The hare and the pineapple

You may have heard about the infamous question on New York State’s test for all eighth graders that gave them a fable about a hare and a pineapple and then asked them two questions. (You can read the fable and the questions here.) This caused a lot of head scratching by students, parents, and educators alike because the story and the questions seemed to make no sense. [Read more…]

Those dangerous dinosaurs

I am a little late to this story about how in the US extreme sensitivity to religious people’s beliefs can result in the most bizarre policies being implemented. For example, the New York City department of education has banned certain words in citywide tests because they may upset students. What words? ‘Dinosaur’ for one. [Read more…]

Using education to entrench privilege

Suppose you are in charge of a community college and there turns out to be a huge demand for math and English classes so that students are being repeatedly turned away because they are full. You might think that it is a good thing that people are seeking more education and that the solution is to open up more classes to meet that demand by (say) hiring more math and English teachers. [Read more…]

Critical thinking and argumentation

If there is one thing that people can agree on as a universal good in education, it is that we should seek to increase the critical thinking abilities in people. Actually, that is not quite true. During the days when the debate over intelligent design was raging in Ohio in 2003, one letter to the editor by an ID advocate dismissed [Read more…]

Teenager faces down Kansas governor and school principal

High schooler Emma Sullivan refuses to apologize to the governor of Kansas Sam Brownback for criticizing him on Twitter. The governor’s staff apparently scours the internet for unflattering things about him and noticed her tweet and reported her to her school principal who, rather than stand up for Emma’s free speech rights (after all, if making fun of a politician isn’t allowed by the First Amendment, what is?) demanded that she apologize.

You knew from the beginning that this could not help but end badly for Brownback and so it has. He is now forced to apologize for his staff over-reacting. The school district has also backed off in its demand for an apology.

Once again, I think that this is a victory for the internet. Emma received a lot of support from the blogosphere and it may have helped her stand firm against the bullying.

Way to go, Emma.

Case Connection Zone

One of the best things about working at Case Western Reserve University is that it has been very forward-looking and supportive in providing technology to serve the needs of its students, employees, and the community.

In the early days of the internet CWRU, with its Freenet system, was the first in the nation to provide free internet access to anyone who had a dial-up modem. It later was the first university campus to have an entirely fiber-optic network going to every office, classroom, and dorm room on the campus.

In partnerships with other local non-profit groups, CWRU has been expanding access to free broadband access to city dwellers. This video (admittedly also a plug for the university) shows a new initiative to provide free gigabit broadband fiber-optic network access to the campus community and an adjacent neighborhood to research what kinds of new uses might emerge, with an eye to expanding the reach of the network.

The secrets of an academic ghostwriter

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an article by someone who has made a good living (about $66,000 this year) by writing custom research papers on almost any topic for undergraduate and graduate students who hire him to do their assignments.

I’ve written toward a master’s degree in cognitive psychology, a Ph.D. in sociology, and a handful of postgraduate credits in international diplomacy. I’ve worked on bachelor’s degrees in hospitality, business administration, and accounting. I’ve written for courses in history, cinema, labor relations, pharmacology, theology, sports management, maritime security, airline services, sustainability, municipal budgeting, marketing, philosophy, ethics, Eastern religion, postmodern architecture, anthropology, literature, and public administration. I’ve attended three dozen online universities. I’ve completed 12 graduate theses of 50 pages or more. All for someone else.

His strategy was to collect the minimal information necessary from Wikipedia and other online sources and simply write everything down, cutting and pasting quotes, and using filler language to get to the necessary word count, without rewriting or editing or polishing.

After I’ve gathered my sources, I pull out usable quotes, cite them, and distribute them among the sections of the assignment. Over the years, I’ve refined ways of stretching papers. I can write a four-word sentence in 40 words. Just give me one phrase of quotable text, and I’ll produce two pages of ponderous explanation. I can say in 10 pages what most normal people could say in a paragraph.

I’ve also got a mental library of stock academic phrases: “A close consideration of the events which occurred in ____ during the ____ demonstrate that ____ had entered into a phase of widespread cultural, social, and economic change that would define ____ for decades to come.” Fill in the blanks using words provided by the professor in the assignment’s instructions.

The reason he gets away with this is because this is what some students do on their own. For them too, their first version is the one they hand in as their ‘finished’ work, so the roughness of the submitted manuscript must seem familiar to the teacher. As the author says:

I don’t ever edit my assignments. That way I get fewer customer requests to “dumb it down.” So some of my work is great. Some of it is not so great. Most of my clients do not have the wherewithal to tell the difference, which probably means that in most cases the work is better than what the student would have produced on his or her own. I’ve actually had customers thank me for being clever enough to insert typos. “Nice touch,” they’ll say.

As a writing generalist myself, I was vaguely curious about whether I could be as successful a ghostwriter, assuming that I could overcome any scruples. I don’t think I could simply because over the years I have developed habits that would give me away immediately. I would not be able to avoid being opinionated and this would undoubtedly set off suspicions. I am also somewhat obsessive about avoiding typos and grammatical errors, repeatedly rewriting and editing even for my blog posts. My books may not be great works of literature but they are ‘clean’ in the sense that they have very few or no basic errors of this sort. All this attention to detail would slow me down too much, while also likely to set off alarm bells for the reader. As an academic hired gun, I would be a bust.

I was of course bothered by students passing off other people’s work as their own and wondered how widespread it was. But I was also impressed with the writer’s ability to churn out papers on topics for which he had no training and yet be able to fool the student’s teachers and even their graduate thesis advisors into thinking their students had written them.

This article makes for fascinating but disturbing reading and is as much an indictment of the way our educational system is structured, that enables such practices to pass undetected, as it is of the students who use ghostwriters.

College as a Disney World of Learning

(Talk given at Case Western Reserve University’s Share the Vision program, Severance Hall, Friday, August 21, 2009 1:00 pm. This program is to welcome all incoming first year students. My comments centered on the common reading book selection Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. Mortenson will be the speaker at the annual fall convocation to be held on Wednesday, August 26, 2009 in Severance Hall at 4:30 pm.)

As I read the book Three Cups of Tea, two stories struck me. One begins on page 202 and is that of the little boy Mohammed Aslam Khan who was sent by his father alone on a perilous journey downriver in frigid waters, all so that he might get a chance at an education. Despite all the odds against him, he not only survived the trip but got a good education and returned to the village to become an educational leader.

The other story is on page 31 where Mortenson describes his amazement when he saw eighty two children assemble by themselves and do their lessons on their own in the open, in the cold, some writing on the ground with sticks, since the village could only afford a teacher for three days a week, and on the other days they were on their own.

As Mortenson said, “Can you imagine a fourth-grade class in America, alone, without a teacher, sitting there quietly and working on their lessons?”

Why were the people in that remote region of Pakistan willing to go through so much in order to get an education? Compare the situation in the US where learning is often seen as something to be avoided, and the complaints that some teachers get when they cover too much ground. When schools are closed or lessons cancelled due to some emergency, it is usually a cause for cheering amongst students. As a colleague of mine here said recently, education may be the only thing in the US where people actually want less than what they pay for.

There are of course classes, teachers, and students in the US where learning for its own sake is valued. But these are unfortunately few. But I do not believe that there is any fundamental difference between the children in those remote villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan and those in the US that explains this difference in attitude.

What may be true is that America suffers, if that is the right word, from too easy access to education. Schooling is fairly easily available and, at least in the K-12 sector, is free. A good analogy is with food, which is also freely and cheaply available in the US, when compared with other countries. And we waste and throw away vast amounts of it. I am sure your mothers pleaded with you to eat your vegetables, invoking images of starving children in China who would gladly eat with relish the food that you want to dump in the trash. Actually given the economic crisis in the US and the rapidly rising economic power of China, soon Chinese mothers might be pleading with their spinach-rejecting children to think of poor starving children in the US.

Students in the US, because of the ease and abundance of educational opportunities, have to be exhorted to take advantage of these abundant resources, just like they have to be coaxed to eat their broccoli, and this may be devaluing education in students’ eyes, because people tend to not value the things that are easily available.

This is why the story of the immense struggles and sacrifices made by the villagers that Mortenson worked with to build their schools is so inspiring. They realized that education is a precious gift to be cherished, not something whose availability can be taken for granted.

All of you are now embarking on four years of education here at Case Western Reserve University. Some people may tell you that college will be the happiest time in your lives. I disagree. In fact, it would be very sad if the happiest years of your life were over by the age of twenty-two. So I hope that you will have much happier times in the future.

But there is one aspect in which these four years will be a unique experience that you must take advantage of to the fullest. It is the one time in your life when you will be surrounded by people who want nothing else but to help you learn. The world-class faculty here, who are experts on all manner of things, will share their knowledge and expertise freely and willingly. Here you will get free access to incredible libraries full of books, journals, magazines, audio-visual materials, and newspapers, and to librarians who are positively eager to help you use them. And it is all available to you just for the asking. Once you graduate and go out, that opportunity is gone.

Of course, all this is not technically ‘free’ since you are paying tuition that, despite the extraordinary fund-raising abilities of our president, is still considerable. But the way to think of tuition fees is the way you would the admission price to Disney World or other amusement parks. It is not cheap to get in but once you are in, people try to get as much out of their time there as possible. It would be absurd to spend all your time sitting on a bench eating ice cream or surfing the web or sleeping.

You should have that attitude during the years you spend here. Think of Case Western Reserve University as the Disney World of learning. You have paid the admission fee in terms of grades and tuition. Now that you are in, rather than get by with minimal work, you should try to get in as much learning as possible, formally in classes, and informally in all the talks and seminars and casual discussions with teachers and fellow students. Once you develop that attitude towards learning, you will find that it is much more fun than roller coaster rides and with none of the accompanying motion sickness.

I am lucky in that I actually work here and take full advantage on a daily basis of the knowledge that is so freely available. And I would urge you to do the same. In fact, as soon as this program is over, and you have some free time, you should go over to the library and see what they offer, and you should go to all the museums that are right here in University Circle, as the first steps in a four-year adventure of learning.

Trust me, you will never regret it.

POST SCRIPT: The story of Genesis as told by Eddie Izzard

Much more interesting than the original. Makes more sense, too.

Collective good versus private profit

One of the clichés of academia which even non-academics know is “publish or perish.” In its most common understanding, it implies that those who publish more are perceived as productive scholars, worthy of recruitment and promotion.

But there are other reasons for publishing. One is to establish priority for one’s ideas. In academia, ideas are the currency that matter and those who have good ideas are seen as creative people. So people publish to ensure that they receive the appropriate credit.

Another reason for publishing is to put the ideas into public circulation so that others can use them and build on them to create even more knowledge. Knowledge thrives on the open exchange of information and the general principle in academia is that all knowledge should be open and freely available so that everyone can benefit from it.

This is not, of course, the case, in the profit-driven private sector where information is jealously guarded so that the maximum profit can be obtained. This is not unreasonable in many cases. After all, without being profitable, companies would go out of business and many of the innovations we take for granted would not occur. So the knowledge is either guarded jealously (say like the formula for Coca Cola) or is patented so that other users have to pay for the privilege of using it.

But the open-information world of academia can collide with the closed, profit-making corporate world. Nowhere is this most apparent than in the drug industry. Much of the funding for medical and drug research comes from the government via agencies like the National Institutes of Health, and channeled through university and hospital researchers. These people then publish their results. But that knowledge is then often built on by private drug companies that manufacture drugs that are patented and sold for huge profits. These companies often use their immense legal resources to extend the effective lifetime of their patents so that they can profit even more.

Another example of a collision between the public good and private profit was the project to completely map the human genome. This government-funded project was designed to be open, with the results published and put into the public domain. Both heads of the Human Genome Project, first James Watson and then Francis Collins, strongly favored the open release of whatever was discovered, because of the immense potential benefits to the public. They created a giant public database into which researchers could insert their results, enabling others to use them. (To see what is involved in patenting genomic information, see here.)

But then Craig Venter, head of the private biotechnology company Celera Genomics, decided that his company would try to map the genome and make it proprietary information, and create a fee-based database,. This was fiercely resisted by the scientific community who accelerated their efforts to map the genome first and make the information open to all. The race was on and the scientific community succeeded in its goal of making the information public. Information on how to access the public database can be found here.

Many non-academics, like the journalist writing about faculty cars, simply do not understand this powerful desire amongst academics for open-access to information. I recall the discussion I had with my students regarding the film Jurassic Park. I hated the film for many reasons and said how bizarre it was that the discoverer of the process by which dinosaurs had been recreated from their DNA, a spectacular scientific achievement, had kept his knowledge secret in order to create a dinosaur theme park and make money. I said that this was highly implausible. A real scientist would have published his results to establish his claim as the original discoverer and made the information public so that others could build on it. But some of my students disagreed. They thought that it was perfectly appropriate that the first thought of the scientist was how to make a lot of money off his discovery rather than spread knowledge.

It is true that nowadays scientists and universities are increasingly seeking to file patents and create spin-off companies to financially benefit from their discoveries. Michael Moore talks about how things have changed and how the drive to make money is harming the collective good;

Thinking about that era, back in the first half of the 20th century, where you had for instance the man who invented the kidney-dialysis machine. He didn’t want the patent for it, he felt it belonged to everybody. Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, again, he wouldn’t patent it. The famous quote for him is, “Would you patent the sun? It belongs to everyone.” He wasn’t doing this to become a millionaire. He was doing it because it was the right thing to do. During that era, that’s the way people thought.

It may be that I am living in the past and that those students who thought I was crazy about not making money as the prime motivator for scientists and other academics have a better finger on the pulse than I. Perhaps new knowledge is now not seen so clearly as a public good, belonging to the world, to be used for the benefit of all. If so, it is a pity.

POST SCRIPT: Nelson Mandela, terrorist

Did you know that all this time, the US government considered Nelson Mandela to be a terrorist?