Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

E-Books and Textbooks – Not Quite there Yet

June 11th, 2009

Posted by: admin

The Chronicle of Higher Education provides this vignette of Northwest Missouri State University and it’s efforts to go all-electronic with its textbooks.  While the notion of providing or requiring incoming students to pick up an electronic book reader and load it with textbooks has its appeal (lower cost to the student over the course of their education, easier updates, less paper used), the technology isn’t quite ready for textbook reading.  The Chronicle piece describes several important points here (power demands over a long school day, funtionality within the text, lack of color display), but the main conclusion that things aren’t as easy with e-books as initially thought comes down to differences in reading.

Many people read differently on the Web, or in newspapers, compared to a novel, and the same is true for textbooks.  There’s a fair amount of skimming going on, flipping to the table of contents and/or index, and other fast motion that current e-book readers aren’t well-suited for (or online reading through something like Google Book Search).  E-book readers don’t appear to be able to handle sidebars, text boxes, and other graphic design elements common to many textbooks.  To force textbook migration to these devices right now would seem like taking a step back to take a step forward.


Arrangement Further Blurs Line Between Online and In-Person Education

May 26th, 2009

Posted by: admin

An arrangement between a Kansas university and an online education provider highlights the tensions between online education and the traditional higher education model (H/T Yahoo! News).  Fort Hays State University has teamed with StraighterLine to allow students who take the introductory level StraighterLine courses to continue work at Fort Hays with credit for the intro courses under the Fort Hays name.  As you can read in the article, not everyone is happy with the partnership.  Other companies and universities are teaming up in similar arrangements, so what used to be a brighter line between online learning and traditional higher education is softening.

The sheer economics of higher education explain some of this movement.  Paying big school tuition for introductory courses doesn’t make sense for the vast majority of students, especially with many faculty avoiding these courses and universities cutting costs by hiring adjuncts to teach them.  Speaking as someone who has taught a completely online introductory course (for a state university), the educational experience is not necessarily of lower quality because the course is online.  There are reasonable questions about how to effectively accredit online offerings, regardless of who provides them, but this is a phenomenon that will not go away.

Community Colleges Expanding Science and Technology Offerings

May 5th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Science Careers relates a New York Times article on the increasing numbers of 2-year schools issuing 4-year degrees, including some in science and technology fields.  With the ability of 2-year schools to specialize and their experience in addressing the non-traditional student (who will be larger percentages of the total student body in the future), these institutions seem well suited to addressing skills needs and filling workforce gaps much faster than traditional institutions.  I think this should be encouraged, along with a similar process of traditional 4-year institutions issuing more 1 or 2 year degrees or certificates.  These kinds of programs can help address these gaps, and with enough participation from mid-career professionals, could help universities pay for programs (these or others) through tuition and fees.

Unfortunately, I see unfortunate resistance to these kinds of moves, such as the lobbying described in the articles.  There are assumptions behind what it takes to train scientists, technologists and engineers in this country that need to be questioned in a policy debate.  I submit that it is not necessarily more Ph.Ds in science and engineering fields, but more people trained in science and engineering fields.  Graduate education often runs the risk of workforce monoculture, with lots of one kind of ‘crop.’  We need Ph.Ds, masters degrees, bachelors degrees, certificates and 2-year degrees to help fill in the many different spots in the workforce field.  The sooner we take more aggressive steps to recognize and encourage this, the sooner the tired workforce arguments of the last few decades can be set aside, and the vast energies of science advocates can be focused on more effective efforts.

How Effective Are University Rankings?

April 21st, 2009

Posted by: admin

The European Commissioner for Science and Research, Januz Potocnik, recently blogged (H/T ScienceInsider) about a workshop focused on measuring and comparing universities.  The Commission has an Expert Group focused on assessing university research and recently released an interim report on the use of rankings to assess university based research.  While acknowledging some honest disagreement over whether such rankings are useful, the group did note that the current methodologies behind rankings like the Times QS World could use improvement.

What I found particularly interesting was Commissioner Potocnik’s idea that more coherent university rankings could stimulate the funding of university research.

Rankings, which have been shown to influence the behaviour of universities and promote strategic thinking and planning, could help universities to develop better management practices and thus attract potential external funders. This is in the end what we are trying to do – secure the future for research activities in universities which will benefit our societies for a long time to come…

While the notion is encouraging, I’m reminded of how universities (at least in the U.S.) have set goals like aiming for the top 30 on a particular ranking or to boost their position in a magazine’s list.  These efforts often seem focused on the output – the numerical ranking – rather than desired outcomes like increased research funding and quality.  While by no means perfect (and certainly more expensive), the more involved United Kingdom university ratings seem a better means of acheiving these desired outcomes.

UK Funding Allocations Announced; Elite Institutions Displeased

March 14th, 2009

Posted by: admin

Earlier this week the U.K. Higher Education Funding Council released its funding allocations based – in part – on performance of U.K. universities in the periodic Research Assessment Exercise.  I wrote about the RAE earlier this year, and rumblings that various top-tier universities were frustrated by the outcomes. Unlike the funding structures in the United States, government research funding in the U.K. is awarded directly to institutions via the Research Councils.  Performance on the RAE matters, as well as an algorithm (all the better to crowd out expert judgment), and government priorities for specific research fields.

Reading this analysis from Times Higher Education, and a snapshot of affected universities (H/T ScienceInsider) suggests a few reminders with the whole process of government support of universities (and of research).


Universities Ask for Stimulus Package

December 18th, 2008

Posted by: admin

The Science blog on science policy reported last week that the Association of American Universities has sent a letter to Congress requesting that financial aid and research funding be part of any economic stimulus package.  You can read the full letter online at the AAU website (click on the December 17 item).  The specific recommendations are as follows (details in the letter):


Second Life for Darwin’s Finches

October 17th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Having taught an online-only course for undergraduates, I say with some personal experience that higher education has not effectively embraced information technology as much as it could, particularly where teaching is concerned.  Which is why I’m encouraged by what I read in The Chronicle of Higher Education about an effort to reconstruct the Galapagos Islands – where Darwin’s work with finches was critical to the formation of evolutionary theory – in Second Life.  Now, Second Life may be behind the cool curve where online interaction is concerned, but it is still a useful tool to create spaces in a way that social networking sites like Facebook or MySpace don’t emphasize.

In connection with the 2009 sesquicentennial of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the University of Cincinnati is reconstructing the islands, and augmenting the ability to retrace Darwin’s steps with audio and video material shot during field trips to the Islands.  Additionally, information kiosks on the Galapagos will be created in in Second Life.  Additional details (and images) can be found in the EDUCAUSE Review article two of the participating faculty wrote on the project.  The project will continue through the 2009-2010 academic year.

What projects like this do is open up the ways in which educational topics can be communicated.  Not only can people outside of the university access the material without travelling to Ohio, but this allows for biology to be presented to students in completely new ways.  The biggest policy question would be how to encourage such activity.  This is not easily addressed at the federal level, aside from encouraging grants and other support for creating new educational materials and/or research work.  The area for big work will be in university policy.  This will be particularly difficult for at least two reasons.  First, while the usual inhabitants may not be conservative, universities are very conservative – slow to change.  Second, the rewards system (tenure first among the rewards) will need to change in order for faculty to be encouraged to do this kind of work.  While being slow to change denotes a certain measure of stability, the corresponding reluctance to engage the new can be frustrating.

Check Your Mindset – and Theirs

October 12th, 2008

Posted by: admin

Having studied science and technology policy as well as science and technology studies (yes, sadly, the two are distinct academic fields), understanding and rebutting common assumptions about science and technology is almost a commonplace.  When I taught an undergraduate introductory course in science and technology studies this past summer, my syllabus was full of readings and assignments that hopefully forced my students to do the same.  To do this with any hope of success requires understanding where your audience – whether students or colleagues – is coming from.  You can’t hope to know exactly where they’re coming from when you start (for instance, I thought my students would take easily to the online-only format of the course, and they did not), but a little bit of thought and research are good preparation.

To that end, there is the Mindset List, annually released around the beginning of the academic year to remind professors the mindset of their incoming students (some attempt to open the eyes of incoming students might be useful, but does not appear to be publicized, if it is done).  The current list is for the Class of 2012, most of whom were born in 1990 (when I graduated high school, for what it’s worth).  The List is written by the Public Affairs Director and an English professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, and has been done annually since 1998.  Tom McBride, the English professor, writes in the Fall 2008 issue of The Common Review about the List as a tangible reminder of aging, but I think the real value is in identifying assumptions worth addressing.

While it’s not noted explicitly, many of the points are often related to science and/or technology.  The list is particularly good in pointing out what young people will *not* be familiar with – which is just as important as what they know.


Too Many Atmospheric Scientists . . . Surprise, Surprise

July 15th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

In the current issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society John Knox concludes (PDF):

. . . if the projections are accurate: the number of undergraduate meteorology degree recipients will increasingly exceed the number of meteorology employment opportunities into the next decade. Thus, given recent trends and future projections, the growth of the U.S. undergraduate meteorology population is potentially unsustainable in terms of bachelor’s degree–level employment within meteorology.

With respect to the job market for meteorologists he finds another solid indication of a glut:

Meteorology graduates’ salaries in this national database are much closer to those in the traditionally glutted and underpaid humanities fields than to salaries for graduates with computer science, physics, geology, or mathematics degrees.

Knox indicates that this situation has developed because the atmospheric sciences community has ignored the demand side of the equation when pressing for an ever increasing supply of students, and may foreshadow a similar glut at the graduate level:

the quantitative results of this article can be construed to indicate that we have entered
a period of chronic oversupply of undergraduate meteorologists. This oversupply has arguably come about because the mechanisms that generate interest in our field (e.g., unprecedented media emphasis on weather) are mostly uncoupled to the mechanisms of demand. Media coverage of weather and climate topics can inspire throngs of students to pursue meteorology as a career; it is specifically cited by UNC Charlotte meteorologists as a reason for their program’s spectacular growth (www.charlotte.
com/274/story/103334.html). But widespread media attention does not magically create future employment opportunities for these students within meteorology. If, in turn, this situation translates into a future boom in graduate school enrollments and Ph.D. production, the current parlous state of “grantsmanship” in our science as described by the critiques of Carlson (2006) and Roulston (2006) would seem tame by comparison.

In the same issue, Jeff Rosenfield, Editor-in-Chief of BAMS editorializes (not online, at p. 773) that he was “surprised” by the data. He should not have been. In 2002 I engaged in a series of exchanges on the pages of BAMS on exactly this question in response to a paper by Vali, Anthes, et al. warning of a shortage of PhD atmospheric scientists. They argued that one solution was to boost the undergraduate ranks in the atmospheric sciences:

we as a community should seek ways to increase the number of qualified applicants. Because the number of atmospheric scientists required under any reasonable scenario is small compared to the total number of students in undergraduate education, a modest increase in the effort to recruit students from other disciplines could have a major impact in a relatively short period of time.

In response, I argued that any discussion of a shortfall in supply of atmospheric sciences professionals needed also to be accompanied by some understanding of the market demand for people trained with this expertise, something that Vali , Anthes, et al. neglected to discuss, and Knox identifies as a root factor in the present mismatch of supply and demand. I argued that the atmospheric sciences were risking committing the exact same mistake made by the NSF when it proclaimed a looming shortage of scientists in the 1990s. I concluded:

The science and technology community generally experienced loss of credibility in the 1990s when a number of prominent figures claimed a looming shortage of scientists. Leaders in the atmospheric sciences are in a position to use experience to avoid such errors in future assessments of the labor market. In particular, considerable care must be taken in raising expectations of potential students and policymakers about the future prospects for employment.

In reply, Vali and Anthes dismissed the importance of any consideration of demand, raised the “idealistic” vision of the free pursuit of knowledge, and ended with a jingoistic appeal to the need for more native U.S. scientists. To this I rejoined that there was indeed data available that portended a potential oversupply of atmospheric scientists, and this data was ignored at some risk. No one should be surprised at the current labor market situation for atmospheric scientists.

Now it turns out that the community faces an oversupply of undergraduates, depressed salaries, and a potential loss of credibility. Of course, the entirely predictable next step in this situation will be for the atmospheric sciences community to bemoan the fact that research budgets have not kept pace with the supply of trained atmospheric scientists, and call for an increase in federal R&D to create new opportunities. And in this way, the politics of science funding go round and round.

What U.S Competitiveness Crisis?

July 7th, 2008

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

For some time we have noted the tendency of some in the S&T community to claim that a crisis exists in United States Competitiveness, with the solution being large and immediate government investments in R&D budgets. Others, including Paul Krugman and Amar Bhidé argue that the notion of “competitiveness” is itself incoherent placing claims of a crisis on dubious claims.

A new report out by The Rand Corporation, titled U.S. Competitiveness in Science and Technology (PDF), seeks to shed some light on this debate, asking : “So, who is right? Is U.S. leadership in S&T in jeopardy?”

The answer they come up with is “No”:

The United States continues to lead the world in science and technology. . .

Taken in concert, these statistics suggest that the United States is still a premier performer in S&T and grew faster in many measures of S&T prowess than did Japan and Europe. Developing nations such as China, India, and South Korea, though starting from a small base, showed rapid growth in S&T, and, if that growth continues, the United States should expect its share of world S&T output to diminish.

High growth in R&D expenditures, triadic patents, and S&E employment, combined with low unemployment of S&E workers, suggest that the United States has not been losing S&E positions to other countries through outsourcing and offshoring.

It is an interesting report and a valuable contribution to the debate. My view of the long series of claims that the U.S. is experiencing a competitiveness crisis reflect a flawed understanding of data and analysis in this area, a willingness to exploit jingoistic rhetoric for political gain, or a crass effort to boost R&D budgets based on an argument that sells well in Washington. The reality is probably a combination of all three.

But even if the U.S. is not experiencing a competitiveness crisis, complacency is not really an option. The Rand report makes a number of sensible suggestions:

* Establish a permanent commitment 􀁴􀀁 to a funded, chartered entity responsible for periodically monitoring, critically reviewing, and analyzing U.S. S&T performance and the condition of the S&E workforce.

* Facilitate the temporary and indefinite stay of foreigners who
graduated in S&E from U.S. universities . . .

* Facilitate the immigration of highly skilled labor, in particular
in S&E, to ensure that the benefits of expanded innovation,
including spillovers, accrue to the United States and to ensure
the United States remains competitive in research and innovation.

* Increase capacity to learn from science centers in Europe, Japan,
China, India, and other countries to benefit from scientific and
technological advances made elsewhere.

* Continue to improve K–12 􀁴􀀁 education in general and S&T education
in particular, as human capital is a main driver of economic
growth and well-being.