Mine your own business, learner

Audrey Watters, who writes at Hack Education, has posted a transcript of a talk she gave at Columbia as part of their Conversations About Online Learning series. Setting aside the envy I have of a place that holds a lecture series about technology and higher learning, Watters goes deep on some of the implications of “data mining” in education, fleshing out some of the ways such data might be used and pointing out how risky that might be for students.

…all this data that students create, that software can track, and that engineers and educators and administrators can analyze will bring about a more “personalized,” a more responsive, a more efficient school system.

How will this magic happen? Using the same secret algorithmic sauce that companies like Google use to tailor search results and ads, and Amazon uses to sell you, well, pretty much anything. So what’s the hitch? There are at least two, according to Watters: privacy and money.

It may be obvious, but if data is going to make a big difference in student learning, that is going to require a sea change in the rules surrounding access to that data. Or is it? It appears that right now, the rules are being skirted by private companies that don’t have the same restrictions as actual schools. I suspect that most students and their parents aren’t aware of this end run around educational data privacy. It is access to this kind of data that will be necessary to assist with learning, in the absence of actual human interaction.

And the money? It’s not money in the sense of cost to students. On the contrary, most ‘big data’ education projects are free to the student, meaning someone else is paying. For now, the bills are being paid by venture capital investors that are expecting BIG returns. We’re in the early days, the thinking goes, of a major shift in the way education is done, and one of the biggest parts of this shift is the privatization of education. Sure, there has been some suggestion that these programs will lead to a system of credentials not unlike a degree, and some programs have even been rolled out. But for the most part, the schools with the biggest stakes in this territory thus far are not talking about any kind of equivalency between their live and online programs.

Scalia’s belief in DNA

Justice Scalia, in his concurrence in the Myriad Genetics patent case:

I join the judgment of the Court, and all of its opinion except Part I–A and some portions of the rest of the opinion going into fine details of molecular biology. I am unable to affirm those details on my own knowledge or even my own belief.

What does this statement mean? The article from which I quoted him (linked above) argues that Scalia here is making a proud statement about his ignorance of the details of molecular biology, and that this scientific illiteracy is a badge of honor among much of society. I’m not so sure, especially given:

Typically, Justice Scalia does not qualify the factual portions of opinions he joins, even where they involve science.

I don’t have any good thoughts on what he has in mind with this qualification, but I find it disturbing. At the same time, as someone who teaches the fundamental concepts at play in this case to students of the liberal arts, I hope none of my students make such a claim when they become Supreme Court Justices.

Answers or exploration

New Lemurs logoI’ve read more and more in recent years about ‘gamifying’ education, and I have to admit, I never got it. This helps to put it in a little more context:

If what you want is an answer and not an exploration then I don’t recommend pretending you’re looking for an exploration. Students are very attuned to bullshit.

Using gaming to engage students and teach certain skills like exploration and problem-solving makes some sense to me.

It also reminds me of an episode of the Debug podcast I listened to recently, with software developer Mike Lee. His current company made a chemistry game for iOS based on actual chemical reaction modeling. Lee tells the story of creating the game in the interview, and how the lack of access to real chemistry sets for kids these days played a small roll in the idea, but rather than trying to replicate mixing chemicals on the iPad, they approached it from the standpoint of letting the technology do what it’s good at. Taking that approach, it seems like there are so many opportunities to create games that teach, it’d hard to know what to work on next.

Lessons learned – Plant Physiology 2013

student poster on zinc and plant growthI’m still waiting on the final research papers from my Plant Physiology students, but everything else for this class is wrapped up. Today I tried something new for their poster presentations, replacing the research posters on the boards in the hallway around my lab with their project posters. This worked better than I expected, enabling the students to mill around and discuss their work with each other; it was not too unlike what happens at an actual poster session.

I like to debrief this class in person every time I teach it because I feel like their shared reflections sometimes lead to input that wouldn’t have emerged without a real-life conversation. One of the topics that came up today was the need for more feedback in the planning stages of their projects. Although they all seemed to like the open-ended nature of the mutant project, several of them said they would have benefited from a more formal meeting with me after they submitted their proposal, but before beginning their experiments. I like this idea and plan to try it next year.

Another good suggestion was to structure the early part of the semester to include some more traditional lab experiences that would expose them to some of the routine methods they were likely to require for their projects. Those first few weeks always feel a bit wasted even though I warn encourage them to use the time wisely by reading widely on their topic, so I think I’ll try mixing it up next year.

On the technical side, only one group in five succeeded in using PCR to confirm their T-DNA insertion. I know each group used the online primer design tool correctly since I checked their work before I placed the order. I’m guessing the weak link in the chain was with either the DNA isolation protocol or bad pipetting technique. I can address both of these with a little more oversight next time, I hope.

film Moana 2016 online streaming

Are MOOCs textbooks masquerading as courses?

About an hour before class on Friday, it began to dawn on me that half of my plant physiology class could be out for the day. Many were attending a botany conference in Columbus, others had emailed that they were sick. When I arrived at class, my suspicions were confirmed — 8 of 15 students were there. I decided to record my comments for the day later and held an impromptu study session for the upcoming exam. I had no idea what it would take to “just record my lecture” for the day.Watch Shark Exorcist (2016) Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

inspector panel in Keynote

When you’re used to standing in front of a class and explaining things, it’s very hard to explain things to a computer screen in an empty office. Very, very hard. Not in the technical sense, as Keynote (and I imagine Powerpoint) has that covered. I just opened up my Keynote slideshow for the day, opened the slide inspector, started a slideshow recording, and boom. I made it through the first slide. I glanced at the next slide and drew a blank. I paused the recording, collected my thoughts, and resumed recording. Blanked, paused, resumed, etc

Two hours. That’s what it took me to record 35 min of lecture over 36 slides. The last few slides were a slog, I was drained — way more than after a regular classroom session. After I finished it and sent the link to the class, I started wondering what it must be like to do this for every class. I recently saw an article reflecting on the development of a new MOOC on Coursera, in which the author describes her efforts and those of the production team. I guess I should be happy with only needing 2 hours to record 35 min of material, since it took an hour for her to record a video that will run 3 minutes! 

On one hand, I wish I had the time and talent to build a complete online course from the ground up and have students around the world learning from me, no doubt there is something alluring about that. But I can see how the kind of resources required to do that and do it well keeps it beyond the reach of all but a few faculty. In fact, it seems not unlike the resources needed to create a textbook. Both projects would need several subject area experts, dozens of artists and editors, several experts in learning technology and assessment, a production staff, and I’m sure many others I haven’t imagined. I think this is no coincidence, as I can see MOOCs coming to replace, or at least heavily supplement, traditional textbooks in some courses or parts thereof. Although some publishers see MOOCs as a big sales opportunity due to their large enrollments, it is notable that Coursera itself is urging instructors “not to require any textbooks that cost money” (quoted from previous link). This makes me wonder whether the MOOC platforms (Coursera, edX) are in more direct competition with textbook publishers than anyone really realizes. In fact, that may be a useful lens to evaluate their impact on education, by way of comparison to textbooks, which are all now scrambling to “become digital,” just like MOOCs.

Finding the algorithm: An introduction to reading and understanding scientific papers

I love this concise primer on how to take apart a scientific paper, and it translates almost perfectly to the literature I commonly assign in my upper-level undergraduate classes as well.

JBC [Journal of Biological Chemistry] papers, as is with articles in most biomedical journals, have a basic structure/algorithm.  Once you’ve mastered the algorithm, presenting the paper is much easier.


Venture Capital’s Massive, Terrible Idea For The Future Of College [link]

Maria Bustillos, in a long piece in The Awl, brings some great clarity and perspective to the hype and bluster of the MOOC. This quote, from Aaron Bady, who recently touched off a storm with his piece on Inside Higher Ed, captures a bit of the flavor well:

The thing is, when you frame this as, “what does this give them for the rest of their lives?” one never really knows, and I think that’s the point; there is something, but it’s something we’re all discovering together. When we reduce education to job training; when we reduce it to, “we need X skills, so let’s do whatever causes X skill to come out,” you really close down all the possibilities.


The equivalent of U-scan groceries?

Patrick Bigger and Victor E. Kappeler in Neoliberal Education: From Affordable Education to Expensive Training:

These flipped classrooms are the educational equivalent of scanning your own groceries at the supermarket —shifting aspects of the labor of education from faculty to student.

See the rest of the essays on related topics in issue 16 of anthropologies.

Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Khan Academy Founder Proposes a New Type of College – Wired Campus – The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Existing campuses could move in this direction by de-emphasizing or eliminating lecture-based courses, having their students more engaged in research and co-ops in the broader world, and having more faculty with broad backgrounds who show a deep desire to mentor students,” he writes.

Hmm, practical, hands-on experience with strong mentoring through relationships with faculty. Sounds familiar, but can’t quite place it.

Questions about science at a liberal arts college

I spent the day Saturday in New Orleans at the , doing my best impression of a recruiter. My department is for a new faculty colleague whose research area (ideally) spans cellular/molecular neuroscience and microbiology. Given that there have been some splashy publications in this area lately, we’re hoping we can find a good bluehost match. Given the somewhat unusual coupling of neuroscience and microbiology, we felt it would be a smart move to go and make the case to a few hundred potential job seekers, and in retrospect it was time well spent. I spoke personally with probably a half-dozen scientists who seemed keen on our position and planned to submit their materials.

On the other hand, a few of the other conversations were, how shall I put it, less than productive. Any good teacher is always quick to point out that there are no stupid questions. While that may be true in the classroom, or at least express an honorable sentiment, it doesn’t apply to every situation. If you’ve stumbled upon this post, think of this as some advice for what not to ask about a faculty position in science at a liberal arts college.

Q: So how much would I have to teach?

Really? This is your first question? This is a little like inquiring about a job as a personal trainer and asking ‘how much would I have to work out?’ Teaching is what we do at a liberal arts college, almost everything takes a back seat to teaching. That doesn’t mean we don’t do research, but we almost never do it instead of teaching. In an ideal world, your research complements your teaching, allowing you to use it as a tool in your teaching. Most of us could probably advance more quickly working alone our own research than we can with students, but the whole point of being here is to help mentor and train students. So you have to be at least as interested in helping facilitate those A-ha! moments for students as you are in your actual research questions.

(To answer your question, we teach between 10 and 12 ‘contact hours’ — hours spent in front of a class or lab — per week. For example, most semesters that means 2 lecture classes and 2 lab sections.)

Does your department provide TA support for your grad students?

Unfortunately no, because there are no grad students, we are an undergraduate liberal arts college.

But wait, I thought you said you were expected to do research. Who does the research if you don’t have grad students?

Ah, good question (not really, just trying to be nice). Remember how I was talking about mentoring and training undergraduate students? You guessed it, they do the actual research with you. Let me sketch out the picture for you: You are in your lab, doing the research, and they are there with you, also doing the research.

Does this actually work? Do you ever publish anything?

I’m glad you asked! Yes, in fact, this does work. Of the 14 faculty members across the life sciences at OWU, all of us have at least one peer-reviewed publication within the last 3 years. Almost all of those include student authors, some of them include student first authors. Are these in Science and Nature? Not often, no. But if the thought of publishing a student-authored research paper in a respectable journal does not excite you at least as much as a publication in one of the big three, you should probably just move along, nothing to see here. To us, there is simply nothing better than watching (and facilitating) your undergraduate students on their path to becoming independent scientists.

But if I have to be in the lab actually doing the research, who will write the grant proposals to fund all the post-docs and technicians?

I can see you’re really starting to connect (some of) the dots, that’s good. You will not have to worry about carrying 7 post-docs and 2 technicians, because you couldn’t convince a post-doc to come work with you in a million years. ‘The system’ is set up in such a way that post-docs need to make as much data as possible, as fast as possible. Working with you and your undergraduate students is not conducive to fast data-making. Post-docs would take one look at your first-year students re-using the same pipette tip for both primers and the template in a PCR and run away in terror.

Given the large teaching load, how often does the neurotransmitter re-uptake journal club meet?

Even less often than you might expect, given that you would be the only one here who works on neurotransmitter transporters, or signaling in general, or does any form of molecular/cellular neuroscience at all! Take heart though, after you have been here a few years, you can start a journal club with the students you have mentored, the purpose of which will be, you guessed it, teaching.

It sounds like I’ll have to teach a lot. Will I have to teach things outside my main area of interest, which is neurotransmitter re-uptake transporter antagonist structure and function?

Only if you consider almost every other topic that has to do with cells or molecules to be outside your area of interest.

What do you mean when you say, “…and also participate in service to the department and university”?

This is really not a big deal, it’s just minor work involving questions like should this faculty member receive tenure? and which department has the greatest need for a new faculty position? and how can we work with the administration to find a way to increase salaries, which haven’t kept up with the cost of living in 20 years? And sometimes you’ll be asked to help with student recruitment by attending an event, hosting students in your classes, meeting with parents, or traveling to a college fair, but this doesn’t happen any more than once a week.

Wrapping Up

I don’t want any of this to come across as (entirely) snarky and sarcastic, everything above should be read in good humor. I do think it’s important that you know what you’re getting into with a position at a liberal arts college. Many prospective faculty members have only ever seen the academic job market from the viewpoint of their advisor at a large, research university. Those positions are great and vitally important to the research enterprise, but they are not primarily about teaching undergraduates. Here’s one way to think about it: if you want your career advancement to be tied mostly to your research productivity, don’t come to a small liberal arts college, go to a big university. But if you want your rewards and incentives to be tied to your teaching excellence while still maintaining an active research program, let’s talk. Even if you work on neurotransmitter re-uptake transporter antagonist structure and function.