Loose Cannons

When I wrote Dancing with the Stars of Pure Math the idea of attending Dick Lipton’s seminar with 10,000 students was  novel and risky.  That was 2009.  Well before the start of the innovative whirlwind in online education that was started when Sebastian Thrun, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng opened their Stanford courses to hundreds of thousands of students.

Dick and I spoke with Sebastian before Udacity was launched and we were both impressed with his vision of the learning experience as compelling media.  As best I can recall, here is what he said.

If the traditional lecture is a stage play, then I want to be the movies.  Although early film makers tried to adapt live stage plays to the new media by pointing a camera at the stage, it was not a good experience.  It was only when film makers realized that they had to recreate the dramatic form that film became a new and compelling experience.

In his recent post at Godel’s Lost Letter (GLL), Dick has given us a vision of a new form of instruction:

The usual video-based course is a film of an instructor talking and writing at a board or on a tablet computer. These courses are popular among students, at least partially because they are free. The videos are informative, although it is yet unclear whether they are as good or better than physical courses. You know—course with students in seats and an instructor talking and interacting with them. We will see…Our plan is to make a mini-series length course with characters who have issues, who follow an interesting story line—vampires?—and yet are able to convey the information we want the students to learn. Our view is to create a new type of film: not a documentary, not a docudrama, not a dry lecture. A mixture of fiction and information.

This is unabashedly an experiment.  I have been trying to find a way to incorporate GLL into our online experiments at Georgia Tech, and this is a a prototype of how that might work.

What do you think? Will students go to the movies with stars of pure math?

What other formats do you think might work?  I have been (unsuccessfully so far) lobbying Dick and Ken to try what I call The Larry King Show format.  In this format the host (Dick or Ken) and maybe a sidekick talk about math by interviewing math celebrities (including the people who created the ideas).  They can even “interview” celebrities who are dead by using actors and inventing plausible dialogues.

Larry King was famous for his “Hello, Duluth Minnesota!” call-in dialogues, and that part of the show seems to me to be ideally suited to a seminar.  There might even be some surprise call-ins when the topic is (for mathematicians) controversial.

You have to get used to the idea of classrooms as performances.


  • PCAST to Release Report on Future of the Research Enterprise.  On Friday, November 30, the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) will hold a meeting to discuss IT R&D, STEM Education, and Online Courses (see agenda (PDF)). In addition, it will release a new report entitled Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise. The report will address “specific opportunities for the Federal Government, universities, and industry to strengthen the U.S. research enterprise.”
    • Date: November 30, 2012
    • Time: 1:30 – 3:00 p.m.
    •  Location: Lecture Room of the National Academy of Sciences  Building, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW ,  Washington, D.C.; Register to attend this public event here.
    • View the live webcast here.
  • From Dubai
    • Resetting the bar: comment from a World Economic Forum Council member in Dubai after following some MOOCs and listening to Daphne Koller’s impassioned presentation,

    Now I get it.  This is the death of mediocre teaching.

    • Up for discussion
      • Change
      • Institutional roles
      • The university versus education
      • The impact of technology
      • The changing nature of students
    • Global agreement vs. Disconnect:
      • Agreed: Education has a role
      • Confusion:  Relevance of institutions
    • Scary concept of the day:  “Global Governance” Former PM Gordon Brown hammered this home.  The last thing we need is a European-style bureaucracy to act as a gate-keeper for higher education.
  • Why is social innovation grafted onto the margins of institutions of higher education? (Note: Where are the liberal arts in these discussions?  See my blog post about the not-so-liberal arts)
    • Complex coupling of learning and value in many cultures – there is no American-style consensus about that this means (more about “Social Contracts and the Global Wisconsin Idea” another day — but see my discussion of The New Wisconsin Idea in Abelard to Apple).
    • Service learning
    • Humanitarian technologies
    • What is the global version of the Morill Act?
  • What is the role of access when all content is accessible?
  • Global reactions to MOOCs (discouraging variety)
    • President of a THE top ranked research university.

    That is not a role that my institution is interested in undertaking.  There is a certain class of institution that may be interested, but it is certainly not our class.

    • Another president:

    We would be just as happy with no students at all

    • Faculty member (no institutional affiliation):

    Neither I nor my colleagues have the slightest interest in this [online technology].  If it is not related to my research I am not interested

    • Faculty member (no institutional affiliation):

    There are no rewards for this

    • Expert in emerging technologies:

    This has no relevance to me or my work.” [This is related to the debate over institutional relevance]

  • Global Reactions to MOOCs (encouraging variety) from Ed Lazowska, University of Washington:

The biggest change I see is that everyone on campus is talking about education and teaching.  At a research university that is a big deal.

  • Big Idea of the Day – Privacy Risks from Learning Analytics
    • As more fine-grained data is gathered and stored in the Cloud privacy risks spike.
    • See Knewton’s Jose Ferreira’s excellent video
    • Threats
      • A: Technology
      • B: Surveillance
    • Most legislation in the US predates the internet and GMailWhat are some of the risks?  Learners can be tagged with damaging labels because of their trajectory through online courses: “slow learner” vs “smart” even though the labels have no relationships to learning outcomes.
      • Electronic Communication Act of 1986 – much lower standard for investigators than wiretaps
        • Warrant for unopened email
        • Much weaker standard (e.g., relevance) for
          • Documents stored in the cloud
          • Opened email
          • Archived email whether read or not
        • Role of FERPA
    • What are the unique risks posed by Big Data
      • Information from many sources can be combined by investigators
      • There are incentives for more data and longer retention times
      • Users are not aware of how much data is being collected
      • Information playing field is tilted toward large institutions (e.g., states, corporations)
      • Amplifies advantages and disadvantages
    • “Capricious” use of stored data
      • Insurance
      • Credit worthiness
      • Law enforcement
    • What can analytics reveal that violate reasonable privacy expectations?Without sharing, learning analytics data is not very useful, so we should assume that sharing will occur.
      • Failures
      •  Past Associations
      • Mental Instability
      • Financial History
      • Behavior of acquaintances and family members
      • Personal indiscretions
      • Social Security Number and other protected identifiers
      • Legal proceedings regardless of outcome
    • It is beyond the state of current technology to share private data from learning analytics while simultaneously
      • Limiting disclosure
      • Ensuring data utility

      Jeff Selling writes in CHE: College Presidents Tone Deaf on Value:

      Whatever tools we settle on, the efforts to measure value start at the top of the institution and the groups that represent higher education. And right now, college presidents are either tone deaf to the concerns of the public or they don’t believe in their own product.

      Diary 2012 P4

I wanted to draw your attention to a new blog from my colleague Aaron Lanterman.  He calls it Edupocalypse Now: Education and Innovation in the End Times and I encourage you to visit it here Aaron’s first post is abouit taking the bullshit out of degree requirements. Here’s a sample of what you can expect:

One summer, I took a class in ancient and modern Japanese culture. Out of the list of courses that would satisfy that particular well-roundedness requirement, I’m not sure why I picked that class in particular. My father won a computer art contest in the early 1980s, and the prize was a family trip to Japan. I have fond memories of that trip; that might have contributed to my decision, but I’m not sure. I recall writing a term paper for the class, but I can’t recall what I wrote about. The professor told some interesting stories about this adventures in Japan, although I can’t remember any of them now. Relatively speaking, I suppose I enjoyed the class. The material was somewhat interesting, and at the time I probably would have defended having to take it as contributing to my “well roundedness.”

But almost two decades later, I realize it was a waste of everyone’s money and time.

It was a waste of my parent’s money. It was a waste of my time. And having spent the last decade as a professor, I now realize it was a waste of the professor’s time.

Aaron says he was inspired by a few Georgia Tech colleagues but in an email he sent to me this morning he says:

I’ve been reading Roger Schank’s blog. I think I am becoming radicalized. After reading his posts I want to run around screaming “RAAAAAAAR! RAAAAAAAAAAAR!” I should probably channel that into something more constructive.

I have great respect for Roger Schank’s ability to create a new generation of radicals, so I suspect this is Aaron’s real inspiration.

I am now showing EN’s RSS feed on the right hand  column, and I hope you visit the site often and even say RAAAAAR! once in awhile.

The first thing you notice is the chaos.  There is no one in charge. No place to go to find out what to do. There was a time when Apple stores did not have blue-t-shirt greeters at the front door.  You just had to stand there, trying to make sense of the clusters of customers, gawkers, helpers, facilitators, and salesmen.  Everyone  seemed to be either milling around or hustling off someplace with a sense of purpose, while you just stood there wondering what to do next. My first experience with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was like that.

I was writing the chapter on open learning in Abelard to Apple when I noticed that a group of Canadian learning technologists and innovators, led by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and David Cormier were organizing a course that was open to the world.  Here is how I described it in Abelard to Apple:

Open-ended college courses are uncommon, but not for any pedagogical reason. There is no theory that dictates how college degree programs should be chopped into courses or how many semesters there should be, except that everything should work out to be just long enough to fit the required number of credits. Many institutions offer “Maymester” terms that fit between spring and summer and last two or three weeks. Advanced material is sometimes taught in small recitation groups and is spread over several semesters because there are as of yet no textbooks in the field and therefore no natural course boundaries. The length of a college course is a number that is chosen arbitrarily, and it varies from place to place.

Attendance is also a loosely defined idea for most college courses. In Europe, where completion of course requirements is determined by final examinations, attendance has no meaning at all, and students feel free to drop in when it suits them. Even in American classrooms, instructors rarely take attendance, and the only evidence that regular attendance affects learning is purely anecdotal.

There is no scientific reason that universities have not organized their curricula around Erdös-style open-ended courses. In 2008, George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University—the Canadian version of Britain’s Open University—and a research scientist for the Canadian National Research Council named Stephen Downes decided to offer a course on a theory of learning that they call Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCK. CCK is a long tail concept, a pedagogical theory asserting that learning takes place as students discover how to navigate the interconnected networks across which knowledge is distributed. Their course was about CCK and simultaneously used CCK as the primary teaching method. It was offered again in 2009, and eventually attracted several thousand students.

I not only wandered into a MOOC, but I also was handed a blue t-shirt, one of those black id tags on a lanyard, and a mobile phone so that I can connect new arrivals to people who can actually help them. This happened last year when George sent me an email asking whether I was interested in participating in a new MOOC that he was organizing.  This one was about change in higher education. He wanted to call it, appropriately enough, “Change, Education, Learning, and Technology.”  I said, “Sure!”.

Here’s where the Change MOOC lives.  Actually, it lives lots of places.  You can find it here as well. And if you are a member of the Georgia Tech community you can also find it here. There are Twitter feeds that you can find with the hash tag #change11. There is even a virtual study group at  Change11 is just entering its 5th week, and there is already more content than I can track.  I find myself paging though FlipBook late at night just to see what’s up.

Who’s taking the course?  It’s really impossible to say because many of the thousands who have registered already never say who they are or participate in the online discussions.  But many hundreds do. They are mainly teachers, and they come from elementary and secondary schools around the world.  There are also a fair number of educational consultants, bloggers, and professors who do research in education and educational technology.  Conversational clusters self-organize. There are fights that crop up among groups that hold differing positions on important issues, and there are a few water balloons that are lobbed between groups.  There are trouble makers, and serious students, casual observers and opinion-makers.

Who’s missing? People who should be getting comfortable with the disruptive forces in higher education. There are almost no university administrators or technology managers.   EDUCAUSE is nowhere to be seen.  There are dozens of websites that devoted to studying and commenting on policy issues, but if they are aware of Change11, they are silent about it.

Is Change11 or MOOC-fication the wave of the future? Probably not.  It’s an experiment.  It is no more likely to be predictive of what the future of higher education will be like than Stanford’s open course on Artificial Intelligence. Like all experiments, success is not the important factor. One thing is certain: higher ed desperately needs innovation and the only way to innovate is to try out a lot of ideas.

I was attracted to the MOOC concept because it illustrated a narrative that I was constructing for my book, but I was drawn into the idea of the course by the Greeters who assured me that the whole point of being there was to navigate  concepts and discussions that were meaningful to me.

So now I find myself greeting new arrivals with: “Hi, I’m Rich. Can I help you find what you need?”

If you are lost already — if you feel like you have jumped into the middle of a conversation — then let me suggest that you click on the video above.

Here the reasoning behind one of my criticisms of higher education: the factory model — a model that is in near-complete collapse — was imposed upon universities at the turn of the 20th Century by well-meaning industrialists who simply wanted to establish some discipline on the chaos that reigned in those days. Their charges jumped on half-developed industrial engineering theories and folded them into public policy, and that is the legacy we cope with today in the form of bloated bureaucracies, an over-reliance on measuring inputs, ineffective testing, and a largely parasitic accreditation industry.

Now we have a new generation of tinkerers who hear that costs are out of control and want to automate the hell out of college teaching instead of focusing on spending the money more wisely. Let me give you a preview of one of my conclusions: it’s not that we cannot afford to teach undergraduates the old way, it’s rather that everything from intercollegiate athletics to debt-laden performing arts centers grabs budget dollars before they get to the classroom. The main financial threat to American colleges and universities is mission creep, not a lack of robot-teachers.

That’s why I was particularly intrigued by Audrey Waters’  critique of Khan Academy that appeared in Explainer. I am a fan of Khan and especially his content — in fact, we are launching a program called TechBursts at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities to experiment with how to deconstruct a mature curriculum along those lines — but like Waters I am somewhat alarmed that there is such a rush to declare Khan Version 1.0 such an unqualified success.

It’s not that I am swayed by the “Yes but conducting a hands-on experiment is so much better than Sal Khan’s explanation of force…” argument. Indeed, deliberately taking the laboratory out of an introductory physics course does not seem like a good idea, but Khan does not advocate that either.  Classroom inversion would in fact allow more time for mentoring in a more interactive laboratory setting.

It’s rather that I have not seen a cogent analysis of these critiques:

  • Technology replacing teachers: OK, it’s not a good idea, but in the all-or-nothing world of transforming higher education there’s no such thing as just a little automation.  The zealots want it all.
  • The Bill Gates connection: The Gates Foundation and Bill’s personal commitment to reform has been a welcome entry to higher education.  It certainly helped breathe life and excitement into a field that had become dominated by bureaucrats and backward-looking analysts. But the criticism that Gates will morph into a new Andrew Carnegie set of heavy-handed approaches is worthy of closer examination
  • Old Wine, New Bottles: I don’t know if Khan Academy is bad pedagogy (Although I suspect that it is not since it seems to me to be pedagogically agnostic) but applying a layer of 21st Century Technology to a 19th Century curriculum does not sound at first blush like a good way to start the transformation process.
  • Learning or Leveling Up: Waters outlines a critique of gameification and somewhat unfairly says that the major criticism is that it puts the emphasis on earning badges rather than learning.  But so does the inflation-ridden practice of  traditional grading. On the other hand, there is a rush to Web 2.0 platforms that is not informed by even a sliver of experience in actual college settings.
  • Part of a Larger Trend: This is the most worrisome critique.  There are severe problems in higher education, but quick fixes that nibble at the edges probably just make things worse.  At best, they divert attention and resources from more severe  problems. At worst, they promote change for its own sake, and that is never a good idea.

It’s unlikely that the first generation knowledge bursts that Salman Khan assembled on a shoestring are the salvation of higher education.  They are Version 1.0 of a technology that has not even been thoroughly wrung out yet. It’s great that Bill Gates is a backer,  but does anyone remember Windows 1.0? It took Microsoft three versions just to get it working.





Why Harvard and Yale Had to Merge is Jane Shaw’s future history timeline of the events leading up to the May 2020 merger of Harvard and Yale:

That same day, faculty members at the University of Phoenix issued a report analyzing the cataclysmic changes that had occurred in higher education over the past ten years. They traced the history back to a New York Times columnist, Ron Lieber, and two articles he wrote in 2010 and 2011. They dubbed him the “short seller” of higher education.

Jane Shaw is president of the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

Note:  This is a reprint of the post “Loose Cannons” that appeared in my When Worlds Collide  blog in 2009.  I figure if we are going to solicit dangerous ideas, it’s best to know what we’re up against.  Institutions hate dangerous ideas.  They are launched by loose cannons.  I’ve always managed to attract my share of loose cannons as colleagues.  Now you know.

This is my all-time favorite Dilbert cartoon. Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporation like Hewlett-Packard understands immediately what’s going on here.  I always used it in CTO coffee talks when I wanted to show our engineers that I was really one of them — that I  wasn’t from another world (although I  suspected that many of them were already convinced that I was the pointy-haired boss and some thought I was Blob).  After a few hours, like clockwork, the email would start pouring into my inbox.  The subject line was always something like: “From a Loose Cannon.”

Some of the messages were very strange and a few (like the ones talking about contacting aliens from space) were downright disturbing, but most of them were respectful notes to let me know of  legitimate ideas that hadn’t made it through internal management gates.  I knew the engineering managers well.  They were smart and careful and for the most part they were very successful.  I didn’t want to second-guess their investment decisions, but I started wondering whether another sort of investment analysis would give a different answer, because these were obviously colliding worlds.

I was not popular with some of HP’s general managers because I had invented a new sort of escalation path for engineers, inviting ideas that had already been turned down at some point in the management chain.  I created a Technology Council consisting of the CTO’s of each of the major business units, the Director and Chief Scientist from HP Labs and some  HP Fellows to help with technology strategy and road-mapping, so it made a great deal of sense to use this team to take one more look at some of the Loose Cannon Ideas.

One of the Loose Cannons proposed using HP’s Jornada Pocket PC “to control my TV and VCR or other IR devices – that way you could store stuff in there and program those things simply and easily.” Another L-C wanted to create a document management system for the “growing home genealogist market”.

The company already had a rich history of encouraging risk-taking by its technical staff, but at HP business objectives were never far from sight.  There was a 60-year history of combining risk with rational investment.  It was a strategy that worked well.  It was lightweight, and I think that’s why cool new products and sometimes whole new product categories continued to flow out of R&D activities.  I am not only talking about the research labs. At that time there were over  12,000 engineers, many of whom had advanced degrees and were rewarded for patents, publications and other creative work; there was incredible bench strength. I will have more to say in later posts about how this process of identifying and nurturing creative ideas was carried out, but today I want to concentrate on the very specific calculation that virtually all R&D managers in the company learned.  I think that the legendary Joel Birnbaum was responsible for it, but my friend Stan Williams, who for many years now has guided HP’s nanotechnology and quantum computing research nailed the analysis in a dramatic way[1]:

…Why don’t we put together a program to become the world’s best center in quantum computation?

The answer is that even in the research labs we have to be ‘cold blooded’ businessmen…The first question is this: what is going to be the total world market for the technology?…The answer is, looking 15 years ahead, $1 trillion per year…we then have to ask what fraction of the market will belong to quantum computation…Now, how much could HP capture if it went after it very aggressively…[then] the question is if we could sell that 15 years from now that is the appropriate level of investment for that income stream?

Stan then incorporated development costs, risks and barriers and the time value of money to conclude:

…even when addressing a significant share of a $100 billion market that is 15 years in the future, the amount of money we should be spending now is about a million dollars per year.  In an industrial laboratory environment that’s about three researchers with their associated overhead costs.

Every engineering manager in the company knew how to play this calculation in reverse:  if we fund one full time engineer to pursue a new, untested idea, what is the possible income stream we would see from that research 3, 5, 8, or 15 years from now?  Many – maybe most – of the technical staff understood it, too. And yet, there were these L-C ideas that just never seemed to go away. A generation earlier Dick Hackborn had been a management champion for inkjet printing, a crazy, complicated way of spraying colored water on paper, that even today accounts for most of HP’s financial success. As far as I know Dick was not in the decision chain for printing solutions, but he was a very influential guy and his sponsorship swayed many opinions at the topmost levels of management.

So what was the Technology Council’s role in all of this?  The company was much bigger, and a consequence of size is a decreased reliance on individual opinion and an increased reliance on quantitative processes.  As a result new ideas needed to be accompanied by a business case analysis that supplied both the decision model and the critical financial and market parameters. The difficulty was that business managers were making decisions mainly about their markets and their risks which affects the starting point for Stan’s calculation and may dramatically underestimate the role that organizational barriers play in estimating the total risk.  The Technology Council was in a position to combine information from a number of business units and recalculate the business case.

Here’s one example. HP was at that time organized into four large business units:  one for personal computers, one for services, one for large servers, and another for printing.  The software in HP’s most expensive servers was a version of the original Unix developed at Bell Labs in the 1970’s called HP-UX.  It was one of the most important profit drivers for HP’s high performance business systems but it was under pressure from the high volume Microsoft-based market on one side and other Unix variants such as Linux, Solaris, and AIX on the so-called “value” side of the server market. The Printing Group also was in the software business, designing drivers and user interfaces for printers and scanners that were attached to personal computers and workgroup servers.  The focus of printing software was on the large and very profitable market for Microsoft-based PC’s, workstations, and servers.  By comparison, relatively few of the much more expensive HP-UX systems were sold.  The Printing Group did the Williams calculation and concluded that investing in software for HP-UX was not warranted.  The Server Group meanwhile was being starved for printing solutions.  Customers were asking for it.  Lack of HP-UX printing support meant lost sales, but HP-UX software developers would have needed engineering support from their colleagues in the Printing Group in order to make any headway.  Printing did not see enough downstream revenue to justify such an investment.

A Loose Cannon proposed that my office should fund a cross-business initiative in HP-UX printing solutions.  When the Technology Council looked at the opportunities that were being lost, it was clear that even a modest investment would pay off in the very near term.  Although we didn’t realize it at the time, it turned out that HP’s investment in Linux would quickly  take hold in the marketplace, so the investment in HP-UX printing had a big impact on that market as well.

There were worlds smashing into each other all over the place in those days, and there were two organizational decisions that made a difference.  The first was Carly Fiorina’s decision to make the CTO a member of  the company’s Executive Council – the half-dozen executives who ran the company.  This added a technology voice to the most significant decisions made at HP. Having a seat at the table is important when worlds collide, and I will give many examples of this in later posts. The second was the decision to charter the senior technologists in the company to spend an entire day every quarter looking beyond their own business plans for new technologies and products that would have been dropped or gone unnoticed because they had not survived Stan Williams’ cold blooded calculation within a business silo.

Many other developments grew out of these Loose Cannon discussions including HP’s aggressive entry into open source software, supercomputing, and commercial printing.  Successfully bringing Loose Cannons into the fold really requires you to squarely face  two important issues.  The first concerns the role that organizational barriers play in affecting overall technology strategies, The second is why technologists don’t more often have a meaningful seat at the table in executive suites and boardrooms. More on how to deal with these issues later, but I will give you a hint right now: there are no clean solutions because worlds are in collision.

I arrived at HP long after Steve Wozniak sent his letter asking for permission to commercialize “hobbyist” computers (see my last post Proposition 13 and Innovation).  If  he and I had overlapped I wonder if he would have been one of my Loose Cannons and whether his letter would have been needed.

[1] “Nanocircuitry, Defect Tolerance and Quantum Computing: Architectural and Manufacturing Considerations” by R. Stanley Williams in Quantum Computing and Communications edited by Michael Brooks, Springer 1999.