Additional Blog: Community Colleges

Looking at where tuition costs are today, I am surprised more people don’t go to community colleges. Community colleges seem to me to be a great option. They offer freshman and sophomore level education at a fraction of what it costs at 4 year institutions.

And they give students a chance to transfer to four year colleges. Most community colleges even have formal transfer agreements with full universities.  Some very high quality four year schools have such agreements with community colleges- University of California (Berkeley), UCLA, Michigan, University of Texas.

If I could “re-do” my college career, I would probably choose to go down the community college route and then transferred to a full university. Would have saved me over 40k! And I would end up with the very same bachelor’s degree in the same amount of time.

I did take a couple of courses at a community college. But that was while I was enrolled in a regular four-year school during my freshman year. I found the quality of teaching to be excellent at the community colleges. The instructors may not have been the “renowned” researchers and scholars that I had at my undergrad school, but they were excellent teachers. They cared about teaching. Not sure I can say that about all my professors at my four-year school!

Reading some of the recent developments in higher ed, I am quite disappointed that community college enrollment is falling nationwide. From my readings I gather that this Is because community colleges have traditionally catered to more low-income students, and even small increases in typically a low rate of tuition, can make community college costs beyond the reach of these students.

I hope (although unlikely) that government funding can sustain the community college system. Offering more scholarships for community college system might in fact be cheaper for the government if this could nudge students to begin their higher education in community colleges before transferring to full schools.

Additional blog: PhD while working

I must say, I admire those that work full time and go to grad school part time. Of course there are some that work full-time and go to school full time. But those are relatively few.

It’s admirable enough doing a part time master’s degree while working. But in the last couple of years I have met quite a few people who are pursuing their PhD while working. Some of them also have families. Often young kids. Sometimes they are single parents. And many of them are doing amazingly well in each of those roles- as an employee, a parent, and as a student.

I am not sure how they do it. Between my coursework and research, I hardly have any time left. That’s true every day, including weekends.

Time management, I suppose is the key. I sometimes I ask myself I could maintain my performance (which is currently acceptable, but certainly not stellar!) if I put in less time, so I can do more. And the truth is, I probably could not!

Which is why I have tremendous respect for those who are able to succeed as PhD students while working full time!

I don’t have the statistics with me, but I remember reading recently that there are an increasing number of people in this situation- those that work and concurrently pursue a PhD.  And their PhD completion rate was not much lower than those students who did not have full time jobs.

Virginia Tech too has quite a few of these students. Many of them are part of our executive PhD programs. They work during the week, and take classes on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings.  They do well in the courses too. Several of them are also doing excellent research, and publishing in top journals.  One of them even told me that she gets of sleep a day!
A full-time job and a PhD is something I could never balance. So a shout-out to those that do!

Future of the University: Preparing to become online instructors

Some of us may not like it. Some of us absolutely love it. But at this point, most of us agree that online class offerings are only going to increase in the future. This blog isn’t about the advantages or disadvantages of online learning- that has been discussed ad nauseam.

Instead I am wondering why universities are not spending more resources in preparing PhD students and current faculty in becoming better online teachers. Online classes are a different ballgame. Although they have been around for a couple of decades, in the last few years we have witnessed an even sharper increase in online offerings than before. And this trend is only likely to continue.

Yet we have faculty that are completely untrained in the nuances of online teaching. Whether by accident or by choice, I have taken several online classes as a student. Some of the instructors have been downright awful. And others have been absolutely fantastic.

I have also taken classes with many of the same instructors in regular traditional classroom settings. Interestingly the instructors that are good in traditional classroom settings are not necessarily good with online classes. And some that have been quite inept in the traditional classroom have been surprisingly adept with their online teaching! This only confirms online and traditional classroom teaching require vastly different skillet.

I am not sure universities are sufficiently training faculty to become online teachers. Of course, not all faculty have the desire or willingness to be taught. But I am sure there are many that would welcome the help.

Many of us, grad students, might certainly welcome more training in becoming effective online teachers. Quite a few assistant professor job descriptions I have come across recently express a preference for candidates who have online teaching experience. But our departments don’t always give us a chance to teach online during our PhD.

There are some workshops that are offered, and I have attended a couple of them. They have been great, and I have recommended them to colleagues. But I do feel that schools need to do more in training faculty and PhD students to teach online.

Additional blog: Prelims

Someone in the class posted a blog about qualifying exams. Which had me thinking about prelims…

Virginia Tech, like many other grad schools in the country, requires that all PhD students take prelim exams during their Phd.  The exam may be oral or written. But it is required of all VT PhD students as part of the degree requirements.  At some departments, this is nothing more than a minor formality. At other departments, the exam is to be taken very seriously, and students are indeed sometimes asked to leave because their performance on the prelims is deemed unsatisfactory.

I would argue that PhD prelims are an obsolete requirement that schools should get rid of. A lot of the material on the prelims, we have already been tested on in courses we have taken.   In some departments, we might also have been tested on similar material in qualifying exams (which are of course different from prelims).

As more and more PhD programs are expected to become even more research oriented, the prelims almost become a distraction.

For many, the way the prelims are conducted also adds to their irrelevance. Sometimes it is a 7-8 hour exam or more. Sometimes multiple days of 7-8 exams. On a department laptop that was probably purchased in the 1990s! Internet access is disabled, and the student may not bring in books, notes, articles, etc. Which means everything must be memorized.

Add to that every student in a department might experience a very different exam. Some might be given incredibly difficult prelims. Others might be given easy exams.

The whole process seems completely contrary and counterproductive to where we are moving in terms of education, testing and research. Yet many schools and many departments persist with this obsolete style of examination!

How should departments deal with a student who has done well in courses, but does poorly in the prelims? What if the student has done well in coursework, teaching and research, but does poorly in the prelims?

And what if it were the opposite? A student has been mediocre in coursework, research and teaching, but aces the prelims?

Additional Blog: Study abroad opportunities for US PhD students?

In many PhD programs in Europe (and perhaps  other countries too) it is quite common for PhD students to study abroad a few months during their PhD.  These programs may sometimes be referred to as visiting research periods, visiting scholar periods, etc.  But the idea is to give the PhD student a chance to go spend a period abroad with at a place where may be other researchers working on the same topic.

We host quite a few visiting PhD scholars at Virginia Tech and at other U.S. universities. PhD students at schools around the world come and spend a semester or two at American schools.

But I wonder sometimes why more students enrolled in U.S. PhD programs don’t spend similar periods at foreign universities.  Of course, it is not unheard of. It does happens sometimes. But for the most part this seems to happen more for students who have a very direct reason to spend time abroad during the PhD. A doctoral student at an American university studying French literature, for example, may spend a few months in France during the PhD. A scholarship – like a Fulbright scholarship – that might allow a US PhD student to undertake an academic visit abroad. But visits like these are certainly not the norm.

But I have not seen many Econ majors, or Marketing majors, or Physics majors go to a university for a few months. It’s not that there aren’t good Econ departments or Marketing departments or Physics departments outside the U.S. There are. Many of them are extremely prestigious and have faculty that could provide tremendous guidance to PhD students in the U.S.

This surprised me a bit, because there is a strong emphasis in the United States on study abroad during students’ undergrad and Master’s years. I would imagine that one reason for this is our assistantship situation. Most of us in the US are funded by assistantships-  essentially work in exchange for tuition waivers and a stipend.

Additional Blog: Government proposing making accreditation easier

The United States government recently proposed several changes to the college accreditation system. These changes include making it easier for college accreditation agencies to be recognized by the government, for schools to gain accreditation, for schools to outsource some of their programs to unaccredited agencies, and for schools to launch new programs (Gunn, 2019).

I am not sure how I feel about these changes. As universities become more and more commercial and driven by money, I would have thought that the role of accreditation agencies should becomes more prominent. Oversight from accreditation agencies would help maintain certain minimum thresholds for educational standards are met by universities. However, the government is pushing for less oversight which means that more university practices might go unchecked.

Might we, for example, see academic departments churning out new in-demand academic programs before the departments are truly ready to offer such programs? Might we see universities turn even more to cost-effective adjuncts and instructors rather than tenure-track faculty?

There might also be other consequences. This might also mean for instance that more federal funds would be distributed to certain universities that may not have previously been eligible for those funds. And that it turn means that there may be less funds for students at institutions like VT.

I am certainly for easier access to education for more people. I do, however, think that standards need to be maintained. And universities themselves are not in a position to determine their own standards.

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Dwyer, G. (2019) , “America needs to rethink higher education”,  Pacific Standard

Blog #4: Social Media in the Classroom

Article: Voivonta & Lucy Avraamidou (2018): Facebook: a potentially valuable educational tool? Educational Media International, DOI: 10.1080/09523987.2018.1439708

Social media has grown substantially over the last 10-15 years, and today it is much more than a network for friends and family. Just in the last 12 months, I have used social media to make travel plans, to learn about job opportunities, local events and concerns, in apartment searches, etc.

The presence of social media in the academic setting has also increased substantially.  And while social media use in the classroom is undoubtedly only going to increase, one has to be careful about correctly implementing this.

The article I read (see citation above) reports findings of an experiment using students enrolled in a course at an educational institution. The experiment involved examining effectiveness of integrating traditional lecture delivery and Facebook. This was done by setting up a class group on Facebook where news stories in preparation for lectures were provided.  Students experienced two-thirds of the class with under the Facebook intervention and the other one-third without (thus the control group was inherent).

The results were interesting and surprising-  the Facebook intervention did not result in higher levels of engagement or understanding. The authors conclude that while social media interaction may be useful in many classroom settings, its implementation has to be carefully managed.  Successful integration may involve appropriate “timing of content delivery, the integration of social media content with course assessment and the students’ own perspective on using social media for academic purposes.”

I found this article interesting, especially because I have taken courses when social media was used, but perhaps not used very effectively. While social media may offer many advantages in the classroom, one must also be careful in how its integration with lectures is executed. This aspect of social media in the classroom is too often neglected.

Blog#3: Open Access

The timing of the Open Access blog requirement for this class could not have been better. With the 10-campus University of California System terminating its subscription with scientific publishing giant Elsevier, the debate about open-access the “topic of the week” in many academic circles, and not just in this course.

The move marks a major win for proponents of open access. The sheer numbers involved are staggering. The University of California enrolls over a quarter million students across its campuses. It includes some of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the world, including the University of California Berkley, and University of California Los Angeles.   10% of the country’s publishing output comes from the University of California System.

Elsevier has a brand new CEO that has been on the job less than three weeks. This marks as testing a welcome as she could ever get.

It will be interesting to observe how Elsevier responds. And it will be interesting to observe how other schools respond. But I also wonder if this news gives rise to more open access journals. There are not many truly open access journals in Economics. Real-World Economics Review is, however, one of the few. The journal is associated with the World Economics Association- an organization which:

“fills a gap in the international community of economists — the absence of a truly international, inclusive, pluralist, professional association.”

Economics has tended to extremely one-dimensional for many decades, and alternative schools of thought have not always enjoyed either a voice or a platform. As such, this journal seems to address two issues: pluralism of thought, and open-access.

Although the journal does not directly explain address the reasons for positioning itself as open-access, the manifesto of its parent organization make the reasons easy to guess.  The organizations strives for the free exploration of economic reality, openness and transparent input from all, and a truly global democracy that does not allow domination of one country or continent.

References:

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/02/university-california-boycotts-publishing-giant-elsevier-over-journal-costs-and-open

http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/

Blog 2: Ethics

Like many students have noted in their blogs, many of the cases listed at the Office of Research Integrity (ORI) scholarly integrity website pertain more to the fields of sciences and medicine. Not having that background, much of the terminology was unfamiliar for me. There are, however, patterns of misconduct that seem to be common across academic disciplines. These include, for example, the falsification and fabrication of data and images, the willful omission of pertinent data, and plagiarism.

I examined closely the case of Li Wang, a professor of Professor of Physiology and Neurobiology at the University of Connecticut. The researcher falsified data in small number of inter-connected grant applications- a violation that appears to be quite common in disciplines where the capacity to obtain grants is seen as an important criterion for academic success.

The researcher seems to have cooperated with the investigation, admitted to the misconduct, expressed remorse, and taken responsibility for her behavior. As a result of the investigation’s conclusions, she faced only moderate sanctions, which required that for a period of one year:

  • she have her research supervised,
  • her employing institution and co-investigators on future grant applications to provide a certificate to ORI regarding the accuracy of data and methods, and
  • she exclude herself from serving in an advisory capacity on certain committees and consultancies.

Moreover, if her department page is current, she continues to be employed at her position at the University of Connecticut.

While many may argue that she “got away easy”, and that several other researchers have been terminated from their jobs and shunned from their profession, I find her sanctions to be about appropriate. In other words, the “punishment should fit the crime”. Leave the life-long bans for the more egregious cases of misconduct and for those that are repeat offenders.  The underlying goal of research is to advance knowledge, and some otherwise brilliant researchers who commit one isolated mistake might still have a lot to offer to the advancement of knowledge.

Moreover, researchers who commit mild to moderate violations of ethics, and who “own-up” to their mistakes ought to be given a second chance.  This might encourage more researchers to come forward and acknowledge some of their past mistakes, which in turn might more effectively clean up some of the bad literature that is out there.

Two very different schools

For this assignment, I chose two institutions of higher learning that are neighbors geographically, but perhaps worlds apart in every other aspect. Columbia University in Upper Manhattan (New York City) is an elite, private, doctoral degree granting research university that is frequently listed among the best universities in the world. Only a few miles away is the Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) – a public two-year community college that is possibly unknown even to many New Yorkers.

Columbia University’s mission statement reads:

“Columbia University is one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields. The University recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis. It seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body, to support research and teaching on global issues, and to create academic relationships with many countries and regions. It expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.”

BMCC’s mission statement is, on the other hand:

“Borough of Manhattan Community College is a vibrant, pluralistic learning community committed to the intellectual and personal growth of students. Working closely with organizations across New York City and beyond, we prepare students from around the globe for degree completion, successful transfer, career achievement, lifelong learning, and civic participation.”

Although I see differences between the two mission statements, I also see a couple of similarities.  First, both Columbia and BMCC highlight in their mission statements their presence in New York City. The NYC location is clearly defining facet of their appeal, and central to the core mission of both institutions. Second, both schools emphasize their diversity and global reach- traits that perhaps characterize the collegiate environment at most American and several overseas educational institutions.

The differences between the two mission statements are not overly surprising. While Columbia’s encompasses a strong commitment to research and knowledge advancement, BMCC is understandably more focused on the teaching of applied skills, career development and adult learning.