About this blog

This isn't designed to be a blog per se, but just a place to store things I've written for easy reference. Most of it will be book reviews, with a few random essays about the stuff that interests me outside work (i.e. nothing on politics and government).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Back To School

Several months ago I went "back to school" (virtually speaking) to study something I actually WANTED to learn.  My portal is the website Coursera, which is a consortium of universities offering free online courses in a wide variety of topics (the acronym fashionable among academics for this phenomenon is MOOC (massive open online course) pronounced "MOOK").  Now that I'm at the half way mark through the 14 week class, I thought it would be useful to record my thoughts and impressions.

The course I'm taking  is offered by the University of Virginia (UVA) and titled The Modern World: Global History Since 1760. Taught by Philip Zelikow, White Miller Burkett Professor of History, the course is being taught simultaneously on the UVA campus (see here for a news clip about the course).  For his online students, Professor Zelikow delivers roughly seven tutorials per week in the form of videos recorded in his office that last between six and 35 minutes.  At the end of each week there is an online quiz.  There are also electronic bulletin boards for students to open discussion threads in which Zelikow and his teaching assistant will occasionally comment.

The weekly quizzes are multiple choice and there are no exams or papers.  This is certainly understandable given the work that would be involved to read essays and papers (about 40,000 students around the world have registered; it would be interesting to know how many stick it through all 14 weeks).  All that is really tested, then, is the student's aggregation of knowledge, with no real evaluation of understanding (which would involve essay questions) nor the ability to apply what is actually learned (which would involve writing papers).  UVA does not offer credit for completion of the course, although students receive a certificate upon its successful completion.

Different schools have a different approach to MOOCs, even those under the same umbrella.  For instance, this course runs the same period as the "live" version and is about as good a virtual reproduction as can be afforded to the university with minimal cost.  Other courses offered by Coursera last as few as six weeks, and seem more like advertisements for their extension school courses.  One course (not through Coursera) is actually a barely disguised vehicle for selling a book the school publishes.

So far, I don't see MOOCs as being quite as revolutionary as some hope (or fear).  They are better oriented towards more technical, quantitative material.  The only interaction with other students occurs through bulletin boards (Coursera does provide some networking for local meetups but this seems little used) without the give and take of a live class.  Absent a serious commitment by universities to hire many more TAs, there seems to be a limit on the quality of learning that a MOOC can provide as mentioned above.  If a university were to hire the quantity of graders needed, student fees would likely be involved, and that would probably curtail participation dramatically, especially for international students.  For those seeking such an option, there are already extension schools even at big name universities.

At the end of the day, what such courses might do is force universities, many of whom are convening committees to study the challenges posed by MOOCs, to reexamine the classroom and academic environment they are providing their own students.  In many cases, e.g., intro to accounting, I'm guessing they're really offering in-person MOOCs with massive student packed halls, materials taught mostly by TAs, and grading by problem set.  It's these sorts of experiences that are most easily replicated by MOOCs and therefore most threatened by them.  The small history seminars and English lit. classes, not so much.  

If competition from MOOCs force universities into bringing back quality, interactive learning as opposed to one way lecturing, they will have contributed significantly to higher education.  What really needs to happen in education is that employers, students and parents need to start focusing on education rather than credentialing.  There is significant evidence that higher education teaches too little and costs too much, but so long as the premium is placed on the paper (and the institutional name on the paper) rather than demonstrated learning, this situation won't get any better.
The "live" version of my class is taking place here: Nau Hall at the University of Virginia

This is where the virtual version takes place...

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Baseball, Steroids and the Hall of Fame

The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY: As simple and stately as the game itself
Tomorrow the Baseball Hall of Fame announces its newest members. This year’s ballot is particularly interesting because two of the game’s unambiguously greatest players are on the ballot, but they are also strongly believed to be steroids users. They are Barry Bonds, aka baseball’s all time home run leader, and Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers ever to take the mound (another big name user, Sammy Sosa, is also on the ballot for the first time this year).  The debate that began several years ago when Mark McGuire first reached the ballot will reach its apex. One could make at least make a case against McGuire and several other suspected players on non-steroids grounds. Anyone voting against Bonds or Clemens, however, will definitively need to take their stand against ever voting for someone strongly suspected of steroids use.

Baseball fans, players and journalists are split on the role steroids use should play in Hall of Fame voting.

Understandably, many do not want the Hall to be tainted by those whose inclusion is based on their deliberate use of an illegal and dangerous substance. Still can we imagine a Hall of Fame without Bonds or Clemens? (Perhaps – baseball’s all time leading hits leader is Pete Rose, barred forever for his gambling) Some argue that no one even suspected of steroid use should get in. After all, if we find out they did use after their election, there's no precedent for removal. Better safe than sorry if the Hall is to remain clean. If Mike Piazza, the great Mets and Dodgers catcher, does not make it this year that will be why. It’s the only explanation for last year’s failure of Jeff Bagwell to gain admission. They were just “big guys” during the steroids era.

No doubt about these guys:
Ruth, Wagner, Johnson et al. 
Others would just look at the stats and ignore steroid use. Each generation has its own "steroids" or form of cheating whether it's spitballs, amphetamines, etc the logic goes. We don't even fully understand to what degree steroid use even really benefitted the players who use them. They would ignore the issue all together.  Some would place a sort of asterisk on their plaques noting that they played during the steroid era (presumable all players from this era, clean or not, would have such a mark) and have some sort of exhibit explaining how steroids affected play during this time period.

My own (perhaps over-lawyerly) view: apply a "but for" test.

But for the player's steroids use, should he be in the Hall of Fame? I think this is the ideal test on paper, but the hardest to actually administer. After all, what do we really know about a player's use? What do we know about how his use affected his performance? What if we find out later that a player's admitted use in the twilight of an otherwise Hall of Fame career or only brief use during an injury was actually career long? (The A-Rod question). These are difficult questions, and require much investigation and supposition. For me, I'd rather engage in such detective work than simply ignore the issue all together or bar every guy who shot up at only one stage, perhaps well after his Hall of Fame career was established (the Roger Clemens scenario). We'll get plenty of arguments applying such a “but for” test, but hey, isn't that what the Hall of Fame voting is all about anyway?

N.B.: This year, I’d like to see Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Piazza, Schilling and Trammel make the cut. The last two are more sentimental, but not undeserving.

When it was still a game: actually that period lasted about 5 minutes
before people started placing bets, which was the only thing
that drew crowds in the 19th century.