Future of the University – Back to Teaching

One thing the university should change is its approach to teaching. Specifically, we need to stop separating teaching from learning. The goal for professors should not be to teach, but that the students learn. The goal for students should not be to pass the class and check a box but to acquire valuable skills and knowledge that they will need in their future careers. There are many things that make this not be the case currently, but if universities want to stay relevant and true to their missions this has to improve.

I feel there is an attitude with many professors that their job is to simply deliver the material, not to necessarily to ensure that learning is happening. Delivering a dry lecture while standing in front of a disinterested class should not be the standard for teaching. To change this, professors could, for instance, change the classroom style, making it more interactive and encouraging discussions and exploration. There are many ways to do this and I will not go into examples here, but it needs to start with shifting the way we think about teaching. The professor’s job is for the students to learn the subject, not for him to simply “teach” it.

Of course it does not all fall on the individual professors. The format and culture of undergraduate programs is such that it decreases students interest in learning and makes a professors job much more difficult. Students’ goals are to graduate in order to get a diploma that will allow them to get a job in an industry they are interested in. They are not necessarily interested in learning the materials in the specific, required, courses. All they need is to pass, preferably with a good grade, so that they can check a box on a form. Hence the focus is on getting the grade rather than learning the material. For example, students might just memorize the steps to solving certain problems without really learning the concepts. This focus on doing the minimum to check a box and move on is made worse by the large number of courses students take, combined with possibly holding a part-time job and having other personal responsibilities.

A huge underlying cause of student’s disinterest in a class, and professor’s inability to really teach the material, is that there is a problem of a shaky foundation which only gets worst with every new class. I will use engineering as an example. If you pass Calculus I with an 80% you can move to Calculus II. If the metric is accurate you only know 80% of one of the most foundational materials in the rest of your career. When you get to higher level courses, say in your junior year, this gap of knowledge will have compounded and you won’t be able to understand or follow what the professor is teaching. Instead you will be forced to memorize how to solve problems, e.g. by looking at homework solutions, enough to just pass. At the end of the day you are probably working harder than if you had the right foundation and were acing the class. Moving along with incomplete knowledge of foundational topics has the effect of making every subsequent class more difficult to follow, to the point where you lose all motivation to actually learn and go into survival mode, where you are playing the system and trying to make it through.

I believe the university needs to focus on improving the quality of teaching, uhm I mean learning. I discussed several ways it currently creates a culture of indifference/disinterest from both students and professors. These include professors attitude that if they present the material teaching has occurred (regardless of learning happening), the pressure students are under and their attitude of just surviving and moving along checking boxes, and the problem of compounding knowledge gap. I am not offering any solutions just my thought that this is something I would like to see changed. This would require large changes in both the system (rules, curricula, etc) and culture of the university and its departments. This is not an easy task, but I believe the current state of learning at the undergraduate level is in real crisis and should be unacceptable.

The Role of Social Media in Higher Education

For this blogpost I read an article regarding the use of social media in higher education, and give my response to it. My main takeaway from reading this and similar articles is that the best effect of social media in the classroom is to create active engagement.

But why is social media needed/useful to create classroom engagement? Social media is something students find relatable and as such can be an avenue to drive them towards being engaged. Their relative comfort with technology also makes it a good platform for engagement and active discussions. These things make it a great tool for creating an engaged classroom.

So what would this look like in practice? Exactly like this post! In this course (Preparing the Future Professoriate) the instructor requires a series of blogposts as well as a minimum number of comments/replies on other people’s blogposts. Blogging supplements our in-classroom discussions by allowing the students to go more in depth on some topic and have back and forth conversations with other students in the class. Similarly I have seen private Facebook groups being used for such in-depth discussions. In particular I have seen a Facebook group used to discuss our thoughts on the current reading assignments. The instructor would ask some question and the students would then start long and involved conversations around that question.

It is beneficial, from a pedagogical point of view, to have an engaged class where students actively participate in class and engage in active discussion both in and out of class. The comfort and familiarity that students have with social media makes it both a good way to ease students into being more engaged and a good platform for this engagement.

The Future of Academic Publishing.

I am a big proponent of Open Source software, having benefited greatly from it and contributed as well. At my previous job for the Department of Energy, I was part of a team that developed an open source tool for analyzing the behavior of floating offshore wave energy converters. The tool lowered the bar for entrance to new entrepreneurs, from startup companies to student teams, who would have previously had to buy expensive licenses for very specialized tools. It was amazing to see so many people use our tool and even modify and expand it. To me this is the power of free, open source, and community-driven/assisted development. I thought my enthusiasm for open source software would translate to open access publications, however there are some fundamental problems with the current system of open access. In this blog I discuss my views on the advantages and disadvantages of open access. I hope to learn more and maybe change my opinions in the next PFP which will focus on open acess.

Advantages

The main advantage of open access journals is that it is free for readers. At a philosophical level, I believe science should be accessible. Open access journals require payment by the author and no payment by the readers. The payment is usually quite high (~$2,000) for a single paper. The idea is that one’s company or project would pay for this fee and then the science would be free for anyone to access, hence Open Access.

Criticism

The main criticism, and the reason I cannot be fully on board with open access is that it leads to lower quality journals. With the commercialization of journals, their bottom line is profit. When readers are the payers it is in their best interest to put out quality material. But when authors are the payers, the bar lowers. Rejecting a paper is no longer just ensuring quality material for your readers but is rejecting a sizable sum of money.

Problem with current system

I am not fully on board with the current system either, and don’t believe there is any good option available. The current system has large companies making a profit, using free labor from volunteers (reviewers) who are pressured to do it to advance their careers. They also charge ridiculously high fees to read publications in their journals. The price makes the science unavailable except for those in institutions that pay for the subscriptions to these journals. Elsevier is a classical example. They now own hundreds (or thousands?) of journals and do not sell them individually, but require institutions to buy their very expensive ‘bundles’.

A good system

I am not sure what a good system for divulging scientific research would be, but it is not the current situation and the open access movement has some serious fundamental problems it would have to resolve to be a good candidate. I am not sure what the solution is but I think a good start is removing the profit making aspect of it all, e.g. by moving journals to professional societies and non-profits.

Example Open Access Journal

I’ll end the blog with one example in my field. Interestingly enough, Elsevier does open access, and one example is the Computers and Fluids Journal where you can publish under either the free-to-publish or the open access models. This is one of the best-known journals in the field and covers problems in computational fluid mechanics. They do not associate themselves with the rest of the open access movement but do market it as reaching a wider audience. Particularly they have different levels of open access, some with a specific focus on developing countries. They also have a Green Open Access option with self-archiving. These multi-tier open access with the option of free-to-publish is a very interesting approach. It suggests to me that Elsevier sees a threat and/or a profit in the open access movement.

So what do you think the future of scientific publishing looks like?

Research Misconduct – Is the competitive academic environment to blame?

The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) of the US Department of Health and Human Services has an infographics highlighting five reasons why people are driven to academic dishonesty. The largest block in the infographics is dedicated to one of these reasons: “Competitive Pressures”. As someone in the ladder towards an academic research position, I feel this pressure and have seen many dance around the line of research dishonesty. This raises many questions regarding blame, and whether anything can be done to bring about change.

How big a driver are these Competitive Pressures?

Research dishonesty happens for many reasons, and I don’t have a definite quantitative answer to how much is driven solely by the competitive pressures of the academic environment. But the data from ORI can give us some clues. The graphic below shows the rank of those accused of research misconduct over a period of 10 years. The ladder towards a tenured academic position looks something like this:

Grad Student ⇒ Postdoc ⇒ Assistant Professor ⇒ Associate Professor ⇒ Professor.

Among these ranks, those who are not yet tenured (grad student through assistant professor) account for 81% of cases. While not conclusive, this is an indication that the pressures that come with the process of tenure are a large component of what drives people to research misconduct.

What exactly do these pressures look like?

Associate professors have a limited amount of time, typically 5-7 years, to prove themselves, at which point they go through the tenure process. The decision for tenure is supposed to be based on scholarship, service, and teaching. However, in practice the focus seems to be on the number of publications, quality of the journals, and ability to get funding through grants; an attitude often expressed as “publish or perish”. This enormous pressure to produce extraordinary results quickly is then passed “down the ladder” to grad students.

An ORI video case study showcases this competitive pressure, and the problems associated with it, perfectly. In the case study, a graduate student has conflicting experimental results. However, due to the deadline for the grant proposal, there is no time to re-do any of the experiments. She is told to use the results from one of her experiments that shows the trend they were hoping for. The video then asks several pertinent questions such as:

  • What pressure is the Graduate student facing right now?
  • How might those pressures change how she conducts her research?
  • When you have contradictory results, how do you choose what, or how much of it, to present? 
  • What issues could arise if only the single positive result is reported?
Screenshot of ORI video case study.

How competitiveness can be bad.

A certain level of competitiveness is healthy and necessary in research. But the type of pressures we see in the ORI video and that I have experienced and seen others around me experience, are not conducive to a healthy work environment. It inhibits the type of careful and methodical approach demanded by the scientific method, it puts psychological stress on the faculty and students, and it makes it enticing to cheat.

Is the university to blame?

Obviously the individuals performing the research misconduct carry a large amount of the blame and should be appropriately punished. However, the university itself, in maintaining a system that makes cheating enticing and beneficial, is partly to blame. This is recognized at the undergraduate level, where for example at Virginia Tech professors and TAs are told they have the responsibility to make it as difficult as possible for students to cheat. For instance, professors should not give the same exam two years in a row.

One could argue that it is up to the students not to cheat and the university should simply punish the students who do cheat. How can the university be to blame for students cheating? Again, I believe that creating an environment where it is beneficial and easy to cheat would make the university partly at fault. After all you are tempting people with a great reward with little or no consequence and no clear reason as to why they shouldn’t take it. The university recognizes this and tries to create an environment conducive to ethical conduct by actively promoting academic honesty, actively educating students about ethical behavior, actively engaging students through signing the honor code, and yes, creating and enforcing clear punishments.

If the university can recognize this at the undergraduate education level why doesn’t it apply the same reasoning at the tenure-track research level?

What can be done?

The university should actively promote an environment conducive to ethical research and a healthy working environment. This can be done by a simultaneous combination of several different approaches as is done in the case of undergraduate education described above. Some of these approaches could include:

  • Modification of the tenure evaluation to focus less on single hard metrics and more on a hollistic evaluation of the candidate’s abilities.
  • Active training for professors and grad students on ethical research (and while we are at it, teaching).
  • Actively promoting (and ensuring) work-life balance and wellness among faculty and students.
  • Having the committee, department, and even university play a more formal role in grad student’s development and progress, rather than working under a single individual.

I want to expand significantly on these ideas, but will leave that for a followup blog post.

Conclusion

One of the biggest drivers of research misconduct is the unnecessary pressures placed on tenure-track faculty, and the university is partly at fault for failing to create an environment and culture conducive to ethical research.

Mission Statements – Too generic to reflect their institution’s uniqueness?

After reading a blog post on the purpose of and trends in universities’ mission statements, I read several mission statements from institutions I would want to work in, and I was initially disappointed. A University’s mission statement is supposed to be a “public pronouncement of their purpose, ambitions, and values” and be a defining component of the institution’s identity. However, I initially found the combination of succinctness and common themes to result in statements that are too general and too similar, giving the impression of lack of sincerity and authenticity, and leading me to question their usefulness. Here I try to analyze the differences (however subtle) and uniqueness of some of these mission statements. Equipped with some knowledge about these institutions, I look at how their unique qualities are reflected in their respective mission statements. Through this process, I also came to realize the true purpose and usefulness of these statements (hint, the key lies in its intended audience).

I focused on research universities with strong engineering programs; the kind of institution I would like to work in. Let’s start with my own alma mater, the University of Michigan. Michigan is a very large public university with programs in engineering, humanities, sciences, and arts, and has several professional schools including a medical school and a law school. Its mission statement is as follows.

The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art, and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.

University of Michigan

At first glance it relies on several common tropes: serving the community, preparing students for the future, and having a global impact. The statement seems generic and could apply to almost any large research institute if one replaced the name of the university and the state.

That being said, there are two phrases in which I believe the University’s true identity shows up. Firstly, the inclusion of “academic values” in the list of things it would like to conserve and apply. This would seem like a vague and odd thing to include, and I saw nothing similar in any of the other statements I reviewed. Michigan places great value on academic integrity, for instance, the Engineering Honor Code is based on the understanding that in the near future many human lives will depend on these students work, and as such it takes the position that someone who will be trusted with such responsibility in the future should be trustworthy in the present. As part of this trust, no professor or proctor of any kind is allowed to be in the room while students take examinations. The second phrase which reflects the university’s identity is “developing leaders”. The University as a whole places great importance on students being leaders in whichever discipline or industry they end up in. The phrase is part of the most common informal motto and part of its fight song: “Leaders and Best”. Students were always reminded that they are not there simply for acquiring knowledge but have a responsibility to use this knowledge to better society.

As a contrast to Michigan, I wanted to showcase a smaller, private research institute focused on engineering. I wanted to include Rensselaer, which is a school I admire for both its commitment and dedication to teaching and its world class research. It is the “oldest technical university in the English speaking world” and was founded to instruct students “in the application of science to the common purpose of life. Its motto is “Why not change the world”. Unfortunately, I was not able to find a mission statement. The closest was the President’s Vision & Priorities letter. I enjoyed this letter and agree intensely with its sentiment. One of the main themes is preparing students to solve complex and interconnected global issues.

For a fair comparison I will use the mission statement of a similar institution. Rochester Institute of Technology is also a private university focused on both teaching and research and located in upstate New York. Its mission statement is as follows.

We shape the future and improve the world through creativity and innovation. As an engaged, intellectually curious, and socially conscious community, we leverage the power of technology, the arts, and design for the greater good.

Rochester Institute of Technology

This statement seems very specific, especially in contrast to Michigan’s mission statement. However, in the context of a technically focused school, it is just as generic. I do not have an intimate knowledge of this institution, as I do with Michigan, but I can say that as far as all the other mission statements from technical universities that I reviewed I very much liked this one. It hits on several aspects of engineering that I personally value. First, although engineering is mostly science-based, the best engineering design is at the intersection of science and art. Engineering design requires creativity and aesthetics, as well as an understanding of the utility of the product in the society and culture it is intended for. Second, I also believe engineers should be socially conscious, and ensure their work is for the betterment of society. So, even though this statement is quite generic, it still hints to me, in subtle ways, that the university’s culture and goals are well aligned with my own values and vision for engineering education.

My initial disappointment was grounded in my misplaced expectations due to my misunderstanding of the purpose of a mission statement. These statements are not informative for those unfamiliar with the institution. They will not give you enough information to discern the differences between institutions with a common focus. All statements I reviewed were general within the context of the university’s focus, and the subtleties through which the university’s uniqueness came through required prior intimate knowledge of the institution. However I now understand these mission statements to be not informative literature for those unfamiliar, but guiding principles for those working within the university and shaping its future. In this context, it makes sense for it to be general, and those subtleties I mentioned would come loud and clear to those within the institution.