Thursday, May 23, 2013

Congressional Math

Innumeracy is a serious problem in this country, especially when it afflicts our elected representatives. The phenomenon manifests itself in lots of ways, some of them deadly. Here is one from this morning.

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn was on Morning Joe today, dismissing the idea that Congress would have to help his state through the recovery from the tornado disaster. Existing FEMA funds would cover it, he said. No problem with that, nor with his opinion, voiced a few minutes later, that it should be up to Oklahomans to decide whether to regulate the construction of storm shelters in new buildings. It's what he said next that was the problem. The exchange begins at about the 5:00 point of this clip.

"If you're living in that area of Moore, in Oklahoma, the likelihood of being hit by another tornado is about zero, in terms of odds." The interviewer tries to correct him, explaining that being hit by tornadoes twice in fourteen years doesn't affect the odds of being hit again, but Coburn doubles down, finishing up by saying "You need to check your statistics class."

I find this astonishing, not because I expect members of congress to be good at math, but because I expect them--especially those from western states--to be good at gambling. Has Coburn played games with dice? Does he really think that rolling snake eyes once makes it less likely to happen again? I suppose that even experienced gamblers believe such things, but that is where we should hope for better from the people who are throwing billions and trillions of our dollars at real and imagined problems.

There is a joke about a corporate executive who asks the odds of being on an airplane with a bomb, and is given a number, one in a million. He then asks what are the odds of being on a plane with TWO bombs, and is told one in a trillion. "Great," he says. "From now on I'm taking a bomb with me wherever I travel." Perhaps the Senator will want to make the country safer by urging us all to follow that strategy.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Richwine and the FAS Hegemony over the PhD

I had never heard of Jason Richwine until I started reading the reports about his Harvard PhD thesis, on the IQs of immigrants and the policy implications for the US. The thesis itself (here it is, if you want to read it and make up your own mind) was presented in 2009. Apparently nobody noticed it, or thought it was worth complaining about, until Richwine worked its conclusions into the Heritage Foundation's report on the economic costs of US immigration policy. That blew up, and Richwine resigned from the Foundation.

The expected parties have taken the expected positions on academic freedom and so on. One interesting take is by conservative Ron Unz, who says he has independently researched the issues himself, and thinks Richwine is just wrong on the facts. Whatever one may think of either Richwine or Unz (and Unz has written some misinformed things about Harvard), this part of Unz's piece raises an interesting governance point.
Richwine’s doctoral work was performed at Harvard’s Kennedy School for Public Policy, which is separate from the main graduate school containing academic disciplines such as evolutionary biology, psychology, and sociology. The typical Kennedy School graduate receives a Masters Degree in Public Administration, and is often a mid-career government official, seeking to burnish his academic credentials. The three faculty members who evaluated Richwine’s dissertation—George Borjas, Richard Zeckhauser, and Christopher Jencks—are noted social scientists, but with the possible exception of Jenks, who was apparently a late addition, none seems to have a strong background in IQ issues; otherwise, they surely would have brought the facts I have cited above to Richwine’s attention and required him to properly address them. And once the media mob began baying for blood, Richwine’s advisors immediately backpedaled on any familiarity with IQ issues and quickly disassociated themselves from the dissertation they themselves had approved.
What catches my eye here is that none of the members of the dissertation committee is a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Borjas and Zeckhauser are economists, but neither is a member of the Economics Department; nor does Jencks seem to be a member of any FAS department. But the PhD is granted by the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; to be precise, it is the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that takes the ritualized vote on the Monday before Commencement to recommend to the governing boards that they award the PhD to the candidates who will be assembled on Thursday. In this case, the PhD is being granted in the subject of Public Policy (there is a separate PhD program in Social Policy, or rather, two of them).

FAS has insisted that only it, and not any of the other Faculties, can award the PhD degree. Philosophically, the point is that the PhD is a scholarly and not primarily professional degree. It has always been a worry that if the professional faculties could offer the PhD on their own, the value of the currency might be debased, for example if advocacy or skill-training were to eclipse the impartial pursuit of the truth.

So when it is proposed to create a new PhD program, jointly with another Faculty, it is the Faculty of Arts and Sciences that must discuss and approve the program (first in the Committee on Graduate Education, then in the Faculty Council, and finally in a vote of the full Faculty). I remember when the PhD in Education was approved a couple of years ago, part of the FAS discussion was about requiring that at least one member of every dissertation committee be a member of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. I don't remember how that came out in the Education case, but that seems not to be the rule for the PhD in Social Policy. In the case at hand, a dissertation about the social policy implications of IQ was approved by a committee of social policy experts lacking anyone from the Psychology or Sociology department with professional expertise in psychometrics. In fact, while I haven't checked all the names on the Public Policy Standing Committee, it seems to have very limited (if any) FAS representation. By contrast, the list of Core Faculty for the PhD program in Social Policy includes a number of members of the Sociology and Government Departments, some of whom have the relevant expertise to critique a thesis on IQ.

Of course, sticking an arbitrary member of the FAS on a thesis committee does not guarantee that any high standard of scholarship will be met. But perhaps, if the people at Harvard with the right expertise share Unz's skepticism about the soundness of Richwine's psychometric findings, the question that needs asking is whether the governance over the many interfaculty PhD programs is strong enough to provide the quality control that is the rationale for the nominal FAS hegemony over the PhD degree. Because if Richwine's findings of fact are wrong, and the members of the dissertation committee did not see fit to pull in anyone with the relevant expertise to check the details, then this PhD is, in the words a colleague used to describe a different Harvard embarrassment, a stain on the uniform we all wear. Why, if the central facts of this dissertation are wrong, should the public trust that any of our PhDs mean what we claim they mean?

Friday, May 17, 2013

David Brooks on Leaks

From "When Governments Go Bad":
This scandal arises from a larger cultural virus: leakaphobia. Every administration centralizes power more tightly than the one before and is more paranoid about leaks than the one before. Every administration successively narrows the circle of debate, forsaking wide deliberation for the sake of reducing leaks (except the politically useful ones). Why do they do this? Because people who go into government not only have a tendency to want to control other people but also to control information.
People can only have faith in a government that self-restrains, and there’s little evidence of that now.
I have no idea why I wanted to post that. It must have reminded me of something else, but I can't quite put my finger on what.

More on Licensing MOOCs

After reading yesterday's post about MOOCs, a colleague asked me why I preferred BY-SA licensing to BY-NC-SA licensing. Now that looks like a technical question about lawyerly alphabet soup, but it is actually a basic question about what HarvardX is trying to accomplish. The faculty should be discussing the nature of the HarvardX intellectual property policy, and if we don't, we'll have another explosion like the one that happened this year when Harvard unwisely sent around detailed proposed revisions to its IP policies and then had to pull them back for reconsideration after a faculty explosion.

To begin with, we need some consensus on what we are trying to accomplish with HarvardX and with our membership in EdX. I think it is fair to assume that among our goals are (1) to extend our educational reach, that is, to spread learning to more of the world; and (2) to cover our costs and to make a profit that can be used to support our traditional educational, research, and scholarly functions. Harvard has articulated other goals, such as to develop tools, and data on teaching and learning that can improve undergraduate education, but I want to focus on the first two, which I don't think are in any way inconsistent with the others.

Now I am not sure some professors even realize that (2) is a goal. Some professors are diffident about any talk of "business models" and so on, but also bemoan the budgetary cutbacks they have experienced to their educational and scholarly efforts. HarvardX presents a potential new revenue source. Of course there are alternatives. Maybe some alum would want to pay the full cost of HarvardX and we would not have to worry about receiving revenues from it. Maybe Harvard could save some money elsewhere and use it to pay for HarvardX. Realistically, I think it makes more sense to try to get HarvardX to pay for itself and more, but that is an assumption. After all, Harvard could in theory decide that undergraduate tuitions should subsidize HarvardX in the long run, and not the other way around. So while I want to mark (2) as an explicit assumption which has not been explicitly stated as far as I know, I hope it will not be controversial.

And of course precisely what policies might work the best to achieve both goals (1) and (2) also depend on how big a profit, per (2), Harvard wants to generate from HarvardX. It's very unclear, to me at least, whether more revenue would come from trying to get a little bit of money from a lot of people or a lot of money from a few people. That is not the only consideration; the latter would, of course, be in tension with goal (1). Tradeoffs everywhere, and doubtless different MOOC providers are going to be experimenting with different approaches.

Now to the question of Creative Commons licenses. A BY-SA license lets other parties use the materials as long as they are attributed to the creator (Harvard in the case of a MOOC) and as long as the derivative materials carry exactly the same BY-SA license. This assures proper credit is given where it is due, and encourages others to add to the "creative commons," the wealth of publicly available raw materials that others can use to construct other creative works.

Now relaxing copyright in this way, it may be argued, carries some risks. Some professors might lose their jobs, the fear voiced by the philosophers at San Jose State University. That is an interesting moral question related to the frictionless information universe, about which I would love to hear Professor Sandel expound a bit more. But that is not today's topic.

Once we make our materials openly available, someone could do something with our creation that we don't like, and we would have surrendered our right of disapproval. True, that is part of the loss of control that comes with greater openness. But even without surrendering any of our copyrights, we are not immune against fair use by others, including harsh criticism and parody. Movie and book reviewers do not need studio or author permission to quote from a work in the process of ridiculing it. We should have enough confidence in the quality of our works to think that they will be used more for good than for harm if we relax control of them.

Another objection is that someone else might make money from some derivative of our works. That may be seen as somehow morally offensive: if anybody is going to make money from our works, goes our instinct, it should be us. That objection is addressed by a separate Creative Commons license, BY-NC-SA, that adds the following "noncommercial" clause:
You may not exercise any of the rights granted to You in Section 3 above in any manner that is primarily intended for or directed toward commercial advantage or private monetary compensation.
Why not use this license instead?

One problem with this language is that it is not clear what exactly it excludes. If materials under such a license get used by the profitable Extension School of Podunk University, is that disallowed, or is it allowed because Podunk U is a nonprofit even if its Extension School tries to turn a profit to be used by other programs of the university?

But another problem with the "NC" clause is that it is not clear why, morally, we should care whether the derivative use is commercial or not. Just to take two extreme examples: Would it really be morally good for our materials to be used by Ohio State University, whose president receives a salary of $1.9 million, plus use of a private jet and other amenities, but morally bad for our materials to be used by a small-scale Mongolian entrepreneur trying to offer a technical education to impoverished Mongolians by creating a private technical institute that charges modest tuitions and turns a small profit?

In fact, the whole element of moral indignation that leads to resistance of the simple BY-SA license is introducing into American copyright an element of "moral rights" that is part of the European, but not American, copyright tradition. Under the US Constitution, the purpose of copyright is not to guard the moral rights of the creator, but "To Promote the Progress of Science and the Useful Arts." And that, surely, should be Harvard's objective, per (1) above, in whatever license it cuts for use of its MOOCs.

Under a simple BY-SA license, any for-profit that made a derivative work using Harvard materials would have to acknowledge that they came from Harvard (but then wouldn't most students prefer to get the materials from their original source?), and would also have to make their modifications and enhancements available to others, commercial or noncommercial, on the same basis. I doubt that for-profits would see taking Harvard materials as a viable business model on those terms. But if one did, and somehow produced educational products that were so superior to ours and could make them available so much more cheaply that it could overcome the natural market resistance to picking Unknown Corp's products over Harvard's, well, more power to them. We shouldn't be using legal barriers to win a game we can't win on the merits.

I expect that a lot of lawyerly thought has already gone into the license terms and business models. I have no real expectation that Harvard will go with a BY-SA license; probably it will come up with its own license terms. But the faculty here and elsewhere are only now coming to grips with the force of the MOOC tsunami, as I suggested in yesterday's post. Since they are not merely actors in this drama but the actual agents of change, they should be engaged in a realistic conversation about the program's means and ends, and what they think about hypotheticals like the ones I have posed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

MOOCs, and MOODs?

There is a drive-by quote from me in Nathan Heller's good New Yorker article about Massive Open Online Courses. Reading the story reminds me how hard this kind of writing is -- I spent a long time with Heller, and tried to sell him on the idea of CS20 as an anti-MOOC, but our conversation got reduced to one line about students sleeping through class.

It is interesting to see the MOOC euphoria being replaced by MOOC dread. The best articulation of the worries is that of Prof. Bob Meister of the UC Santa Cruz, after the University's decision to import Justice, Michael Sandel's MOOC course on moral philosophy. It is now becoming apparent, here at Harvard and elsewhere, what is implied when it is said that the Internet will result in disruptive change to higher education. Universities facing crushing budgetary cuts will try to save money. There is no question that the learning experience will change at places like the UC Santa Cruz; the only question is how. The members of the philosophy department do not want to be Prof. Sandel's remote teaching assistants, and Prof. Sandel does not want to be an agent of downsizing philosophy departments elsewhere. Fine, but the UC governors also have the option of not teaching philosophy at all, or drastically consolidating departments, as Rick Scott proposed for anthropology departments in Florida.

So what is Harvard's responsibility in all this? It is a very, very tricky question.

Quite likely the world of MOOCs and other Internet-enabled higher education will recapitulate the history of the Internet. Once information transmission and storage become free, goods that are free or nearly so will undercut the revenue model for information institutions that have been crucial to democratic societies. Nobody involved in the development of the Internet wanted to destroy the newspaper industry, but it is hard to see what they could have done to prevent the havoc that has resulted from the free flow of information even if they had seen coming everything that has happened. -- short of building into the Internet architecture a set of locks and chains that would have been devastating to innovation and entrepreneurship.

In the case of MOOCs (or other ways of chunking online instruction), Harvard could impose burdensome licensing rules in an effort to protect the scholarly professionals elsewhere. (Just as the Wall Street Journal is now Online but hardly Open.) But of course UC would then utilize someone else's product, resulting in lower quality instruction at UC, perhaps at a higher price. Would we at Harvard then sleep better, knowing that if any philosophers had been laid off in California, it was not because of OUR MOOC?

And then there is the fact that in Computer Science, there is no oversupply of academic scholars nor undersupply of teaching jobs. The economic impact of providing CS50X on loose licensing terms would seem to be a huge social win for the world. Perhaps different subjects could be treated differently?

My personal preference would be for Harvard's courses to remain as open as possible, with licensing terms as relaxed as possible, on the theory that we should produce the best materials we can, try to recover our costs and a bit more, but not prevent others who can be even more creative that us from utilizing what we have to offer. Personally I like the idea of a pure Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license. I am convinced Harvard could do fine financially on that model and could maximize its impact on the world. (There is as much chance of that happening as of a snowball surviving hell, but that can be for another day.)

In any case, there is no doubt the train is leaving the station. Yale signed onto Coursera today, and Georgia Tech announced an entire Massive Open Online Masters Degree program (hence my MOOD acronym in the title). Which of these institutions will prove to be contestants in a race to the bottom? I don't know, but everybody is going to have to be a lot more candid with each other. Universities should be clear about their revenue ambitions (just to cover costs, or if more than that, to plow the profits into what?). And the faculty are going to have to come to grips with the consequences, good and bad, of openness, and decide whether it really is more noble to be restrictive with its intellectual property than to risk any adverse consequences of sharing its educational creations with a generous and liberal spirit.

Friday, May 10, 2013

A fun trip and a serious anniversary

I am back from a few days in Germany, which have made me appreciate some things about Germany and some things about the US. I was in Berlin and Dusseldorf, and I love how open and uncongested these cities are, with quiet, efficient streetcars everywhere (by contrast, I took the Green Line home from Logan, and was crushed and suffocated). There is a lot of green and many open areas for walking; in Dusseldorf several downtown blocks near the Rhine are given over to pedestrian walkways with shops and restaurants, streetcars providing the only vehicular traffic.

On the other hand, I was struck by the absence of two things I take for granted in the US: (1) A robust consumer health products economy -- there is nothing like a CVS or Walgreens, so small purchases like aspirin, reading glasses, and some diabetic supplies I needed, things that can be gotten on any block in any American city, require finding an Apotek -- which may not have them and probably is closed on Sunday. And (2) simple fire safety regulations -- in one of my (otherwise superbly well appointed) hotels, the only way to lock the door against possible intruders was to insert a key in the inside door handle and turn it 360 degrees to throw a deadbolt. Getting out requires reversing that process. That could lead to disaster in case of a fire -- I think the way doors work in hotels has been tightly regulated in Boston since the Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942. (See today's New York Times for a gloss on fire safety: the lack of regulation is an object of pride in Texas, where some communities lure businesses on the basis of their lack of fire laws.)

My main reason for going was to speak at an awards ceremony for the Vodafone Foundation at Vodafone's Dusseldorf facility. The Foundation recognized several scientists and engineers, in particular cryptographer Ueli Maurer. I was asked to speak on Anonymity, and was glad to have the opportunity to pull together some thoughts on the issue. My basic question was, how can we protect the right to anonymity (which is stronger in the US than in Europe, cf. Common Sense and the Federalist Papers) and yet try to keep the (sometimes systematiclally generated) anonymous dreck in the comment sections of news stories and so on from influencing public opinion destructively? I hope I gave the audience something serious to think about in an occasion that was otherwise celebratory and fun.

My hosts were kind and generous and the event served as a kind of pre-opening gala of the new Vodafone facility, a spectacular building with many green features. Many local dignitaries and politicians were present--including the head of the Dusseldorf Opera, whose controversial production of Wagner is written up in today's New York Times. On opening night, the staging included scenes of Nazi executions and gassings. After a public uproar, the production eliminated most of the staging and stuck to singing and music. It did not help matters that the murder trial of a defiant neo-Nazi woman had begun in Munich almost simultaneously.

In any case, my visit could not have been nicer. The weather was beautiful, and I was able to walk down to the Rhine from my hotel and stroll along the embankment, pausing to enjoy some fresh fish in one of the cafes that line the river in the area near downtown.

As as side trip, my old friend Prof. Johann-Christoph Freytag of Humboldt University invited me to Berlin. (Christoph is second from the left in my 1982 "family photo," next to Margo Seltzer.) I spoke on my "flipped classroom" experiment at the University and then on engineering education at Harvard to a gathering of the Berlin Harvard Club. The talk on the flipped classroom was well attended and the audience was quite engaged in the topic. At the Harvard Club talk I was able to spice up a general discussion of SEAS and the excitement surrounding the growth of engineering at Harvard with some details of the life and loves of our great donor Gordon McKay. I won't retell the story I wrote up a few years ago for that Harvard Magazine article, but I'll share some of the illustrations that I showed in Berlin but could not include in Magazine. Here, for example, is a photo of part of the ceiling of the grandiose mausoleum McKay built to glorify himself in Pittsfield, MA.

And here is a section of one of the five codicils to McKay's will, each of which crosses certain ladies off his list of annuitants and adds others.
There is not much doubt, even at the time, what was going on here. Here is part of an anonymous semi-literate letter which I excerpted and cleaned up for Harvard Magazine:

Ironically, McKay more or less followed these instructions, to "do some good in this world" and "take some poor little waif and educate them." When the last of these many female annuitants had died, Harvard got the full principal, whose value is now in the hundreds of millions of dollars, to support education and research in engineering. This was a fun talk to give, especially to an audience (including one of my AM 110 students from the early 1980s) which had been sipping wine for an hour or so before I started speaking.

I met up in Berlin with my Roxbury Latin classmate and old friend John Fortunato, a civilian clinical psychologist for the US Army posted to one of the bases in Germany. John is doing important work on the treatment of soldiers affected by PTSD -- see this recent article to learn more about his influence.

Christoph kindly showed us around Berlin, a vibrant and youthful city with many green spaces and, again, a wonderful riverbank cafe culture. Our hotel was in the old East Berlin, where I had visited for a few hours in 1970; most of the grim architecture is now gone, thank goodness, and there is ongoing construction everywhere. With all the building and rebuilding, the old buildings retain the pockmarks of the blasts and gunfighting in the closing days of WWII; a few sections of the Berlin wall still stand but its full trajectory is marked with cobblestones. A one-hour riverboat tour took us past some stunning modern architecture (given many American failures, I wonder how Germany managed to do so well in its selection of daring architects for important public buildings) We were a few blocks from the memorial to Marx and Engels, which the Berliners have had some trouble figuring out how to think about.

This photo of the three of us was taken at the Bebelplatz, and the building behind us, known as the Kommode for some reason, was originally the Royal Prussian Library (it's now occupied by the Law Faculty of Humboldt U.). We are standing on the very spot where, exactly 80 years ago today, the Nazis burned the books of Jewish authors and anything they decreed to have "un-German" ideas.

There was a kind of "read-in" going on; visitors were welcome to pluck books off shelves set up on the plaza and settle down on one of the cushions and hammocks for the privilege of reading whatever they wanted in the sunshine. It is a great reminder that when we hear things from our politicians like "No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality!" as they try to control the free flow of information, they are echoing the words of Joseph Goebbels on May 10, 1933, inciting the mob to throw more books onto the Berlin bonfires. Let us remember: Never again.