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The Final Frontier July 6, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Yes, these are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.  Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.

To someone of my age, this defined the possibilities of space, perhaps even more so than the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

We failed at this, in my lifetime, to my dying (hopefully not soon) regret.  We failed, not because of a lack of technology, but because of a lack of will.  Since the 1980s, America has been looking inward, rather than reaching for the next brass ring in the universe.

Today, we have no ability to launch astronauts into orbit.  No, we don’t.  Our astronauts go into orbit courtesy of the ESA or the Russians (not sure that ESA is doing all that much any more).  I am sure many of you are pleased at this, but you miss the larger picture.

May I quote Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”

Seriously.  Life is bigger, much bigger, than our individual petty concerns.  We may think our concerns are larger than life, but until we reach beyond them, we are petty, we are small.  Until we give ourselves to larger and more grandiose goals, we are achieving nothing as human beings.

Look at the people, throughout history, who have given their lives, willingly, in favor of a larger goal.  Not just the astronauts, but soldiers, sailors, explorers, yes, even a few politicians.

Today, my only hope is with the private companies, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and their ilk.  They are our future.  Not NASA, or the government in any way, shape or form.  I hope with all of my heart and soul they can reach where the collective citizenry has declined to.

Set controls for the heart of the sun.

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Learning How to Learn June 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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One of the significant values I got out of my college experiences was a foundation whereby I could build on with lifetime learning.  I’m not quite sure how it happened, but my life outlook seems to have combined a love of learning with the ability to build upon that initial foundation.  A part of it, I’m sure, is that I read a lot and forget little, but something more happened to enable me to readily integrate new knowledge in both the social and natural sciences into a growing world view.

Yes, I know, that is gobblety gook, but I learned that studying social science for my BA.  Gobblety gook was the primary language of communication when I was taking social science.

Nonetheless, it serves to draw a distinction between singing Kumbaya and preparing yourself for a lifetime in the real world.  Kumbaya may help us connect with others in the moment, but does little to prepare us for the future.

It goes beyond how do we learn.  It asks the question “How do we learn to learn?”  I did poorly in college in my freshman year (no, I was not a particular partier).  Rather, I tried valiantly to understand concepts, as my professors insisted.  When I finally realized they really wanted me to memorize facts, I did so voraciously, and averaged superior grades for the rest of my college career.

Somewhere along the way to memorizing facts, I would like to think that I learned how to learn, over the course of a lifetime (38 years after college and counting).  But I can’t apply my own individual circumstances to any proven curriculum.

But I have to think there is a way, perhaps this way.  Old fashioned, perhaps, but really, how often do our intellectual peers think about how to think?  Can we learn how to think by focusing deeply on a relatively few classic volumes?

I don’t know.  But to be fair, almost anything has to be better than what the vast majority of our higher education curricula are doing today.

Has Moneyball Killed Baseball? June 20, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Publishing, Strategy.
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Moneyball was a revelation to me.  It taught me that the experts could not effectively evaluate talent, and opened my own mind to the biases found in software development, testing, and team building.  Some of my best conference presentations and articles have been in this area.

But while Moneyball helped the Oakland Athletics, and eventually some other teams, it seems to be well on its way to killing the sport.  I’ve never been a big sports fan, but there were few other activities that could command the attention of a 12-year old in the late 1960s.

I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, and while I was too young to see the dramatic Bill Mazeroski home run in the 1960 World Series, I did see the heroics of Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell in the 1971 World Series (my sister was administrative assistant at the church in Wilmington NC where Stargell had his funeral).  I lived in Baltimore where the Pirates won a Game 7 in dramatic fashion in 1979 (Steve Blass at the helm for his third game of the series, with Dave Guisti in relief).

But baseball has changed, and not in a good way.  Today, Moneyball has produced teams that focus on dramatic encounters like strikeouts, walks, and home runs.  I doubt this was what Billy Beane wanted to happen.  That makes baseball boring.  It is currently lacking in any of the strategy that it was best at.

As we move toward a world where we are increasingly using analytics to evaluate data and make decisions, we may be leaving the interesting parts of our problem domain behind.  I would like to think that machine learning and analytics are generally good for us, but perhaps they provide a crutch that ultimately makes our world less than it could be.  I hope we find a way to have the best of both.

Higher Education Ignores Results It Doesn’t Like June 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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I am a strong believer in higher education.  At the same time, I recognize that what passes for higher education in some classes and even entire universities is a farce that suffers from lack of, well, caring.

In particular, some universities claim that they provide a high quality education by fiat alone, and discount or ignore evidence to the contrary.  And no one is willing or able to hold them accountable.  This WSJ article (paywall) notes that those schools whose students don’t show improvement in critical thinking discount the value of the test and stop administering it.  And no one calls them to task.

But the cry from my own experiences in academia still rings in my ears – “We don’t have customers, we have students!”

This kind of close-minded thinking is all too common in our higher education.  We like to think that educated people are by nature intelligent and thoughtful human beings.  Too often, they are just the opposite.

Further, parents lack the information or ability to critically evaluate the education alternatives available to their children, and defer to what those children feel comfortable with.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that parents may be shelling out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for a subpar education, or even no education at all.

To be fair, your experience in college is largely what you make of it.  You can go to Harvard, and party your way through with little impact on your ability to receive a degree.  You can go to Plymouth State, apply yourself, and obtain the foundation for a successful lifetime of learning and critical thinking.  In that sense, it doesn’t matter where you go.

But the American family is largely a poor consumer of higher education.  We spend more time and effort buying a car than we do buying an education, yet the implications of a poor choice are far more significant with the latter.  I wish we would find a way to penalize universities that make obviously unsupported claims on their quality, but regrettably, we genuflect to higher education so instinctively that we as consumers just don’t imagine going there.

What is the Liberal Arts? April 26, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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My B.A. degree is in the liberal arts. The diploma says psychology, but I also took substantial coursework in chemistry, biology, and physics.  Conversely, I took no English courses.

(To be fair, I wanted to take an English course, specifically, a writing course. My university required that I take an English placement test prior to doing so.  I did so, and placed out of the course that I wanted to take, and out of the next course, and was awarded six credits for my investment of an hour.  I never looked back.)

Today, liberal arts and humanities are on the proverbial ropes. This article in Wall Street Journal (paywall) describes how liberal arts programs in some schools are being expanded to include courses in mathematics and data analytics, in an effort to bolster the liberal arts with career learning.

Frankly, those courses, and other science topics should always have been there. In the dawn of the liberal arts education, the goal was to deliver a well-rounded individual who could opine and even work in a wide variety of different fields.  It led to a person who could be described as a “natural philosopher” who is educated and cultivated on a wide variety of topics, which relate to both social and science areas.

It’s only in more modern times that liberal arts curricula came to mean that the individual only had to study psychology, sociology, English, and political science. And that is wrong.  The liberal arts education has always been defined by a broad education without the depth of specialization.  Its intent is to drive rigor across traditional academic boundaries to enable its possessor to become a truly educated person.

But we got away from that at some point, with higher education permitted to define liberal arts as a much narrower take on a limited number of softer topics. Today’s so-called liberal arts is actually a bastardization of what it was intended to be.

The WSJ article positions the addition of math and science courses as a nod toward career training over life training. Ah, no.  Chosen well, what the math and science courses really do is round out a liberal arts education.  I understand that people need to get jobs, and such to get jobs, and such courses may help, but science and math are very much a part of life experience, no matter what field you may ultimately pursue.

About Licenses, Certifications, and Tech Jobs April 14, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Software development, Technology and Culture.
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As an academic, 25 years ago, I postulated to my students that software developers would require certifications and licenses at some point in time to pursue their craft. I was widely ridiculed at the time, so I would like to revisit that position today.

First, I want people to understand that I have no particular qualifications to write on this topic (that is ironic, based on the sentiment of this post).

We are facing two forces here. One is that innovation comes from at least partly those who have breakthrough ideas, from any field, without necessarily having formal training in that field.  While certainly true in software, I would imagine it true in other professional fields as well.

The second is that we as a society are increasingly depending upon software, and in particular software working correctly. This means we are vitally interested in having people who are working in that field are in some way qualified to do what they do.

And what does that mean? As in other professional fields, it means that we have studied formally, taken tests, and achieved a level of competence that is quantitatively identifiable and measureable.  In other words, we have a degree in the field, and we have passed one or more tests.

In the late 1980s, I worked for a defense contractor who was required to assure the DOD that its employees all had technical degrees. At that time, my MS in applied math qualified in that regard, so I passed muster.  Other long-time employees did not.  Did that make me better than them?  I don’t think so, but it made me more credentialed.

It has gotten worse since then. As we have self-driving cars, high-speed financial trading systems, fly-by-wire aircraft, and a myriad of other essential and safety-critical systems, we feel the need to have a level of confidence in the professionals behind them.  That confidence may be misplaced, but it is backed by a degree and/or certification.

In The Complacent Class, economist Tyler Cowen notes that in the 1950s, five percent of workers required a government-issued license in order to do their jobs, but by 2008, 29 percent did.  At many of the software conferences that I participate in, smart and serious professionals compare professional qualifications and job requirements.  It seems increasingly difficult to obtain employment without these certifications; in fact, I met many mid-career people who feel they need to become certified to continue their careers at a high level.

I don’t know the answer to this. I would like to think that some mixture of educated, certified professionals and unqualified-on-paper but passionate and self-educated people are essential in software.

But. Employers are increasingly looking for people who have credentials, usually those provided by a professional society (at least in software), that say they have studied and passed a test.  The problem is that such a thing may or may not have anything to do with their competence, knowledge, dedication, or ability to deliver on a project or task.

Increasingly, we as a society are not allowing for the mixture of qualified-on-paper and passionate-by-nature. I do believe that is wrong, but we are not willing to take the time and effort to identify those who can seriously contribute from those who have passed a test.

Weapons of Math Instruction February 15, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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That old (and lame) joke, of course, refers to Al-Gebra (algebra).  But the fear of math is very real.  For decades, many have hid behind the matra “I’m not a math person”, without exploring the roots of that statement.  This article, by Jenny Anderson on Quartz, offers hope that we may be able to move on from this false rhetoric.

I never understood math early, but I always loved it.  Post-BA degree, I taught myself calculus, and obtained an MS in applied math.

I taught various math and statistics courses to college students for 15 years.  I would like to think that my enthusiasm and down-to-earth explanations at the very least made it tolerable to them.  I still remember one student saying to me, “In elementary school, the teacher would preface the math lesson by saying, ‘I don’t want to do this any more than you do, but we have to, so let’s get it over with.’”  I think teaching is a very big part of the problem.  If teachers don’t like the topic, neither will their students.

I especially came to appreciate word problems, something that few if any students liked.  I had a method of dealing with them.  My original issue with word problems was that if I read it once and didn’t immediately see the solution, I would be stumped.  Instead, I taught people to read the problem first, to understand it without seeking a solution.  Then read it again, and highlight any information that seemed pertinent.  Then read it a third time, to pull out that information and see how it might help lead to a solution.  Then try a formula.  If it didn’t seem to work out, discard it and start back at step 1.

It is not hard, folks, though it does require overcoming age-old biases, as well as a willingness to be open to new ways of thinking.  Anderson notes that learning and applying math and quantitative methods requires a growth mindset.  That is, a willingness to get something wrong, and learn from it for the future.

As we move (or already have moved) into a data-driven world that requires an intimate understanding of how data shape our lives, we can no longer plead ignorance, or lack of ability.  If we plead lack of interest, we will be left behind.

 

About College Education, Cost, and Whose Fault is It Anyway? February 17, 2016

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
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I care deeply about higher education. It is what enabled me to transition from a working class household to the upper middle class as an adult.  A successful decade-plus in higher education has paid off well for me.

My BA work came at an interesting confluence in my family’s economic history. It seemed that in a couple of years leading up to my college life, the wages of an average steelworker increased more than enough to pay for three years at a private college, with some minor help from financial aid.  Of course, it helped that I went to one of the least expensive private colleges available.  And of course, the steel mills in the Pittsburgh area went away a few years afterward, because the economic model agreed to by the owners and the labor was ultimately unsustainable.

I paid for the next three degrees myself, as a young adult professional. I accept no accolades for it; it was just what I wanted to do with my life at that point.  Others have done it more efficiently, but I got it done well enough to have a reasonably successful career.

In time, I became a college professor, first adjunct, then tenure track. And I was exposed to how sausage was made, college finance style.  The colleges that I taught at didn’t care one whit about what they charged students.  They didn’t even really care about the students, to the point of not acknowledging them as customers.  There was an implicit but very real assumption that parents, the government, or loans would pay for whatever they happened to charge.  I say this starkly, with dislike, because the colleges didn’t really like or appreciate their students, in a financial sense.

So where am I going with this? I just had the brash sense to respond to a LinkedIn accolade wherein Senator Elizabeth Warren complains that banks pay very low interest rates, yet charge students market rates for college loans.

I actually like Elizabeth Warren. I think she says a lot of things that need to be said in a public discourse.

But I think she is mostly wrong. College loans require servicing, and college students occasionally default (I realize that they can’t really default on Federal loans, but that also doesn’t mean that they always pay them back; they don’t).  And yes, banks aren’t in the business of providing a public service; they are in the business of making a reasonable return off of the risks that they take.  She seems to have conveniently forgotten that part of the equation.

Most of the blame here is on the colleges, who really didn’t (don’t) care what the bill came to. I could go on, but I became fed up with the incredible arrogance of colleges in believing absolutely that their bill would be paid, by someone.  Some of the blame is on the parents, who want their children to have the same college experiences that they did, without realizing that higher education today is different.  And they are the ones that have to educate their children on the education alternatives, and what is within the realm of affordability and expectation.

Take a deep breath, Peter. So here’s what I think.  I think that the vast majority of students need to have a realistic understanding of what they can pay for, and seek out an education that meets the expectations of their life aspirations.  That doesn’t have to involve compromise, but it does involve research.  And it requires the support of the parents, who I think are mostly ill-equipped to provide that support.

But I really think that this falls on the colleges, who steadfastly refuse to look at their costs and charges, with an eye toward doing right by their students. I realize that there are probably exceptions here, but most colleges simply don’t care what their expenses are.  They do have a minor interest in what they charge, but only in relation to what similar colleges charge.  There is absolutely no concern with how the bill will be paid.

And that is a shame. And that is where Elizabeth Warren is truly wrong.