tisdag 31 maj 2011

Top-down vs. bottom-up


Over the weekend, I've thought a little bit more about exactly why the exercise I wrote about in the previous blog post (Education Assessment Exercise) matters to me. It is obviously not the two hours I spent (wasted?) on the exercise itself that matters, but rather something else that bothers me. What?

I believe it really is the folly of someone, somewhere thinking such an exercise will magically (?) improve the state of our education that bothers me. I might live under the misconception that there is goodwill involved and that this exercise is an honest (but misguided) attempt to improve what we do. A more devious alternative interpretation is that it is all about power and control, and that quality of has little to do with it. Still, I will here operate under the first assumption and spell out why I think it is misguided.

I'd like to draw a parallel to the gentlemant-"scientist" who, at the height of the British empire, sits in his comfortable leather chair somewhere in the greatest city of them all, London, and reads accounts from all around the world (i.e. the British empire) about "savages" and their affairs. Based on these reports - themselves of varying quality - he performs some magic sleight of hand. Through an act of armchair science (i.e. not getting his hand dirty by working with actual empirical material, but rather using others' interpretations of others' interpretations as his "research material" to be analyzed) he puts it all together into one grand unified theory about cultures and races. He "reasonably" draws the conclusion that savages at best can be compared to children and that "we" (white British imperialists) obviously are doing them all a great favor by ruling their countries and "taking care" of them. Later and based on his "unified theory of savagery and governance", the Empire finds support for a variety of policies that one hundred years later look, well, "strange".

Such one-size-fits-all theories take little care about unique idiosyncrasies of specific cultures and geographies into account and suffer from a whole lot of other intractable problems too. The lack of high-quality information, and the folly of drawing sweeping conclusions without any (own) first-hand observations has since been heavily discredited in scientific contexts. Scientist and science fiction author Isaac Asimov does a great job of portraying such dismal scientific processes on a grand scale in the aging, dying galactic empire in his Foundation trilogy. In an old, tired empire stretching over innumerable worlds, it is considered crude to collect actual empirical material, and refined to add yet another layer to what there already is. Armchair science in a culture no longer interested in the present or the future is in fact a defining characteristic of this vast empire in decline.

I find that the some of the same mechanisms of trying to understand and rule at a distance ("top-down") are at play in a large bureaucratic organization such as KTH. I would suggest that one example of this "syndrome" is that there is vast overconfidence in the possibility of improving the content and the quality of whole university programs and individual courses through top-down measures, and a corresponding lack of confidence in the alternative; in the possibility of reaching for the same kinds of improvements through bottom-up measures.

To raise quality through bottom-up measures necessitates a high degree of trust in the faculty and in the teachers who are the nuts and bolts of the teaching effort. I would go as far as to say that there is little such trust in place today. I also freely admit that such trust can obviously sometimes be misplaced. However, if there is a perceived need to (in infinite detail) (attempt to) control every teacher and every course through copious and detailed instructions regarding this-and-that, this all really just signals that the average teacher is not to be trusted by the very organization she works for. But seriously, what can realistically be done at all if a university does not trust its core personnel - the people who actually teach?

It should be obvious that the most important task of all other personnel at a university should be to support those who actually teach; those who meet students in classroom situations and who try to impart some knowledge and at times hopefully even some wisdom. To me - an small cog in the machinery - it oftentimes feels like it's the other way around - other groups of employees (administrators, bosses) make demands on my and other teachers' time not the least because (from their point of view) our time is always free of charge. If I on the other hand would like to make demands on some other people's time within this organization (where have all the secretaries gone nowadays?), the gut reaction is instead to deem it expensive and therefore unrealistic.

I personally think that one of the best and least expensive ways to improve individual courses (and consequently whole educational programs) would be to set up high standards and requirements as well as high-quality support for the individual teacher. I most often feel that neither is in place, and I would personally not appreciate high demands without also having a high degree of support (as in "every man for himself", or "sink or swim"). As a university teacher, I am of course free to develop and improve my courses as much as I would like to - or not. There is unfortunately little official support for, and few consequences of not doing so.


fredag 27 maj 2011

The folly of our Education Assessment Exercises (EAE)

I took part in an Education Assessment Exercise (EAE) a week ago. I can't say that it was "traumatic" or anything like that, but it did point out several things I find strange (e.g. stupid) about the individually easy, but in total overbearing administrative duties of a university teacher.

The EAE exercise itself took less than two hours - no big deal - but it still felt like a relatively futile attempt to "capture" important things about the courses I and other teachers teach at our program. I had a large sheet (A3-sized) with 11 high-level goals for our education. These goals were an amalgam of a variety of different (worthy) goals, but the results were cumbersome to say the least. Here are three examples of these 11 goals. Our students should:

- "demonstrate broad knowledge and understanding in scientifically based proven experience in the chosen area of technology (the main area), including expertise in math and science, significantly advanced knowledge in some parts of the area, and deepened insights into current research and development. Students should also demonstrate deepened methodological knowledge in their chosen technical area."

- "demonstrate an ability to holistically, critically, independently and creatively identify, formulate and manage complex problems and demonstrate the skills required to participate in research and development, or to perform independent work in other advanced contexts and thus contribute to the development of new knowledge."

- "demonstrate an understanding of capabilities and limitations in science and technology, its role in society and our responsibility concerning their use, including social and economic aspects as well as environmental and work safety aspects."

Do you get it? These goals are very "fluffy" and imprecise, or alternatively all-encompassing. Furthermore they overlap (to figure out how much they overlap is in itself an advanced task). A third of the text/terms were marked in bold, signifying that they were extra important and there were a lot of "extra important" terms in these texts... There were a not insignificant amount of spelling errors in these texts - implying that they had not been prepared with a lot of care (much like this text, with the difference being that I don't force my colleagues to read it :-).
For each of the courses that I teach, I then had to specify if any of these goals were covered by 1) the (stated) goals for the course in question, and if so 2) what "learning activities" they corresponded to in the course, and if so 3) how these goals and activities played a part in the examination (and grading) of that course. Phew!

To fill out this form to me felt like a cross between a jig-saw puzzle and a big waste of time. My tiny act of rebellion was to ask/comment out loud that it didn't feel like this exercise and the relatively carefully crafted snippets of text that I produced really captured what was important about the courses in question. The answer I got was not very enlightening and had something to do with the fact that "we all had to do it anyway".

Now, I can understand that the one person who is responsible for our education in Media Technology (Björn) might have some use of these artifacts (the filled-in sheets), but I'm sure he could have gained much better information by performing short "interviews" me and other teachers. I'm also very not convinced that the effort or performing this exercise (including Björn's effort to try to interpret and act on the information that teachers provide) will stands in parity with the potentially positive results of the exercise.

My constructive suggestion would have been for Björn to himself have done the intellectually taxing/deadening work of trying to make sense out of these wonderfully-sounding but overlapping, slightly overbearing and potentially vacuous goals, and then used his interpretation as a starting point for conversations with the teachers. Instead, all teachers individually and redundantly had to do the work of trying to understand what all these (fluffy, overlapping) goals meant (and implied), what was wanted of us by this exercise (and by the person(s) who will interpret our scribblings), and then do our best of fudging up answers that sounded maximally impressive and convincing. If different teachers interpret the goals in different ways, we will provide information and answers that in subtle ways will answer not the same, but different questions. The impression I wanted to convey when I filled out the EAE sheets was that my courses turn every student into a Leonardo da Vinci (or at least tries to...).

I want to make clear that I have only the highest of respect for Björn and what he does. Perhaps he would say that he doesn't have the time to perform individual interviews with teachers about their courses. His answer is valid, but implies that this task might then not be so important after all. That's fine, but if it's not worth doing well, then it might not be worth doing it at all. Also, although Björn is the person who is best suited for this task, it does not necessarily have to be him personally who does it. The task could be outsourced to someone else (although I would personally decline).

This exercise was as much a test of my personal ability to interpret and act on complex texts and to make (a perhaps sometimes rather bleak) reality sound like heaven on earth, as it was to convey some sort of "objective" or useful information to someone higher up in the chain of command. I do agree that this exercise can emphasize that the goals of a course are not (any longer) in line with the activities in the course, but finding this out could be done in many other ways of which basically all are much simpler and easier than performing this exercise...

What I especially object to in this case is the fact that the quality of the information I provide is so low that I have little confidence that it is of use to anyone who will look at it, and that the results of any actions or recommendations that comes out of this exercise will be so out of touch of the realities of teaching that they might hinder as much as they might help. It is basically a lottery. One unfortunate possible outcome could be that teachers will be ordered to provide more informations about the courses they give in order to... well, something. For example to keep other people (newly hired exclusively for this purpose?) somewhere in the organization "in the loop"? Would this help to improve the quality of the education? Of course not.

This blog post just scratches on the surface of uncovering the errors in thinking that this exercise is just a symptom of. I hope to write a follow-up post about the folly of using precious resources (including my time) to try to improve education in this "top-down" manner.

fredag 20 maj 2011

This year's media technology bachelor student theses

Our third-year students presented their bachelors theses this week. We strongly encourage our students to write these in pairs. I have been the advisor ("demon producer"?) of five students (three theses), and I have also been the examiner of 11 theses (where I read, provide feedback, judge and grade them).

The theses that I have "demon produced" during the spring (all written in Swedish) were called:

- "Carbon dioxide currency with individual carbon dioxide rations" [Koldioxidvaluta - med individuella koldioxidransoner].
This thesis is based on my suggested thesis topic "carbon dioxide currency" (in Swedish).

- "Starcraft: A spectator sport for a wider audience?" [Starcraft: En åskådarsport för bred publik?]
Can the popular computer game Starcraft 2 could become a "spectator sport" in Sweden?

- "The economy around professional e-sport players, with a focus on Counter-Strike"
Where does the money come from to support professional computer gamers? Who sponsors these professionals and why? What are the (economic) conditions of professional gamers?

The thesis that I examined were called:

- "Course evaluation system for students based on user generated content"
- "Live concerts, digitally through time and space"

Quite a few (more than half!) were related to social media (blogs, Facebook, Twitter, user-generated content).

The students should provide English-language titles but since they haven't handed in the final version, some haven't yet and I might thus retroactively alter some title above.

I will eventually link the list above to the final texts. We publish all student theses on the web nowadays but I don't know if that will happen before the summer (June) or after.

Almost all theses are written in Swedish. The quality of the the work (and everything that goes into it - the planning, the research question, the methods chosen, the investigation itself, the analysis and the flow of the actual text in the report itself) of course varies widely...

tisdag 10 maj 2011

What do our ex-students work with?

For the longest of time, I have floated the idea of an "individual course" to map where all our graduated media technology students work and what they do. I started plugging the idea more than half a year ago and I know for sure that I have reached all our (current) students (around 250 or so). Despite this, no-one has expressed any interest in doing this - until now. In short time no less than three students have gotten in touch with me and expressed interest in doing this task.

My original idea came from seeing the wonderful information about work/employer as well as information about personal networks that is accessible in LinkedIn. I never initiate, but almost always accept LinkedIn invitations from students of mine. I thus have an extensive network of contacts and I can also see their contacts and LinkedIn networks. I'm sure it is possible to find most of our alumni through these (LinkedIn) networks and then sift through the information about current (and perhaps previous) employers and what they work with. Are they consultants, entrepreneurs or web programmers? Do they work with video conferencing systems, in the game industry or with audio books?

I have this far refrained from elaborating on the exact character of the mapping task that a student should do, as I think it is more appropriate to do this elaboration together with the student in question who take it upon him- or herself to do this task. The thought was to craft this task according to my and the student's own interests (and where my interests represent the interests of the whole department). We know way to little about what our students do, but would sure all like to know more about it. An individual course comes in different flavors so it would be possible to do this task for credits representing 4, 5 or 6 weeks of full-time studies (160 - 240 hours of "course work").

As it turned out, two persons got in touch last week and we had a meeting together just in the beginning of this week. It now seems the plan is for them to expand the size and the scope of the task and shape this into a bachelor's thesis project that they will do together. It is as of this moment unclear if they can do their thesis (with me as their advisor) now/during the autumn, or if they have to wait and do it next spring together with all the other third-year students. I myself am divided about this issue. On the one hand it would be a drag to wait until next May to have the results of this study. On the other hand it is much easier and more convenient for them and for me if they do it within the structure of the bachelor's thesis "course" - and that course is only given during the spring term. Our (mine and their) preferences might anyway be moot as it is not clear that they will at all be allowed to do their bachelor's thesis outside of the course (more work for everyone involved, less structural support for them).

Anyway, it is all very exciting that some students have finally risen to the challenge. From their perspective, they are equally or more interested than the faculty in finding out what our alumni are doing nowadays. Just as we (teachers) would like to know more about this, so would the students themselves (both these individuals and the larger student body) like to know where they will work in the future! So beyond a personal interest, we all feel that this project would in part be a "civic duty" that many others would be interested in and benefit from.

As it so happens, right after my meeting with the students, yet another student has gotten in touch with me to ask about doing this as an individual course. I might involve her too, she might be able to do some work that would be of use to the other two students (especially if they will not commence their bachelor's theses until next spring). I will involve her in our soon-to-be four-way talks and we'll see how it turns out...

söndag 1 maj 2011

The reflective engineer

I gave a lunch talk in a student-led "project" called The reflective engineer this past week. It is one of the projects that the student organization Sustainable Engineering Everywhere - a KTH student organization (SEEK) organizes and there was a surprisingly large audience, perhaps 60 or 70 students or so. I don't know if it was my talk or the free lunch that got students there...

I built on the talk I have half a year earlier at the House of Science and connected peak oil to the future of the Internet. I unfortunately only had 45 minutes and that left only a few minutes at the end of the talk for questions. We had time for two and both were good.

I stayed and answered some questions and in fact had an hour-long conversation with an Iranian guest student who had been an oil trader earlier.

I realized afterwards (a few days later) that my talk probably was the first occasion for many students to hear about peak oil. Talks such as these give me an excellent platform to talk about issues that are important for me. So it is a pity to only have a few minutes for questions. What I realized is that I should have offered to sit down in the café outside the lecture hall for half an hour and talk or answer questions from those students who felt the need to probe thee questions that were raised further. That would also have been very valuable for me; I could have gotten some feedback and a better feeling for how my talk was understood and processed by the students. This did alas not happen this time around but I have decided to do so from now on every time the opportunity presents itself!