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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.

Science Education, Fear, and Our Reaction September 16, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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This is the story of the Irving, Texas school district and its wild and likely liable overreaction to a Muslim student building a novel clock. That said, it’s more about the education establishment and its poor relationship with science and technology.

I had the opportunity recently to hear about a teacher in Wilmington, North Carolina who was supporting her third grade students in a project to build a frog habitat in conjunction with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. I did a backstage tour there several years ago, and found it a wonderful and educational experience.

My grandnephew (I don’t really feel as old as that sounds) is a participating student, and I contributed a small amount of money to the effort. I received a long and personal thank you from the teacher. I would like to quote from that thank you. I don’t have her permission to use her name, but for those of you who care, I hope that you know who she is.

“I’m very interested in science. I’m not sure how much you know of the back ground of an elementary education major, but it has little to do with the content of science. My first year teach [sic] in 5th grade, years ago, the Science End of Grade test was implemented by the state. Our students failed. Upon figuring out why, it came down to teachers knowing content.  We are not taught science-specific content in a general elementary ed degree. So I taught myself science so my students could be successful. I continue to do so. I’ve since been placed in 4th grade (last year) and 3rd grade (this year), so I am learning new content with the hope that this will make science instruction easier on my 5th grade colleagues and even more so on the success of the students.”

You have to love teachers like this, who seem light-years away from those in Irving who participated in this debacle, and who continue to try to justify it. The Irving teachers are little people who seek to control our youth, not enable them. And, regrettably, you have to reject our society’s approach to science in our schools, and how we train our educators in that regard. That fact that we don’t train them at all should be frightening to any reasonable American.

Those of you who read me know that I am highly supportive of education, yet am justifiably distrustful of the education establishment. The Irving school district has proven me correct in that attitude. As individuals, we cannot measurably effect change. Together, as a voice, we may be able to raise the bar just a little bit.

Our Love/Hate Relationship with Higher Education August 10, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Perhaps I should call this “my” love/hate relationship. Like most adults, I am a big proponent of higher education. More knowledge is better than less. I have several degrees. I taught college for a decade and a half.

At the same time, I think the higher education establishment is stupid and clueless about their markets; in other words, students and their parents. I was present for an almost 20 percent increase in tuition at one of my colleges in the 1990s, which occurred not because of a significant increase in spending (college spending and tuition are not correlated), but because the powers-that-be presumed that in order to be considered a prestigious institution, they needed a price tag to match. Seriously.

I was in one faculty meeting where the topic of the school’s customers came up. The resulting cry was loud and nearly unanimous: “We don’t have customers! We have students!”

Yet we as a society continue to give (not-for-profit) higher education a pass. No matter how much higher learning raises tuition, we continue to believe that our children have a fundamental right to the higher education of their choice, no matter what the cost (disclosure: I am childless).

Some of this is due to the entitled attitude of the higher education establishment. More than 20 years ago, I had a department chair who was absolutely convinced that we had perfected higher education, and desperately fought any changes to the residential, in-class model.

But a big part of the problem is, I think, the parents. Successful middle and upper class parents want desperately for their children to have the same foundational experiences as they did, thirty years earlier. Never mind that today’s world in no way resembles the one in which they grew up.

Some of that may well be due to the drastic changes in growing up over the last two or three decades. Our last chance to share a common youth with our children is through a shared college experience. I don’t know; I’m not a psychologist (hold on; yes, I am). I fear that both parents and their children will be doomed to disappointment (perhaps not so much the children). The experience will in all likelihood not be common, and certainly not shared.

I believe that traditional higher education has a good purpose, though not the central purpose it had one or two generations ago. Today, there are so many ways to learn – residential universities, community colleges, MOOCs, and (yes) YouTube – and young adults have a rich array of choices that meet their career needs, curiosities, and budgets. At this point, it is their parents’ expectations, and societies’ preconceptions that are holding them back. I, for one, hope for fundamental change soon.

The problem is not ability to pay; it is that colleges don’t care if they are affordable.

A Matter of Education July 31, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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After years of less-than-flattering portrayals, the walls seem to have started crumbling for for-profit higher education institutions. Corinthian Colleges has closed entirely, and ITT and the University of Phoenix are undergoing investigation. In addition, enrollment has been on a downward trajectory, with the University of Phoenix shrinking by perhaps 50,000 students over the last year.

This state of affairs leaves me with mixed emotions. Let me establish some credentials. While no longer in higher education, I taught for over fifteen years, as an adjunct, tenure track full time faculty, and online instructor. I value education, and remain a lifelong learner through the MOOC vehicles.

There is nothing inherent in a for-profit status that makes it a less quality choice for education. In fact, many so-call not-for-profit schools do, in fact, make a profit, although with their tax status, it is usually referred to as “retained earnings”. (Disclosure – I am certainly not a tax expert, but this distinction between the two types of entities is fairly fundamental).

In particular, I think that the education delivered by both is fairly comparable. Granted, this is based on my experiences teaching technical courses, but based on the instructor preparation and curriculum provided, is true throughout.

There is certainly a difference in culture. At most traditional schools, time seems to have stopped years (decades) ago. I once had a senior faculty member tell me that universities had perfected instruction with small, in-person classes, and there was no need for innovation. Regrettably, this is what passes for critical thought at most universities.

I applaud for-profit schools for shaking up the status quo, and trying new education models. Even if they don’t work, it’s a big advance over the failure of traditional schools to embrace innovation.

But for-profit schools have a problem. I think that problem is one of being too aggressive at opening up opportunities (yes, I’m being generous). Despite the democratization of higher education (which as a scion of the working class, I fully approve of), there are young people who should not be in college. By admitting everyone, and gaming the financial aid system, they are setting up tens of thousands of people for failure.

To be fair, not-for-profit higher education also games the financial aid system, but not with the aggressiveness of their for-profit brethren. There is where the problem lies. I think it can be fixed, but only if for-profit schools acknowledge not only their strengths, but also their shortcomings.

Has the College Season Changed? April 5, 2015

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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I first went to college over a generation ago, as one of the first of my extended family to attend college (my sister was first, followed by a cousin, but college was an option only for my generation; my parents never finished high school). It was a haphazard process; there wasn’t anyone to turn to for advice, and of course it was pre-Internet.

So, thirty-plus years ago, you would apply to maybe three-to-five schools, because each school had an application fee of anywhere between $25 and $100 bucks (I shouldn’t be embarrassed to say that $100 bucks meant whether or not our family was going to eat that week). Plus, each application was several pages long, and easily required several hours to write out by hand.

You found out about colleges through old-fashioned thumbing through old catalogs and brochures in the school library or guidance office. Your research was hardly comprehensive or unbiased, so you may well have ended up with a handful of schools that were nowhere near the best selections.

You may or may not have gotten accepted to all of them. Of those you were accepted to, you might want to visit one or two campuses, and not in this way.

Some things have changed in the next 30 years. The application process is typically online, and the fees tend to be more reasonable (at least in adjusted dollars). College visits tend to be more organized, with specific days set aside for group activities.

Many things do not appear to have changed. The timeframe for application and admissions seems to be approximately equal, although I would imagine that decisions can be made a lot more quickly by analyzing data on applicants. And there is just as much emphasis on campus visits and feeling “comfortable” with the campus and (to a much lesser extent) the people.

There is some justification for that. Teens are likely leaving home for the first time, and there is good reason for them to be emotionally and physically comfortable with that decision.

But in an era where college tuition has increased at double the rate of inflation through most of my adult life, and universities drag their feet in moving forward, I’m not sure that’s the deciding factor any more. Cost, utility, and flexibility may have overtaken the physical plant as the primary means of deciding on a college. There are many ways to begin and complete a degree, and the traditional four years (or more) residing on a campus seem, at least to me, to be less important than they were 30+ years ago.

I’m not a parent, and I haven’t had to go through this process with teens. But I suspect that parents, my age to perhaps a decade younger, are projecting their own experiences on their college age children, and are encouraging them to make exactly the wrong decisions for this day and age.

I also raise this because I’m concerned about higher education. I was a tenure-track professor, back in the day, I was discouraged by the total lack of imagination and innovation on college campuses. My department chair was convinced that we had perfected higher education twenty years ago, and no changes were necessary.  If these are our best and brightest, I wonder just what direction they are leading the youth of today.