Thursday, March 7, 2013

Wimpy models or wimpy DC?

The lack of snow yesterday was probably the biggest bust of winter weather forecasting this season (emphasis mine):

They shut down the schools and the government for what turned out in much of the area to be light rain and a bit of a breeze.

But when “they” — beleaguered bureaucrats, politicians and educators — made that choice in the small of the night, all the experts were telling them that a big storm with an even bigger name was bearing down on the Washington region, preparing to snarl roads, snuff out power and cause all manner of chaos.
“We made our decisions based on, unfortunately, faulty weather predictions,” said Pedro Ribeiro, spokesman for D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). “You can’t really blame the government officials for using the data the scientists gave them.”

Ribiero said media forecasts “did tend to hype it up a little bit, but what we look at is the data. We have to take that as valid.”

Those forecasts were plain wrong. “This was the biggest bust in the history of the Capital Weather Gang,” said The Washington Post’s chief meteorologist, Jason Samenow. He said the major mistake was to accept computer models that said the amount of moisture in the storm would make up for the warmth of the air below.

Every forecaster in town overestimated the storm; at 3 a.m., the Weather Service still predicted eight to 10 inches of snow for the District.

Have we placed too much reliance on models? Or is there some hubris in the weather forecasting community now that 1-3 day forecasts have gotten more accurate than in the past?

Or perhaps there is another reason:

But Bowers, who has worked for the system for three decades, said he might have reached a different conclusion years ago. In the 1980s, Montgomery never shut down, he said. Bowers remembers a convoy of plow trucks heading up Interstate 270 to clear a path for buses to pick up sixth-graders who had been stranded at an outdoor education camp for a week.

“We’ve gotten wimpier,” he said.

Working from home boosts productivity?

Here’s an argument from the Economist which suggests that productivity increases by letting employees work from home (emphasis mine):

But tethering the Yahoos to their stalls in the company’s offices does not seem like the right way to go about boosting their output. Plenty of evidence suggests that letting employees work from home is good for productivity.

The premises seem to be:
1. Letting employees work from home boost productivity
2. If one worker works from and productivity increases then as more workers work from then productivity will increase more
Conclusion: All workers should work from home.

More coverage here - my read is that while working from can have productivity gains these gains are not monotonic. At some point there will be negative returns and Yahoo may have gone well past those gains into negative territory. The reason for the ban is perhaps to have a clean slate. Let’s start all over and then begin doling out work from home perks as time progresses. After all if the Economist is correct, Yahoo should be swimming in profits.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A defense of MOOC

I felt that I had to respond to this negative comment on online learning:

Online education is a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It tends to be a monologue and not a real dialogue. The Internet teacher, even one who responds to students via e-mail, can never have the immediacy of contact that the teacher on the scene can, with his sensitivity to unspoken moods and enthusiasms. This is particularly true of online courses for which the lectures are already filmed and in the can. It doesn’t matter who is sitting out there on the Internet watching; the course is what it is.

Not long ago I watched a pre-filmed online course from Yale about the New Testament. It was a very good course. The instructor was hyper-intelligent, learned and splendidly articulate. But the course wasn’t great and could never have been. There were Yale students on hand for the filming, but the class seemed addressed to no one in particular. It had an anonymous quality. In fact there was nothing you could get from that course that you couldn’t get from a good book on the subject.        

Goodness knows, I’ve thrashed Coursera enough but this have to keep reminding myself that it is still experimental. Professors have had almost a hundred years to teach yet the number of times I have encountered a memorable professor or a memorable lecture - is, well - one or two out of maybe eight years of college and grad school. After all, aren’t most professors like … anyone, anyone?

But in 6 months of Coursera, I have already had one extremely memorable course - a course I had no previous knowledge in and yet found to be extremely challenging and the end of the course left me with a short void. In particular, this farewell email excerpt from Prof. Ronen Plesser’s Astronomy course is the most heartfelt and rewarding experience I have ever had as a student [emphasis below mine]:

You are also deserving of my deepest thanks for sticking with me through what has been a challenging course. I set some high expectations for all of us when designing the class, in terms of the level at which I wanted to present material and ask you to - as someone put it on the forums - "think around" with the concepts. To the extent that this has succeeded it is largely a result of the effort you put into it, individually as well as collectively.

This was my first experience with online education, and I have to admit I was quite surprised by the effectiveness of the discussion forums. A great deal of teaching and learning happened on these, the great majority of it involving students and not staff. All of you who contributed to this by asking great questions, sharing your insights, adding extra bits of information, or participating in the common struggle to master tough material have played a huge part in making this class a pleasure to teach and, I hope, a positive experience for students. For this, too, I thank you.

As you probably gathered, the lecture videos were produced more-or-less "live" during the class. This flies in the face of accepted wisdom on best practices in the medium, which suggests that all class materials be prepared well before launch. This had a cost to all of us - the occasional (or more than occasional) errata, the mis-statements or errors on slides or in autograder settings, even the omission of entire segments either because I forgot them or because I ran out of time. But in hindsight I think it was a wise decision. As the course developed, I found myself, somewhat to my surprise, developing an attachment to the class and the students despite never having met any of you. I think this is largely due to a real class spirit that developed through the discussion forums. This meant that while technically I was lecturing to a laptop, in my mind I could envision actual people, my class, listening. To me, this makes a huge difference. In suffering the imperfections, you allowed me to learn how to use the medium more effectively while giving me the sense of a human connection that is, I think, so vital to teaching. I had not expected this to happen in an online class, but it made it possible for me to teach with the kind of focus that only such a connection can sustain. If you compare the first weeks of the class to the last ones, I think you will see this happening.

I also have to address the following item that the author (a UVA professor) pointed out:

A few weeks ago our president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was summarily dismissed and then summarily reinstated by the university’s board of visitors. One reason for her dismissal was the perception that she was not moving forward fast enough on Internet learning. Stanford was doing it, Harvard, Yale and M.I.T. too. But Virginia, it seemed, was lagging. Just this week, in fact, it was announced that Virginia, along with a number of other universities, signed on with a company called Coursera to develop and offer online classes.

It’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the author feels threatened and is dissing online education because he cannot get a handle on how to best use the technology. Agreed that online is not always the best medium and humanities is probably one (of numerous) areas where there is a great deal of work to be done. I would point him to Coursera’s History course taught none other by UVA’s Philip Zelikow. This is another course that I am enjoying having not taken History at all. The multiple choice format of the quizzes leaves me wanting more. But what’s interesting here is that Prof. Zelikow seems to be using the Coursera platform to supplement his UVA course. And that is a course I would like be in. (Also UVA's Louis Bloomfield's Coursera course on How Things Work is plenty fun so far!)

And that should be what every professor should aim to do - make online and face-to-face teaching enjoyable for both - the student and the teacher. For the most part I would say that most of my "live" learning experiences have been enjoyable for neither.

The benefits of an office job

  1. Snow days like today. Federal government is closed because of Snowquester.
  2. If I injure myself - sprained ankle or dislocated shoulder I can still do some work. No need to use sick days and even get paid unlike other service or construction jobs.
  3. Tele-work

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Can you be addicted to online learning?

There has been addiction to food, sex, TV, video games, and the list goes on. Is online learning an addiction? Since signing up for Coursera I’ve been going so busy with courses that I’ve barely had time do anything else - blog for instance.

Or is this another form of technology addiction rather than learning per se?