Gas station without pumps

2014 March 13

Suggestions for changes to biomed training

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Yesterday I attended a a discussion lead by Henry Bourne (retired from UCSF) about problems in the training system for biologists in the US.  His points are summarized fairly well in his article A fair deal for PhD students and postdocs and the two articles it cites that preceded it:

In a recent essay I drew attention to five axioms that have helped to make the biomedical research enterprise unsustainable in the US (Bourne, 2013a). This essay tackles, in detail, the dangerous consequences of one of these axioms: that the biomedical laboratory workforce should be largely made up of PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, mostly supported by research project grants, with a relatively small number of principal investigators leading ever larger research groups. This axiom—trainees equal research workforce—drives a powerful feedback loop that undermines the sustainability of both training and research. Indeed, unless biomedical scientists, research institutions and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) act boldly to reform the biomedical research enterprise in the US, it is likely to destroy itself (Bourne, 2013b).

I’m basically in agreement with him that very long PhD+postdoc training current in biology in the US is fundamentally broken, and that the postdoc “holding tank” is not a sustainable system.

I also agree with him that one of the biggest problems in the system is paying for education through research grants. Grad student support should be provided directly, either as fellowships or training grants (I prefer individual fellowships like the NSF fellowships, he prefers training grants). By separating support for PhD training from research support, we can effectively eliminate the conflict of interest in which students are kept as cheap labor rather than being properly trained to become independent scientists (or encouraged to find a field that better fits their talents). By limiting the number of PhD students we can stop pumping more people into the postdoc holding tank faster than we can drain the tank by finding the postdocs real jobs.

I disagreed with one of his suggestions, though. He wants to see the PhD shrunk to an average of 4.5 years, followed by a 2–4-year postdoc. I’d rather keep the PhD at 6.5 years and eliminate the postdoc holding tank entirely. In engineering fields, researchers are hired into permanent positions immediately after their PhDs—postdoc positions are rare.  It is mainly because NIH makes hiring postdocs so very, very “cost-effective” that the huge postdoc holding tank has grown. If NIH changed their policies to eliminate support for postdocs on research grants, allowing only permanent staff to be paid, that would help quite a bit.

Draining the postdoc holding tank would probably take a decade or more even with rational policies, but current policies of universities and industry (only hiring people in bio after 6 years or more of postdoc) and of the NIH (providing generous funding for postdocs but little for permanent researchers) make the postdoc holding tank likely to grow rather than shrink.

He pointed out that NIH used to spend a much larger fraction of their funding on training students than they do now—they’ve practically abandoned education, in favor of a low-pay, no-job-security research workforce (grad students and postdocs).

A big part of the problem is that research groups have changed from being a professor working with a handful of students to huge groups with one PI and dozens of postdocs and grad students. Under the huge-group model, one PI needs to have many grants to keep the group going, so competition for research grant money is much fiercer, and there is much less diversity of research than under a small-group model.

The large-group model necessitates few PIs and many underlings, making it difficult for postdocs to move up to becoming independent scientists (there are few PI positions around), as well as making it difficult for new faculty to compete with grant-writing machines maintained by the large groups.

A simple solution would be for NIH to institute a policy that they will not fund any PI with more than 3 grants at time, and study sections should be told how much funding each PI has from grants, so that they can compare productivity to cost (they should also be told when grants expire, so that they can help PIs avoid gaps in funding that can shut down research).  The large groups would dissolve in a few years, as universities raced to create more PIs to keep the overhead money coming in.  The new positions would help drain the postdoc holding tank and increase the diversity of research being pursued.

Of course, the new positions would have to be real ones, not “soft-money” positions that have no more job security than a postdoc. NIH could help there too, by refusing to pay more than 30% of a PI’s salary out of Federal funds.

Of course, any rational way of spending the no-longer-growing NIH budget will result in some of the bloated research groups collapsing (mainly in med schools, which have become addicted to easy money and have built empires on “soft-money” positions).

I think that biology has been over-producing PhDs for decades—more than there are permanent positions for in industry and academia combined. That combined with the dubious quality of much of the PhD training (which has often been just indentured servitude in one lab, with no training in teaching or in subjects outside a very narrow focus on the needs of the PhD adviser’s lab), has resulted in a situation where a PhD in biology is not worth much—necessitating further training before the scientist is employable and providing a huge pool of postdoc “trainees”, many of whom will never become independent scientists.

Tightening the standards for admission to PhD programs and providing more rigorous coursework in the first two years of PhD training (rather than immediately shoving them into some PI’s lab) would help a lot in increasing the value of the PhD.

Unfortunately, I see our department going in the opposite direction—moving away from the engineering model of training people to be independent immediately after the PhD and towards a model where they are little more than hands in the PI’s labs (decreasing the required coursework, shrinking the lab rotations, and getting people into PI labs after only 2 quarters). I gave up being grad director for our department, because I was not willing to supervise this damage to the program, nor could I explain to students policies that I did not agree with.

One thing we are trying to do that I think is good is increasing the MS program, so that there is a pool of trained individuals able to take on important research tasks as permanent employees, rather than as long-term PhDs or postdocs. Again, the engineering fields have developed a much better model than the biomedical fields, with the working degree for most positions being the BS or MS, with only a few PhDs needed for academic positions and cutting-edge industrial research. Note that a PhD often has less actual coursework than an MS—PhD students have been expected to learn by floundering around in someone’s lab for an extra 5 years taking no courses and often not even going to research seminars, which is a rather slow way of developing skills and deadly to gaining a breadth of knowledge. Biotech companies would probably do well to stop hiring PhDs and postdocs for routine positions, and start hiring those with an MS in bioengineering instead.

2013 July 28

MOOC roundup

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I’ve been collecting Massively Online Open Cours (MOOC) blog posts for a while now, with the intent of doing a careful response to each.  There have gotten to be so many that I can’t do a careful response to each. At best, I’ll do a short summary or critique of each one.  If the number of links here is overwhelming (as it was for me in writing this post), read the summaries to pick out a few that seem likely to be worth your time.  But do try to read the ones I’ve marked with a green check.  I think that those were unusually valuable.

From the Becker-Posner Blog:

  1. http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2012/11/moocsimplications-for-higher-educationposner.html This is basically a factual description of MOOCs saying who they think the students will be and the difficulty of making MOOCs pay, but without much thought on the consequences of MOOCs for education.
  2. http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2012/11/online-courses-and-the-future-of-higher-education-becker.html Predictions that MOOCs, because they are cheaper than building classrooms, will become a major part of the higher education landscape worldwide.  This is the standard wishful thinking of people who want to defund education.

From the Academe blog, which is published by the American Association of University Professors, but which does not reflect official AAUP positions (in fact, it has published some posts from harsh critics of the AAUP). Most of the posts here are not the MOOC boosterism we see from administrators and non-matriculated students, but the faculty skepticism about the value of MOOCs both pedagogically and for the future of the universities.

  1. http://academeblog.org/2012/12/03/courage/ A somewhat optimistic post about using MOOCs to do freshman composition courses—one of the courses for which many faculty feel MOOCs are completely unsuitable. The post seems to think that peer grading might actually work, something I’m very dubious about—the value of a composition class depends mainly on the quality and quantity of feedback from instructors whom you trust enough to accept uncomfortable advice from.
  2. http://academeblog.org/2013/05/18/open-letter-from-robert-meister-cucfa-to-daphne-koller-founder-of-coursera/ A rather long post that focuses mainly on how MOOCs are going to be monetized and the negative effects of MOOCs on public education.
  3. http://academeblog.org/2013/05/20/moocs-skim-milk-masquerades-as-cream/ MOOCs seen as an outgrowth of the “culture of celebrity”:

    The MOOCs are centered around supposed “superteachers” from the most elite universities. It’s no accident that Harvard, MIT and Stanford are among those schools most often mentioned in discussions of MOOCs. These provide, supposedly, the “best” education in the world. Why not take advantage of technology to spread that wealth around?

    First of all, it is the student who makes the education; no teacher or school “gives” it. It’s not that Harvard professors are elite educators, but that Harvard students are elite students. This is what makes the school so successful. Put a Harvard professor in front of most community-college classrooms and that professor will, most likely, fail. The name “Harvard” dresses up the professors, but it does not make them master teachers.

  4. http://academeblog.org/2013/05/20/college-educators-from-across-u-s-take-on-ways-online-classes-can-help-or-wreck-a-students-hopes-for-a-good-education/ The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education points out that online courses are not really cheaper than traditional courses, at least not when they are taught in an effective way.
  5. http://academeblog.org/2013/05/22/the-mooc-and-the-meaning-of-teaching/A response to an interview with Daphne Koller, pointing out that MOOCs don’t address how courses really get created and improved.

    Separating content development, course preparation, grading, and content delivery does, indeed, change teaching, but for the worse. Koller herself recognizes that universities have “played a critical role in the shaping” of “amazingly gifted scholars, researchers, and teachers.” Those scholars, researchers, and teachers are gifted precisely because of their integrated approach to teaching.

    Any good teacher will tell you that the primary work of education happens away from the classroom. MOOCs might be useful for self-enrichment courses, but as long as they deliver education in a piecemeal fashion, they will not be models of good teaching.

U to the rescue: Micheal Meranze and Christopher Newfield  are UC professors (UCLA and UCSB, respectively) who closely follow the politics and (de)funding of the University of California.  They have a lot to say  about MOOCs and administrative tricks to try to divert instructional resources into administrative salaries and private contractors.

  1. http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2013/01/addressing-austerity-lock-in-at-public.html This post is not primarily about MOOCs, but about the failure of the UC administration to make a strong case for public funding of the University, pointing out that their appeasement policy has resulted in trumpeting as a victory funding levels that are 25% lower per student than in 1990 (counting both state funding and tuition—the per-student funding from the state has dropped much more than that).  Their key point about MOOCs:

    Explain clearly that technological improvements will not close the budgetary gap.  Unfortunately UCOP is a negative example here: it promised $500 M in savings through technology efficiencies that have yielded about a tenth of that (see links halfway down this post on the Regents’ retreat). And it is gearing up a new round of technology promises for this week’s Regents meeting, now in the form of online education.  I defy anyone to find meaningful cost savings in the gradual introduction of quality (blended) online instruction to any of higher ed’s segments. I invite you to scour the full rush transcript of the MOOC meeting at UCLA last week; or to read full scale investigations of online impacts like Taylor Walsh’s pro-tech Unlocking the Gates, which shows for example that simply posting course materials in the case of MIT’s Open Courseware program nets the university negative $4M annually (page 84); or to go to the source of the original analysis of academia’s “cost disease,” William J. Baumol and his new book The Cost Disease; or to contemplate the extent to which online providers expect not to make money by offering newly cheap university curricula but by selling referrals and other ancillary products by competing with universities.  Or picture yourself as a venture capitalist, and ask if a one-time $10M investment has ever in history closed a $2.9B gap. Technology has become a source of budgetary delusion and fake solutions and this has to stop.

  2. http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2013/01/moocs-and-parking-lots-privatization-on.html This post discusses in detail the privatization goals of many of the MOOC proponents, and the abysmal success rate of privatization of public functions in other fields. A quote from the post:

    If we aren’t careful, privatization history will repeat itself, and UC in its desperation will invite on board a host of outside service providers who will have a seat at the curriculum table and a claim on a piece of UC’s shrinking revenues.  (A figure I have heard is that the provider takes 50% of the first seven years’ revenues on each course it develops.)

  3. http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2013/01/seven-questions-to-moocfest.html In January 2103, UCLA had a large presentation about MOOCs from various providers.  U to the rescue had a number of questions about how the MOOCs were going to produce enough money to survey past the initial capital burn.

    4. If (3) is true, what share of the development costs and course revenues will you take? One number we have heard is 50% of course tuition for 7 years. The NYT article has an even higher number.  Since you use salaried university faculty to create course content, so far, it appears, without pay, are you going to wind up in the business of selling universities their own courses back to them at a big production markup?
    5. Given substantial costs for quality on-line development and operation, how exactly will you save money for students enrolled in degree courses (who are already paying tuition)? Given enrollment problems with MOOCs that aren’t free, on what basis can you say that you will save universities money? What is your estimate of how much?

  4. http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2013/01/uses-of-public-university-uc-faculty.html The announcement of the results of an all-UC faculty discussion about the future of the University:

    The report of this all UC-faculty discussion entitled The Uses of the Public University in 2050 can be accessed at http://www.ihc.ucsb.edu/charrette2012/. The report details underlying principles that address the issues of teaching and learning in the twenty-first century, the role of research in a public university, the stewardship of the university and the university’s role in creating an informed, proactive and responsible citizenry.

  5. http://utotherescue.blogspot.com/2013/06/new-waypoints-in-mooc-debate-part-ii.html This post points out that MOOCs have not yet come up with a sustainable business model. One danger for public universities is in neglecting to invest in sustainable education, and being left with nothing when the MOOCs crash and burn. A quote:

    In the ramp-up period, terribly high per-MOOC costs could be justified by mass enrollments, but unfortunately from the VC [venture capital] point of view the masses take these courses for free. These production costs also collide with increasing awareness of large faculty time inputs: Duke’s Dan Ariely and Cathy Davidson report 150 hours of their time per hour of “actual MOOC.”  Prof. Davidson’s phrase in a subsequent post is “insanely labor intensive” —in exchange for a $10,000 stipend that she spent entirely on assistants. Many MOOC watchers are now concluding, as she does, that MOOCs do not have a way of making up for massive public funding cuts.

Computing Ed: Mark Guzdial is a computer-science education researcher who has been following some of the MOOC and online-degree fervor at Georgia Tech:

  1. http://computinged.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/college-degree-no-class-time-required-just-religious-faith-in-tests/ Here Mark points out that the University of Wisconsin plan to offer a degree almost entirely by testing is doomed to be a second-class degree, because the basic educational premises are flawed.  Here is a quote from the beginning of the post:

    The announcement from U. Wisconsin (that they’ll test students to get a degree, rather than requiring any coursework at all) is showing enormous and unsupported (almost religious) faith in our ability to construct tests, especially online tests.  Building reliable and valid assessments is part of my research, and it’s really hard.

  2. http://computinged.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/sir-john-daniel-making-sense-of-moocs/ This post is just a pointer to White Paper- Making Sense of MOOCs, an analysis of MOOCs by Sir John Daniel, who was vice-chancellor of the UK Open University (one of the most successful online education efforts in the world) and who has written extensively on the economics of making distance education work.
  3. http://computinged.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/georgia-tech-will-offer-a-masters-degree-online-nytimes-com/ A brief reaction to Georgia Tech’s announcement of their Udacity-fueled online Masters degree:

    In case anyone didn’t see the various articles, Georgia Tech’s College of Computing will be offering a Udacity-based MS degree starting.  The faculty did vote on the proposal. I argued against it (based mostly on learning and diversity arguments), but lost (which led to my long winter post). Faculty in the College of Computing have been asked not to talk about the online MS degree (which seems weird to me—asking faculty not to talk about their own degree programs).  Please understand if I don’t answer questions in response to this announcement.

Inside Higher Ed

  1. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/02/28/carnegie-mellons-online-efforts-include-spinoffs-and-subsidiaries-not-moocs Another post on financial problems with MOOCs—this one reporting on why Carnegie-Mellon in not jumping on the MOOC bandwagon, and what they are doing in online education instead.
  2. http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/05/28/documents-shed-light-details-georgia-tech-udacity-deal This article offers another view on the Georgia Tech Udacity-fueled online Masters, looking into some of the details of the contract obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
  3. http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2013/06/24/essay-sees-missing-savings-georgia-techs-much-discussed-mooc-based-program Chris Newfield does a very close reading of the contract and provides a detailed critique of it.  It does not appear that Georgia Tech faculty had an opportunity to read the contract in detail, nor that the Georgia Tech administrators bothered to, since it appears to have some internal contradictions.  I suspect that in a year or two, only the lawyers will be making any money off of this deal.  This is the most detailed look at MOOC finances I’ve seen in public—and it does not look like they have yet figured out how to make MOOCs sustainable. Note: Sebastian Thrun has responded to this critique—I’ve checkmarked his post near the end of this list of links.

Others

  1. http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20120920124146236 Some of Moody’s financial prediction of creditworthiness of higher-ed institutions in the face of MOOCs.  It seems to start from the assumption that MOOCs will be financially successful while continuing to offer free courses (an assertion that not all followers of the MOOC phenomenon believe):

    In the end, elite institutions are positioned to capitalise most effectively on the MOOC platform, by increasing their global presence and deriving greater credit benefits from new markets. Those institutions with limited brand identities, however, will have to compete more intensively to retain—or develop—a competitive edge.

  2. http://the-american-interest.com/article.cfm?piece=1352 This piece also assumes that MOOCs will be wildly successful and essentially kill off all but the elite institutions (again, ignoring the fact that MOOCs so far have only been shown to work for autodidacts):

    The open-source educational marketplace will give everyone access to the best universities in the world. This will inevitably spell disaster for colleges and universities that are perceived as second rate. Likewise, the most popular professors will enjoy massive influence as they teach vast global courses with registrants numbering in the hundreds of thousands (even though “most popular” may well equate to most entertaining rather than to most rigorous). Meanwhile, professors who are less popular, even if they are better but more demanding instructors, will be squeezed out. Fair or not, a reduction in the number of faculty needed to teach the world’s students will result. For this reason, pursuing a Ph.D. in the liberal arts is one of the riskiest career moves one could make today. Because much of the teaching work can be scaled, automated or even duplicated by recording and replaying the same lecture over and over again on video, demand for instructors will decline.

    Of course, I question the assumption that delivering “the same lecture over and over again” constitutes “much of the teaching work”. Certainly lecturing plays a very small part of the time I dedicate to teaching—feedback on writing, guiding students in the lab, developing and testing design labs, meeting with students one-on-one, … all take far more time than the “lectures”, most of which involve student interaction rather than one-way info dumps in any case.

  3. http://www.sfgate.com/education/article/UC-online-courses-fail-to-lure-outsiders-4173639.php Although the University of California is plunging headlong into MOOC mania (driven by the Regents, the Legislature, and a few administrators), this is not the first time UC has tried to jump on an online bandwagon.  A lot of money was sunk into UC Online, a pitiful attempt to make money at online education in the previous online fad, with UC rolling out their system a couple years after the fad had ended and many other universities had quietly dropped their attempts to make money at it (except CMU, see the Inside Higher Education link above):

    The University of California is spending millions to market an ambitious array of online classes created to “knock people’s socks off” and attract tuition from students around the world. But since classes began a year ago, enrollment outside of UC is not what you’d call robust.

    One person took a class.

  4. http://changinguniversities.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-failure-of-interaction-report-from.html This post contains observations by Bob Samuels after the UCLA panel promoting MOOCs (see the U to the Rescue blog posts mentioned above). He starts with a pointed observation:

    First a few ironies: the faculty presenters had to listen to four hours of non-interactive presentations before they could speak and ask questions. In other words, as the “providers” were lecturing us about how online technology allows for true interactive education to occur, they did not leave space for any interaction. Moreover, the high-tech promoters kept on having a hard time getting their PowerPoint slides to work as they criticized traditional institutions for not turning to new technologies to make education “Faster, Cheaper, and Better.” A final irony was that throughout the lectures, I noticed most of the audience, including myself, constantly checking their iPhones. Once again, as the providers were celebrating the role of new technologies in making us more focused and efficient, most of the audience was half-listening and multi-tasking.

    And he ends with another pointed remark:

    Now UC has spent $5 million on virtually one student, but we shouldn’t laugh because someone is going to have to pay for this failed experiment, and the bigger question is will UC be able to walk away from the table after it has gambled millions away on its high-tech wager?

  5. http://augmentedtrader.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/mooc-student-demographics/ A demographic analysis of the students who took “Computational Investing, Part I” as a Coursera MOOC.  It turns out that 93% of those who completed the course already had a bachelor’s degree or more education.  It looks like the MOOCs are fairly effective as continuing education for people who have already completed college—not a bad thing, but not a replacement for college as they are so often touted.  The course completers were also 89% male, which may be normal for that subject matter, but does not suggest that the MOOCs are any good at increasing diversity.
  6. http://mfeldstein.com/the-most-thorough-summary-to-date-of-mooc-completion-rates/ A summary of data collected from MOOCs about completion rates.  The post is an explanation and a pointer to Katy Jordan’s interactive data site: http://www.katyjordan.com/MOOCproject.html It looks like completion rates in the 2%–12% range are standard for MOOCs.
  7. http://nextbison.wordpress.com/2012/10/07/the-future-of-universities-everything-a-mooc-is-not/ Amy Bruckman wrote a few things that resonated with me:

    Amy’s Conjecture: The future of universities is in excelling at everything a MOOC is not.

    The trend over the last dozen or so years is for people who make money creating intellectual property to be compensated more and more poorly.  Fewer people are making a living as musicians.  Professional journalism is in crisis.  Small newspapers are closing, and major ones are struggling. This hasn’t happened all at once, but like a frog in a pot, raising the temperature/economic pressure a fraction of a degree per year over the long haul has dramatic consequences.  MOOCs turn education into a form of IP.  The same economic pressures are going to apply.

    If you buy that, then what’s next for universities?  There will no doubt be MOOC winners—but I suspect that just as Amazon.com seems to be dominating the e-commerce business, there will be advantages to size that will be hard to fight.  Margins will be tight, with a small number of big winners.

    The future of universities, then, is in everything a MOOC can not do. What is that?

    Amy’s Lemma: There are some things that will never be learned as well online.

    Her arguments, and ones like them, have convinced me that the best thing I can be doing for UC is not creating a huge MOOC course that reaches 1000s of students (I’d probably be terrible at it, anyway), but to create hands-on lab courses (like my new Applied Circuits for Bioengineers course) and high-contact, high-feedback courses (like my Bioinformatics: Tools and Algorithms course or the senior thesis seminar).  These high-contact courses are what the top universities can provide that does not have any online substitute.  If this is the future of the university, I embrace it.

  8. http://blogs.berkeley.edu/2013/04/24/massive-open-online-courses-moocs-have-a-role-in-high-ed/ A surprisingly balanced view of MOOCs from Armando Fox, Academic Director, Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education:

    The experience of Berkeley faculty who have taught them is  that MOOCs work well as a supplement to traditional courses, not a replacement for them.  Courses at Berkeley and other world-class universities have shown that a blend of online and classroom instruction can increase professor and TA leverage and expand course enrollments while maintaining or increasing student satisfaction and learning outcomes.

    But in the absence of systematic research, BRCOE believes it would be a disservice to Berkeley students to consider using a two-year-old technology as a replacement for traditional instruction, which seems to be the thrust of recent media coverage and some current legislative activity. Berkeley will become a leader in online education not by charging prematurely into overzealous use of a new technology, but by doing the research to uncover its potential and position us to do the right thing by our students in the coming years—not just internally but in non-UC settings such as community colleges, high schools, and K-8 that ultimately “feed our pipeline.”We recognize the disconnect between BRCOE’s point of view on this matter and the sentiment of some legislators and spokespersons for the private sector. To that end, both we at Berkeley and our colleagues on other UC campuses are working hard to proactively inform the media, the private sector, and the public servants in Sacramento and elsewhere about both the opportunities and the pitfalls of online education. Our intention is to persuade them that “proceed optimistically but with care” is the right thing to do by our students, who are entrusting us with four or more years of education and career development when they arrive on campus.

  9. http://futureofhighered.org/moocs-pearson-and-profits/ This post points out that the company Pearson is shifting resources from acquiring more textbook publishers (perhaps having gobbled up all the textbook publishers they could) to getting state contracts for delivering tests.  There is an implicit assumption that this near monopoly of both textbooks and testing by one company is too large a concentration of power—particularly given that the company is more interested in profit than in the quality of education.

    Yet, it is hardly coincidental that the major corporate “educational providers” are already seizing on the enormous profit potential in MOOCs. Specifically, having bought up a slew of major textbook publishers, Pearson is now shifting to buying up very specialized technology companies.

    As MOOCs are migrated into general-education or core college-level courses, Pearson and its imitators (such as Academic Partnerships) will make a push to provide the “competency measures” for those courses: that is, they will seek to adapt what has been so profitable on the K-12 level to the post-secondary level.

    A discussion about the social cost of allowing higher education to be pushed down the dreary path K-12 education has already tread is long overdue.

  10. http://chronicle.com/blogs/conversation/2013/03/11/teaching-by-hand-in-a-digital-age/ This post was triggered by San Jose States partnering with Udacity to deliver a few remedial courses through MOOCS. The author praised them for their desire to reach more students, but pointed out that the freshman composition course was not a good target for MOOCS:

    Still, I think something vital is missing from its description of ideal online learning, something I find hard to imagine happening in large online courses. That something involves what occurs when a good teacher responds carefully and closely to the work of a student.

    But I worry that digitized feedback systems can only be a pale version of the focused response that a trained and attentive reader, a teacher, can offer a young writer.The teaching of writing has long been a textbook-driven field precisely because such readers are in short supply. The hope is that a good textbook can give an inexperienced or indifferent teacher something to lean on. But it doesn’t really work. What students need is not someone to walk them through a textbook but someone who can respond to their own work and ideas.

    This post really resonated with me, particularly given the amount of time I spend on providing feedback on student writing. I had a more direct response to the post in my blog post Teaching by hand.

  11. http://mooccampus.org/ This is not a blog post, but the website for an organization that has put together a “college” without faculty—just a residential campus with all “teaching” handled by MOOCs.  It is an administrator’s dream—no faculty at all! It’s very easy to create a “college” this way—rent a large building for housing the “students” (like an old hotel in a no-longer-popular location), hire a couple of cooks and janitors, and put up a website!  No need to bother with expensive things like labs, classrooms, teachers, accreditation, or anything else having to do with education.  Anyone can now start their very own college!
  12. http://blog.sukiwessling.com/2013/05/are-moocs-going-to-destroy-education-as-we-know-it/ Suki Wessling writes about MOOCs from a different perspective—that of a home schooling parent who values online courses as a resource for teaching her children.

    As a homeschooler, however, I do think that MOOCs are a welcome new addition to the options for learning outside of structured environments, and I love the idea that the breadth of human knowledge is being made available to everyone, everywhere.

    But will MOOCs make the whole idea of the university education obsolete?

    She discusses what she sees MOOCs as doing well and what traditional colleges do well and summarizes her points well:

    But I believe that MOOCs will never be able to provide the benefits that an in-person degree at a good university can provide:

    • Working directly with the best thinkers in your field
    • Developing mentoring relationships with professors or more experienced students
    • Learning from, helping, and arguing with your fellow students
    • Creating the sorts of connections that in some fields are absolutely necessary for success
    • Having guidance in honing your analytical skills in ways that can’t be done alone

    What bothers me is not that people are excited about online learning (so am I) or that people think it has some benefits over traditional college (it does), but that everyone is so happily throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Traditional college is still going to be the best choice for people who should have been there to begin with.

  13. http://www.hannaharendtcenter.org/?p=10779 A balanced reflection on MOOCs and their possible effects on higher education by Noel Jackson, who is ambivalent about them, rather than strongly pro- or anti-MOOC.  This is a thoughtful piece, but not one that leads to any clear conclusions.  Here is a representative quote:

    While both accounts of MOOCs envision significant future consequences from their implementation, moreover, neither says very much about actually existing MOOCs. The MOOC has become a repository for utopian and dystopian narratives about the present and future directions of higher ed. As a result, this or that fact about MOOCs is often considered (or not) insofar as it confirms the prevailing theory about them.

  14. http://futureofhighered.org/moocs-are-they-about-access-or-money/ For those who believe in “following the money”, this post points to a financial analysis of the future of higher education done by Moody’s.  The bottom line seems to be that MOOCs are primarily a public relations gesture by elite universities, blunting criticism of their non-profit status while gaining positive branding.
  15. http://blog.udacity.com/2013/06/sebastian-thrun-thoughts-and-financial.html This is an answer to Chris Newfield’s analysis of the deal between Georgia Teach and Udacity, provided by Sebastian Thrun (founder of Udacity).  Personally, I don’t find Sebastian Thrun very believable here, but this may reflect my prior beliefs about the motives of Newfield and Thrun. If you read Newfield’s analysis (checkmarked above), then you should probably read Thrun’s reply.
  16. http://www.futuristspeaker.com/2013/07/by-2030-over-50-of-colleges-will-collapse/This futurist confidently predicts that half of US colleges will fail by 2030, giving the following reasoning:
    1. Overhead costs too high – Even if the buildings are paid for and all money-losing athletic programs are dropped, the costs associated with maintaining a college campus are very high. Everything from utilities, to insurance, to phone systems, to security, to maintenance and repair are all expenses that online courses do not have. Some of the less visible expenses involve the bonds and financing instruments used to cover new construction, campus projects, and revenue inconsistencies. The cost of money itself will be a huge factor.
    2. Substandard classes and teachers – Many of the exact same classes are taught in thousands of classroom simultaneously every semester. The law of averages tells us that 49.9% of these will be below average. Yet any college that is able to electronically pipe in a top 1% teacher will suddenly have a better class than 99% of all other colleges.
    3. Increasingly visible rating systems – Online rating systems will begin to torpedo tens of thousands of classes and teachers over the coming years. Bad ratings of one teacher and one class will directly affect the overall rating of the institution.
    4. Inconvenience of time and place – Yes, classrooms help focus our attention and the world runs on deadlines. But our willingness to flex schedules to meet someone else’s time and place requirements is shrinking. Especially when we have a more convenient option.
    5. Pricing competition – Students today have many options for taking free courses without credits vs. expensive classes with credits and very little in between. That, however, is about to change. Colleges focused primarily on course delivery will be facing an increasingly price sensitive consumer base.
    6. Credentialing system competition – Much like a doctor’s ability to write prescriptions, a college’s ability to grant credits has given them an unusual competitive advantage, something every startup entrepreneur is searching for. However, traditional systems for granting credits only work as long as people still have faith in the system. This “faith in the system” is about to be eroded with competing systems. Companies like Coursera, Udacity, and iTunesU are well positioned to start offering an entirely new credentialing system.
    7. Relationships formed in colleges will be replaced with other relationship-building systems – Social structures are changing and the value of relationships built in college, while often quite valuable, are equally often overrated. Just as a dating relationship today is far more likely to begin online, business and social relationships in the future will also happen in far different ways.
    8. Sudden realization that “the emperor has no clothes!” – Education, much like our money supply, is a system built on trust. We are trusting colleges to instill valuable knowledge in our students, and in doing so, create a more valuable workforce and society. But when those who find no tangible value begin to openly proclaim, “the emperor has no clothes!” colleges will find themselves in a hard-to-defend downward spiral.

    Futurists have a terrible track record for these sorts of grandiose predictions, but it is certainly the case that decisions made now about how to fund college education will have an enormous effect over the next 20 years. If states continue to defund public universities, but society still pushes college-for-all, then either colleges will have to reduce costs enormously or go out of business, because the debt load on students is getting close to or has already passed the sustainable limit. (Personally, I don’t see reducing costs without reducing quality as very likely. Although the sticker price of public universities has soared, the underlying costs have been remarkably constant—the price has gone up because students are paying a much larger portion of the cost.)

  17. http://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2013/07/05/Problem-with-MOOCs/ A detailed reaction by Jon Beasley-Murray to two talks, one by Eric Mazur (proponent of peer instruction) and one by Daphne Koller (founder of Coursera).  Basically, Beasley-Murray sees little knowledge of pedagogy and a lot of self-serving hype in both talks.
  18. http://www.angrymath.com/2013/07/san-jose-state-suspends-udacity.html San Jose State Suspends Udacity Experiment. The attempt to teach remedial courses with Udacity at San Jose State turned out to fail miserably, with pass rates lower even than the usual remedial courses. This was a widely predicted result, particularly by people who have taught remedial courses. Fortunately, San Jose State had enough sense to stop the experiment after one round, though I understand that their president still plans to try again.

That’s it for the MOOC roundup.  I’ll try not to collect posts for so long again before summarizing them—the problem was that the list kept growing, and I kept putting off the summary, as it got more daunting with each new link added to the list.

 

2013 May 19

On labs moving from UC to private colleges

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:30
Tags: , , ,

Chris Newfield, starts his blog post UCLA Loses LONI: Why Budget Silence Is Bad for Science ~ Remaking the University with

There’s been much local coverage of two principal investigators switching from UCLA to USC, and taking with them an estimated 85 people from UCLA’s Laboratory of Neuro Imaging (LONI). The Los Angeles Times has run two stories about it, one of which received over 120 reader comments, and the story was Larry Mantle’s lead on his Airtalk show at KPCC, where he had one of the two departing faculty members as his guest.

But beyond a big win for the Trojans over the Bruins, why should the public care?

He goes on with an analysis of the importance and the cost of doing science research at UC, pointing out that the particular PIs lured away were very highly compensated:

I don’t know LONI’s equipment and infrastructure issues at UCLA, but the only publicized financial information was of the leaders’ salaries: over $1 million / year for Prof. Toga, over $420,000 for Prof. Thompson. A good number of highly qualified people will line up for jobs like these.

I had much the same reaction—those are not public university salaries.  A dozen top-notch assistant and associate professors could be hired for what those two were paid.  USC is welcome to sink their money into hiring big names—perhaps they could hire away all the athletic coaches from UCB and UCLA as well (please).

Chris got a lot of flak in the comments for his simile about the cost of doing research:

Public universities can’t fully support their grants because extramural funding doesn’t cover the full cost of research.  Labs burn money like a jet burns fuel, which is what they are supposed to do.  LONI spent $12 million a year, as a case in point. 

$12 million dollars for 85 people is only $141k per person.  Given the huge salaries of the PIs (not to mention the costs of their benefits), the expenditure per person for the other 83 was under $125k, and salaries were probably less than half that (given the necessary costs for reagents, equipment, travel, publication charges, benefits, …).  So most of the lab was making only modest salaries—only the PIs were raking in the dough.

Chris ended with 4 conclusions:

  1. UCLA’s core problem is a funding shortage, not surplus bureaucracy. (UCLA is the wealthiest UC campus, so things only get worse from there). 
  2. Public universities need to tell the truth about research funding.  This will include the facts that science loses money, that some portion of undergraduate tuition funds offset research costs, and that most funding doesn’t “produce” anything in the near-term, except findings [for] more research along with a great deal of useful failure.
  3. Public universities need to explain why research like LONI’s should be to some large extent at public universities.  Why does it matter to the science, to the public impact, to the education of the next generation of scientists? Perhaps there is more openness and accountability at publics, and therefore more innovation. Perhaps scientists at public universities have a better feel for public needs and do more useful research.  Perhaps public universities uniquely have the necessary scale to train the thousands and millions of researchers in all fields to solve our ever-mounting problems.  We now need a new theory of public universities, before things get even worse.
  4. Universities both private and public need to open up  discussion of spending priorities to their academic communities.  Given rising costs and shrinking revenues, choices have to be made. They  need to involve the faculty, from all disciplines, and students of all levels.  This is as true of USC as of UCLA, which has a poor record of consultation and can only buy a limited number of LONI-type labs with (in part) student tuition and non-STEM cross-subsidies.  Privates can now raise tuition only so much. Academic choices need to come from a bottom-up debate of a kind that higher ed has never had.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments to his post, mainly pushback on point 2, as STEM faculty see their overhead being spent on everything in the university except the proper indirect expenses that it is supposed to go for, while Chris looked at the overall expenditure on support for science research and the income from indirect costs.  I think that a lot of the discrepancy comes from the cost of new buildings for science labs, which are very, very expensive, but cannot be charged to grants.

I’m in agreement with Chris that UC has done a very poor job of making a good case for research in the public universities, talking about it mainly as a revenue stream or in PR terms as enhancing the image of the university.

In one of Chris’s comments, he restates his main point as a desire for greater budget transparency:

So my suggestion as always is that faculty across the disciplines stop being cynical about “byzantine accounting” and push for full data on funding flows—universities can’t even start the negotiations for ICR rates without this accounting to show federal agencies—let the chips fall where they may, and then have an involved discussion based on actual budgetary facts about what to do. My position is always that I do not want cuts to STEM research. I want research to be fully funded. The patchwork we have doesn’t work any more—for any field. Things will continue to deteriorate unless we can drop our longstanding mental habits get clarity on how our own institutions work .

I think that greater clarity in how funds flow around the university would be helpful—particularly to those of us at the underfunded campuses (UCB and UCL have long gotten far more than a fair share of state funds and tuition dollars, and even the “rebenching” now in progress has been carefully designed to perpetuate the inequity).  If the research grants are not paying what the research costs the University, then indirect costs need to be raised, or the state needs to provide explicit support for research to cover the costs, or the University has to make a much, much better case that undergrads benefit from the research and so their tuition should be used to cover the shortfall.

I think that the case for undergrad benefit is quite different on different campuses and even in different majors.

For example, in the bioengineering major at UCSC, all the undergrads do research, either individually with faculty, postdocs, and grad students, or as part of a group project supervised by faculty.  They use equipment and labs funded by research grants and get a lot of high-contact instruction in these projects that could not be duplicated without the money brought in from federal grants, grants from non-profits, and even industrial research contracts.  Some of the undergrad students in the bioengineering major are doing exceptional research, and all are being very well prepared for grad school.  I have no trouble asserting that these students are benefiting substantially from the active research programs in biomolecular engineering and molecular biology.

On the other hand, I’ve recently been visiting colleges to find a good place for my son to apply in computer science (see College tours around LA and UC Berkeley college tour), and neither UCB nor UCLA had much involvement of undergrads in computer science research. I’d have a hard time telling a student whose smallest class in their major had over 50 students and most upper division courses had 200, that research opportunities for 5–10% of the undergrad students were a good deal for them. (To be fair, this may be more discipline-specific than campus-specific, as the computer science department at UCSC also seems to have less involvement of undergrads in research than the other engineering departments.)

It is not clear to me whether student tuition is supporting the research mission or research grants are supporting student instruction.  I’ve seen arguments for both, and I don’t really believe any of the arguments are really solidly based on facts.  The UC budget is such a tangled web of inconsistencies that people can read anything into it that they want.

Although UC has certainly failed on budget transparency, I think that the bigger discussion that has been missing is Chris’s point 3, explaining why research is an essential part of the mission of some public universities.  Obviously it is not essential for all (neither the community college system nor the California State University system have research as a major part of their missions), but UC administration and faculty have never made a clear case to the public of the need for research in a public university.  I think that it is time to do so, but I don’t know that I can put together a clear case for it—certainly not to the point where I could say how much of student tuition should be going to support the research mission.

2013 February 26

UCSC tiptoes around crowd funding for science

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:56
Tags: , ,

UCSC is beginning to look seriously into crowd funding for small science and engineering projects (like student senior projects, which typically have budgets around $2k–3k and have very short timelines for finding donors).

I attended an information session (Fund your research through the crowd! – Jack Baskin School of Engineering – UC Santa Cruz) by Microrysa yesterday, which is a small startup specifically interested in crowdfunding science projects for universities.  They are doing some things right, but their choice of name (which Google wants to correct to mycorrhizae) indicates a certain naivete about search engine optimization, which is disturbing in a company that is about helping researchers get their research funded by outreach to the public.  It also means that people will have a hard time finding their site to make donations, even if they are looking for it.

One thing that Microrysa does right is working with the University so that the funding can go directly into a research account, rather than into a personal bank account where it would be taxable.  They also have taken the approach that what science donors want is to be kept up to date on the project, so the “rewards” of donation are progress reports (on the Microrysa website and by e-mail), rather than the T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other junk that SciFund seems to encourage.

I have a project that could use some micro funding.  To run the banana slug genomics course again, we’d need some more sequence data: preferably mate-pairs with a moderate insert size (like 1k bases).  Estimates for creating and sequencing such a library are around $5k.  With that data, plus what we already have, we should be able to assemble the banana slug genome into larger fragments than we currently can—maybe even big enough to do some gene-finding.

Crowdfunding has relatively low overhead (credit-card companies get 3%, the crowd-funding company gets 5%, and UCSC charges a gift tax of 6% to keep their development bureaucrats paid, even if they do none of the work of raising the funds), so researchers would get about 86–87% of the donated funds.  Given that Microrysa would be doing most of the work of setting up the web site and collecting the funds, I think that UCSC should forego the gift tax for crowdfunded projects, perhaps getting a contact list of donors instead.

2013 February 21

Foreign national Ph.Ds in engineering

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 09:41
Tags: , ,

I just got some mail from the American Society for Engineering Education that gave some information about what colleges are awarding high and low percentages of PhDs in engineering fields to foreign nationals:

Doctorates Awarded to Foreign Nationals Remain the Same

In 2011, 54.2 percent of doctoral degrees in engineering were awarded to foreign nationals. This was the same percentage the year before in 2010. It is a slight retreat from the highpoint of 61.6 percent that was held for the 2006 and 2007 academic years.

Schools with the Highest Percentage of Engineering Doctorates Being Awarded to Foreign Nationals (Minimum of 25 doctoral degrees awarded, 105 schools fit this criterion.)

1. University of North Texas 85.3%
2. University of Cincinnati 83.7%
3. SUNY, Buffalo 81.8%
4. University of California, Riverside 81.5%
5. University of Texas, Arlington 79.2%
6. University of Connecticut 78.7%
7. Louisiana State University 78.6%
8. Stony Brook University 77.9%
9. Lehigh University 76.2%
10. Brown University 75.0%
10. Iowa State University 75.0%
10. Northeastern University 75.0%
13. Illinois Institute of Technology 74.4%
14. Florida International University 73.8%
15. New Jersey Institute of Technology 73.5%
15. Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst 73.5%
17. University of Houston 73.1%
18. Syracuse University 72.2%
19. FAMU-FSU College of Engineering 72.0%
20. Washington State University 71.9%

Schools with the Lowest Percentage of Engineering Doctorates Being Awarded to Foreign Nationals

1. University of Colorado, Boulder 21.5%
2. University of Notre Dame 29.1%
3. University of Pennsylvania 31.8%
4. University of California, Berkeley 34.1%
5. Wayne State University 37.0%
6. University of Iowa 37.1%
7. University of California, San Diego 40.7%
8. University of California, Santa Cruz 41.2%
9. Colorado School of Mines 41.7%
10. University of Washington 41.8%
11. Vanderbilt University 42.9%
12. University of Maryland, College Park 43.0%
13. University of Wisconsin, Madison 43.1%
13. Duke University 43.1%
15. University of Virginia 43.3%
16. George Mason University 44.0%
16. Southern Methodist University 44.0%
18. University of Missouri 44.2%
19. University of Utah 44.6%
20. Cornell University 45.5%

Source: ASEE Other data trends can be viewed at www.asee.org/colleges.

I notice a few interesting things:

  • UC Riverside seems unable (or unwilling) to have California residents as grad students in engineering.  Given that many of the other schools with a very high foreign fraction are not notable engineering schools, I suspect that the reason is that UCR can’t attract Californians to their engineering program.  (There are some good engineering schools on the list, though, so there must be other reasons also.)
  • UC Berkeley, which gets a lot of flak for the number of foreign students, actually has one of the lowest rates in the country (though one can argue that 34% foreign is still too high for the good of the country, unless a large fraction of them immigrate after grad school).
  • UCSC, where I’m on the engineering faculty, also has a relatively low fraction of foreign PhD students. I think that our department pulls down this number, since we have generally less than 10% foreign students—they cost us more in grant funding, so we have a much higher standard for admission for them.  That might change as UC keeps jacking up the in-state tuition, though, as the differential is getting less significant.  An in-state student costs us $12.7k per quarter (not including overhead on the grant), an out-of-state student costs us $17.7k per quarter for the first year and $12.7k thereafter, and a foreign student $17.7k per quarter until they advance to candidacy.  Back when in-state tuition was nominal, the ratios were more like 2 to 1, rather than only 40% more for foreign students.  The difference is more like 33%, since we pay all grad students the same $7k during the summer, when there is no tuition (so $60k cost per year for foreign, $45k per year for California resident, plus overhead).
  • A foreign student costs about the same as a postdoc and is generally less productive for research, so Federal funding really encourages faculty to hire postdocs rather than train grad students.  I think that we need to get away from funding grad students through research grants, and switch over to a model more like the NSF fellowships, where the students are directly funded for their education, rather than as a byproduct of research funding.
  • I now see why UC Boulder struck me as so monochromatic—even their engineering school (which is usually the hotbed of internationalism on any campus) is only 21% foreign, and UC Boulder is not noted for domestic racial diversity either.
  • I think that one would get a very different picture if we looked at MS degrees in engineering, since the MS is the real working degree for most engineers.  The PhD is primarily for doing engineering research and college-level teaching, rather than for working engineers.  Foreign markets may assign a higher value to the PhD than the US labor market does, which would definitely skew the PhD pool more towards foreign students.
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