Faculty free speech?

Folks, we’re going to delve into something pretty dicey here, so as famous sorority chick at University of Maryland said, “Strap yourself down to your chair, this is going to be a rough ride” (in so many words).

I want you guys to check out this link here. Ok. If you are too lazy to click this link, let me fill you in. There’s a professor (with tenure, of course!) at a university in Florida. He blogs about all sorts of controversial things, but, of late, he has questioned whether or not the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings and the Boston terrorist bombings “were real”. Yes, let that sink in a sec.

He offers all kinds of interesting points, regarding the Boston marathon bombings. The terrorists were not granted due process (I mean…I think due process goes out the window when you start shooting at the police trying to catch you), the government was carrying out training drills that may have gone awry (or even, some suggest he thinks it was a government-intentional event). Yes this is all so unpleasant and most of us probably think this guy is crazy. We could just wave our hand and dismiss him and say, “well, he has a right to free speech”.

But can you yell “fire!” in a movie theater? Students have withdrawn applications. Parents have actually pulled their children from the school. The college time and time again has tried to distance themselves from this faculty’s personal blog. But, how do you guarantee that you can separate the personal and professional? Sorry, but it makes me a little uneasy thinking about sending a child of mine to this guy’s class.

One could argue that this faculty is cheating the university out of money. Since he is tied to them professionally, his highly controversial comments reflect on them as much as they reflect on him. They apparently “reprimanded” him for his blogging on Sandy Hook because he didn’t “distance himself” from the university. That’s it?! That’s all the college can do?

How do we make any sense of this? In an age where the internet could aid us in anonymity when we want to let out our rebellious side a little, this man is shouting from the rooftops who he is, who he works for, and how the deaths of those children and teachers in Sandy Hook maybe didn’t happen. To make matters worse (more ironic?), he teaches effective communication at this university. So, with a situation like this, what is a university to do? Can they fire him? Can he sue them? He’s tenured! Meaning untouchable?

Disconnect to connect.

So I came across this picture the other day, and thought it was tragically hilarious.

935728_10101636364718843_341255676_nFunny, right? Or maybe, too honest. Example: I literally almost ran over a student on main street this weekend who was crossing the road on a green light, and came out from behind a parked car. Also, this student was on his cell phone, maybe checking sports scores or texting or watching the latest cat video. As I don’t have a hybrid car, I wonder how he did not hear me, or hear my horn honk (not to be a jerk, but to say “HEY, my light is green, I could have killed you!”). He just kept walking, never looking up from his phone.

I don’t feel like I am “old as the hills”, at the ripe age of 29. But when I think about mobile technology in my youth, the Game Boy Advance is pretty much where that category starts and stops. I don’t think I had a cell phone until I was 17. It was a *maroon* LG flip phone, eerily precognizant of my VT years. It was a great phone. Flip it open, make a call, (make sure to dial 1 + the area code!), chat, then flip it closed. I think my first phone that actually texted was a Motorola Razr, something I scraped money together for and purchased my sophomore year of college.


I had an out of body experience a few Christmases ago. We were all sitting around (at my husband’s family reunion), and my hubby’s nieces (let’s face it, so cute and the highlight of any family reunion) were playing and being their cute selves. Then, out of nowhere, one of the youngest children who had barely begun to talk saw me check a text. “iPhone!” she yelled and pointed. Not “toy”. Not “give”. Not even “phone”! iPhone. I had to check my pulse because it was just so startling to hear someone who wasn’t at the point in development of being able to ask for food or milk or bed, ask for an iPhone.


What does this mean for us?

Well, it means a lot of things, both good and bad (check out the “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” article). While we have a constant influx of technology, the next great gadget, we must wonder if we are losing ourselves. Like the group of people in the picture at the top of this post. Able to interact but just as happy to NOT. To be able to interact through the phone. Like the guy who walked out in front of me and almost got hit because he was on his phone. Easy fix, right? We just make cars autonomous and then we don’t have to worry about ever hitting anyone, or getting in any kind of accident, right?

I challenge us all to debate “just because you can do something, does that mean you SHOULD?” No, we’re not talking about Jurassic Park here, but the premise is the same, minus the dinosaurs. This technology is available. It’s becoming cheaper and better in order to compete. Does this mean a 6 year old should have an iPhone, because they can?

This all ties into higher education, of course. I think we are going to see a massive change in higher education regarding technology use. I’m not sure if the, “Ok guys, fold your laptops, put your phones away.” line is going to actually work in the classroom for much longer. Not because the students will be outright disrespectful, but because they may not be able to function without it. “Oh Ali, you are so ridiculous.” you mutter aloud while you read this in your TMNT pjs from the safety of your bedroom. You may even comment on this blog to contradict me. But think for a second, if I was reading this blog post aloud, or in the form of a presentation in class, would you be as willing to confront me if you disagree? In person? In the flesh? Many of you would say no. (Some Type A’s like me would have no problem ;) ).

But the point is, technology is changing us. It’s not just the ability to watch cat videos or Wolfram Alpha any question and immediately get an answer. It is actually changing our behavior, the way we communicate, the way we learn. There is lots of opportunity here, endless knowledge and resources at our fingertips, but I admit I am a bit conflicted. Too often have I seen students facebooking and watching movies in class. How do we harness this power, knowing this is only going to get more and more serious? When we are old and gray, instead of telling our grandchildren we used to walk 5 miles in the snow to get to the school bus in the morning, will our childhood tale of horror and strife be the LG flip phone?



Hands off, CISPA!

Typically I don’t include posts of the political persuasion because then everyone can figure out what a crazy libertarian I am. However, I think it is important to discuss this new CISPA (Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act). This proposed law is presented under the purpose of: “To provide for the sharing of certain cyber threat intelligence and cyber threat information between the intelligence community and cybersecurity entities, and for other purposes.”

To others who have read the bill, there is room for sharing of a user’s private information between sites and the government. While we all know that in using a government email address, or even our vt.edu email address, we aren’t really granted a right to full and complete privacy. However, when we use social media sites such as facebook and twitter, there is a certain amount of “understood privacy” that we expect. Not so anymore, according to CISPA. I don’t know about you, but big brother (or a potential employer) combing through private facebook messages between my family and I is not exactly what I see as justifiable. Even more alarming is the fact that no warrant needs to be signed before monitoring can begin, if CISPA becomes law.

One has to wonder, when does this become a catch-22? Not so concerning for Facebook founder Zuckerberg, who is probably sitting in a 24K gold bathtub somewhere filled with Don Perignon, but what about the millions of facebook users left behind? At what point does the engagement in social media become a curse instead of an opportunity? Will those of us who want to maintain privacy then be penalized or scrutinized by potential employers by not being “tech savvy” enough to have a personal site?

See additional opinion, here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/21/cispa-amendment-facebook-passwords-blocked_n_3128507.html

Maybe we should revert to snail mail and sending hard copies of photos to friends and family. It’s disappointing that leaps and bounds in technology and networking are overshadowed by what is, to me, a clear ethics violation!



Veterans in Society Conference

This past Monday, I attended a Veterans in Society conference. Its key focus was the acclimation of veterans back into society, especially in a college setting. The speakers discussed everything from the military culture to maturity to testing out of classes. One aspect I found very interesting is one speaker from Kansas State indicated that in his experience, veterans coming back to college were already masters of problem based learning. He indicated some veterans were able to easily put together a circuit from a 4000 level lab, but couldn’t necessarily do 1000 level calculus.

I think this introduces a very interesting, controversial topic…..does it matter if they can’t do calculus? If a veteran can build and/or apply everything necessary to receive a degree, does it matter if he or she has “skipped” all of the fundamentals?

I can only imagine how much of a headache this is. With the necessary ABET accreditations, how does one simply “test” out of a senior class but needs to take a freshman class? Does this reflect poorly on the educational system?

I mean no offense, but at the end of the day, isn’t it crucial that people be able to DO, be able to PERFORM the skills their degree indicates that they can? I know a lot of senior students can not. Does anyone really care what the integral from 1 to 3 of x dx is?

Do you need to know all these educational system labeled “fundamentals” to actually be able to solve a problem and experience effective problem based learning?

I’m not sure. I’ve always thought of developing a skill is like building a house, brick by brick. I didn’t start singing until I could read music and play the piano. I didn’t start demonstrating objects moving through a factory using queueing theory until I understood the Poisson distribution. How does one really know fine-tuned skills, and not just being able to do something once, but being able to do it again with other variables introduced.

I think it is great that some people can be given a set of materials, told what to build, and then, they just build it without need for any direction. But, would they be able to go pick out the materials themselves? Maybe a bad analogy, but how can someone who is truly a master of something be “floating” in the air, without a strong foundation?


U.S. # 1. In HIGHER education.

After reflecting on the presentations about “K-12″ and undergraduate study in other countries, it is interesting that the U.S. is the number one sought after country to study in. Is this some sort of “ghost lag” behind our post World War 2 power years? Our innovations of the 80s and 90s? What is the U.S. really doing right now that warrants this #1 stamp?

Other than the obvious, first world reasons, my first guess would be research. With both private and government research dollars being spent on a variety of topics (let’s pray this sequester stuff doesn’t last long), students have the opportunity to be exposed to research experience while having their tuition paid. The standards of safety and health in the U.S. rival that of other countries, and as such, research supported by those entitites such as NIH, CDC, NIOSH, OSHA, etc. can be viewed as superior in quality and merit.

I’ve seen first-hand the outcomes of research contributes something to a journal or textbook which in turn is used in countries all over the world. I’ve seen research outcomes integrated into class lectures to keep what is taught current. Teachers here are beginning to (slowly) embrace the ideas associated with better pedagogy. Does this cycle of benefits guarantee that we will be the best forever?

My guess is no. Lots of up and coming (or already “arrived”) countries economically (India! China! Brazil!…just a FEW examples) will have the advantage over us soon in my opinion. Even though the U.S. has served as a model (hate us or love us) as a utopia of sorts, many countries now are finding their own directions. And they are finding it well. Upon examining trends factors like GDP, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, # of college graduates, etc. of these countries just over the past ten years, they are trends to be commended. So I think as a U.S. graduate student now in the U.S., I will bask in the glow of the sun as long as I can, before it shifts to another (or multiple other) countries.

(I’m still reeling from the description of the Chinese school…forced exercise and power shut-offs???)

Connections Conference

Yesterday and today I attended the “connections” conference at the Inn at VT & Skelton Conference Center. To be completely honest, conference attendance (of at least 2 sessions) was required in a class I am taking for the Future Professoriate Certificate, called “Assessment in Education”. Anyway, the conference itself was about Assessment and Evaluation in Academia.

I attended a variety of sessions to get lots of flavors of thought, there were presenters from all over the country, from small private colleges to huge colleges to colleges run mostly online. It was very interesting to hear about different ways of assessing academic programs. One mantra held true across all sessions: the purpose of assessment is to have information about what you are assessing, and to improve what you are assessing.

Many speakers highlighted that the improvement phase is something often chased but never reached. It was also mentioned that some assessors think collecting data is enough, but improvement “will just happen”. We learned various tools, many technological, that exist to help with assessment.

One session of particular note was called “Assessing Student Learning in Large Classes”, and was taught by Craig Brian in the PoliSci department at VT. It was interesting to hear about his integration of iClicker in the classroom. Not just for attendance anymore (although it provides a “push” to get students to come to large classes), he uses it for a variety of opinion based questions, quiz/future test question surveys, and can even get open ended questions. The student responses (given a decent bandwidth) are available for immediate viewing.

He said the best thing, according to the students, is that the responses were anonymous, but still allowed for opinions of each student to be expressed. This is something that we may want to consider when teaching larger classes. Instead of falling into the easy trap of “ok, I’m going to come to class, show you this powerpoint, talk a little about each bullet, and then ask if you have any questions at the end”, into a more interactive environment, where students are asked, according to Brian, questions every 10 minutes at least to keep them engaged. What do you guys think about iClicker? Do you have any experience using it in classes you’ve taken or taught?

Freire’s take

Those of you who read Pedagogy of Freedom may have had their memory jogged about a particularly terrible teacher or experience they had sometime in the course of academic growth. For me in particular, my 5th grade teacher and my VT Vector Geometry teacher came to mind! Elsewhere in the text, a particular topic of note surfaced that I’d like to expand on: being book smart.

So often in academe, the directions from a teacher or professor are “read this chapter”, “print off this powerpoint”, and then the teacher literally reads off of the slides. Sure, with a great memory, anyone majoring in anything can memorize these slides! What is it that is distinguishing my skill as an engineer from someone who is majoring in interior design? If I can memorize what colors work well together, or what environmental and personal factors influence the inside design palette and overall look, does that mean I’d be a GREAT interior designer? Probably not. So how do some classes or even whole institutions of education think memorizing = doing?

I have found that in my favorite class in graduate school, we were given an assignment that literally left us feeling “thrown to the wolves”. We had no idea what to do. What to design. How to go about doing it. But we tried. And we had fun doing it. I turned in what I had on the due date. A week later, I got back my design report, covered in red ink from grading. Instead of an F on my paper (or let’s be real, Grad School, a C-), there was a large, red, “A” on the top of my paper. Next to it, it said, “You have failed, spectacularly. Great job!”

At first, I wasn’t sure how to take the news. Was the professor being sarcastic? Did he think I was stupid? Why did I get an A when I had totally botched the assignment? I nervously waited for him at his office that day, and when I asked about my grade, he said, “Why are you asking? You got an A! I am so happy to see how much exploration and time you put into this!”

I wish every person in school was afforded this experience. It didn’t matter that we had failed. The emphasis in the U.S. Education system, in my opinion, is there is a right or wrong. And you NEED to be RIGHT! How refreshing, and supportive, to “fail spectacularly”. This is real learning.


Sullivan’s Revenge

Reflecting on last week’s class, one phrase keeps coming to mind, “Don’t burn bridges”. I find the discussion about Dr. Sullivan and UVA’s battle royale begs to be thought about. I wonder what I would do if I was Dr. Sullivan? What would I do if I was among the board members trying to get rid of her? What would I do if I then had to “play nice” and work with her after she was reinstated? I find the whole situation really awkward and terrifying. I’ve always been one to try to be a leader. I never shy away from confrontation, and my parents put this skill to fruitful use by getting me to participate in Lincoln Douglass debate beginning at a young age.

But, I question now being in a leadership position at an academic institution. What if I was faced with a similar situation? How does one not “burn their bridges” when someone is fired (ok, forced to resign), then rehired? I will grant that the board did not go about this in the most scrupulous way, which is why they are in this mess, but regardless, how do you return to “life as normal” when all of this has happened and now you have to work together again?

I find this absolutely terrifying! How to navigate and maintain professional dignity after something like this?

Learning types

Last week we discussed “I”, “T”, and “pi” learning to represent different types of learning. It was presented that I learning is kind of like “learning a narrow scope” or learning with blinders kind of approach. Students are able to reach high vertical heights of learning, but it is very narrowly scoped.

T learning, as the shape indicates, involves building up enough knowledge before branching out to other disciplines and topics. This is considered better than I learning.

Pi learning involves learning about multiple topics in parallel and then connecting these disciplines. This is considered by many to be the best approach.

I must agree that my favorite classes that I feel I enjoyed + gained a lot of knowledge involved students from various disciplines contributing to discussion and showing me new approaches to projects and problems. But, this was only obtained in graduate school, after what I categorize as a relatively “I” shaped undergraduate career.

Does 4 years of undergraduate give students and teachers enough time for a T or pi learning approach?

Not Just Function, But Design

Yesterday we talked a little bit about left and right brain. Not just function, but design. The statement, “not just function, but design”, really sums up my PhD study in its entirety! I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the Industrial & Systems Engineering department, but inside that department, there are multiple specializations that a student may select from. The Human Factors Engineering & Ergonomics specialization serves as an umbrella for study ranging from safety, to dashboards, to human computer interaction, to biomechanics, to cognition. If it involves a human and a task that they need to do, it qualifies. As you can imagine, not only does any device or prompt need to function, but it also must be designed in such a way that persuades the user to use, gains the trust of the user, and some scholars offer: the item or interaction should bring pleasure or satisfaction to the user.

One book I would recommend to you if you have time (yeah right, like you have time to read an extra book!) is “The Design of Everyday Things” by Norman. It’s a great starter book for people at the graduate level that want to learn a little bit about design.

I think a great example of employing function but also design that brings pleasure to the user, can be represented by the Alessi bird kettle created in 1985 (when design was first starting to become hip) by Michael Graves.

Yes, the kettle is stainless, to allow sterility and easy cleaning. Yes, the kettle has a foam handle to prevent your hands from burning, that is angled in such a way that makes pouring easy. The kettle can function! However, a finial to this kettle is the little bird on the spout. Not really functional at all. But, the bird whistles when the water is ready. Why do you think he added that bird?

photo from Amazon.com