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Return on Investment is Not the Way to View Education March 14, 2020

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Circa 1995, my CS/Math department chair told me in no uncertain terms that we had perfected higher education, through small classes taught in person once or twice a week.  There was no need to change education at all.

He was serious.  It was laughable then, and it’s even more laughable today.  Yet, especially in our youth (I am well beyond that, of course) we still look at education as a four (or more) year residential process on a bucolic campus.

Today Quartz is asking the question of what is the better return on investment, getting a college degree or buying a house.  The real problem with that question is assuming four or more residential years on a bucolic campus.  And while that works for some, young adults today have many more options than I had.  In my experience, community colleges are fantastic, rigorous education for two years taught by dedicated professionals.  And they are no longer places to learn auto body; they teach computer programming, nursing and affiliated health care, engineering, and others that were once the exclusive preserve of four-year colleges and beyond.

MOOCs are an outstanding way of learning.  Courses from Coursera, Udacity, and others offer no-cost (for non-degree programs) or very low cost (for degree programs) courses, taught by world class instructors from world class universities.

Several residential colleges in my state have closed over the last two decades.  I’m sure they considered their circumstances unique, but the fact of the matter is that they priced themselves out of their markets.  And higher education is still raising its prices at double or triple the rate of inflation, blindly convinced that someone will pay for it for these students.

Over the last two decades education has become much more egalitarian and accessible to even those of modest means.  Yet young adults still seek that residential experience.  I think I know why; they are driven to it by their parents, who are convinced that only their own experience matters to their children.  Guess what?  You don’t need to be in residence away from home to learn.  And I don’t think parents realize that, or accept it.

But the world has changed, and for the better.  I sincerely wish that both parents and their children will look at the alternatives, because today they are good ones.

A decade ago, I was at the Supercomputing Conference, where the keynote speaker was the recently passed Clayton Christensen.  He talked about higher education, and how lower-end alternatives were chewing away at the bottom of the education hierarchy.  Except that today it’s no longer at the lower end.  Alternatives are not yet Harvard, but they are most certainly at least flagship state universities.

Higher education doesn’t have to be a tradeoff any more, but we as a society think that’s still the case.  Get over it, folks.

Statistical Significance and Real Life December 23, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Education, Technology and Culture.
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I have a degree in applied math, and have taught statistics for a number of years.  I like to think that I have an intuitive feel for numbers and how they are best interpreted (of course, I also like to think that I am handsome and witty).

Over the last few years there has been concern among the academic community that most people massively misinterpret what statistical significance is telling them.  Most research is done by comparing two separate groups (people, drugs, ages, treatments, and so on), one of which is not changed, while the other of which undergoes a change (most experiments are actually more complex than this, with multiple change groups representing different stimuli, different doses, or different behaviors).  The two groups are then compared through a quantitative measurement of the characteristic under test.

Because we are sampling the population, there is some uncertainty in the result.  Only if we have complete information (a census) can we make a statement with certainty, and we almost never have that.  Statistical significance means that there is a small percentage (usually one or five percent) that a certain result can be found only by chance, thus suggesting that there is a real difference between the control and experimental groups.

Statistical significance is a narrow mathematical term.  It refers to interpreting the mathematics, not applying the result to the real world.  I try to make the distinction between statistical significance and practical significance.  Practical significance is when the experimental conclusion can result in meaningful action in the problem domain.  “This drug always cures cancer”, for example, can never be true, for multiple reasons.  But we might like to make the statement that we can save twenty thousand lives a year; that might result in action in promoting a cure.

The problem is that many policy makers and the general public conflate the two.  If something is statistically significant, how can it also not be practically significant?  A large sample size can identify and amplify tiny differences that in many cases don’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

And there is such a thing as the Type I error (there is also a Type II error, which I’ll write about later).  The Type I error says that we falsely reject the hypothesis that there is no difference between the groups.  And what are the odds of that?  Pretty good, actually.  Chances are that you got those results through random chance, not because there is a real difference.

Many studies analyzed by statistics use multiple statistical tests, sometimes numbered in the hundreds.  If you do a hundred statistical tests, and you find five that give you statistically significant results at the 95 percent level, what do you conclude?  Many researchers breathe a sigh of relief and exclaim “Publish!”  Because in many cases their jobs are dependent on publishable results.

While we can use statistics and mathematics in general to help us understand complex problems, we have to mentally separate the narrow mathematical interpretations from the broader solution and policy ones.  But most researchers, either through ignorance or because it behooves their careers to publish, do so.  And the lay public and policy makers will bow to the cult of statistical significance, making things worse rather than better.

How Science Works October 11, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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About 65 million years ago, give or take, dinosaurs roamed the Earth.  Then, on a single day (more or less), a massive asteroid struck in what is today the southern Gulf of Mexico, just north of the Yucatan Peninsula.  A decade or two ago, there was evidence of a massive asteroid strike in the Gulf of Mexico at the K-T boundary.  Seemingly, this changed the Earth’s climate so drastically that dinosaurs became extinct (this took likely a million or so years).  While this theory was first proposed about two decades ago, it is receiving additional support through further research.

None of this is known in an absolute sense; there were no witnesses, of course.  Paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, and more have deduced this from evidence on the ground.  You will truly be amazed at the amount of effort scientists have put into discerning the distant past.

It’s important to note that the evidence is not first-hand.  Scientists typically start with a theory, then look for clues that support or reject the theory.  The clues are not clear-cut.  Other scientists pose alternative theories.  More research is conducted.  Based on the preponderance of research, one theory may win out over time, but other scientific theories may still be valid.  We may never know truth in an absolute sense.

I remember, now about 45 years ago, a novel by Larry Niven called Lucifer’s Hammer, which postulated a modern-day (well, the 1970s) asteroid strike on the Earth.  For months before the strike, the possibility was dismissed because the margin or error was too large.  That margin of error became smaller and smaller, until the day the asteroid, in major pieces, hit various parts of the Earth.  But only the “kooks” bought into it before the margin of error equaled certainty.

All science is messy, and that causes many people fits.  Theories are proposed, supported, refuted, and supported further.  We had Newton’s Three Laws (which are not the same as Asimov’s fictional Three Laws), until Einstein proposed a more accurate theory.  But Newton’s laws are still useful for many computations, and in a physical sense, easier to understand.  So we continue to use them.

Too many otherwise educated people become frustrated at the ambiguities and contradictions of science, and reject the conclusions because they don’t like the process.  Others fail to grasp the nuances, and fall back on undocumented legends and stories.

Does this mean we should reject science because it is a work in progress?  Many people say yes, reverting to other beliefs.  We think that science is all certainty, and when we become disillusioned, we reject everything.  But that’s not how science works.  As we are increasingly in a world where it may take decades or longer to discern truth, or even never completely be cognizant of truth, we can’t reject science because we don’t like the process.

A Rebirth, or a Requiem? July 16, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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Here on the 50th anniversary of the first manned moon mission, I’d like to share this image.  In 1973, at my Eagle Scout dinner in downtown Pittsburgh, I (and the other Eagle Scouts) received Man in the Moon, the official recordings of the Apollo 11 journey, back in 1969 (and yes, I still have a turntable to play it).


I have always been a forceful advocate of space travel.  While in the Air Force, I applied to become a flight engineer on the Space Shuttle program (I’m sure my candidacy was met with a good chuckle by all concerned).

Further, I believe in space travel for very abstract reasons.  “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” wrote poet Robert Browning.  But more so, there seems to be an historical pattern of civilization reaching out for a seemingly impossible goal, then retreating from it.

We are in the stage of retreat from space right now.  Certainly, perhaps a dozen or more countries launch hundreds of low Earth orbit satellites yearly for weather, military, scientific, communications, or other purposes.  But that is largely proven (although not entirely reliable) technology today.  We have not tested technical boundaries since the 1970s.

Many say it is too expensive; we have too many problems here on Earth.  But that is a fallacy perpetuated by the ignorant.  The trailblazing work in electronics, software, communications, safety-critical systems and much more would not exist today without the breakthroughs found in our space program of the past.

But there is so much more inherent in pursuing space travel that cannot be readily quantified.  Smart people reaching for seemingly impossible goals stimulate those around them, and society in general.  If we focus inward, we lose sight of the value of interactions with others.  Yet that is where we are.

I was at Cape Canaveral last year.  I saw large buildings and a lot of activity from the likes of Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and SpaceX.  Every few years, the US government and NASA make loud noises about reviving some ambitious goal, but ultimately back down in the face of cost, complexity, or simply indifference.  The government won’t get us there, because too few people care.  But we are so close to losing space altogether that we should be afraid that future innovation will consist only of better ways to look down at our phone.

I think I said it well here, should you care to read.  Yes, set controls for the heart of the sun.

There is Less to Free College Than Meets the Eye June 25, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Uncategorized.
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I am an incredibly strong believer in higher education.  Higher education vaulted me from a life of blue-collar servitude into the middle class and likely beyond.  The discipline and long term vision inherent in the work required to get a degree, in any field, enormously helps people no matter where they end up.

(As someone who earned advanced degrees in both natural and social sciences, I have my own opinion on rigor.  Both have rigor.  However, you can bluff your way through a psychology test; you can’t in a math test.)

So as I read about Bernie Sanders’ plan to cancel $1.5 trillion dollars in student debt, I thought about Boris.  Boris, a part time tour guide in Copenhagen, was both an insider and an outsider in his society.  He was a Danish born citizen, but the son of a Russian father and Korean mother.  At 26, he had a degree in sociology, in a country where all education was free.  “I got a degree without knowing what I wanted to do with it, or with my life,” he told us.  “Because it was free, I didn’t stop to think where I wanted to go from there.”  At the time we met him, he was in vocational training to become a carpenter (also free).

I don’t like the phrase “skin in the game,” but if you are paying for something, or borrowing and expected to pay for it in the future, you tend not to spend unwisely.  And while Sanders’ plan might let many (all) students begin their adult lives with a clean slate, I’m suspecting that there might be the tendency to produce professional students.

We don’t have to work in the field where we get a degree (most of my degrees don’t apply here).  But planning and budgeting, and compromising on other aspects of life, play a role in university, degree, and success.  With a free ride, you don’t have to worry about doing that.  While it’s not a prerequisite for getting a degree, such compromises should be a part of an adult life.

It Turns Out That Higher Education is On Trial May 10, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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Thanks to Lori Loughlin pleading not guilty and presumably heading for trial amidst a far-reaching scam that enabled some wealthy and privileged parents to, well yes, cheat, we have to confront the system that has enabled it.

Wealthy and privileged parents claim they have the moral right and responsibility to use their substantial resources in order for their children to land at the top of society in the next generation.  Not doing so is a clear failure of parenting.  And if they break the law (mostly wire fraud, but also conspiracy), well, that’s just being a good parent.

While the universities involved are trying to distance themselves from that message, it is truly they that will be on trial here, because they (and specific employees) are the recipients of this largesse.  It’s easy to draw a line between endowing a building or an academic program and dressing your kids up as sports participants they are most decidedly not.  The latter is fraud, pure and simple.

But it was enabled by the universities.  They and their employees accepted that, usually with a bribe involved.  Universities generally look the other way, unless it is a bad look.  And this is a bad look.

So while Lori Loughlin will be in trial, our finest institutions of higher learning are on trial too.

The Scientific Method Needs to Be Fundamental Education for Everyone January 15, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education, Technology and Culture.
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We have a problem today.  Actually, we have many problems, but most of them boil down to the fact that we lack disciplined thinking.  As a result, we feel justified in believing any damned thing we like, whether or not it makes logical or evidentiary sense.  A common grounding in the scientific method can address that.

I’ll give an example.  I recently advised a PhD candidate on the use of statistics for his dissertation research.  He was planning on doing about 90 t-tests, plus a collection of ANOVAs.  I warned him that his results were likely to have at least a couple of Type I errors.  He replied, “What is that?”

Where is Martin Gardner when you need him?  (Yes, I know he passed away in 2010).  We lack the understanding of basic analytical statistics and how they influence our beliefs.  This is not rocket surgery, folks.  Anyone, and I mean anyone, who is doing primary research for a doctoral degree should understand the implications of their experimental design.

But we can extend belief well beyond that intellectual exercise.  A very large part of the reason many people feel free to believe things that are quite frankly difficult to believe is that belief is often a subjective thing, rather than based on any sort of scientific discipline.

You may argue that what any person believes is legitimate to that person.  Um, no.  Without a methodology of belief, that represents a lie and a cop-out by that person.  “I believe because I feel like it?”  That doesn’t cut the mustard in serious discussion.

So my point here is that everyone’s belief system has to begin with a disciplined foundation.  We believe something to be true because we have objective evidence, and that evidence allows us to formulate a hypothesis that is testable.  The test may be explicit, or it may be supported or rejected based on additional evidence.  But we cannot believe something because we feel like it.  Life doesn’t work that way.

Few of us think this way in determining our beliefs, and that is unfortunate.

You might also argue that this is an amusing stance for me to be taking.  Decades ago, I learned, and internalized, the scientific method as an undergrad psychology student, which some may consider an odd field of study for that discipline.  But as a social science, psychology is probably the best discipline for employing the scientific method.  It meant a lot for me to begin my adult life with a foundation of the scientific method.  Others can benefit too.

US Higher Education Fails At Every Turn January 6, 2019

Posted by Peter Varhol in Education.
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I am an unabashed supporter of higher education.  As a working class youth whose parents never graduated high school, I believed (and still believe) that college made me someone I could not have been otherwise.  To you it may have been inevitable, to me it was a dream that I had to wish for and work hard for.

But at the same time, I have been an unabashed foe of university proclamations, policies, and executions.  Here is an example of how our universities are lying and feeling good about it.

Today, universities are offering tiered dormitory pricing, letting students who pay more for residence have better digs, including kitchens, lounges, and private rooms.  Even maids and a chef.

Here is the problem with that.  Universities have always promoted themselves as egalitarian and non-discriminatory.  They love to yell from the highest ramparts how they bring together youth of different socioeconomic status and race, and treat them as equals.  They believe that they are fighting against a society that classifies people by their socioeconomic standing.

I strongly believe that that is a very important part of higher education.  I went to college with the children of wealthy, yet lived and slept next to them in the same dorm rooms.

Our universities are not fighting for anything but your dollar.  The schools don’t care, because they get more money.  The parents today don’t care, because they are giving their children all of the comforts of home.

I have a friend; I once told him that my applying to a backup school meant that my family probably wouldn’t eat that week.  His response: “Sucked to be you, didn’t it?”  This is what our universities are creating today.  Think about that.

As you continue to pursue a fulfilling life with American education, there is just one thing that I would like to say.  They lie.  They are as bigoted against their poor students as it seems.  All they want is your money.