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The Weekly Blab

The Weekly Blab

Volume 6, Issue 13—November 14, 2011

Catch 22…

A few weeks ago, I switched over from AT&T’s DSL service to their U-Verse service, which was supposed to be faster and cheaper.  Of course, there are other differences too, not all of them for the good.  First, the new modem has a better firewall (good), but it prevents my internet receiver and blue ray DVD player from hooking to it (bad).  I’ve called technical support several times about this, but nothing they suggest actually helps.  I got around the issue by chaining a D-Link modem to it, and hooking the receiver and DVD to that, which works fine but annoys me that I have to do it. 

Anyway, on Friday night, I got an email with the first bill for U-Verse, and the total was five times higher than it should have been.  Obviously, I wanted to see that bill!  I went to their website to look, but it wouldn’t take my password.  After several tries, I asked them to send me a temporary password.  You guessed it—big mistake—as soon as they changed the password to the new temporary password, I could no longer open emails on my home address, which meant I couldn’t get the new password which they sent me in an email to that address.  I called them up, and they couldn’t reset the password—I had to speak to level two technical support.  After waiting for 45 minutes for them to pick up, I gave up for the night.

Saturday, after the open house (big turnout, lots of fun), I called the billing department and got them to adjust my bill to the right amount.  I tried technical support again and lucked into a person who knew what he was doing.  He reset the password and all was well, so I decided to press my luck and see if he could figure out my firewall problem.  After trying a few things, it still wouldn’t work, though he offered me the option of signing up for support for third-party equipment at $15/month.  I passed.  On went the D-Link modem again.  Isn’t technology grand?


Mechatronics Reception

One of my real pleasures last week was attending the reception for the new mechatronics robots.  One of our alumni, Glynn Mitchell (’84, EET) helped secure a $4.5 Million donation (the largest in SPSU history!) of Kawasaki robots from Suncoast Post Tension Ltd. of Texas.  The robots were installed in the Dale Heatherington mechatronics lab, and the official unveiling was last Thursday. 

Aside from the coolness of the robots and getting to met Glynn and Dale, I was also extremely proud to bestow the honor of Professor Emeritus on Glenn Allen.  For those who don’t know, Glenn is a graduate of SPSU and was a faculty member in our MET program for many years.  He was the driving force behind the development of our mechatronics program, and shifted from MET into the Division of Engineering when it was established.  He retired last year, and the faculty immediately nominated him for emeritus status.  The honor is well deserved—Glenn not only was a key player in getting mechatronics to SPSU, but he was a superb teacher, totally dedicated to his students’ success.  His proudest moment was seeing the first group of SPSU Mechatronics Engineering graduates walk across the stage to receive their diplomas.  Congratulations Glenn!


Open House Memories

I always enjoy open house at SPSU, and this Saturday’s event was no exception.  I don’t know how Ron and Jim do it, but the weather is almost always great for open house.  The crowd was very large and appreciative.  The band Fridays At Five was kind enough to let me sit in on rhythm guitar, and as always the top ten list was funny, the interviews (Lisa, two students, and Marc Reese) were both interesting and light-hearted, and the closing joke went well. 

You never know who you’ll run into at the open house—our prospective students and their families are a wide-ranging bunch.  One family was from Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa, so I had a nice conversation about my favorite soccer player (Didier Drogba, who is also Ivorian) with them.  Weirdly enough, I ran into another Ivorian at Wal-Mart on Sunday. 

Another family was from Mexico, and when I asked them from where, they were very surprised that I had not only heard of the place—Guanajuato—but that Jill, Mark, and I had been there.  Guanajuato is my absolute favorite place in Mexico, and is an incredibly beautiful and interesting city.  Back in 1994, I gave a microscale chemistry workshop at Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, and afterwards, Jill, Mark, me, and Jorge Ibanez (a good friend who teaches at Ibero) drove north to visit San Miguel De Allende (a beautiful mountain town where they hold an annual Cervantes festival) and then Guanajuato, where I gave a talk at the university there.

Guanajuato is a very old colonial city, founded by the Spanish in 1540, who found deposits of gold and silver there.  The city was the richest in Mexico in the 18th Century.  The mining tunnels are now used as roads, because the surface streets are so narrow that cars can’t navigate them.  So, when you drive into Guanajuato, you park underground in a tunnel, and climb stairs up to the surface.  Everywhere you turn, there is something interesting to see—beautiful churches, a colonial theatre, the university, the original Calle de Beso (Street of the Kiss—the street is so narrow that the balconies on opposite sides almost touch, leading to the story of star-crossed lovers kissing across them), mummies at the museum, and many other things.  Here's my wife on the Calle de Beso.

Calle de Beso


The first battle in the revolution for Mexican independence (1810) also occurred in Guanajuato, where Spanish troops had occupied the city granary.  A poor miner known as el Pipila strapped a large flat stone on his back to protect himself from the soldiers’ bullets, and carried flask of tar and a torch to the granary gates.  He set them on fire, thereby allowing the revolutionaries to get in and defeat the troops.  A statue of el Pipila stands on a large hill, the best place to get a fantastic view of the city.  A view of the city from there is shown below.

 Guanajuato Panorama

After Guanajuato, we all went to Guadalajara—Jorge’s hometown.  We stayed at his mother’s house, and got a tour of the city from someone who really knew it in a horse-drawn cart.  At one point, we stopped to get some sodas, leaving only Jill and Mark in the cart.  When no-one was looking, Mark grabbed the reins and yelled giddy-up.  The horse took off, with all of us running after, trying to catch it before it hit the heavy traffic.

The coolest part about Guadalajara was going to the square in the evening to see the hundreds of mariachi bands for hire there.  Guadalajara is where mariachi began, and the very best bands still play there.  After Guadalajara, we went to Manzanillo (a beach resort on the west coast of Mexico) for a few days at Club Maeva, the Mexican version of Club Med.  Then it was home, just ahead of the presidential elections in Mexico.


A Straighter Line Redux

Faithful readers of the BLAB will recall a few previous scrawlings about A Straighter Line, an outfit that is marketing online core courses for very low prices and that has attracted a few real universities as partners.  Its founder and CEO, Burck Smith, was back in the Chronicle this week, in a controversial and self-serving article called “Let’s Deregulate Online Learning”. 

In the article, he argues that campuses are reaping very fat profits from their online courses, since online courses can be prepared and taught much more cheaply than face-to-face courses.  Why are they so cheap to prepare?  He says: “the plummeting price of learning software and digital content, and the rise of cloud computing, make start-up costs very low, particularly when amortized across the scale of an online course.”  The profits are routed back to the campus, to subsidize other operations.  He then asks: “So, if all colleges act like for-profits when it comes to online learning, why are nonprofits considered, well, nonprofits?

Smith then gives a small history lesson about colleges, and how the economic model for them hasn’t changed since the 1500’s.  This model calls for high fixed costs (the cost of the beautiful campus, to attract both students and faculty; and of high-credentialed faculty) and low marginal costs (the cost to offer one more course or program).  He argues that online learning has a different economic structure, where students and faculty can be anywhere, and where content is cheap or free.  Such courses, he argues, should only carry the price of the faculty member’s labor (and when that faculty member is a part-timer, those costs are very low indeed).  This, in a nutshell, is the business plan for A Straighter Line. 

Smith argues that there is one impediment to the low-price nirvana that he wants to provide—accreditation.  He says that the accreditation system focuses on evaluation of campus facilities and faculty credentials, thereby maintaining the high fixed cost model of bricks-and-mortar universities.  Coupled with our reluctance to honor courses taken elsewhere (i.e., with his outfit), this conspires “to restrain course-level price competition, keeping prices to online students much higher than they should be.

The answer?  Get rid of regulations.  He argues: “College tuition has risen four times faster than inflation, grade inflation is rampant, studies indicate that students are learning very little, per-student debt is skyrocketing, profit margins for online courses are substantial, and the federal government felt it necessary to reregulate already accredited for-profit institutions. Given all that, it's hard to argue that the existing regulatory structure is protecting customers.”  What we need, he argues, is a minimum set of outcomes around core courses, rather than a big accreditation system.  After all, “If a program is effective, who cares how many Ph.D.’s it touts among its administrators or how grand its home office looks?”  Let the state assess what is easily assessable (gen-ed and skills based courses), and let the market deal with the rest.  Finally, to ensure proper use of government funds, he argues that the financial risk of supporting online courses should be shifted to private lenders.

As you can imagine, this stirred up a hornet’s nest of replies.  Many focused on the argument that preparing online courses is cheap.  One noted: “We've been hearing this same litany [for deregulation] since the 1980s, recycled for the benefit of investment banks, savings and loans, cable companies, airlines, energy producers, and every other business interest under the sun. It's made a few people very wealthy, and it's left the rest of us wallowing in the fallout. Isn't it time to give it a rest?”  Another added: “Mr. Smith wants to make the degree mill respectable. And he wants to make huge money doing it.

One of the better counterarguments read: “I think the article is irrelevant.  The marketplace respects and demands accredited, regulated education, that's why it exists.  Further, the educational system advocated in the article already exists.  Students…people...can learn all kinds of things and take all kinds of courses online...from unregulated, unaccredited schools...but do the transcripts they get compete with transcripts from the regulated, accredited colleges? It would NOT be a good idea to end the regulated, accredited online higher education system to get what is already there from cheap, unregulated, unaccredited online sources.

The only hold the current regulated, accredited system has on students is that the education and degrees are valued and respected by society and employers.  Otherwise, students could go to YouTubeU much cheaper...now.  The government and taxpayer, sensibly, are unwilling to provide money for unregulated, unaccredited courses because their quality is an unknown...in an unregulated system the government and taxpayers would not know whether the money was just going to waste.

What to make of all this?  It is easy (too easy) to say that Smith is self-serving, out to make big money by selling a near-worthless form of higher education, and wanting to get rid of any regulation that might catch him.  There are some truths in his article that we need to face.  It is fairly straightforward to assemble existing (free) materials in many areas, including in my own discipline of chemistry—General Chemistry I and II, for example (especially if you forget the lab part).  It would not be expensive to assemble these materials into a decent online course, and regardless, the cost could be spread over a large number of students.  Hosting the course on a server is also cheap. 

The difficulty comes in at this point.  Most people cannot learn chemistry (or whatever subject) effectively enough on their own.  If they could, schools would have disappeared at the time of Gutenberg.  Online courses can incorporate videos and other high-tech materials that perhaps can make learning somewhat easier, but the majority of people still can’t learn effectively that way.  That’s why online courses, especially those with little faculty interaction, have such high dropout and failure rates.  Some for-profit universities deal with this by giving away the grades (of course, that sometimes happens at non-profit universities too), and others don’t care—they’ve already collected their money, with huge percentages of that money being government educational loans to the poor.  That’s why so many who drop out do so with big debts.  That’s what has led to recent government investigations, in turn causing sharp declines in for-profit online enrollments.

The real cost and value of education come from the educator—the person helping the student to learn.  Whether it’s as a tutor (as in ancient days, and maybe coming back today), a teacher, or a professor, good educators aren’t cheap and can’t give effective personal attention to hundreds of students at once. 

Does that mean that the way non-profit universities teach today is perfect?  Hardly. We’re often reluctant to explore new teaching modes because we’re so used to doing what we’re doing and that’s how we were taught. We’re often not as focused on helping our students succeed as we ought to be.  There are ways to lower costs and improve quality and success rates.  The challenge we face is to not be afraid to find them.


Trivia Contest!

Last Week’s Contest

Last week’s contest was on best-selling books.  Our winner was Misty York (ETCMA), with a respectable four out of five right.  Lots of people got the first four, but the last question proved to be a stumper!

  1. Best selling book of all time.  The Bible
  2. Not only did he have the #1 TV show, but he also authored the top selling non-fiction books in 1986 (“Fatherhood”) and 1987 (“Time Flies”).  He also likes pudding. Bill Cosby
  3. John Gray’s 1995 best seller, with two planets in the title. Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus
  4. Stephen King wrote the top book with the shortest title that topped the list in 1986.  What was it?  It
  5. First president to write a book that topped the US non-fiction best sellers.  Hint—it wasn’t John F. Kennedy.  Dwight D. Eisenhower—“Crusade in Europe”, published in 1948.


This Week’s Contest

This week’s contest is about our upcoming holiday, Thanksgiving.  First with the most takes the prize.

  1. Who were the first group to celebrate Thanksgiving?
  2. In what location was the first Thanksgiving held?
  3. What was the name of the Indian tribe that was invited to the original feast?
  4. What president gave the first Thanksgiving proclamation, and what president established Thanksgiving as a permanent holiday in November?
  5. What president moved Thanksgiving to its current date—the second to last Thursday of November, and why?