9 Wilco

Fünf Jahre sind seit der letzten grossen Wilco Platte “The Whole Love” vergangen. Dieses Jahr fügte die Band um Jeff Tweedy ihrem Katalog anstatt eines weiteren epischen Werkes eine kleine, feine Indie Folk Platte bei. Gerade mal 36 Minuten dauert “Schmilco”, die Hälfte der zwölf Songs sind kürzer als drei Minuten. Dennoch braucht es Zeit die Vielfalt zu entdecken, die in der melancholischen Grundstimmung des Albums lauert. Anspieltips sind der folige Opener “Normal Amrican Kids”, das düstere “Common Sense”, das langsam von den Gitarren aufgelöst wird, das an George Harrison erinnernde “Someone to Loose” und das lennoneske “Shrug and Destroy”.


Professor for one year (week 35): Should everybody know how to program?

This post is the report, I wrote for the GPP 2013.

Introduction

Being a computational linguist, I was trained in programming as well as in linguistics.  After school in the mid-nineties, I couldn't decide whether to focus on linguistics (or nowadays "humanities") or computer science/math (or nowadays "STEM").  So I was quite happy to be able to focus on both when studying computational linguistics.  I always loved algorithms, abstraction -- and yes, I also loved Latin.  Maybe that's a rare combination, but in today's world it turns out to be quite handy.

One aspect of the 2013 GPP motto "University and Society -- Meeting Expectations?" is the aspect of university as the institution to prepare students to be successfull in today's society.  In the last decade, we saw the emergence of more and more electronic devices, "digital" is one of the buzzwords in several scientific fields, technology becomes pervasive.  We speak of the "Generation Y" as being "digital natives."  However, if we look how today's students use technology, they are only users, they are not creators.  They often even don't know how to configure programs.

Douglas Rushkoff in his book Program or be Programmed argues that everybody should know how to program to understand today's technology and to be able to control it instead of becoming a slave of the electronic devices surrounding us.  So my personal focus in the GPP 2013 was to explore how universities support or enable learning to program.  Of course students in computer science (CS) and related fields (like computational linguistics) are trained in programming, but I was interested in courses for non-CS students.

Answers from US professors

During our visit in the US, I asked my question at two places explicitely and I got two different answers. 

At North Eastern University, Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna, an assistant academic specialist,  as she described herself, argued that indeed, computer literacy would be a valuable topic to teach considering that university should empower students to deal with current challenges.  However, she admitted that there are no courses offered to all students, not to mention being required.  My question was understood as asking about "teaching students how to program." 

At swissnex in Boston, we met Dr. James Honan, senior lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  He understood my question differently and answered that students would keep faculty busy and push them to use more technology.  He talked about MOOCs before and probably this influenced his answer.  However, his statement made clear that there is a view of "computer literacy" as "being able to use devices", including the expectation that instructors offer digital content and e-learning material.

At this moment, I was a bit disappointed.  Either the necessity of teaching and learning how to program is not recognized, or, when it is recognized, it is impossible to offer such courses for all students.

While at the MIT, we visited the Media Lab and the "Lifelong Kindergarten" headed by Professor Mitchel Resnick.  We got an introduction into scratch, the programming language and online community intended to teach kids how to program using a game concept.  They learn abstraction, algorithmics, and data structures while they play with code snippets, interact with other kids around the world, and program their own games and worlds.  It's an advanced model of learning the concept of recursion while playing "Towers of Hanoi."  I was aware of scratch before and I really enjoyed seeing some demos and talking to the researchers involved in designing and implementing scratch.  I think using games as a vehicle for teaching important concepts is a good strategy -- the users aren't probably not even aware that they acquire valuable knowledge they will use later in school, in university, and in their jobs.

Situation in Switzerland

On the morning of the day I took my flight to Boston, I took part in a meeting of an experts panel on CS competencies of the Hasler Foundation in Berne.  The foundation is working towards a proposal for a general subject "Computer Science" at Swiss schools.  Currently, some schools in some cantons offer CS as supplementary subject (in German: Ergänzungsfach).  However, this subject is often taught as it was in the 1990s: students learn how to use certain software, they don't learn to program, they don't learn about abstraction, algorithms, and data structures.  In the publication "informatik@gymnasium", published by the Hasler foundation through NZZ Libro (note that the German version of this book is already sold out!), the authors argue that CS and using software are two differnt things and that school should teach students the basics of CS to prepare future citizens to cope with everyday life.  It is probably a long way to achieve this goal, but it's a goal worth all the effort.

However, here we talk about serious teaching, not about fun instruction as in the case of scratch.

Answers from the Web

After coming home, I searched the web for comments about computer literacy and opinions or activities on teaching programming.  Bill Gates, in a questions session at Microsoft's Faculty Summit, confirmed that there is indeed a "gap between how computer scientists use computers to automate their lives and how most people don't really know how to use them effectively."

Larry Hardesty talks about the "programmable world" that surrounds us and that will change the world as we know it by making the distinctions between virtual and physical objects obsolete.  To make good use of the new world, we should be able to understand opportunities and challenges (and issues) and how to manage them.

In England, efforts are on their way to teach algortithms to primary school kids.  The government acknowledges the need to "catch up with the world's best education systems."  However, this new curriculum is still under development and the teacher's union isn't sure about when would be a good starting point to introduce it -- they object to only react to governmental decisions.  According to Sean Coughlan it will include computing defined as:

Computing will teach pupils how to write code. Pupils aged five to seven will be expected to "understand what algorithms are" and to "create and debug simple programs". By the age of 11, pupils will have to "design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems".

It would be great if England could manage to design and actually implement this aspect.

And there are discussions going on in the emerging field of "Digital Humanities": In a twitter post, Jan Hecker-Stampehl (@heckerstampehl) asks "Should humanities scholars learn to program or trust that the programmers in DH projects will understand them?", obviously not aware of the more than 30-year old answer, Jacques Froger gave 1970 (Froger, J. (1970). La critique des textes et l'ordinateur. Vigiliae Christianae 24 (3), 210-217.), as Michael Piotrowski responds:

Il n'est pas indispensable que le philologue établisse lui-même le programme, encore que ce soit infiniment souhaitable ; il devrait au moins connaître assez le langage de programmation pour contrôler le travail du technicien ; en effet, l'expérience m'a appris qu'il ne faut pas s'en remettre les yeux fermés aux électroniciens, mal préparés par leur formation mathématique à se faire une idée juste de problèmes concrets qui se posent dans la domaine de la philologie.
(English: It is not absolutely necessary that the philologist writes the program himself, even though it would be extremely desirable; but he must at least know the programming language, so that he is able to check the work of the technician; in fact, experience has taught me that one should not blindly rely on the electronics people, whose mathematical training has hardly prepared them for fully understanding the concrete problems encountered in the domain of philology. (translation by Piotrowski))


However, even in fields where you would expect learning to program to be part of the curriculum, it is rather rare, as the blog post by Philip Guo shows.  He argues: "If you're a scientist or engineer, programming can enable you to work 10 to 100 times faster and to come up with more creative solutions than your colleagues who don't know how to program."  Students would need more concrete motivation than only arguing that programming helps them become an empowered citizen (the argument Estrella-Luna used at North Eastern).  Guo accepts that programming tools, i.e., text editors, should be improved to foster programming, but in the meantime we should focus on teaching students programming skills to support creative problem solving.

Selena Larson emphasizes the need to teach programming to students in schools already.  She supports the Hour of Code initiative during Computer Education Week 2013, following a similar strategy as scratch: Using games and fun figures, kids should understand basic principles and get an idea about what it means to program.

Conclusion

Studies by professional assocations like the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) regularly show an increasing number of jobs requiring programming knowledge.  They also show that there is a lack of people with appropriate skills meeting these requirements.  So there is an urgent need in society. 

As I agree that school would be an appropriate place to start teaching basic concepts of CS, university should be the place to empower students to actually program.  Maybe learning to program, acquiring knowledge about algorithms and data structures should be a required course in every curriculum.  I strongly support the statement made by Steve Jobs in an interview in 1995 saying "It teaches you how to think.  I view computer science as a liberal art.  It should be something that everybody learns."

However, we are still on the way to implementing those ideas into education, be it in school or at university.  If we have the chance to support initiatives like the Hour of Code or panels and experts groups designing curricula, those of us having the respective knowledge, should take part and see this as opportunity to serve society.

Professor for one year (week 35): Should everybody know how to program?

This post is the report, I wrote for the GPP 2013.

Introduction

Being a computational linguist, I was trained in programming as well as in linguistics.  After school in the mid-nineties, I couldn't decide whether to focus on linguistics (or nowadays "humanities") or computer science/math (or nowadays "STEM").  So I was quite happy to be able to focus on both when studying computational linguistics.  I always loved algorithms, abstraction -- and yes, I also loved Latin.  Maybe that's a rare combination, but in today's world it turns out to be quite handy.

One aspect of the 2013 GPP motto "University and Society -- Meeting Expectations?" is the aspect of university as the institution to prepare students to be successfull in today's society.  In the last decade, we saw the emergence of more and more electronic devices, "digital" is one of the buzzwords in several scientific fields, technology becomes pervasive.  We speak of the "Generation Y" as being "digital natives."  However, if we look how today's students use technology, they are only users, they are not creators.  They often even don't know how to configure programs.

Douglas Rushkoff in his book Program or be Programmed argues that everybody should know how to program to understand today's technology and to be able to control it instead of becoming a slave of the electronic devices surrounding us.  So my personal focus in the GPP 2013 was to explore how universities support or enable learning to program.  Of course students in computer science (CS) and related fields (like computational linguistics) are trained in programming, but I was interested in courses for non-CS students.

Answers from US professors

During our visit in the US, I asked my question at two places explicitely and I got two different answers. 

At North Eastern University, Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna, an assistant academic specialist,  as she described herself, argued that indeed, computer literacy would be a valuable topic to teach considering that university should empower students to deal with current challenges.  However, she admitted that there are no courses offered to all students, not to mention being required.  My question was understood as asking about "teaching students how to program." 

At swissnex in Boston, we met Dr. James Honan, senior lecturer at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  He understood my question differently and answered that students would keep faculty busy and push them to use more technology.  He talked about MOOCs before and probably this influenced his answer.  However, his statement made clear that there is a view of "computer literacy" as "being able to use devices", including the expectation that instructors offer digital content and e-learning material.

At this moment, I was a bit disappointed.  Either the necessity of teaching and learning how to program is not recognized, or, when it is recognized, it is impossible to offer such courses for all students.

While at the MIT, we visited the Media Lab and the "Lifelong Kindergarten" headed by Professor Mitchel Resnick.  We got an introduction into scratch, the programming language and online community intended to teach kids how to program using a game concept.  They learn abstraction, algorithmics, and data structures while they play with code snippets, interact with other kids around the world, and program their own games and worlds.  It's an advanced model of learning the concept of recursion while playing "Towers of Hanoi."  I was aware of scratch before and I really enjoyed seeing some demos and talking to the researchers involved in designing and implementing scratch.  I think using games as a vehicle for teaching important concepts is a good strategy -- the users aren't probably not even aware that they acquire valuable knowledge they will use later in school, in university, and in their jobs.

Situation in Switzerland

On the morning of the day I took my flight to Boston, I took part in a meeting of an experts panel on CS competencies of the Hasler Foundation in Berne.  The foundation is working towards a proposal for a general subject "Computer Science" at Swiss schools.  Currently, some schools in some cantons offer CS as supplementary subject (in German: Ergänzungsfach).  However, this subject is often taught as it was in the 1990s: students learn how to use certain software, they don't learn to program, they don't learn about abstraction, algorithms, and data structures.  In the publication "informatik@gymnasium", published by the Hasler foundation through NZZ Libro (note that the German version of this book is already sold out!), the authors argue that CS and using software are two differnt things and that school should teach students the basics of CS to prepare future citizens to cope with everyday life.  It is probably a long way to achieve this goal, but it's a goal worth all the effort.

However, here we talk about serious teaching, not about fun instruction as in the case of scratch.

Answers from the Web

After coming home, I searched the web for comments about computer literacy and opinions or activities on teaching programming.  Bill Gates, in a questions session at Microsoft's Faculty Summit, confirmed that there is indeed a "gap between how computer scientists use computers to automate their lives and how most people don't really know how to use them effectively."

Larry Hardesty talks about the "programmable world" that surrounds us and that will change the world as we know it by making the distinctions between virtual and physical objects obsolete.  To make good use of the new world, we should be able to understand opportunities and challenges (and issues) and how to manage them.

In England, efforts are on their way to teach algortithms to primary school kids.  The government acknowledges the need to "catch up with the world's best education systems."  However, this new curriculum is still under development and the teacher's union isn't sure about when would be a good starting point to introduce it -- they object to only react to governmental decisions.  According to Sean Coughlan it will include computing defined as:

Computing will teach pupils how to write code. Pupils aged five to seven will be expected to "understand what algorithms are" and to "create and debug simple programs". By the age of 11, pupils will have to "design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems".

It would be great if England could manage to design and actually implement this aspect.

And there are discussions going on in the emerging field of "Digital Humanities": In a twitter post, Jan Hecker-Stampehl (@heckerstampehl) asks "Should humanities scholars learn to program or trust that the programmers in DH projects will understand them?", obviously not aware of the more than 30-year old answer, Jacques Froger gave 1970 (Froger, J. (1970). La critique des textes et l'ordinateur. Vigiliae Christianae 24 (3), 210-217.), as Michael Piotrowski responds:

Il n'est pas indispensable que le philologue établisse lui-même le programme, encore que ce soit infiniment souhaitable ; il devrait au moins connaître assez le langage de programmation pour contrôler le travail du technicien ; en effet, l'expérience m'a appris qu'il ne faut pas s'en remettre les yeux fermés aux électroniciens, mal préparés par leur formation mathématique à se faire une idée juste de problèmes concrets qui se posent dans la domaine de la philologie.
(English: It is not absolutely necessary that the philologist writes the program himself, even though it would be extremely desirable; but he must at least know the programming language, so that he is able to check the work of the technician; in fact, experience has taught me that one should not blindly rely on the electronics people, whose mathematical training has hardly prepared them for fully understanding the concrete problems encountered in the domain of philology. (translation by Piotrowski))


However, even in fields where you would expect learning to program to be part of the curriculum, it is rather rare, as the blog post by Philip Guo shows.  He argues: "If you're a scientist or engineer, programming can enable you to work 10 to 100 times faster and to come up with more creative solutions than your colleagues who don't know how to program."  Students would need more concrete motivation than only arguing that programming helps them become an empowered citizen (the argument Estrella-Luna used at North Eastern).  Guo accepts that programming tools, i.e., text editors, should be improved to foster programming, but in the meantime we should focus on teaching students programming skills to support creative problem solving.

Selena Larson emphasizes the need to teach programming to students in schools already.  She supports the Hour of Code initiative during Computer Education Week 2013, following a similar strategy as scratch: Using games and fun figures, kids should understand basic principles and get an idea about what it means to program.

Conclusion

Studies by professional assocations like the ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) regularly show an increasing number of jobs requiring programming knowledge.  They also show that there is a lack of people with appropriate skills meeting these requirements.  So there is an urgent need in society. 

As I agree that school would be an appropriate place to start teaching basic concepts of CS, university should be the place to empower students to actually program.  Maybe learning to program, acquiring knowledge about algorithms and data structures should be a required course in every curriculum.  I strongly support the statement made by Steve Jobs in an interview in 1995 saying "It teaches you how to think.  I view computer science as a liberal art.  It should be something that everybody learns."

However, we are still on the way to implementing those ideas into education, be it in school or at university.  If we have the chance to support initiatives like the Hour of Code or panels and experts groups designing curricula, those of us having the respective knowledge, should take part and see this as opportunity to serve society.

Professor for one year (week 34): GPP2013 aka higher education bootcamp

This year, I could take part in the Global Perspectives Programme (sorry for the British spelling) -- GPP2013 --, a joint program by the University of Basel and Virginia Tech.  In Basel, we were 8 participants (mostly PhD students) from Chemistry, Law, Sports Medicine, and Computational Linguistics (that's me).  We met in March for a kick-off and started our social-media journey: setting up blogs, joining Facebook and LinkedIn groups, creating a Twitter account, becoming familiar with document sharing applications (Adam, a Moodle clone in Basel, and Scholar, a Sakai clone at Virginia Tech). 

We subscribed to three groups working on aspects of this years topic "University and Society -- Meeting expectations?"  Those groups were formed by participants from Basel and Virginia Tech.  However, we didn't invest much in this groupwork before meeting in person when the Virginia Tech participants visited Switzerland in early June.  They were based in Riva San Vitale (TI) and visited several universities in Switzerland, France (Strasbourg), and Italy (Milano).  We could join them for two days in Riva San Vitale, got to know each other, and started exploring the topic.  Similar to us, the US participants came from different scientific fields and were at different stages in their academic career -- there was no postdoc, though.

In the middle of June, we flew to Boston to start our visit of US institutions of Higher Education.  An two days in Boston, we visited Northeastern University, Boston College, swissnex (where we met James Hanson from Harvard), and the MIT.  On the evening of the second day, we were supposed to travel to Blacksburg.  However, due to bad weather conditions, our flight was delayed and we spent a few hours at a bar at the Boston airport before taking the last flight to Charlotte.  We slept a few hours in a motel and then took the first flight to Roanoke Regional Airport -- of course we couldn't access our luggage, so we had to come up with innovative solutions for cleaning contact lenses and brushing teeth.

Our colleagues from VT picked us up at the airport and gave us a ride to Blacksburg.  I guess nobody slept in the vans, we chatted a few hours and arrived at the campus quite exhausted and looking for a shower.  However, we started exploring the campus immediately, looking at student housing, meeting with faculty, and trying to make a good impression.  In the afternoon we visited the New River Community College and then we headed back to the VT campus to finally get a shower and dress up for the formal reception.

We started the next day with a working breakfast, discussing how to present group work outcomes at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C. at the end of the day.  Then we took the vans again to go to Washington, D.C, and to visit two other universities on the way: George Mason University and Virginia University.  More and more, the journey turned into an academic bootcamp: We had less and less time to meet with faculty at each station -- and thus needed to shorten our introductions and ask short and precise questions -- and finally we dressed for the formal reception at the Air and Space Smithsonian (we could take part in welcoming the crew of the Solar Impuse who had almost finished their journey across America a few days before) within 15 minutes on the George Mason parking lot.  And I think we all looked great and behaved well!

The next morning, our colleagues from VT drove us to the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C., where we presented the outcomes of our group work and posed some answers and even more questions to the audience.  We had a lively discussion during this official session and then we had lunch at the embassy.  It was very nice to continue discussions we had to cut short during our trip -- people from George Mason University and from Virginia Tech attended the meeting.

After coffee, it was over.  We had to find our way back to the hotel on our own -- of course nobody was prepared which subway to take or even knew in what part of the city the embassy was located.  Later we met for a final dinner and a short debriefing and then we started our trips home (some of us with a stop over in New York, some stayed a bit longer in Washington, D.C.).

A few weeks ago, we had the final closure of GPP2013 at the Institute for European Global Studies in Basel.  We had met before during summer for attending doctoral defenses or birthday parties.  We have become friends, and this is probably due to those bonding experiences during the GPP bootcamp.  I really enjoyed this experience!  And yes, I would do it again.

Professor for one year (week 34): GPP2013 aka higher education bootcamp

This year, I could take part in the Global Perspectives Programme (sorry for the British spelling) -- GPP2013 --, a joint program by the University of Basel and Virginia Tech.  In Basel, we were 8 participants (mostly PhD students) from Chemistry, Law, Sports Medicine, and Computational Linguistics (that's me).  We met in March for a kick-off and started our social-media journey: setting up blogs, joining Facebook and LinkedIn groups, creating a Twitter account, becoming familiar with document sharing applications (Adam, a Moodle clone in Basel, and Scholar, a Sakai clone at Virginia Tech). 

We subscribed to three groups working on aspects of this years topic "University and Society -- Meeting expectations?"  Those groups were formed by participants from Basel and Virginia Tech.  However, we didn't invest much in this groupwork before meeting in person when the Virginia Tech participants visited Switzerland in early June.  They were based in Riva San Vitale (TI) and visited several universities in Switzerland, France (Strasbourg), and Italy (Milano).  We could join them for two days in Riva San Vitale, got to know each other, and started exploring the topic.  Similar to us, the US participants came from different scientific fields and were at different stages in their academic career -- there was no postdoc, though.

In the middle of June, we flew to Boston to start our visit of US institutions of Higher Education.  An two days in Boston, we visited Northeastern University, Boston College, swissnex (where we met James Hanson from Harvard), and the MIT.  On the evening of the second day, we were supposed to travel to Blacksburg.  However, due to bad weather conditions, our flight was delayed and we spent a few hours at a bar at the Boston airport before taking the last flight to Charlotte.  We slept a few hours in a motel and then took the first flight to Roanoke Regional Airport -- of course we couldn't access our luggage, so we had to come up with innovative solutions for cleaning contact lenses and brushing teeth.

Our colleagues from VT picked us up at the airport and gave us a ride to Blacksburg.  I guess nobody slept in the vans, we chatted a few hours and arrived at the campus quite exhausted and looking for a shower.  However, we started exploring the campus immediately, looking at student housing, meeting with faculty, and trying to make a good impression.  In the afternoon we visited the New River Community College and then we headed back to the VT campus to finally get a shower and dress up for the formal reception.

We started the next day with a working breakfast, discussing how to present group work outcomes at the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C. at the end of the day.  Then we took the vans again to go to Washington, D.C, and to visit two other universities on the way: George Mason University and Virginia University.  More and more, the journey turned into an academic bootcamp: We had less and less time to meet with faculty at each station -- and thus needed to shorten our introductions and ask short and precise questions -- and finally we dressed for the formal reception at the Air and Space Smithsonian (we could take part in welcoming the crew of the Solar Impuse who had almost finished their journey across America a few days before) within 15 minutes on the George Mason parking lot.  And I think we all looked great and behaved well!

The next morning, our colleagues from VT drove us to the Swiss embassy in Washington, D.C., where we presented the outcomes of our group work and posed some answers and even more questions to the audience.  We had a lively discussion during this official session and then we had lunch at the embassy.  It was very nice to continue discussions we had to cut short during our trip -- people from George Mason University and from Virginia Tech attended the meeting.

After coffee, it was over.  We had to find our way back to the hotel on our own -- of course nobody was prepared which subway to take or even knew in what part of the city the embassy was located.  Later we met for a final dinner and a short debriefing and then we started our trips home (some of us with a stop over in New York, some stayed a bit longer in Washington, D.C.).

A few weeks ago, we had the final closure of GPP2013 at the Institute for European Global Studies in Basel.  We had met before during summer for attending doctoral defenses or birthday parties.  We have become friends, and this is probably due to those bonding experiences during the GPP bootcamp.  I really enjoyed this experience!  And yes, I would do it again.

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.
Screen Shot 2013-06-25 at 4.45.55 PM

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.”

Professor for one year (week 11): What does University contribute to Society?

Last week, I participated in the Global Perspectives Programme, a joint program from University of Basel and Virginia Tech to foster academic exchange about Higher Education.  This year, the topic of the program was "University and Society: Meeting Expectations?"  We explored various aspects of "Society," "University," and "Expectations."  There are so many definitions and views of these broad concepts, that one could discuss hours and hours.  One aspect, however, is what university is expected to contribute to society.  Is it about providing solutions to current or future problems?  Is it about foreseeing future problems?  Is it about developing resources to be used for society's needs?  Is university urged to serve society and provide what society explicitly wants or to provide what society unconsciously needs?  So far, we wondered, what kind of solution universities would produce.

Most of the time, faculty and administration talked just about the questions we were exploring.  During our one-week trip in the US, the Basel group also visited Virginia Tech and had a vivid conversation with faculty of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).  Christopher Barrett, Scientific Director of the VBI, argued that universities would provide methods and tools to be used by society, i.e., policy-makers, to solve problems.  He emphasized that universities do not contribute solutions for current or future problems.

This statement made me wonder: At the one hand, with an attitude like this -- universities provide resources and tools to be used by others -- there is much room for basic research, i.e., research with no urgent application but that could be useful in the future.  Researchers are freed from the pressure to explicitly show usefulness in today's society.  And it makes clear that society is responsible for solving problems and for making use of the provided resources and tools.  A very comfortable statement for research, I think.

On the other hand, it reminded me a bit of the drama "Die Physiker" (The Physicists) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt from 1961 and the Manhattan Project (Einstein later regretted having signed the letter to Roosevelt in 1939 recommending that atom bombs be made).  And more so as Barrett told us that he had worked at Los Alamos before coming to VBI.  When universities -- or more precisely: researchers -- say that they only provide tools to be used by whomever, researchers implicitly say that they are not responsible for any outcome.  A researcher invents something, hands it over to the public and then doesn't care about how and by whom it is used. 

Although I appreciate the attitude to provide resources and tools rather than tailored solutions, I think universities should carefully state how to make use of their tools and emphasize the intended use.   Researchers should always take into account possible use of their findings -- the affordances -- and how to prevent criminal, inhuman, or warlike use.


Professor for one year (week 11): What does University contribute to Society?

Last week, I participated in the Global Perspectives Programme, a joint program from University of Basel and Virginia Tech to foster academic exchange about Higher Education.  This year, the topic of the program was "University and Society: Meeting Expectations?"  We explored various aspects of "Society," "University," and "Expectations."  There are so many definitions and views of these broad concepts, that one could discuss hours and hours.  One aspect, however, is what university is expected to contribute to society.  Is it about providing solutions to current or future problems?  Is it about foreseeing future problems?  Is it about developing resources to be used for society's needs?  Is university urged to serve society and provide what society explicitly wants or to provide what society unconsciously needs?  So far, we wondered, what kind of solution universities would produce.

Most of the time, faculty and administration talked just about the questions we were exploring.  During our one-week trip in the US, the Basel group also visited Virginia Tech and had a vivid conversation with faculty of the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI).  Christopher Barrett, Scientific Director of the VBI, argued that universities would provide methods and tools to be used by society, i.e., policy-makers, to solve problems.  He emphasized that universities do not contribute solutions for current or future problems.

This statement made me wonder: At the one hand, with an attitude like this -- universities provide resources and tools to be used by others -- there is much room for basic research, i.e., research with no urgent application but that could be useful in the future.  Researchers are freed from the pressure to explicitly show usefulness in today's society.  And it makes clear that society is responsible for solving problems and for making use of the provided resources and tools.  A very comfortable statement for research, I think.

On the other hand, it reminded me a bit of the drama "Die Physiker" (The Physicists) by Friedrich Dürrenmatt from 1961 and the Manhattan Project (Einstein later regretted having signed the letter to Roosevelt in 1939 recommending that atom bombs be made).  And more so as Barrett told us that he had worked at Los Alamos before coming to VBI.  When universities -- or more precisely: researchers -- say that they only provide tools to be used by whomever, researchers implicitly say that they are not responsible for any outcome.  A researcher invents something, hands it over to the public and then doesn't care about how and by whom it is used. 

Although I appreciate the attitude to provide resources and tools rather than tailored solutions, I think universities should carefully state how to make use of their tools and emphasize the intended use.   Researchers should always take into account possible use of their findings -- the affordances -- and how to prevent criminal, inhuman, or warlike use.


A Speech Shared at the Swiss Embassy

This speech was shared to describe the Virginia Tech Global Perspectives Program at the Switzerland Embassy on June 21st 2013.

After a series of meetings leading up to our departure, 13 VT graduate students, embarked on a quest to learn more about higher education from a global perspective.  Now, the word quest was carefully chosen, not from a thesaurus, but from a description of education from Sir Ken Robinson, a TED talk icon who advocates for revolutionizing education.  Everything that Sir Robinson says is quite brilliant and I felt that it was important to add his insight in an attempt to make my presentation more interesting.  He explains that a journey takes you to a known destination but a quest is a much more mysterious path of discovery.  He believes that education should be a quest.  And so on May 26th we conveyed in Switzerland not knowing exactly what we would find. 
 
We had the great honor of conversing with university presidents, professors, students, and staff in France, Italy, and Switzerland.  At each meeting we inquired about the teaching practices and reward systems, job prospects for doctoral students, and the process for completing a thesis.  We asked about student motivation, online education, ethical practices, issues of diversity, sustainability, and the bologna process amongst a million other things.  University presidents graciously shared their time and perspective on higher education.  Rector Lopriano at the University of Basel reminded us of the importance of uselessness and usefulness at the university.  Through this he conveyed the pressures of society on the university.  Professors welcomed us into their labs and described the life of a faculty member at their respective institutions.  A newly hired professor at ETH shared with us that he suggests alternatives and asks questions in his lab much more often than he gives answers.  He also shared with us the innovative possibilities that are cultivated in a trusting and creative community. The graduate students expressed similar struggles in writing a graduate thesis or a book if you’re in the humanities.  University staff members also explained the many administrative changes that have taken place as a result of the Bologna Process.      
 
As our quest progressed, I found that I had more questions than I had answers about global higher education.  What’s more, is that our traditional views of education were challenged while abroad.  Each visit sparked curiosity and critical thought.  With the help of the Basel students, we were able to further grapple with the purpose of the university in a rapidly changing and demanding society.  We wrestled with the similarities and differences of our educational systems to gain a broader view of the global picture.  We found that each step in the process of molding young minds is inexplicitly linked to the next.  And with each personal revelation, I learned something new about the way I viewed the world.  I think what I valued most between the conversations that we had and the wine we drank, were the times when we challenged ourselves to think about what higher education could be.    
 
The impact that this quest has had on me remains unclear.  I don’t know exactly what I will do with my newly acquired views of higher education, only time will tell.  But I do know that the experience we had with the Global Perspectives Program was life changing.  I like to say it was a top 10 life experience, but then again I am still young.  I believe that this experience has infused in us a pioneering spirit that we will carry with us throughout our years in higher education.  We will be able to develop innovative and effective approaches that foster international awareness and education.
 
I hope it is clear that the program provides students with a unique interdisciplinary study-at-home and study abroad experience.  One that promotes professionalism and facilitates the transition of thoughtful graduate students into globally engaged members of the new professoriate.  The program is offered within Virginia Tech’s Transformative Graduate Education initiative.  This initiative pushes the boundaries of traditional disciplinary academic education and provides the philosophical underpinnings for a truly innovative graduate education experience. The initiative aims to significantly change how graduate students are prepared to become the next generation of scientists, educators, scholars, engineers, artists, and career professionals in an ever-evolving global context. 
 
 In a video we watched last night, Bertrand Piccard, the pilot for the solar impulse said in an address to university students that if you want to be useful you must go beyond knowledge and you must explore. 
 
I believe this is exactly the purpose of the program, to explore alternative perspectives of higher education and to inspire a seemingly impossible feat, rethinking education for the future. 
 
Here we are at the Solar Impulse reception at the Air and Space Museum

Here we are at the Solar Impulse reception at the Air and Space Museum

Virginia Tech students and University of Basel students at the Swiss Embassy

Virginia Tech students and University of Basel students at the Swiss Embassy


Usefully Useless

I have heard it said that:

“An education is that which remains after you have forgotten everything you learned in college”

This is an interesting quote considering the amount of discussion that goes on in departments about the “importance” of the classes that students are required to take.  There is a debate between the sciences and humanities.  Which will better prepare you for the “Real World” everyone is eventually headed to?  What is more useful?

Professors talk about the syllabus, tests, readings, and homework sets that make their class more effective, more useful than that other disciplines courses.  Hours and hours are spent grading these endless assignments in order to provide effective feedback to students in an attempt to facilitate learning.  Is this time well spent?  Are these the right discussions to be having?

Assuming the role of the university is to provide an education, and assuming that you, the reader, agree with the quote above the debate of Useful vs. Useless takes on new meaning.  If you still have an education after forgetting everything you ever “learned” what remains?  It can’t be the knowledge that was the topic of the useful vs. useless debate at your university.  You forgot that.

Perhaps what remains is the confidence that you can learn something.  Rector Loprieno of the University of Basel shared that while a particular course of study may be deemed Useless by outsiders or industry an individual participating often comes away having retained something Useful.

What is it that separates the Useless from the Useful?  What and who defines that which is called Useful?  And knowing that Useful things often emerge from seemingly Useless exercises how should the university respond to the Useful vs. Useless debate?