Valuing Education

Discussions about funding as well as the question “is education a right or privilege” got me thinking; how do we value education?

When we talk about how much something is valued, we want to quantify “value” and the easiest way to do that is to look at how much money is spent on it.  I realized while thinking about this question that I had never looked at the raw numbers of how much money we spend on education from a supply side.

According to the World Bank, in 2009 the U.S. spent 13.1% of all government expenditures on education, while Switzerland spent 16.2%.World Bank Stats

Defining U.S. federal money spent on education is difficult, as this New York Times article points out, but I like the author’s definition and conclusion.  Jason Delisle puts the federal spending number at about $107.6 billion in 2012, out of a total federal budget of $3.5 trillion – so right about 3% of the federal budget.  I don’t interpret that as a sign the federal govt doesn’t value education – rather that education has and will continue to be the state’s responsibility.

The majority of funding for education comes from states in the US, much as cantons are responsible for funding most education in Switzerland.  The numbers I found from Virginia’s DPB (Department of Planning & Budget) were eye opening – from 2008-2010, 39.4% of all moneys the State generated went towards education.  In a $74.8 billion budget, that translates into roughly 29.5 billion dollars.  That’s for all education, from preschools on up.

According to the 2012 Public Finances report by the Swiss Federal Department of Finance, Swiss federal spending in 2011 was 10.4% of all expenditures for education and research (it’s unclear to me if including “research” means including funding for the SNSF).  “State” spending on education was 17% (cantons & communes).  These percentages translate to 5.4 billion CHF federally and 32.7 billion CHF by cantons & communes.

Looking at it from the Va state budget perspective, I’d say the numbers argue that education is highly valued – in fact, we spend more state money on education than anything else, and it takes up more than 1/3 of our entire state budget.  Maybe from a global perspective it isn’t as encouraging, with the World Bank numbers in the teens, but it’s still a decent chunk of money when one considers all the services/expenditures governments have.  I wanted to include similar data from Switzerland, but I don’t feel like direct comparison with the numbers from the U.S. is legitimate since in some cases the funding apparatuses might be totally different.  Perhaps the best US/CH comparison for our purposes is again from the World Bank data – expenditure per student in tertiary education as a % of GDP per capita: Switzerland = 44.7, U.S = 19.6.
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However, the numbers aren’t the only story.  We can argue whether the money we devote to education is an accurate reflection of how valuable we think that education is.  Is the value of a bachelor’s degree determined by the increased income it will provide over the lifetime of an individual?  That definition doesn’t leave room for “liberal arts” education, and yet liberal arts programs are still embraced across the U.S.

In our GPP “University of Swissica” group, there was a lot of discussion about how education broadens minds and universities “teach people how to think”.  If this is true, how do we define the “value” of helping adolescents become independent, creative and engaged members of society rather than just consuming automatons?  Therein lies the difficulty – that there are social and moral components to education that are impossible to put a number on and yet still have value.

So what happens when we only take an “economic” view of education?  I think this quote from Michael J. Sandel, a Harvard professor, is apt: “…A market economy is a tool, it’s a valuable tool, it’s an instrument for achieving economic wealth, affluence and prosperity. It’s a tool that we use and that we put to our purposes. But as markets and market thinking come to inform all aspects of life, as everything becomes available for sale, we become a market society, which is a way of thinking and being – an unreflective way of thinking and being – that just assumes that all the good things in life can, in principle, be up for sale.  And that, I think, diminishes a great many moral and civic goods that markets and market relations don’t honor and that money can’t, or shouldn’t, buy.”

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Reflections on Blogging

Blogging about blogging…meta reflection seems appropriate for the end of the semester.

It’s not that there aren’t a bunch of other topics I could blog about.  I actually have a list of thoughts I wanted to compose posts about on my desktop right now.  It’s just that…well, blogging keeps falling flat for me.

I have not been a good blogger in class.  I had a personal blog that I struggled to keep going after 2 years and have neglected for 6 months now.  I used to love to write…I still do (sort of).  I wondered for a long time why I couldn’t seem to get into it, and it only hit me at the end of this semester, when I starting thinking about how much I enjoyed the GEDI class but not the blogging.

After a while, blogging starts to feel like shouting at the sky.  I’m not interested in proclaiming my opinions or thoughts to the world – I want to have discussions.  I have a pretty good idea of my own ideas and perspective, I want to hear others!  I want to hear other people’s ideas for solutions.  I even want to hear when I’m wrong…in a gentle way of course 🙂 Problem is, most of my posts get no feedback, and this has also been true historically in my personal blog.

This realization has also made clear to me how important it is to post my own comments to other people’s blogs.  In the past I wouldn’t comment unless I felt I had something super worthwhile to contribute, but just now I’m realizing how important even a simple “I agree with you” can be for fostering a sense that when we blog, we are communicating to other people and not just writing in a diary.  That’s something I forgot to mention – I’ve never kept a journal or diary because I never could stand it.  It always struck me as navel gazing – I want input from the outside!  I get to listen to the inside of my own head enough, thank you vey much.

I realize and agree there is value in writing out our thoughts even if just for ourselves –  it can clarify and help us recognize patterns or something in ourselves/our topic we might otherwise not.  However I feel the blogging platform’s strength also lies in the peer to peer communication potential it offers, not just in being a public diary.  When there is no sense of dialogue, no comments, it does just become a public diary.

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US academic researchers in Switzerland – for the money?

A friend shared this thought provoking PhD comic with me.

While I thought the comic did a great job of addressing a very depressing issue for academic scientists in the US (that of rapidly dwindling funding), what caught my eye was the brief interview with Shann Yu at EPFL (in Lausanne, CH).  I listened to the podcast of the interview (here).  He finished his PhD at Vanderbilt last October and was convinced by reports of further funding cuts to pursue a post-doc outside of the US.

I’m curious what Swiss academics think about the real possibility they will be inundated with US-trained scientists looking for post-docs and/or faculty positions as the funding environment continues to get worse in the US?  Is this already happening?

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PBL effects on careers?

I have a question that I could use some help with.  Does anyone know of research papers or published evidence that students from learner-centered and PBL based educational systems perform better in the job market?

This question is a result of a professor telling me about an article published in the veterinary medicine education field about case-based teaching that showed there was no difference in employment or job success for students coming from a case-based system versus a traditional didactic lecture system.  He couldn’t remember exactly when the paper was published or in what journal, but there had been a lot of discussion when it came out ~10yrs ago.  Apparently some vet colleges had tried moving to an entirely case-based approach and some moved back to hybrid or lecture based formats as a result.

I’ve tried looking for this paper or others similar to it however haven’t had much luck (I also haven’t spent weeks looking either).  Most of what I have found that compares PBL to traditional lecturing are tests of student’s satisfaction or skills while still in the education system.  I haven’t seen anything that looks at job acquisition, job performance evaluation, promotion – the long term effects.

You might be thinking that I’m looking for reasons to argue against PBL, but I am pro-PBL and case-based learning, particularly in medical fields where it fits so well.  However, as a scientist I am curious as to whether a PBL based education has long-term effects, and if so how those effects are manifest.  I realize that looking at the effects of PBL in a cohort of vet school graduates might not be so informative since that cohort is inherently made of bright, highly motivated students (due to extremely high competition for student positions in vet colleges).  I’d really like to know how this research was done, what metrics were used to evaluate the effectiveness of PBL, and what variables were or were not controlled for.  Basically I’m curious as to how strong the research is for and against PBL approaches.

If anyone knows of good resources, please do share them!

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Response to “German Academics at Swiss Universities”

Fabian Klaber’s post about international professors prompted me to do a bit of reading into US university hiring.  I am woefully uneducated about the restrictions on international hiring, being a US citizen, and as a grad student I have little experience with those restrictions at a professor level.  Most of the international profs I know personally have become US citizens for a very important reason: NIH.

As a general rule, only US citizens can apply for grants from NIH (National Institutes of Health), and these competitive grants typically form the backbone of funding for biomedical research labs in academia.  I don’t know if similar restrictions apply to NSF or the Department of Defense grants, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.  Since in the US system most biomedical science professors must come up with funds to support their research programs (and often their own salaries), one needs to be able to apply for grants.  It would be irresponsible to hire an international individual with the expectation that they support their labs with grants when the major granting agencies won’t even allow them to apply.

The international hiring question is further complicated by immigration restrictions.  While I’m even less familiar with German-Swiss immigration matters, I’d be surprised if they were more complicated than the US.  I realize travel is very easy between countries in Europe, but what about working visas and obtaining citizenship for employment?  A quick Google search showed many large US universities have an entire department devoted to handling international students, staff and faculty.  That should be an indication of the complexity of US international hiring!

I realize Fabian’s post (and question about the US) was less about the administrative difficulties and more about the social implications of preferentially hiring native citizens versus internationals.  However one can’t ignore the contribution that administrative red-tape can play in decision making!  I have heard the complaints about waiting for visa applications and paperwork hassles for international hires, and major complications can occur when a position is for a limited amount of time and a visa is delayed.  For a more social perspective on US international professor hiring, I found this article interesting, but the comments even more so.  The example of requiring more documented justification for international hires over American hires appears to be common in many US universities, but not necessarily required by law.

I’m personally on the fence.  I agree that the goal for most professor hiring should be to get the best person for the job regardless of citizenship – but that means many things.  Not only should that person be an expert in their field with experience and a track-record that demonstrates their commitment, but they should also integrate into the culture of the particular institution and be in agreement with the overall goals of that institution.  However I can also understand why people support favoring native citizen hires over internationals from a standpoint of investing in one’s own country.  If you are a citizen of a particular country, that means that you have lived in that country for some time, have paid taxes and presumably contributed to your country in some manner.  Thus the “country” should give back to you by investing in your career and future, versus someone who is not a citizen and may not be invested (socially and financially) in the country long term.

I think the issue may be overly simplified into the question “is favoring a resident nationality over other nations is an act of bias or an act of patriotism?”  In reality, search committees are rarely faced with “apples to apples” comparisons between international and native citizen applicants, greatly complicating the role nationality can play in selection.

From my very brief research, it appears hiring international professors is as fraught a topic in the US as it is in Switzerland, and is unlikely to be resolved in the current environment where global exchange is increasing and PhDs continue to be over-produced.

PS-  I would like to acknowledge that this post is a big oversimplification itself…after only a couple of hours reading on the web, I realized I could probably do an entire PhD dissertation on this topic to answer Fabian’s question!


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Technology worming its way into my heart

I think I’m going to refer to Dr. Fowler as my “dealer” from now on.

She’s the one who introduced me to the iPad.

“Sure!” I thought to myself, “I’ll check out an iPad…I’m curious what all the fuss is about.”  Little did I realize the thrill, fascination and decidedly different experience it would be.  Little did I know how attached I might become, but it’s only a loaner!  Return it at the end of the semester?  Just hand it back, like nothing?  The words of Charlton Heston ring in my ears “…from my cold, dead hands.”

All kidding aside, I have been surprised by the iPad.  My only previous tablet experience was with a color Nook eReader.  It has some internet and app functionality, but it’s clearly meant primarily as an eReader and that’s all I’ve generally used it for.  My iPad epiphanies may or may not translate to other tablets.

First, I finally get Twitter.  I’ve been a twitter stalker for a while now, following some of my favorite science authors and sources (AAAS, BBC science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc.) but I never found using it on my laptop seamless or engaging.  On the iPad, it just “works”.  There’s probably an interesting psychological study somewhere in this about tactile interaction with media, but there is something profoundly different about being able to scroll through a list of tweets with the fingers, and reading the instantaneous article popups (since I primarily look at tweets which link to articles).  I think there is synergistic effect between the tactile interaction combined with app layout (which I prefer greatly over how it looks on my computer) and getting to read all of this on  eReader style object.

That last part, about being an eReader, probably plays a larger role in my love for the iPad than I realize.  So much of what I do, both professionally and personally, is read.  Scientific articles, news, blogs, and that’s not including videos (Dr. Fowler also got me addicted to vlog brothers!).  I can only torque my neck around my laptop so much before it gets old.  I’ve always hated reading articles on my computer – I can’t help but print them out.  It’s not just craning my neck though, there’s something else that I can’t quite put  my finger on…but I can with an eReader! (Sorry, I can’t resist a good pun opportunity.)  I love reading on my iPad, the screen is so clear and responsive, the size is just right for me, and it’s wickedly fast bouncing around on the net, something my Nook is not.  I’ve found myself downloading the pdfs for class and reading them on the iPad quite happily.

I have to admit that I’ve only scratched the surface – I looked at some of the educational apps in the app store, but it seemed like most of them were geared towards K-12, not higher ed.  I did download an app for the CN, but it’s really for iPhone, not the iPad, and even with that there’s much that could be improved (linking, layout, menus…pretty much everything!).  I’m excited to see what apps Dr. Fowler is going to introduce us to.  Her point about the keyboard in the last class I completely agreed with – I tried taking notes on my iPad during a symposium and found it a bit challenging.

That brings up another point – the use of styluses and note taking in a class setting.  I had a classmate who had a third party stylus and some sort of app to take notes on powerpoint and pdf presentations with her iPad.  She could zoom way in on images to draw things and scribble in her thoughts.  That really caught my attention because I’m always printing out presentations to take notes on.  I know many people type notes on computers, but that doesn’t work well for me when I have a diagram or data graph that I want to write on to keep my notes in context.  In addition, research has shown that handwriting has a dramatic effect on recall/recognition that typing doesn’t have (here are some interesting articles about the subject).  Combining the versatility of the iPad with the cognitive power of handwriting is really exciting!  With Apple’s record of intelligent and effective design, I really hope they consider incorporating a stylus and handwriting into their iOS – I imagine having it built in as a native function would be better than running a third party app, and I’ve heard mixed reviews of the third party stylus options out there.  I’d love to hear from other folks what their favorite apps are and whether they’ve used styluses or other writing methods with their tablets.

While I’m not a computer programer, I can see how there could be great potential for using the tablet and app format for creating case studies that incorporate multi-media as part of the case but also require students to use multi-media to answer questions (like in the PBS video where students used smartphones with GPS to tour their town and learn about its history).

So thank you Dr. Fowler, for introducing me to the iPad, even if I am addicted.  Now if you could just introduce me to a way to afford one on a graduate stipend…

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Interdisciplinary Education – ISAT example

Mike’s post about interdisciplinary versus multidisciplinary made me think a bit (and comment).  After commenting, I realized that I wanted to share an example of an interdisciplinary educational approach close to us – JMU’s ISAT program.  My sister happens to have graduated from this program, back in 1999 (I believe she was in the second or third graduating class).

At the time, I was just starting college and I remember thinking “Wow! What a neat program to provide well rounded education!”  but I was at a different university and on a different path, so I haven’t though much more about it.  However, being in this class makes me want to explore ISAT’s approach more carefully.  I’m curious how successful it’s been, what the student experience is like versus a standard major, etc.  Based on their growth and continued success (merged with a new Engineering department, graduated over 1000 majors, enrollment of more than 800 undergrads), I’d say it’s a successful approach!  I’m sure the program isn’t unique – I’d love to hear about examples of similar undergraduate interdisciplinary majors like ISAT, or graduate for that matter…ASPECT comes to mind, but beyond that I don’t know of others here at Tech.

Part of the reason I’m curious to hear feedback is that I’m surprised this kind of field-integration hasn’t seemed to gain more traction in the last decade.  That being said, it looks like the ISAT program has grown hugely and done well for JMU, but what about growth of that type of department in other universities?  Perhaps my perception is skewed because I’ve been removed from undergraduate programs for a decade myself – maybe there are more out there than I realize.


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Re: “Keep the Baby!” and “An oppressor”

I just read Kathy Kerr’s post about the value of the “lecture” and I really agree.  Reading her post helped me organize my thoughts a bit on PBL versus didactic lecture formats.  I also saw Brandon Peoples’ post “An oppressor” and I have an idea to address his question about how to still effectively use a “content delivery” approach in balance with PBL.

First one quick observation – in the reading about the UVa system, there was one tidbit that caught my eye.  In describing the first year class PBL class, it was mentioned that the professor did give a brief lecture after the students had worked on their case.  The article hardly focused on that, but I think it’s an important point – that a lot of PBL still incorporates some lecturing, or “depositing” of info by the professor.

I agree with Kathy that a very important part of education is having “experts” share their knowledge with us, and this necessitates professors explaining to us the information they possess.

But wait!  What is “explaining”?  Explaining, and lecturing, can come in many different forms.  Think about assembly instructions for a piece of Ikea furniture: pictures of parts with arrows and hilarious little cartoon dudes.  These cartoons are pretty good at explaining how to assemble that new desk with just images, however they could do the exact same thing by naming each piece, and typing out “X part is joined to Y panel”.  Each approach is a way of explaining the same process, but which is easier to understand?  Which one leads to comprehension of the necessary task in the easiest way?

My point is that there ARE engaging ways to lecture that help comprehension.  The best talks I’ve heard have always had the least text involved in the presentation, but use lots of  images, drawings and models.  The best speakers have kept my attention by helping build an image in my own mind of how the information they are telling me fits into a relevant system or environment.  The difference is in the professor’s presentation: Telling stories, using real-world examples relevant to the audience, incorporating humor, mistakes, talking about the origin of the information or it’s evolution through time, these all help engage listeners.  Even aspects of the professor’s physical presence such as walking around and modulating vocal tone contribute to student’s interest in what you have to say…actually, Dr. Fowler is a perfect example of how a professor’s energetic vocal tone and physical presence helps keep attention focused on her and what she is saying.

I’m a big fan of the story-telling analogy.  Framing a lecture with the idea that you are trying to tell a “story” can help you automatically organize the information or talk about in a way that is more stimulating/entertaining.  You might be wondering “Sure, this is great when you’re talking about literature/politics/etc., but how could you possibly tell a story about differential equations?”  Well, what makes a good story?  Characters, conflict and resolution (yes, I know this is a gross oversimplification, but this post is getting long enough as it is!).  So, your mathematic variables are your characters, the equation is the conflict, and the solution is the resolution! (Okay, that made me groan a little at myself.)

This might sound cheesy and you might feel foolish talking about x squared as the “underdog”, but it’s a small price to pay if it keeps your students listening in an engaged manner.  Plus, being a little silly can go a long way to helping your students feel less like you are “authoritarian” and more like you are an ally in the learning process.

I am all for PBL, but I also know sometimes GOOD lecturing is a useful way of sharing critical info with students.

ps – I hear the argument that some people are just good at public speaking (i.e. lecturing), and others aren’t, to which I would respond “well, of course!”.  Some people are more naturally talented at playing piano, and others aren’t.  THAT DOESN’T MEAN YOU CAN’T BECOME GOOD AT IT!  How do you become better at public speaking?  Like piano and anything else, you have to practice.  Take a class, ask a friend to sit in a talk/lecture and give you feedback.  Oh yeah, and PRACTICE!

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Diversity: Claude Steele is the man!…er…person!

I think the universe was trying to tell me I needed to post about diversity.  In the course of three days, I was sent an article from LinkedIn about women trailing men and self-sabotaging,  then, as I was downloading recent Freakonomics podcasts (which I subscribe to) their “Women are not Men” episode ended up being next on my listening list.  Finally, I was reading a rather depressing article from the NYT about how poor my job prospects are as a future vet, when a snippet on the last page jumped out at me: “An added wrinkle to the debate is gender. The number of women in vet schools has been rising for decades; today they account for 80 percent of graduates, flipping the gender mix on its head as compared to 30 years ago. As with most professions, there is a pay gap between men and women, and in the veterinary field it has widened since the downturn. Last year, starting salaries for women were 16 percent lower than for men, according to figures compiled by Dr. Myers of JustVetData, compared to a 3 percent difference in 2002. Everyone is losing ground, she says, but women are losing ground much faster than men.” – David Segal

Even though the article isn’t focused on gender or diversity issues, this piece of information stuck out and as a future female DVM, my immediate response was “What the hell!?!”

We talked a decent bit in class last Wednesday about subconscious male bias that is mentioned in the above materials – that teachers call on male students more often than female.  Likewise a female professor’s “authority” is more likely to be questioned than a male’s.  Girls who have to check a “Female” box before an exam perform worse than if they didn’t check anything.  Freakononics takes it further into sociological research showing that women in a matriarchical society are just as competitive as the men in the same society, where as in patriarchical societies (like the US) women are significantly less competitive.

The “Whistling Vivaldi” reading really helped me understand the role of stereotype threat for women and other stereotyped students in education.  I particularly like this reading because I felt like, rather than just stating the problem, the author offered solutions!  Often, when reading about or discussing large, complex social issues, I feel overwhelmed and powerless.  The NYT article, LinkedIn article and podcast all felt that way – what can I do about pro-male bias that is so embedded in our culture that it begins when we are infants?!?  However, Claude Steele left me feeling positive about my ability to recognize and deal with my own biases and help my future students overcome stereotype threats.  He shows that small steps taken by an educator can have a large effect on their students, and can even negate those stereotype threats.

And then I realized that he was actually practicing what he preaches in his own book – he helped me become positive and empowered in the face of complex and socially embedded problems.  Wow!

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Thoughts on the “Hidden Brain”

I’ve always been one of those people who agreed with the concept that who we ARE is defined by our actions.  It’s not what we say or what our intentions are, but what we do that shapes our identities and characters.  How we treat other people falls under the “what we do” category.


Problem is, what we do is shaped by thousands of tiny decisions we make every day.  I’m not talking about big obvious decisions, but the tiny decisions we aren’t even aware we make.  We decide whether we want to have coffee first in the morning or watch the news; we choose to brush our teeth, or put on slippers…the list goes on.  Pretty much every action is an opportunity for choice, and when I first realized this I truly appreciated how much of my daily life is run on autopilot.  Whether we like it or not, what we do, and therefore who we are, is highly influenced by our autopilot choices.


If I had to consciously think about every decision of everyday, I wouldn’t have mental space or energy to think about anything else!  In this way, habits and behavior patterns that are supported by the “hidden brain” are useful, because it frees up our brains for bigger decisions.  I happen to think about science questions while shampooing my hair sometimes – it’s nice that I don’t have to focus on deciding whether or not to shampoo, how many times and for how long, whether I should use conditioner, etc.


However, I can see how this tendency – our brain’s natural inclination to simplify and make autopilot choices – can trip us up.  Making assumptions about a person because of race or sex might be ingrained in our brains early on, but that is the beauty of the brain.  It is plastic, dynamic, and can be retrained.  People who have habits they don’t like can change them through conscious effort, but over time that effort become less and less conscious, until it simply becomes ingrained behavior.


The author make a valuable point about the importance of recognizing when our “autopilot” is on, and I agree that that has to be the first step.  However, I would suggest that instead of trying to turn your autopilot brain off all the time, instead try to reset it.  Instead of having an autopilot assumption that says “X person is Y”, what if we train our autopilot to simply “X is a person”?

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