Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Internet and Hieronymus Bosch

Three years ago I blogged that I had published an essay by that title (that blog post reproduces the artwork that was the inspiration). I never got a single comment about the essay, probably because the collection in which it appeared did not get much circulation or publicity. Recently Peter Neumann came across the essay and loved it so much that he included a micro-review in his RISKS newsletter. Peter's post links off to a copy of the essay -- I like it too, and like much of the material in Blown to Bits, it seems remarkably fresh today (the essay is based on a lecture I gave in my now-defunct Bits course five years ago).

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Is the MOOC Bubble Bursting?

I believe firmly that the Internet is going to change education for the better. I am much more skeptical that Massive Online Courses (Open or Otherwise) are going to do to colleges and universities what digital photography did to Kodak. As I previously suggested, Ivory Tower does a good job deflating the Udacity hype, and making the case for human intervention in teaching, at least for those students who are not 100% self-motivated and self-assured (that is, those students who actually need to be educated, rather than left to educate themselves). Two relevant notes of today.

Janet Napolitano (now President of the University of California) seems to be the first big-time college or university president to say that enough is enough with the MOOC mania. (President Faust was too polite to do that to Larry Summers's disruptive utopianism, see A Disappointing Discusion of Disruption.) The full speech is on Youtube but the LA Times has a summary.
For higher education, she said, "It's not a silver bullet, the way it was originally portrayed to be. It's a lot harder than it looks, and by the way if you do it right it doesn't save all that much money, because you still have to have an opportunity for students to interact with either a teaching assistant or an assistant professor or a professor at some level." 
As for preparing the courses, "if they're really going to be top-quality, that's an investment as well." Taking aim at the dream that online learning might be most useful for students needing help in remedial courses in subjects like English and math, Napolitano said: "I think that's false; those students need the teacher in the classroom working with them."
Good for her. I think a lot of university leaders know these things are true but are afraid to say so, because they don't want themselves or their institutions characterized as Luddite, and because they are afraid of deflating donor interest at the same time as they are making big investments without a workable business model for repaying them.

In the New York Times today, David Leonhart documents the ways in which the cost-of-college panic has been stoked by the federal government. What the data mostly show in fact is that public institutions have gotten a lot more expensive -- as a percentage increase over what they used to cost. This is not big news, because we know that state budget expenditures on higher education have been in sharp decline. This leads to such bizarre practices as State A limiting in-state enrollments so the remaining beds can be filled with State B students paying higher tuitions.  Of course if State B does the same thing to attract State A students, the net effect is that taxpayers in both states are being indirectly taxed to support higher education -- but instead of paying taxes directly to support their own university systems, they are paying in tuition dollars being sent to the other state.

In any case, given that the argument for MOOCs is largely based on the spiraling-out-of-control cost of college, the foundational premise for the allegedly coming big disruption is destroyed if college is not so unaffordable after all.

I'll just close with a comment I posted in a followup to an earlier blog post, since it is part of the same puzzlement I have about whether the economic premise for the coming MOOC revolution is oversold. (There are other good arguments for online education; here I am just challenging the thesis that a collapse of the old system of colleges and universities is at hand because they have priced themselves out of business and information will shortly be free as air.)

At Harvard and a handful of other schools, nobody graduates with any debt (unless they have intentionally borrowed so they could avoid making money in the summer, etc., and even then the amounts are likely < $10K). The question of whether those who can afford to pay the high prices at Harvard will continue to think it is a good investment is on the table of course, but I don't think it's a major public policy issue in the way the student debt problem is. 
And I don't doubt that there will be interesting experiments such as Ecole 42 and some of them will succeed. Maybe Minerva will too. My main observation on all this is that it gets us back to talking about what college is actually for. That conversation needs to happen in something other than economic terms. 
But here is a puzzle about the economic argument. I can barely balance a checkbook so forgive me the following dumb analysis. This should be a subject for another day, but I am puzzled about the student debt crisis. There are certainly ways to get yourself in ridiculous amounts of debt going to college, and many people, like the poor woman in Ivory Tower, are in deep trouble. But the average student debt for a college graduate, according to the most recent figures I could find is $29,400, while the median starting salary of people with college degrees is $46,900, and the median starting salary of people with only a high school diploma is $30,000. So you "lose" four years of your life, but in less than two years, you earn back in increased salary an amount equal to your debt. If there is a problem, and I don't deny that there is, it sounds to me a lot more like a problem of personal financial management than a cost-of-college problem.  
Sorry for the quick and dirty analysis. I know I am matching means and medians, some people are unemployed, the data aren't for the same year, and so on. And none of this is to suggest that institutions with very high prices and very little scholarship aid aren't going to collapse. They will. And there may well be more people who get smart and if they fail in their effort to shoot high, go to a lower priced school rather than to the unaffordable "best" school they get into. But again, that sounds to me more a problem of counseling and educating people to make sound decisions, than like the death of Eastman Kodak.

Monday, July 28, 2014

More Responses to Deresiewicz

As noted in a comment on the previous post, Jim Sleeper reviews the Deresiewicz book in Book Forum. The review is well worth reading. Jim has some further thoughts about Excellent Sheep in Salon. Two other good short notes posted recently are by Chris Lehmann and by Jim Marino (an English professor at Cleveland State).

Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League" (where I went and then taught)

About ten people have sent me William Deresiewicz's article "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League," published in the New Republic. It's part of the fun being had by people who went to great universities, making money telling other people that going to a great university isn't worth it. As this gloss in the Washington Post notes, others writing in the same genre have included William F. Buckley, Jr. [Yale], and Ross Douthat [Harvard]. In Deresiewicz's case, it was Columbia, before teaching at Yale. And we might as well throw Peter Thiel into that group, since he is using the the wealth he accumulated after his Stanford education to try to persuade smart kids that they don't need any college education at all.

It's a pretty disappointing piece, full of cheap zingers like "Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal." Which is not to say it's all wrong. But Deresiewicz doesn't seem to quite get the idea that with the collapse in support for the great public research universities, the Ivies and a few brethren privates like Stanford and MIT are now very often the cheapest places for low-income students to attend. It's another question whether families that actually can afford to pay the high sticker prices at these institutions will continue to think it is worth doing. There is no sign that they are changing their minds, and I doubt Deresiewicz's writings will lead to a mass desertion.

And then there is the problem that Deresiewicz's prescriptions for change don't make a lot of sense when you penetrate more than a millimeter below the surface. I know he is far from alone in thinking that universities should "stop cooperating" with US News, for example. "Cooperating" of course just means making available to US News the sorts of data that universities should be making public so people can make well informed decisions about college choices, rather than relying on … ranting headlines in the New Republic. Would Deresiewicz really prefer that universities keep the data secret? Or perhaps release it only to publications that had met the standards of some board of censors? Are universities really responsible for the downstream use of the data they release?

It feels like Deresiewicz's haymakers are wild swings because of the weight of some huge chip on his shoulder. He is capable of better. I thought The Miseducation of America, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, was a much better piece. It's an essay on related topics cast as a review of the film Ivory Tower, which I blogged a few weeks ago. As I predicted, that movie disappeared from Kendall Square pretty quickly, and the list of upcoming bookings is not encouraging.

Both the New Republic and the Chronicle of Higher Education pieces are teases for Deresiewicz's book, Excellent Sheep, to be published on August 19 (just in time for back to school! and for getting down to work on those college applications after the US News rankings come out!). Interesting title! I haven't read the book but two people who have tell me that Excellence Without a Soul is quoted more than once. (Sounds like maybe a lot more than once.) I suppose I can conclude from the fact that I'm generously quoted that the book is also not all wrong, and that the author and I have related criticisms. I can say only that even when I have been most disappointed, I have always been hopeful, and have seen the great universities as a glass half full; Deresiewicz seems more like a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

Added later. The New Republic has posted a thoughtful commentary in response to the article, making some clear factual as well as cultural points. And no list of critiques of higher education would be complete without mentioning Allen Bloom's Closing of the American Mindwhich to my eternal shame I neglected to cite in Excellence Without a Soul.

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.