Tuesday, July 15, 2014

More on Disruption and Liberal Education

Talcot Brewer, a philosophy professor at the University of Virginia, has published a long essay entitled "The Coup that Failed: How the Near-Sacking of a University President Exposed the Fault Lines in Higher Education." The president in question is Teresa Sullivan, who was removed and quickly re-installed by the governors of the University of Virginia, but the essay also reports on turmoil at a liberal arts college, Mary Baldwin College. But these are only case studies for an analysis of the bigger questions.

[Board members] Dragas and Kington explained their actions as being the result of “philosophical” differences with Sullivan, yet they declined to say which of the great questions of existence had divided them so irrevocably as to require her dismissal. Enterprising reporters from the student newspaper made use of the Freedom of Information Act to shed some light on this mysterious philosophical disagreement. It turned out that Dragas and Kington had come to believe that the rise of online learning would soon pose an existential threat to the university, and that it had to embrace the trend quickly or risk being left hopelessly behind. Sullivan had been reluctant to move in this direction with the boldness they thought necessary. She was threatened with imminent dismissal, and agreed under duress to step down. 
At first blush, this does not sound like a philosophical disagreement. It sounds like an ordinary empirical disagreement about whether, and under what conditions, the university would be able to attract enough qualified undergraduates to sustain itself. One party to the conflict, President Sullivan, was less impressed than her adversaries by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s widely discussed prediction that online instruction would prove to be a “disruptive innovation,” one that would pose a threat to the very existence of traditional suppliers—not by providing a better product but by providing an inferior substitute that was either vastly cheaper or more convenient. Christensen had insisted that traditional providers of higher education could survive this disruption only by “changing their DNA”—that is, fundamentally changing their mode of instruction, partly by using online instruction to lower costs and reach more students. Sullivan seems to have thought that this was alarmist and that no program of online instruction would soon convince parents to forgo the rite of passage into adulthood that we call “going to college.” 
On the surface, then, the conflict between President Sullivan and the leaders of the Board of Visitors seems to have been a difference in market outlook, not a difference that could be termed philosophical, even in the loose and popular deployment of that term. Yet I believe there were important philosophical disagreements in the background. Discussions among members of the Board of Visitors touched not only on the importance of taking bold steps to deliver instruction via the Internet but also on the importance of taking bold steps to trim away departments with relatively few majors. German had been mentioned; so had classics. The guiding idea of the would-be reformers was that the university should be continuously reshaped to meet changes in student demand. Consumer sovereignty should be extended from the problem of determining which products should be displayed on the shelves of which stores, to the problem of determining the contents of the proper education of a young adult. 
A rather long analysis follows, with a few distractions, but the heart of it is an analysis of the question, "Why study the humanities?" Brewer proposes three answers: They are actually useful, even if they don't seem to be; they support citizenship in free societies; and they are just good in and of themselves. I think Brewer doesn't treat answer #2 well enough; I continue to associate the study of the humanities directly with burning into the souls of students an appreciation for freedom of thought and action, and Brewer seems to have a rather limited view of what citizens of a democracy can really do with that freedom anyway. But it is a thoughtful analysis, well worth reading.

And relevant to ongoing conversations about educational disruption. When I read this passage in particular, I thought some more about the Faust-Summers dialog at Aspen.

In the concluding section of another of Plato’s dialogues, the Phaedrus, Socrates argues that the written word cannot itself capture and deliver what needs to be understood; at best, it can incite readers to turn toward the phenomena themselves and secure understanding through a more immediate apprehension of them. Further, the written word is not ideally suited to play even this indirect role, since its author is not there to respond to successive attempts, on the part of the reader, to attain a firsthand discernment of the phenomena that inspire it. What Platonic philosophy hopes to deliver to students is no more amenable to summary statement in a treatise or textbook than what Freudian psychotherapy hopes to deliver to patients. The quest for understanding is irreducibly idiosyncratic, because the sources of blindness and delusion are irreducibly idiosyncratic. If the reader cannot speak to the author, the possibility of useful communication is greatly reduced. If this is right, then the spoken word taken in itself—delivered, say, in the form of a lecture rather than in the course of a conversation—is no better a vehicle for philosophical enlightenment than the written word. 
Philosophy, in short, lives in conversation. The student must be called on to speak, and to do so sincerely rather than strategically—e.g., with an eye to a grade. This is what puts the student himself or herself into play. If this does not happen, then philosophy does not happen. Thus, philosophy does not happen in the passive uptake of lectures—whether they are delivered in a large lecture hall or in a Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC, as such courses are quickly coming to be known). If university-style philosophy is in danger of being replaced by the “disruptive innovation” of online education, perhaps this is because university philosophy classes have assumed a deficient form, one suited to fields whose findings can be mastered in passive uptake. 
The passage that came to mind is Larry Summers's argument for why the humanities, not just introductory college mathematics, are due for a Christensen-inpsired, MOOC disruption. The same forces that acted on Kodak have to act on higher education, Summers explains.
It is just not right that Hamlet is exposited 15 or 25,000 times in high schools and in colleges. And so just as 100 years ago every professor wrote out their own notes for their students and then we realized that some professors could write the best textbooks and those textbooks came to be used and the role of what a professor did who hadn't write a textbook was changed fundamentally, something of that kind has to happen in higher education.
The same conservatism that croaked incumbents like Kodak is happening in higher education today. Two of the signs he sees are "the discussions on every campus about not to elevate too many people as expositors different from ordinary faculty in their teaching," and the tendency of universities "to be very protective of existing areas of excellence." Both of these are jarring examples given Brewer's thoughts about dialog and his fears about UVa closing down low-demand departments. Summers also proposes a figure of merit on how much a university has realigned its priorities as the ratio of dollars spent on libraries to dollars spent on online education. I'll take a pass on commenting further on that.

I actually think in one way that Summers does not go far enough in pressing the analogy he posits. MOOCs are indeed more like textbooks than courses. Of course universities have historically not been in the textbook writing business, though they have been accessories; nor have the textbook writers been the most respected professors, as Summers seems to suggest was the lesson of that analogy.

But the real question here is what, in alumni talks I have been giving, I have been calling the "hydraulic model of education," the theory that what educators do is pour their accumulated knowledge, like a fluid, into the empty vessels of the brains of their students. Of course that is not true, as everyone who has thought about it, from Plato on down, has known, but which, as Brewer observes, is one of the key issues at stake in the current higher education wars. I quote Plutarch on this, in his essay on listening to lectures: "The ind is not a vessel to be filled but a flame to be kindled." Which is pretty much the point Brewer was making.

I suppose the reason I am trying to move from lecturing to active learning, rather than going in the other direction to MOOCs, is that I still hold to an ideal like Plutarch's, and fear those who assert with confidence that mass production is the way to go. We can become more efficient, and MOOCs can help in the same way better textbooks can help. But we won't wind up with anything nearly as good if we think that Hamlet just needs fewer, more skilled expositors for us to improve students' understanding of the human condition.

Bonus link: An interesting story about Ecole 42, which teaches software engineering and nothing else, basically by putting a bunch of bright people together on a desert island with an Internet connection and each other. The journalist suggests that Harvard should be worried; and so we should, if this product is what we think colleges are supposed to be optimized for producing.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Privacy Miscellany

I will be giving some talks on privacy and related matters in the fall, so I am starting to gather some thought provoking examples. Here are a few I have run across.

1. Department of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing. New York, in response to a public record request, released "anonymized" data on 197 million taxicab rides. That is, the data showed details of the trips, but the identifying information about the cab and driver were "anonymized."

You can probably guess why I put quotation marks around "anonymized." Rather than making up a random bit string for each hack license or medallion number, or ordering them all randomly and then using their ordinal position in the randomized list such as 1, 2, 3, … as the substitute identifier, the folks charged with anonymizing the data knew just enough computer science to make a serious blunder. They used a standard hashing algorithm, known in the business as MD5, to transform each license or medallion number into a long and random looking bit string, and used those bit strings as the substitute identifiers when they released the data. So instead of the nice short identifiers we can see in taxicabs, such as 9Y99, the data set contained a humongous string like 98c2b1aeb8d40ff826c6f1580a600853.

But of course nothing that is the output of an algorithm is random; in fact it's as non-random as you can get. In general the problem of inverting MD5 to get the original numbers from the hash values is computationally impractical, but you don't have to do anything that clever to de-aonymize this particular set of data, because there are only a few million possible hack and medallion numbers, and we know exactly what the possibilities are. You can just run all possible hack and medallion numbers through MD5 and generate your own table of correspondences.

So a computer programmer with too much time on his hands just ran all the possible numbers through MD5 and compared the results to the data that was released. It took a few hours. Bingo!  Medallion number 9Y99 became hash value 98c2b1aeb8d40ff826c6f1580a600853, for example, and hack number 5296319 became hash value 71b9c3f3ee5efb81ca05e9b90c91c88f. To recover all the details of all those cab rides, complete with the identifying information about the driver and cab, just replace the long number with the corresponding short number.

Morals: Just because something looks random doesn't mean that it is. Just because an algorithm is tried, true, and tested, doesn't mean that it can't be misused with disastrous consequences. And in computer science as in most fields, there is no substitute for knowing what you are doing---and then having someone else who knows what you are doing check it.

2. Department of the price of privacy. Auto insurers are offering lower rates to drivers who are willing to have their driving monitored by telemetry. Progressive has actually been doing this for awhile, but utilizing only a limited amount of data, such as how often the drivers brake hard, and what times of day they drive. But now location data are being utilized, and so on.

At one level, nothing remarkable is going on here. Insurance is about pooling risk, but insurers love low-risk clients, and the more they know about you the lower they can make your risk. It is no surprise that old-style demographics used to set insurance rates, such as age and gender, are no match for knowing how fast you drive, and where. Nobody has to supply the information if they don't want to, and, as Progressive says about their current program,
We won't share Snapshot information unless it's required to service your insurance policy, prevent fraud, perform research or comply with the law. We also won't use Snapshot information to resolve a claim unless you or the registered vehicle owner permits us to do so
which sounds to me like a pretty long list of exceptions.

I think the real news here is just that people are getting used to benefits from sharing very granular data about their movements and habits. After all, how else would you you connect with people at open-air concerts, or find friends who might be in Milwaukee the same day you are? And auto insurance is expensive. Flo is such a nice woman with that white uniform and red lipstick. Why shouldn't I share this information with her, when she is offering me money in exchange for my private information?

3. Department of investigative overreach. Facebook had to hand over to a NYC DA the almost complete history on 383 users. Facebook resisted but the DA's office was so aggressive that it threatened to throw Facebook officials in jail if they did not comply. As the NYT reports,
When the social networking company fought the data demands, a New York judge ruled that Facebook had no standing to contest the search warrants since it was simply an online repository of data, not a target of the criminal investigation. To protect the secrecy of the investigation, the judge also barred the company from informing the affected users, a decision that prevented the individuals from fighting the data requests themselves.
Given how much people reveal about themselves, this feels a lot like the cell phone case recently decided, unanimously, by the Supreme Court. Like your cell phone, your social network account contains vast amounts of personal information of what the Fourth Amendment calls the "papers and effects" variety. In a way it is worse than the case of warrantless searches of cell phones, because when the cops seize your cell phone, you probably know they have it. Here it seems they are asserting the right to take your data, not tell you they have it, not use it to prosecute you, and hold it forever, just in case it might come in handy some day. Facebook is appealing, and I hope it wins.

4. Department of dumb things smart people do. What exactly did Google executive Forrest Hayes think he was doing when he did heroin with a prostitute on his own yacht and left the cameras running?
Surveillance footage from the yacht shows everything, police said, from when she came aboard until after Hayes collapsed. That’s when [the prostitute] picked up her clothes, the heroin, and needles, casually stepping over Hayes as he lay dying, police said. She swallowed the last of a glass of wine and walked back on the dock to shore, police said.
It's a horrible story and I don't mean to make light of his death. It may even be that some good will come of the surveillance, since the woman may be justly found guilty of his death. But it's another measure of how lightly we take the surveillance we are under, that an accomplished high-tech executive would think nothing of leaving the cameras running on his own yacht while he was doing several things he probably would not actually want to have recorded.

5. Department of cool Twitter apps: edit-Congress lets you know whenever a Wikipedia page is edited from an IP address within a Congressional office. (IP addresses come in blocks, we know which blocks go to Congressional buildings, and Wikipedia keeps not only the edit history on each page but the IP address from which  it was edited.) To judge by today's stream of edits, our legislators might find more time to work out a deal on immigration or the highway trust fund if they and their staff spent less time editing pages about Barack Obama shaking hands with a guy wearing a horse head mask, etc. The peoples' business indeed.

Happy summer to all!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Disappointing Discusion of Disruption

This post has been corrected. See note at the end.

After watching the video of Walter Isaacson interviewing Drew Faust and Larry Summers at the Aspen Ideas Festival, I went to bed grumpy, feeling I had heard it all before. Summers's overall message was that universities need to be bolder and more innovative. Faust was, I thought, more nimble---she had to be because Isaacson gave Summers the first question, and Summers took about 5 minutes to give a set speech, without answering the question. Isaacson conducted a well-mannered dialog, not asking any questions that were too challenging, and the two principals, though they clearly had different roles, treated each other with respect and civility. (Summers was the advocate of change and risk of failure, Faust insistent that changes were actually happening.)

In other words, I thought it was a bore. Until I took a long walk the next morning and replayed it in my head. A few things then began to stand out.

It would be too easy to say of Summers's take on the Lepore-Christensen argument that Summers doesn't think Lepore can do math, so I won't say that. I'll just report what he did say:
… Clay got substantially the better of that dialog. …[T]he evidence is at the edge of overwhelming that that a large part of major change comes from noon-incumbents and comes from not traditional organizations … Jill Lepore didn't really fully recognize in her critique the statistical aspect of social science theories and that to observe that certain companies have continued to remain strong for a long time doesn't really challenge what was the core of the disruption theory.
Well, I actually thought Lepore was challenging the very same case studies that Christensen was using to make his point. Steven Syre in the Boston Globe has what seems to me a curious take on the controversy:
I never thought of Christensen’s ideas as tools to predict the future. I saw them as a framework to make sense of a turbulent present and think about the best way to respond to new competition. If that’s the point — and it should be — his theory performs a useful purpose.
I always thought a theory wasn't really a theory unless it had some predictive power, since you can always fit a curve through any set of points. Geocentrism worked well enough as a theory of the universe until it had to explain things that weren't already known. But I will leave that to the philosophers of science, and of economics.

I should add here that I am grateful to the reader who took seriously my question about whether anyone had challenged Christensen before Lepore did it. (See also my followup post.) This reader directed me to "Ambidexterity as a dynamic capability: Resolving the innovator’s dilemma," by O'Reilly and Tushman (professors at Stanford and Harvard Business Schools, respectively; Research in Organizational Behavior 28 (2008) 185–206). Christensen, they write, "concludes that it is not possible to resolve the 'innovator’s dilemma’ and argues that, confronted with a disruptive change, managers cannot simultaneously explore and exploit." Not true, they argue. Here is their bottom line.
Comparatively, there are more examples of firm failure than long-term success. However, we argue here that under the appropriate conditions organizations may be able to both explore into new spaces as well as exploit their existing capabilities. Although not easily done, we believe that these strategic contradictions can be resolved by senior leaders who design and manage their own processes …. To accomplish this difficult feat is primarily a leadership task rather than one of structure and design. 
My goodness. I wonder if Summers knows about this finding, that good leadership can make a big difference in how an organization adapts to change.

I found the discussion at Aspen of change in higher education unsatisfying. It was driven by Summers's provocative statements, which seemed to put Faust on the defensive, and which Isaacson failed to pursue. At times Summers almost seemed to be reading from the publicity for the Minerva Project, one of the would-be disrupters for which Summers used to chair the Advisory Board:

Summers: I think [the coming disruption] is going to be a crucial issue for higher education as it confronts technology … will the leaders in this 25 years from now be Harvard and Yale or will they be the likes of Coursera and Udacity? I would bet that a large part of it will come from the private sector. … the Forbes 400 sits with $2 trillion that many within it aspire to have the kind  of impact on the world going forward that the Rockefellers and the Carnegies did. [I think Summers here means the for-profit sector, given that Harvard and Yale are, after all, in the private sector.]

MinervaMinerva Project was founded by CEO Ben Nelson in 2011 and received a $25 million seed investment from Benchmark Capital in 2012.

Summers: I hope they will have embraced technology in major ways. 

MinervaSpecial software the startup is developing will be crucial in guiding faculty members as they work with students. “You can assess students not just on subject matter, but on how they are progressing on their skills. And then you can feed that data back to the professor in real time,” says Nelson. He says the system, still under construction, will be able to say, “ ‘Look, Suzy is exceptional at ill-structured data analysis, but she has real problems with complex systems analysis. If you are exploring complex systems, call on Suzy next.’”

Summers: I hope that [universities] will have rededicated themselves to making a difference in the lives of individual students, that in too many universities in too many ways the basic university function of teaching and learning have given way to a focus on extracurricular life, to a focus on things away from their preparation for for the challenges of careers in the 21st century.

Minerva: At the core of Minerva’s educational philosophy is a focus on learning outcomes, based on the latest teaching methodologies.  … The Minerva model is highly interdisciplinary and designed with the student as its focus. And  Minerva will help high-performing students become mature, confident individuals and put them on a path to meaningful careers and fulfilling lives.

Summers: I hope that the next decade will have been a period of more change in higher education …
Minerva: Minerva provides a reinvented university experience …  a redefined student body, a reinvented curriculum …

It was a disappointing show all in all, because the hard questions never got asked or answered. Suppose, as Summers said at one point, there will be fewer people doing presentations in the university of the future, because the good ones will have become commodities, and instead there will be more people leading discussions. Will those people be research scholars? Will they have PhDs? Will society put up with their spending part of their time producing knowledge rather than discussing it? Will the nightmare of the philosophers at SJSU being replaced by Michael Sandel's MOOC come to pass? If so, who will be the generators of knowledge  in the future? Who will cure diseases, as Summers elsewhere in this piece says universities should do more of, if the researchers are no longer being supported as teachers? What of subjects without a mass market audience, what will be the funding model for keeping alive those areas of human culture?

I don't know the answer to any of those questions, but it would have been interesting to hear them raised and discussed. Or dismissed as unimportant, which would have been a real contribution to our understanding how the future of the university is viewed by the authorities on the subject.

This post has been substantially rewritten to correct my statement that Summers was still on the Advisory Board at the time of his remarks at Aspen, and inferences I made based on that statement. I based my post on a statement in a Minerva Project web page which turns out to have been out of date and has now been removed from the Minerva site. In fact, Summers stepped down from the Minerva Advisory Board as of December 31, 2013. I regret the error, and am grateful to the several parties who pointed it out.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

No Warrantless Searches of Cell Phones

The US Supreme Court has just handed down its decision in the cases of Riley and Wurie, which raised a single central issue: If the police seize your cell phone in the course of an arrest, can they search it without a warrant? Warrantless searches of your person are certainly permissible under some circumstances---they can check your pockets to see if you have a gun, for example. And the radius of permissible warrantless searches has gradually expanded through a series of court decisions. But if they check your pocket for a gun and pull out a smartphone, can they look at, oh, your bank account, health records, photo gallery, and email, all of which are either on or are accessible through that device?

This might seem to be a pretty straightforward privacy rights case, but of course there really is no right to privacy in the Constitution. It's a question of how far the Fourth Amendment goes in protecting "persons, papers, and effects."

In a unanimous decision, the court decided that your smartphone is the modern equivalent of your papers---even though in important respects your bits and your papers are not equivalent. For example, you may be able to delete your bits, or lock them away, remotely. Nonetheless, the court was unequivocal.
Held: The police generally may not, without a warrant, search digital information on a cell phone seized from an individual who has been arrested. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Surveillance Works

The New York Times reports that workers are increasingly the objects of digital surveillance. Tracking devices are so simple and cheap now that it makes sense to track the movements of waiters in restaurants, and to analyze the data to improve the efficiency of service. Yes, this is creepy. I sure would not like Harvard monitoring my movements around campus. But I also understand why it is seen as a competitive advantage to watch what your workforce is doing.

The interesting case in my mind is Uber. I have been watching a passionate argument about Uber, waged on an email list to which I subscribe, reflecting the passionate taxi-vs.-Uber debates going on in the city of Cambridge. Lots is being said about whether Uber is taking money from working class taxi drivers, whether public safety demands that Uber drivers be licensed and regulated the way taxi drivers are, and so on.

The thing nobody seems to be mentioning is that the reason Uber works is because everyone involved is being watched. That's the reason you don't need to identify where you are when you request an Uber; Uber knows your phone location. That is the reason you don't need to pay at the end of the trip; Uber has your credit card information. It's also the reason service is good. You have to rate your driver before requesting your next trip; Uber drivers are polite because they know that Uber will drop them in a heartbeat if they get a few bad reviews. They won't take you the long way around (generally they seem to just follow the directions in their phone app), because they know you'll rate them down if you do, and you'll have a map showing the exact route taken as part of your receipt, incontrovertible proof you've been screwed. And your driver can do a job on you too -- if you creep out too many Uber drivers, Uber will probably close out your account. (Not that there would be much incentive to threaten an Uber driver -- because all payments are electronic, there is no reason for them to carry any cash.) The mutual rating, with big brother Uber knowing all about both you and your driver, reduces many of the risks of taxis, for both parties.

It seems to me that the advantages of Uber are too great for any except the oddest of municipalities (that might be Cambridge) to make its business model unworkable. But let's not kid ourselves. The reason it works so nicely is because it completely eliminates the mutual anonymity of the taxi economy. If the taxi industry is smart, it will figure that out and go increasingly digital, to try to gain some of the convenience and safety that make Uber attractive -- which will leave fewer options for invisible life in the big city.

Ivory Tower

Ivory Tower is a documentary about the affordability crisis in American higher education. Ty Burr in the Globe gives the movie a mixed review, finding that it tries to cover too many issues. I thought it was better, but then I am a junkie on this sort of higher ed material. Also, my institution comes out looking good, and that may have colored my impression of the film. It's playing at the Kendall Square Cinema. To judge from the size of the house when I saw it, it won't be playing there or anywhere for long (if you can't make it in Cambridge, …).

Andrew Delbanco of Columbia, author of College: What it Is, Was, and Should Be, serves as sort of an overall narrator. Delbanco's is a good book, and he has written a number of other smart pieces, so he's a good choice as the prototypical professor, idealistic and realistic at the same time. (Though there were rather too many mood shots of him shuffling across the Columbia campus with his book bag.)

Harvard, as I said, gets treated well. As the film notes, Harvard is one of a tiny number of American colleges that admit need-blind and provide financial aid up to need for all admitted students. I think the frame on that says that only 1.25% of American colleges do that. That is probably the number that say they do it; the number that don't fudge on either admission or the definition of "full need" is probably smaller. The Boston Globe has a piece today on how the median "net price" of college (tuition minus aid) has continued to rise faster than inflation at almost all colleges. Harvard is one of the few where net price has gone down over the past few years. If you sort the table by net price, Harvard is near the bottom at $15,079, $5K less than MIT and less than half the median net price of BU and even Northeastern.

The narrative wanders in and out through Harvard and various other institutions, representing different models for higher education; Harvard is the one place where money is never an issue. I wish the whole Harvard faculty would see the movie, because it serves as a reminder how how much of our high moral ground is based on two things most faculty don't appreciate nearly enough: One, that we can afford to pay the full demonstrated need of the students we admit; and two that we do admissions with an eye toward creating the future, not rewarding applicants' past achievements.

Clayton Christensen, of all people, makes an early appearance explaining that things in higher ed can't go on as they have. Harvard is in the "DNA" of every American college, he says, but they can't all be Harvard and many are wasting a lot of money trying.* This tendency to build rock walls and luxury dormitories (neither of which Harvard has, in fact), and the growth in nom-teaching employees, seem to be the conventional wisdom now about why costs keep going up. A more nuanced observation is made by one person interviewed for the film---that at state universities it's the need to draw out of state students to balance the budget (out of state tuition being higher than in-state) that forces universities to compete as though they were luxury hotels. It also creates irrational exchanges, with Texas universities trying to fill their beds with students from California and California universities trying to draw Texas students, rather than either state university trying to educate the maximum number of children of their own taxpayers at a lower price point.

Harvard president Drew Faust also appears early on, both in a freshman event and in an on-camera interview, where she seemed to me pitch-perfect about liberal education (or "liberal arts eduction," as it is now customary to call it, I suppose less to avoid the sciences than in an attempt to forestall paranoia from the political right). The film traces a computer science student, a guy from a very disadvantaged background, on his freshman-year journey through Computer Science 50, so a lot of the faces are familiar to me --- my brilliant colleague David Malan who teaches the course, and several of his undergraduate teaching assistants. I actually know the student as well, and the guy on screen is the same guy I know. This all looks very true to me.

It was when the filming moved away from Harvard that I started to cringe. Some significant educators agreed to be interviewed---John Hennessy of Stanford, Peter Thiel (funny how nobody who quotes him adoringly on higher education these days describes him as an author of The Diversity Myth), Arizona State president Michael Crow, Wesleyan president Michael Roth, and Cooper Union president (and sometime Tufts provost) Jamshed Bharucha. The cringing is because some of these folks didn't have good answers to obvious questions. Crow contemptuously dismisses ASU's reputation as a party school (having acknowledged it by completing the interviewer's question); then there is a fast cut to several minutes of ASU bacchanalia footage. Roth answers a prospective Wesleyan parent's question about whether his daughter will wind up employable by preaching the virtues of a liberal education, which was not the question (though to be fair, I know that the real answer might have been edited out). Bharucha comes out the worst, in part because he has a facial tic that does not film attractively. He is asked how he can justify making about the same amount as Faust in salary when her institution is so much bigger, and his has such financial woes that it is starting to charge tuition, against the vision of the founder. He replies, with great confidence, that she doesn't have half the problems he has---but that's the point: Cooper Union has financial problems due to debt it unwisely took on, and for the president to take a modest pay cut might have been a politic gesture of shared sacrifice.

About the only place, other than Harvard, that comes out looking good is Deep Springs, which has 26 students, all men. This may seem to be an irrelevant distraction; higher education's cost problems can't be solved by generalizing the Deep Springs model. But it drives home a crucial question, what are you really paying for when you buy a college education?

The big villain, in the narrative, is student debt, which has been getting lots of attention lately. I do wish that some president of a college that charges a lot of money and can't balance that with scholarship aid would say the simple truth to prospective students and their families: "I hope you will attend Bozo U. It's a great place and you would get a lot out of being here. We are looking for people like you because we are no better than our students are. And we will do the best we can to make Bozo U affordable for you and your family. But you should not attend this university if you are going to wind up more than $X in debt when you are done. In fact you should not attend any college that will leave you that much in debt."

But what would $X be? One problem is that it depends on what you learn, but talking about that is hard at the same time as you are preaching the importance of a liberal education. If you graduate with a degree in computer science, $50,000 of debt would not be too much. You could probably pay that back in a year --- entry level jobs in Silicon Valley are paying in the six figures these days, at least for graduates of good programs.

The film quotes the statistic that the average (or is it median?) student debt on completing college is now $25,000. That is said as though it is a shocking statistic, but I am not sure why it is so shocking. If I remember the national data correctly, that is less than the delta between the annual salaries of college graduates and non graduates.

The film, however, pivots to interview at some length an articulate, unemployed college graduate with $140,000 in debt. (I hope someone sees this clip and offers her a job!) Now it seems to me the real issue is, what predatory forces got her to agree to take on that much debt? She did not need to be a math major to figure out how long it would take her to pay that back. I'll bet she got some bad advice, probably from people who stood to profit by her woes. I have a hard time thinking that the enthusiasm of the national "college for all" forces are really most responsible for encouraging such bad decision-making. (The whole for-profit higher education sector isn't mentioned in this film at all.)

Overall, it's a well done film. It certainly homes in on some of the hypocrisies and snake-oil salespeople in higher education, and its bottom line about MOOCs, which seems to be that online materials can help but education almost always requires direct communication between teachers and students, seems about right. That is, in fact, the impression from which you come away from all the CS50 footage, and that is the way that course works. It is a highly social sort of intensive technology education.

* The spat between my two Harvard colleagues Professors Jill Lepore and Clayton Christensen continues to roil. (See the previous two posts on this blog. I wish I had noted, when trying to parse Christensen's belittling way of referring to Lepore by her first name, that in the same interview he refers to himself as "Clayton Christensen," in the third person!) Economics writer David Warsh provides some helpful background; I had forgotten that two years before Lepore's article, a "hagiographic" (as Warsh puts it) profile of Christensen had appeared, also in the New Yorker.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Clayton Christensen is Mad

In a brief interview in Business Week, Christensen starts out polite about Jill Lepore (see The Bogosity of Disruption Theory) but gets significantly less so. At first, he says, he thought she was trying to protect his trademark, and he was shocked to discover she had something else in mind.
I was delighted that somebody with her standing would join me in trying to bring discipline and understanding around a very useful theory. I’ve been trying to do it for 20 years. And then in a stunning reversal, she starts instead to try to discredit Clay Christensen, in a really mean way. … I hope you can understand why I am mad that a woman of her stature could perform such a criminal act of dishonesty ….
If, like me, you twinged when you read that---wondering whether he would have been less mad to have been taken down by a man---the answer seems to be yes.
 Fifty-two years, Jill. Just so you understand, disruption doesn’t happen overnight.…  So—Jill, tell me, what’s the truth? …  Do they make rod and angle iron, Jill? No. Do they make structural steel I-beams and H-beams that you use to make the massive skyscrapers downtown, does U.S. Steel make those beams? Come on, Jill, tell me! No! …
 [Interviewer] You keep referring to Lepore by her first name. Do you know her?
I’ve never met her in my life.
Then why do you keep calling her by her first name, when the interviewer never used it?

The reliably conservative American Enterprise Institute dismisses the Lepore article as a leftist plot to  preserve the higher education dinosaur, titling its takedown of Lepore "Why business guru Clayton Christensen has landed on the left's hit list," and complaining that she "picks at the the corporate case studies that Christensen uses." Which is, of course, exactly right, except for the belittling verb --- that is what scholars do to each other, point out when their data do not support their conclusions. And then the AEI writer says that all she is trying to do is protect her own cushy job.
Count Lepore as one of many college professors who doesn’t like the idea of online learning disrupting how brick-and-mortar universities operate — and how profs do their jobs.
Which makes about as much sense as saying that the people who objected to Lysenkoism in Soviet Russia were just trying to preserve an archaic style of farming.

Paul Krugman takes Lepore's side, which I suppose just confirms the theory that this is a lefty plot. The AEI piece makes one interesting observation about the teaching mission of HBS, which I have no way to judge.
There is a big ongoing debate – Christensen on side, Michael Porter on the other — about how Harvard’s business school should deal with online education. Lepore’s piece can been seen as a mission in the campaign against Christensen approach.
Seen by people other than Lepore, I imagine. But there may equally be something else at stake---what counts as research and scholarship at places like HBS. Christensen seems to insist that he is doing something like science, and his theory has become more nuanced and gained more explanatory force. As he says about the iPhone in a Harvard Magazine profile grandly titled Disruptive Genius, "First I was wrong, and then I was right." But of course the real test of a scientific theory is its predictive success, not its pliability to fit facts. Or the amount of money people will pay you to spout it.