Tech and Innovation in Higher Ed: Quizzes and Quizlet

I found the article ” What a Controversy Over an App Tells Us About How Students Learn Now” on the Chronicle of Higher Ed. This piece focuses on a university case where students were accused of cheating for using the app Quizlet to study for an exam. For those that aren’t familiar, Quizlet allows users to upload questions and answers in a flashcards style for people to study. The idea is that if you have a big exam, instead of writing down all the flashcards and inevitably dropping them a few times during transport, you can swipe through these ones online. There are often times when there are questions that you would have missed when making your own cards, and it can be really great to see what others think is important to study. I believe the site Koofers has a similar functionality and is more common here at VT. The argument made against both Quizlet and Koofers is that people can upload test questions that are currently being used by professors, so students on these sites are effectively seeing exams ahead of time.

Some professors/institutes have reacted by trying to ban the use of such resources by their classes. I know I have seen at least two syllabi here that have specifically denounced the use of Koofers at VT. What’s interesting here is that there is no way, short of restricted internet usage, for universities to enforce this. They are relying on students’ honesty to not use the resources online. But the students who would follow such guidelines are also the ones that are less likely to try to cheat anyway.

I have always taken issue with this stance. We live in a connected global society with all the resources of the world effectively at our fingertips. One quote from the article that reminds me far too much of middle school:

“Robin DeRosa, an interdisciplinary-studies professor at Plymouth State University, used to motivate her students to learn math by warning them that they wouldn’t always have a calculator available. But with smart phones in their pockets now, students rarely encounter such constraints.”

If I’m working in the lab, it may be faster to do the math in my head, but if I’m really in doubt, I will almost always have my phone nearby to reassure me. There will be few times when I can’t google some basic facts online. If I need to know how Infrared Spectroscopy works, I’m about a 5 min YouTube video away from understanding it better than most students who just learned about it for a week of class. To try to pretend students won’t have this access when faced with “real-world” problems is short-sighted.  Students should learn to access these resources, not ignore them.

“It’s about authentic demonstrations that are externally facing so students can be part of this data-rich environment,” [Natasha Jankowski, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment] said, “and about how we’re helping each other collectively to move us from a ‘gotcha’ assessment to creating a developmental learning experience. It’s a different teaching-learning mentality.”

An argument can be made that I have an unfair advantage over someone who doesn’t know about Quizlet or Koofers, but that could be solved by introducing students to the item as a learning tool. If everyone has access and knowledge of the same tools, there’s no unfair advantage. However, I would argue in today’s society, we all have roughly equal access (at least at a given institution), and the real learning skill is to find and evaluate information based on those resources.  No one is going to ban Yahoo Answers (is this even still a thing?) but most people aren’t going to trust it over other sources like Wikipedia, a textbook, or journal article. If you go to Yahoo over the others, that’s your choice, and probably your failure to learn from. Just because I’m scoffing at it, doesn’t mean the person who uses it has an advantage over me, I accept that I’m using a different toolset and would not ask theirs to be limited.

“There are times when students do need to know factual information, fundamental knowledge from a given field, etc.,” she said in an email. “But how do we assess their understanding of that knowledge? If the answer is a multiple choice and/or fill-in-the-blank exam, how much does it matter that students can recall that knowledge offhand?”

Great minds think alike…unfortunately

In class this past week, someone mentioned Walter Lewin, a renowned MIT astrophysicists known for giving tremendous lectures. The description reminded of Richard Feynman, another physicist known for tremendous teaching chops. Both of these professors are well renowned and honored for successfully communicating science to broad audiences and making tremendous discoveries. Feynman was famous for the Manhattan Project (atomic bomb) and his Nobel Prize. Lewin discovered rotating neutron stars with balloons. Both men were clearly brilliant in their own right and provided tremendous insight into the scientific world in ways most lecturers could not.

Here’s the problem though: both have also had some serious claims of sexual harassment and sexist behavior. In “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” there is a chapter dedicated to Feynman recounting how he literally TRAINED himself to disrespect women so he could sleep with them. The best summary of this that I’ve seen is here, on the blog Restructure!. Which to quote a quote:

Well, someone only has to give me the principle, and I get the idea. All during the next day I built up my psychology differently: I adopted the attitude that those bar girls are all bitches, that they aren’t worth anything, and all they’re in there for is to get you to buy them a drink, and they’re not going to give you a goddamn thing; I’m not going to be a gentleman to such worthless bitches, and so on. I learned it till it was automatic.

That’s Feynman’s own words, in what’s basically an autobiography. Not the best look.

Similarly, Lewin was accused of sexual harassment through his online courses, and MIT took away his emeritus status and took down his lectures. I can’t find much info on what he actually did, but that hardly matters. He was a brilliant man that preyed on women.

In a similar vein, James Watson of DNA-fame has also displayed horribly racist and demeaning things. The man is brilliant for helping discover DNA and for helping found the human genome project and such, but even his disrespect for Rosalind Franklin and her research which he stole shows a poor attitude.

My question is: should we revere these men? Should we use their lectures and their notes to teach? 

On the one hand, they’ve still made valuable discoveries and have revealed tremendous methods of teaching. They still have the potential to teach many generations and inspire awe in countless future scientists. On the other, they’ve held some pretty shady views that muck up their legacies. Placing them on a pedestal also places their misdeeds on that same pedestal. This seems like a dangerous game; we don’t want to encourage more bigotry in science and education. But again, they were amazing at providing explanations in ways that people could understand complex ideas. It would be a tragedy to lose that. Do we use their teaching examples and point out their imperfections to say “you can be better”? I don’t know. I hate to waste a brilliant idea, but I’d also hate to encourage any form of bigotry and discrimination.


What are your thoughts? Did you know about these case? Do you know about others? If anyone has examples of the opposite, of brilliant minds that defended minorities or stood up against harassment, please share them.

Higher Ed and the Ability to Succeed

Today, while waiting to meet with my PI,  I was reading this article about students needing to feel like they can succeed in assignments if they are going to actually be engaged in classes and learning. In short, if students don’t feel like their effort gets them anywhere or doesn’t provide the desired outcomes then they’ll quickly lose interest in the course. They might drop the course or stop trying to do well.

This article was perfectly timed because my meeting included me asking to drop a course that was consuming far too much of my time.  I read through the article thinking “yup…yup…that’s me!” as I related much of the content to what was happening in my class.

The class is something I’m very interested in, computational modeling, but I have very little experience with the material. I took this class as an intro, to learn some of the basics, which the professor teaches rather well. However, his assignments assume far more knowledge and skill than he is willing to teach. I found myself spending countless hours trying to convert his abstract and compacted notation into usable computer code to do his assignments. It only took 3 homework assignments in 3 weeks to push me over the edge. I had lost so much sleep, all three of those weekends, and was behind on research goals, all from one class. Even the two assignments I did finish, I was not confident in the answers I handed in.

The article was funny because the author discussed how it can be easy to know what it takes to be a professional athlete, but that doesn’t make it any easier to actually become a pro.  This is what I was feeling with these assignments. I knew what I needed to do. The professor was good at teaching that. But the actual execution, the how, was far out of my grasp. It’s easy to say an IronMan just requires swimming, biking, and running. I can do all three of those easily, it’s the full bit of HOW you do them. I can’t swim 2.4mi and then bike 112mi, and THEN run a marathon. My professor was essentially just saying “go do an Ironman, it just involves some simple swimming, biking, and running, it should be easy.”  I think I’ll pass…

So after a rough weekend, I gave up, just as the article predicted.  I decided the effort wasn’t worth my time. I can learn the same content on my own, sans grading. I can take my own pace and still get sleep.

This concept seems critical to higher education delivering on its purpose to grow and disseminate knowledge. A lot of courses, especially those in fields like pre-med or pre-law like to weed students out because of the high incoming demand for those degrees. The concept of attainable successes can help weed out students I suppose, by guaranteeing that assignments are so difficult that almost no one can completely succeed. That’ll quickly squash any motivation for those subjects! But I think that’s the opposite of what should be done. Professors and other educators should keep in mind what students can reasonably learn in a given amount of time, and make sure to reinforce it and provide opportunities for successes, both large and small.  This builds confidence, and probably continued curiousity in a subject. Those two things are critical to discovery in my book.

Ethics: The case of the extra kidneys

Ethics to me has always seemed like a no-brainer. If it feels wrong, it probably is. If you find yourself sketchily hiding actions from your colleagues, those actions might be unethical. If in doubt, lean on the side of caution. I understand there are moral/ethical grey areas…do we allow genetic modification to cure disease at the likely cost of designer babies? Is it really worth it to sacrifice hundreds of innocent rats/bunnies/monkeys at a time so that hundreds of thousands of human lives can potentially be saved/improved? There are arguments for both sides in cases like this. However, some cases just seem so clear cut that they baffle me. Warning: I might have gotten riled up at this one.

The case of Dr. Judith M. Thomas. In brief, she was researching kidney transplants and methods of lowering organ rejection with various drugs. Since most lab monkeys don’t have kidney problems, both of their kidneys had to be removed and replaced with a single transplant kidney. This is because you can live “perfectly” normally with only one kidney, so if the transplanted kidney didn’t work, you might not be able to tell if there was still an original kidney present. For anyone that doesn’t know, the human body is tremendously skilled at identifying “not-self” items. This means that no matter how well you match patient blood types, genetics, etc, there’s a really good chance the immune system of the patient will try to kill the new organ. The drugs basically kill off all the immune cells and allow the body to learn to love the new organ as it heals. Ideally, Dr. Thomas would remove the monkey kidneys, give them a transplant and some drugs, and let them get acquainted with their new kidney. If the drugs worked, the monkey would be happy as ever with no rejection. If they failed, the monkey’s body would kill the kidney, and the monkey would have a bad day as his dying kidney failed. Then we would know never to use those drugs again.

Spoiler alert, that’s not what happened.
A Rhesus Monkey: the species that was used for this research.

“Respondent falsely reported in 15 publications that NHP renal allograft recipients had received bilateral nephrectomies of their native kidneys, while in fact many of the animals retained an intrinsic kidney”

Instead of removing the kidneys, she swapped out at a one to one ratio. To be clear, that means she left in a normal functional kidney. Now we have no way of knowing if the drugs are really working because there won’t be any sign of kidney failure. The monkey’s body could be eviscerating the new organ, but the monkey won’t show the signs of kidney failure that the researchers would be looking for. There might be other symptoms or at least some signs of distress from the monkeys, but they might be seen as otherwise mild side effects since a kidney is still functioning. So at this point, the study is useless.  You can’t assess if the new kidney is functioning well because it’s totally unnecessary. It can fail without major issue. Congrats Dr. Thomas, you’ve abused a bunch of monkeys for zero benefits to anyone.

Oh but wait! There’s more! In case that wasn’t bad enough, Judith didn’t even give the right dosages of the drug she was testing! You can’t evaluate a drug if you’re not correctly reporting what happens at each dosage. If negative side effects start popping up at say 50mg/day, but you report that limit as 65mg/day, doctors might feel safe prescribing 60 mg. That has the potential to cause some serious issues. The reverse is just as bad. If you say a drug is more effective than it is, doctors will under prescribe it, so patients don’t actually get a benefit. Then their organs fail and they die. So now there’s probably dead monkeys, dead patients, and a malpractice lawsuit all thanks to Dr. Thomas.

But wait! There’s more! She did this 15 times! 15 publications, which usually means separate studies/groups of monkeys, including this falsified data and procedure. 15 publications that were likely cited and used as stepping stones for further research. 15 publications that undermine the public’s trust in science.  She got good grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which could have gone to real research and saved real lives!

Then there’s the cherry on top. She got a tiny slap on the wrist. She can’t work with or get money from the US government for 10 years. That’s it. After 10 years she can go back to what she was doing, and if the grant reviewers don’t recognize her name, she might get funding for the same stuff.

There are two defenses I see for her. The monkeys might have suffered more if the drugs failed, and it’s so hard to get funding. The latter is just so weak I’m not going to bother with it. The former is misguided at best. If the drug works, it doesn’t matter, the monkey shouldn’t really be suffering so it’s not a huge deal. However, if the drug fails, and the kidney dies, I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for the monkey. At least with only one kidney, the effects would be quickly apparent and hopefully addressable. With two kidneys, it’s likely the native organ will mask the problems caused by the dying kidney until it is too late to do much. Furthermore, if the trials gave positive results that moved the drugs to human trials, you don’t have a clue what kinds of doses are really appropriate. The human patients are entering a clinical trial feeling much more secure than they should. It’s unfair to them too.

The more I think about all this, the more upset I get. Ethical violations like this undermine higher education as a whole. They remove credibility and provide doubts in the scientific process. They weaken the public’s ability to take our words at face value. This just frustrates the heck out of me.


/end rant

University Mission Statements: Private vs Public and my experiences with each

I went to a reasonably sized undergraduate state school, SUNY Albany, then went to private school, Syracuse University for an M.S. Now I’m at Virginia Tech for a Ph.D. Going from public to private to public schools has been interesting, to say the least. So, I thought it would be fun to compare the mission statements of SU (private) and VT (public) and compare it to my experiences with each.

Let’s establish the basics:
– Virginia Tech is a land-grant university in Blacksburg Virginia, USA.
– Syracuse is a private university in one of the snowiest cities on the planet, Syracuse NY
– Both have silly mascots: the Hokie bird, and Otto the Orange.
– Both have generally ugly color schemes: orange and maroon, and orange and blue.
– Both have strong sports cultures, VT for football, and SU for basketball.
Now that we know a little about each, let’s take a look at the mission statements (click the school for a link to the actual statement):

Tech has a short, sweet, and to the point statement about its obligation to the world at large. It’s an extended version of Ut Prosim, or “that I may serve”. This statement incorporates everything that I have learned to love about Virginia Tech. They don’t isolate themselves to their town, state, or even country. VT’s mission is to serve the greater global community through various activities including research, teaching, and outreach. The university expects to help individuals grow, while also developing the global community around them.
From my time at Tech, I have seen much of this in action, at least in my department. There is significant outreach around the world, with both academic and private institutions. Tech pushes students to be the best, but I personally have never felt pushed past the breaking point. There is always room to serve just a little more. If nothing else you can always get out for “3.2 for 32” to see how strong of a community is built here.  The 3.2 for 32 is actually a wonderful example of the Hokie Nation. It fosters competitiveness, while also pushing students to be active and healthy, and most importantly it declares that we will remember one of VT’s most defining moments and we will use it to grow stronger.

By comparison, Syracuse boils down to a bulleted list of objectives. They use much flashier wording and emphasize pride and culture over many other things. While SU does declare a commitment to inclusion, it also focuses on attracting “the best scholars from around the world”. This immediately sets up for an elitist feel to the mission. Compared to the humility of VT’s mission to serve, it looks rough and selfish. SU looks like it is ONLY capable of taking the best and the brightest. If you take a minute to think, that’s a really easy start. Obviously the best and brightest are going to go places, they are already halfway to them. What would be far more impressive, would be attracting the worst students and turning them into the best and brightest. That would give SU some merit for saying they are an amazing school. But those who are already bright can usually keep afloat by teaching themselves or using their network, so the quality of the school is rather moot at that point.
Pretentious mission aside, my time in Syracuse was great. Syracuse tries really hard to make sure it’s students are successful and is great with job fairs and clubs. However, compared to VT, the outreach and societal impact was lacking, especially when you take into account the relative number of city grade schools and people in need in Syracuse.

I had never thought much of mission statements, they always seem like bogus fluff. Now I think they can be fairly telling. Syracuse doesn’t make any claims about helping the community, so I can’t exactly say they are failing in achieving their mission. Virginia Tech meets its mission by serving, but it also goes above and beyond by offering amazing opportunities to students and establishing itself around the world. Despite not targeting the best students, Tech still manages to produce them. Sorry Syracuse, but maybe you should consider adding some service to your mission.