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D Plus O Equals Do

August 28, 2013

Our 500th post comes with a non-Federal proposal

Cropped from HeinOnline source.

Barack Obama is the 44th President of the United States, and the 43rd person to hold that office. Stephen Cleveland counts as both the 22nd and 24th President since he had two non-consecutive terms, and he remains the only one ever called “Big Steve.” Our Barry, as he is sometimes called, likes to play up the ‘O’ in symbol and speech, and even named his first dog Bo for his initials. As mavens of asymptotic notation we might like to call him “Big-O,” but Obama’s many vociferous critics would read the O a different way. O well.

Today we make post number 500, ‘D’ in Roman numerals, and combine that with ‘O’ to frame some remarks made by the President last week about higher education.

Obama unveiled proposals for funding higher education in a speech last Thursday at the University at Buffalo, my campus. It was the first speech by a sitting president at the university since 1853, when Millard Fillmore—the other President with a major Buffalo connection besides Cleveland—had retained his chancellorship of UB all through his time in Washington, DC. About 7,200 members of the university and the public crammed into Alumni Arena for Obama’s 11:15am–noon performance.

After winning a ticket in the faculty e-lottery that morning, I kept my family company as they waited in line for several hours on Tuesday of last week for the public offering of tickets. We arrived at 9am on Thursday to find the line for Alumni Arena’s airport-like security already ringing the entire campus. The people-management was excellent, and we entered about 10:30. My wife and I found two seats together at the back of the rafters, while my kids found space closer down. It was a great atmosphere, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and attendees were not disappointed, because the clearly-audible Big-O had quite a lot of substance to say.

Obama’s Speech

Obama began by acknowledging local political leaders and recognizing the pressing concerns of those in attendance, including UB’s football team being sent to face #2-ranked Ohio State in the college opener. He enumerated how college costs have far outpaced family income, and could have made explicit that they have far outpaced family medical costs as well. This has caused an upsurge in student debt and defaults. He mentioned actions already taken by what he called his “consumer watchdog,” who is my fellow 1981 Marshall Scholar Richard Cordray, and who was finally confirmed last month after a two-year battle against Republican filibusters in the Senate.

Cordray used much of his five-time Jeopardy! winnings in 1987 to pay his loans from law school, but few others have been so fortunate. Indeed we joined many families waiting for Congress to continue a program of student loans at under 4% interest, after rates had reverted to 6.8% on July 1st. But action is needed at the other end of the spiraling staircase of costs, subsidies, taxes, and debt, and that is why the President came to a large public university to make his pitch.

The value of university education is not in question. The late and former UB president William Greiner liked to quip that the Master’s degree had become what the baccalaureate was in the 1960’s and the high school diploma was in the 1930’s. My department has many students doing 5-year BS/MS combined programs or double majors, and while such talk of graduate education is getting ahead of the horses, it speaks the impetus toward college degrees as a universal goal all the more loudly. Yet the USA is not in a position to make it a universal free privilege as several European countries plus Argentina and Brazil do. We have a roaring undisciplined market, and Obama’s proposals recognized that.

NPR source, with review

Three POTUS Proposals

The first proposal began with an observation that perhaps has been covered in papers on computational game theory and economics:

Right now, private rankings … [encourage] a lot of colleges to focus on ways to — how do we game the numbers, and it actually rewards them, in some cases, for raising costs.

Led by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who was also present and spoke briefly before Obama arrived, the plan seeks cooperation from universities and colleges on metrics that emphasize the position of students after they graduate: average debt in relation to costs, graduation rates, opportunity after graduation, success in the workforce. Of course many private sources offer such metrics, but the search is for a definitive index to which taxpayer assistance can be tied.

The third proposal was to tie the rate of paying back one’s student loan to one’s salary: “Pay As You Earn.” This brings us to the second proposal, which we mainly wish to discuss. This is to encourage schools to innovate in ways that keep teaching costs down, with the carrot being increased Federal assistance for such objectives.

Dick and I are all for innovation. And as you know we have sensed an upheaval coming to higher education in the near future, regardless of anything Washington does. After a couple ideas of credits based on speed of learning and for high-school courses, Obama indeed talked about online education and MOOCs:

Universities like Carnegie Mellon, Arizona State, they’re starting to show that online learning can help students master the same material in less time and often at lower cost. Georgia Tech, which is a national leader in computer science, just announced it will begin offering an online master’s degree in computer science at a fraction of the cost of a traditional class, but it’s just as rigorous and it’s producing engineers who are just as good.

Well perhaps a little more time is needed to judge that last assertion. Obama then went into that third proposal and spent the rest of the speech on student loans, but Dick and I want to stop right here and address the innovation part.

Does What You’re Doing Count?

Innovation means doing something new. That’s often hard, and needs leadership. We have a different idea that’s easier to come by. It’s using anew something you’re already doing.

We see online learning as pushing toward a standardized curriculum, teaching not only ‘to’ a text but to a packaged set of lectures. We might feel that some of our friends doing these lectures are delivering close to an optimal presentation of the material. We’ll leave aside our feeling—for which Dick has taken much more time than I to view videos—that some others are far from optimal, and grant that some near-best rolling out of curriculum can be found. We will still suggest the opposite: that maybe the best way to improve your classes is to take time away from the curriculum, to what you yourself are doing outside lecture prep.

I’m on the regular rotation for several large 1xx/2xx/3xx courses, and I’ve taken care to tailor my lectures to lift the lower-middle of the student body. I’ve hence been reluctant to bring up topics that involve jumping ahead of present material. Sometimes I’ve even given self-limiting responses to advanced questions from one student in a large class, giving that student a longer reply in office hours, and/or posting an answer publicly with a “this-is-FYI-not-on-the-exam” label. I’ve come to realize that such jumping ahead works fine provided one thing: that it connects to something you yourself are actually doing.

An Example From Code

For one example, in our intro Data Structures course using C++ last spring, I covered the text’s long chapter on arrays (C++ vector) and linked lists, explaining using Big-O timing notation the situations where one might prefer one over the other. Toward the end of a lecture, I related that in practice vector is almost always better—even when the theory favors list. I’d read an article to that effect, and this much-noted post puts the point even more strongly. I explained some things about modern hardware, such as caching and pipelined multiple execution, that were not in the text.

Now this has overtones of saying, Everything I Just Lectured On Is False, and I did worry about causing confusion. But what I think made it earnest is that I connected it to how and why I use vector copiously and list sparingly (mainly for an outermost loop) in one of my own programs. It happens to be my chess-cheating testing program, and this caused some digression in class on how players cheat, but it could be any program needing good numerical performance. Only a few students were curious to see my code, and I showed just a couple the above article, but I think the potential it opened of making a personal connection was reflected in queries about other things by more of the class.

Bloomberg source, with review

Teaching and Doing

We’ll leave our readers to suggest other examples, but we have another thought on how it works. The lower the level of the course, the wider the opportunity to make some personal connection. It might at first seem off-kilter, but sometimes the students themselves may find connections for you.

Dick and I have reflected on why college as an institution has done so well despite logistical hurdles on top of costs, and one answer we keep returning to is personal connections—to students and faculty—whose benefits are hard to quantify. I’ve shown my chess program once in our annual weekend Undergraduate Research Fair, but other times I’ve had conflicts and not everyone attends and most of those attending haven’t had me in a course. Hence the idea of doing some of it in a course.

So Dick and I are suggesting: consider sometimes not teaching the curriculum. Break homogenization. After all, students can now go online to pick up offline some of the bits that were covered less. Perhaps the old cliché about teaching versus doing can be morphed into: “Those who can, teach what they do…”

Open Problems

Related to what we’re talking about are much-discussed topics of “flipping the classroom” and blending online content, amid concerns about effectiveness of the original online models. What makes universities effective, what balance with online learning will work best, and how does this depend on a school’s own standing and resources?

This is the 500th post on this blog. I wrote the text but the content comes from both of us—indeed I used some of Dick’s opinions. Dick adds:

Thanks to all who read us, all who comment on us, and thanks especially to Ken, without whose tireless efforts GLL could not continue. Our next big milestone is not the 1,000th post, but the 512th—we are after all computer scientists.

Here is a cartoon pastiche that summarizes some of my concerns and thoughts about the future of innovation in delivery of learning via the Internet.

source for photo part

10 Comments leave one →
  1. August 28, 2013 11:57 pm

    Personal connections are certainly very important. Even more so for the lowest-level students — such as those in remedial math and English, likely the most widely taught college classes (given their predominance in the community college setting). Students like these definitely need the human touch, as they don’t yet have the higher level of study skills or discipline needed to research and follow-up curriculum online. For example, the head of a program in Philadelphia who tried offering such courses online concluded at the end, “The failure rates were so high that it seemed almost unethical to offer the option”.

    I would guess that O’s thoughts on education will go approximately nowhere, like the balance of his domestic proposals, although his expanded foreign bombing plans will probably proceed posthaste in the nest week with little check or debate.

  2. subruk permalink
    August 29, 2013 2:51 am

    Dear Dick and Ken,

    Congrats on reaching the 500 milestone. It’s certainly a pleasure reading all the varied topics that you put up here, catering to the diverse audience that GLL has. I hope you keep going strong passing further milestones after milestones. It was a privilege and honor to be associated with the blog in the initial stages, to be able to read the posts a day or two before the rest of the world. To reach 500 posts and still maintain the quality of content and readership is no mean feat. I still look forward to your posts with the same enthusiasm as before. Congratulations once again.

  3. John Sidles permalink
    August 29, 2013 8:17 am

    Congratulations and thanks are hereby extended (from me, and from everyone!) to Ken Regan and Dick Lipton for the outstanding form that is Gödel’s Lost Letter.

    And please let me appreciate too, Ken Regan’s work on computer-assisted chess cheating, which is both mathematically fascinating and vitally important to sustaining the integrity of the chess community (and I hope we will hear more about this work in coming months).

    In regard to higher education, two works which have provided considerable food for thought (for me anyway) are Serge Tabachnikov’s lively account of one of the earliest (1965!) and most successful ur-MOOCS: “Israel Moiseevich Gelfand’s School By Correspondence”” (Notices of the AMS, 60(2), 2013, pp. 166-169). More recent is Wendell Berry searingly caustic account of Duke University’s contradictory origins in his 2012 Thomas Jefferson Lecture titled “It All Turns On Affection.”

    It’s plain that Tabachnikov’s and Berry’s analyses apply to broadly to modern research universities. It’s sobering that Tabachnikov’s and Berry’s accounts point to very many, exceedingly difficult, increasingly urgent issues; yet these authors provide mighty few answers. Whatever the outcome, it’s clear that the STEM community is indeed confronting (precisely as Ken Regan says) “an upheaval coming to higher education in the near future.”

    Thank you again, Ken Regan and Dick Liption, for sustaining a forum that tackles these issues.

    • John Sidles permalink
      September 1, 2013 5:35 pm

      Strong evidence that (in Ken Regan’s phrase) the “upheaval coming to higher education in the near future” has *already* arrived is this weeks IEEE Spectrum feature article by Robert N. Charette:

      The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

      Every year U.S. schools grant more STEM degrees than there are available jobs. When you factor in H-1B visa holders, existing STEM degree holders, and the like, it’s hard to make a case that there’s a STEM labor shortage.

      There is indeed a STEM crisis—just not the one everyone’s been talking about. The real STEM crisis is one of literacy: the fact that today’s students are not receiving a solid grounding in science, math, and engineering.

      Conclusion  It is futile for STEM disciplines to wait passively upon politicians/corporations/markets to address Charette’s sobering realities: We can be, we must be, and we shall be “the ones who knock.”

  4. August 29, 2013 9:02 am

    Way back in the last millennium, I believed that information technology would soon enable us to liven up the interplay among communities of researchers, teachers, and learners in ways that we had never seen before, eventually uniting all these folks in One Big Community Of Inquiry. My favorite co-author and I wrote papers for conferences and journals like those you find archived but still sleeping furiously here.

    What happened? Sure, true innovation continues to go on, but mostly at the periphery, where the major forces aren’t paying attention, where it has a chance to live and breathe a while before some corpulent take-over machine stamps it out.

    Looking back, our vision depended on the idea that information technology was an interactive medium for inquiry-driven learning, a dialogue involving nature as one of the participants, a means of enhancing communication whose controls would remain in the hands of the communicators, the researchers, teachers, and learners themselves.

    What we failed to anticipate is that information technology might become just another tool in the mitts of mega-corps for controlling, manipulating, and profiting off the populace, that it could be used as a weapon to destroy the systems of education and inquiry already in place and give increasingly passive consumers a shoddy bill of not-so-goods in return.

  5. Javaid Aslam permalink
    September 1, 2013 5:51 pm

    The problem with the US education system is more systemic in nature. Some of these problems pointing to oppose the education are in fact a manifestation of the society’s behavior and attitude at the cellular level. And so a policy based solution is very unlikely.

    The politicians don’t care because they are driven by the lobbyists.
    The schools are more interested in getting their profit margins.
    The students want higher grades and degree w/o much of a hard work.
    Who cares?

    If there was a metric such as a National IQ, I am sure there would be a strong correlation between the US education rank and the US IQ.

    “The United States places 17th in the developed world for education, according to a global report by education firm Pearson. Finland and South Korea, not surprisingly, top the list of 40 developed countries with the best education systems.”

    “Just 6 percent of U.S. students performed at the advanced level on an international exam administered in 56 countries in 2006.”
    “The report said that the success of Asian nations in the rankings reflects the complex impact each society’s attitude toward education has in defining its effectiveness.”

    The Crisis Stats:
    The average face of America can be seen in any average public place such as a health club. If it captures any metric of its education system, it is ugly. No Nationalistic rug will be able to successfully cover this ugliness. Hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent to control the minds of “we the people”, to keep the national IQ as low as possible, so as to guard the interests of the few.

    In 1986 I happened to teach few 3xx/4xx CS courses at RIT, Rochester, NY. To my amazement most of the faculty members did not have a CS degree. But they were far more successful by the students’ ratings. Except that 80% of the students at 3xx/4xx levels did not meet the pre-requisites set by the CS department.

  6. September 2, 2013 12:15 pm

    The One Thing Needful

    ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’

    Charles Dickens • Hard Times

    One of the first things we learn in systems theory and engineering is that meaningless measures are always the easiest to make and to game. The one thing needful for a meaningful measure is to ask — and to keep on asking — the eminently practical question, ”What is the purpose of this system?”

    What is the purpose of an educational system? What is the purpose of an economic system? What is the purpose of a governmental system? Take your eyes off those prizes and you lose sight of all.

  7. September 4, 2013 6:03 pm


    So basically taxes. Why not just make it a tax for everyone , not just those who study, given that the entire population profits from education (everyone might need a doctor, a lawyer, everyone uses the services and products that require specialized education). Students can then pay a much smaller and logical amount. Most people who want to go to college already make such a plan, so where’s the difference for them?

    But wait, will the US give away taxpayer’s dollars to a private corporation (which, to my understanding, is what many universities are?). Well, in an extend yes. They already do this for grants, which can be adjusted to this new system. For the universities it will have no difference, they will get the same money but from a single entity, instead of thousands smaller ones.

    • September 4, 2013 6:04 pm

      The quote was removed : ” The third proposal was to tie the rate of paying back one’s student loan to one’s salary: “Pay As You Earn.” “


  1. “It’s time for someone to put their foot down, and that foot is me.” « Pink Iguana

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