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It could have been worse! Academic lessons of 2020

December 20, 2020 3 comments

Well, this year sure was interesting, and not in a good way. Back in 2015, I wrote a blog post discussing how video talks are here to stay, and how we should all agree to start giving them and embrace watching them, whether we like it or not. I was right about that, I suppose. OTOH, I sort of envisioned a gradual acceptance of this practice, not the shock therapy of a phase transition. So, what happened? It’s time to summarize the lessons and roll out some new predictions.

Note: this post is about the academic life which is undergoing some changes. The changes in real life are much more profound, but are well discussed elsewhere.

Teaching

This was probably the bleakest part of the academic life, much commented upon by the media. Good thing there is more to academia than teaching, no matter what the ignorant critics think. I personally haven’t heard anyone saying post-March 2020, that online education is an improvement. If you are like me, you probably spent much more time preparing and delivering your lectures. The quality probably suffered a little. The students probably didn’t learn as much. Neither party probably enjoyed the experience too much. They also probably cheated quite a bit more. Oh, well…

Let’s count the silver linings. First, it will all be over some time next year. At UCLA, not before the end of Summer. Maybe in the Fall… Second, it could’ve been worse. Much worse. Depending on the year, we would have different issues. Back in 1990, we would all be furloughed for a year living off our savings. In 2000, most families had just one personal computer (and no smartphones, obviously). Let the implications of that sink in. But even in 2010 we would have had giant technical issues teaching on Skype (right?) by pointing our laptop cameras on blackboards with dismal effect. The infrastructure which allows good quality streaming was also not widespread (people were still using Redbox, remember?)

Third, the online technology somewhat mitigated the total disaster of studying in the pandemic time. Students who are stuck in faraway countries or busy with family life can watch stored videos of lectures at their convenience. Educational and grading software allows students to submit homeworks and exams online, and instructors to grade them. Many other small things not worth listing, but worth being thankful for.

Fourth, the accelerated embrace of the educational technology could be a good thing long term, even when things go back to normal. No more emails with scanned late homeworks, no more canceled/moved office hours while away at conferences. This can all help us become better at teaching.

Finally, a long declared “death of MOOCs” is no longer controversial. As a long time (closeted) opponent to online education, I am overjoyed that MOOCs are no longer viewed as a positive experience for university students, more like something to suffer through. Here in CA we learned this awhile ago, as the eagerness of the current Gov. Newsom (back then Lt. Gov.) to embrace online courses did not work out well at all. Back in 2013, he said that the whole UC system needs to embrace online education, pronto: “If this doesn’t wake up the U.C. [..] I don’t know what will.” Well, now you know, Governor! I guess, in 2020, I don’t have to hide my feelings on this anymore…

Research

I always thought that mathematicians can work from anywhere with a good WiFi connection. True, but not really – this year was a mixed experience as lonely introverts largely prospered research wise, while busy family people and extraverts clearly suffered. Some day we will know how much has research suffered in 2020, but for me personally it wasn’t bad at all (see e.g. some of my results described in my previous blog post).

Seminars

I am not even sure we should be using the same word to describe research seminars during the pandemic, as the experience of giving and watching math lectures online are so drastically different compared to what we are used to. Let’s count the differences, which are both positive and negative.

  1. The personal interactions suffer. Online people are much more shy to interrupt, follow up with questions after the talk, etc. The usual pre- or post-seminar meals allow the speaker to meet the (often junior) colleagues who might be more open to ask questions in an informal setting. This is all bad.
  2. Being online, the seminar opened to a worldwide audience. This is just terrific as people from remote locations across the globe now have the same access to seminars at leading universities. What arXiv did to math papers, covid did to math seminars.
  3. Again, being online, the seminars are no longer restricting themselves to local speaks or having to make travel arrangements to out of town speakers. Some UCLA seminars this year had many European speakers, something which would be prohibitively expensive just last year.
  4. Many seminars are now recorded with videos and slides posted online, like we do at the UCLA Combinatorics and LA Combinatorics and Complexity seminars I am co-organizing. The viewers can watch them later, can fast forward, come back and re-watch them, etc. All the good features of watching videos I extolled back in 2015. This is all good.
  5. On a minor negative side, the audience is no longer stable as it varies from seminar to seminar, further diminishing personal interactions and making level of the audience somewhat unpredictable and hard to aim for.
  6. As a seminar organizer, I make it a personal quest to encourage people to turn on their cameras at the seminars by saying hello only to those whose faces I see. When the speaker doesn’t see the faces, whether they are nodding or quizzing, they are clueless whether the they are being clear, being too fast or too slow, etc. Stopping to ask for questions no longer works well, especially if the seminar is being recorded. This invariably leads to worse presentations as the speakers can misjudge the audience reactions.
  7. Unfortunately, not everyone is capable of handling technology challenges equally well. I have seen remarkably well presented talks, as well as some of extremely poor quality talks. The ability to mute yourself and hide behind your avatar is the only saving grace in such cases.
  8. Even the true haters of online educations are now at least semi-on-board. Back in May, I wrote to Chris Schaberg dubbed by the insufferable Rebecca Schuman as “vehemently opposed to the practice“. He replied that he is no longer that opposed to teaching online, and that he is now in a “it’s really complicated!” camp. Small miracles…

Conferences

The changes in conferences are largely positive. Unfortunately, some conferences from the Spring and Summer of 2020 were canceled and moved, somewhat optimistically, to 2021. Looking back, they should all have been held in the online format, which opens them to participants from around the world. Let’s count upsides and downsides:

  1. No need for travel, long time commitments and financial expenses. Some conferences continue charging fees for online participation. This seems weird to me. I realize that some conferences are vehicles to support various research centers and societies. Whatever, this is unsustainable as online conferences will likely survive the pandemic. These organizations should figure out some other income sources or die.
  2. The conferences are now truly global, so the emphasis is purely on mathematical areas than on the geographic proximity. This suggests that the (until recently) very popular AMS meetings should probably die, making AMS even more of a publisher than it is now. I am especially looking forward to the death of “joint meetings” in January which in my opinion outlived their usefulness as some kind of math extravaganza events bringing everyone together. In fact, Zoom simply can’t bring five thousand people together, just forget about it…
  3. The conferences are now open to people in other areas. This might seem minor — they were always open. However, given the time/money constraints, a mathematician is likely to go only to conferences in their area. Besides, since they rarely get invited to speak at conferences in other areas, travel to such conferences is even harder to justify. This often leads to groupthink as the same people meet year after year at conferences on narrow subjects. Now that this is no longer an obstacle, we might see more interactions between the fields.
  4. On a negative side, the best kind of conferences are small informal workshops (think of Oberwolfach, AIM, Banff, etc.), where the lectures are advanced and the interactions are intense. I miss those and hope they come back as they are really irreplaceable in the only setting. If all goes well, these are the only conferences which should definitely survive and even expand in numbers perhaps.

Books and journals

A short summary is that in math, everything should be electronic, instantly downloadable and completely free. Cut off from libraries, thousands of mathematicians were instantly left to the perils of their university library’s electronic subscriptions and their personal book collections. Some fared better than others, in part thanks to the arXiv, non-free journals offering old issues free to download, and some ethically dubious foreign websites.

I have been writing about my copyleft views for a long time (see here, there and most recently there). It gets more and more depressing every time. Just when you think there is some hope, the resilience of paid publishing and reluctance to change by the community is keeping the unfortunate status quo. You would think everyone would be screaming about the lack of access to books/journals, but I guess everyone is busy doing something else. Still, there are some lessons worth noting.

  1. You really must have all your papers freely available online. Yes, copyrighted or not, the publishers are ok with authors posting their papers on their personal website. They are not ok when others are posting your papers on their websites, so the free access to your papers is on you and your coauthors (if any). Unless you have already done so, do this asap! Yes, this applies even to papers accessible online by subscription to selected libraries. For example, many libraries including all of UC system no longer have access to Elsevier journals. Please help both us and yourself! How hard is it to put the paper on the arXiv or your personal website? If people like Noga Alon and Richard Stanley found time to put hundreds of their papers online, so can you. I make a point of emailing to people asking them to do that every time I come across a reference which I cannot access. They rarely do, and usually just email me the paper. Oh, well, at least I tried…
  2. Learn to use databases like MathSciNet and Zentralblatt. Maintain your own website by adding the slides, video links as well as all your papers. Make sure to clean up and keep up to date your Google Scholar profile. When left unattended it can get overrun with random papers by other people, random non-research files you authored, separate items for same paper, etc. Deal with all that – it’s easy and takes just a few minutes (also, some people judge them). When people are struggling trying to do research from home, every bit of help counts.
  3. If you are signing a book contract, be nice to online readers. Make sure you keep the right to display a public copy on your website. We all owe a great deal of gratitude to authors who did this. Here is my favorite, now supplemented with high quality free online lectures. Be like that! Don’t be like one author (who will remain unnamed) who refused to email me a copy of a short 5 page section from his recent book. I wanted to teach the section in my graduate class on posets this Fall. Instead, the author suggested I buy a paper copy. His loss — I ended up teaching some other material instead. Later on, I discovered that the book is already available on one of those ethically compromised websites. He was fighting a battle he already lost!

Home computing

Different people can take different conclusions from 2020, but I don’t think anyone would argue the importance of having good home computing. There is a refreshing variety of ways in which people do this, and it’s unclear to me what is the optimal set up. With a vaccine on the horizon, people might be reluctant to further invest into new computing equipment (or video cameras, lights, whiteboard, etc.), but the holiday break is actually a good time to marinate on what worked out well and what didn’t.

Read your evaluations and take them to heart. Make changes when you see there are problems. I know, it’s unfair, your department might never compensate you for all this stuff. Still, it’s a small price to pay for having a safe academic job in the time of widespread anxiety.

Predictions for the future

  1. Very briefly: I think online seminars and conferences are here to stay. Local seminars and small workshops will also survive. The enormous AMS meetings and expensive Theory CS meetings will play with the format, but eventually turn online for good or die untimely death.
  2. Online teaching will remain being offered by every undergraduate math program to reach out to students across the spectrum of personal circumstances. A small minority of courses, but still. Maybe one section of each calculus, linear algebra, intro probability, discrete math, etc. Some faculty might actually prefer this format to stay away from office one semester. Perhaps, in place of a sabbatical, they can ask for permission to spend a semester some other campus, maybe in another state or country, while they continue teaching, holding seminars, supervising students, etc. This could be a perk of academic life to compete with the “remote work” that many businesses are starting to offer on a permanent basis. Universities would have to redefine what they mean by “residence” requirement for both faculty and students.
  3. More university libraries will play hardball and unsubscribe from major for-profit publishers. This would again sound hopeful, but not gain a snowball effect for at least the next 10 years.
  4. There will be some standardization of online teaching requirements across the country. Online cheating will remain widespread. Courts will repeatedly rule that business and institutions can discount or completely ignore all 2020 grades as unreliable in large part because of the cheating scandals.

Final recommendations

  1. Be nice to your junior colleagues. In the winner-take-all no-limits online era, the established and well-known mathematicians get invited over and over, while their junior colleagues get overlooked, just in time when they really need help (job market might be tough this year). So please go out of your way to invite them to give talks at your seminars. Help them with papers and application materials. At least reply to their emails! Yes, even small things count…
  2. Do more organizing if you are in position to do so. In the absence of physical contact, many people are too shy and shell-shocked to reach out. Seminars, conferences, workshops, etc. make academic life seem somewhat normal and the breaks definitely allow for more interactions. Given the apparent abundance of online events one my be forgiven to think that no more is needed. But more locally focused online events are actually important to help your communities. These can prove critical until everything is back to normal.

Good luck everybody! Hope 2021 will be better for us all!

College admissions II. What’s the hurry? Waste a year!

December 31, 2012 1 comment

To say that college admissions are overhyped would be an understatement.  There are literally many thousands of articles written on the subject each year (GoogleNews counts 2,000 in December 2012 alone), most of which have nothing new to say, except that it is very, very important…  In my earlier post I discussed discrimination concerns and crude solutions by universities and the public (read: politicians) to deal with it.  But truth of the matter is, these issues are so difficult in part because people value college education so greatly.  While I am obviously a strong supporter of college education (also, it pays my bills), college admissions does not have to be that consequential.  Here I argue for waiting a year or two, which would decouple the issues, shift decision making from parents to students, and hopefully ease the tension.

The way things are here

When it comes to college admissions, high school students and their parents are anxious and busy with this increasingly costly and time consuming activity.  At the end, over 60% of them go to college.  Of these, about 76% get into college of their first choice, and of those who don’t, most are happy anyway.  Now, all this might seem like a case for “stay the course”, but in fact, lots of people agree on the need for change, but not everyone agrees on what the change should be.  Let me present a particular aspect of the problem, which in my view make college admission so hot as an issue.

If you a faculty, you know that many students come to college morally unprepared.  Many simply view college as a “high school without parents“.  The universities worry about this extended adolescence, but in general are happy to take over this part of parental responsibilities in exchange for higher tuition.  No wonder the college bureaucracy is expanding – the need is evident.  This is very different from an old model of college as a place of higher learning where either usable skills or arts and letters, are studied by young adults, in preparation of lifetime employment.

It is not a surprise then, that at the end of their college years the students are lost and confused, unprepared for real jobs, and often choose graduate schools as a way to avoid hard decisions.

Why do parents do it?

That is, why are they willing to spend exorbitant amounts of money for a mixture of parenting and education, instead of letting them travel the world or work odd jobs etc., until their children are ready for the education?  I it just peer pressure?  Probably not.   Mostly, because they can.  At 18, american high school graduates are not considered adults yet, and with no savings are not in a position to make their own choices.  But when parents choose, they are not necessarily governed with what’s best for the children.  Paul Graham explains this well in the context of choosing a college major (ht. L. Positselski):

The advice of parents will tend to err on the side of money. It seems safe to say there are more undergrads who want to be novelists and whose parents want them to be doctors than who want to be doctors and whose parents want them to be novelists. The kids think their parents are “materialistic.” Not necessarily. All parents tend to be more conservative for their kids than they would for themselves, simply because, as parents, they share risks more than rewards. If your eight year old son decides to climb a tall tree, or your teenage daughter decides to date the local bad boy, you won’t get a share in the excitement, but if your son falls, or your daughter gets pregnant, you’ll have to deal with the consequences.

So naturally the parents are scared that a year or two outside of the controlled environment will lead to a lifetime of disappointment.  They use the tuition money as the last tool they have to control their children, even if this bankrupts them in the meanwhile.  This also robs children of potential financial support down the road, whether to start their own business or pursue literary dreams, or house down payment when they start a family.

Why do students do it?

Oh, of course very few children say no to candy (college tuition in this case).  Deferred gratification requires a character, an adult quality.  The point is not to put the students into position when they have to make a difficult choice between the education they are uncertain about, and the lifestyle they want while contemplating their life goals and risking all this cash their parents saved for college.  Only later, some students drop out to pursue their dreams.

How do students fare?

That depends.  Sometimes very poorly.  They fail basic courses, study for 5 or more years to complete a college degree, drop out, and occasionally commit suicide.  The ones who are lucky and realize that their college does not meet their goals, transfer to other schools.

This is not as rare as some people think.  For example, Barack Obama transferred from Occidental College to Columbia.  Dick Cheney flanked out twice from Yale and eventually graduated from the University of Wyoming.  Sarah Palin famously attended 5 colleges before graduating from the University of Idaho.  As Tim Noah reports, her grades were good, but she was in constant search of a school which would fit better her ever changing sports and academic interests.

Can things be different?

Of course.  And I am not talking about New Guinea lessons.  If college was free or nearly free, this would greatly diminish parents’ influence.  The knowledge that cheap college will wait while they grow up, would allow many students take a year or two off before they start college.  This would allow them to grow up, discover themselves, learn what they really want to do with their life, and become motivated.

Western Europe, of course, has inexpensive education, but is misleading as an example, since most universities are public and tend to be equal in funding and opportunities (within each country).  Also, things are slowly changing.  But in Eastern Europe, the universities are often very different in quality and offered majors, while still inexpensive enough to allow students to ignore parents’ advice and enjoy several years of travel and self-discovery.  Occasionally, a foreign born celebrity laments on the lack of that in America, but is never taken seriously.  Too bad.

Really different models

Let us count the ways other societies and subcultures change the above equation to allow 18 year olds to grow up before they join college.  While I don’t specifically advocate for either of these, the list does show that a few years away from the studies can be beneficial, or at least does not harm teenagers as much as their parents tend to think.

The most common is the military service, which varies in length may include civil service.  It is required even in some of the most developed countries such as Finland, Norway, Switzerland, and South Korea.  Until relatively recently it was required in virtually all countries.  AmeriCorps (not to be confused with PeaceCorps) is the US civil service pre-college alternative to serving in the military, but with only about 10-15 thousand people joining each year.

In Israel, both men and women are drafted, although at different lengths.  At the end of the service it is customary for former soldiers to travel the world for six months to a year, in destinations ranging from Bolivia to Sri Lanka, doing various experiments considered illegal at home.  These overseas trips are commonly viewed almost as the rite-of-passage.  Virtually all of these former soldiers later come back to Israel and become law obedient productive citizen, many with college degrees.

Religion is another source of lengthy travel and civil commitments, which range from Rumspringa (Amish adolescents’ leaves to explore the world) to Mormon missionary work.  Famously, Mitt Romney spent 2.5 years in France, while Jon Huntsman was a missionary in Taiwan.

Both military and civil service tends to make students more mature and goal oriented, if only because they are older.  For example, after a 5 year service in the IDF, current Israel Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu became a freshman at MIT at the age of 23, and earned two degrees (B.S. and M.B.A.) in four years (read why in the article).

Two personal anecdotes

After high school, I did not enroll at the university (not by choice, as I explained earlier), but went to  work as a C++ programmer at a bank (no, you don’t need a degree for that).  At the end of the year, I learned something about myself.  Turns out, I really dislike working all night to meet a deadline, providing mountains of documentation accompanying the code, or dealing with ever more demanding managers who understood little about the actual work.  So I promised myself to never ever do any programming again, a pledge that was easy to keep in my current vocation.

In another story, one of my distant relatives (let’s call him Mr. X) asked me what to do about his son suddenly being accepted to an Ivy League school.  With a high 5-figure salary he was rich enough not to be eligible for financial aid, and poor enough to afford the tuition.  After reading the rules, I told X that things are easier than he thinks.  All he had to do is defer enrollment for a year (this is allowed by many schools), send the kid to Russia live with a grandmother, and let him file his own taxes.  At the end of the year, X’s son can declare “financial independence” by signing a piece of paper in front of a notary public, that he is “abandoned by parents”.  Then, as a pauper, receive all financial aid available in such cases.  This trick would undoubtedly have saved Mr. X an upward of 100K.  But parental instincts are way too strong – instead he took a second mortgage on the house.  (Some minor details are changed to protect the identity of X’s family).

What can be done?

In general, rather little.  Changing the culture is hard, and rarely possible top-down without financial incentives.  Ideally, after high school the students should travel the world and explore different professions until they settle on what they want to do.  But as long as the colleges are expensive, the parents will continue to control the process sending the children to college immediately after high school, without giving them such opportunity.

Fortunately, there is a crisis in university education, with the offering of large scale online courses, and I mean “fortunately” in the same sense as Rahm Emanuel.  It has long been suggested by the advocated of inexpensive public education in California that most students should spend the first two years in local community colleges and then transfer to an appropriate UC or CalState school depending on their achievements.  Then schools such as Berkeley or UCLA would essentially become 2-year “finishing schools”.  The parents tend to revolt at this suggestions due to inherent uncertainty of the outcome.  I propose a variation on this approach, essentially bribing all the parties involved.

1. Make available online all standard introductory classes.
2. Allow an off-campus registration for at most 2 years, and charge only a fraction of the tuition for it.  Require B- average to maintain it.
3. Encourage more student transfers, both in and out, based on these grades.

Under there conditions with a guaranteed college spot, I believe many more students would choose to save on the tuition and travel the remote parts of the world, perhaps working part-time teaching conversational English, while taking the required few online classes to maintain college eligibility.  In a long run, this is also a good deal for the universities, as this would lead to smaller classes and more personalized attention to students who come back and enroll on campus.  The students themselves will be more mature and motivated, improving the graduation rate.

Hopefully, with time this will also reduce the temperature of college admission on all sides.  As the early online experience is equalizing and there is always a possibility of transfer later on, the potential admission mistakes become much less costly.  Baby steps…