lifecycle properties and make sound decisions; cherry picking your results is something you only do to justify outcomes you’ve already figured out. That may be good for your wallet if you’re in the enviro business, but it isn’t necessarily good for the environment.

 Posted by at 8:19 am on July 6, 2017
Jun 282017
 

Study finds pay for public college presidents up 5.3 percent confirms once again that it’s good to be king … err … president.

5.3 might be the mean for presidential bumps last year, but once again Maryland leads the way, as (according to the Diamondback reporting of salaries, which may be time-shifted due to how long it takes for public information to trickle out to the public) Wallace Loh jumped almost 15 percent in the last cycle ($526,590.30 to $600,314.00). The 2013 report listed him at $459,000.

Not bad for an era through which most of us have labored under wage freezes imposed by the state.

 Posted by at 8:25 am on June 28, 2017
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
Jun 152017
 

Time for another roll up of relevant links!

Yes, what follows are all quick reads that I should have posted as I saw them, but let’s admit it: keeping this pace up when there is no expectation it can be used is pretty depressing. I started this site to (in part) seed a small repository with articles my students might use as examples of topics of interest to scholars in this field. Honors seminars, leadership development classes and more are places where we offer not just content but also practices and temperaments of scholars in our field. How better to show deliver these than by sharing notes on what I follow?

What a shame that neither the CS department nor Honors College actually want seminars, leadership development classes or more variety in our courses – not unless they are taught by one of the ‘in crowd.’

Some of us may be cultural pariahs but that doesn’t mean we stop learning, thinking or critiquing, so without further ado, here are some recent examples of how to be a skeptical scholar.

The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of is a great narrative about the discipline, objectivity and passion that scholarship demands … and the advocacy value with which it is rewarded.

Bullshit is a commodity much in supply on this campus. Exercise for the students: see if you can apply tips below to sniff out which campus programs shovel bovine scatology as compared with offering you genuine value. The Baloney Detection Kit: Carl Sagan’s Rules for Bullshit-Busting and Critical Thinking is timeless even if a bit lacking in specifics. Pocket Guide to Bullshit Prevention gives you another compact checklist. But in How to call bullshit on big data you can read about how scholars elsewhere teach ways to combat BS. (How interesting that that campus and ours treat the same topics so differently. One teaches methods that the other teaches must be sniffed out. Well.)

What’s the effect of sham scholarship? You publish papers like The Conceptual Penis as a Social Construct: A Sokal-Style Hoax on Gender Studies. That paper is 100 percent USDA choice bullshit, and it made a splash as such on the internet when word of it recently came out. Then there is Dog of a dilemma: the rise of the predatory journal – more of the same essentially. You will see these periodically. (Save them when you do, and even think about posting them here!) The business model of scholarship is supposed to filter out material like that before it piles up and starts to smell up our fields. Yet … there they are linked. It is probably useful to ponder what equivocal assertions are populating our fields if even these blatantly silly works can appear. It is even more useful to ponder what scholarly practices will help you tell which are which.

Then there are the thorny examples. Daryl Bem Proved ESP Is Real is one. Figure that one out! There is in general a lot of valid discussion of just how well some fields conduct experiments too. Why we can’t trust academic journals to tell the scientific truth takes that up, but there are many other threads around the web too. Take for example Data, Truth and Null Results.

Let’s make sure our work will be cited in others’ blogs because it illustrates great qualities and positively influences the field … not because it is a teaching example of what other schools what students to know how to sniff out!

 Posted by at 9:11 am on June 15, 2017
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
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