December 30, 2022 12:40 PM

What Can Universities Learn from Barnes & Noble's Surprising Turnaround?

A recent issue of Ted Gioia's newsletter asks, What can we learn from Barnes & Noble's surprising turnaround? In one sentence, the answer is:

If you want to sell books, you must love those books.

Perhaps we can apply Barnes & Noble's lesson to education.

If anything will save the mid-sized comprehensive university in the face of changing demographics and state funding, it will likely be this:

If you want to teach students, you must love both teaching and students.

Comprehensive universities (regional universities that focus on undergraduate education) are caught in the middle between large research-focused schools and small, mostly private schools. They try to offer the best of both worlds, without having the resources that buttress those other school's operation. The big research schools have external research funding, large media contracts for their athletics programs, and primacy of place in the minds of potential students. The small private schools offer the "small school experience", often to targeted audiences of students and often with considerable endowments and selective admissions that heighten the appeal.

Mid-sized comprehensives are unsung jewels in many states, but economic changes make it harder to serve their mission than it was forty or even twenty years ago. They don't have much margin for error. What are they to do? As Barnes & Noble is demonstrating, the key to success for a bookstore is to put books and readers first. For the comprehensives, the key to success is almost certainly to put students and teaching first.

Other lessons from the Barnes & Noble turnaround may help, too. For example, in tough economic times, universities tend to centralize resources and decision making, in the name of focus and efficiency. However, decentralization empowers those closest to the students to meet the needs of the students in each academic disciplines. When given the chance, faculty and staff in the academic departments need to take this responsibility seriously. But then, most faculty are at comprehensives precisely because they want to work with undergraduates. The key element to it all, though, is putting students and teaching first, and everything else second.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Teaching and Learning

December 22, 2022 1:21 PM

The Ability to Share Partial Results Accelerated Modern Science

This passage is from Lewis Thomas's The Lives of a Cell, in the essay "On Societies as Organisms":

The system of communications used in science should provide a neat, workable model for studying mechanisms of information-building in human society. Ziman, in a recent "Nature" essay, points out, "the invention of a mechanism for the systematic publication of fragments of scientific work may well have been the key event in the history of modern science." He continues:
A regular journal carries from one research worker to another the various ... observations which are of common interest. ... A typical scientific paper has never pretended to be more than another little piece in a larger jigsaw -- not significant in itself but as an element in a grander scheme. The technique of soliciting many modest contributions to the store of human knowledge has been the secret of Western science since the seventeenth century, for it achieves a corporate, collective power that is far greater than any one individual can exert [italics mine].

In the 21st century, sites like arXiv lowered the barrier to publishing and reading the work of other scientists further. So did blogs, where scientists could post even smaller, fresher fragments of knowledge. Blogs also democratized science, by enabling scientists to explain results for a wider audience and at greater length than journals allow. Then came social media sites like Twitter, which made it even easier for laypeople and scientists in other disciplines to watch -- and participate in -- the conversation.

I realize that this blog post quotes an essay that quotes another essay. But I would never have seen the Ziman passage without reading Lewis. Perhaps you would not have seen the Lewis passage without reading this post? When I was in college, the primary way I learned about things I didn't read myself was by hearing about them from classmates. That mode of sharing puts a high premium on having the right kind of friends. Now, blogs and social media extend our reach. They help us share ideas and inspirations, as well as helping us to collaborate on science.


I first mentioned The Lives of a Cell a couple of weeks ago, in If only ants watched Netflix.... This post may not be the last to cite the book. I find something quotable and worth further thought every few pages.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: General, Patterns, Teaching and Learning

December 11, 2022 9:09 AM

Living with AI in a World Where We Change the World to Accommodate Our Technologies

My social media feeds are full of ChatGPT screenshots and speculation these days, as they have been with LLMs and DALL-E and other machine learning-based tools for many months. People wonder what these tools will mean for writers, students, teachers, artists, and anyone who produces ordinary text, programs, and art.

These are natural concerns, given their effect on real people right now. But if you consider the history of human technology, they miss a bigger picture. Technologies often eliminate the need for a certain form of human labor, but they just as often create a new form of human labor. And sometimes, they increase the demand for the old kind of labor! If we come to rely on LLMs to generate text for us, where will we get the text with which to train them? Maybe we'll need people to write even more replacement-level prose and code!

As Robin Sloan reminds us in the latest edition of his newsletter, A Year of New Avenues, we redesign the world to fit the technologies we create and adopt.

Likewise, here's a lesson from my work making olive oil. In most places, the olive harvest is mechanized, but that's only possible because olive groves have been replanted to fit the shape of the harvesting machines. A grove planted for machine harvesting looks nothing like a grove planted for human harvesting.

Which means that our attention should be on how programs like GPT-2 might lead us to redesign the world we live and work in better to accommodate these new tools:

For me, the interesting questions sound more like
  • What new or expanded kinds of human labor might AI systems demand?
  • What entirely new activities do they suggest?
  • How will the world now be reshaped to fit their needs?
That last question will, on the timescale of decades, turn out to be the most consequential, by far. Think of cars ... and of how dutifully humans have engineered a world just for them, at our own great expense. What will be the equivalent, for AI, of the gas station, the six-lane highway, the parking lot?

Many professors worry that ChatGPT makes their homework assignments and grading rubrics obsolete, which is a natural concern in the short run. I'm old enough that I may not live to work in a world with the AI equivalent of the gas station, so maybe that world seems too far in the future to be my main concern. But the really interesting questions for us to ask now revolve around how tools such as these will lead us to redesign our worlds to accommodate and even serve them.

Perhaps, with a little thought and a little collaboration, we can avoid engineering a world for them at our own great expense. How might we benefit from the good things that our new AI technologies can provide us while sidestepping some of the highest costs of, say, the auto-centric world we built? Trying to answer that question is a better long-term use of our time and energy that fretting about our "Hello, world!" assignments and advertising copy.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Software Development, Teaching and Learning

December 04, 2022 9:18 AM

If Only Ants Watched Netflix...

In the essay "On Societies as Organisms", Lewis Thomas says that we "violate science" when we try to read human meaning into the structures and behaviors of insects. But it's hard not to:

Ants are so much like human beings as to be an embarrassment. They farm fungi, raise aphids as livestock, launch armies into wars, use chemical sprays to alarm and confuse enemies, capture slaves. The families of weaver ants engage in child labor, holding their larvae like shuttles to spin out the thread that sews the leaves together for their fungus gardens. They exchange information ceaselessly. They do everything but watch television.

I'm not sure if humans should be embarrassed for still imitating some of the less savory behaviors of insects, or if ants should be embarrassed for reflecting some of the less savory behaviors of humans.

Biology has never been my forte, so I've read and learned less about it than many other sciences. Enjoying chemistry a bit at least helped keep me within range of the life sciences. I was fortunate to grow up in the Digital Age.

But with many people thinking the 21st century will the Age of Biology, I feel like I should get more in tune with the times. I picked up Thomas's now classic The Lives of a Cell, in which the quoted essay appears, as a brief foray into biological thinking about the world. I'm only a few pages in, but it is striking a chord. I can imagine so many parallels with computing and software. Perhaps I can be as at home in the 21st century as I was in the 20th.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Computing, Patterns, Software Development

December 03, 2022 2:34 PM

Why Teachers Do All That Annoying Stuff

Most people, when they become teachers, tell themselves that they won't do all the annoying things that their teachers did. If they teach for very long, though, they almost all find themselves slipping back to practices they didn't like as a student but which they now understand from the other side of the fence. Dynomight has written a nice little essay explaining why. Like deadlines. Why have deadlines? Let students learn and work at their own pace. Grade what they turn in, and let them re-submit their work later to demonstrate their newfound learning.

Indeed, why not? Because students are clever and occasionally averse to work. A few of them will re-invent a vexing form of the ancient search technique "Generate and Test". From the essay:

  1. Write down some gibberish.
  2. Submit it.
  3. Make a random change, possibly informed by feedback on the last submission.
  4. Resubmit it. If the grade improved, keep it, otherwise revert to the old version.
  5. Goto 3.

You may think this is a caricature, but I see this pattern repeated even in the context of weekly homework assignments. A student will start early and begin a week-long email exchange where they eventually evolve a solution that they can turn in when the assignment is due.

I recognize that these students are responding in a rational way to the forces they face: usually, uncertainty and a lack of the basic understanding needed to even start the problem. My strategy is to try to engage them early on in the conversation in a way that helps them build that basic understanding and to quiet their uncertainty enough to make a more direct effort to solve the problem.

Why even require homework? Most students and teachers want for grades to reflect the student's level of mastery. If we eliminate homework, or make it optional, students have the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery on the final exam or final project. Why indeed? As the essay says:

But just try it. Here's what will happen:
  1. Like most other humans, your students will be lazy and fallible.
  2. So many of them will procrastinate and not do the homework.
  3. So they won't learn anything.
  4. So they will get a terrible grade on the final.
  5. And then they will blame you for not forcing them to do the homework.

Again, the essay is written in a humorous tone that exaggerates the foibles and motivations of students. However, I have been living a variation of this pattern in my compilers course over the last few years. Here's how things have evolved.

I assign the compiler project as six stages of two weeks each. At the end of the semester, I always ask students for ways I might improve the course. After a few years teaching the course, students began to tell me that they found themselves procrastinating at the start of each two-week cycle and then having to scramble in the last few days to catch up. They suggested I require future students to turn something in at the end of the first week, as a way to get them started working sooner.

I admired their self-awareness and added a "status check" at the midpoint of each two-week stage. The status check was not to be graded, but to serve as a milepost they could aim for in completing that cycle's work. The feedback I provided, informal as it was, helped them stay course, or get back on course, if they had missed something important.

For several years, this approach worked really well. A few teams gamed the system, of course (see generate-and-test above), but by and large students used the status checks as intended. They were able to stay on track time-wise and to get some early feedback that helped them improve their work. Students and professor alike were happy.

Over the last couple of years, though, more and more teams have begun to let the status checks slide. They are busy, overburdened in other courses or distracted by their own projects, and ungraded work loses priority. The result is exactly what the students who recommended the status checks knew would happen: procrastination and a mad scramble in the last few days of the stage. Unfortunately, this approach can lead a team to fall farther and farther behind with each passing stage. It's hard to produce a complete working compiler under these conditions.

Again, I recognize that students usually respond in a rational way to the forces they face. My job now is to figure out how we might remove those forces, or address them in a more productive way. I've begun thinking about alternatives, and I'll be debriefing the current offering of the course with my students over the next couple of weeks. Perhaps we can find something that works better for them.

That's certainly my goal. When a team succeeds at building a working compiler, and we use it to compile and run an impressive program -- there's no feeling quite as joyous for a programmer, or a student, or a professor. We all want that feeling.

Anyway, check out the full essay for an entertaining read that also explains quite nicely that teachers are usually responding in a rational way to the forces they face, too. Cut them a little slack.

Posted by Eugene Wallingford | Permalink | Categories: Managing and Leading, Patterns, Teaching and Learning