Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Make a Professor Feel Stupid

I am preparing to teach my first online course. I am using the LearnSmart system from McGraw-Hill Publishing. It is for a science course with laboratories. I wanted to go through the lab activities myself so I could tell the students how to navigate the system, where to click, how to submit their answers, etc. But I found that I was unable to figure the system out myself, nor were the technical support representatives with whom I have been on the phone for two hours.

Warning: If you are not an educator, you will find this very boring. Please check back later for a more interesting blog entry.

About three hours ago, I started going through the first laboratory, “metric measurement.” I clicked on module 1, “length.” There were three other modules. In module 1, I had to use the mouse to drag a ruler across some circles and measure their diameters in centimeters. Perfectly easy. I had to put the answers, one by one, in a notebook, minimizing the notebook each time. When I was finished, I had to decide whether to click on “more” or “back to simulator.” I clicked on “back to simulator,” and the program sent me back to the beginning, so I had to measure new circles all over again. This time I clicked “more” then “finish,” and the computer lavished heaps of praise on me for being able to measure things with a ruler. I did the same thing with the measurement of a humerus bone, which was harder because you have to get the perspective correct. This is easy in the real world but difficult on a computer. But finally I got this right. I had to start over a couple of times, which means I measured those circles three times and the humerus twice. I also answered all the questions about “how many centimeters in a meter” etc.

I got a 100% on all the components of module 1. Whoopee! I am now at the level that I was in 1972. I am ready to go on to module 2, “weight.” But I cannot. The screen only told me how smart I was in module 1, but not how to get to module 2. I called customer support for the fourth time and asked. In order to help me, the representative had to try to do the entire lab himself. So he had to measure the circles and the humerus and answer questions about the metric system. I had to wait a half hour while he was doing this. The representative wanted me to allow him access to my computer through a Cisco Webex Remote Support Session to do this.

Since I had a half hour wait on the phone, I decided to write this essay, and I inserted a flash drive. All of a sudden the computer was unresponsive to anything else except Cisco. The computer acknowledged the flash drive I inserted, but said it had no files. The same was true of all other flash drives and ports. When I told the representative what had happened, he had to shut the whole session down and work on it by himself and just tell me how to finish the lab. Afterward I had to call the university computer support to remove the Cisco software that had disabled my computer. The Cisco software itself had no “uninstall” feature.

It turns out that to continue the lab, you have to click on a dull gray “overview” icon, and then make sure that you do not move your mouse more than a half inch to the right as you scroll down. Of course, there are no instructions telling you that this is the way to do it. All you can do is to call the help line, and it will take them an hour to figure it out. That is, a half hour of the representative working on it alone after a half hour of working on it with me.

Once I finally started module two, the instructions were to get a spoonful of salt and measure its weight in a beaker on a balance. Sounds simple? But the instructions do not tell you that you have to drag the spoon to the salt container, then click on it to fill it with salt, then drag it to the beaker. If you add the salt without having written the beaker weight down first, you cannot remove the salt, you just have to start over. And when you measure volumes (Module 3), you have to use the precision that the computer expects, or else you are wrong and have to start over.

This session was just an exercise in when and how to click and drag, rather than to learn metric measurements or how to make and interpret them. There are no instructions, therefore your grade reflects only how well you can guess the way the software works. How do you get salt from the container to the beaker? The instructions just say to transfer salt from the container to the beaker, not how.

I can imagine the frustration of a student paying almost $300 for a textbook with online labs, and then being unable to complete the labs because the publisher provides no instructions. I cannot help them, because the publisher does not give me any more information than it gives the students. All I can do is to tell the students to call the help line, and tell them that if they try to do the lab and it doesn’t work right, I will give them full credit anyway. Which means some of them can just claim that it didn’t work and get full credit. Which means no actual education took place.

I have been teaching for thirty years and suddenly I feel very, very stupid. But at least I am no more stupid than the company representatives. The only people who benefit from online courses are the CEOs of the publishing companies.

But guess who the students will be upset with when something doesn’t work. The CEO will never even hear their complaints—but only rake in their money.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Death of Expertise, a rant by Tom Nichols

Democracy means that “my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.” This is the classic quote from Isaac Asimov. This is the point from which Tom Nichols, a professor of National Security at the U.S. Navy War College, begins his book The Death of Experience. Nichols advanced Asimov’s point by adding such statements as “The United States is now obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance” and “we’re proud of not knowing things” (emphasis his).

This situation pisses me off as much as it does Nichols. An important example is the science of global warming. Anybody with a little bit of education, or no education at all, can simply claim that there is no evidence for global warming, when in fact there is. I have written before about how a certain Republican Congressman said he has never seen any evidence for global warming; there were piles of scientific papers on the table next to him that provided the evidence, but he simply did not look in that direction. My own study of global warming, which examines the budburst times of deciduous trees, has over 4000 lines of data. My countless hours of research mean no more to many people than someone’s antiscientific opinion not only based on a lack of evidence but even a lack of even looking up from the table. Somebody with no data at all can simply call me a liar (this has happened).

Another point that Nichols makes is that educators such as myself assume that if we explain things to people, they will believe us. But greater access to information has led to greater, not less, ignorance in the general public. Do you think that the Earth is the center of the universe? You can find a website that confirms your opinion. Really. But if we educators assumed that we cannot change people’s minds by informing them, we could hardly drag ourselves to work in the morning. I’d rather stock a produce shelf at a store (which requires intelligence, by the way) than to do work that is as meaningless as Nichols implies.

But very quickly Nichols’s book degenerates into a rant. He must be the most cynical professor on the planet. Here are some examples.

Nichols says that college is not about education anymore, but about pleasing the clients. We professors want the students to have a good time, even if they learn nothing. College cash flow depends on this. If colleges told half of their students that they had no business being in college, then all institutions of higher learning except the Navy War College would, I suppose, have to close its doors. But I consider this position to be extreme. It is true that I entertain my students, but I also give challenging exams. I firmly believe that students learn better when they enjoy the course. If they hate the course because the professor is cynical (not naming any names here), they will have irregular attendance, will not study, and will not complete assignments. My biology labs are full of laughter but also of learning. When I walk past the lab rooms, I see that this is also true of the labs of my colleagues.

Nichols says that many students can get good grades in courses by simply “exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide for a set number of weeks.” I was expecting Nichols to provide some data to back this up. He doesn’t even provide anecdotes, except one or two in the notes at the back of the book. Most of his references are like-minded screeds.

Nichols says that colleges have been bloated with majors that are meaningless and a waste of taxpayer and private money. He refers to this as “majors that shouldn’t exist.” Name one! He doesn’t. The long-standing joke is underwater basket-weaving, but it is a joke because no such major exists.

Nichols says that many little colleges have turned themselves into universities by adding meaningless graduate programs. Once again, name one!

Nichols implies that colleges are black boxes from which students emerge with degrees, and that a prospective employer cannot know whether those students have learned anything in college or not. He literally says this is academic malpractice. But he ignores two important processes that he must know about. The first is accreditation. Any college that had worthless programs would risk losing their professional accreditation and, as a result, their students’ access to financial aid. Everyone recognizes an unaccredited “diploma mill,” or at least they should. The second is transcripts. How can an employer tell which graduates are good and which are mediocre? Look at their transcripts! If the student got a lot of bad grades, then the employer has no right to complain if they hire a bad employee.

I teach biology, and even Nichols admits that the sciences are challenging for students. But he implies that students turn away from such challenging majors and instead go for the easy majors. There are two problems with this assumption. The first is that they usually don’t. I just saw the enrollment report for September 2017 from our university registrar, and biology is the number one identified major for incoming freshmen. Nichols may be right that many freshmen with undeclared majors might drift into a meaningless course of study. And as a matter of fact, our university provides a “general studies” major for these students. Any employer that hires a general studies major and expects him or her to know how to fly a plane has no right to complain. But most students choose challenging majors such as biology. Which brings me to the second point. What exactly are these dumbed-down (a term Nichols uses, as do many others) majors? Just last night at the supermarket I ran into an art student I remembered from a laboratory I taught. He does not sit around making papier-mâché bunnies or something. Our art program is rigorous and he would not complete his studies if he was lazy, at least not with good grades. He told me how busy he was with art shows and juried competitions. And I teach at one of these little rural universities that Nichols implies strongly should have just stayed a little college.

What we do, at our university and almost all others, is to give students a chance to succeed—or to fail. We do not tell them at the outset that they should just give up and go get on welfare or something.

Occasionally, as Nichols correctly points out, somebody who is intent on misinforming the public in order to get money or influence will graduate from college, or even get a Ph.D., and then go out and lie to people while citing their Ph.D. as evidence that they are telling the truth. But what can you do about this? A young-earth creationist named Kurt Wise got a Ph.D. in paleontology from Harvard, from no less a scientist than Stephen Jay Gould. But he kept his religiously-based antiscientific views a secret. Now Dr. Wise is out there telling everybody evolution is a hoax. Another creationist, a Moonie named Jonathan Wells, also got a Ph.D. while pretending to not be a Moonie. But is this the fault of educators? God forbid that a future terrorist should ever complete a course of study at the Naval War College or take a course from Nichols—I suppose it would be Nichols’s fault! One of the best students I ever had in my evolution class was a young-earth creationist (and valedictorian) who can now claim that she got her biology degree while keeping her brain intact from contamination by scientific evidence. But this is not my fault. For me to have rejected her would have been, as I understand it, against the law.

I had to stop reading this book on page 90. But before I did, I checked the index for accreditation and transcript, which were absent. The publisher, Oxford University Press, is usually careful about selling accurate books, but this time they dropped the ball.

Friday, September 15, 2017

New Video: Darwin kicks!

You always knew that Darwin was a sh*tkicker, but here is the proof! Charles Darwin helps persimmon seeds, previously transported by a raccoon, to disperse. See this link to the Darwin YouTube channel.

Just Under the Surface

In the current political climate, where Christians consider Nazi racism to be one legitimate viewpoint even if they do not themselves embrace it, it is certainly possible to believe that the time is not far away when conservatives will institute an evil reign of terror. It seems unlikely that this will happen, but could Germans in 1933 have guess what Hitler would do? And he did it because they let him.

We are surrounded by nice people all day every day. But occasionally we get glimpses of the evil that hides in human nature and which can come out under the right circumstances. Here are some examples.

First example. I had a student a few years ago who was very smart and dedicated, and very nice. Strange topics sometimes come up in individual conversations during laboratory sessions. For some reason, some of us were talking about Vlad the Impaler and this student, with a straight face, made the case that he deserved to be the national hero of Romania. This student, so nice on the outside, harbored at least this bit of evil in her heart. If she should ever in a future dictatorship be in a position to make decisions about what to do with political dissidents, such as myself, what would she do? I doubt she would come up with the idea, but I also doubt she would resist it if a future dictator liked the idea of impaling his enemies.

Second example. In Durant, Oklahoma, a white man who identified himself as “Goofy” went on a verbal rampage against all Mexicans, and said that World War III is going to begin right here with whites against immigrants. Most white people do not feel the way he does, but there must be at least a couple of million people who do and who can cause an immense amount of terrorism once they get started. All they need is some event that will unleash their currently latent fury, like (in this case) hearing a woman speak Spanish on a cell phone. (The woman has been in America legally for 40 years.).

We all have evil in our hearts; evolution has made human nature both good and bad. While altruism is part of human nature, we must understand that we are altruistic only toward those people whom we consider to be inside of our group. Slowly through history we have expanded the boundaries of what we consider our group to be. To many people, altruism extends not only to all humans of every race, but to higher animals, to trees, etc. But there are millions of people who still consider other races to be outside the realm of altruism and therefore not deserving even the simple decency of being allowed to live.

Even a small terrorist minority can ignite the worst elements of human nature and cause a wave of terrorism. Let’s hope (stupidly, perhaps) that this does not happen.