Archive for December, 2014

Wait, Are WE the University of Phoenix?

Distance Ed, Massive Online Colleges, Night Class, are these the same model?  Maybe, but maybe not.  I think that the MOOC’s are probably closer to the night classes and for profit universities than distance ed and international online programs.  We have an online masters program now.  Who does that really serve?  I think it is one way that not for profit universities can stay current and collect tuition dollars, enrollment numbers and graduation rates.  Some of the loan shark like tuition schemes of the for profit schools are predatory.  But I think as more people work through their coursework at a pace with their own life it will become more of the norm.  It looks like the “College” experience is not for everyone.  It would be interesting to see how tuitions and the opportunity costs of attending college actually compare between traditional schools and MOOC’s.  Right now undergrad seems like a great way to go into debt without significantly increasing the potential for you to get hired afterwards.  Economically that does not make good sense.

I think the product offered in a “four year” degree has devalued but the experience factor is not taken into account.  Colleges could be more aggressive about non-traditional tracks that involve more on the job training and internships to overcome this devaluation.  The potential is still there, but now there is some extra competition from MOOC’s.  Flexibility is a great option for many and the four years would do well to keep up.

Changing Higher Education; A Question of Economy of Scale

We spoke in class yesterday about what we could or would want to change in higher education.  I said that I would like to add some accountability to University growth demands at a departmental and college level.  Universities have to operate like a business to keep the lights on and stay on the cutting edge.  Professors can write grants and acquire great equipment for inspiring research, but if the ceiling above their head is falling down the research will not succeed.  We are aware that Federal support in grants and loans to students has lead to increases in undergraduate enrollment, while science and technology are expanding at rates that demand cutting edge equipment and research.  Distribution of funds around the university atmosphere can create a demanding system of requirements and ultimatums.  I have seen such ultimatums and question the apparent disconnect between administrative goals and achievable standards.

Growth and change are very necessary, especially if universities hope to remain salient.  What happens if growth exceeds demand?  For example; departments are being mandated to nearly double the number of PhD students, while maintaining matriculation rates and research standards at the same time that members of the scientific community express concerns about the numbers of PhD’s compared to the jobs available for people of such qualifications.  Then, when these graduate students leave with their respective degrees, the opportunity cost has changed significantly from when they started.  The value of their degree has changed, especially if they cannot find jobs.  The hiring rates of university graduates is as much of a measure of success as graduation rates and national rankings.  Where then is this disconnect?

Economists are all too aware of the affect that accelerated growth can have on the economy as a whole.  Perhaps it is time to look at the university as an economy.  The divisions are all there.  Market sectors are colleges and growth could be measured by enrollment rates and grant funding.  Investment in colleges and departments could be viewed as just that, while maybe even providing for additional accountability for funding.  How are these metrics taken and used regardless of the model used to analyze them?  Being on the working end, where graduate students carry out research under managers called advisors, it looks like the upper management wants to run the machines faster without proper upkeep.  Mentioning this briefly in class did not provoke any discussion.  Fine I get that.  I do not get how administration is not viewed as a necessary part of academia by those who aspire to be successful members of the Academy.  I looked around the room and realized that 50% or more of my classmates would not return to academia after they graduate.  Then the majority of those that do, will work tirelessly to obtain tenure and become the stodgy professors that act alienated by colleagues that are “upwardly mobile.”  Who should carry the torch?  Business leaders are often highly successful members of their industry who were called “up and coming.”  Why then would there be a stigma associated with experts in the field going on to be advocates for their colleagues?  I am interested in becoming an advocate like that.  Right now, from behind the lab bench, it is difficult to see the path that would prepare me better to do so.  Maybe the disconnect starts here.


Integrity and Scholarship

I am writing about scholarly integrity as a scientist in training.  I have been training for about 8 years now, and to date have been successful in acquiring two degrees, a federal internship, multiple grants, and published part of my research just this year. I list these things not to brag, but to set a timeline.  The timeline I have in mind, is when I started to take coursework very seriously, as well as when I began to immerse myself in my interests.  The basis of my achievements to date and the achievements that I hope to gain, is in the integrity with which I undertake my studies, research, and publishing.  I do my own work.  I conduct my own research, and credit the scientists before me that worked to create the basic understandings upon which I build.  I do not falsify my credentials, qualifications, or ability.

To do so would begin a web of lies built to maintain a facsimile.  Taking shortcuts, plagiarizing, and falsifying data are unjust actions that produce falsehoods.  These require lies to promote, and for every lie, there must be a series of supporting lies to protect it.

If I were to use the work of scientists past to build the scientifically support assumptions of my research, I would rely on the integrity of their research.  I have.  My master’s research was in forensics, and while my focus area was not, much of this research can have life or death ramifications in a court of law.  If some of the seminal works that I based my research around were false, or inaccurate, the interpretations of the subsequent research could lead to wrongful conviction and perhaps death.  This would be an extreme case but my training has exposed me to cases where shortcuts have been made by expert witnesses in my field that have had drastic legal consequences.  All scholars must enforce integrity to sustain credibility and legitimacy in research and scholarship.  If we do not, then we allow our fields to deteriorate and impact society in the same way.

Open Sesame, All Access but Starting Where?

Recently I was able to attend Virginia Tech’s Open Access Week’s Keynote address by Brian Nosek.  Nosek had some interesting ideas.  First though, we should look at the current meaning of open access.  Open, to view, read, digest and have access to research results in their final, most polished form.  This research can be from the most independent historian to the leading genetic scientists.  Many journals are seen as targets for publishing research.  You can hear grad students lustfully mention their goals of getting published in ScienceNature, PLOS, and many others.  To have access to these journals and others in the past required individual membership in research organizations or very costly personal subscriptions.  At many research universities, libraries will pay millions of dollars to ensure that their students and faculty have access to articles in these journals.  The idea is that researchers can access what has been done, and use that information as a starting point for their own research.  This could be the basic understanding of some concept or a more controversial finding that an author may seek to reproduce.  Either way, access has historically been limited by money, and as such, knowledge, to an extent, has been limited by money. Now the game is changing.  Journals are beginning to open the doors of their libraries and archives for some level of open access.  Now, anyone can walk into a public library, go online and read much of the seminal work that has been published in Nature (  They could not download, print, or copy the article, but they could technically access it for free.  This is a big change.  Could this could make knowledge and information considerably more accessible to everyone. Other journals have adopted an open access format that allows for full access.  In the field of Entomology (the study of insects) the Journal of Integrated Pest Management began as open access.  No original research is to be published there.  Instead, authors take care in explaining and redocumenting the work of others to establish an understanding of what researchers may view as background understanding for their research.  With that, any reader can go to this journal and type in “Brown Marmorated Stink Bug”, which they might because this invasive species has been invading houses and their are some crazy stories about it origin.  After locating the profile article, the reader can tweet a link, download the article, print it off and take it home for free.  This means that instead of having to trust what has been accepted by wikipedia, anyone can see what is known about this organism that has recently thrust itself into their lives.  Rather than perpetuating rumors that some University brought them to the US to do some rediculous task, growers, extension agents, teachers, anyone can see what is really known.  This is but one of the ways to grant access to the public. Brian Nosek has a different idea.  One that starts on an entirely different end of the research process.  Many journals are dedicated to publishing original research in a context that will provide the maximum impact for those findings.  Nosek describes this peer reviewed process as presenting only the best, most exciting, results in their polished form to be reviewed and then published.  Nosek and his colleagues propose to involve the review of peers in the initial stages of this process.  Authors can sign up to have an article fast tracked when it is only a question with well developed methods and materials.  Then, a group of peers that can provide useful insight can review and comment on the methodology in hopes that it will benefit the scientific process. The article will then proceed as the research does and because of the open access end of it, the data will become public as well.  This access goes well beyond knowledge as polished and synthesized by experts in a field who have spent decades being trained to think and research one specific way.  With access to raw data, in the context of the research methodology with which it was published, anyone can analyze it.  This could be the opening of pandora’s box, or it could be the way that impromptu collaborations begin in the information age.  Access is changing, and maybe because of that, the way we do science can too.

Shock Jock or English Prof (Forgot to Publish Sooner)

We have heard and talked about Dr. Salaita, his employment situation and his tweets.  Maybe Dr. Salaita was not hungry enough for his new job.  Maybe he woke up one morning and decided he needed to take a more aggressive tack along his course of discussing Israel.  Or, he listened to Howard Stern one morning and enough was enough, he could do that kind of stuff with out the rest of the on-air personalities that Stern uses.  That was it, he could be a shock jock!

Whatever the process of thought behind his subsequent actions was, I doubt that it included the mental picture of his hiring packet being read in the same light as his tweets, or even by the same people.  When children begin to explore the more coarse boundaries of language use they might first try it around other kids, teachers, and lastly parents.  Why?  Maybe they are aware that these words have been deemed bad and would expect to receive some sort of punishment for their use.  Why then, would a professor with tenure from an English department decide to debase his political message with their use.

Dr. Salaita certainly has the freedom to make whatever sort of speech in whatever format he chooses.  He does not, however, have the freedom from judgement.  Universities often boast about their tolerance and embracing different opinions and views.  They typically do not brag about supporting or housing loud and coarse messages about opinions that may be counter to culture.  After hearing of the experiences that students have had in his class, I am surprised that Dr. Salaita would post and re-post short quips to get attention like a toddler with a new bad word to use.  While they are only words, the words that he uses to get across his point are not on the level of character necessary for the job for which he was being considered.  I am not at all surprised that any university would reconsider bestowing upon him the honor of tenure.