Monday, January 30, 2012

Holy. Crap.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by this, but: Software like Turnitin is now being used on college application essays, and is finding some are plagiarized.

The downside of this is that it just further erodes my enthusiasm for human nature. The upside is that colleges can and should IMMEDIATELY ashcan those applications. (Hell, they should have a nasty letter they send out the applicant, saying something like, "Nice try, do you think we are that stupid?")

(And yes, yes, I know: there are false positives. But I think TELLING students up-front: we will be analyzing your essay using software to detect plagiarized content could help, though I'm sure it will also bring on an avalanche of special snowflakes who get rejected demanding to know if it's because their essay turned up a false positive...when actually, they just didn't make the cut.)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The hope of Udacity?

I've read a little commentary on this and I'm not sure what to make of it. I think it could be a good thing, but I also think that we have a history in the U.S. of too-uncritically embracing "the new" in education because it is NEW rather than because it is GOOD. And that sometimes what must be done to keep quality in something high is overlooked and the "oooh, shiny" aspect is emphasized.

In short: Sebastian Thrun, who was a tenured prof at Stanford, ran an enormous (and enormously popular, apparently) online course in artificial intelligence.

There were 160,000 students in the course.

Yes, you heard that right. All of the grading, all of the exams and such, were entirely automated.

Part of the...I guess you'd say, controversy? Was that Stanford would not "credential" students who took the course on line. (I presume that means they wound up taking it for no transferrable credit). (Another aspect: the course was apparently free...which is kind of amazing. And also is probably why Stanford couldn't grant credit for it.)

Thrun has since left Stanford, and wants to start up an online university (called Udacity, and I admit, the name makes me want to throw up a little, but I hate most cutesy brand names). Apparently Udacity is going to be free, which makes me wonder a little bit: how will they pay their "content providers" (or professors). How will they pay people who do grading in the courses that can't be 100% machine-graded? Will they sell ads, like some online publications do? Will they expect the people writing for it and working with it to do so pro bono? None of the articles I've seen address how Udacity will pay for itself. (Which makes me...not exactly suspicious, but concerned.)

I don't know. I admit, I'm somewhat leery of online teaching. Don't get me wrong: when it's done the right way, it can be very good. It can provide a wonderful benefit for students who work long hours and only have "school time" at hours that conventional programs would not be open. It's probably a Godsend for people with certain disabilities that makes leaving the house difficult. Or for people living in remote areas.

I can see it working well, for example, for a small-ish, writing-intensive class, where students submit their work to their prof, discuss in online fora, maybe even critique each other's work.

But in the sciences there are some challenges. Labs, for example: unless you expect students to come in to a campus once a week (or once a month for a long day), you can't really do labs the way you'd normally do them. Or, at least, I couldn' field labs, for example, are geared to specific sites and require multiple people working together as a group. And in some cases, safety issues would prevent students from doing certain labs at home. And, say what you will, I DON'T think online simulations of stuff are an acceptable substitute...maybe for a few lab exercises, yes, but I think manipulating "real" stuff and dealing with the "real" challenges that sometimes come up in field settings (or even in the lab) are valuable. And having students together in a lab room - I have seen that the students learn from each other, and that one group's problem provides a jumping-off point for discussion or troubleshooting by the other students. And I'm not sure how that would work online.

The other issue that faces online courses is cheating. Especially for classes, like, say, Introduction to Biology for Majors, like I teach. It's an intensive course, the students are expected to master it before they move I can see a motivation to cheat. (I've heard others who teach online classes say, "You just have to assume they're taking tests with their textbook open, and write the tests that much harder.") I know some classes use on-site proctored exams, which would maybe improve conditions, but my campus does not. (Every time we've raised the concern about exam security in online classes, the only response we get is, " know, 80% of students in conventional classes report cheating." Which, to me, is not a response: for one thing, no citation for this is EVER given, so it could be a made-up statistic (80% is depressingly high). Also, it's not clear if that 80% means "most of them tried it once, got busted, and never tried it again" - it would be a lot harder to catch someone cheating online).

(As I said before, maybe online classes are best for the kind where students are mainly evaluated based on papers, rather than exams)

My other concern with online teaching, is that the quality can vary widely. (Well, that's also true of in-person teaching). But it does seem that there's less quality-control in online courses...we've had a few people come in as transfers with online basic-level classes who didn't know jack, despite earning decent grades.

My biggest concern, though, is the uncritical, unquestioning acceptance, the making a one-size-fits-all solution out of any "new" educational theory/process/tool/whatever and telling faculty that they WILL use this tool. The idea of "adapt or die" (except, in this case, the adaptation may not actually confer an advantage).

The other thing that concerns me is that I could see some universities looking at this model, seeing giant dollar signs, and going "We'll get faculty to teach thousands of students! We'll be ROLLING in tuition money!" without really thinking about the challenges or costs of setting up such a system. (I've seen it happen, on a smaller scale, with regular on line classes...we had someone nearly quit because TPTB decided, two days before classes began, to double the enrollment in one of his classes without really telling him.) The problem is that some people are not really aware that teaching online is still TEACHING. That you still have some of the issues to deal with that you have in a face-to-face class (plus the added issue of "I missed the quiz and now it's time-locked, can you unlock it for me" and technical problems on the part of the students). If you're doing anything OTHER than purely machine-graded automated testing, the amount of time required is going to scale upward with the class size. (Oh, how I wish TPTB realized that for in-person classes....)

The other issue with the way the original huge AI class was taught was the lack of grades/credentials. I can see highly motivated people who just want to learn taking classes like these for personal enrichment....but without grades or some kind of final evaluation, you can't tell (as an employer, or grad school, or whatever) if the person who took the class really learned from it or if they slacked their way through it. (And for the autodidactic types: there are already many things out there to feed that noted in the comments on the Joanne Jacobs article - those "Learning Company" CDs and dvds, and, even simpler technology, books.) So I don't know how "new" it is allowing "adult learners" to learn about something they're interested in purely for fun.

I think the "credentialing" will be the biggest issue going forward: how do you "prove" someone learned something? I wouldn't go to a doctor who took all his or her coursework online for no grade; I wouldn't hire a technician for my lab without some kind of clear evidence that he or she knew what he or she was going to be doing. And I don't think most employers will have the time or patience or funds to apply a battery of tests to EVERY new potential hire to weed out the ones who don't know anything. (And as much as Thrun seemed to hate the idea of "weeder classes" - well, you DO need to decide who is good and who is not-good at something, and employ only the good ones.)

A lot of people are either heralding or damning Udacity for "bringing on the death of the university." I think my reaction is "not so fast, amigo..."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Things and stuff

Things flit through my head, I think of posting on them, but meh. They all add up to one thing: We're kind of screwed right now. If I, with no degree in economics or Political Science or any of that shizz can see that we're going to have to cut federal spending, and damn soon....why can't the people we elected find the backbone to SAY that to people? (That's a rhetorical question; I know the answer already)

So it's easier right now to focus on my day-to-day life than to worry about what will happen in the coming years.

That said, I'm glad the weekend's here. I've dealt with a lot of aggressively-clueless people ("I CAN'T FIND THE ARTICLE YOU SAID I WOULD BE ABLE TO FIND!!!" um, it's right there), self-centered people ("I don't care if it takes you three hours, do it for me."), demanding people (someone comes in five minutes before I'm going out the door for a day and DEMANDING help right then, even though I've had 3+ hours of office hours earlier in the day), rude people, and on, and on.

I try to love people - my faith calls me to - but I find that people are awfully good at making themselves hard to LIKE.

It's just nice to be able to stay home for a day and not interact with people. People wear me the heck out.

When I can get my thoughts together better I want to write about this new online "Udacity" thing that some people are claiming WILL REPLACE UNIVERSITIES AND MUH HA HA WILL KILL THE CUSHY LIFE PROFESSORS HAVE HAD UP TO NOW. But not just yet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

That said...

Even though it looks like I have one person with a lot of problems that I will be having to deal with (this is also someone who doesn't seem to follow either written or spoken directions well), I do have a lot of good students.

Now, by "good," I mean something a little different from some faculty. Some of my "good" students earn good grades, but some of them are C/B students. Not the top of the heap. But that's okay. Because they're nice people. And they work hard in class. And they're polite to the other students, and try to help them out when they're having difficulty.

And a lot of them have interests outside of one of my labs the other day, I was talking about a program I had seen part of on National Geographic, about "What happened if they drained the Great Lakes." (The title sounds kind of cheesy, but it was a really interesting program). And a bunch of them had seen it, and one guy knew quite a bit about the satellite/remote sensing techniques they used to predict what the lakefloor topography was.

And as I said, they're just friendly people. And someone who is polite to me and to the other people around them, that goes a long way with me. Few things make me tired faster than someone who's unpleasant, especially if they're doing it in the service of trying to get what they want. So I'm grateful for the polite students. I feel better after having class with them, I feel like we're less likely to be hurtling off a cliff, at least as far as the upcoming generation of workers goes. (Granted, a few of my students are non-traditional - the guy who knew all about the remote sensing stuff is probably in his 50s; he greeted me one day as "young lady," which made me chuckle, because I don't feel so young any more). But it is a nice thing to have positive interactions with students and I'm just going to have to look for that and notice it when it happens, to keep me on an even keel for when I have to deal with the Special Snowflakes of the world.

Friday, January 20, 2012

And so, it begins.

I have a research project in one of my classes. To maximize the chances of student success, I require (first) a paragraph or so giving the hypothesis/question they want to use, and then, after I approve that, I have them write a proposal with methods, etc.

It's a giant pile of work for me but I think it's valuable, at least for some of the students.

Well, the ideas were due today. And one dude comes up and says, "Uh, I'm not from around here..." And I'm thinking, this is a lead in to, "I left my paper at home."

But no. It's "I knew some of the plants and insects and stuff in [state that is actually not very far from where we are now], but I don't know the stuff here, so I couldn't come up with an idea."

And I just looked at him in dismay.

He's known about this for over a week. He hung around a long time in lab this week and he could have asked me about it. But nooooooo, he waits until the due date and then brings up some excuse as to "I don't know what to do because" when he could have VERY EASILY rectified that by talking to me. (He also came to my office to talk to me about other stuff this week).

I'm afraid this is going to be my "makes me tear out my hair" person this semester. He has a reputation: he took, I think, four tries to pass the prerequisite for the course I teach. (He has some learning disabilities, but he gets many accommodations). He has a habit of just randomly talking in class which creeps me out - I recognize that it may be related to one of his disabilities but still, it's hard for me to talk about some complex topic when someone is talking about birds or other unrelated stuff. (And yes, I've mentioned it to him. Apparently he has a hard time controlling it. And I know, it feels very churlish of me to be complaining, but having a constant undertone of someone muttering sets off several of my internal "alarms," I think because I once knew someone who muttered a lot before BIG GIANT UNPREDICTABLE ANGRY OUTBURST)

Also, several of my colleagues suspect the individual of having a substance-abuse problem; he's seemed a bit unfocused at times and occasionally smells of alcohol. (Or so they've told me).

Look, I get being a little avoidant. I'm a little avoidant myself. But waiting until the day something is due and then throwing up a reason why you're clueless when you could have come in and talked about it - when you've shown you're already not afraid to come in and talk to the prof? Just irritates me.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


One interesting thing about this whole crappy situation: This is one of the few times in the past few years I've seen people who leaned left and people who leaned right united in their opposition to something.

(Apparently politicians and some Hollywood types are the main supporters of this. Or so it seems.).

This is one of those things...this just shows the overreach of the government. This is just another example of someone going "SOMEONE MUST DO SOMETHING" and some politicians get the idea that "DOING SOMETHING" means passing a very broad-brush law.

If I'm reading things right, in fact, what most people WANTED done (that is, stopping piracy from OVERSEAS based sites - where most of the piracy seems to be happening) isn't even covered by the bill. Idiocy. And even though it's been "modified," (to apparently take out the IP-grabbing part), still, it just needs to be trashed and to go away.

If so many people, and especially so many people in the tech world despise this, and point out that there are going to be giant unintended consequences that will actually hurt a lot of people - perhaps even some this bill is claiming to help - why won't Congress listen and at least let it die, if not totally vote it down?

This reminds me a bit of that "Consumer Protection" bill of a few years ago - remember when some Chinese-made toys (even by big companies like Mattel) showed up with unacceptable levels of things like lead and cadmium? And Something Had To Be Done? And if the original bill had passed as planned, most thrift stores would stop selling used children's clothing, and some libraries were concerned that a lot of their children's books would be in violation and would have to be scrapped? Same kind of thing...a situation where laws that were probably already in place were broken, but to try to punish the lawbreakers, new legislation was proposed that would punish many innocent people.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

LED "candles"

I have to admit, I think these things are genius.

I love the look of tealight or votive candles in my house, but I rarely used them for two reasons:

1. I'm very paranoid about open flames. Even though I keep the candles in a holder (and usually one that's taller than the candle, like tealights down in a glass), I worry if I get called to the phone or something. And you can't light them and forget them, or leave the room for long.

There have been several bad fires here in the past few years that were attributed to unattended candles. Now, granted, the person may have been less careful with them than I am, but still.

2. The smoke that candles - even "eco friendly" soy candles - can bother my allergies. (And most scented candles I can't have - the scents bother me. And it's increasingly hard to find unscented candles in just ordinary stores. I do keep a bunch on hand for power outages but I don't like to use them for "everyday" in case I need them and then don't have them).

But I bought some LED "candles" recently. They're not perfect - the light they give off is more orange than a true candle flame, and the flicker seems a little artificial looking. But those two problems are minor compared to the benefits of the things. I like having LOTS of tealights on the mantel in my house, so I bought a pack of 24 LED candles and lined them up, and scattered some throughout the room (coffee table and such). I really like the way they look all lit up. And they don't make smoke that makes me cough or that leaves deposits on the wall.

And, best of all: I could light them, leave the room, and not worry. In fact, one night I had an evening meeting and I lit the "candles" and left them going when I left the house.

Because I live alone, sometimes coming home to an empty dark house is a little depressing. It's SO nice to come home and have those tiny "candles" flickering in my living room, making it seem more homey and friendly.

(Yeah, I know: I could leave a lamp on. But I was a kid during the energy crisis of the 70s and I STILL hear my dad in my head going "Turn off that light! Do you think we're made of money?" so I can't, quite. If I felt less safe where I lived - if I felt like I needed a light on to see that no one had broken in in my absence, I would. But right now the "coming home to a dark house" is an emotional issue and not a safety I turn out the lamps when I leave.

(When I'm out of town, I set several on timers. And my neighbors know that I'm gone and keep an eye out on the house for me))

I don't know how long the lights will last. I hesitated buying them because I thought, "They'll be cheap crap that will poop out right away." So far, I've had them on for a few hours (maybe as many as 8) and they seem to continue to be working fine. And the batteries are replaceable, though I don't know but that the button batteries might cost more than a whole new tealight would. (Supposedly those tiny LED lights can last for 10,000 hours or more....)

They're not really bright enough, even en masse to read by, but maybe with a reflective surface...meaning they'd be good in a power outage.

But they're just a little thing that I really like right now.

Friday, January 13, 2012

I dunno, it just seems ugly to me.

Apparently the Southern cook Paula Deen has been diagnosed with Type II diabetes.

I'm seeing all kinds of snark and "color me surprised" comments and the like.

I realize that fat people are one of the last bastions of people it's OK to make fun of, but this just seems needlessly mean to me.

Type II diabetes can be a deadly disease; it's not something to make light of.

I don't know, but sometimes it seems like our culture is just getting so ugly and there are so many people who are just sitting around waiting for someone to suffer a misfortune that they can laugh over. (This is one of the times that I wish "My Name is Earl"-style karma was in operation, so the people who had a good guffaw over someone else's misfortune would find misfortune of their own...)

I may be particularly sensitive because a person close to me was recently diagnosed and I've seen just how much they've had to change their life (diet, medications, exercise) to try to deal with it. It's not funny and it's not cool to laugh at it.

ignoring the debates and stuff

I know, I know - how can I be an "informed voter" if I don't watch them.

But meh.

One thing I will say: I'm really off of Gingrich for now after hearing how he's reacted to stuff. The last thing we need in the White House is some petty, hair-trigger-temper guy who takes stuff personally and gets in a snit over things and claims that people are "playing dirty" so now he's gonna "play dirty" too.

I hate to say it, but it seems like we're kinda screwed for four more years.

(And if it turns out to be Obama vs. Paul? I'm seriously considering not exercising my right to vote this fall. As my brother says: some of the stuff Paul says sounds good and reasonable, but the stuff he says that's NOT is REALLY in "dealbreaker" territory.)

Monday, January 09, 2012

One of those things I don't get:

The brilliant, blinding hatred some people seem to have for Tim Tebow.

Yeah, yeah, he's a Christian, and yeah, yeah, he shows it off. And yeah, he's an argument against abortion (as I've heard, his mom was told he'd be severely mentally disabled and it would be preferable to abort. She chose not to, he was born healthy...I suspect that happens more often than doctors like to admit; the daughter of a family friend faced exactly the same issue some 20 years ago, with a similar outcome - she was told her child would not have a normal nervous system and would likely be anencephalic, and her response was, "Fine, then, if the baby lives only a few hours after birth I will hold the baby for as long as he lives and then bury him." And the baby was born perfectly healthy...)

There are a number of entertainment-types who annoy me (Bill Maher would be one...) but I find it preferable to ignore their existence than to say unpleasant things about them every chance I get. (That said: Bob Beckel's smackdown of Maher on "The Five"? Was pretty good. I may disagree with Beckel about a lot of things but he strikes me as a decent and principled guy....more like the old-school sort of person who could argue politics for hours with someone, but then go have a beer with them afterwards and be friends with them. So often now, it seems that if two people disagree politically, it's hard for them to be friends.)

I dunno; what seems to me to be an increasing number of ad hominem attacks against people who aren't specifically inciting them. (What did Tebow do to hurt anyone? I mean, besides openly demonstrating his faith, and that seems to me to be a pretty petty thing to get upset about). I don't like that; it seems that there's just an increasing level of ugliness and rather than going after people's policies or ideas, we are now going after the person themselves. (See: attacks on Romney's being a Mormon; Alan Colmes' beyond-the-pale statements about the Santorum's mourning of their dead infant)

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Finding what you look for?

I can't tell if Stephen Bloom's commentary on Iowa (That's not the original, but it's a writeup of it, quoting him) is really satire, as he claimed it to be. It sounds pretty pointed and unpleasant to me. ("The elderly waiting to die"? Really?)

I read about this little tempest in a teacup when I was up visiting my folks - I think Investor's Business Daily had a bit on it?

And my first reaction was frustration: This is why people hate professors. This is why the more populist-minded commentators say stuff like "don't send your kids to college" and snark about college-educated people.

But then again: we have freedom of speech in this country. Bloom's free to say or write what he wants, even if it's nasty - or even if it's satire that's not well-enough-done for people to recognize as satire. (I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt here; it seems these days "just kidding" is often the last refuge of a scoundrel).

But then again, again: there are some limitations on, or rather, consequences for, what a professor says. I know - in our Policies and Procedures manual it notes that we're free to write letters-to-the-editor but we are in no way to imply that we are speaking for the university, which is fair enough - I have colleagues across the entire spectrum, from people I agree with, to people I disagree with but respect because they are level-headed and make a good argument, to people who immediately go into ad hominem territory if there's a person or politician they don't like for some reason.

And as my dad's often said: one of the unexpected beauties of freedom of speech is that the jerks tend to out themselves. And that includes professors writing supposedly-satirical essays about the state in which they live. (I know that the job market is awful right now, but if you truly hate the place where you live, might it not be easier to just move? There's a reason I didn't apply for jobs in southern California, or in any of the big East Coast cities, or places known as "progressive" hotbeds).

But thinking on it more - and presuming that when Bloom originally wrote it, he was not intending it as pure satire but rather his observations of what he believed the state to be like - it strikes me that you find what you're looking for.

I experienced this with a colleague a few months back. Hanging around before a meeting, he got to talking about how "stupid" or "clueless" some of the people working retail here were, and how he enjoyed kind of baiting them. (Ugh. It's one thing to look down on people, but to be unpleasant to them for amusement value?). I quietly said I didn't talk to people working checkstands and such much, but that's not really true - I do talk to them. But one thing I've learned over the years is the art of small talk - mentioning the weather, or if there's some piece of clearly good news in the community, bringing it up - and just plain saying "please" and "thank you" and telling them to have a nice day.

I suppose some of Bloom's criticisms of Iowa could be applied here as well - we're chronically an economically depressed area (though right now, we're doing better than some places - and I think we've seen considerably fewer foreclosures than in my parents' town in Illinois). And methamphetamine is a considerable problem. (Dammit, I wish that stuff had never been invented...or that it ONLY worked in medical applications. It's ruined way too many lives.)

But on the other hand: a lot of the people here are hard-working. A lot of the people try to do what's right, based on their faith and morals. If someone has a big emergency, like someone gets burned out of their house, people will rally around to help. There's still sort of a "pioneer spirit" here, where people seem to believe in "Today you, tomorrow maybe me" in terms of people needing help - and they give that help, sometimes to complete strangers. Many kids are still taught to respect their elders - I regularly hear students calling us faculty "sir" and "ma'am." And people do care about the land - there's been a big fight to stop sales of water to a couple of the big cities in the region, because the farmers and ranchers and other citizens say that they know the water is the lifeblood of this area, and that if they start selling it, they may find themselves in a time when they can't keep enough to keep this area going. (And this came when some of those "city folk" thought our citizens would just roll over if they showed them enough dollars...). People are generally pretty live-and-let-live - they're not particularly interested in getting up in other people's business, like with restrictive HOA covenants and such.

One thing I've found is that you do tend to find what you're looking for in life. Now, granted, maybe if I wasn't (largely secretly) in agreement with the politics of many people around here, I might not be as positive about the local citizens. Then again, I don't know. While people often frustrate me, and it leads me to lash out here (and other places), on some level I do like people and I want them to be happy. And I find I'm happier myself when I'm looking at the good things.